5 Tips to Liven Up Long Stories

We live in the tl;dr (too long; did not read) era of the Internet. How do you make traditional text stories and content succeed in an online world where attention spans are dwindling and success necessitates visual media?

Over the past year at Tenacity5, we’ve learned a few tweaks to drive more traffic to text heavy copy. Here are a five formatting methods and writing tips to liven up long stories.

1) Build Modules

15097150479_89173efe8a_k

We know stand-alone long copy doesn’t perform well. Instead of writing essays, build out posts and white papers with sections or modules. In the old day this was creating subheads to break up a story. In a well engineered content piece for the current visual media era, I would say each section must be its own multimedia module.

Each module has its own mini-thesis or message and can stand alone as a small content piece on the Internet. Modules have both a visual communication of that message and supporting copy. Every module works together to tell a story or support an overarching thesis. Individually, they are unique. Together, they stand as a powerful piece.

Note the architecture of the visual in context with the text. Ideally, the picture, video or infographic can serve as the lead for the story or even tell it. They should work hand in hand. Do not make “snacks” here. There are many resources on the Internet to find free pictures.

Bleacher Report does a really nice job of building module-based feature stories.

2) Architect Visuals from the Beginning

14677776228_20fd642aae_k

One of the biggest issues with content today is simply slapping on visual assets to create a multimedia or rich media post. There’s more on content strategy in point five, but when you add visuals after the fact, you are creating content that serves the words. And that may be OK if you are great photo researcher and can clearly understand your thesis and message.

However, more often than not when visuals are added after the fact, they have tangential meaning. When visuals are bolted on haphazardly, they don’t help content discovery and the overall meaning is less understandable.

When you know what you want to say, figure out what the right visual media is from the beginning and build it with the text in mind.

In some cases, you may illustrate points in the text after the fact, like Gaping Void did with Brian Solis’ What If PR Stood for People and Relationships. Nevertheless, GapingVoid was part of the content from the very beginning, and the content was created knowing that we needed sound bites that could be illustrated.

If you don’t already have a visual media library, start building one or research photo libraries for relevant images before you begin creating content. Drawing from a wide variety of assets makes life easier.

3) Use Lists

4504392318_2219dcc592_b
When building modules, or at least creating subheads and sections, number and title content with a list. A list signals an easier more digestible content experience to your reader. Should every piece of content you write be a list? Probably not, but lists make long content pieces much more likely to be viewed and read

I used to sneer at list posts as the “BuzzFeedization” of the Internet. That was until I dug deeper and started re-engineering BuzzFeed posts. Then I built a few of them. I titled some with the numbers and others with a traditional headline. Then I watched the numbered post traffic go crazy.

I was little disappointed in this, but the fact of the matter is we are living in the tl;dr era. Breaking up long content into digestible lists and bullets just makes it easier. Or, you can run the gauntlet and try to architect the perfect long business essay that will actually be read.

(Original image by Ian Muttoo)

4) Write Ad Copy

enhanced-buzz-wide-3332-1378046655-15

A writer with advertising training will fare better in the current content environment than a PR or literary writer. Ad writers focus on tight punchy headlines, snappy subheads (or module titles), and short compelling short body text.

If you go my the maxim, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” then your copy is going to fail more often than not. People don’t have time for long blathering posts. Write short, tight compelling copy.

When I analyzed Buzzfeed’s style, more than anything it read to me like ad copy. In that regard, it is concise and brilliant.

In the same vein, do your readers a favor and edit the bejesus out of sections. Make all copy as tight as possible.

5) Composition

15222808560_55cc26284f_k

Last but not least, composition is becoming a critical focus for communications, in my opinion. Some would say it always has been. In large part this is because of data. We have so much data, we are either lost in it and don’t know what to communicate or we are over-informed by it, allowing our communications to become scientific and lifeless.

When we have more data — or even better — precise data, we can inform composition. Creativity infused outreach provides the opportunity to wow people. Or we can fail, amused with our data-inspired bells and whistles. Let me give you a photographic example.

