Monthly Archives: February 2014

Adaptive headlines: the right genre for the right context

In a world of too much information, headlines signal if content is worth considering.  Headlines determine if content is viewed, shared, and discussed.  Writers and marketing experts offer much advice on crafting headlines.  However, one shouldn’t apply one approach to all headlines.  As the content landscape changes and evolves, different channels, and different audience experiences, require different kinds of headlines.  To realize greatest impact, headlines must anticipate the intent of their audiences.

Headlines can be optimized for six kinds of goals:

  • to aid the scanning of content
  • to facilitate discovery of enjoyable content
  • to get the audience to want something
  • to provide a summary of content
  • to indicate the nature of advice available
  • to aid in the finding and retrieval of content

The importance of context

Whether we call them headlines, page titles or message headers, their purposes are the same:

  • to attract audience attention
  • to describe the content, and set expectations
  • to motivate the audience to view

The context and goals of the audience shape their attention, expectations, and motivation.  The audience may pursue a “lean forward” experience, using a desktop to research intensively a topic, or a “lean back” experience on a tablet, casually browsing content.  Different genres of headlines have arisen to suit different content genres and channels.  As content is delivered through a wider array of channels (mobile, social media, personalized magazine aggregation apps), the rules of what headlines will work best become more complex.

Different audience behaviors imply specific aspects of headlines to prioritize.  While it is possible to combine several of these aspects together, it is difficult to address all of them with one style of headline.  To know which characteristics to prioritize, brands must be able to anticipate the context and goals of their audience.

Screenshot of headlines from Mail Online
genre bending headlines from the Mail Online (screenshot)

Audience goal: scanning content for relevance

Audiences scan content when they aren’t sure what is relevant or interesting to them.  Scanning is different from leisurely browsing, in that it is more goal oriented.  Audiences often check content sources they’ve found useful in the past, and scan lists of article titles or message titles.  As more content is delivered through feeds, this behavior is becoming more important.  Many tweets are article titles with links to the full article, for example.  Audiences need to both comprehend these, and keep up with the volume of titles they receive.  Eye tracking indicates that people only look at the first two or three words (10 or 12 characters) before moving on to the next item, unless these words seem to match their interests.  They make a snap judgment.

Headlines for scanning prioritizes the significance of the first couple of words.  In some social media contexts, audiences look for a relevant hashtags, especially if the viewing app highlights this in a different color.

Audience goal: enjoyment and discovery

In their personal lives, audiences seek and use content largely for enjoyment rather than necessity.  They often aren’t seeking anything particular: they hope to discover content that promises to be interesting and worth their effort to read.  Headlines play an important role in promoting discovery of recreational content.

Of the many kinds of recreational content, two types are noteworthy.  The first is the traditional feature, often a heartfelt story.  The headline needs to draw readers in. It will often preview something exciting contained in the story.  Headlines may use strong verbs, or use a label that captures a key moment of the story.

Conversational content is the second significant type of recreational content.  Content is optimized to promote sharing and discussion, so headlines play an important role.  Such content is typically distributed through social media.  The best known example of this kind of content is Upworthy, which has spawned many imitators.  Upworthy uses Facebook to distribute its content.  It frames the content with headlines employing a technique they call a “curiosity gap.”  Headlines are a teaser for the content: they violate the journalistic convention that headlines should never tempt without informing.  Upworthy decides the headline should not “give it away,” but should set an expectation that you don’t realize what you’ve been missing: what you think you currently know is incomplete or even wrong, or something extraordinary happened to someone seemingly ordinary.  Upworthy rigorously tests alternative headlines to determine which one generates the most interest as demonstrated by clicks and shares.

Headlines for recreational content prioritize attention over informational completeness.  Sometimes they are even vague, when such an approach enhances the perceived desirability of the content.

