Cutting through the Clutter as the Content Channel Clogs

Have you ever asked how to raise a small businesses visibility online? You won’t have to look far for someone to tell you that, “you should start a blog” or “make really helpful videos.” But is that really the answer for attracting more awareness? Can we really expect to bring in sales with content?

Billions of bloggers

We know that anyone can create a blog, but the numbers show something worse – that everyone is creating their own blog. WordPress alone sees 100,000 new sites created every day – adding to the over 60 million current WordPress sites. Tumblr claims over 90 million blogs. The list goes on.


The above link/image show that there are about 1 million new posts per day on WordPress alone. How many blog posts have you read today?

Video doesn’t look any less cluttered, with 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube per minute at last count. That’s over 3 billion hours just in new video per month. Youtube also tells us that 4 billion hours of video are watched each month. Think about that – almost 38 billion hours of new competition per year, competing for the same 4 billion viewer hours each month.

The growing mountain of online content doesn’t stop there. One survey suggests that 91% of B2B businesses use content marketing, 71% have blogs, and 88% planning to increase their spending on content marketing.

There are literally millions of personal and corporate sites creating content, all trying to get readers to linger on their site.  There will be more content online – an almost endless stream of content. Velocity called it “Crap. The Content Marketing Deluge.” Flip through it below if you haven’t already.

Still want to start that blog or keep it going? Then let’s start looking at how we’re going to stand out. The advice in the presentation above is good – really good – but it’s not very specific. How can you be authoritative, strategic, prolific, and passionate? What does it mean to be tough on yourself and think like the consumer?

Conquering clutter

No one knows the pain of a cluttered advertising channel more than television ad makers. As an entirely new medium through which to connect with customers, former radio advertisers worked to figure out what worked. Those who did it well made huge profits. Lured by the success of multi-million dollar returns, soon every mid-to-large-sized brand realized they needed ads, too. Before long, there were so many ads that consumers began to tune out all but the best ads. Sound familiar?

Advertising on traditional mediums hasn't died, and neither will online content marketing. Just like those who know how to make their ads stand out will succeed, so will the best content marketing strategies. As we go along, why not take some guidance where we can from an industry that has already done some of the hard work for us?

Your template is bad, and you should feel bad.

Let’s consider a classic example from Made to Stick of two minivan ads:

That’s more or less your standard minivan ad. It’s safe and has no big surprises. Contrast that with this:

This ad works so well as both an attention-getting device and as an illustration because it plays off the expected template of car commercials, then flips it on its head. You can, of course, break a template without being so meta about it.

Consider another often-cited example: Geico. Insurance ads in the past were dull, boring, trust-inspiring bore-fests. The “template” for insurance was, “slow, reliable, and professional.” Geico came along with goofy commercials with talking reptiles and cavemen, and suddenly people paid attention – the company seriously broke the template, and it worked.

geico-gecko This used to be unique.

Interestingly, Geico-esque commercials are almost the norm in insurance ads now, setting the stage for anyone brave enough to use a new template and save me from the gecko ad that plays non-stop on Hulu.

How does this apply?

Article structure: You are not a journalist for a national newspaper. (Unless you are… in which case you can probably ignore this point.) Maybe you shouldn’t try to write like one. The “inverted pyramid” / “just the facts” style of writing is a great way to present information, but becoming another news source with the same content and the style as larger sources is to become part of the noise.

If you’re in a niche where you can present the best, most thorough information of anyone around, feel free to use that style. If you are not providing the best news and information source in the industry, don’t follow the same template as the guy who does.

Image placement and page layout: You’ve probably heard the advice to use images on the top of your post. Guess who else does that? Everyone. Experimenting with various page layouts and templates requires better-than-basic web design skills, which is why so few sites really take advantage of page layout to stand out, and why it works so well.

Infographic presentation: You know what would be cool? An infographic that tells me how long I have to exercise to burn the calories in my favorite foods. Oh wait, that’s been done about a million times. Never mind the fact that the relationship between minutes of exercise and calories could be expressed in a simple linear graph. Without talking about the content (yet), surely we could think of a more interesting and unique method of presentation?

I’m not suggesting we stop using templates altogether – templates exist because they work. Just make sure you’re using one that doesn’t scream, “me too.”

