Intrigue Me: Writing Compelling Content


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Like at SXSWi, this is the talk describing (what I consider to be) the 3 characteristics of compelling content -- except this presentation includes a slide with a picture of me dressed as Hermione.

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  • Good morning everyone! How are you feeling? \n\nMy name is Steph Hay and I’m a copywriter and information architect based just outside Washington, DC. This is my first time in London, and I love it so far because, at the very least, my first day here the weather was so perfect that I could straighten my hair so it could blow in the wind. (Normally my head comes included with some unruly curls.) \n
  • Instead, I’m thrilled to be in London talking about something I love so much, which is content. And my goal today when I finish talking is to have described what I consider to be the three elements of compelling content so well that you feel more empowered than ever to write compelling content.\n\nBy compelling, I mean the kind of content that drives someone to DO something online -- make a purchase, follow on Twitter, submit a form -- and it’s entirely the kind of content I don’t think there’s quite enough of.... YET.\n\nBut before I dig in, please indulge me in a show of hands first:\n\n1. How many of you have written content that ultimately was seen by an end user?\n2. How many of you are NOT writers by trade?\n3. How many of you have been part of launching a site or product whose content didn’t quite rise to the same level as its design or functionality?\n\nRight, ok, so why is this?\n
  • Because at some point, you and possibly a team of folks already made the decision that you want to compel someONE to do someTHING, like actually READ your website, buy your app, vote for your congressperson, whatever. But really, above all else, you want the user to know that what you’re promoting (be it a product or an experience) is quite kick-ass. \n\nWhat you’re creating -- whether you’re designing a more topical, marketing website for consumers targeting some fairly high-level categorical audience (you know, like “women”) or maybe a more niche, user-centric ipad, mobile, or web application -- will determine how your process likely unfolds from there. \n\nBut let’s just say for purposes of this discussion that we’re designing a brochure-ware sort of marketing-focused website for our company, which is a “full-service web consulting agency.” \n\nSo we might follow a process that looks similar to this:\n
  • Because at some point, you and possibly a team of folks already made the decision that you want to compel someONE to do someTHING, like actually READ your website, buy your app, vote for your congressperson, whatever. But really, above all else, you want the user to know that what you’re promoting (be it a product or an experience) is quite kick-ass. \n\nWhat you’re creating -- whether you’re designing a more topical, marketing website for consumers targeting some fairly high-level categorical audience (you know, like “women”) or maybe a more niche, user-centric ipad, mobile, or web application -- will determine how your process likely unfolds from there. \n\nBut let’s just say for purposes of this discussion that we’re designing a brochure-ware sort of marketing-focused website for our company, which is a “full-service web consulting agency.” \n\nSo we might follow a process that looks similar to this:\n
  • In this sort of a common process, you might start from a common document like a creative brief, which captures the goals of the project and outlines audiences, then move sufficiently through IA, wireframes, and comp iterations before getting approval to build it. Near the end, you might pull in a Twitter feed, populate blank pages with content, do final QA and some maddening tweaks, then launch it.\n\n\n
  • So we think about content at the start -- when we’re creating the IA (which should be driven by content priorities) -- and at the end. But ignoring (for now) the obvious vacuum of content in this process, we might arrive at a final website that has this formulaic-type of content:\n\n
  • Here are some words about WHAT we do, WHO we are, and HOW a user can get ahold of us. \n\nPretty straightforward.\n
  • But this is what our competition does! And in almost the exact same way! In fact, this is what the great majority of sites out there does -- they talk about who they are and what they offer, but they miss the mark when it comes to bear hugging the user. Content needs to compel the user to *do* something ... to feel confident in believing that you’re what they’ve been searching for. To rise above the many other people who seemingly do what you do, to degrees of subjective quality that the user can determine. \n\nAnd I think that’s accomplished by writing content that has three elements: \n