Brand goal: get the audience to want something

Persuasive content needs to work harder than any other content type to get attention.  It uses a call-to-action headline to get you to notice and learn more.  In the pre-digital era, it was a slogan used in print ads and direct marketing.  Today, email subject lines, or message notifications in mobile apps, urge you to do something.  Audiences think to themselves: I didn’t ask for this, so why should I look at it?

The discipline of copywriting developed to figure out how to get our attention.   Copywriting can be divided into creative-based, and practice-based.   Practice-based copywriting may rely on common wisdom developed from tried and true experience. Or it may use real-time feedback from A/B testing and analytics to iterate headline copy.  When using the common wisdom approach, copywriters commonly recommend “proven” stock formulas for headlines, such as “You can [benefit of product] Even if [objection]”, and suggest using certain trigger words in headlines, such as “free” or “now.”

Ultimately, the effectiveness of a call-to-action headline depends on how successful it is at getting attention, and encouraging action.  One person’s genius simplicity is another’s cliché.  It can be dangerous to presume what will work.  It’s more prudent to experiment, and test your success.

Audience goal: get a summary of content

The classic headline summarizes the content.  That’s different from summarizing the theme of the content.  A good headline summary gives the audience enough information to know the most important information, without having to read the content.

Summary headlines, though used less frequently these days, still have a role.  Bloomberg news is renowned for their headlines.  Around 300,000 people across the globe use Bloomberg terminals to access financial news.  They read headlines on these terminals, and on many occasions don’t have time to read a full article.  They need to act on news instantly.   Bloomberg prioritizes certain details in their headlines: the names of people in the story (if big, market moving names), what’s the key surprise, and any key facts and figures in the article.

Audience goal: help and advice

Brands provide product support information.  Various specialized publishers offer “how to” content addressing health and household concerns. The field of technical communications is dedicated to this area.  Help and advice content is an important category of user generated content.  People post questions on forums, and post video tutorials and reviews on YouTube.

Headlines for task-focused content are utilitarian, even boring.   Typically they read: “how to [action] [subject].”  Because people are motivated to find useful content, the goal of the headline is to show them where the most appropriate content is.  The most effective headlines contain a precise description of the product or topic.  Headlines generally contain a key action verb, such as install, replace, or fix.  The headline is more challenging to write when the user doesn’t know what they need to do.  In such cases, a symptom may be used in the headline, such as “what to do if your [product] [symptom].”  Frequently, users cite the symptom when posting a question on a forum.   Other times headlines aim to be instructional, conveying “what you need to know about your [product]”.

Audience goal: find and retrieve content

Search remains the most common way people discover content, even though its dominance is being challenged by social media and subscription services that rely on feeds.  Headlines matter vitally to search.  Headlines need to match the expectations of the searcher, and also reflect the “about-ness” of an article.

Writers have criticized the practice of SEO-optimized headlines as writing for Google, where creativity is quashed to serve the humorless needs of the search engine.  According to a quip: “Google doesn’t laugh.”  A BBC editor explains how headlines simultaneously must serve the needs of Google, and the needs of humans: “The text still needs to compel a search engine user enough to click on the story, but if it never appears in a search result then it is wasted effort.”

SEO is largely about using the same exact terms as the audience uses, so-called keywords.  Keywords in SEO are the specific search terms used by the searcher.  The audience uses search terms to describe what they seek.  The search terms are often a product name or category, and may include an attribute, such as durable, big, or easy.

How search engineers think about keywords is different from how linguists do.  Linguists, who invented the concept of keywords, look for words and combinations of words that are used more frequently than would be expected.  The keyword may be comparatively rare, but its use in a specific context is prominent compared with its use in general contexts.  SEO keywords in contrast tend to look at the most common words used for search in a general context, not a specific one.   Google uses many other signals besides keywords, so it checks if the keywords of the search match the keywords of the title and article, together with a couple hundred other factors such as page rank, to determine the ordering of search results.

Named entities are often good words to search in headlines because they yield precise retrieval of results.  The BBC recommends using proper nouns in headlines, because people tend to search on items they know well (even though that limits the audience size who know the item by that specific name).

