How to Write Better Content, Your DIY Guide
Not everyone wants to hire a ghostwriter. Not everyone can afford to. With an estimated 4,500,000 pieces of new content every day, what you really can’t afford is writing in a way that doesn’t engage your readers.
I thought I’d help out.
This article is not about the overall strategy of content marketing. It’s more a nuts and bolts how to put a piece together so that people will read it.
This article is not about loading keywords either. It’s nice for people to find an article. It’s nicer if they actually read it. It’s even nicer if they act on it.
I know I’m going to catch flak for this, especially when I re-write Hemingway later on. Frankly, I don’t care. I am writing this to help you connect with your customers.
I firmly believe that you have something to say. I also believe that what you have to say is worth reading.
Sadly, I also believe that many of you lack the confidence to put your thoughts to paper (screen?)
You fear the trolls who will contradict you or mock you. You fear one-upmanship from an “expert.” You fear that you will sound stupid. You fear that people won’t agree with you. You fear that you don’t really have anything to say.
To all those fears, I say, “BullShit!”
“ Just Do It! — Nike”
Let me tell you a secret.
You are an expert. You have experiences and insights that I do not have. The stuff that is obvious to you is not obvious to me. I want you to tell me about it!
How not to do it
There’s much topic regurgitation. In fact, many experts suggest that you write based on the most popular Google searches.
That is not a good idea unless you are a professional in that specific field. It would also help if you had a specific, unusual viewpoint to add.
Leave topics like “The 7 Real-World Realities of Real-Estate Leadership” alone. I see at least a dozen “leadership” posts every day. Most are regurgitations of each other.
Most say “leader = good, manager = bad.” In other words, they are a crock of poop.
Ditto for just about anything that mentions “Millenials.”
Just Don’t Do It! — Me
Content Writing is Business Writing.
Business writing is not a soapbox from which to shout your brilliance to the world. The world doesn’t care. The purpose of business writing is to get a point across, period!
Ernest Hemingway wrote to his publisher, “I wanted to send you a short note, but I couldn’t spare the time. I wrote you this long letter instead.”
Hemmingway would have felt right at home on the web.
Writing on Content is not like writing the Great American Novel.
One is a Ferrari. The other is an off-road pickup. Both have their uses. The pickup truck would get creamed on the track. The Ferrari wouldn’t make it ten yards/meters off-road.
We need to fight our education
I don’t say that often, but in this case, it’s true. We’ve written papers, reports, synopses, etc, all in a scholarly voice. We use stilted language in annual reports and business plans.
Those voices won’t cut it here. People are busy. They skim more than read. Make it easy on them.
Write with Hemingway (hemingwayapp.com that is)
You need to simplify your language. Don’t utilize hemmingwayapp.com, use it.
Paste text into the free web-app and it will show you what you need to fix. It’s as simple as that.
Don’t use a paragraph if a sentence will do.
Don’t use an eight-letter word if a three-letter one will do. It doesn’t make you sound smarter to use the bigger word, trust me. It makes you sound like a poor communicator.
Heck, don’t use a three-letter word if a grunt will do.
One thing hemingwayapp.com doesn’t do
One thing that hemmingwayapp.com will not help with is paragraph length. Forget about formal rules of grammar here. If any paragraph is more than six lines, cut it in two.
Your readers are busy people. They will skim articles. Many are reading on a phone. When they hit a big block of text, they just jump right over it.
Another thing hemingwayapp.com won’t help with
Try to keep your posts under 1000 words. Anything over or around 500 is fine. Make sure you cover your subject matter so that people get value from the read.
That’s key. Your work should be long enough to give the reader value, but not a word longer.
Don’t go all “War and Peace” on their asses.
Yes, this post breaks the rule. That’s due to the extended intro and the long Hemingway quotes. That and it was originally written as several posts.
Don’t Write Like Faulkner (As if we could, right?)
Faulkner is a Greater Writer. To me, Faulkner is like Texas Chile, delicious, but hard to digest. He is a bad model for marketing content.
I pasted excerpts from Faulkner into hemingwayapp.com. Faulkner wrote at grade 15–18 level. Most sentences came back as “Difficult to read.” or “Very difficult to read.”
Grade-18 reading level is okay for Faulkner.
You and I are not Faulkner.
So Write like Hemingway, sort of…
Ernest Hemingway is also a Great Writer. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is a Great Literary Work. Hemingway’s style is the closest to what you need to do on LinkedIn, except for one major thing.
