Slate columnist, Farhad Manjoo asked Josh Schwartz, a data scientist at the traffic analysis company Chartbeat, to explore the scrolling habits of its readers; just how far down the page would users scroll before hitting the exit button? For Manjoo, the data that Chartbeat pulled out wasn’t reassuring; the vast majority of readers scrolled no further than halfway down the page (typically, the 1000 pixel mark).
The writer concluded that readers online today couldn’t stay focused. In his report, You Won’t Finish This Article, Manjoo said, “the more I typed, the more they tuned out”. He found the relationship between scrolling and sharing even more disturbing. Schwartz discovered that people were tweeting links to articles they hadn’t read in their entirety. He found the same casual approach to comments; people were often commenting on articles they clearly hadn’t finished reading.
When we accept that digital content is a fluid and fast-moving entity, we can monopolise on it. This might, at the very least, mean offering more choice where format is concerned or managing exit-points more mindfully.
On the face of things it appears that Manjoo just won’t tolerate the user re-serving content in anything less than its entirety. He doesn’t like to see it sliced, diced, carved or chopped or to see it partially digested. Nevertheless, the user will do all of these things. The process plays a critical role in how they respond. How they adapt and remodel it to suit their own objective represents a key stage in the user’s ability to understand and assimilate the material.
Isn’t this textploitation? Yes, the user is exploiting the text, but we can capitalise on this nevertheless. In the words of one popular Disney-franchise; let it go.
From my own perspective as a content provider, I think it would be wrong to look at these stats and weep. I think there is a great deal to be gained from recognizing that web users arrive at a page for a variety of reasons, and these reasons are naturally going to determine how they engage with content. Marketers can no longer see content as a fixed entity. For me, the tragedy isn’t that this is happening; the tragedy is that we are often failing to manage these responses well enough.
Content Marketing is faced with a challenging situation, yes, but not an unfavourable one and there are many different options available. Whilst you may not be able to control the message throughout the delivery process, there are ways and means to maintain some dominance. Start by defining the rules of engagement. Here’s how we can do this:
- Set specific goals. The content you provide must support an explicit objective. Don’t ask your writing team to set the agenda, ask your marketing team to do it. Task a particular kind of message to be written and request that the format supports it. Marketers can throw in all the site metrics they like, but if they fail to set a benchmark then measuring success just isn’t possible. When you publish an article or post a press release tell them exactly what you want to achieve.
- Don’t produce misleading headlines. Setting up the right expectations is crucial to success. If your content is heavy on statistics then warn your users in advance. A snappy, provocative headline might help lure readers to your website but you’ll lose their support in an instant if it isn’t relevant.
- Don’t betray user expectations. The Slate Magazine columnist makes two classic mistakes. Manjoo starts his You Won’t Finish This Article report by saying “I’ll be brief” and then lets the story run to over 2000 words (that’s 3-4 pages in old money). His tagline reads: ‘why people don’t read to the end’ but the columnist doesn’t tell us why. Manjoo provides an exhaustive set of statistics on how the data was gathered but he never tells us why we fail to finish an article. He’s betrayed our expectations on two main fronts.
- Use the ‘active voice’ more often in your content. When trying to cajole or persuade your readers, or when issuing a call-to-action try using the ‘active voice’ in your sentences. For example, “IT Squirrel will design you a first-rate website for peanuts” as opposed to “a first-rate website will be designed by IT Squirrel for peanuts”. When you construct a sentence, include the subject as early as possible.
- Support your writing with visual cues. Establish user trust by backing up any claims or any messages with strong visual cues and get those cues in quickly, as first impressions count. People do judge by appearances so triggering the right response early in your content is crucial to success. The cues could be as elaborate as charts and infographics or as simple as stock photography. A report by Simply Measured suggested that Facebook enjoyed a dramatic 65% rise in user engagement when it introduced photo and video options in status and timeline posts (Simply Measured, The Impact of Facebook Timeline for Brands, March, 2012)
Journalists and content providers can learn a lot from Social Media. Information is designed to flow; this was as true in the 1600s as it is now. Publishing has always been about interaction. When a person writes something they are seeking to elicit a response from the reader, and although we may be able to exert a degree of influence over that response, we cannot control it.
The soul of the Internet isn’t about control, it’s about freedom; not freedom of expression necessarily, but freedom of choice. Content providers should recognise this and be ready to adapt positively and intuitively to any recycling process their message encounters.
The Twitter service is the natural expression of the digital economy, the logical conclusion of an oral tradition that has its roots in folk tales, songs and Chinese whispers. Tweets are the currency of the moment. Just ensure that the next time you are taken out of context you use a service like Tynt to add a URL link back to your website when readers hit copy and paste. Here’s some ways you can ‘let it flow’:
- The ‘Social Life of Things’. Be more accepting of what Arjun Appadurai called ‘the social life of things’ (The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, 1988). If content is good, people are going to re-use it. Offer ‘Tweet’ buttons and ‘Share’ buttons that preserve the spirit of the original message. Whether it is brands, ideas or products, the meaning that we attribute to things has always derived from human exchanges and interaction. What consumers want is often the outcome of complex social mechanisms. The next time you see your product or idea in unfavourable context, have a think about why it is there. Could you have done anything different to change this? Is there a weakness in the general design or a dimension you were not aware of?
