The art of content marketing – Captivate!

A few months ago I went to collect a friend from hospital. Arriving early, I entered the waiting room and noticed in-house magazines stacked by the door. I picked one up, grabbed a coffee and took a seat.

The magazine read like a very long press release, blabbering on about patient-centric care and employee awards. I was quickly bored, so I read from my phone instead. The magazine failed in its purpose.

Effective content marketing holds people’s attention. It gives you a distinctive brand, loyal fans and increased sales. You don’t need a big budget to succeed, which is why good content marketing is the single best way to beat bigger competitors online.

Content marketing used to be about customer magazines and mailed newsletters. Now it covers blogs, email newsletters, eBooks, white papers, articles, videos and more. In this article, you will learn about content marketing techniques that you can apply to your business.

Captivate

Give your content more personality. Captivate your audience with stories and characters that will draw them in and keep them coming back.

Tell a Story

Telling a story is a great way to connect with readers. According to a number of studies summed up by Rob Gill of Swinburne University of Technology, telling stories can be useful in corporate communication. Storytelling is fundamental to human interaction, and it can make your content more compelling and your brand more engaging.

Citing Annette Simmons’ The Story Factor, Rob says this: “It is believed people receiving the narration often come to the same conclusion as the narrator, but through using their own decision-making processes.” Told through a story, a message becomes more personal and relevant. The reader is also more likely to remember what was said.

Rand Fishkin is the co-founder and CEO of SEOmoz. Instead of sharing only positive accounts of his business, he also writes about difficulties such as his failed attempt to raise capital:

Michelle was the first to note that something was “odd.” In a phone call with Neil, she heard him comment that they “needed to do more digging into the market.” In her opinion, this was very peculiar.… Tuesday morning we got the call; no deal.

The art of content marketing - Captivate!
An email shared by Rand Fishkin in his post about SEOmoz’s attempt to raise funding.

Brands need stories, and stories need people, suspense, conflicts and crises. By reading SEOmoz’s content, and seeing both the positive and negative, you become immersed in its story.

Ikea is another example of a brand that tells stories that generate opinions about its company. For instance, it plays up its Swedish roots and paints a romantic image of a wholesome and natural society. Its website is full of stories that contribute to this effect.

A survey conducted by the B2B Technology Marketing Community showed that around 82% of LinkedIn users found that telling a story through case studies was the most effective form of content marketing.

Sometimes you’ll want to use anecdotes to make a point, and sometimes you’ll write a post or tweet to build a narrative. When you’re cultivating a story, keep the information simple, and don’t be afraid to repeat points here and there; some readers might have missed what you said before.

Always mix interesting stories with useful information; fail to do this and your audience will feel you’re wasting their time.

Use Real People

Think of your favorite writers. You’ve probably seen their photos and heard them speak. Likewise, people need to see and hear your employees, so use pictures, audio and video. This will bring your audience closer to your brand.

Jakob Nielsen has studied people’s reactions to images online. He used eye-tracking software to discover that people ignore images that seem decorative, random or generic. They even ignore generic images of people. But when they come across a photo of a “real” person, they engage with it for a longer time.

People prefer to get involved with a company with which they feel a personal connection. But introduce your employees gradually; as with any story, introduce too many characters too early and you’ll confuse your audience.

The art of content marketing – Teach!

A few months ago I went to collect a friend from hospital. Arriving early, I entered the waiting room and noticed in-house magazines stacked by the door. I picked one up, grabbed a coffee and took a seat.

The magazine read like a very long press release, blabbering on about patient-centric care and employee awards. I was quickly bored, so I read from my phone instead. The magazine failed in its purpose.

Effective content marketing holds people’s attention. It gives you a distinctive brand, loyal fans and increased sales. You don’t need a big budget to succeed, which is why good content marketing is the single best way to beat bigger competitors online.

Content marketing used to be about customer magazines and mailed newsletters. Now it covers blogs, email newsletters, eBooks, white papers, articles, videos and more. In this article, you will learn about content marketing techniques that you can apply to your business.