Fortunately, for us, the one thing we need to avoid is incredibly difficult to pull off. We probably couldn’t make it work even if we wanted to.
Hemingway deliberately made parts difficult to read to slow the reader down. When you read Hemingway, you slow down where he wants you to slow down.
Hemingway had a tendency to mix in long convoluted sentences into his simpler prose. He did it to create tension. He deliberately made parts difficult to read to slow the reader down. He then eased the reader back into his flow.
Worked great, but not recommended for writers of lesser skill. That would include…. pretty much everybody!
Hemingway wrote at a Grade 3 reading level.
I know, right!?! It surprised me too. If Ernie can keep it at that level, it ain’t too low-brow for you. Nobody on this planet thinks Hemingway was stupid.
Here’s my favourite passage from “For Whom the Bell Tolls”:
“And another thing. Don’t ever kid yourself about loving someone. It is just that most people are not lucky enough ever to have it. You never had it before and now you have it.What you have with Maria, whether it lasts just through today and a part of tomorrow, or whether it lasts for a long life is the most important thing that can happen to a human being. There will always be people who say it does not exist because they cannot have it. But I tell you it is true and that you have it and that you are lucky even if you die tomorrow.”
I pasted that passage into hemingwayapp.com. It said…
- 0 out of 7 sentences are hard to read
- 1 out of 7 sentences are very hard to read
- 0 phrases have simpler alternatives
- 0 adverbs, well done
- 0 use of the passive voice
The Very Hard to Read sentence is in bold
You slow down when you get there because it’s hard to read. That is intentional. That is because Hemingway wanted you to slow down and absorb it deeply. That is Hemingway’s genius. Don’t even try it.
Fortunately, you shouldn’t do it.
Heck, you couldn’t do it!
So don’t worry about it!
Let’s try the passage again, but this time I’ll remove the very hard to read part.
“And another thing. Don’t ever kid yourself about loving someone. It is just that most people are not lucky enough ever to have it. You never had it before and now you have it. There will always be people who say it does not exist because they cannot have it. But I tell you it is true and that you have it and that you are lucky even if you die tomorrow.”
Pop this version into hemingwayapp.com and you get a perfect bill of health. It shows a reading level of grade 3. Maybe it doesn’t hit quite as hard. It still gets the point across. That’s the goal here.
My apologies to Ernest Hemingway.
For use in content, we need another step. The block of text is too long. It’s six lines. Let’s cut it in two.
“And another thing. Don’t ever kid yourself about loving someone. It is just that most people are not lucky enough ever to have it. You never had it before and now you have it.
There will always be people who say it does not exist because they cannot have it. But I tell you it is true and that you have it and that you are lucky even if you die tomorrow.”
That’s easier to skim through, right?
My point is NOT that you can write better than Hemingway.
I mean, c’mon! My point is that you don’t have to. You just have to wrap your head around simplified writing.
If Hemingway wrote at a Grade 3 level it’s because he chose to. It’s not because he lacked the vocabulary to write “better”. But don’t take my word for it, take his.
“If I started to write elaborately… I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out… and throw it away” — Ernest Hemingway
If I see one more “Leadership” post, I’ll scream! Sorry, I just can’t take them seriously. How can anyone write about leadership when they are following the herd? Practice what you preach.
When I first started out, I did what everybody does. I Googled “writing for the web” and “effective blogging.” Some of it was useful. Most was not. Some of it was downright wrong.
How NOT To Do It #1
Many suggest checking the most searched terms to see what is “trending”. Others say to look at the most popular hashtags. Selecting a topic is easy. Choose a popular subject and write about that.
That sounds logical. It’s a really bad idea.
Why I Think it’s a Bad Idea
No regular person has a big enough following to carry a trend or hashtag on their own. Popular subjects are popular because there are a lot of posts. Do you really want to be an also-ran?
The top searches lately have been some variation of “leadership” or “marketing to millennials.” Even millennials are fed up of hearing about themselves. There’s even a post on “Leadership for Millenials.” Looking for a double whammy, I guess.
This method of choosing a topic is the reason behind all the gripes about repetitious posting. There are 1,000,000 publishers on LinkedIn. If even just 0.1% use this method, that’s one thousand “Leadership” and/or “Millennial” posts! Come to think of it, that sounds about right.
How NOT To Do It #2
Another common suggestion says follow several Influencers and write about what they write about. There are a few issues with that:
- Influencers have massive followings and active support.