Keyword literalism is supposedly going away.  Much has been made of Google’s shift to semantic search, and its knowledge graph.  Google now discourages doing research to find popular keywords, and promises to be able to locate content based on the intent of the searcher, not just what they literally specify.  In many respects this is a positive development: it would free the headline writer from using only the most popular keywords in headlines.  The search could contain a proper noun such as a location, but the title shown in the search results doesn’t have to contain that term.  The topic matching works fine when the searcher is looking for named entities, and the content is primarily about named entities.  However, when the search or the content is about something more general or difficult to describe, the situation is more complicated.  The knowledge graph only maps a handful of (admittedly) common entities such as products, events, and people, but doesn’t cover harder-to-model attributes such as “what is the most romantic activity to do while on your honeymoon?”

I predict keywords will remain an important aspect of headlines for the foreseeable future.  Google and other search engines  (including internal site search) will need to rely on them to infer of the intent of content, and users will rely on headlines because they will remain the most succinct description of what the content is about.

Moving forward: adaptive headlines

Headlines can have many different roles, and must work effectively in different channels.  There is more to headlines than making them SEO-optimized.  In fact, in some contexts, an SEO-optimized headline may attract less audience attention.  Generally, SEO-optimized headlines are neither curiosity invoking, persuasive, nor have informational value on their own.

Screen size is also an important consideration.  Common SEO advice suggests restricting headlines to 65 characters, because Google truncates longer headlines.  That’s a line of text in most browsers, but on mobile screens, a line is far shorter, and headlines need to be as well.  When looking at headlines for wearable devices, headlines may need to summarize content, not just indicate what an article is about, because there is no space for details.

These differences suggest that headlines for content need to adapt to the different channels and platforms in which they will appear.  The concept of adaptive content, championed by content strategist Karen McGrane, considers how content needs to adapt to different devices and channels.  Content creators will need to create variations for the headline to address the different contexts in which it will be seen.  Content management tools will need to support headline variations in their feature set.

A single headline shouldn’t try to do everything. Channel-specific headlines optimized for different audience goals will make headline compromises a thing of the past.

— Michael Andrews

How persuasive content can change customer behavior

Brands need realistic expectations of what content can and can’t do.  They need to know how to use content in different customer situations to support changes their customers may want to make.  There are four categories of persuasive content that brands need to use.

The variable effectiveness of content

Often we hear someone talk about creating content to “change the behavior” of customers — and  we immediately take notice.  We wonder: what can content do for me that I’m not now doing?  Can I use content to get customers to behave the way I want them to?  Perhaps there is note of skepticism: is content meant to support manipulation?  Hard-nosed observers might ask: if content isn’t changing the behavior of customers, what’s the point?

screenshots of articles on topic
examples of discussions about behavioral change and content

Bold claims are sometimes made for the talismanic power of content, but equally impressive are the notable failures of content to produce change.  People spend billions of dollars each year on self help media ($10 billion in the U.S. alone), but surveys show levels of happiness unchanged.  This example may not seem pertinent, but chances are your content is promising some level of happiness as a reward for a customer making a change.  The critical question is: what kind of change is realistic to expect from content?   When can content support change, and when can it not?

Whose goals does the content support?

The topic of change is tied to goals.  Brands want customers to buy their products and services, to recommend the brand to others, and to use self service when customers have issues.  They create content to support these business goals.  For content to be successful for the brand, it needs to deliver a predefined outcome.

The goals of customers may be different from the outcomes the brand seeks, especially when change is involved.  When looking at doing something new, the customer will often be cautious.  She may have limited goals, be unsure of her goals, or have no intention to take immediate action.   If the brand is seeking an outcome that exceeds the intention of the customer, the brand is trying to change the customer’s behavior, rather than simply helping the customer change her behavior on her own terms.

It is useful to separate customer behavioral change into three categories, depending on which party is most active in the process.  In ascending order of effort to realize, these are:

  • customer-initiated behavioral change
  • customer-ambivalent, brand-assisted behavioral change
  • brand-initiated behavioral change

What counts as change?