Teach

Think about what your audience wants. People want to hear answers and to learn something new, so give them what they want.

Give Answers

Content marketing needs to offer practical advice that people can use. Readers have been trained to expect answers on the Web, and yet so much content fails to deliver.

Consider FeeFighters, a comparison website for credit card processing. One of its blog posts, Do You Know What Makes Up Your Credit Score?, talks about the factors that affect your credit score. Instead of offering abstract advice and concepts, the post provides practical tips for improving your credit score:

Area #2: Your Credit Utilization Ratio

The second largest determining factor in what makes up your score is the amount of credit that you have available to you in relationship to how much of that credit you’ve used. This accounts for 30 percent of your credit score. The optimal rate is 30 percent, which means that if you have $10,000 in credit available to you, you should only be using about $3,000 of it. One trap that some people fall into is believing that if they max out their credit cards every month and then pay them off at the end of the month, they’ll build their credit. But since that gives them a 100 percent credit utilization ratio, and that ratio accounts for 30 percent of their overall credit score, they’re really doing more harm than good.

Say or Do Something New

Most content is boring and unoriginal, which is good for you. It makes it easier to beat your competitors.

You can make your content interesting by doing something new, without necessarily saying something new. For instance, you could write a comprehensive article on a topic that has only piecemeal information scattered across the Web. Or you could use a different format for a topic that gets the same treatment; rather than writing the fiftieth blog post on a topic, shoot the first video.

You can also make your content interesting by saying something new. An infographic by Rate Rush compares the popularity of Digg to Reddit, creatively combining a bar graph and clock to present the data. Although Rate Rush is a personal finance website, with little connection to social news, its staff researched a topic they were interested in and drew attention by putting it to imaginative use.

The art of content marketing - Teach!

Our agency also researches things that we find interesting, and this has been a great source of content. In 2010, we polled around 1000 iPad owners to find out how consumers use the device. It led to a slew of media attention.

You can do the same. Come up with an original idea to research, and then undertake a study. Also look into studies that your business has done in the past, because interesting stuff might be lying around. One of our clients looked through her company’s research archive and found amazing material. She didn’t spend any money on research but got a lot of great content, links and media coverage.

The art of content marketing – Persuade!

A few months ago I went to collect a friend from hospital. Arriving early, I entered the waiting room and noticed in-house magazines stacked by the door. I picked one up, grabbed a coffee and took a seat.

The magazine read like a very long press release, blabbering on about patient-centric care and employee awards. I was quickly bored, so I read from my phone instead. The magazine failed in its purpose.

Effective content marketing holds people’s attention. It gives you a distinctive brand, loyal fans and increased sales. You don’t need a big budget to succeed, which is why good content marketing is the single best way to beat bigger competitors online.

Content marketing used to be about customer magazines and mailed newsletters. Now it covers blogs, email newsletters, eBooks, white papers, articles, videos and more. In this article, you will learn about content marketing techniques that you can apply to your business.

Persuade

Your content should be persuasive. Pay close attention to how you speak and what you say.

Use Simple Language

Take the question below on Yahoo! Answers. To “sound intelligent,” this person would like to know “big words that replace everyday small words.”

Big words that replace everyday small words?

Many people make this mistake. They use language that is unnecessarily complicated, usually to show off or to sound corporate and professional.

“Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all,” said Winston Churchill. So, don’t talk about “taking a holistic view of a company’s marketing strategy to deliver strategic insights, precise analysis and out-of-the-box thinking.”

Prefer “make” to “manufacture,” and “use” to “utilize.” While “quantitative easing” offers precision to economists, your personal finance audience would prefer “print money.”

Lauren Keating has studied the effect of scientific language on the persuasiveness of copy. She found that most people respond best to advertisements that contain no scientific language. People found them more readable and persuasive, and they felt more willing to buy the product. Lauren’s conclusion was clear: copy needs to be plain and simple.