- Most of them don’t actually say very much worth repeating.
- There are Influencers and then there are Influencers
Why I Think it’s a Bad Idea
Let’s say Richard Branson posts the lyrics to “Mary had a Little Lamb.” He will still kick your heinie in engagement numbers. If anyone knows Sir Richard, ask him to try. It would make for a great social experiment.
If Anne Handley writes a post on how to choose a topic, would you read this one? Heck, even I wouldn’t.
Where I Find My Topics
I read a lot of posts. Often, they give me ideas on posts of my own. Sometimes I add to them or offer a different viewpoint. Sometimes I disagree with them (politely of course).
Comments on Posts
When you read a lot of posts, you end up posting a lot of comments. Often, you can’t put all your thoughts into a comment. That leads to a post of your own.
Customers, Co-Workers, etc
This is probably easiest for those who deal directly with customers. It is also, hands down the most powerful.
You don’t talk to customers directly? Ask your reps, service techs, and customer service people.
What questions are they asking? What are their concerns? What answers are they looking for?
Answer in a post.
I wrote about iBeacons because I was often asked for my opinion on them.
I wrote about Eddystone (twice) for the same reason.
I wrote a series describing the technologies in location-based marketing. That’s because of the questions I get asked.
I’m writing this post because people ask me how I choose topics.
Some Side Points to Choosing a Topic
Make sure that you actually have enough to say about the topic so that it’s worth reading. Don’t make it so long that people give up reading, though.
I don’t know how often I start reading a very long post that interested me. Then something comes up, so I decide to finish it later.
Later never comes.
I often see data that says the most popular posts are 2000–2500 words long. I’m not arguing the data, but I think 1000, more or less, is plenty.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen good posts as short as 350 words. The trick is to write enough to answer the question, but no more.
If the answer needs to be long. Consider breaking it up into a series of shorter posts.
I’m seeing more posts with video, inline pictures, etc. I’m not sure how I feel about them.
If an image or video enhances your post, by all means, use it. Popping in images etc. for the sake of having them seems counterproductive to me.
My rule of thumb is this. If the text does not refer to an image, or if that image does not prove the text, don’t use it.
Images as eye candy just annoy readers.
The Importance of Image and Title Selection
A newsfeed is a busy fast place. Will people even notice your post? If you are writing to a subscriber base, will they click your post or someone else’s?
Think about it.
My LinkedIn newsfeed scrolls by at about 300 updates an hour. I only have about 1100 connections, and I follow maybe another 100 people.
My Twitter feed is insane. It can easily get to 2500 updates an hour.
You might be thinking that these problems don’t apply to you. After all, you write a corporate blog/case studies/white papers on a corporate website.
I hate to disillusion you.
How do you think you will promote your blog, case study, or white paper?
Exactly, you’ll use LinkedIn and Twitter. You may also need Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc.
With all those updates, on all those platforms, will anyone even notice your post?
If they do notice it, will they choose to read it?
Their time is finite. If they read yours, they don’t read someone else’s, and vice versa.
You need to raise yourself above the clutter. How you do that is up to you. This is how I do it.
I often spend as much time or more optimizing Titles and Images than I do on actually writing the post.
Optimizing The Title Image
A picture will grab the eye much faster than text can. There are lots of free images you can use. I don’t go nuts. I just use Google Image search for personal stuff.
For professional use, that’s a really bad idea.
If you are writing for your company, don’t do it. There are lots of places to get amazing images on the cheap and legal. I love istockphoto.com.
Find a D.A.M Good Picture
To me, the right picture needs to be D.A.M. good. That is, it must provide Drama, Action, and Mood that matches the post.
Some people start with the title. Some start with the image. Sometimes, like in “Kick a LinkedIn Publisher in the Nuts Today,” the image makes you change the title.
What I mean by Drama
I like pictures with tension. For me, they are best if they force a visceral reaction. They have a beauty and an emotional appeal to them. If you don’t react to the image, don’t bother with it.
If You don’t react to the image, They won’t.
There’s plenty of drama in this “Kick a Publisher” image.
What I mean by Action
The picture should suggest movement or some sort of progression. It must seem alive.
So far I have spent 20 minutes trying to describe what I mean. I’ve written and deleted at least 50 sentences. I guess this is one of those things where you just know it when you see it.
What I mean by Mood
This one is easier to explain. Your post has a mood. The image must match it. “Kick a LinkedIn Publisher in the Nuts Today,” was a quirky and tongue in cheek post. The cartoon fit.