Changing behavior is not a casual thing; it is a big deal.  Sweeping claims that content changes behavior deserve scrutiny.  Marketing professionals sometimes suggest that people have changed their behavior when in fact these people are doing the same things they always do — but with their own brand instead of someone else’s.  Real change involves an enduring transition from one state to another and will generally entail something that’s ongoing.  Behavior is not simply any action or decision, but a habitual action, and/or an action that can be predicted given certain conditions.

Changing customer behavior requires getting them to take actions they don’t normally take, and would not be expected to take, unless they change the basis for how they act.  A brand hasn’t changed a customer behavior simply because they try your product when they routinely try different products.  But if a customer tries your product when previously loyal to another product, then they have changed their behavior, albeit only in a small way.  It is small because it may not be lasting.  That change could be reversed, or could evolve into a new behavior where the customer is not loyal to any brand.  If the individual becomes a loyal customer of your brand, then a more significant behavioral change has happened.

Why changing behavior is hard

“People hate change. They love consistency,” notes Chris Nodder in his book Evil by Design.  “The posh name for this is status quo bias: the tendency to like things to stay relatively the same, and to perceive any change from the current situation as a loss. Loss aversion leads people to overestimate potential losses from a change and underestimate the potential gains. They also tend to overvalue their current situation (the endowment effect).”

The importance of customer buy-in

Change can be hard work: people will change only if they are motivated and able to change.  People need to feel they have bought into the idea of making a change.  Because of the personal effort and commitment involved, any less-than-truthful content that urges people to change their routine will be  problematic.  Deception can sometimes appear to work in the short term, but it will backfire in the long term.  People get angry when they feel misled.

Some content professionals have questioned content marketing practices that offer non-promotional content to get email addresses or other personal details, and then later use this information for overt sales.  One copywriter summed up the conflict:  “With permission marketing, you get the audience’s permission to give them content, but not really to market to them. However, your basic agenda is still to sell. So eventually you have to come clean and start pushing benefits.  Hence content marketing is a sort of cognitive bait-and-switch, and ‘a lie’ in the sense that it obscures or omits its own motive. It is based in bad faith or deception in a way that ‘traditional’ advertising isn’t.”  Lesson: be honest about what customers have bought into.  Even if the initiator of a change is the brand and not the customer, the customer needs to feel they are in control of making the change, to be willing to adopt it.

Customers buy into change when they are ready.  The role of content is to support their readiness.  People are ready when “triggered to do something they want to do and are able to do,” according to  BJ Fogg, a leading researcher in the field of persuasive design. Fogg highlights two key aspects content needs to address: motivation, and understanding.  His framework parallels a prominent theory in communications science called the elaboration likelihood model.  According to that model, people process information through two routes: a central route involving active evaluation of information, and a peripheral one, involving impressions and cues from the environment.  When motivation is low, people are less likely to actively evaluate messages, so it is important to appeal to peripheral factors like emotional aspects, to engage with them.

How customers vary in readiness

Customer readiness depends on how familiar the substance of the content seems, and how motivated the individual is. Customers must desire the change (have motivation) and know how much effort is required (feel comfortable with what’s involved)

The notion of familiarity captures whether someone believes they understand and is able to do something.  When changing behavior, the new behavior may be similar enough to other experiences that the individual has little trouble imagining what’s involved.  The parallels customers draw will not necessarily be accurate: they may understate the adaptation required, or overstate it, of course.  But when a task seems unfamiliar, people are inclined to not pay attention, and even fear it.  All content needs to make actions feel familiar to their target audience, incorporating frames of reference each segment uses to understand things.  To the extent that an absence of familiarity creates a gap in attention, the content must also provide emotional cues to help the audience relate to the content.