15041346738_0a176cc022_k

I liked the above photo when I took it. I thought it was so cool to get all of the Cleveland Flats industrial grid iron works AND also include the bright fountain, too. After all, people love bright colorful lights in night settings.

Except one thing: Though it hit all of the data points that I know people love in night shots — long exposure, color, industrial details, bright luminescent orange fountain, etc. — the composition sucked. The fountain overtakes the rest of the photograph, and because the fountain is not well placed in the image, it doesn’t work. The composition failed in spite of the elements.

We cannot fly blind with our communications just because we know people like certain aspects of them or because we satisfy some data requirement or messaging requirement. Any communication — written or visual — must have meaning. That is why we must be intentional about composition.

What is the thesis — the message — of the conent? What are we trying to achieve with our outreach? How are we accomplishing that goal? Does the data we have support that the approach will work? Does the approach inspire our intended recipient? Composition is an area that can always evolve and improve.

What tips would you add?

Other posts you might like:
4 Storytelling Methods
12 Ways to Boost Your Visual Media Performance

Liveblogging the FTC Workshop on Native Advertising

12:29 p.m. Sound Bites from Panel 1 on Sponsored Content in Digital Publications

This is the last update for me from the Blurred Lines workshop on native advertising. You can follow others’ updates using the #nativeads hashtag on Twitter.

Publishers cannot tell readers what to tweet, so disclosure can get lost. To resolve that Mashable focuses on disclosure on its site, said Adam Ostrow. Sharing is an activity that they don’t have control over. Hearst’s Todd Haskell argued that the publisher does have control over the default tweet. Th Huffington Post’s Tessa Gould concurred.

P&G has an internal guideline set approved by legal for native advertising and sponsored content. Every touch is reviewed by legal. If [the native advertising] is not transparent and clear to the customer, the ROI will be low and we won’t invest in it.

The publishers (and their marketing partners) with the best most trustowrthy language on disclosure will have a competitive advantage, said Steve Rubel.

Outbrain needs to work with a multitude of publishers, and has to customize its offering and disclosure of advertisements for each publishers’ unique needs. Adiant is less customized, using a basic code (which can be somewhat customized). Some publishers are more flexible than others, says Adiant. The default setting for Adiant says advertisement AND sponsored content.

Transaprency dialogue highlighted a wide range of terms used to disclose advertisers; sponsors, partners, presenters, etc. There is no standard for presentation of advertising. Hearst’s Haskell said with thousands of publishers, they each should have flexibility to do what’s right for them. The Huffington Post’s Gould agreed. Needs differ by property; e.g. news, lifestyle or a content sharing widget.

Edelman built an ethical framework for their account executies to ask the right questions of publications and technology companies.

The Huffington Post sees transparency as a given. Reader feedback and engagement is a form of feedback that drives the Huffington Post’s approach to the offering.

Edelman believes trust and transparency are inherently tied together. Companies, publishers/journalists and the audience have a complex triangulated relationship. The U.S. population is the one party of the three that doesn’t get asked or have a voice in the native advertising conversation, offered Edelman’s Steve Rubel.

Hearst’s readers have been very epressive about love and hate, said Todd Haskell. Ultimately readers vote with their eyeballs.

11:53 a.m. Sound Bites from Panel 1 on Sponsored Content in Digital Publications

Outbrain believes that click-throughs are based on content consumption. The difference between the landing page that is a solicitation versus content is the critical point. Native ads must feature content.

Adiant CEO Ash Nashed said disclosure is absolutely critical. If content is not stated as advertisements, click-throughs will be higher, but it hurts on the back end, and creates a much more difficult situation.

If transparency isn’t done right, you lose trust, and you’ll hurt your brand long term (P&G’s Laird). You want to link your brand to the content, and you want that brand present in everyway that it is shared across the network.

It’s incumbent on the publisher to exercise discretion in judgment for content partners (Hearst’s Haskell).

Mashable sees more engagement on branded content long-term than news content. It’s evergreen, and more enjoyable, than news. Paid content gets shared as much as traditional content.