The Eddystone posts came at a turbulent time in location aware marketing. The question of iBeacons versus Eddystone shook the business. The painting of the lighthouse at Eddystone in a turbulent sea well matched the prevalent feeling.
A word about image sizes
It can be a chore to match your image sizes to the requirements of social media sites. Facebook needs one size. Twitter another, and LinkedIn yet another.
Rather than re-invent the wheel, here’s a link to Social Media Examiner’s Ultimate Guide.
I’m lucky enough to have a graphic artist for a wife. When she upgraded to Adobe’s Creative suite, I swiped her Photoshop CS6.
You don’t need a feature-rich beast like Photoshop to just resize and crop images. A quick Google search will yield lots of options.
Optimizing Titles For the same Reasons as Images
I think of the image and the title as my salespeople. They have to sell people on reading the piece.
You used hemingwayapp.com to simplify your writing.
You can use CoSchedule’s “Headline Analyser” to write better titles.
A trial and error type of method
This is an educated guess combined with trial-and-error type of method. Just type in a title and hit analyse. The web app will give you a score and explain it.
Keep playing with it. Change this or that. See where the app says your title is weak. Change again. Analyse again.
Keep analysing until you score at least 70. Once you do, and if you’re fed up of the game, You have your title.
Here’s a screen shot showing the process I took to nail down this chapter’s title.
How to Put it All Together: Publish and Promote
If you are here, then…
- You figured out why you write.
- You chose a topic.
- You wrote the piece.
- You re-wrote it more simply.
- You added an optimized title and image(s).
Phew! So now you can hit “Publish,” right?
Not just yet. Once your article is published, are you ready to promote it?
Double check everything. Read it aloud. Yes, aloud.
Don’t trust your spell check
Proofread for spelling errors. Don’t trust your spell check. I once intended to write, “A thorny question,” and forgot the “T”. That changes the meaning somewhat.
Freudian slip? Perhaps.
Did you make extensive adds or edits? If so, run it through hemmingwayapp.com again.
Keep it simple.
Are your images ready?
I use LinkedIn and Twitter. That means I need three versions of my main image.
- 700X400 pixels for the article’s LinkedIn masthead.
- 525X410 pixels for later LinkedIn updates and for posting to Groups (Optional but suggested. More on that later)
- 600X600 pixels for promotional tweets.
- The specific size images for every social media platform you use.
You need the many image formats to maintain control over how the various platforms show them. Medium does some funky stuff with images. Be careful.
You can use the same image for LinedIn updates as you do for the masthead. I did that until recently. I saw some larger images on the newsfeed. Larger images mean better visibility. I changed my method to accommodate them.
Do you have fifteen minutes of free time?
Once you hit “Publish” you will have a few things to do. For greatest effect, you will need to do many things in short order. Make sure you have that time available.
Now you’re ready to pull the trigger!
It’s published! Now push it.
You need the link to your post. Many people use the one from their own view. Like this…
Don’t use the part in bold. The part after the question mark just passes variable names and their values to a web server. You may or may not need it if you are posting to a corporate-owned blog.
If in doubt, ask your IT guys.
When you have th elink to your post, go to your favourite link shortening tool. (I like https://bitly.com.) Paste your link and get a shortened version. You’ll need that for things like Twitter and Tumblr. URLs can get very long and character counts are at a premium.
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-put-all-together-publish-promote-paul-croubalian becomes http://bit.ly/1KYfXiz . Give it a title if one has not been auto-populated for you. You’ll need to find it again later.
Select the link and hit the copy button. You’ll need the link for Tweets and LinkedIn updates.
Share an Update on LinkedIn
Do this even if you are publishing directly on LinkedIn.
I got this hack from Gary Sharpe. It makes your updates pop.
Hit the “Share an Update” button. A panel opens up. Put in your title, any Twitter hashtags you want to use and the shortened link to your post. Make sure you keep in mind Twitter length limitations. If you select “Share with: Public + Twitter, Linkedin will keep a count of your characters.
Once the link is added, a small version of the masthead image will show up along with a short description. Ugly, but hey, they didn’t ask me. Let’s fix that.
There’s an “x” near the post description. Click it to get rid of the small picture and the description. Important Note: Do this only after you are happy with the first part. Any changes you make in the main box will reset this box. Not a big deal. You’ll just have to follow the steps over again.
Make sure “Share with: Public + Twitter” is also selected.
