When it comes to creating great content, so many businesses restrict themselves to little more than brochure-ware and press releases. Clearly, that can be pretty limiting! In the opening part of this series, I began to look at the different types of content that any business can generate. I started with some of the obvious ones. Now, Part II takes us deeper into the list - and features one of my personal favourites....
The listicle is very much a modern phenomenon. It's a modular piece of content which needs no real editorial flow and can be rapidly churned out in a very citizen-accessible tone of voice. Low-brow and low effort some might say – but you ignore the mass appeal of such pieces at your peril. We might hate to admit it but every one of us is a sucker for a bit of clickbait now and again.
Just because they’re populist pieces of content, it doesn’t mean that they can’t find a home in corporate content. When writing them myself, I’ve found myself veering into a more sardonic tone of voice. However, that just reinforces how they can be used to inject a bit of humour or lighten the tone.
To be clear, the advice points and how-to guides mentioned in part I can take the form of a listicle. However, it doesn’t follow that every listicle is an advice piece. In my view, they’re just an excuse for a bit of light and frothy content. They can provide a different take on an issue which nevertheless remains important to your audience.
Have a play around with an occasional listicle. They’re actually quite good fun to write. They're certainly a lot easier than putting together a ‘proper’ article with all that boring beginning, middle and end stuff. If we’re to think like publishers, then this is our filler content. It’s cheap to produce and reasonably timeless. Plus, it can be slotted in during quiet times in the editorial schedule (making it incredibly valuable from a logistical point of view).
Get too snooty about the listicle. There’s a good reason why sizable organisations like Buzzfeed turn out so many of them. Your average content consumer just can’t get enough of this stuff. Plus, you should remember that some of the greatest content in the world first arrived in listicle form. Just ask Moses.
You could argue that the classification of ‘feature article’ overlaps with several other entries on this list (e.g. profile, research, round table). You’re probably right. However, I’ve included it on the list purely so I can mount my usual defence of long-form content.
I don’t believe there’s any such thing as generating content that is too long. There’s only ever content that isn’t good enough. If the opening paragraphs of any content are poor, I don’t care whether there’s another 200 words to go or another 2000. I won’t read on. The opposite is true. If something gets – and holds - my attention, I want to see it through to a conclusion.
Holding an audience’s attention over a longer form piece is challenging. But pre-judging it on word count is a risible starting position. I’ve had people do that to me, taking one look at a piece and saying, “That’s too long. We’ll need to cut it back” before they’ve even read it. In the same conversation, they’ll then tell me about some great piece they read in the Sunday papers or in The Economist, those renowned bastions of short-form content. There’s a reason why those publications still exist and why platforms like Shorthand are emerging to support the efforts of long-form multi-media storytellers at some of our most prestigious media outlets. We’re not ready to give up on long-form just yet.
Indulge yourself. Writing short-form content is a skill but it doesn’t follow that writing in long-form is poor form. It's just another perfectly valid way of creating great content. If you really want to go to town on a topic, do it. Construct a coherent narrative flow, consider what you need to do to keep the audience hooked throughout and then just go for it. Only stop once you think you’ve got nothing else of any real value to add.
Mistake busy people for disinterested people. If the content is good enough, they’ll find the time to consume it – just as you do every time you pick up a book, newspaper or magazine, watch a documentary or go to the cinema. Rebel against arbitrary word counts, insisted on by the unimaginative. This is why our laptop monitors allow us to scroll down.
Research report (a.k.a. survey, study, white paper)
Ahhh, the research report. Misused and abused for years and the cause of thousands of pounds being utterly wasted.
A good research report is worth its weight in gold and is a crucial part of the editorial mix, especially in the intellectual industries. Sadly, such reports are massively outnumbered by those reports where the research was seemingly commissioned (a) to create a spurious link to a product; (b) to maintain market visibility; (c) to ensure this year’s marketing budget wasn’t wasted; or (d) for no discernible reason at all.
From experience, companies often use research to gather commercial intelligence. There’s not much wrong with that (unless these are the same companies that also talk up their deep industry knowledge – which I always found to be an odd dichotomy) until they then publish this data without adding anything in the way of insight. One set of graphs follows another, accompanied by a factual narrative on the numbers you can see for yourself.
“Interestingly, in response to question 62b, 76% of respondents said xxxxx”, claimed the report, in the biggest ever abuse of the word ‘interestingly’.
Commission research. But follow the lead of the academics (who are quite good at this sort of thing) and have a hypothesis which you’re keen to prove or disprove from the outset. Analyse the findings, pass comment and add some value. Spin the resulting report off into numerous additional pieces of debate-driven content.
Absent yourself from the process. You can commission the best research house but if you don’t add any value to the production, then it’s their intellectual property you’re highlighting, not yours. Don’t have a cast of thousands when it comes to approving the content. The research will be out of date by the time you publish. And never, ever ‘conclude’ that the research shows how the best thing a business can do is to get in touch about your extensive range of services in this area. People aren’t stupid.
I think that the debate may well be one of my favourite pieces of content. Presented with two utterly contrasting views on a worthwhile and timely topic, it’s hard to resist being sucked into the fight, deciding whose side of the argument you support. It’s engaging content – and can be great fun to make.
Generating content likes this requires an acceptance that there is no right answer for you to get behind. The best, most interesting, topics often divide opinion. That sounds obvious – but some companies run scared of this, fearful that voicing an opinion one way or another may offend a client.
I never liked this stance, believing there to be a difference between ‘offend’ and ‘provoke into debate’. Regardless, I thought the next best approach was to cover both sides of the argument by facilitating the debate and letting two in-house experts go at it in the form of an old school debating club.
Once again, I think that this is content that highlights the depth of intellect at a company. It’s also content which allows you to capitalise on a live issue, rather than waiting for a line of accepted wisdom to emerge; by which time, most people have lost interest.
Find your best advocates, debaters and bar room raconteurs and then give them free rein. Find the topic everyone’s talking about and then make sure that the debate is happening on your platforms. Get those two opposing arguments written up but then consider the different audio-video formats which could be used to bring this to life still further. I promise you will have lots of fun with this.
Choose a debate topic which doesn’t polarise opinion. The minute that you start caveating your arguments (“well, yes, I guess the truth lies somewhere in the middle”), you’ve demeaned the whole exercise. The audience appeal here lies in the struggle between black and white, not a trudge through shades of grey.
Eight down, plenty more still to go. Part III follows shortly....