20 December, 2017
Whether you want it to put it down to technological advancement, Google’s SEO policies or the infamously short attention span of millennials, it’s clear that content format and structure has evolved enormously over the last decade. For many web writers, constructing a cut-and-dry traditional article is slowly becoming a dying art, as information and opinion is conveyed in increasingly versatile ways.
Regardless of how you feel about these changes though, it’s unwise to ignore them. Indeed, you should be encouraged to embrace them. Adopting a particular concept that better translates the intent behind your article is a win-win for everyone – especially in business, where communicating your ethos to potential customers is absolutely key.
So how do you know which technique is best for your message and your audience? In this piece, we will look at several various types of written content and how each one can be suited to your needs.
Writing for the Web
Unlike conventional print pieces, most web articles are not written with only the subject in mind; writers have to take into account SEO practices, which in turn contribute to the wider content strategy of the author or organisation. This means inserting internal and external links where relevant, researching and utilizing keywords, and taking the time to consider effective titles and meta descriptions – techniques that are not applicable to magazine features for example, and that requires technical know-how as well as a strong writing ability.
It also means figuring out the best way to capture and engage readers. If your piece is data heavy, it makes sense to structure it differently than say, an instructional guide; the key is to understand your searcher intent. Take a look through the search results for your topic and see what your competitors are doing – you can quickly get a feel for the kind of answer your potential readers will be looking for.
It will also allow you to figure out the most appropriate format for your article. Here are some of the more popular ones:
1. List Articles
You may already be familiar with list articles, known as ‘listicles', as they are one of the most popular formats on the web. Although purists are scornful due to their high usage in so-called ‘clickbait’ articles (you know the ones – “7 Celebrities Who Fought Zoo Animals and Won – You Won’t Believe Number 4!”), there is a reason why they are so prominently used: they work.
This is because the immediate nature of listicles appeals to the modern generation, thus creating a culture of ‘information snacking’. People want to read less and skim more; the simple truth is that our brains are wired to enjoy lists.
They’re not necessarily anything new either. Archive research at Northeastern University in Boston found that list-based articles were “trending” as early as the 1800s, including pieces on the average age of animals, the importance of obedient children and the amazing health benefits of the tomato; all features that were recycled throughout various newspaper publications (and are arguably the first pre-industrial examples of viral content).
If nothing else, that should give you an idea of how durable and robust listicles are and why they are not set to disappear anytime soon.
2. How To / Instructional Guides
By their definition, instructional or ‘how to’ articles exist to answer very direct questions. However, that doesn’t mean that the articles themselves have to be linear, as long as they solve (or attempt to solve) the reader’s problem.
For example, a blog post that shows you how to mount a television on a wall will be pretty basic in terms of its scope; nothing more than a technical step-by-step guide (which is fine, because it’s exactly what the reader is looking for). But a post entitled “How to talk to girls” can be taken in any number of directions, depending on the writer. It can be a looser narrative based on the author’s own experiences; it can be broken down into a listicle of different approaches, or it can even be a step-by-step guide to one particular approach. The point is that on many topics, the structure can be as flexible as you want it to be.
Either way, these types of articles are certainly popular. “How to” is a highly-used search term on Google (“how to fill out a tax form”, “how to become an astronaut”) and people feel that they are explicitly solving a clear problem, which is a key facet of blog writing in particular.
Quizzes are a particularly popular choice for marketers; when you see a link on your Facebook feed asking “which type of BMW are you?” you can guarantee the author doesn’t care about the outcome – they care about showing you BMWs.
They are highly effective, as they are interactive and indulge people’s vanity by giving the illusion of a personal experience. They are also a legitimate format for content writing, as you can convey information to the participant in between questions; take, for example, a quiz intriguingly entitled “How does your job affect your health?” Asking someone what they eat for breakfast at work gives you the opportunity to talk about the pros and cons of different foods depending on their answer; your target audience won’t even realise they’ve been tricked into reading an informational article.
