The way we do everything is changing. According to the internet (which never lied to us), the way we shop is changing, the way we learn is changing. Even the way we eat… changing. It’s evolution baby. But is change really such a good thing?
For over a decade now, writing has been part of my personal and professional life. I love writing. I love reading about writing and (as you’re hopefully about to find out) I love writing about writing. Yet despite everything I’ve learned, I’ve still managed to create an article today that has been, so far, completely useless.
Don’t believe me? Go back and read the first paragraph. It tells you nothing about what’s coming and breaks a bunch of other rules that would have been unforgivable when I started my writing career. But you’re still reading it, which means it’s doing the job. So, how did that happen?
Well, I started by setting the scene with a ludicrous headline and an impossible to prove opening statement. I backed that up with some hastily-Googled opinion and research which may or may not be of use (don’t know, didn’t read it), made a pop culture reference, then posed a question with no answer.
So now I’ve finally shown my hand, I’ve got a problem. How do I keep your attention for a bit longer? Brace yourself, because here comes the H2…
Content is dead
I know right? Boom. But don’t worry, content isn’t dead. Like most marketing-related bollocks you read online, this is just a dramatic statement based on an old headline format that means absolutely nothing. What it is though, is a bold statement that might convince you to stick around while I serve you some ads.
And that’s the problem. Most of the online copy you see these days isn’t built to inform, it’s built to keep you in one place for as long as possible. That’s what I’ve been doing. Remember when I even suggested you re-read a section? You don’t? Well I did. Beginning of the third paragraph. Go and check. See, I did it again.
Even if the content you choose has the information promised, it often won’t be where you’d traditionally expect to find it. It won’t be summarised in the opening paragraph, expanded upon in the second, supported with quote in the third and contextualised in the fourth. In fact, it’s more likely to be buried somewhere like… well, here…
Trust no one
Here’s the news. Gimmicks and lies are the new normal. Even respected publications like The Independent can get four paragraphs deep into a piece (above) before revealing who the possible villain is in the upcoming Spider-man movie. And what’s more, it can do it under the pretence of not wanting to ‘spoil’ the movie for you. Aww, gee thanks. You’re the best.
Not only does this rather patronising excuse ignore the fact you likely clicked the link because you wanted to know the answer to what was teased in the headline, it also assumes that between now and July 2017 you’ll have missed every teaser, trailer, TV spot, poster and other article that uses that very information to help promote one of the most anticipated movies of that year.
I understand publications are fighting for readers in an overcrowded market, but I don’t think that fight should cost them their reputation. Using misleading headlines and intentionally provocative statements to generate clicks and social media shares isn’t clever (in fact, in our world of instant social media outrage, it’s incredibly simple), yet many seem willing to risk their reputation by doing it.
Last week, BBC News (though granted it was the ‘yoof’ news offshoot brand BBC Newsbeat) posted a link on its site with the caption ‘Is it OK to grab a woman on the street, even if it’s for a ‘prank’?’. Now, I work in marketing, so I’m naturally cynical, but I don’t believe for one single minute that the Newsbeat team didn’t know they’d get the reaction they did from this absurd and insensitive piece of copy. But at what cost did those comments, shares and retweets come? And what did they really gain from any of them?
Change… for good
The way people consume editorial content is changing, which means writers need to change too (at least, if we want to get paid). But – and call me old fashioned if you like – I think there are smarter, more effective ways to do it than ripping up the established rules and employing cheap, dirty tricks (as I’ve done here, to illustrate the point) that damage your reputation and/or the brand you represent.
If you want to keep your audience, give them a reason to stick around. Tell them a story, make them laugh, engage with them on an emotional level or put something in their head that will lodge itself in there for a while. It’s not easy, but if you find you just can’t do it… I’d suggest you’re in the wrong job.