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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

More Evidence that Visuals Far Outpace Text

Digiday surveyed attendees of its Agency Innovation Camp about how visual native ads stack up against text based native ads (hat tip: Richard Binhammer). More often than not, attendees favored visuals by 75 percent or more.

The below infographic states attendees opinions about native advertising environments.The survey does not have enough of a sample to be scientifically valid (80 attendees), but it does fall in line with general trends in the movement towards a visual Internet.

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The evidence continues to mount. As a strategist if you don’t include at least a hybrid visual/text approach to your content creation, then it’s fair to expect mediocre results. The argument that higher quality written content will still survive may be true for a select few properties, but the margin for success will continue to narrow.

Whether it’s photography, graphics or video, every piece of content today must communicate visually. The visual cannot be bolted on to content as an afterthought.

The purpose of said content — from an ad to a highly detailed piece of content that is text driven — must include visuals that are intentional in purpose. Visuals convey the meaning of said communication clearly and consiely, much quicker than the words do.

Text in many ways works with the visual to tell the richer story. Many won’t read all of the text. In fact, if someone is reading content on a smartphone, it’s likely they won’t get beyond the first paragraph. But the words are there in a transmedia sense for those who want to go further down the proverbial rabbit hole.

What do you think?

Visual Literacy Means Better Thinking

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about the world moving from text-based to visual communications, an underlying angst was touched upon. A fear exists that visual literacy may mean more ignorance and the general dumbing down of society as a whole.

First, let’s be clear. Visual literacy is not a new concept. It dates back to the sixties.

The recent media trend towards communicating with video, pictures and graphics has inspired people to building methods of encouraging visual literacy. The Internet world has started wrestling with this as an entire culture, but some thought leaders were earlier in driving visual media. Others have even published a strong how-to book for marketers looking to master visual in the social context.

Yet the tension remains. What will a society where people learn and communicate visually — and struggle with reading and writing — look like?

Will we become a society of ignorant fools? Will superstition and bogus news stories dominate our thinking? Will violence and polarizing behavior continue to trend upwards? Will there be so much visual bait demanding our attention that image pollution and desensitization are the next battle after content shock?

This is the End

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Context means everything in this conversation. Ignorance or lack of education has been best typified by the inability to read or write effectively, the common definition of illiteracy.

People who were bright, but didn’t know how to read or write effectively or didn’t have a college education were dubbed “street smart.” This is how we were raised to think when I was a kid (back in the neanderthal era). I know I’m not alone.

When someone from this kind of upbringing encounters an inability to speak and write well, we think illiterate. This also assumes ignorance. Afterall, the written word was the foundation of civilization, preventing us from sinking back into the Dark Ages.

This well-rooted historical view creates a prejudice steeped in an increasingly archaic definition of information literacy.

Once can come to understand concepts and communicate extremely well through other means. And if the devolving state of writing coming from most college graduates is any bellweather, let us hope some improvement in communication arises soon.

And the Beginning

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We as a species process visual information faster than than the written word. We come to understand objects as infants and toddlers well before we can read or write. I’ve heard that we understand visual information 500 to as much as 60,000 times faster than text.

Perhaps visual is the way we are meant to digest information. It’s just that historically we needed a Gutenberg press or its derivative to exchange ideas. Now we just need an S5 or an iPhone.

As we move forward into an era of visual learning and media, it could be argued those of us who only use and understand text to communicate will become the illiterate ones.

Now that’s a scary thought.

Using objects to learn from as opposed to words may lead to more and faster growth of knowledge. Those who master visual learning may be able to create and evolve ideas, concepts, and technologies faster than their counterparts in prior eras. They will need to build from a foundation of knowledge. Innovation requires understanding the current state of things, and the historical predecessors that got us to the present.

Traditionally, ideas and concepts have been retained for our reference through books, papers and articles. This was the classic role of the library. In the modern era, right or wrong we find this information through Wikipedia, Google, and other perhaps more qualified sources online.

But some search on YouTube for answers now. One of my favorite sites to search for photography information is KelbyOne. There are tons of answers to all sorts of questions, but the answers are in a video format. I prefer this kind of reference information than reading my Nikon D7100 manual or the Adobe Photoshop help guides.

Libraries recognized visual literacy well before it became hot as a trend. Microfiches, video libraries, etc. have all existed for decades. Now the visual may become the primary media form within the libraries of the future. And perhaps those libraries will only be online with a Siri-like interface much like Neal Stephenson envisioned so long ago in Snow Crash.

