Earlier this month I wrote a blog post on the need for better quality content in marketing. That topic ties into a wider concern that January’s headlines have brought back into the spotlight: the role of technology in our lives. Specifically, the harmful effects of technology like smartphones and related products like Facebook, both of which are never far from the public eye.
The crux of the issue is this: content publishes – brands, news sites, blogs, etc. – are all competing to gain our attention and time. By competing in this way, they are contributing to the increasingly recognised phenomenon of consumer addiction to our smartphones, social feeds and media sites.
This is the question I want to address: how do brands create engaging, responsible content in an environment where consumers’ attention is increasingly divided and there are popular calls to spend less time looking at a screen? It’s a complex question that doesn’t have an easy answer, but I’ll try to unpack it before offering some practical considerations for those of us trying to create great content for businesses.
I should also mention that I’m using ‘content’ as a short-hand to refer mostly to informational content – the kind you see in blogs and advice sections. Good sales content (think, service pages) is also vital, but is generally positioned a little differently in the ‘attention economy’ as it’s less likely that a user will stumble across it while browsing a social feed or looking for non-commercial information. Some of the principles apply to both, but good sales content deserves a blog post all of its own (watch this space).
Increasing awareness of tech addiction
January’s tech and marketing headlines have been dominated by the unfolding saga of Facebook’s News Feed. The TL;DR of this issue is that posts from a user’s friends will be valued over content from brands and publishers by Facebook’s News Feed algorithms. We’ve already talked about what this means for marketers here. Alongside this issue, stories have also emerged of some of Apple’s shareholders calling for the company to respond to concerns regarding its contribution to ‘iPhone addiction.’
But Facebook isn’t the only addictive platform out there and people are increasingly coming to understand the addictiveness of Instagram and the dangers posed by YouTube’s suggestion algorithm. Responsibility for the impact of tech on human society is shared by creators of both software and hardware.
Comments on this issue are coloured by exaggeration and misinformation, but there are some thoughtful voices that should make us take note. James Williams, an Oxford researcher and winner of the Nine Dots prise for an essay on ‘freedom and persuasion in the attention economy’ is just one person arguing for an approach to tech that is human-centred rather than ad-centred.
That’s not to say ads are inherently evil – they’re an important source of traffic and revenue for many of our clients and they allow us to have access to a lot of great tech for free – but something’s gone wrong when ads are prioritised over human well-being.
For those of us in marketing who care at least a little bit about other human beings, it’s worth taking the time to consider how our actions for our clients or employers might be contributing to smartphone addiction and other detrimental side-effects.
What are we trying to achieve with content?
I believe that there is a business case for making out content human-centred, because the goals human-centred content and the goals of good commercial content align:
- Human-centred content adds value to the consumer; they put time in and get something worthwhile out. Content that consistently adds value will keep readers coming back and create a positive association with your brand.
- Human-centred content fulfils its promises. It’s not clickbait with a misleading title and it’s not a page created purely for SEO purposes that a human’s going to click on and bounce off within a second of the page loading.
- Human-centred content is created with proper ideation, planning and skilful writing, which ensures that it is relevant for your audience and drawing in traffic that is likely to convert. You might get site visitors with your clickbait, but good luck getting customers.
Content as part of a brand’s marketing strategy exists to help people along the funnel from awareness of your brand to becoming a customer. It may do this by creating awareness in the first place, by introducing readers to different applications of your products, or by highlighting different problems that your products and services can help to solve. But no matter what stage of the conversion funnel the reader of a particular piece is in, good content will give them a good impression of the brand. In an online environment where building trust at the earliest possible stage is essential, content can show off your business’s expertise in a way that nothing else really can.
Balancing clicks with wider goals
The Holy Grail for content writers and marketers is creating something that draws in visitors who will go on to become customers, whether in their first session or a future one. Gaining clicks is half the battle, but oftentimes we make it the sole focus.
The temptation is to do everything we can to win the click: create a perfect headline for social media, hyper-optimise metadata and keyword targeting for organic visibility, add eye-catching graphics, etc. There’s nothing wrong with any of these tactics per se, but when there’s nothing more to your content, it’s going to fall flat. Even if the content exists primarily for link building rather than conversions, it still needs these human factors to make it link-worthy. After all, whether your main goal is conversions, links or brand visibility, someone somewhere along the line is going to have to decide your content is actually good. If people decide that your brand is doing nothing more than contributing to the maelstrom of vapid chaff out there on people’s social feeds, they’re going to move on in an instant. Good luck achieving any other objectives when that happens!