  • Compelling writing that conveys importance has 3 primary elements: focus, credibility, and consistency. THESE THREE ELEMENTS extend beyond your typical website or application content creation process and into all your writing -- from email to Twitter, SMS messages, bios or Facebook pages. So I encourage you to consider these three elements from a rather global perspective and incorporate them increasingly into everything you write.\n\n
  • So the one caveat to everything I’ll discuss related to focus, credibility, and consistency is that achieving them every time is HARD. And not just because it takes a strategic mind to consider how content can bridge business, marketing, and user experience goals. But also because it may challenge that process I mentioned earlier -- it likely will require some re-thinking to integrate content into the wireframing and comp process. And into the build, where content is equally essential. But it’s certainly possible, and just prioritizing the written word and taking one step and a time is the best way to start moving forward toward more compelling content.\n\nBUT BEFORE YOU TYPE A SINGLE THING....\n\n\n
  • Why are we writing in the first place?\n
  • As with all things, you need to understand a few key pieces: Audience, Medium, and Network. Understanding the potential of these three areas BEFORE you start writing will actually shape HOW you write. \n
  • To whom are you PRIMARILY sending a message. Instead of thinking of broad, generic demographics, consider ONE person. Sitting across the table from you. \n\nWhat does that person look like? What kind of day is he having? How do you want the user to FEEL when she discovers you? And what do you want the reader to *DO* when she reads your content? Is she a government person, hipster, baby boomer, or teenager? How web savvy is she? What questions does she have that you can answer BEFORE she asks them?\n\n\n
  • Writing for one person makes writing easier. You can imagine the conversation. You can write for that ideal conversation.\n\nAnd after you’ve got some basic content that successfully speaks to this particular, primary audience, you can always go back to find the ways in which additional or different content can be layered in to reach secondary or tertiary audiences. But if you start there -- trying to speak to every audience at once -- you will have a much tougher time writing targeted, focused content right out of the gate.\n
  • Now that you know specifically to whom you’ll be communicating with your writing, consider which ways you can send that message.\n\nContent will vary from web and mobile to email to LinkedIn profiles, Twitter updates, blog posts, business cards. Your method of delivering that content is, arguably, a part of the message itself, so consider how you can best leverage the characteristics of each. For example, maybe you CAN get away with creating a 2-3 page website with links to additional information that lives elsewhere, such as in a blog, on GetSatisfaction, or on Twitter. As long as these additional media have been considered as part of a holistic approach to your content strategy, then you can feel confident that your writing is going to complement itself across several channels and, hopefully, thereby paint a more vibrant picture of whatever you’re offering. \n
  • The flip side of course is that by taking stock of additional media, you’ll have to make sure they don’t undermine the work you’re putting into writing specific content to begin with. There’s always a (pretty good) chance that people will Google your name or the product’s name before they take action, so be sure that the various media promoting your work are aligned. And consider how you can better align them to provide a comprehensive view of your awesomeness.\n
  • Now that you’ve thought about your audience and the various media you can use to communicate with that audience, consider your network: which people or influencers around you are going to facilitate those messages or serve as a reference to your product or service? Which people do you owe a major responsibility to INDEED, BE AWESOME, well AFTER they refer you as being awesome?\n\n\n
  • The most active people who could be willing to help you might actually help you shape the content BECAUSE OF the people they’ll connect you with. For example, if you know the editor of a major tech magazine, and that editor wants to write a glowing review of your app, you may in fact decide to tailor some of the content you’re writing to appeal to the reader of that magazine. In doing so, you’ll be positioning the app to better align with the readership, and hopefully increasing its likelihood of traction for that audience.\n\nOr, you’ll at least call in a copy editor to go through everything with a fine-toothed comb to ensure nothing trivial like typos exist. After all, because that editor is willing to offer such support, you have an a responsibility to NOT make the editor look like an asshole. Your network of people SHOULD INSPIRE YOU TO WORK HARDER at making sure your writing doesn’t undermine your credibility or theirs.\n\nSO, now that you’ve focused on your target audience, media for delivering messages, and network who help with connecting you with potential adopters, it’s time to write credible content.\n\n