(Hi, Milos!) Click on the image icon to add your nice big picture. If you made a 523X410, use it. Otherwise, your masthead picture (700X400) will work.
It will now look like this.
That’s the way it’s supposed to look. Go ahead and hit the “Share” button.
Posting to LinkedIn Groups
When you publish to LinkedIn you have a “Post to groups” feature. Don’t use it. It sucks. Post to Groups individually using the same emthod I showed you fro updates. Your group posts will pop.
Posting individually also gives you a chance to customize your Group Discussions. Customized messages get better responses.
When starting group discussions, be careful not to violate any group rules!
Over to Twitter
Start a new tweet. Paste in your title, the shortened link, and any hashtags you want to use. Add in your Twitter optimized picture. It should now look something like this.
Note the right side of the picture where it says Gary Sharpe and 1 other. Rather than mention people in your Tweet using an @, you can say they are in the picture.
I can’t remember where I got this one. I don’t think I figured it out on my own. Apologies for the missing credit.
You will often mention people in posts. You may not have enough space to add their name in your tweet. You can add them to the picture.
See where it says, “Gary Sharpe and 1 other?” If you don’t add any names to the picture it will say “Who is in this picture.” I mention Gary and Milos there. This is a way to mention peope without using a @ and saving on character counts.
This is how the final tweet looks.
Ok, So NOW we’re done, Right?
Sort of. If you are like me and you only use LinkedIn and Twitter, you are done for now. If you use other platforms. Post to them as well. The more you promote, the more engagement you get. Just don’t spam!
Work out a schedule
You will need to regularly promote the piece. How you do that is up to you. I like to do a LinkedIn update every day or day and a half.
Twitter is a different beast. It isn’t too much to tweet it six times a day for several days. There are ways to schedule tweets with images for free. That hack is beyond the scope of this post.
I don’t use scheduling software. Many people swear by it. It’s up to you.
How to Engage Post Post: Views on Etiquette
This whole article originally appeared as a series of individual posts on LinkedIn. I called it my “Why and How I Write” series.
After I posted the final installment, Dawna Bate suggested that I write one more. Dawna wanted me to write about dealing with comments.
Since Dawna inspired this post, I think it’s fair that I start with a quote from her direct message to me.
I realized after I posted my first article that I had a responsibility to my readers. They take the time to comment. I need to take the time to acknowledge their feedback. :) — Dawna Bate
Can I hear a “Halleluja”?
I think Dawna has the right idea. Some people talk about replying to comments as a way to develop engagement. It’s more than just developing engagement. It’s just plain old human politeness.
Nothing drives engagement like engagement (tweetable)
We write posts for various reasons. Some of us just like to pontificate. Some want to establish a personal brand. Most of us, I think, want to start a discussion.
By definition, a discussion is a two-way thing.
That brings up three points
- Not responding to comments defeats the purpose. No matter what your purpose is, this remains true.
- One way discussions are inherently. That’s where most influencer type of posts fall down.
- There is often more “meat” in the comments than in the post. If you don’t read them, you are missing out. A lot of stuff gets left on the cutting room floor. They pop back up in the comments. That also some fertile ground where ideasfor new posts grow.
I write many posts about tech. Sometimes I leave strict interpretations on the cutting room floor. Comments allow the technical truth to re-emerge. This happened on my last location marketing post about beacons.
I said that beacons were proximity-aware. Technically speaking, they aren’t. They are useful for proximity awareness. They just don’t do it on their own. From a writing side, that is a cumbersome mouthful. I cut it out.
A comment fixed the strict technical view.
How to respond
Even a “Thanks for taking the time to comment,” is a good start. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed. Often, the comment requires a clarification or a deeper dive into a point.
Sometimes the response generates a whole new post, either for you or for the commenter. YAY!
Just think “discussion” and you’ll do fine.
Respond even (especially?) to those who disagree
Disagreement is normal. If everyone agreed all the time, what would be the point of communicating? I agree therefore I already think what you think. Heck, what would be the point of thinking at all?
Embracing disagreement does not mean you have to put up with abuse.
If you are writing a corporate blog, tread lightly. If you can delete an offensive comment, do it. Don’t delete differences of opinion, though. That will brand you as an A-hole at the speed of light.
Responding to trolls, hijackers, and other A-holes
This one is an open question. My view is to respond politely and firmly. Others say to ignore them. Either route is acceptable, just don’t engage in mud-slinging.
