Too often, firms pour tons of resources and energy into developing their intellectual capital, only to limp through the finish line when they hit ‘publish’ online.
I couldn’t sleep last night so I did what anyone would do at 4AM. I cracked open the iPad to get caught up on some thought leadership (isn’t that what you do?). For months, I’ve been ignoring all the short-form content in my inbox (email newsletters on search engine marketing, B2B selling, and digital marketing) in lieu of long-form content (books on global trade, behavioral economics and pricing). I thought this was a perfect time to get caught up.
What I found made my head hurt. There was nothing wrong with the content itself. In fact, much of it was stellar. After all, these are newsletters I read regularly. The problem was the reading experience. On website after website, the reading experience was terrible. In fact, a bad reader experience was the norm more than it was the exception.
As it turns out there’s something to being overly tired and a bit blurry eyed that gives you focus. Many of us have a vision of how people consume our thought leadership — actively engaged at a desktop computer. Unfortunately, that vision is regularly in conflict with reality. More often than we probably realize, clients are consuming our thought leadership just like I was — tired, with sand in their eyes, in a passively engaged state at a crazy hour, on a mobile device.
After suffering through 2 hours of insomnia and stumbling through 20-30 articles (some with more frustration than others), I identified 6 common website publishing mistakes of thought leadership marketers. We’ll briefly look at each in-turn:
- Text Too Dense, Too Small
- Paragraphs Too Long
- Blocking the Article
- Misused Sidebars
- Interrupting the Reader
- Neglecting the Right Traditional Publishing Standards
#1 – Text Too Dense, Too Small
This is probably the single biggest mistake routinely made by corporate publishers (heck, even we’ve struggled with getting this right at times). There are few things more frustrating to a reader than opening a tablet to read and finding an article completely unreadable. Small text forces the reader to pinch and zoom (in and out) in order to even casually read an article at an appropriate size. This is usually because the type is simply too small for the device. Unlike a book, you can’t simply bring the device closer to your face because the screen tends to strain your eyes.
Other times, reading each paragraph feels laborious. I’m engaged in reading the article because I’m interested in what the author has to say. But, at the conclusion of each line I struggle to find my way to the next line. Sometimes I re-read the same line by accident (when I’m engaged). Other times, I feel strained to finish the paragraph at all, and I just scan ahead (when I’m not engaged). In these situations, the relationship between the type size is at odds with the line length and/or the line height (also known as leading in the offline world).
I’m not a designer. But, I’ve spent enough time with talented designers to learn that there is a delicate relationship between type size, line height and line length. When that relationship is wrong the reader suffers and probably moves on (in the case of the web, they bounce from your article). When that relationship is right, the reader stays engaged (both with the article and your site), and is inclined to go deeper.
#2 – Paragraphs Too Long
People read online differently than they do off. Most of us are accustomed to reading prose in books and magazines. We’re practicing engaged reading and we think nothing of following an author’s train of thought for 15-20 pages at a time before finding a logical stopping point when the story transitions with a mid-chapter break. We know how far we’ve been and we have a sense of how far we have to go.
Unfortunately, we generally don’t start our reading that way online because we start disoriented. We were dropped to where we are by clicking an email newsletter, a social share or completing a web search. We don’t know where we are, what we’re getting into, and how long it will take us to read what we’ve found. Therefore, more often than not, we start as a casual reader. We read the headline, scan the subheads and look for snippets of information to gauge the quality of the article, whether it presents new insight, and the time commitment it will require.
Once, we’ve done that we may choose to transition into a deeper, more engaged read. But even then, we still tend to prefer short sentences. Short paragraphs. And, quick structured thoughts. This is why Google places a modest priority on web pages written this way in its search results. It prioritizes content that’s written how people read things online.
Too often, firms bring the wrong traditional publishing practices into online media. They open an article with 6-7 long, dense paragraphs without a single subhead or bullet to be found. We were all taught us writers to tell a story. To bring readers to the conclusion. Unfortunately, the web works just the opposite. Web readers prefer to be told what they will learn from the article before they read it. And, they’d like to see that in short snippets at the very beginning.
#3 – Blocking the Article
Digital marketers love pop-ups because they work. Web tracking can tell us where someone’s cursor is on the page, and we love the idea that we can use that tracking to infer their intentions. When they enter, we time a pop-up that encourages them subscribe to a newsletter after they’ve read for precisely 16 seconds or at the precise moment they scan 32% of the way down the page. When they act as though they’re about to exit, we present a pop-up that invites them to download an e-book — Please stay!
Unfortunately, all these tools also block the reader from accomplishing what they came to do in the first place — to read what you have to say. When you publish an article online your first task is to encourage casual browsers to actually engage with the article itself. To draw them in. I know you’re excited about your event or e-book. But, I’m not yet. Let me read what I came to read. Present those opportunities on the reader’s terms where they belong — as ancillary opportunities in an appropriately designed sidebar.
