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6 Secrets of Better Content To Build Your Audience

  1. Digital media turns every organisation into a media organisation. Smart organisations have turned themselves into publishers. 
  1. If you want to build an audience, put that audience’s needs first. Unless you have money for promotion. Even then, use audience-focused content.
  1. Digital evolution has left leaders with ‘network mindsets’; laggards are held back by ‘channel vision’.
  1. We’re a visual species. Visual content isn’t the icing on the cake, it is the cake. Make it the first thing you think about, not the last. Bake visual-first into your processes.
  1. Deep down, you already know what works. You’re instinctively good at parsing the deluge of digital content. The trick is to reverse-engineer those instincts at work.
  1. There’s an 80:20 rule in content production: 20% of processes generate 80% of engagement. Identify the 20% and make optimisation central to your operation. 

1. Digital Media Makes Every Organisation A Media Organisation. The smartest now have a Publisher’s Mindset 

Universal access to simple digital publishing tools has allowed every organisation to develop an audience. Virtually every organisation has a website, most have social media channels. 

But few have adopted a publisher’s mindset and developed systematic content streams to make the most of these opportunities.

Why investment in content works

  1. Recognises the changing nature of trust. Confidence in government and media has been declining; businesses and NGOs are now more trusted. This creates an appetite for trustworthy content from organisations.
  1. Social media offers big reach: The group we most trust, however, remains family and friends, which is why social media remains a critical part of any content strategy. 
  1. The economics stack up: Businesses find that content works better than advertising to generate sales. Surveys show they are investing more in content creation. 

So, if the tools make it easy, the opportunities are clear, and the return on investment is high, what kind of publisher are you, and what could you be? 

There are various approaches, and what’s best for an organisation is highly individual. But these are the main types, in ascending order of audience appeal:

  • Broadcast Messaging. Only comfortable talking about themselves. Content is either purely self-promotional or derivative of some other activity that is judged more valuable. A model that can work for brands and organisations with celebrity appeal and strong fanbases like Unicef. Limited appeal otherwise. 

NB many organisations don’t feel they need the publicity and don’t want the costs of doing anything more advanced.

  • Content Marketing. Thinks about users’ interests and what would be useful, and mixes in self-promotional stuff. May follow a rule of thumb that 80% should be audience-focused. Microsoft’s On the Issues addresses global technology challenges through pieces written by senior staff and updates on what the company is doing itself.
  • Brand Publishing. Content is purely designed to satisfy user needs. The goal is to establish the brand’s personality by being useful or entertaining. Red Bull is the prime example. The World Economic Forum is a good example.Sage Advice uses journalism to help small and medium-sized businesses.

2. If you want an audience, Park the Corporate Messaging, And Give users Your Expertise, Stories, and Answers to their questions 

There are the things you want to say, and there are the things your audience wants to know. 

And unless you’re a celebrity, they’re probably not the same. 

The path of least resistance in an organisation is for content ideas to be decided at a high level and then to delegate production and publishing. But the path of least resistance can easily become the path of least engagement if the process ignores users’ needs.

Communications teams are fond of identifying ‘key messages’, which appeal to senior leadership but ignore the hard fact of digital life that users aren’t interested in key messages; what they want is good stories and answers to their questions.

There’s a deal to be done here: Provide stories, answers, and expertise. Then share messaging. That’s the basic idea behind Content Marketing. 

So much information is available online that everyone has developed the ability to filter out the dull and the self-promotional. Whether it’s email, social media, or search results, we’ve all had to become very good at sorting the digital wheat from the chaff. 

It’s a Darwinian fight for attention, and only the interesting survive. 

Watch Your Digital Body Language

Websites, social accounts, and newsletters all have a kind of digital personality. Design, tone of voice, topic choice, and writing style hint at the organisation behind the content and, crucially, its intent.

I’ve been struck by how much organisations think about the personas of their target audiences and how little they think about their own digital persona. It’s surprisingly non-self-aware.

This is a bit of a stretch, but I use the ‘dinner party test’ – if these organisations were people, what would they be like? And would you want them at your dinner party? 

It started as a bit of fun. But getting your persona right is such an essential part of aligning strategy and content that I now use it in all my consulting gigs. These are the five most common personality types:

  1. The Minimalist

Doesn’t say very much at all. Website has the bare minimum information. Not really present on social. It could be because they are too busy. Or it could be because they do not need the publicity. 

2. The Salesperson

Talk about themselves incessantly. Big on personal success stories. Seldom asks questions. Strong opinions, confidently asserted. Behaves like a celeb. Might be interesting to some guests, but likely to irritate the majority. 

3. The teacher

A specialist who knows stuff but can express it in street language. Definitely not a ‘mansplainer’, more like your favourite university professor who illustrates concepts with real-world examples. Leaves you feeling smarter. Good for impressing dinner party guests.

4. The connector

Well-read, constantly sharing things they have found interesting, on top of the latest trends, asks lots of questions. They’ll make sure you are in the know. They’ll keep the conversation going.  

