optimising for charm

Optimizing for charm

In Content production by Rob JohnsonLeave a Comment

1. The five tricks magazines use to ‘sell’ content
2. How you can apply them to digital content to charm readers
3. How grammar and context can mean more than words


Many companies spend millions of dollars optimizing for SEO. Search engines put enormous effort into tweaking algorithms to make search results more satisfying for people. So for your optimizing efforts to work with these algorithms, it’s good practice to produce content that people really like. In other words, best practice is to optimize for charm.

If that sounds scary, it shouldn’t. We don’t have to always reinvent the wheel.

There are many tactics you can steal from people who have been engaging readers and audiences for years. Publishers have been producing headlines and copy designed to charm, seduce and entertain readers for ages. The tricks of their trade were a little overshadowed in the days when search success meant being as literal as, well, a computer program.

Not now. While the old methods weren’t perfect, combining charm with good basic SEO technique and a bit of imagination will result in more memorable and shareable content.


Before there was search engine optimizing…

At the end of the last century, there wasn’t much rigorous research into what editorial worked. Most of the time, our ‘research’ was just based on that month’s sales figures. As one publisher I worked with explained it, “Our job is just flinging s**t at walls to see what sticks.”

As a result, there was a lot of half-truths and ‘accepted wisdom’ about magazine publishing. Old hands would sagely tell you completely unscientific, frequently racist tripe and dish it up like it was the hard-won wisdom of ages. The classic, of course, was that if you put a photo of anyone other than a famous white person on your magazine cover, sales would tank. It’s rubbish, but the lack of data or proper analysis of data meant those assumptions would continue for years. I bet in some places they still do.

There were other assumptions, though. I have had people tell me that green covers don’t sell. Same with covers with yellow on them. And purple. Also, that monotone images don’t work. That you need to have the word ‘sex’ in every cover line …

(As a side note, I once worked with a publisher who insisted there had to be 14 breasts in every issue of the magazine. But he didn’t mind whether they were in pairs, so we could spread the pictures further through the issue).


The five secrets to great magazine coverlines

There was more detailed research that happened in larger publishing companies. But they tended to keep results to themselves. If they did invest in research, it was weighted towards the effectiveness of advertising.

But there was a little bit of detailed research that came out of the UK in the mid-1980s. A publisher did qualitative research with some focus groups around magazine coverlines, and what drove people to buy.

Some of the key results they shared were that:

  1. Quote marks implied access;
  2. Numbers implied substance;
  3. Directions to specific pages increased sales
  4. Key words that increased sales included ‘sex’, ‘hair’ and ‘chocolate’;
  5. Eye contact increased sales.


How they create meaning

Knowing that, now go have a look at a stand of magazines. You’ll notice that nearly all the covers feature people looking back at you. Most of the big-selling titles will also have a large number somewhere on the cover (‘465 summer dresses’, or ‘782 handbags tried-and-tested!’). Somewhere will be a quote from someone (‘ “An alien stole my baby!” says teenage celebrity mom’). And there will be at least one coverline with the words ‘sex’, ‘hair’ or ‘chocolate’.

In our fully trackable, highly optimised digital world, many print publishers still work to this formula.

With all our focus on using the right keywords to attract people, traditional publishers have skewed away from words for years. With the exception of the three magic words of ‘sex, hair and chocolate’. All of those lessons from the research were about the meaning created by grammar and context.


Applying it to digital

I believe these results resonated, and became standard practice, because they aren’t really about words at all. They are about using grammar, meaning and expectation to charm and seduce. The aim of a magazine cover line was simple and straightforward—it was to draw a reader into the magazine.

Is that applicable to digital publishing?

Of course. The aim of an H1 headline is to draw a reader in to the page. It can be different to your page title, which can be optimised for search engines. It can seduce and charm. It can pick up where the search engine has left off, and deliver engagement beyond that click on the search engine results page.

Maybe that’s why headlines with numbers work. Not because numbers predict exactly what you’re going to get from the story, but because numbers imply substance.

Maybe a headline in quotes will imply you have access to the person quoted.

Maybe a headline posing a question, and promising an answer in paragraph seven, will draw readers down the page.


What to do next

If you want to learn more about charming people, you need to learn about copywriting. It’s not the only skill you need, but getting the basics of copywriting down pat is a good start.

And if you want all the content you write to be more emotive, there are five secrets to that. Those five secrets to emotive content should inform most of the writing you do.

And if you think this content is valuable, please sign up to our newsletter. It’s a monthly email with three original articles on either content marketing, content strategy or content production. Feel free to use them to make your content, and your content marketing, better and more effective than ever before!

Finally, if you disagree with anything I’ve said here, please feel free to leave a comment. We do read them and comment back, and I’m more than happy to discuss it with you.

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