Native advertising offers greater eyeballs, which is a huge opportunity for the Huffington Post. Plus sponsored content allows you to target and track by reader with a much more customized offering. Finally, it offers a more real time opportunity for brands.

Hearst sees native advertising as a great scaling mechanism. With an ecosystem of 20 sites, we can now cross promote and scale on a much greater level than before hand. Working with third parties, such as Outbrain, we can bring in partners from outside of our ecosystem. Readers can share and extend the ecosystem, too.

11:37 a.m. Marketers from Panel 1 on Sponsored Content in Digital Publications

Steve Rubel spoke for Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm. Edelman sees the blending of owned content and advertising — native ads — as a hybrid or traditional media company offering that they can deploy as part of a PR campaign. They call it paid amplification. In no way should native ads replace earned media, but the two can sit well together.

Procter & Gamble was represented by Chris Laird. They insist on branding their paid content. Branding is the raison d’etre for P&G to buy online media. In many respects, native advertising is much more shareable than traditional ads, said Laird. Secret, Pantene and Tide were featured brands highlighted by Laird.

11:22 a.m. Media from Panel 1 on Sponsored Content in Digital Publications

Todd Haskell represented legacy publishers via Hearst Corporation. Hearst brands believe trust is first with publications. They ground their offerings on reader trust first. Anything that violates trust is not considered. Harper’s Bazaar did a campaign with Ugg and Nordstroms showing a “sponsored by Ugg” series of articles and Pinterest boards. The sponsored by was presented first before content. When native advertising is done well, it’s good for everyone. It shouldn’t suck, said Haskell.

Teresa Gould spoke on behalf of the Huffington Post. The Huffington Post has several media properties it offers to advertisers, including journalist created content, and are clearly distinguished as sponsored ads using a colored pill bos that says “Presented by”. The Huffington Post notes sponsored content in Tweets using the @huffpostpartner handle.

Adam Ostrow represented Mashable on their branded content offering, Native Advertising has always been a part of the site. They often create specialized content columns for advertisers, which are sponsored by the brand (AMEX, Qualcomm, etc.). Mashable uses several text boxes and ads highighting sponsorship. The series are five articles or larger. Mobile content and native ads are clearly distinguished as sponsored before other text begins.

10:58 a.m.

Nicholas Lemann, professor of journalism, Columbia University, spoke next on the history of advertising and journalism. Advertising has always been considered a corrupting factor in journalism, dating back to the 19th century. It should be understood that payment secures the ad and nothing more, said early critics.

Both the advertising and media industries tried to self-regulate at first. However, it was not enough.

There have been many names to separate the two, church and state, chinese walls. Traditionally in news organizations, these separations were considered absolute, partly out of vanity and partly from self-interest and the need to build trust.

In recent years, Columbia changed its rules. Today journalists need to know about advertising, including shield laws and government media policy. News organizations have seen alarming declines in advertising, devaluing the mastheads. This has compromised the legacy news organization. Consider that the Washington Post sold its building for almost as much as it sold its newspaper to Jeff Bezos.

Advertisers want to see real results. They want to buy niche segments, and social networks are offering highly targeted ads. News organizations and journalists are forced to remake their relationships with advertisers. These are evolutions mothered by necessity, said Lemann.

10:36 a.m.

The Commission came to a settlement with the first electric vacuum cleaner for false native advertising back in 1917, says Lesley Fair, staff attorney. The standard for FTC action is “unfair or deceptible acts or practices.” The FTC looks at the entire mosaic of the ad, which includes a visual evaluation to make sure the ad clearly looks like an ad.

The FTC looks for “masquerads,” ads that act like traditional media, from mail to online. This has spanned several decades, and most recently included the infomercial era.

When Congress passed the CAN-SPAM act, one of the primary concerns was false headers which deceptively tricked consumers with false senders and topics. This is a fineable offense.