Can you link to your posts in comments?
This one is tricky. It depends on the person posting. Personally, I don’t mind if someone posts a link to an article that is on the same subject. If the other post relates to and can further the discussion, I’m OK with it. It doesn’t matter if it supports my view or contradicts it.
Of course, when I’m replying on behalf of a client, I cut obvious attempts at a hijack. So if I wrote for Ford, I would cut a comment extolling the benefits of Chevy.
I don’t like it when someone spouts crap like, “Great post. I accept all connection requests! <profile link>,” or, “A good read. Click here to learn how I earn $1000 a day in my underwear”
Some authors hate links.
You have to know the person. Maybe you can mention the title of the post. Mention why you think it adds value to the discussion too. That might pass. It might not.
When in doubt, err on the side of caution. Don’t do it.
How to comment: The wrong way
I thought this was a problem limited to younger members. Many of my connections are friends of my kids. My C-suite connections intimidate them. I have since learned that it applies to a larger group.
They first read the comments to see if there is anything Earth-shattering they can add. There seldom is. Then they hit “Like” and go away.
Scoop: The freaking post wasn’t Earth-shattering. Why do you think your comment has to be?
How to comment: The right way
Read the post. Comment. It’s as simple as that.(tweet this)
Comment before you read the other comments. Who cares if your viewpoint matches someone else’s? You have an opinion. You have a voice. Speak. Believe me, at the very least, the author will appreciate it.
Even if you repeat the viewpoint someone else already posted, who cares? They certainly won’t mind the vote of confidence.
No matter your opinion, someone else will agree. Someone else will disagree. That’s called “Life.” Get over it.
Paul’s Post Scoring Thoughts
The lowest form of engagement is the View. These are the people who saw your post but were not engaged enough to do anything more. They may not even have read the whole thing. Heck, they may not have read it at all.
People freak out over view counts. We’ll get to why that’s so silly later. When someone talks about going viral, that just means they don’t get it.
Can a cat video go viral? Yup
Can a “wardrobe malfunction” go viral? Definitely.
Can a business post go viral? Not bloody likely.
If you get a lot of views but not much else, you may want to look at your writing style. You might be chasing them away, or losing them partway through.
Next up is the Like. Liking a post means there is some engagement, but not enough to warrant the effort of commenting. It’s just a click but it usually means they read the thing.
Commenting is a deeper form of engagement. It involves more effort. A Like should always go with a Comment.
If someone Likes your comment and replies. It’s only fair that you Like their response. Reply back if it’s at all possible.
Sharing means full agreement and is the highest form of engagement. A Like and a Comment should go with every Share. Comment, even if the comment is just to say you are Sharing.
Always acknowledge a Share!
This is not always possible. You may not even see the Share. So let’s just say that you should acknowledge a share whenever you see one.
The reader has just paid you the highest possible compliment. A “Thank you” is definitely in order.
This point transcends all platforms
Acknowledge mentions and shares in every platform where you notice them.
It is impossible to thank someone too much. I don’t think it’s excessive to bring a Share to Twitter, or a Retweet back to LinkedIn for a “Thank you”.
We don’t ignore people speaking to us in a live setting. We shouldn’t ignore them online.
Keep the “Social” in “Social Media.”
How to Measure Engagement the Easy Way
No, you didn’t read that wrong. Views actually do suck. It comes down to why we write. Some of us write to generate business. Some of us write to connect with others. Some of us write just because we need to.
It’s all the same thing.
Writing without reader engagement is like talking to yourself. There is no sharing of thoughts. There is no difference of opinion. There is no opportunity for persuasion in either direction.
There’s little point to it.
There is a general opinion that the more views the better. I beg to differ. In fact, I’ve noticed that the more views go up, the more the engagement rate drops.
Engagement is why we write. It’s why content marketing works. Big view counts are a measure of how widely a post was promoted.
They don’t say much about how effective that content was.
My Easy Way to Measure Engagement
Some people may disagree with me. I hate seeing a ton of views if there are few actions taken by readers. To me, that means the post did not resonate with them.
This may be a “bad” word, but to me, the post failed.
Some people use spreadsheets to analyze interactions on posts. Others spring for pricey analytics packages, then spend hours pouring over reports.
I’m too lazy for spreadsheets and too cheap for analytics. Besides, I write a ton of posts. I needed a down-and-dirty way to measure their effectiveness.
It had to be quick. It had to be easy. It had to be free.