Part of literacy in my mind is being able to delineate quality information from bad data. In the visual world, that includes producing and consuming quality media in a loud world.

People struggle with seeing things and understanding whether they are real or fake. They think the unfiltered is filtered and vice versa. They believe the video clip rather than question if it is a screenplay. The infographic is trusted even if it doesn’t cite sources.

Separating good visual commmunication from the bad, the signal from the noise, will mark the literate mind of tomorrow.

What do you think?

A Bigger Problem than Content Shock

There may be a bigger problem than content shock coming down the pike. First, it’s great that industry leaders are addressing the increasing proliferation of bad content populating the interwebs. More spammy content spoils the waters for the rest of us.

At the same time, I can’t help but think that a bigger problem faces the sector.

In the next twenty years our conceptions of literacy will become challenged and evolve. A media world is coming where visual and audio forms will dominate, and text will become a secondary form of communication.

Some conversations touch the tip of this massive iceberg with the current by focusing on visual media’s growing social network strength. But smaller mobile media devices and content glut continue to force a permanent focus on rich visual and audio.

I imagine many writers will writhe as they read this. Let us agree that long form blogs, eBooks and content will continue to engage stakeholders.

But in 20 years will these textual forms will become increasingly marginalized as mass consumption moves to video and imagery? I think so.

In essence, blogs, white papers and eBooks will become niche tools for specific purposes and persons who prefer reading. Further, Generation X and millennials will be the last generations that read content online first. Instead, children and adults will watch, listen, see, and then read.

I know that last paragraph will inspire debate. People are afraid of what the visual era means. When people are fearful they have negative reactions.

We cannot ignore the trends. To run from change is to be passed over by it.

Consider this: People are as likely to seek an answer today on YouTube as they would via Google. They will learn more about a research report from an infographic than a four page executive summary. Some people prefer listening to a podcast during their commute or at the gym rather than reading late at night or during their lunch break. They prefer to have business intelligence delivered via slideshare than a long blog post. The list of trends signalling the movement away from text grows with each passing season.

By the way, I would have made a deck about this trend, but when wrestling with complicated topics, I still think textually and have to write my ideas out. That is a problem for me. It’s a problem that every communicator faces right now. How do I learn how to communicate visually?

The Visual Imperative

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Last week, my company Tenacity5 had the great honor of serving as the social media counsel for Give Local America, an incredible day of giving from Kimbia that raised more than $53 million from more than 300,000 donors for well over 7000 nonprofits. To wrap things up, we created a pinboard of the best stories from the many nonprofits across the country.

The pinboard highlights many passionate stories from nonprofits, stories of beneficiaries who need the programs created by passionate causes.

I am sure there were many, many other stories that are not included in the board.

Because they were not visual and didn’t use the Give Local America social media hashtags and keywords, we did not find them. By my estimate, there were hundreds of thousands of social updates, including pieces of visual content created for the day. The visual tagged pieces of content stood out, and will be memorialized.

This is the problem. We must communicate visually within the Internet context now if we hope to be found.

It’s why AirBnb is going beyond creating unique story paths for SEO. They also contract 3000 freelance photographers to help them communicate these stories visually.

The visual imperative is one of the primary reasons I decided to focus on improving my photography skills this year. Since that time in March, my photography blog on Flickr has increased its traffic by another 50% and is now outpacing this blog 8 to 1 on traffic this month.

Learning to speak through pictures is becoming easier.

Whatever or however communicators decide to evolve their visual skills, evolve they must. Communicators can learn to storyboard, or write video scripts and screenplays, or podcast, or use InDesign, or critique visual arts, or build outlines through visual wireframes, or… There are many options to learn visual thinking well beyond photography.

Stop Making Excuses

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Many people tell me I have a natural eye for photography, that it is a gift or an art. They say that communicators can’t do the same thing.

This is an excuse.

It rankles me when people say they can’t learn or won’t be able to do so. Let me be clear: Six years ago I took crappy photos like everyone else. I learned to think visually through a camera.

Deciding you can’t take photos is an excuse for not wanting or being afraid to learn photography. This is true for any visual discipline. No one wants to find out they really cannot see the world visually. Lack of desire and fear can thwart an effort right out of the gate. Let’s be honest about these very real internal barriers.