Have Opinions

Interesting people have opinions, and interesting brands are the same. Look at the amazing work of new search engine DuckDuckGo. It has positioned itself as the antithesis of Google, launching websites that criticize how the search giant tracks you and puts you in a bubble. The strategy is paying off: DuckDuckGo is seeing explosive growth.

Duck Duck Go
DuckDuckGo is an alternative search engine that breaks you out of your Filter Bubble.

While this strategy is perfect for defeating a big incumbent, you don’t have to be openly hostile to your competitors. You can say what you think without mentioning their names.

Bear in mind that people are ideologically motivated. Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler’s study, “When Corrections Fail”, describes the “backfire effect” of trying to correct people’s deeply held beliefs. The authors found that contradicting people’s misconceptions actually strengthened those opinions. If people see you as an ideological ally (like a political party), they are more likely to agree with you on other issues — even ideologically inconsistent or non-ideological ones. You can use your opinions to attract people to your company: converting the agnostic or validating the views of allies.

As a small-scale brewer, for example, you might have a strong opinion on ale, believing in craft over mass production. You might think the market is dominated by big businesses that sacrifice quality for quantity. In this situation, you could use content marketing to talk about the best way to make beer. By stressing how seriously you take the development of your product, you communicate your opinion to those who share it without directly criticizing your competitors.

Think politically: consider the popularity of your views and whether they will attract media coverage. Ideally, your opinions should be bold and popular.

Sell the Benefits

In the same way that you sell your products and services, tell your audience the benefits of your content. This technique is essential if your audience doesn’t know what it wants.

PaperlessPipeline is a transaction management and document storage app for real estate brokers. Its founder, Dane Maxwell, had a creative idea to sell his product. The biggest problem for real estate brokers is recruiting. So, Dane invited them to a webinar titled “Recruiting Secrets of the 200-Plus Agent Office in Tennessee.” Brokers didn’t even know they needed to manage transactions, so he didn’t mention it in the invitation.

Paperless Pipeline
Paperless Pipeline takes your real estate transactions and related documents online—without changing how you work.

In the webinar, he introduced PaperlessPipeline and explained how it enables brokers to recruit more agents. The webinar attracted 120 guests, and “16 ended up buying at the end,” said Dane in an interview with Mixergy.

Imagine you run a company that develops technology for mobile phones, and you want to promote a new femtocell that boosts mobile reception in public spaces and rural areas. This technology could be valuable to people who want to improve mobile reception, but those people might not have heard of it.

So, instead of promoting the technology directly, offer content that focuses on the benefits. By using benefit-focused copy, you immediately tell the reader what’s in it for them.

 

Ways to use the elements of navigation

When users look for information, they have a goal and are on a mission. Even before you started to read this article, chances are you did because you either had the implicit goal of checking what’s new on Smashing Magazine, or had the explicit goal of finding information about “Navigation Design”.

After a couple of seconds of scanning this article, and maybe reading parts of the introduction, you may have started to ask yourself whether the information that you’re consuming at the moment is actually relevant to you—the user. Unfortunately (and as certain as death and taxes), if users cannot find the information they are looking for, chances are they will abandon their track, never to return.

Being the compassionate human being that I am, I’ll try to explain to you what this article is about, so you can make your choice either to continue reading, or not. This article is not about where you should place the menu of your website or mobile application, or about the number of options a menu should contain. It is also not about how you visually enforce the perceived affordance of a user-interface element, and why that is so important.

This article is about the tiniest of details that goes into creating the main centerpiece of your digital product—the construction of the elements of your navigation. This is the most important aid you can possibly give to your users as they are constantly seeking a reason to walk out on you.

Words, Words, Words

The first thing I do when I start to sketch out the information architecture of a digital product based on the requirements at hand is to blatantly label stuff. This is nothing unique—I simply need to formulate a label (most of the time accompanied by a short description) of all the possible information entities I discover to be able to reveal taxonomy and relationships between them. You might have a similar approach, using tools like post-its, whiteboards or even some digital application created for this purpose. This can be the inception of small problems that will constantly grow over time if we do not assess them correctly and in a timely manner: the labels are yours, and yours alone.