We can divide readiness into four categories.  Customers may be more or less familiar with the change you are promoting, and be more or less motivated to embrace that change.  By thinking about the interaction of these two factors, we can build a simple matrix of persuasion categories to guide what general kinds of content are most appropriate in different situations.

diagram of content persuasion types
content persuasion matrix, based on customer readiness to adopt change

Four categories of persuasive content

Encourage

A change is customer-initiated when customers have both motivation and familiarity with proposed changes.  Content for such customers should focus on supporting the their intention and understanding.  Even though the individual clearly wants to make a change, there can be confounding factors.  Inertia is a  big concern — it is easiest to stick with what one has been doing all along. Another factor is competition: other brands are probably addressing this customer segment, and their content may be more compelling.  The content should reinforce the benefits, provide an encouraging tone, build anticipation, and betray no ambiguities or confusion that could interfere with the flow toward action.

Change can involve multiple steps or interactions over time, so content must communicate clearly at each step and provide sufficient context and follow up.  After the individual adopts the new behavior,  reinforce messages and spark dialog by seeking feedback from them.  Consider fine-tuning the presentation of choices (making sure their aren’t too many), and make the calls-to-action clear and compelling, answering the question of “why do this now and not later.”  Do not assume people are ready to go through a process involving change when they aren’t fully ready.  Customer motivation or understanding may be qualified, so provide content for them to explore that addresses concerns they may have.

Sweeten

When a customer segment believes they understand what’s involved, but still isn’t motivated enough to change what they are currently doing, their outlook falls in the category of customer-ambivalent, brand-assisted change.  The task is to sweeten the appeal of the change.

Customers may be ambivalent because their normal behavior has become part of their identity, and so changing behavior feels emotionally uncomfortable.  They may hold on to stereotypes, such as “I’m not the kind of person who would do this,” even when they have an interest in something new, and understand what they would need to do.

The content should appeal more to peripheral cues, rather than rational ones.   The attention individuals offer is driven by their internal state.   When people don’t feel emotionally or spiritually connected to the content, they don’t pay attention to it.  Getting the emotional dimension right is key to involvement.  Know what content makes them feel good about themselves (aspiration based), and bad about themselves (fear based).   Content will feature the benefits and urgency of a change on a personal level, and nurture a feeling of ownership of an outcome.  Content will play up individual identity, and belongingness to a group. It may spotlight the individual’s status or the judgment of peers, as either motivational carrot or stick. The content will stress the benefits of the journey, and the reward at the end.  Sweetened content promotes “a new you” theme.

Nudge and reframe

Nudging and reframing are common with brand-initiated change, and can be used with customer-initiated changes that are difficult to accomplish.  These approaches work for people who may be ok with the general notion of a change (they aren’t attached emotionally to the current situation), but who are less sure about the practicality of doing so.

There is some debate about whether someone’s attitude needs to change in order for someone’s behavior to change.  In general the answer is yes, but it may be possible to get behavior to change first if it does not seem too taxing.  If individuals try something, and find it doesn’t create hardship, their views may change as a result.  But if there views don’t naturally change, and they need to think as they apply effort to maintain the change, then the change won’t stick.

A nudge strategy is often relevant for brand-initiated change, when there’s an asymmetry in the motivations of the brand and the individual.  A brand may be able to successfully nudge someone to do something the person is indifferent about, if the brand simplifies the message to one key action.  The brand should decide what is the minimal action necessary from the individual that gives the brand value, and then focus content on supporting the accomplishment of that action.  The change required may be largely unnoticed by the individual, but it can be significant for the brand.

The brand reframes what action is needed for the change, making it less daunting.  People have trouble estimating the future effort and consequences of a change, so content that realistically suggests the effort will be minimal, or will only requires small steps, will make the task seem more familiar.  Paradoxically, some content that nudges (such as asking for an organ donation) is intentionally impersonal, designed to seem like no big deal, particularly when the wider implications of the change might seem too emotionally charged.  The strategy in such cases is to get people to change actions, not to persuade them to change their beliefs.  Sometimes a greater good appeal can be effective to encourage someone to go along with an action without undue evalution,.