Today, the FTC is going after false news sites that publish information about their products as news infomration, based on reporter testimonials. The FTC is clear on endorsement guidelines that material connections between an advertiser and endorser should always be disclosed. These were updated in 2009 by the Commission. The FTC prosecuted a PR firm for posting false reviews in the iTune Store in 2010 based on this update.

Lesley Fair highlighted the need for search engines to demonstrate that paid search results were clearly delineated. Letters were sent to search engines in 2002, and again in 2013 to reaffirm the rules, including niche and specialized search networks. Paid search ads must be easily distinguishable from a natural result. Thi is the starting point for our conversation today.

10:17 a.m.

FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez noted that “Native Adveritising” as a concept is not new, it’s just digital. But with the new media, consumers are having a hard time distinguishing genuine editorial content and social network updates from ads.

Native adveritising is becoming more popular because marketers are finding it more effective, and it lets them capitalize on the power of their mastheads. Critics argue that this exploits consumers trust in the media.

Native advertising has to be done lawfully. Engagement is an important goal, but it is equally important that advertising doesn’t mislead consumers, said Ramirez.

—-

Posted at 7 a.m.

The FTC’s Workshop on native advertising “Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content” will be held today in Washington, DC. To help spread the conversation to a larger community, I will liveblog the sessions this morning via this blog post, and post shorter updates on Twitter.

The sessions begin at 10:00 a.m. EST. To get us started I have re-posted a native advertising ethics piece that ran on the Vocus blog a month ago. Cheers, and please add your thoughts on the ethics of native advertising in the comments section.

Native Advertising: Don’t Deceive – Disclose!

Last October at BlogWell Boston, Author and CEO of SocialMedia.org Andy Sernovitz gave a speech on ethics as they relate to social media marketing on the web. He focused on recent trends and developments, especially as they relate to native advertising.

As more and more brands come to rely on native advertising to overcome engagement shortfalls, we are seeing ethical transgressions with disclosure. According to Andy, this will create numerous issues because native advertising is often deceiving and not clearly stated as sponsored content. Here is an accounting of Andy’s session.

Any marketer can buy media. A social media marketer is supposed to work on getting people to retweet, like and share information. That revolves around trust, so people feel good about working with the brand.

The difference between honesty and sleazery? Disclosure, said Andy.

Disclosure is a federal law. In 1914, the FTC was empowered with a law that stated that advertisers cannot deceive consumers.

This year, New York State just prosecuted 19 companies at more than $350,000 in fines for failing to disclose sponsorship of online media.

To avoid trouble, companies should:

1. Disclose and be truthful in social media.
2. Monitor the conversation and correct misstatements.
3. Create policies and training.
4. Don’t pay for it!

These are magic words for employees: “I work for x, and this is my personal opinion.” This creates a culture of disclosure. People need to disclose who they are, were they paid, and if it is an honest opinion based on a real experience.

In 2013, the FTC published examples of brands faking engagement online, and issued a significant warning about disclosure. Just because you don’t know how to tweet in a disclosed fashion, it’s still illegal.

Customers are unhappy, and we should expect enforcement from FTC on a large scale. The FTC has warned brands that the agency or consultant cannot be held accountable; instead, the hiring company is responsible.

Native advertising needs to be disclosed from the very beginning. Many forms of native advertising are in violation of the FTC’s disclosure rules, and may cause problems later on, concluded Andy.

What do you think?

Image by Quinn Evans.

The Inevitable Downfall of Native Advertising

I’d like to offer a word of caution for those who may be over-excited about native advertising. Native advertising works for a couple of reasons; audiences aren’t used to embedded corporate content, and these media forms are somewhat deceptive, and don’t appear as sponsored.

Those two factors create a bubble that will surely burst once readers and viewers get tricked enough times.

Just this past Monday a friend complained about a Buzzfeed article focusing on entertainment ideas that happneed to be sponsored by a potato chip company. The problem with the article its lack of disclosure, and every suggestion was followed by a push for X-brand chips.