“Locate store” is your label of something that enables the users to find physical stores in a mobile application. “Commodities” is your label of a view that enlists all the goods your client wants to retail on an e-commerce site. “Start” is your label on the landing-page of a website. From a linguistic point-of-view, you can analyze the meaning of sentences, words and letters in different context for hours on end.

You can look at the structure in terms of morphology, syntax and phonology, or why not look at the meaning in terms of semantics and pragmatics. Fortunately, in most cases you do not have reach as far as asking a linguistic researcher about your labeling—people in your target audience will do just fine.

Navigation - Start
“This might be a good start!”

User-Testing Labels

So what is the easiest way of doing a sanity check of the way you express the information space? A really cheap and well-proven technique is Card Sorting. By using card sorting, you can transform your early taxonomy prognoses into folksonomy. Card sorting not only helps you to create an informed information architecture, it also enables you to get an insight to what keywords users relate to different activities in your product.

Another test is a Word Association game. Take all potential labelings of your navigation design and try them out on users asking them to “say the first thing that comes to mind” (in regard of what they believe to be found beneath such a navigation option—call it Think-Aloud Protocol with a twist. For example, you could say “Products” and the participant might respond with “Price, description, information, stock”. Market researchers have used this technique for decades to ensure that the right message is conveyed by their target audience when promoting products.

Two important questions that you need to find to an answer to at this stage are:

  1. Can the users relate the labels in the navigation design to their explicit goals of exploring your digital product?
  2. Are the meaning of the words metaphorically and visually separated enough not to be confused with each other?

Navigation - Change
“Ok, so lets change ‘Commodities’ to ‘Our Products’ and ‘Locate store’ to ‘Our Stores’.”

Removing Redundancy and Lowering the Reaction Time

In his masterpiece “Don’t make me think”, Steve Krug writes, “When I look at most Web pages, I’m struck by the fact that most of the words I see are just taking up space, because no one is ever going to read them.” The more information we cram into our navigation, the harder it becomes for the users to quickly grasp the different options.

In 1935, the American psychologist John Ridley Stroop published “Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions” along with the now renowned “Stroop effect”. Stroop had found that given the task of naming the color a word was written in, took longer and was more prone to error if the word itself was the name of a different color (e.g. the word “Blue” written in the color red).

What we can learn from Stroops discovery is that we have a hard time not reading words—even though we are given a task explicitly instructing us not to. Have a quick look at the navigation in your design and ask yourself what can be removed without losing its meaning.

Navigation - Contact
“It seems I really donʼt need the word ‘Our’ in front of ‘Products’ and ‘Stores’.”

What Did Product ‘A’ Do In Situation ‘B’?

If you still have not managed to convince your employer that early user testing will pay off in the long run, you should at least have the courtesy to look at the benchmark. In what way have others solved their navigation design? Just spending some time looking at what others have done will help you reach valuable conclusions. This can be really time efficient and a good way to increase product usability, since users will be able to use previously acquired knowledge by simply recognizing similar terminology used in other products.

Navigation - Contact
“It does seem like all other websites in our business area have their contact information beneath an option labeled ‘Contact’. I better change ‘Reach us’.”

Symbols, Pictograms & Icons

Symbols, pictograms and icons in digital user interfaces are long gone from luxury to necessity. They contribute to signature, personality, recognition, and abstraction in our visual language. Furthermore, studies have given evidence suggesting that user interfaces have less favorable perceptions of usability and usefulness when only relying on textual expressions.

Why did I willfully write “Symbols, pictograms and icons” and not just “Icons” as we all love to call them? Before I start to use only the word “Icon”, I want to make sure we are all on board as to the differences (without digging too deep into the perilous depths of semiotic science).

What Is What

A symbol is typically defined as an abstract representation that requires conventional knowledge amongst the users for them to fully understand their meaning. People in some cultures have learnt that the meaning of an octagon shaped sign in a tone of red communicates “Stop.” So a symbol earns meaning over time through conventional use.

