Best Practice

In a world where we’re hit with a million messages a minute, what makes us sit up and engage?

“What do you mean just over the street? Give it to me in yards.” Believe me Julia, I was just as impatient to get Hugh Grant to stop with all his err, um, apologetic preamble in the iconic Notting Hill scene (remember the orange juice fiasco?), but some viewers might have found him faintly adorable. Maybe.

It’s our job as writers to understand who need the detail and who don’t have time. Knowing our readers inside and out will help us tailor our content to them.

Take a look at these Crumbs covers – lovingly curated into a handy Pinterest board so you can see the magazine design in all its glory. They’re all things of beauty but the content is awesome too, with some excellent food-based puns to enjoy. Can’t get your hands on the print? No bother. Their website is packed full of great food content including recipes and features. All about the food porn pics? Snoop their Instagram.

Same content: just treated differently for different readers’ tastes. Because that’s the very definition of audiences, right? We like to pick and choose the content we read and the format it comes in.

And that’s all good – but why work twice as hard when you’ve got an awesome story to share? I’m not talking about lazy journalism, copying and pasting your copy across different platforms. Readers are too clever for that and they’ll spot it a mile off. I’m talking about treating content in different ways for different readers.

Take this from the Guardian: an article that says ‘allo ‘allo to the almost extinct short story format, as it’s revived by French-made vending machines spooling out one, three and five-minute reads to passers-by. Now take a look at this second treatment: what people thought about it. And finally the Guardian’s editorial take, which starts with a superb thought-provoking question that makes you want to find out the answer by reading to the end of the piece.

What’s in an opinion?

Ahh, opinion writing. You might be able to tell it soothes my soul.

I want to read Caitlin Moran’s blistering take on, let’s face it, just about anything – on Twitter or in The Times. Jay Raynor’s food reviews might be the most arrogant things I’ve read – but I’m hooked; I have to know how they end. And I certainly know they aren’t ghost-written.

It works with internal comms, too. Letting your employees have their say through an internal channel makes a huge difference to morale and helps them connect with your message in a much deeper way. Allow comments on your stories. Provoke debate with questions. Provide balance. And be a pro and follow up. If someone calls you out on fact checking, admit when you’re wrong.

As an IC writer, I’m often in the privileged position to hear some very raw opinions from colleagues during interviews. As with many conversations, that’s not always the version of the truth they’d want to share more publicly. It’s about finding that balance: something they’re comfortable saying that’s also a true reflection of your conversation.

The best bits of opinion are the unexpected ones – and they often give a hook to the story, turning it from tripe into a tale. And it’s much less forgettable. Your people will always remember who stood up and said something not everyone agreed with. If we all toed the party line, nothing would ever change.

How much more rewarding, then, for both interviewer and interviewee to turn their questions and answers into a chat on the page? As readers, we disengage with jargon and can smell business BS a mile off, actively choosing not to engage with journalism we don’t feel fits our values or life choices. So why do businesses think that their people will be more forgiving with their colleague publications?

Look and feel

When it comes to magazines, is it about the journalism or the design – or a bit of both?

In autumn 2018 the Guardian Weekly relaunched as a magazine, hiked its price by £1.60 but essentially put the same weekly news content into a smaller and instantly more desirable format.

What if you were to present all this great information as an A4 newsletter in Times New Roman? No one would buy it. It doesn’t matter how good the journalism is, presentation counts.

Before I published this story, I did the rounds in the office and asked people whether they collected magazines. While 40% loved their print collection, 60% didn’t pick up magazines anymore, preferring screen reads. Worryingly, one millennial colleague asked what a magazine was. I think they were joking.

One of the most fascinating opinions I found was that people often recycled the ones they bought for the content but kept the pleasingly-designed ones, while those they picked up for the cover remained unread; making me think there’s still a place for balancing good design and great content.

Causing a buzz

Go into any lunchroom and you’ll see scores of people watching their Instagram Stories – a feature that lets users post photos and videos that vanish after 24 hours. In fact, over 500m of us watch them, every day.

Stories let us snoop into people’s lives, far more than the polished content cut on our favorite feeds. Creators reveal the behind the scenes of their day-to-day and it gives them an authenticity and humanity we might not feel from their flat-lays.

You might notice that most people watch them with the sound off – no-one wants their colleagues peeping in on their daily scroll of shame – so most Insta pros work around this by subtitling. Who knew that consumers would actually want to get back to the days of silent film?

We’re callous viewers, too. If the content doesn’t engage us, we just tap on through, or worse, swipe the Stories and move onto the next one.

Type Instagram Stories into Google and one of the first hits is ‘can you see how many times someone views your Instagram Story?’. Erm. You can’t – but this is a fascinating insight into human behavior. Do viewers not want their crush to know how many times they’ve watched them working out in the gym or do creators want to know who has?

Putting it into practice

So how can we apply all of this in our writing? Here are the three things I’d suggest.

  1. Know your audience, really damn well. What turns them on and off and how they connect. Let them tell you in the comments.
  2. Think about your treatments and how you can use your content in fresh ways a few times over.
  3. Balance great design and content and don’t be forgettable.

But don’t let it end there. Tell me how you feel. Give me your take. Hit me up. I’m listening.

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