I recently saw both SocialMedia.org CEO Andy Sernovitz and Edelman EVP Steve Rubel discuss the conundrums of native advertising. At both events, Andy and Steve discussed how important it was to clearly disclose paid sponsorship of any media promptly. Andy noted that many forms of native advertising are in violation of the FTC’s disclosure rules, and then coached attendees on best practices.

I’m not sure that’s going to happen without significant consequence. Though the FTC acts periodically, real impact will come in the form of decreasing results. This is inevitable as more and more consumers distrust content featuring brands, and the mastheads and social networks that publish questionable content.

The decline is already happening. Last year a study showed that most people view brands who engage in native advertising more negatively or not at all. I wonder how people feel now that we are almost done with 2013, and they have become more familiar with embedded promotions.

Like all advertising methods, a two percent yield will likely be enough to keep native promotions viable, but at the same time let’s not get crazy here.

As more brands move to blend content with ads, the impact will match every other tactic that becomes widely practiced by marketers. We can expect less consumer trust, lower yields, and a need for higher levels of quality to achieve success. Worse, rather than raising the tide of the overall marketing program, native advertising will negatively impact trust across all forms of digital advertisements.

Moving forward, contextual media will force media outlets and advertisers to get even more creative with their efforts to get in front of consumers. Intrusions will not be tolerated as openly as they are now. Perhaps the open sponsorship models of the 50s will take hold as brands pay to make relevant information available in exchange for a brief update. Who knows?

What do you think? Are we heading for a decline in native advertising success?

Featured image by the Altimeter Group.

Social Results Will Stay Small

Social Integration CMO Survey
Chart Source: CMO Survey

If you think small, you stay small. That’s why companies and brands that treat social like a unique practice — a box within the larger whole — will struggle to achieve results and intangible outcomes.

Building seemless customer experiences should take the fore in all strategies. Yet according to the CMO Survey, the integration gap in companies is not closing, in spite of years of research showing that cross-tactic coordination produces more sales.

The struggle to achieve ROI and real business impact with new media strategies is a direct result of focusing on individual tactics. Rather than simply discuss integration, an easier approach may be to consider building from the customer’s viewpoint.

Customers don’t care about social, in-store, mobile, content marketing, white glove treatment for influencers, or any of the other strands of spaghetti you see strewn across the marketing blogosphere wall. They don’t care about integrated multi-channel approaches either.
Continue reading

Coping with the Klout Reality

Lost
Image by cintamamat

Marketers and individuals will have to deal with social scoring in the form of Klout and its sister technologies.

As time progresses, technologies and alliances evolve. I haven’t written about Klout outside of general discussions on social scoring for a good long while.

There wasn’t much to say. I agreed in principal with many of my colleagues and their continuing coverage about the broken nature of influence metrics.

But I had a second reason: As a professional communicator, it’s become increasingly clear that we won’t escape Klout, Kred and PeerIndex.

The business marketplace cannot help itself. It will chase quick fixes to community building, recruitment and measuring individual online capabilities, making social scoring an obvious play. I have three reasons for coming to this conclusion.
Continue reading

The Advertising vs. PR Debate Won’t Exist in 30 Years

Scott Blackmun, Katie Ledecky, Missy Franklin, Heather O'Reilly, Christine Brennan
USOC Chair and Olympic Gold Medal Winners Scott Blackmun, Katie Ledecky, Missy Franklin and Heather O’Reilly are interviewed by Christine Brennan.

Last Thursday night, USA Today celebrated its 30th birthday in grand fashion at the National Portrait Gallery. Media and Washington luminaries gathered to witness the introduction of the new multimedia USA Today, and discuss the future of media 30 years from now.

Olympians, politicians and even a budding rock star took the stage and weighed in from each of their profession’s perspective. Many focused on how technology was blurring the lines between in home and mobile, between small and large screen, and print and multimedia.

The conversation continued in a special section called USA Tomorrow with luminaries like Twitter and Square Founder Jack Dorsey discussing convergence of media and technology.

That was the big take-away for me, how convergence will force more fluid communication between people through media, even in politics. As this great discussion continued, I could not help but think about our side of the business, the dark side. Marketing.
Continue reading