It’s also important to be consider the market dynamics. Communicators will see this trend evolve, and they must decide whether or not to embrace visual media. If not, are they prepared for competition from other companies and members of the workforce?

I’ve heard some other interesting excuses since last March, too. Some people think that iPhones make authentic images, and that real cameras don’t.

A camera is a tool. If you want to use dull knife to cut your meat, go for it. Me, I like a sharpened knife. I’ll opt for real cameras every chance I can. They do a better job, and people want good pics. I only need to look at the performance my Nikon captured social photos versus the iPhone shots. This is why every communicator needs a camera, in my opinion.

I hear the same thing about filters and Photoshop, that these editing tools make inauthentic photos.

Look, I don’t like crazy enhanced images that are so over the top they look like something from a science fiction novel. But I do think people should use Lightroom and Photoshop to take the dust specs off your pictures, make them less grainy, and fix the lighting.

We are talking about creating and telling stories through visual means. If you think that’s not a photo, then call it a graphically enhanced image. Who the hell cares?

In my opinion, the filter touch up argument is another excuse for not learning visual media. By the way I learned how to use Lightroom in a two hour Kelby One training session. That’s it.

Sharing How-To Experiences

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It’s one thing to tell people that dynamic change is coming. Most don’t want to deal with it.

But I really believe this trend is happening, and I am doing everything I can to meet the market. If you are of the same mind, expect more blog content about the lessons I am learning, including how-tos.

I cannot compete with the many expert photography blogs out there. But I can share my experiences evolving from a single dimension communicator to a multifaceted one that weaves the visual into larger strategies.

Perhaps this will be helpful. I hope so.

What do you think?

Georgetown Lecture: Social Gets Bigger and Blander

Spring at Georgetown Campus

Later today I will guest lecture at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business on the general state of social media for the Social Technology Marketing MBA class.

I usually write out my thoughts before speaking. Here’s what I’ll be talking about today. Please comment if you’d like to suggest something, I’ve got a few hours to cram (yikes!).

1) Social Media Gets Bigger

We have entered the post adoption phase of social media in America.

Even a significant minority of senior citizens use social media. As of February 2012, one third (34%) of internet users age 65 and older use social networking sites such as Facebook, and 18% do so on a typical day Pew Internet.

Now that businesses realize social won’t go away, and they intend to invest more marketing dollars.

The most recent CMO Survey (August) showed social media investment continuing to rise. This year social commands 7.6% of the overall budget with an expectation to increase beyond 10% in the next 12 months, and to 19% of the total spend in the next five years.

Continue reading

The Future of Email or Messaging or…

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What Teens Think Will Happen to Email (Source: Social Mouths)

French company Atos became the latest tech player to declare the end of email, calling it pollution and banning it from its corporate walls. Tech bloggers bagged the move, but in reality, it’s an increasingly familiar proclamation. Basically, the tech industry wants to replace email with the next generation of messaging.

In the online world, we have seen this trend emerge several times. Most notably, the birth and death of Google Wave was the first big attempt to end email. Then there was the not so successful Facebook Messages/Messenger App.

Invariably, these solutions feature a variety of social media or instant messaging technologies. For example, Google’s integration of undelivered Gmail chat messages into Gmail. Facebook’s Messages does the same thing with chat. It can also integrate text messaging. File sharing and workplace solutions like Dropbox and Basecamp still use email to notify users.

None of these solutions have completely replaced an email address, which has the primary feature of a name and a URL, providing routing on the Internet. And none of them replace the core peer-to-peer or peer-to-a few peers communication that made email so popular in the 90s.

Email is just another delivery method. You can shoot the messenger, but…

Can Tech Eliminate Spamming?

At the heart of this debate is ridding the in-box of trash, spam and other useless email, e.g. weeding out marketing messages. In the case of the workplace, employers are also trying to weed out useless banter (forwarded jokes, etc.). So the target is really us, those marketers who engage in direct email marketing.

Obviously, this makes opt-in lists and great email content even more important. And as future technologies come into the fore and marketing becomes strictly permission based, these twin bills of direct success may no longer be optional for companies. Spam tolerance decreases with each new messaging technology.

Yet if the hybridization of messaging succeeds eliminating the IP address portion of a digital message, won’t marketers find a new way to get into the next generation in-box? Historically, spam and bad marketing transcends medium. We have certainly experienced that with social media.

What do you think? Will a next generation technology replace email? Will it eliminate spam?