Confession: I struggle to carve out time to read. As an editor and a content strategist, I know that reading is a crucial part of my job. It’s how I find new ideas, learn what others are doing, get inspiration and, honestly, it’s how I relax and refocus after staring at my disorganized inbox.
I’ve always been a big reader. It’s why I majored in English in college — while my friends were up all night working on engineering problem sets in the library, I was reading novels in bed.
But for adults, reading gets more complicated. That problem is exacerbated by the sheer volume of articles, blog posts, ebooks, white papers, reports and social updates that flow past us every day. The level of information we receive on a daily basis has exploded over the past few years, which led marketer Mark Schaefer to introduced the term content shock. There is too much content for any of us to process.
That brings us to the question editors and people driving publications think about all the time: How can we give our audiences information they’re looking for that’s helpful and interesting — instead of just adding to the noise and clutter?
As I’ve worked on publications — both revered industry sites that have been around for years and brand-new publications building an audience, like this one — I’ve learned a few important ways to differentiate your content.
Stand for Something
Especially in the world of business writing and B2B content, a lot of what’s published is exactly the same. It’s boring, it’s full of jargon and you have to read the same sentence six times to understand what it really means. Instead of following what everyone else in your space is doing, strike out in your own, unique direction.
I recently talked to McKinsey Global Publications Director Lucia Rahilly about the proliferation of content. “There’s just content everywhere now, and everybody is doing it,” she says. “There’s way more content than people are interested in reading.” Her team pushes past that challenge by going beyond the default, pat structure. McKinsey editors “push on what’s interesting,” she says. “They’ll ask questions like, ‘Why is this so compelling now? What are we really saying that’s new?’”
99U Editor in Chief Matt McCue follows a similar strategy. 99U publishes career advice and inspiration for creative professionals. “We try to do quality over quantity,” he says. “There are a lot of career sites out there, so how can we be a little bit different than everybody else?”
Say something new. Be willing to be controversial and put a stake in the ground. Do something different. If you want people to click, open, buy or stay, you have to give them something juicy first. If you publish 100 blog posts every month and they’re all boring and watered down, you’re not accomplishing much.
Focus on the Details
As we all become suffocated by so much content, the details of your work become even more important. The details make you stand out. For example, your headlines have to be compelling if you’re going to convince someone to stop and read.
Images are also increasingly important. We’re all drawing from the same online image databases, so look for ways to customize or tweak your images. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out the new platform for independent workers, Indypendently. The Indypendently team (who, full disclosure, works with Rep Cap) is doing a great job coming up with creative, original images to accompany written content.
Experiment with New Formats and Platforms
Think about your own reading habits. How do you spend your time online? Instead of thinking about your audience generically, think about them as real people, just like you.
Walk through your reader’s day. Study your audience’s habits. Do they check Twitter first thing in the morning, click article links in emails on their laptop throughout the day, scroll through Instagram at lunch and watch videos at night? Remember that they’re overwhelmed humans, ordering paper towels on Amazon and texting the babysitter — while they’re watching your webinar or listening to your podcast. It’s your job to come up with ideas and formats that will cut through all their distractions and resonate.
Be Your Audience’s Safe Haven
As I’ve talked to other managing editors about the problem of content fatigue, I’ve often returned to the same idea: We live in a noisy world, but you can be your audience’s safe haven. Build a brand that your readers can trust. If they know that clicking on your headlines will never be a waste of time, you’re not a part of the content shock problem anymore — you’re part of the solution.