5.  The raconteur

A great guest with a vivid story for every subject, makes unexpected connections between topics. Not entirely reliable when it comes to accuracy. Will entertain your guests but warn them to fact-check any stories or advice. 

Most organisations are comfortable with 1 & 2, which are ego-centric. Users are most interested in organisations that major in 3, 4 & 5, which are mostly about getting things done. 

The dynamics of organisations can leave them stuck in the advertising trap

The gravitational forces within an organisation tend towards a focus on core messages for content. That’s the simplest unifying force, and it all too easily becomes the sole driver. The problem is that most users aren’t interested in your messaging. But they are very interested in your expertise, stories and answers to their questions.

Broadcasting is the simplest possible model for organising content. Someone at the top gets an idea and commissions a piece. Someone lower down produces it. Someone else publishes it. It’s simple, linear and contained. And it doesn’t threaten long-established hierarchies. 

Anyone who has worked in a large organisation will know making a decision can be hard. Organisations have competing objectives and multiple stakeholders. Getting things done demands compromises and, often, complexity. Which is the enemy of engagement in digital content. 

There’s very little appetite for anything that makes that decision-making more difficult.  So the Salesperson persona keeps it nice and neat. Thinking first about what the audience might want slows things down and risks diluting the message. 

Like everything else in digital media, it’s a choice: force-feed messaging and risk indifference, or invest time tailoring the message to user needs and build an audience. Too many organisations choose the former. 

Interestingly, smaller organisations have an advantage in the latter because their decision-making is less complex.

3. Leaders Have Network Mindsets, Laggards Have Channel Vision

We’ve moved relatively swiftly from a world of channels that can be controlled to networks that can only be influenced. The scale of this change has created sharp differences between those who get it and those who don’t.

Most websites see most of their traffic coming from Search, making Search Engine Optimisation a crucial new network optimisation activity. 

Social networks don’t refer as much traffic to websites as they used to, but they remain unrivalled in their capacity to raise the profile of organisations. 

Even the humble newsletter, staging a major comeback, is distributed over email – the original social network. 

Those who have adapted best to these seismic changes have developed new ways of thinking about content, of which the following are the most important:  

Framing ideas for Relatability and Shareability

Channel-oriented teams’ first concern is brand compliance and sticking to the brief.  ‘Messaging’ is the key driver of decision-making and knowledge about what interests users plays a relatively minor role. There’s little appetite for workshopping ideas to maximise relatability and sharability. The team functions as a service department.

Network-minded teams are like bloodhounds sniffing out only the most interesting morsels. What’s the most relatable thing in this story idea? Are there more interesting ideas on a similar topic? What would persuade readers to share this post with their followers? The team has a degree of agency and plays a role in educating other teams about what works.

Putting Editorial and Visual Hooks at the Centre of Packaging

Network-minded teams start with these. Their interest in engagement metrics means that they know that without strong content and visual hooks – headlines, social post blurbs, subject lines in newsletters, opening captions in videos – a post is unlikely to get much attention. They structure pieces to maximise visibility on search engine results pages. 

For channel-oriented teams, hooks come right at the end of the process. They do their best without making fundamental changes to the original material. There is no question that a piece won’t go out because it doesn’t have strong hooks. 

Exploiting Production Economics

Network-minded teams are set up to maximise engagement. Their currency is ‘interestingness’. When they encounter an interesting idea, they instinctively exploit it to the max. That means squeezing out all the engagement value with visual formats and text, all available social networks, and they have aggressive replay programmes.

Channel-oriented teams’ primary focus is on the central messaging. Success is less to do with engagement and more with ensuring that senior staff who commissioned the piece are happy. However, they tend to have far greater access to promotional budgets to compensate for this.

4. We’re a visual species: we form First Impressions faster than the blink of an eye

We’re introduced to someone new at our hypothetical dinner party and form an immediate impression of them. We cannot control it – humans are simply hard-wired to read visual cues about personality. 

Half of our brain is tied up with visual processing. And that has powerful implications for online behaviour. Video has become the number one online format, accounting for 65% of all internet traffic.

But it’s not just the dominance of visual content that is important to understand, it’s the speed at which we use visual signals to make decisions. Evolution has made humans incredibly quick to judge: 

  • According to research, it takes less than a tenth of a second to assess a human face for attractiveness and trustworthiness.
  • Eye-tracking studies show that we don’t read web pages; we scan them to see if it’s worth the effort of reading.
  • We scan very rapidly – less than two-tenths of a second for webpages
  • Facebook warns you that you have less than two seconds to grab the attention of a Facebook user on mobile before they scroll past your post.

The harsh reality is that an overabundance of content means all teams must work extremely hard to attract attention. And they need to recognise that speed is of the essence. 

Images work because we are biologically programmed to parse them. But there’s something else going on – well-produced images also act as a signal of trust – they suggest that the producer has taken the trouble to make content digestible and thus unlikely to waste our valuable time. Google now uses images as one of its signals of quality.