While minimizing the change involved works in some cases, in other cases the customer needs to be actively involved. Another type of reframing seeks to make the change less intimidating by likening it to something the audience is already familiar with that they like.  The goal is to neutralize the fear of the unknown.

Campaign

Campaigns exist to support brand-initiated change.  The brand assumes responsibility for maintaining the initiative.  For example, brands have campaigned for many decades to change our personal health and grooming habits, often successfully.

The marketing campaign is supposedly dying a slow death.  Widespread evidence suggests that people resist conventional marketing campaigns, and inoculate themselves against their messages.  Campaigns are ineffective in getting people to do things they don’t want to do, but they have a role in cases where people lack sufficient motivation and ability to do things they are tempted to try.  People in this category can be overcome by inertia.  The goal is not to convert people hostile to an idea, but to speak to people who like an idea in the abstract, and make it possible for them to actually act on that idea.

Campaigns provide content to support people throughout a long change process.  The format recognizes that when people have to summon willpower to make changes, it drains their energy, so the content should energize rather than make demands.  One way such content can energize audiences is by offering recognition and a sense of belonging to a shared community.   A campaign might promote behavioral change through the use of advergaming, such as the America’s Army recruiting game.  Public health campaigns sometimes use soap operas to simultaneously entertain (motivate) and educate.    Successful campaigns appeal to an audience in a way that enables them to form a lasting relationship with the brand.  Campaigns address the most difficult type of change, requiring long periods, and will be successful with only a fraction of an audience segment.

Conclusions

By knowing the motivation and knowledge your customers have, brands can tailor content in a way that increases the likelihood that customers can make changes successfully.  The four categories of persuasive content are only a starting point for thinking about change.  There are a range of tactics appropriate to each category, and brands are wise to evaluate these options in detail.  They may need to plan for the likelihood that a customer will graduate from one category of readiness to another.  Continual analysis and testing are crucial to successful outcomes.

— Michael Andrews

Establishing the right quantity of content

Brands need to understand what key variables govern how much content they should produce.  As noted in my previous post, content strategists and content marketers tend to offer differing advice, and the rationale for their advice generally will focus on a specific aspect of content.  In this post, I outline how common goals for content can impact desired content quantity.  By having a more complete picture of impacts of different factors, brands will be better able to make informed decisions about how much content to produce.

photo of newsstand in Rome

What problem does growth solve?

Having a strategy for content is essential to implementing any content program, otherwise one is going to waste effort and miss important opportunities.  But even before developing a strategy, brands would benefit from having some sort of guideposts for understanding the utility of having more content.  Brands need a sense of what criteria to consider before they hire someone to help them develop a strategy that is based on goals that reflect assumptions about their problems.  That kind of criteria-based framework is not common currently.

Content strategy and content marketing each offer a perspective missing from the other.  Brands will want to ask what is their biggest issue: Is it having too much content (and too much poor quality content), which is overwhelming their audience, or is it not being heard in an increasingly noisy world?

Neither the strategy or marketing approach currently has a good conceptual framework for guiding the right amount of content over the long term. As a content strategist, I have a strong affinity with the approach of not pushing to add to an already large content stockpile, when this stockpile appears unvalued by audiences, and even by the brand itself.  That said, I believe this approach is valid only for the short term.   Though “less is more” can be an effective strategy in the short run, “more is more” will need to be where brands get to, provided it is done correctly.

Managing symptoms of too much content

One issue in particular draws much attention: that there is too much content, too much information, and too much of that is deemed poor.  Less attention is given to why so much content is out there.  There is an unspoken disdain for the people creating this content, as if they were foolish or willfully spiteful.  A common criticism admonishes those people in organizations who think of content “as a commodity” and who rush to publish “as much as possible.”