Content that attracts attention and adds value
Now we’re getting to the more constructive part of this article. In order to fulfil any commercial goals and take into account the desires of a human user, good content needs to do two things:
- Attract attention (whether that’s from search, social feeds, an email to a publication or some other medium).
- Add value to the reader/viewer.
We know what attracts attention, but what adds value? Speaking very generally, there are two main ways to add value:
- Entertain the consumer
- Inform the consumer
Not all content has to be informative to add value; people are always happy to put a few minutes into something that gives them enjoyment. The thing to be careful of, as a brand, is that entertaining content can often be so far removed from your products and services that it won’t necessarily achieve conversion goals. What it can do, however, is attract links and shares, which are both great for awareness in different ways. It’s important is to take a minute during the ideation process to check that entertaining content is actually going to have the desired business effect. This involves having a specific audience in mind and setting goals for the content to achieve. Tangible goals could be traffic to a particular page, email sign-ups for remarketing, or links from certain domains. Having social shares as a goal is an example of something that might validate your idea, but not necessarily translate into commercial success.
The other way you can add value is to provide a consumer with new information, or with old information packaged in a new way that helps them think about a topic from a novel angle. Informative content can be easier to get right than entertaining content, as it’s easier to judge what your audience doesn’t know as opposed to what will make them laugh. Informative content could be a long article that goes into a lot of depth on a topic, it could be an overview that summarises something broader, or it could be a creative presentation of facts and data. There are different ways to package it, but whatever you decide on needs to show the consumer something that they haven’t seen before. Originality is your best friend when it comes to informative content. A well-maintained blog is a perfect example of this. Within the digital marketing industry, sites like Moz and Ahrefs are leading the way with informative content that adds value.
Understand your audience
Whatever content you create, you need to understand the audience it’s targeted at. Without a proper consideration of targeting, your content will either fail to add value or fail to add value to people who are interested in your brand (be they publishers or consumers). Whatever you do, don’t say that your target audience is ‘everyone.’
Content for everyone is content for no one.
In the majority of content campaigns, your broadest target audience should be the target audience for your business. The main exception to this rule would be thought leadership content, which is aimed at your industry peers and establishes you and/or your brand as a leader in that field.
However, most content will need a more specific audience. As an example, I was recently proposing an article to a client who sells decorating products (paints, tools etc.). While the client’s broad audience is everyone interested in decorating, including everyone from home DIYers and tradespeople, a blog article is highly unlikely to satisfy everyone on that spectrum. For this particular blog, I proposed aiming it at home DIYers who have some general experience, but need some specific, in-depth advice for a more specialised job.
Another example would be some content we created as a project for a company that offers mortgage advice online. We wanted a broad appeal, but you can’t really create a successful content campaign that appeals to anyone who might want a mortgage, so we focused our efforts on first-time buyers in their 20s and 30s to achieve coverage for the tool we created. This narrows down our focus and enabled us to come up with a concrete strategy.
Create content in line with your brand’s personality
In addition to creating content for a specific audience, it also needs to be consistent with your brand’s personality if it’s ever going to help move people along the conversion funnel. One of our favourite examples of a brand doing this incredibly well is Innocent, with their personality and content displayed gloriously on Twitter. I would argue that their whole Twitter feed is a constantly-updated example of brand-consistent content, but one small example would be one of their famous graphs:
Nothing like a board game to really bring the family together at Christmas time. pic.twitter.com/sKtHqyPdcH
— innocent drinks (@innocent) December 26, 2017
Though board games are tenuously (if at all) related to their products, Innocent has consistently portrayed itself as a fun-loving, family-friendly corporate entity on Twitter that it can get away with posting random content like this and delight an audience that appreciates the light, witty humour. I’ll happily look at the Innocent Twitter account in my own time, and I regularly buy their smoothies, which I believe is down to the overwhelmingly positive associations I have with the brand.
Informative content can also be consistent with your brand. Something as far removed from Innocent as a law firm that outputs high-quality insight on recent cases and legal news will build up a reputation for itself as a thoughtful, knowledgeable leader in the field, something that is invaluable in a profession largely built on trust.
“Limitations breed creativity”
Taking this attitude into your content strategies will help you at every stage. While big ideas can be helpful at the very earliest stage, you need to set concrete restrictions early on to allow your idea to truly shine for both commercial and human goals. These restrictions include:
- Any requirements set by a client (these should be in place from the start of the project).
- Target audience
- Brand personality
- Tangible goals
Within these parameters, you’ll be able to focus on creating content that works. Of course, things don’t go perfectly all the time, but having a framework in mind to guide the process will help you create high-quality content that’s going to hit the mark more often than not.