Writing successful content for the web can be tricky, not only because what defines the success of a piece of content varies wildly. As a general rule though, you want to combine accessibility with insight against an obstacle of ever-shrinking attention spans. Here’s a rough guide on how to shape your writing so that it reaches a wide audience without compromising on quality.
Deep Content and Wide Content
When writing content for your website, there are two basic aims:
- Drawing in new users/customers
- Retaining the interest of existing users/customers
Different techniques are required for these two different aims.
- Wide content
- Deep content
Wide content casts the net wide, deep content goes deeper into the subject at hand. Cast the net wide and you’ll catch a lot of fish; go deep and you’ll get a whale.
Ultimately, wide content is probably more valuable for marketing purposes – it is less time intensive and brings in more users. More users = more chance of conversion.
However, what deep content does (again, in terms of marketing), is boost the actual rate at which users do convert, by giving more information and conveying more authority.
In a direct marketing sense, think of wider content as letting more people know that your product exists, while deeper content gives them the information that they need to persuade them to pay for it.
Typically, depth and breadth of content are seen as more or less mutually exclusive, but this can be frustrating – what you want is a balance.
And leaving aside the marketing aspect for a second – if your primary focus is on written content, then the likelihood is that you’re going to prefer creating deeper content that both you and your audience find interesting.
However, no matter how insightful your post, the unfortunate truth is that most people just won’t read it.
What we’re setting out to do here is find a way to create content with depth and value that also casts the net wide and draws in a large audience. Think Buzzfeed meets JSTOR – the insight of the latter and the infuriating popularity of the former.
Finding this balance is crucial for marketers and bloggers alike.
Identifying the Problem
Back in 1997, Nielsen conducted a study that showed that just 16% of users actually read every word of an article they find online.
Last year Dejan SEO conducted a similar study and yielded exactly the same result.
As a writer, this is obviously not what you want to hear, especially if you’ve spent time and effort on a piece.
So, what do we do with this information? How can we tailor our content so that it actually gets digested by a wider audience without sacrificing quality and insight?
The first step is to identify the problem: why is it that so few people read every word of an article?
According to Dejan’s study, answers ranged from the reasonable:
“I don’t have time for reading”
To the honest, if unhelpful:
“Well, I just skip stuff”.
Essentially, users on the internet tend to have pretty short attention spans – people like to find information quickly and this is just something that has to be tackled when writing for the web.
And who can blame them?
If someone walks into a shop and buys a book or even a magazine, they’re already invested in reading through its contents a lot more than someone who happens across an article online.
So our first hurdle we face when writing online is the need to constantly maintain the attention of the average user, far more actively than with most other forms of writing.
Start With the Title
The title is your opportunity to draw in an audience so use it well! Now, this is nothing new or ground-breaking at all, but it’s still hugely important.
Third Door Media’s Michelle Robbins (as quoted in Dejan’s article linked to above) offers some interesting advice here about the importance of making sure that your title/headline is not only eye-catching, but also that it doesn’t give everything away straight away.
“I just got a headline alert from the NYT saying “Top Soccer Officials Indicted for Corruption” – I didn’t click through – the headline told me all I needed to know. But if I got an alert saying “Supreme Court Issues Verdict on Gay Marriage” I’m going to click through and read most, if not all of that content.”
This idea – retaining interest without giving away all of the important information – is key to maintaining a balance between depth and breadth of content.
The Inverted Pyramid
The inverted pyramid is a structure used to define a certain style of writing favoured by journalists and involves front-loading each piece with the most important information, followed by extra supporting facts and finally by more general, background information.
The idea here is that a reader can, if they wish, get the basic facts of any article from the first paragraph or two and then move on. Anyone who reads further will be rewarded with further information, but importantly, one who doesn’t does not necessarily miss out.
Now this is all well and good, and is a time-tested technique, but the problem is that most readers will simply read the first paragraph and leave the page – think back to Nielsen and Dejan’s survey results and this might tell you something about why these figures haven’t changed for nearly 20 years.
Again, what you want to do here is strike a balance between giving the reader what they want (quick, easily digestible content- breadth) and getting the reader to give you what you want (continued attention – depth).
Give away enough information early on, but give solid incentives for readers to push through.
This is why Buzzfeed-esque list articles (I refuse on principle to use the now popularised term ‘listicle’) do so well – they’re easy to skim through and provide reasonably solid incentives to actually go through the whole thing.
Breaking an article up into several, short and roughly evenly weighted (in terms of information) sections can have a similar effect.
Style and Substance
What it comes down to, largely, is that breadth of content is more a matter of style, where depth is a matter of substance.
So if you can keep your deep and insightful substance, but give your content the style or form of something more easily digestible than an academic thesis, you’re on the right track.
In cynical terms, you can smuggle depth into your work, without a reader being put off by what they see as an overwhelming bit of content.
With a few concessions to the wider audience, be it extensive use of sub-headings, images or lists, you can draw readers in and get the results you want, whether that be simply many people taking in your insights, or increased sales or conversions.
As with most things, it’s about striking a balance, both within each piece of content and across your portfolio as a whole. This will mean creating some wholly deep content for your site, and some wholly wide – lists or infographics for example.
But following the basic steps outlined above for most of your work – making concessions to skim-readers while not sacrificing your main intent – you can improve the overall quality of your content and, importantly, dwell times and bounce rates.