4. Case Studies
Case studies are again a format preferred by marketers, as they are an effective persuasive tool. In web writing terms, this process consists of making a deliberately emotive statement ,such as: “why you should quit your job and become a freelancer” – and then using one (or several) case studies of other people doing exactly this (successfully, of course).
In terms of structure, this can be conveyed in any number of ways, but it is important to present your examples as ‘evidence’ that their success can be replicated. You are trying to convince your reader that the course of action you’re suggesting is the best choice for them.
5. The “Premise Knock Down”
This is another popular technique that is often seen on social media, but it’s nothing new; newspapers have been milking this method for decades. ‘Premise knock down’ articles consist of taking a widely held belief or convention – usually a controversial one – and presenting an alternative angle on it, such as suggesting that eating sweetcorn (widely considered to be a healthy practice) can cause cancer, for example.
Of course, unless you’re a clickbait vendor, these claims need to be verified and substantiated with links to the relevant research; they don’t necessarily need to be scientific or academic though. Certain articles, such as 'Why it is acceptable to lie on a CV' – can be built around nothing more than anecdotal evidence. Just remember, the more compelling your proof, the more well-received your piece will be.
6. Visual Formats
As previously mentioned, sometimes it is easier to get your message across visually than in a text-heavy composition, such as when you are dealing with data or statistics. Although you may require the services of a graphic designer to achieve a compelling and appealing aesthetic, the extra effort is worth it: after all, it is scientifically proven that our brains respond more positively to visual information – especially things like instructions, numbers and educational guides.
So if you really want to reinforce your points and make them stick with your readers and customers, here are two of the key formats:
Infographics are a hugely popular means of communication. They work by condensing a lot of information into a small space and presenting it as an image. As a result, they possess several obvious benefits:
- Easily scanned and viewed (you don’t need to dig into any blocks of text to find what you’re looking for)
- Easily shareable (people can see the image directly without having to click on a link)
- Nicer to look at (this isn’t superficial – a visually appealing website is important)
- Embeddable (you won’t miss out on the SEO value of the keywords, as you can embed and use HTML formats)
Another increasingly inventive way to put across content is through slideshows, usually consisting of images supported by a couple of written sentences. Although there is less text, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: people remember 80 per cent of what they see, as opposed to 20 per cent of what they read, and an image-heavy article can take advantage of this.
Technically, slideshows are comparable to listicles in that the format is essentially the same; the main difference is that slideshows are spread over several pages and require some digital design prowess to implement.
Writing product reviews for items that you are trying to market (whether they are someone else’s or your own) is a proven and effective way of generating leads to a company’s sales funnel; this is because people want to know as much as they can about something before buying it.
Be careful though. Don’t be tempted into giving something top marks and writing a gushing ode of feigned amazement (it’s only a hoover after all). It’s very easy to spot the difference between a sales pitch and a genuine review, so be honest with your thoughts and focus more on the detail. If the reader can learn enough about the product from your review, it’s more than likely that they will come to their own conclusion – regardless of the ‘grade’ you give it.
Reviews can typically be structured in any number of ways. You can create a list of pros and cons; you can ask a question and then review several products that all claim to provide the solution, or you can write a conventional piece that allows for more personality in your writing – the choice is yours. Make sure it is clear though: reviews are good examples of evergreen content that will offer continual value to people weeks, months or even years down the line.
As you can see, there is more than one way of communicating your message to your audience. Adapting your format can make your content more accessible, more valuable, and more shareable; this in turn leads to:
- Higher visibility: Making it to page 1 of Google is the goal for all businesses with an online presence
- Higher domain authority:The higher your DA, the more attractive you are to guest bloggers and other businesses
- Social proof: Being engaged with social media and having followers gives a sense of validity and credibility to your business
- Brand reputation:This ties into social proof; the more ‘seen’ your brand is, the better
Finally, of course, it also allows you build tighter relationships with your audience, and really establish your ethos and what you can do to provide solutions to your customers. After all, the first rule of inbound marketing is that every business should have a story to tell – make sure yours is a compelling, engaging and well-formatted one!
If you’re unsure of how best to proceed with your content and would like some professional help, don’t hesitate to contact us and we can discuss the best course of action.