A pictogram on the other hand is usually defined as simplified pictorial representation. Pictograms—or pictographs—are, as far as possible, self-explanatory and most often do not require any deep previous learnings to make any sense. You often see pictograms (and ideograms) on signposts and in environmental design since they are least contingent to produce cultural misunderstandings. For example, a sign with an arrow indicating a direction.

The definition of the word “Icon” can be a bit vague depending on the context of use, but I like to say that an icon can be a sign, symbol, picture or image that stands for or represents an object in its resemblance as an analogy for it.

Whether you should use a symbol, a pictogram, an icon or a combination of all three to help you communicate information, all depends on the situation you find yourself in. Disregarding what we use, there is some common knowledge and analysis we can use to make sure that the receivers (i.e. our users) actually understand what we are trying to convey with our design.

User-testing Icons

There is an abundance of ways to perform user testing and peer reviews of iconography. My two absolute favorites are what I have come to call “tag-that-icon” and “connect-the-dots” mainly because they are quick to perform and they give great insights into users’ spontaneous opinions (plus, they are actually quite fun to prepare and execute).

You can perform tag-that-icon in one of two ways:

  • Method 1:
    Give several icon suggestions to the participants and ask them to tag them with whatever comes to mind within three minutes.
  • Method 2:
    Randomly show the participants one icon at a time during a day and ask them to come up with tags for each icon during 20-30 seconds.

The latter has most probably proven itself to be really good and better for testing different metaphors for one specific icon when the number of participants are low.

When you have a set of icons and labels that are closing in on finalization, you can then do connect-the-dots testing. All you need to for the test are printouts with one section of all your suggested icons (in a random order) and one section with all your labels (in a different random order). Then, give the printouts to the participants and ask them to draw a line between an icon and the label they think it is coupled with.

Navigation - Test
“At least I can be certain that all my suggested icons works for the ‘Directions’ menu option.”

Removing Redundancy Re-Visited

Just as with labels, avoiding redundant information in the icons is just as important. This is of course quite a bold statement from a designer, but there are many cases out there in the wild that simply add so many details to an icon that it starts to disrupt the users’ ability to interpret and differentiate them. This becomes most evident when you have common shapes in the icons that affects their intergroup saliency (i.e. the quality by which an object stands out relative to its neighbors).

Navigation - Circles
“Do I really need the circles? If I look at them briefly or squint, they all look the same—I better change that!”

Picture/Word Interference

Given a set of lined drawings of simple objects coupled with distractor words, humans show a clear effect of increased response time in naming the drawn object. This is also known as Picture Word Interference (PWI). What PWI can be interpreted to mean is that when an icon is paired with a label in a way that the user does not connect together, it becomes much harder for them to work out the intended meaning.

For humans, a label with “Banana” coupled with a cucumber icon would be unclear as to what it is. What makes matters even worse for users in a navigation context is; “What should I really follow—your icons or your labels?” Avoid creating distracting stimulus through semantic interference between your icons and labels.

Looking at contextual consistency and standards in regards to iconography can really help you. There are some really great resources out there for finding inspiration, but you can also use them as a source of knowledge in finding trends and standards in iconography. If 9 out of 10 result with the term “Favorites” on Iconfinder.net that contain a star or a heart-shaped icon, then that may probably be a good starting point for your “Favorites” icon as well.

Navigation - Icons
“I have no idea what I was thinking. I think I have to throw away all of these, restart all over again and do some more user testing.”

Six Navigation Design Guidelines

After reading all of the above, you should have a good foundation to take your navigation design to the next level and place it in its intended environment along with the rest of the design and perform controlled user testing and see how they interplay. Here are 6 navigation design guidelines for you to consider as you embark the journey of designing the navigation of your upcoming project:

  • Clarity:
    Make sure that your navigation has a linguistic and semantic clarity that communicates to your users in an direct, efficient and adequate way.
  • Simplicity:
    Avoid using technical labels and icons that no one recognizes. Speak the language of the user rather than using complex terms and form factors unfamiliar to your users.
  • Saliency:
    Avoid having redundant and repetitive terms and shapes in your labels and icons that affects their intergroup saliency. This can easily influence your users ability to differentiate and interpret them as a whole.
  • Context:
    Look at the consistency and standards for labels and iconography used in the context that you are designing for. It is more efficient for your users to recognize rather than needing to interpret information that is unfamiliar to them.
  • Correlation:
    Avoid creating distracting stimulus through semantic interference between labels and icons. Reduce uncertainty and make sure that they clearly communicates one message as they are put together.
  • Tonality:
    Ensure that the tonality of the message is still consistent at the end of the design work. Colors, typography and form heavily affect the way your audience conceive and interprets the information.