  • In many ways, your content *is* your credibility. It’s what you’re saying, or it’s what others are saying about you. It’s separate from design, features, and social media channels. It’s the thought behind each purposeful word.\n\n\n
  • Credible content seems to universally have four qualities. It (1) substantively says something to convey meaning (2) Explicitly tells users what they should do (3) Describes to users what outcome will be bestowed upon them should they choose to engage, and (4) Is confident -- without being conceited -- which inherently makes users feel more confident about their decision to engage. And I’ll illustrate each of these qualities with examples found in websites and applications online today.\n
  • Compelling content serves a purpose. It’s substantive. It’s written for the reader. It’s written to illustrate what can’t be gleaned fully from visuals. But, above all else, it’s written to communicate a message.\n
  • As an example of a site that starts describing the results of their efforts -- then interjects ambiguity that questions their credibility -- is here.\n\n
  • Right in between helping elderly, disabled, and low-income people and families afford healthcare, there’s “health information technology.” What is that doing there, and what’s it mean? Any number of folks could interpret this in myriad ways because of the gross-generalization and ambiguity of the statement.\n\n
  • If you’re going to make a page or a product, it should without a doubt add value to the user’s experience. And you should take the time to ensure that value is obvious in every word choice. You can’t afford to leave your users hanging. And if you don’t have something meaningful to say beyond a few bullet points, then don’t! Just really knock it out of the park with the meat of the message you DO have.\n
  • Designer David Desandro actually describes HOW he got a result -- in plain English -- that, in its honesty and knowledge sharing, is both endearing and interesting. This is meaningful stuff to a front-end developer and reinforces his credibility AS a front-end developer.\n
  • The National Breast Cancer Foundation here is intentionally trying to push empowerment as a primary message. All of the content has meaning to their target audiences, and credibility is crucial to their efforts in being the resource for finding meaningful information related to breast cancer.\n
  • LifeLock’s content is meaningful to anyone concerned with identity theft (which maybe is all of us). But in this case, they have content catered toward HOW identity theft happens as told by someone who experienced it herself. This first-person storytelling of something meaningful (which in this case is also the problem statement), reinforces LifeLock’s credibility as a provider of services catered toward preventing identity theft.\n
  • Credibility is also reinforced when you’re obviously trying to help your user DO something on the site.\n
  • This is an example of a missed opportunity. For me, 2 questions come up immediately: What is this, and what am I supposed to do with it? \n\nLayout aside (though content is very much intimately related with layout, design, and functionality), engaging your audience with obvious language is absolutely essential to encourage adoption. There’s nothing helping me to my destination, and as a result, I’m finding myself questioning the credibility of this site.\n\n
  • It’s really the minority of people, companies, and products out there who can rely entirely on assumptions about the user -- namely, that the user ALREADY KNOWS EVERYTHING S/HE IS SUPPOSED TO KNOW when s/he arrives at your site or application. And even when you do rely on assumptions or minimize the amount of content you include, it can’t be at the expense of usability. \n\nSo, if you’re the vast majority of folks out there in today’s competitive marketplace, don’t assume. Have fun enthusiastically explaining yourself, but be sure to blatantly tell (or show) your users what you want them to do. Be helpful!\n\n\n
  • Freelancer Portfolio of Len Damico: Here’s what I do in plain English, here’s my face, here’s a bit about how I help your brand, check out some of my work, and then contact me. Simple, frank, approachable. And definitely helpful in a way that reinforces his credibility.\n
