Editor’s note: This is the third post in a series about the Content Era. To read the previous post, click here.

You surely haven’t missed the news that these days, just about everyone is in the content game and competing for attention. Did you know, for example, that in 2012, nearly 140,000 new websites appeared online every day? Not only that, last year nine out of ten B2B marketers reported that they expected to produce more content this year than they did last year, a trend that will undoubtedly continue.

As a result of all of this activity, we are bombarded with more content than we could ever begin to consume. And, since a lot of that content is boring, confusing, self-serving, or inarticulate, we have become adept at making instant decisions about what content we’ll consume and what we’ll delete or ignore. In fact, most of us decide whether or not to read an e-mail within a split second based on the subject line, or decide to leave a website within seconds if it isn’t immediately clear that it contains what we want.

As the graphs reflecting growth in content marketing — the process of using content to attract, retain, and engage your customers — trend sharply up, the competition for our attention is increasing. This presents a challenge because your content needs to stand out from all the noise. As Jake Sorofman, research director at Gartner, warned last year, “audiences are inundated by pleas for their attention and consumers no longer respond to anything but the most compelling content.” In view of content’s powerful role in building customer relationships, this should trouble everyone seeking to deploy content to grow their business.

Make your content findable, readable, and engaging

So how can your company rise above the noise? We hear a lot today about usability. Certainly you need to generate content that responds to customers’ real needs, answers their questions with actionable information, and does all that in as short a time as possible. To really stand out, however, your content must be findable, readable, and engaging.

  • Your content won’t get far without readers, so you have to ensure that your content is findable. That means making sure that search engines understand what your content is about by utilizing the right keywords (particularly multi-word phrases known as long-tail keywords) in the appropriate places in your content, such as the headlines, the first sentence or two of the body, and the metadata. By doing so, you’re not only doing readers a favor by making your content more scanable, but also helping yourself by optimizing your content for search engines.
  • Once your readers have found your content, it must be readable. There are several ways to measure content readability, including how concisely it’s written, its scanability, and its objectivity. Online content should be at least 50 percent leaner than its print version. Staying concise also helps readers scan your content, with simple sentences and bite-size chunks of straightforward text to guide their eyes up, down, across, and diagonally. Objectivity reassures readers that your content provides relevant information rather than promoting your brand. All three elements matter. A classic study by John Morkes and Jakob Nielsen discovered that concise writing increased usability by 58 percent; making content scanable improved usability by 47 percent; and delivering objective content improved usability by 27 percent. Taken together, all three resulted in a 124 percent increase in the usability of web content. And, in our view, improving usability leads to higher levels of readership.
  • Finally, you’ll want to engage your readers so that they actually enjoy your content. There are several ways to do this. One is to simply adopt a warm and inviting tone of voice that speaks to your readers rather than at them. Other tactics include posing questions, encouraging and promptly responding to comments, and including visually engaging images.   

Once your company has established clear standards for your content, it’s important to ensure that you apply those standards consistently across all of your content assets. Since it’s your customers, and not you, who control what content they view and when, it’s important to ensure consistency in the tone, language, and overall usability of your content to create a cohesive experience. Content creators should also take note that readers almost always react negatively to jargon, errors in spelling and grammar, inaccuracies, and incomplete information. Attention to detail is key.

Customers expect consistency in content, and often quickly become discouraged when they don’t find it. This reality has led to significant improvements. For example, when Cigna Health Insurance emphasized its user-friendliness for policyholders, the company heard from customers that its explanation-of-benefits documents were hard to understand, which implied that the company did not care about its patients. In response, the company rewrote these documents in plain English.

At the 2013 Best Practices Conference, Microsoft reported that similar feedback persuaded them to re-evaluate content that customers described as too technical, confusing, and cold. They realized poor content not only made it harder for customers to understand the company’s products, it also hurt customers’ opinion of the company itself. For example, Microsoft decided to reword its dialog boxes in Excel with language that is clearer, shorter, and more straightforward.

As content proliferates, overcoming the background din will continue to challenge all of us as we fight for attention in the content era. The challenge is even greater in a global context, as companies do business in multiple markets and multiple languages. My final post in this series will focus on how to stay ahead in the global content race.