Creating content that people can’t wait to read starts with writing about the right topics: If you want to attract your audience’s attention, you have to write about stuff they actually give a flip about.
But no matter how interested they are in the topic, they’re not going to suffer through bad writing. There are just too many other options for them NOT to go to a source where the process isn’t so painful. (And, if not, there are always funny cat videos.)
When it comes to content, writing style matters. While I’m sure it pains my English teachers and journalism professors, the written word has ditched the three-piece suit in favor of swimming trunks and flip flops. Outside of academia and government, there’s little room for formal, stuffy writing.
And, if you thought you left picture books behind in preschool, guess again: Even the most highly educated readers now expect a side dish of images to go with their content.
In other words, this ain’t your college essay. The language is more casual, footnotes are now links, and no one is going to tell you that you have to stretch it out for one more page.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of information out there on the style that does work in content marketing. Let’s take a look.
Did you think I was going to tell you that things like grammar, punctuation, and spelling don’t matter anymore? Sorry. (Actually, I’m not really sorry.)
While the rules have relaxed exponentially, there’s a big difference between intentionally breaking the rules and not knowing any better. And it’s pretty easy to tell the difference.
If people think you don’t know any better, you lose credibility. Not only that, you lose clarity, either confusing readers or conveying a message that’s vastly different from the one you think you’re conveying.
It can also be expensive, as when The Gap had to pull a whole line of t-shirts and reprint them because they said, “Lets go!” instead of “Let’s go!” Ouch.
And then there are the indirect costs. In one study, 74% of respondents said they notice errors on company websites, and 59% said they’d avoid doing business with companies that made such errors. That’s because people assume that, if your content is sloppy, your products or services are likely to be equally as sloppy.
Still not convinced grammar matters? Here are a few more statistics for you:
- When Grammarly conducted a study in which they reviewed the LinkedIn profiles of professionals in the packaged consumer goods industry, they found a significant positive correlation between proper grammar and career success.
- Another study conducted by a dating site found that 49% of respondents considered bad grammar to be unappealing. Likewise, 35% reported that they found good grammar appealing.
- When a clothing company corrected a mistake on their product page (“tihgts” vs “tights”), conversions skyrocketed by 80%.
One thing I’ve learned on this adventure is to trust data over personal opinion (as much as it sometimes makes me want to pull my hair out). If you think grammar isn’t that big a deal, fine — but the data suggest otherwise.
Need help with this part of your content style? Here are a couple of resources for you:
And then, of course, there’s little ol’ me…
This is the part where you set aside (almost) everything else you learned in English class. What works in content marketing is a casual tone that speaks directly to the reader: “You” instead of “he/she.”
It’s about more than just pronouns, though. It’s about establishing a connection, creating the impression that whatever your audience is reading was written specifically for them. It’s not self-serving; it’s not preachy. It is authoritative — in a friendly way — and helpful.
For those of you old enough to remember Home Improvement with Tim Allen, it’s the unseen neighbor coaching Tim from behind the fence. If you aren’t, then it’s the helpful neighbor with older kids who tells the new parents next door how they got their kids to stay in bed at night.
Voice is also about branding. Just as customers recognize familiar logos without stopping to think about it, you want them to recognize your voice intuitively, too. Everything they read on your website should feel familiar, reassuring them that they’re in the right place.
Because of that branding element, consistency is important. A lot of companies find it helpful to come up with a company style guide that covers things like sentence length, contractions, acronyms, etc. The Content Marketing Institute has a great guide to get you started.
Don’t get me wrong: You still have to know your audience. Lawyers and financial service professionals, for example, tend to expect a somewhat more formal writing style. And then there are industries like food and medicine that are highly regulated, and your content has to be in compliance. In general, though, the ideal voice is probably more casual than you think it is.
While you might have been able to impress your college professors with long blocks of text, that doesn’t work for web content. And forget that rule about a paragraph needing a minimum of five sentences.
Reading content online is all about “scannability.” Research indicates that only 16% of online readers actually read every word. The other 84% scan the page, looking for big ideas and stopping to read only the sections that really grab their attention. And no amount of insisting that business writing shouldn’t be that informal is going to change that. If you want people to pay attention to your content at all, make it scannable. That means:
- Short paragraphs: Stick to one idea per paragraph. One-sentence paragraphs are fine, and try not to exceed three or four sentences.
- Headers and subheads: Use obvious, easy-to-recognize headers to structure your content. And make them specific enough that someone could get the main idea of your post by reading only the headers.
- Bullet points: Don’t write sentences that include a bunch of items in a series: red, white, purple, green, etc. Putting those items in a bulleted list is an easy way to instantly boost scannability.
- Big, shiny spotlights: Visually call attention to your most important points by bolding the sentence or turning it into a pull quote.
Just remember: White space is your friend.
I saved this one for last because it’s my least favorite. I’m one of the very few people who thinks better in words than in images. Images just aren’t intuitive for me; I’ve even caught myself reading descriptions rather than looking at pictures when I’m shopping for clothes online. Images are like a foreign language to me: I’m fairly proficient now, but I’ll never be a native speaker.
Nonetheless, I can’t ignore the facts:
- Colored images increase a reader’s willingness to read the content by 80%.
- Content that contains relevant images racks up 94% more views than content without.
- Images are 40 times more likely to be shared on social media than other kinds of content.
- Facebook posts with images get more than twice the engagement of those without.
And then there’s video. Again, I’m in the minority: I hardly ever watch videos. It’s just not in my DNA to sit there and stare at a video when I could be reading. I’ve even turned down what would probably have been very valuable content marketing courses after discovering that the material was only available in video, not text.
Again, though, I had to face reality:
- Using the word “video” in an email subject line increases open rates by 19% and click-through rates by 65%.
- Facebook users watch an average of 8 billion — yes, with a “b” — videos every day.
- Periscope users watch 40 years worth of video every day.
- It’s predicted that, by 2017, video will account for 74% of all internet traffic.
So, despite my personal feelings, visual content wins every time, so make sure to include plenty of images, infographics, and, if appropriate, videos in yours. And that doesn’t mean cheesy stock photos of office workers shaking hands with silly grins on their faces. It’s simply too easy these days to find or make engaging images.
Here are a few resources that I use:
Unsplash (my personal favorite)
Almost all of these are Creative Commons — meaning you can use them without copyright restrictions — and many don’t even require attribution. But always check the particulars for any specific image so that you don’t find yourself in unexpected hot water.
For image editing
Sometimes you’ll find an image that’s almost perfect and think, “If only it were a different shape/color/size,” or “It would be so much better with a bit of text…”. These resources let you turn “almost” perfect images into exactly what you need, and they don’t have the learning curve of something like Photoshop:
PicMonkey (my personal favorite)
This list is definitely not all-inclusive, so if I’ve left off your favorite, please add it in the comments and tell us why you love it so much!
The bottom line is…your mama was wrong on this one thing. Appearances do matter, at least when it comes to content. As readers, we’ve gotten mighty lazy….and you can either fight it, or you can create content that people will actually read. Which do you choose?