Rather than demonize the creators of unloved content, it is perhaps more constructive to understand their motives.  Content is created because there are incentives to create it that are based on a presumed demand for it — though the signals for the demand are often hard to read and are frequently misinterpreted.  It’s not just content that is growing: all kinds of things in our home and work lives are proliferating.  Marketers today need to communicate about hundreds of different toothpaste products, for example, not just a few dozen.  Complexity is a reality, even if one doesn’t like it.   What seems from one perspective to be unmanaged complexity, from another perspective can be seen as richness, diversity and choice.  The goal should not be to impose simplicity on audiences, but to hide complexity from them.

To grasp why quantity can be a hot button issue, consider the audience context.  Quantity can generate complexity for audiences.  Audience attention is adversely impacted by having to deal with irrelevant content. It is not just the amount of attention they are able to offer, it is the amount they are willing to offer.   Audience attention is capped, even if elastic within a narrow range.  Brands must manage quantity properly because audiences have limited attention to give to a brand’s content.

It is comparatively easy to stick to the safety of producing content for areas that one is absolutely sure that solid demand exists.  This is what GOV.UK did when it cut 75% of its content.  It is more difficult to interpret what content that one does not offer that one should offer.   It’s also essential to understand what content deserves fixing.  Rather than cut poorly performing content, it may be more beneficial to transform it.

Two kinds of quality problems: bad content and sad content

One should be careful not to equate poor quality content with useless content.  Content may not meet audience needs fully, but still offer them —  or the brand —  some value.  Such content is sad content, not bad content.  Brands should determine if there is a quantity surplus problem (too much useless content, but the rest is fine) or quality deficit problem (too little content is useful compared with the potential demand for it).  The two are not automatically the same issue, even though they often conspire together to damage the experience for audiences.  Brands face a choice: keep only useful content, or make all content useful.

Bad content should be cut: it offers no value to either the brand or the audience.  Sad content, in contrast, is content that in some way is valued by the brand but not the audience, or less commonly, valued by an audience but offering limited value to the brand.  Sad content can reflect general quality problems, but it also can reflect more specific issues relating to how to connect the right content with the right audience.  It may not be visible to an audience that is interested in it, or it might not be as relevant as it could be because it doesn’t provide sufficient details on the issues that matter most to them.

Brands have many goals for content

Sad content can be the by product of poorly executed attempts to realize different kinds of goals for the brand.  Rather than deride sad content, it is more useful to try to understand what it is trying to accomplish.  Generally these goals fall in four areas:

  • more frequent engagement with audiences
  • giving more specific kinds of information for audiences
  • providing more thorough explanations
  • getting more visibility, and helping audiences discover what you have to say

Each of these goals is worthwhile.  The following table summarizes how different brand goals relate to the quantity of content produced.  A goal may suggest producing less content, producing the same amount (but improving the quality), or creating more content.

Brand needs: Strategy: cull content (less content) Strategy: improve existing content (same amount of content) Strategy: expand content (more content)
More frequent engagement with audience     x
More precise content to improve relevance   x x
Better overall content quality x x  
More visibility in social or SEO x x x

The impact of goals on quantity

Engagement

The only unequivocal reason to create more content is to have fresh material to offer audiences.  This is a useful only to a limited degree, since only a portion of your audience will be willing to give more of their attention to the brand, and even for these people, there is a limit on how much attention they will be willing to offer.

Precision

To offer greater relevance to audiences often involves making content more precise.  Generally, this will involve adding more specialized content, or content with greater detail.  The simplest example of this are any of the big content providers: Amazon, Wikipedia, or Netflix.  They provide relevance to audiences by offering a big range of content addressing very specific interests.  Alternatively, a brand may improve existing content to make it less general, and give it more thematic variation.

Overall quality

To improve overall quality of content requires resources.  Generally, brands need to devote more resources to their existing content to make it better in terms of being topical for audiences, up-to-date, well written, having engaging media (quality graphics, photos, video) and so forth.  Although some incremental quality improvements are be possible with constant resources, most perceptible improvements will requirement more resources.   If additional funds aren’t available, brands face a strategic decision of whether to reduce the amount of content they offer in order to produce better quality content.   The “less is more” strategy can improve satisfaction with the more limited set of content that is published, but carries a potential cost of alienating people seeking content that is no longer available.  GOV.UK reduced duplicate content, and content that received little traffic, as part of their content culling.  But by drastically limiting content it may have reduced the level of self service and information transparency available to the UK public.

