Posted by Amanda_Gallucci
The past year, major publishers have run the full gamut from listicles with clickbait headlines to well-researched, in-depth storytelling. Each format worked for different audiences and contexts, and as publishers repeatedly tested new types of content, they found several winning combinations.
By taking a look at the strategy behind why some of the most popular content styles of 2014 performed so well, brands can learn to repurpose and utilize these formats for their own content.
The local snapshot
Whether taking the form of a list, interactive map, or article, content that focused in on a certain segment of the population, or compares and contrasts diverse segments, made up some of the most widely shared and discussed content.
The New York Times created a map that represented America’s palate by showing the most searched for Thanksgiving recipe in every state: Thanksgiving Recipes Googled in Every State.
Why it works
The more closely content is personally tied to the reader, the more they are invested in it, so content that is focused on a particular area or demographic has a high appeal to the people in that group. People feel one of two ways about this type of content: either they find it to be a spot-on representation of their community, or they starkly disagree with how they were perceived. In both cases, the opinion is strong and people want to share with others about either the content’s accuracy or their reasons why the author didn’t get it right. Moreover, content that pits different places or groups against each other further increases a person’s desire to defend their loyalty to their group, as well as strikes up curiosity and conversations when people are genuinely surprised to find out how different they are from others.
How to spin it
Dig into your sales data and see if you can find any interesting trends as far as different groups of people favoring different products or services. You can also use social engagement tools and social listening to find interesting patterns in online behavior. Depending on the type of insights you discover, you can decide if a map or another type of graphic makes the most sense to present your findings.
Investing a great deal of resources into producing a piece of content aimed at only one group can seem to be less of an opportunity than something all encompassing, however sometimes when you try to cover your whole audience at once, you end up reaching no one on a deep enough level. Try out both hyperlocal content and content that compares different local segments to see which performs best.
The success formula
Whether giving tips from specific celebrities or business leaders, or rounding up the commonalities between “every great leader” or “all accomplished entrepreneurs,” content that claimed to give the secret steps to success was quite popular. Just a step up from a listicle, these articles paired first-person accounts and statistics with helpful tips.
Forbes turned research about how people deal with stress into tips on how to avoid it: How Successful People Squash Stress.
Why it works
People want to be successful and turn to informational and self-help content in order to better themselves. Pairing tips with people’s real stories or data largely increases the credibility of the advice, giving the readers more reason to believe that the content can help them achieve their own success.
How to spin it
Make the success formula specific to your niche. Go beyond interviewing thought leaders about their backgrounds and general advice. Q&As with bright individuals don’t always produce high traffic and social shares because while the person answering questions is successful, the questions and answers don’t produce any concrete takeaways from which others can learn. Compile actual schedules and to-do lists that show how effective workers spend their time, describe what tools a professional in your space uses to accomplish certain tasks, or explain the story behind the numbers that show a group or company’s growth. Peel away any generic and clichéd recommendations to reveal the details that make up a repeatable method other people in the field can use.
Sometimes the “steps” in posts like these are overly simplistic and not completely fleshed out. For instance, “start by setting goals,” on its own has very little value and it’s something that people have heard before. Giving more specific examples about the types of goals to set, tips and tricks of how to set obtainable goals or keep track of goals, or a behind-the-scenes look at a successful individual or brand’s goals with the details of how they were achieved can turn advice into useful content.
The nonfiction story
While micro content may have excelled in 2014, there were also many notable long-form pieces of strong journalism. Publishers sought to put names and faces to cold facts about poverty, crime, and other important issues that are sometimes glazed over as mere statistics. The combination of detailed accounts and telling photography or data visualizations alongside careful research brought previously hidden subjects to light.
Newsweek told the story of what really happens in one of the most dangerous cities of America in Murder Town USA (aka Wilmington, Delaware).
Why it works
Powerful storytelling will always be compelling. Humanizing facts makes people take interest because it allows them to relate and moves them to feel a certain way.
How to spin it
Start by asking questions about data patterns and doing research to see if you can determine the source of unique trends. This doesn’t have to involve extensive reporting; one interview with a person who has a unique point of view can be all you need to tell a remarkable story.
In-depth stories are only worth the reader’s time investment if the author has something interesting to share, so this format is not easy to produce consistently in every subject. It can be a risk to take the time needed to produce something on such a grand scale only for it to not to gain traction. A big piece of content like this should not be attempted unless the idea is vetted among people in your circle of influence and there is a large enough promotional strategy around it to help it take off.
The crowdsourced list
The latest trend with publishers like BuzzFeed and Huffington Post is listicle posts that round up the funniest/saddest/most absurd stories from different threads on Reddit or other forums. Editors read through a thread and select what they deem to be the 10+ best posts under that topic, and publish the list either as is or including new images and light commentary. BuzzFeed has also taken this a step further and created posts that are simply open-ended questions people can answer for the chance to be featured in a follow-up post that includes the top answers.
BuzzFeed turned the Ask Reddit question “What is the most George Constanza-esque reason you broke up with someone?” into this post: The 32 Most Ridiculous Reasons Real Couples Have Broken Up.
Why it works
Like any listicle, this content is bite-sized, organized, and easy to digest. It also saves people time from reading through mediocre stories if they were to read through the entire forum thread themselves, or helps them discover this type of content in the first place if they aren’t a regular Redditor or forum user. If the editor accurately picks the most interesting posts to include, the content is quite informative and/or entertaining, making it highly shareable.
How to spin it
Create your own version of the crowdsourced listicle by collecting user generated questions, testimonials, or relevant experiential stories. These tidbits can be used for a blog post or combined with visuals to make an interesting SlideShare. Whether openly asking questions on social media to increase engagement and start conversations, or sending out a survey, there are plenty of ways to get shareable information from your audience.
While creating a list of other people’s responses might appear lazy, having an eye for what people will enjoy reading and taking the time to sift through endless threads and posts is still work. No, not every brand should be emulating the BuzzFeed and Huffington Post “quick content” listicle style, however disregarding it as low quality can also be a mistake. A look at any of BuzzFeed‘s sponsored content case studies shows that the publisher can create tremendous brand lift, especially in the millennial segment. Quality should be viewed in the eyes of the reader, and so when listicles like these are getting many thousands of views and social shares, they should be seen as inherently valuable to at least a certain group of people.
Content before format
While format is important in each of the above cases, none of these pieces would have succeeded had they not been backed with substance. Each example includes elements that make up strong content:
- Use existing resources. While each of these pieces of content was unique, they all pulled from existing content or data sources. Being creative with what’s already available is a huge resource saver as well as a great way to include content and data to which people already have a connection.
- Get specific. All content is better when it’s backed up with examples and stories from real people and places. Details are what bring stories to life and make them memorable.
- Appeal to emotions. Whether you want to make someone laugh, stroke their ego, or raise concern, every piece of content should be tied to a goal of making the reader feel something. People have little motivation to engage with content that hasn’t altered their mood or opinion.
As you begin to slate content for 2015, keep an open mind for trying out new formats and experimenting with these styles that have proved effective. With the right combination of short and long-form content, you can reach all parts of your audience while balancing your resources.
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