Smart content producers are taking findings like these and adopting visual-first approaches:

Seize all ‘graphics opportunities’ 

It’s getting easier to produce effective graphics, and user expectations are rising, so you should chart data if you are discussing data. This helps in several ways:

  • Aids comprehension and signals quality
  • Breaks up text for those viewing on mobile
  • Tells Google this is a serious piece of work

Digital-first publishers alive to the attractiveness of charts have spawned a new format – the chart-based explainer: 

Fear of financial crisis unleashed chaos across markets this week. These 7 charts show how the shockwaves engulfed stocks, bonds, and commodities – Business Insider

The world faces a water crisis – 4 powerful charts show how – Nature

IWD23: 8 charts that show progress towards the SDGs from a gender perspective – World Economic Forum

Kick your stock photo habit 

In the early days of social networks like Facebook, most posts didn’t have images. Nowadays most do. Organisations in particular favour stock images but these are now so pervasive users likely screen them out. 

World Economic Forum experiments found that graphics, including simple tables and charts created with Google Docs, were five times more likely to be liked, shared and commented on than those with stock photos. You need your social media image to ‘pop’; stock images rarely do that. 

Think about layout

Many social posts comprise a wodge of text and a tangle of hashtags. Fans might forgive that but newcomers will see a mess and wonder how much thought has gone into the work. 

Use social videos optimised for mobile

Auto-play is the default on most social networks, so a video starts to play as soon as the user scrolls to the post. Creating effective social videos is a whole topic in itself, but the crucial point to make here is that you have to think about that brief moment in time when a user first sees your video playing. Ideally, you want an arresting video clip and an enticing storyline. 

One of the most successful videos I’ve been involved in is this one on Guatemala’s efforts to clean up its rivers, which has both elements, went viral and helped speed the introduction of very simple techniques to keep plastic out of the sea.

Embrace visual storytelling on social networks

Slideshow formats like Instagram Stories and LinkedIn’s carousels have engagement rates second only to social videos. That’s because they combine highly visual storytelling and interactivity (you can speed up or go back very easily). Another advantage is that they are much easier to produce than social videos.

5. Deep down you already know what works 

The rise of the Internet has brought two revolutions: 

1) Information overload and the need for everyone to develop skills in finding the good stuff 

2) Conversational writing as billions of people, who previously wrote little, chat highly regularly over instant messaging and contribute to social media. 

In the UK, the average person spends 3 hours and 29 minutes online daily. That’s probably typical of advanced economies. 

The chart from Domo shows, that’s not just about consuming; it’s also about producing. As Margaret Attwood has pointed out, you need basic reading and writing skills just to use the internet. 

These two revolutions in reading and writing hold major implications for communications teams. 

  • Information overload makes it hard for their content to cut through general indifference. 
  • Conversational writing skills mean content that is over-formal appears out of touch

Communications professionals know this from their private digital media activity. And yet many continue to produce content for their organisations that ignores these changes.

Why is this?

It goes back to hierarchies, notions of professionalism, the digital personas of our organisations mentioned in section 2, and the status of digital communications teams. 

Those are tough nuts to crack. But part of the answer is for teams to take on the role of the Teacher. I’d go so far as to say that the scale of the challenge means this ought to be considered a duty to educate colleagues on how the digital media world works.

Three proven tactics for getting engaging content out of senior staff 

  1. Have a conversation before a word is written. I’ve dealt with some enormous egos in my time. But when I found the time to talk to them before they had invested their own time into writing something I found 95% were interested in understanding what made content work. 
  1. See who they follow and who is an effective communicator. Because there is nothing like a comparison with someone they admire to encourage new thinking.
  1. Deploy your killer factoids. Familiarise yourself with engagement metrics and the results of experiments with different approaches that have been run. Because it’s hard to argue with data.

6. 80% of Engagement Comes From 20% of the Processes. Find that 20% and Make Optimisation Part of Your Culture

Getting from idea to publication involves many production processes. That’s mostly unavoidable. What is avoidable is wasting time on things that won’t drive performance and ignoring those that do.

In my experience, a handful of things make an enormous difference to the effectiveness of content, and yet they get very little attention and are frequently absent. 

The diagram shows a digital content team’s typical production cycle and what’s missing compared to a digital native publisher with perhaps 20 stages of producton. Four of these missing processes explain 80% of the World Economic Forum’s outsized audience development: 

  1. Performance tracking: Hardly anyone takes metrics seriously enough. Engagement data analysis is mind-numbingly difficult and time-consuming, partly explaining why more teams don’t do it. But without an understanding of what works and what doesn’t, you’re flying blind. It’s the #1 process to get right.
  1. Lean content manufacturing: High-performers are like elite sports teams – accruing marginal gains by constantly refining every step in production. Simple example: a 15-minute chat with an author before they start writing can save hours of editing and feedback. 
  1. Stress test story ideas. Before you invest time and effort in an idea, you need to be reasonably sure it’s going to be worth the effort. Smart teams check whether there’s a relatable angle, a vivid visual, and an ability to answer the obvious Google queries. 
  1. Workshopping first impression content. Fail to grab attention with your headline, social post image, or opening social video caption s the digital kiss of death. Sensible then to spend quality time ensuring they are as good as possible.

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