  • The TribalDDB site is helpful even if you didn’t mean to land on their site.\n\n\n
  • This is helpful to people who aren’t even supposed to be on the site -- it effectively describes in one sentence (and in a humorous way) why you should know about TribalDDB. It exemplifies how TribalDDB is being helpful to the user who isn’t even looking for help, in this case, which reinforces their credibility as an agency that understands digital marketing. (Being that helpful and candid works to reinforce credibility, arguably better than a hard sell.) \n
  • Admittedly, I am a huge fan. And I appreciate that they’ve taken some time to try and explain what they’re all about in a way that describes how the product can benefit the user. It’s especially crucial to Mint that they be helpful and credible, because they’re asking users to input bank account information! But on the homepage alone, they start very strategically with content that helps me to know what I’m supposed to do here (both in written content and in the video content alongside it), which reinforces their credibility.\n
  • So now you’ve created meaningful content, you’ve told the user what to do, and now you have to describe the benefits they’ll get ONCE they take advantage of your product or services. The result is so important.\n\n\n
  • In this case, it’s just a choose-your-adventure style listing of packages and features. But if I’m looking at you versus the rest of the competition (who does this), then maybe I’ll be choosing a vendor based on price, or design, or something that has nothing to do with how you provide service to me as the client. \n
  • There’s always an opportunity to describe WHAT your users will get by choosing YOU, so don’t blow it! Tell users what they get from you that’s different from what they get from others who offer the same thing as you. \n
  • Kenny Meyers talks about beating the crap out of projects and how his clients will learn the fine tradition of a weekend. If you’re someone with a project and you aren’t sure how it’s going to get done, this, at the very least, is the kind of result you’re looking for. And the work included on this page (beneath the screenshot) continues to reinforce the credibility he’s rather colorfully demonstrating here.\n
  • Although CodeforAmerica has since redesigned its homepage, the original homepage here led with a tagline that started with “connecting” and a description about how COA was founded to “transform city governments.” Before I dig in any further, I already know what results this site is telling me it’s aiming to achieve, which of course (upon delivering these results) will demonstrate its credibility. \n
  • Nike Better World -- Here’s an example of a big brand that’s taking a humorous approach to its results. Of course, they don’t really mean that their products themselves are rubbish, but literally they are -- at least, in terms of their production process, which includes using recycled materials from landfills. This is a perfect example of writing results-oriented content that aligns with the greater mission of this particular microsite, which is about Nike’s commitment to communities and the world around us, which certainly is reinforcing of its credibility. Brilliant.\n
  • Now that you’ve been promoting all the great results users can expect to receive if they engage, be careful to sidestep arrogance or conceit. This can be tricky, especially with the conversational nature of web, email, and social media. \n\nWe’ve all come across content that assumes its parent is so NATURALLY BADASS that words are unnecessary. In a small number of cases, this is true. But even your fans may be turned off if you just get cocky or think you’re above reproach -- take Groupon and their SuperBowl ads, for example. Someone wrote -- and a lot of people approved -- what many considered to be poor-taste humor that came across as arrogant and impacted (negatively) their credibility.\n
  • Truthfully, this established agency has good reason to promote its accomplishments -- because they’re so many in number and because its worked hard to earn them. \n\n\n
  • You may have significant rights to be confident if you’ve got 870 things people can read-through, but you want to be careful to sidestep conceit. I mean, why even suggest to the user that s/he might have the time to read through 870 more praises of your company -- instead of just selecting what’s most important and portraying confidence through quality (rather than quantity)?\n\n\n
  • Be selective. Talk about what makes your product or service EXTRAORDINARY. Sometimes being humble actually promotes your confidence and therefore serves well to reinforce your credibility, like in this next example.\n
  • Sometimes you can say a lot in just a few words -- like action marketing group. They’re confident they can give you a great experience in 2 seconds or 2 minutes -- and they’re giving YOU the choice -- which I think reinforces their credibility.\n