Did I mention I’m cheap?
Buzzsumo’s free Chrome extension is a lifesaver here. A little icon sits on your browser. Click it while a post is in your browser window and it shows you the number of “shares” that post has.
I use quotes because I’m not actually sure what the word “shares” means. I doubt it means the same thing as we think of when we say “share.” I don’t really care, though.
I think of it as the number of engagements. (down-and-dirty, remember)
Buzzsumo will show Facebook activity, LinkedIn activity, Pinterest activity, and Google+ activity. It will try to figure out Twitter activity but often fails.
You can increase the odds of Buzzsumo indexing your post on Twitter by rattling off a few Tweets right after posting.
That’s a Twitter thing, not a Buzzsumo thing. No matter.
It’s quick. It’s easy. But, there are caveats.
Buzzsumo attempts to measure Twitter activity through indexing. Sometimes it’s nearly instantaneous. Other times it says that Buzzsumo has not indexed the URL yet and to come back later.
As so often happens in life, later never comes.
We just deal with it by using an acceptable range in the engagements to views ratio
The other caveat is the URL you use. The trouble lies in the way websites pass information to web servers. The two most common methods are POSTs and GETs.
For example LinkedIn uses GETs.
Often, you see a link with a question mark in it. Everything after the question mark is a list of variables and their values. Those are GETs.
GETs can be tame with only one variable. They can also be beasts with many variable=value pairs separated with ampersands (&).
To a browser that means open the URL https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-i-do-gordian-knots-customer-engagement-swords-paul-croubalian. The browser passes the value “”pulse_spock-articles” in the variable “trk.”
LinkedIn’s backend server knows what to do with the trk variable. Buzzsumo’s doesn’t. It just thinks that the whole thing is the URL it needs to measure. That’s not a good thing.
Use the full URL, including the GET variable(s) and often, you will get a value of zero engagement. Sometimes you will get very understated results.
Two workarounds to the URL issue
The first way is to just select everything from the question mark to the end and delete it. Don’t forget to hit <Enter> before clicking Buzzsumo to refresh the browser.
The second way is to go to the post and click the “Share to Twitter” button. The proper link is the one that is in the pop-up window. Copy and paste that one in your browser.
Again, if you are working with a company owned blog you may actually need some of those variables to identify your post. If in doubt, ask the IT guys.
Back to measuring engagement
I took a look at my last few posts and my most viewed post. Then I peeked at a LinkedIn Influencer post.
“How to Tell if Your Customer is an Idiot” is my most viewed post. It has 3157 views. Buzzsumo tells me there are 1147 engagements.
That’s a ratio of 36.33% engagement. Another way to look at it is that it takes 2.75 views to get a single engagement.
Not bad, but not great either.
My “What I Do” post, “On Gordian Knots, Customer Engagement, and Swords”, only has 174 views. It’s more focused and much more self-promotional. It has 114 engagements. That’s one for every 1.5 views.
Topics can affect views.
A post like “You Need to Stop Millennial Marketing Right Now” generates more buzz. So far it has 471 views and 419 engagements. That’s an engagement every 1.12 views.
There is also a seeming disconnect for some posts. “How to be Big and Small at the Same Time” had only 287 views, but Buzzsumo reports 382 interactions. That’s an engagement for every 0.75 views.
That makes no sense.
At least, it makes no sense until we realize that views reported are LinkedIn views, not total views. Does it matter? No, we just want a simple way to measure impact.
How I use the numbers
I like to see the engagements reported by Buzzsumo to be at least 75% of the views reported by LinkedIn.
You may have to play with what is “good” for a corporate, self-hosted blog. If you don’t get page views, go back to IT and ask for a page view counter.
After 20+ years in IT I can tell you to bring a snack with you when you ask. Not for you, for them. Donuts and chocolate seem to work best. Go with chocolate donuts and you cover all bases.
“What I Do: On Gordian Knots, Customer Engagement, and Swords” is a failure according to this metric. That’s okay. It’s an expected failure. The post is promotional, not instructive. Its purpose is to replace the ugly Summary Section of my LinkedIn profile and make it shareable.
Although “How to Tell if Your Customer is an Idiot” is my most popular post, it is also the worst post for engagement. True, more people engaged in total, but two-thirds of readers didn’t bother. That’s worrisome.
It too is a failure, but a mitigated one. There were a lot of comments, replies to comments, and discussions. Some discussions got a little heated.