Clearly, any expansion of content will place a strain on content quality.  The case of Wikipedia provides an example.  Wikipedia is appreciated for the breadth of its content.  Many brands, from Apple to the BBC, use Wikipedia content in their products because Wikipedia is unrivaled in its breadth.  However, the quality of Wikipedia articles is quite variable, and despite having a sophisticated quality control process, poor quality content is not uncommon.  Even though Wikipedia is not a commercial product, the same issues confront commercial brands.  At times, it may be the case that publishing something is better than not publishing anything, when brands know their customers expect certain content from them, and the brand feels it has a responsibility to offer this content.

Visibility

The most difficult factor to gauge is how the quantity of content affects its visibility on search engines and in social media.  This is obviously important, since it impacts the discoverability of content, which in turn affects a brand’s ability to attract the audiences it desires.  On an atomic level, brands can promote individual content to raise its visibility through social media campaigns or search engine marketing, for example.  But the collective visibility of all the brand’s content is influenced by how audiences relate to the profile of the entire body of content.

Some agencies, such as Red Rocket (cited in my previous post) argue that more content automatically leads to increases in impressions, click throughs, rankings, and social media metrics.  Matt Cutts of Google notes that big websites don’t automatically get higher search rankings, so adding pages by themselves won’t improve search rank.  But he notes because additional pages typically drive more search queries and more page linking, these will help attract more visitors.

It can be argued that smaller organizations that need to attract interest around a specific core message will do better to limit the amount of content, so that audience traffic is directed to a limited set of content, rather than scattered across many different items of content.

Visibility involves a mixture of overall authority (utilization) of all content, and the authority (use) of specific items being promoted.  If a lot of content is weak, and fails to drive traffic, sharing or discussion, then the collective value of this content is weak.  If a few items are able to drive traffic, sharing and discussion, these items can be influential.  However, it can be risky to have expectations for gaining influence in a handful of content, hoping that it will become popular.  Relying on a narrow set of content to drive popularity could either involve narrowing the range of audiences it will appeal to only the most mainstream, or else trying to be too broad to find popularity, and failing to gain strong appeal from any group.

So from the perspective of content visibility, more-is-more, assuming the content is unique enough to get search and link traction.  Big sites having pages with high traffic also get a halo effect, where more niche pages are likely to get a lift through their domain authority.  When a brand is perceived as a source for content, it becomes a destination.

Can more content be better for audiences?

In several dimensions, audiences benefit from access to more content.  How does this square with the systemic problem that audiences face regarding information overload?  If attention is limited, does more content improve relevance, or lessen it?  This is the key question for brands.

In the future, brands should be able to produce more content that is more relevant for audiences: higher quality, more specific and precise, and delivered when audiences want to see it.  Audiences won’t feel overwhelmed, but more engaged, because the content more closely matches their specific needs and interests.  Developing this capability will require:

  • improvements in content production capabilities,
  • improvement in content categorization and discovery
  • improvements in content delivery intelligence

Note that such improvements are not free and will cost money.  Also, process and technology improvements won’t eliminate the problem of sad content, even if they reduce the issue.

Perhaps most importantly, automation and process alone won’t create great content.  The content with the most outsized impact will likely be content that received the most human attention, just as it is today.  Examples from award winning advertising and journalism show us that thoughtful and creative content gets the most engagement, and resonates more strongly with audiences.  Even when using technology to carefully optimize pages through repeated A/B testing, human attention and judgment are crucial to improving engagement.

The field of content is far from having an easy-to-understand and reliable framework to guide the right amount of content to produce.  But I hope that this overview provides practical guideposts to frame that discussion.

— Michael Andrews