More and more firms are putting just as much thought into how they publish their thinking online as they do into what it is they want to say.
Just a few days ago, I did a systematic tear-down of the most typical mistakes we see firms make when publishing their thought leadership on their own web properties. I could sense the collective groan the moment I hit publish. Articles that point out mistakes always feel like taking a long road trip with a testy relative verbally driving from the backseat — “Don’t take the bridge! The tunnel’s a lot faster!”
The upside of looking at the downside is it reminds us how hard it is to get things just right. It takes some extra time and thought to do smart and innovative things. In this article we shine a spotlight on 6 website publishing successes of thought leadership marketers:
- Exceptional Readability
- Interactive Landing Pages
- Sticky Table of Contents
- Highly Relevant Sidebars
- Smart Calls-to-Action
- Informative Subscription Offers
#1 – Exceptional Readability
“I’m not sure what I like, but I’ll know it when I see it.” Just about every architect, artist or designer has probably heard this refrain once or twice in their lives. While this is an incredibly useless piece of creative feedback, it proves to be a very true statement when it comes to web readability. It’s pretty easy for us to notice when something is difficult to read. We strain. We get frustrated. Or, we leave.
But, when something is effortless to read we hardly notice. This makes it a bit tougher to spot because we’re highly engaged and we don’t even notice that we are. Of course, it starts with great content. And, it ends with a perfect combination of type size, line spacing and line length to make a web article easy to scan yet easy to engage at length. It’s elegant on a desktop, on a tablet and on a smart phone. The result? We read a 3k word article and hardly notice we did it. Now, I can’t tell you specifically how to do it. But, I can point you in the direction of marketers that get it just right. Moz does it as good as anyone:
#2 – Interactive Landing Pages
One of the keys to engaging web readers is to enable them to quickly scan an article’s contents at a high-level while encouraging them to go deeper in areas that interest them. We’ve shared ways to do this within a static blog post — tell the reader what’s to come up front, use subheads and bullets, short sentences and paragraphs. This works fabulously when you’re trying to engage a reader with 1k-2k words of content. But, what about 5k or 10k words?
Enter interactive content. We regularly use interactive content with our clients to highlight the key findings of large research studies and guide readers into deeper forms of engagement such as long-form research reports or video content. It functions like a sample spoon of ice cream before you commit to ordering that double scoop with extra hot fudge. McKinsey has used this model brilliantly with its release of the Five Fifty — the “Five” is a 5-minute overview delivered via interactive content; and the “Fifty” are derivative articles and longer form research reports that extend from the interactive landing page. What I really love about the whole package is the direct request for the executive’s time. Sample things in 5, and go as deep as you’d like in 50.
We’ve used a similar model for our research releases with the National Center for the Middle Market. Interactive content provides a high-level summary of the findings that can be consumed within 1-2 minutes. And, it guides you to the longer-form content that’s published in a more comprehensive research report — usually locked up in a PDF; though we’d love to see that change; more on that right now…
#3 – Sticky Table of Contents
If there’s one thing we’d love to see go away almost entirely, it’s the PDF eBook or white paper. The upside of PDFs is that they’re highly stable. You can have nearly complete control over how content will be rendered when it’s downloaded by any reader on the other side. Hence, it’s a perfect format to deliver content that’s intended to be printed. Unfortunately, it also renders that same content unreasonably small on a desktop or laptop screen and microscopic on a mobile device. Additionally, the content within the PDF is practically invisible to search engines. However, delivering long-form content in a web-friendly format for readers is difficult. How do you keep a web reader engaged for 5k or 10k words on screen without overwhelming them?
Enter the Sticky Table of Contents. We recently introduced this functionality for live HTML web reports for our client, the National Center for the Middle Market: The Sticky Table of Contents follows the desktop reader as they engage with the thinking in the white paper and enables them to easily jump ahead or back the same way they can when reading something offline. But, it’s done in a way that’s natural to the web experience (unlike one of those awkward PDF viewers that tries to simulate a magazine experience virtually). It’s purposely placed in the left sidebar (where readers have been trained to look for navigational and filter controls). And, it stays with you as you progress through the white paper. Of course, we can still make a PDF download available for a reader that wants to print the study and take it on an airplane.
#4 – Sequential Sidebars
In my article on the website publishing mistakes of thought leadership marketers I described how firms routinely misuse the right sidebar adjacent to their article content. I’ve talked about proper uses of the sidebar hundreds of times in the last few years — in our best practices webinars, our training programs, and at our industry-leading thought leadership marketing event. We see the sidebar as critical real estate to present ancillary content opportunities and to guide potential clients through their buying journey via well-placed calls-to-action.
That said, historically we’ve stopped short by simply suggesting paths from thought leadership into related content and related case studies. We’ve basically recommended a small nudge to move people along in their journey. Over time, we’ve found that the order in which a site presents related content impacts a reader’s perceptions of where they are and where they should go next. In our recent redesign of the National Center for The Middle Market’s knowledge center we took this into account. We introduced sequentially structured related content offers that guide readers through a series of content that are inter-related yet designed to be read in order:
#5 – Smart Calls-to-Action
I’ve talked about and written about smart CTAs for years. The idea of a smart CTA is incredibly simple. It’s literally just the idea of presenting a reader with one offer to engage further, and then presenting them with another one once they’ve completed that first desired action. In utter simplicity it’s about remembering a reader and making their experience more relevant the further they engage. And, guiding them in a desired direction over time.
A smart CTA might encourage a reader to systematically deepen their relationship with a firm’s content – to engage with longer form content like eBooks and webinars. Or, it simply might be used to remove an action once it’s completed so that a reader never seems the same thing twice. We’ve done this for years on our own website with our subscription offer. Once a reader subscribes to our newsletter it goes completely away and they never see it again:
Go ahead, give it a try. It’s over there on the right. Or is it?
#6 – Informative Subscription Offers
The massive explosion of content over the past few years has pushed clients on their heels. They’re overwhelmed by the volume of intellectual capital coming at them. As a result, they’re becoming more protective of their inbox. They’re just not sure they want to “get updates” from your firm anymore. It’s not that they no longer want insights. They’re just much more choosy about what they read and when. They’re less willing to sign up for open-ended, unbound newsletters. Yet, they also aren’t all that interested in actively managing their preferences — only send me email on these topics, this frequently. While choice sounds good, less than 5-6% of subscribers will ever take the time to put thought into those questions and provide you with any useful answers.
A better solution is simply to be creative, yet clear on what it is you’re offering. I like the creativity of this approach presented by McKinsey:
The array of publishing options for the forward-thinking thought leadership marketer are astounding. The web presents an increasing number of ways to better educate clients on issues that matter to them that you can solve and guide clients through their buying process in a systematic way. Generally, our suggestion is to start small. Make sure you have great content. Once, you have great content make sure you have great readability. From there, you can start expanding out into different formats and delivery models. But, get the basics right first. And, then layer on some of these more advanced concepts when you’re ready.