Credibility demands quality

There are more subtle elements in television ads that have a huge impact. Sometimes we don’t notice, because many of the ads have similar levels of quality. The sound is clear and crisp, the image is high quality, the cinematography is often good, the lighting allows us to see everything, and the music isn't bad. These are things we don’t really notice until they’re bad.

This business might be credible, but that’s not the sense their ad gives. A high-budget commercial doesn’t necessarily guarantee credibility, of course. You could, for example, blow your credibility as a domain name registrar by shamelessly pushing irrelevant sexy models on your audience. But that’s another story.

A low-quality site will undermine your credibility, just like the ad above undermines the credibility of the message. Luckily, high-quality sites don’t need to be high-budget.

How does this apply?

Site design: Why do we trust sites with better design? It probably has something to do with the halo error. Just as people overwhelmingly judge more attractive people to be (among other things) more trustworthy, we believe that the more attractive websites are more trustworthy. The halo error has no basis in reality when judging people, but it may be reinforced online as sites that invest little into their design also invest little into other aspects of user experience.

Competition in design is also on the rise, with attractive CMS themes getting better and evolving every day. Free themes have a way to go, but a growing number of low-cost well-made themes are making publishers of garbage look more like their legitimate, established counterparts. Much like the cost and expertise required to publish has fallen to nearly 0, fair design is becoming an easily attainable minimum – you can only use design to set yourself apart if it’s exceptional.

Site speed: Slow-loading sites are uncommon with high-quality brands and organization. Most slow sites belong to smaller brands who haven’t invested heavily in online design, appearance, etc. In other words, users may associate slow sites with bad sites.

Research cited frequently over the years has shown that 40% of people will abandon a page if it takes more than 3 seconds to load and 52% of online shoppers said quick loads impact their loyalty to the site. There are additional SEO and sales implications for abandonment and reduced satisfaction, but suffice it to say that faster is better for looking credible.

Small sites don’t need to spend millions to get speed and reliability like a big brand. Content delivery networks (CDNs) have servers around the world, and often charge based on usage. MetaCDN, for example, charges far less monthly and goes far faster than my traditional host alone.

Image quality: Like film quality, image quality is one of those things we don’t really notice until it’s bad. When it comes to e-commerce, the impact of high-quality images is undeniable. Multiple angles of a product are hugely important when buying online, but we should know that already.

Image relevance: Is image quality all that matters? Obviously not. Stock photos are even easier to spot than stock footage, and both immediately trigger the, “this is filler” response. Our brains are basically filler-ignoring machines. It’s for this reason that simple cartoons out-perform stock photos 2:1. Still confused? Don’t use stock photos.

I've found that the same applies to manufacturer supplied images vs. real-world images. Buyers appreciate real-looking images of the actual product in addition to the traditional white-background floating product image.

Then there’s the content itself

We used to hear a lot that site owners had to write “high quality content.” Somewhere along the line, the term has come to mean “unique, error-free content that makes sense.”  For those who actually want to use content as part of a marketing strategy, it’s not enough. Not nearly.

In reaction to the actually-mediocre results of vaguely telling people to write “high-quality” stuff, we’ve been trying hard to drive the point home that creating decent content that Google hasn’t indexed before isn’t enough. Here are some highlights from some recent posts:

  • Rand Fishkin, “The Content Marketing Manifesto”: Content must show some combination of exceptional, inspirational, unique, credible, fun, and beneficial to share. Create something remarkable that people will love, want to share, and you can be proud of. (I love this slide deck)
  • Me, “Why Content Goes Viral”: Your content will be more likely to go viral if it’s thorough, surprising, interesting, useful, emotion-inspiring, passionate in tone, credible, and funny.
  • Adria Saracino, “Why Link Building Strategies Fail”: Choose the right target audience; do they find it useful, easy to understand, credible, informative, unique, exceptional, full of personality, shareable, or new?
Why should you follow these guidelines?
  1. The crowd of content creators is huge,
  2. You must stand out from the cult of the average if you want to get noticed,
  3. You cannot stand out if you’re doing the same thing as every content creator in the industry.
It’s easy to give advice like, “create great content,” but imagine ((m)ad man) Don Draper giving his clients the advice to “create awesome advertisements.” There’s a lot more to it if great content is something we’re serious about.

My original question was, “Can we really expect to bring in sales with content?” Yes, we can use content as a marketing tool, but it’s becoming painfully obvious that companies and individuals should be more aware of the competition and type of investment required before trying to sink or swim in a sea of online content.

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