The post, “You Need to Stop Millennial Marketing Right Now,” is more successful than “How to Tell if Your Customer is an Idiot.” It had only 9% of the views, but 33% of the engagement.
Looking at it another way, 2010 readers were not moved to action by “How to Tell if Your Customer is an Idiot.”
“You Need to Stop Millennial Marketing Right Now” resonated with “all” readers.
These days, people who come in, read something, and don’t engage are quite possibly gone for good. It’s best to avoid that. Duhh!
When you are trying to gauge the success of your content marketing, views suck huge!
Say you publicize a post that is aimed at getting people to provide their email for future contact or subsequent downloads. Do you want tons of views or tons of emails?
The two do not follow. At least not directly.
It gets worse with PPC (Pay per Click). Here, you pay for views. That’s when you really want to get a high engagement rate. The sad truth is that most PPC initiatives have conversion rates in the low single-digits.
Look back on the difference between my two posts, “How to Tell if Your Customer is an Idiot.” and “You Need to Stop Millennial Marketing Right Now.”
In PPC terms, “How to Tell if Your Customer is an Idiot.” would have cost eleven times more than “You Need to Stop Millennial Marketing Right Now.” Even though it would have cost eleven times more, it only produced three times the response.
Casual, untargeted readers raise view counts. Viewers are not invested. They are not your targets.They do not engage.
They do not care.
You may gain name recognition. Name recognition is a two-edged sword if there is no context connected to it.
That doesn’t mean you should forget about Views
Don’t get me wrong, views are an important measure of how well you promote your posts. They mean jack about how well those posts connect with your targets. Views suck and engagement rocks.
To best illustrate this point, let’s look at th emost publicized and platform-supported content of them all, the LinkeIn Influencer system.
I applied Buzzsumo to the first Influencer post I saw while writing this. I won’t mention the post. It had 15,622 views. Busssumo reports 1601 interactions. That’s one interaction for every 9.75 views. Ouch.
Curious, I checked a few more. My random selection was a strong post. Other Influencer posts averaged an engagement for every 18 posts.
LinkedIn is not doing Influencers any favors the way they are going about it.
To be blunt, if I had a post that engaged once every eighteen times, I’d break my keyboard over my head.
Then I checked five posts from other authors on LinkedIn. This is pretty much a random selection. They are presented here in alphabetical order.
- Ali Anani, PhD “Simple; yet Great Concepts” One engagement per 1.37 views
- Phil Freidman “Do Not Mistake What Is For What Should Be” One engagement per 1.64 views.
- Jim Murray “Some Early 2016 Thoughts On Social Media & The Nature Of Our Relationships With Each Other.” One engagement per 1.18 views. Not indexed on Twitter
- Trent Selbrede “Writing On LinkedIn In 2015 — A Retrospective” One engagement per 1.38 views. Not indexed on Twitter
- Chaz Wyatt “No Resolution” One engagement per 1.17 views. Not indexed on Twitter.
Trent’s post had the most views just edging out Phil’s by 3 views. Chaz’ post had the least views, but the best engagement rate.
Sure, we would all like to have gazillions of people read every post. We would also like to have everyone comment, like, convert, or otherwise engage.
That ain’t gonna happen.
All in all, I have a preference for high engagements rates.
If I’m paying for the freaking clicks I’d insist on it!
Let’s close this puppy down
I can keep yakking about this stuff all day. We both have things to get done. If you apply what we discussed here, your content will improve. Your enagement will improve, provided that you don’t get too salesy with it.
Think teach and help, not preach and sell.
Is there a middle ground between hiring a pro to do it and doing it yourself? Sure there is. In fact, that middle ground is where I prefer to play.
The middle ground is editing. It works like this.
You write your thoughts on the subject. You send it to the ghost (<cough> me, maybe?) The ghost then does the hair and make-up and sends it back.
Editing takes me less time than writiing. Fees are 30–40% lower. That’s worth considering.
Give it a shot
I’m here if you need help. I won’t re-write your work for free, but I will help you out of a jam. I can give advice, tips, encouragement, etc.
Fear will be your enemy and your motivator. That’s OK. Feel the fear. Embrace it. Do it anyway.
EasyTweet This Article
About the Author
I’m a ghost but not the kind that’s into pottery wheels. I’m the writing kind. I often wonder if I’m a tech-savvy writer or a writing-savvy technologist. Maybe I’m both.
As one CMO put it, “Paul makes tech my bitch!” That might be going a little too far.