There are many content marketing experts offering advice on the best way to optimise and showcase content. But what makes engaging content in the first place?
We all know it’s meant to be engaging and compelling, and also “snackable” and shareable. But few people seem to be breaking down what those terms mean in practice.
Those terms remind me of client requests we used to get many years ago, for their custom publishing to be “edgy”. When you politely asked what that means, you’d always get the same answer: “You know, edgy—like, on the edge. Like, EDGY.”
I never met anyone who could define “edgy”. But I was often confident that what I thought was edgy was very different to what they thought was edgy.
Even though now we have a more sophisticated idea of what edgy may be, it still boils down to the same question: how can you make content that is more interesting to potential customers? I suspect the place to start is to pin down what those vague terms mean.
So at the risk of being shot down by those who know better, I thought I’d have a crack at defining what “engaging” and “compelling” and “snackable” and “shareable” content might be in terms of words-and-pictures-on-a-screen.
Engaging content is about people, not products
In a recent ebook on data driven strategies for writing effective titles and headlines written by HubSpot and Outbrain (you can find it here if you’re interested), the folks at Outbrain analysed variables from a sample of 3.3 million paid link headlines from across their network of more than 100,000 publisher sites from between 2013 and 2014.
The really interesting thing they found was that “headlines that included the word “who” generated a 22% higher CTR (clickthrough rate) than headlines without the word “who.” “ By contrast, the word “why” decreased CTR by 37%. Outbrain’s lesson? “When it comes to intriguing readers with your headlines, focus on who not why.”
That reflects a bit of wisdom from the magazine world, which is people are interested in people. If you want to see that in action, walk into a newsagency and look at the rack of magazine covers in front of you—on the vast majority of them, you’ll see a human face making eye contact with you about two-thirds or more of the way up the cover.
No matter how fascinating a product is, it is always more interesting to read about another person (preferably a person just like you and me) overcoming a problem that we all face.
Compelling content is about values, not things
Story guru (and STORY author) Robert McKee is someone who knows how compelling stories work. One of the lessons he offers is that stories are driven by changes in characters’ values. That’s true of all stories, not just the fictional ones McKee is writing about. It could be argued that the whole idea of stories is to work out those clashes between competing, but equal values: success versus integrity, for example, or work versus family life, or any other of the myriad clashes in values we all face all the time in our lives.
Your customers will care about your product only to the extent that it helps solves their problems or make their lives better. Telling your customers a story about another person who has changed as a result of working out one of those clashes is as good as having them live through that themselves.
Do you follow? It makes sense that if, in the course of a story, your product helps a person solve one of these clashes in values, everyone else who faces the same problem will want your product to help them solve it too. But it’s not about the product. It’s about the values.
Snackable and shareable content is about boundaries, not length
There’s a famous (and probably apocryphal) story about the origins of the Six-Word Story contest (nowdays also called “flash fiction”). The Six Word Story contest is a competition to write a story in six words. The first one was allegedly written by Ernest Hemingway and was:
“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
I really love the story (and don’t really care if it’s true)—but it’s not the pathos inherent in those six words that make them powerful. It’s the boundaries they have been written under. It’s powerful because you recognise that it’s telling you a much longer story, and that that story—driven by a basic conflict in values which is resolved by the final two words—is compelling.
Compelling stories are “shareable”. It doesn’t matter if it’s six words, six hundred, or six thousand. If it’s compelling, readers will read it.
But that doesn’t answer the question of how long compelling content should be, right? Well, it does and it doesn’t.
What determines the boundaries?
It’s important for stories to work within boundaries. But the story itself should determine those boundaries. Not a randomly-applied word-limit. An easy way for journalists to set up boundaries in a story is to ensure the story hook is in the first sentence or paragraph (that hook is frequently the values which are in conflict). By setting that up at the beginning, it creates a natural end-point (when the resolution has been reached).
The boundaries of your story are at the start, the values in conflict, and at the other end, the resolution.
Making it snackable, then, is just breaking the text up visually so people don’t feel they’re reading a big block of text. If you can break it into, say, three sections—and each section has a one-sentence sub-head that people can present when sharing on social media—you’ve gone a long way to make it snackable.
And if you’ve got your values-in-conflict right, you can generally summaries them in that sub-head. Something like: “Engaging content is about people, not products”. Or “Compelling content is about values, not things”. Or… well, you get the idea.
When you think about those three points in depth, you begin to realise how difficult creating content can be (and why we don’t all do it all the time). But when you get it right, it also elevates your products and services beyond sales to being a fundamental part of your customer’s lives.
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