  • Peerless makes these hilarious instruction manuals with hand-drawn illustrations, and they work really hard to convey their personality online, too. On their homepage is “Shameless Faucet Showoffery” where they actually promote their fixtures in homes, and that’s more confident than a typical faucet factory shop that might just talk about specs and show a picture. Peerless is obviously proud of what they do and that confidence reinforces their credibility.\n
  • Southwest is the king (or queen) of puns. And that somewhat corny approach to their language is a huge differentiator in the airline industry -- they openly and confidently talk about the fine print in a ton of their communications. Rather than keeping it corporate and purposefully ambiguous, they surface hot-button issues, describe their stance on it, and then give an easy link to learn about the fine print. The language on Southwest’s site consistently is confident without conceit, and it’s always worked to reinforce their credibility across a wide expanse of branding opportunities.\n\nAnd that consistency brings me to the last point of this talk.\n
  • Last but DEFINITELY not least, the third element, consistency, is the easiest to achieve -- and the most often overlooked. It takes TIME and an informed set of eyes. GLARING grammatical or spelling errors are obvious credibility killers, but beyond those, compelling content that achieves consistency is truly detail-oriented writing. \n
  • The three areas of real opportunity for consistency to be realized is in structure, voice, and style.\n
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  • Woot continues to be a leader in intentional writing. The product descriptions are perfectly balanced between hilarious, entertaining storytelling and true, technical product descriptions. The author(s) of these pieces even go as far as helping you to understand WHY this would be beneficial in your life, taking time to paint the scene of why and how you’ll use the Woot of the day -- they are intentionally trying to help you visualize its value to your life in an ultimate effort to facilitate your purchase. \n\nMarvelous.\n
  • So, just to recap, whenever you’re facing a blank document that you have to write compelling content for, take it one step at a time: Focus your energy, write with credibility in mind, and go back through to ensure consistency is achieved.\n\n
  • Thank you! \n
  • Intrigue Me: Writing Compelling Content

    1. 1. INTRIGUE ME WRITING COMPELLING CONTENT @steph_hay steph hay {FOWD London} may 17, 2011
    2. 2. HAIR
    3. 3. INTRIGUE ME WRITING COMPELLING CONTENT @steph_hay steph hay {FOWD London} may 17, 2011
    10. 10. 3 ELEMENTS OF COMPELLING CONTENTFocusCredibilityConsistency
    11. 11. MAKE NO MISTAKE...ThisisHard
    13. 13. FOCUSED CONTENT CONSIDERS...AudienceMediumNetwork
    14. 14. Copyright © Lemuhr
    15. 15. AUDIENCE Don’t: Consider everyone. Do: Focus on *one* ideal person, then speak directly to him or her.
    16. 16. Copyright © Lemuhr
    17. 17. MEDIUM Don’t: Think in isolation. Do: Capitalize on other communication channels to tell your story.
    18. 18. Copyright © Lemuhr
    19. 19. NETWORK Don’t: Forget others’ messages. Do: Consider how your network will describe you -- and influence your target audience.
    21. 21. CREDIBLE CONTENT IS...MeaningfulHelpfulResults-OrientedConfident
    22. 22. Copyright © Lemuhr WRITE CONTENT THAT’S
    23. 23. ONLY WRITE CONTENT THAT’S MEANINGFUL Don’t: Write fluff. Do: Take the time to ensure your writing *says something.*
    24. 24. Copyright © Lemuhr
    25. 25. BE HELPFUL Don’t: Assume users know what to do. Do: Tell users what you want them to do.
    27. 27. Copyright © Lemuhr CONTENT
    28. 28. KEEP CONTENT RESULTS-ORIENTED Don’t: Just list what you DO. Do: Explain what awesome things users will GET from you.
    29. 29. Copyright © Lemuhr , NOT CONCEITED
    30. 30. BE CONFIDENT, NOT CONCEITED Don’t: Over promote. Do: Showcase confidence while being humble.
    32. 32. CONTENT IS CONSISTENT IN ITS...StructureVoiceStyle
    33. 33. Copyright © Lemuhr
    34. 34. STRUCTURE + Lead with the meat + Include only what’s most relevant + Scatter keywords throughout
    35. 35. Copyright © Lemuhr
    36. 36. VOICE + Write in a genuine tone + Avoid bloated technical statements + Rewrite anything that sounds ridiculous when read out loud
    37. 37. Copyright © Lemuhr
    38. 38. STYLE + To end (or not to end) bulleted lists with full-stops. + Capitalization, punctuation in headings, comma usage + Website/web site, log in, sign up
    39. 39. 3 ELEMENTS OF COMPELLING CONTENTFocusCredibilityConsistency
    40. 40. NOW GO Thanks a bunch for listening! + ROCK IT. @steph_hay