#4 – Misused Sidebars
Despite the growth of mobile devices, a website’s sidebars are still critical pieces of real estate. Much of our behaviors have been shaped by the experiences we have on high profile sites. Originally, Google placed ads in the right sidebar. This taught us to pay less attention to that section of real estate. More importantly to the thought leadership marketer, it also taught us to seek out related resources to our current task in that place. As a result, desktop readers use the right sidebar to explore ancillary content opportunities related to what they’re reading and to identity ways to take action.
Travel websites often place filter tools in the left sidebar. When you’ve searched for that flight to Madrid, you can filter through those 2k results by carrier, price, number of stops and even “misery” — all within the convenience of that fabulous tool in the left sidebar. As a result, desktop readers look to the left sidebar for ways to interact with the content they’re consuming — to filter information or filter the contents of a firm’s entire thought leadership inventory.
Unfortunately, a lot of firms misuse these vital pieces of real estate. Too often, we still find ancillary content opportunities in the left sidebar. Even more often, we find “out of the box” WordPress features in the right sidebar — endless lists of content categories, content filtered by month, or content filtered by author. These are all directionless offers that fail to encourage readers to engage more deeply with your site. They’re effectively visual noise to the reader.
#5 – Interrupting the Reader
Of course, because the right sidebar on Google and other content sites has traditionally been bloated with advertising, we’ve not only learned to look there for ancillary opportunities BUT we’ve also learned to tune those opportunities out. In fact, eye-tracking studies show that web readers interact with the left half of a web page almost 2x as much as they do the right half of a web page. As a result, fewer people are subscribing to those newsletter offers or clicking through to the ancillary content you’re presenting in that right sidebar.
What to do? We’ve noticed a lot of firms sliding these offers directly into the article. They’re presented between paragraphs and usually set aside graphically in some way. In web terms, these are called “inline calls-to-action (CTAs)” and they were primarily developed by traditional web publishers (media companies). Media companies don’t really care how much you read of a specific article or where you go next as long as you don’t leave their site. So, interrupting the reader is really of no concern at all.
For the thought leadership marketer, we’re looking to engage the reader and move them down a path towards a conversation. Unfortunately, inline CTAs generally fall down in the first half of this task. Often, we find inline CTAs that look too similar to the article itself and become disorienting and interruptive to the reader. Other times, they’re set aside so greatly that they imply the end of the article and the completion of the page. Neither of these things are good.
Generally speaking, we don’t recommend using inline CTAs. Yes, the right sidebar is declining in its performance, but it’s still where readers go to take those next actions. If your thought leadership is good, they’ll find your related content options and subscription offers. If you really want to do something in-line, do it within the context of the article itself. Nudge, nudge — check out this article on website call-to-actions
#6 – Neglecting The Right Traditional Publishing Standards
Much of this article has been about describing where you need to break from traditional offline publishing standards. That said, there are some standards that have been around for centuries that you should never break — Dates. Authors. Titles. And, the relationships between the three.
Can you imagine picking up a copy of the Wall Street Journal and finding no date in the masthead? What if you purchased a copy of Harvard Business Review and found that none of the articles were authored? Imagine that you’re engrossed by an article in Fortune magazine only to find the author’s name buried in a footnote at the end. Or, envision flipping to an article in Bloomberg Businessweek to find the author’s name in 24 point bold type, followed by the date in 30 point type and the article title at half size in the lower left corner. None of these make any sense. Yet, we see things like these online all the time.
The Internet did not suspend all rules of publishing. Dating content. Authoring content. The prominence of the article title relative to its author and date. The placement and emphasis of each one relative to each other. Just because a web database replaced a typesetter doesn’t mean we should ignore centuries of basic publishing standards. Too often we find articles without dates and un-authored. Other times, we find articles that are both dated and authored but for some reason the date is given more visual prominence than the author or the author is given more visual prominence than the title. Recently, I even consulted a client who’s web designer had taken the liberty to place the author’s name down near the comments section at the bottom left corner of the blog.
All these choices erode trust in your thought leadership. Clients expect to know who authored your thinking. They expect to know when it was written so they can determine how relevant it is to their current situation. And, they expect all these things to work in unison, the same that they have for centuries.
That Said, There Are a Lot of Firms that Get it Right
Okay. There is good news at the end of all this. Most of these things are fairly easily fixed. And, of course, there are tons of examples of firms tha are really getting things right and pushing the envelope in new and interesting ways. In fact, later this week, I’ll feature a bunch of new Smart Publishing Ideas of Thought Leadership Marketers in a companion post to this piece. And, all those examples will pull from firms that will be speaking at our upcoming conference on thought leadership marketing in October — Profiting From Thought Leadership 2018. So, if you’re looking to hear from some of the best, join us in Boston.