- Track user journeys. Monitor your content’s journey across the Internet using open source web tracking services like PiWick or analysis tools like Google Analytics. Tools like these offer you and your marketing team the opportunity to respond in real-time to its adventures and re-engage with users at the other side (either by responding to comments and tweets or by collating it into data).
- Think like the editor of a newspaper. It’s headlines that sell. Short and snappy sound bites travel well across the web. Give your users something they can copy and paste into Twitter and Facebook. Content that is worth repeating can spread like wild fire around the Internet. Make your sentences ‘punchy’ so they have an immediate impact on your visitors. Where appropriate, be provocative. Content can be a vehicle for discussion and if you can maintain a prominent role in that discussion you can reach a wider audience. A little controversy can go a long, long way, but use it wisely.
- Use the Inverted Pyramid technique. If you want to get and maintain the attention of your web users, then try the so-called ‘Inverted Pyramid’ technique, a theory explored further in Marcus Errico’s The Evolution of the Summary News Lead. Start by the getting the most crucial points of your message across first. All supporting claims should be placed below this. Web users like quick, immediate messages. If possible, say what you need to in the headline and follow it up in the first paragraph. Users are more likely to scroll if they feel their initial curiosity has been satisfied in the first few seconds of any visit.
- Keep your blog content columns under 80 characters in length. One of the best ways to get your users to read your content through to the end is by making your lines no longer than 80 characters in length. Not only does it look more smartly organized, readers will be able to absorb the information more easily.
I started this article by looking at how Slate columnist, Farhad Manjoo tackled an increasingly thorny issue: users of websites were scrolling no further than halfway down the page and often ‘re-tweeting’ posts with barely a glance at their content. On the face of things, Manjoo just wasn’t willing to tolerate the user either engaging with content, or re-serving content in anything less than its entirety. I just didn’t get it. Here was the user engaging with content. Here was the user re-circulating content. How they adapted and remodelled that content represented a key stage in the user’s ability to understand and assimilate that material, and a key stage in its redistribution.
The anxiety experienced by the Slate Magazine columnist is nothing new; the author wishes to micro-manage the response of his readers. He wants his readers to appreciate and absorb the full weight of the article. However, in wishing to keep his message intact, the author risks obstructing its user-journey. Not even Shakespeare was able to achieve this, despite several attempts by his acting company to stop his plays being printed. In fact, it may be fair to say that the bard’s remarkable endurance may even be because of his failure to do this. The constant cycle of being adapted and re-appropriated lies at heart of his success; Shakespeare’s dominance is maintained by this exchange mechanism. The Internet simply accelerates that process.
Re-tweets happen for a zillion reasons: to inform, to provoke, to support, to politicise, to endorse, to tease, to promote, to win a further recommendation, to maintain visibility in a key market area, to score a ‘follow’ from the original source of the Tweet; the list goes on.
There’s nothing to be gained from the Slate columnist griping that readers have shared his article without reading it in its entirety. The reader has always played a crucial role in the creation of text and such responses are vital to its evolution as commodity.
The role the reader plays in the story and life of text is nothing new, it is just that in the digital age the role is beginning to occupy a powerful and central position. You ignore the will of the reader at your own cost.
The digital revolution has made the page a travel-hub of sorts and the message it conveys an enthusiastic (if unpredictable) traveller. It’s our job as content marketers to ensure a smooth passage whatever the nature of the trip. I agree that this should force us to be better storytellers, but I think we can also be better baggage handlers. Here’s my three main tips:
- Use byte-sized content. Remember that the content you produce for your website isn’t art in the strictest sense of the word. Keep your content short, recyclable and preferably, re-tweetable. The digital economy is no different to any other economy in that it depends on exchange and re-distribution. If your content can be divided into smaller byte-sized ‘tweets’ then do it. There’s no law that says you must have one tweet button per page. Treat your content as you would any other commodity and be prepared to let it flow.
- Avoid the ‘one content for all’ mistake. If you want to ‘sell’ your article to a variety of different audiences you are going to have to be flexible. Responsive content means having an adaptive strategy. Medical writers and those handling healthcare communications have been aware of this for years. If you are making deliberate use of Twitter in your marketing campaigns, then adapt your content to the average Twitter user. Basically, engage with the medium on its own terms. Do the groundwork, look at the stats.
- Adapt your content and your format to the media device it’s being consumed on. Much has been made of responsive websites (these are design layouts that adapt to the various viewports on offer) but content that responds to the demands of a mercurial public tends to get overlooked. Address the circumstances in which your content is being viewed. Offer navigation options, graphic options. If your content is being viewed on a mobile device then chances are that time and bandwidth are scarce so shave off any needless excesses. You need to get to the message fast. Mobile users seldom have time or inclination to read a 2000 word thesis or wait for huge graphics to download.