Of course, not all types of navigation design contain both labels and icons. Some just use icons and some just use labels. you have roughly three cues for guiding your users: One factual (the label), one helpful (the icon) and then—the sometimes subliminal—character (color, typography and form). They do not always need to co-exist since different context requires different solutions. But your message can easily become blurred the fewer of them you use.

So ask yourself this: Can I afford to be vague in the way I communicate and help my users to reach their goal? (Hint: No!)

7 points how to build responsive website

While it may be exciting to work at a quickly expanding ecommerce company such as Lot18, our fervour was tempered a few months ago when the development team was faced with a choice: keep building on top of the site’s engine, which was never intended to be used for more than a few months after launch; or build an entire new platform from the ground up, one that could last us for years. We opted for the latter, cramming a year’s worth of work into three and a half months.

We also knew our visitors were accessing Lot18 in increasingly diverse ways, and that this trend would continue. Rather than anticipate our users’ preferences, we developed a responsive site that adapts and feels natural on a wide range of web-connected devices. Responsive web design was central to our development strategy, but it forced us to think differently than we ever had in development work.

Here are seven things we learned in building a responsive site in a short amount of time.

1. Really, how many sites can you build?

The good thing about being a developer is there’s always another device, browser or operating system to adapt to – no shortage of work. But building one version or app after another isn’t a sustainable strategy at a small company. Developing, testing and deploying a single code base streamlines almost every step in the process. When it’s crunch time and your eyes are tired, you can focus on one critical path – without distraction.

Responsive web site

2. The business comes first

The holiday shopping season is the busiest for ecommerce – and it’s completely mental for sites specialising in food and wine, as Lot18 does. With thousands of shoppers planning parties and buying gifts, we couldn’t assume every purchaser would be sitting at a desk or, alternatively, would take the time to search for an app, download it and use it.

It was an equally unsafe assumption that any particular user would employ the same type of device for each and every visit to the site, or that any of a user’s friends invited to join Lot18 would have similar devices. Taking a responsive approach prioritises the business and reorients our thinking as a development team. We’re closer to customer experience and not solely focused on our own schedules and timetables.

3. Stop chasing platforms and build features

Freed up from targeting platforms, we could dedicate more time to building features for the new site. For example, as we overhauled our checkout system, we could focus on one UI/UX strategy without worrying about device-specific builds. Moving forward, the development team will be more feature-focused and efficient.

Responsive web site

4. Everyone is QA

At a small company, everyone is busy and may not have time to walk through the new version of the site to help find bugs or unintended complications. But we encountered a nice consequence with our new responsive design: everyone could test the site on their own time.

If someone wanted to test or just check out the site in progress, they could use their phones during their commutes, or their tablets – or their TVs at home. Even better, this type of testing is likely closer to how our members use the site.

5. Be consistent across native apps and the mobile web

Lot18 will release a native iPhone app soon. Like most native apps, it is designed for iPhone and feels natural.

However, even the most dedicated app users will run into the mobile site via email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. The responsive site provides a consistency across the native and mobile web experiences, and reinforces the overall brand experience.

Responsive web site

6. Explore new interactions

Leading up to the launch, we observed a new behaviour in people previewing the site. Once they figured out that the site responded to them, they started playing with it. Responsiveness adds dimension to the experience and provides a fresh look as users move from one device to another – or one device mode to another.

What I saw was an emotional reaction that translated as, “This is fun.” This is always a good thing.

7. You’ll get reliable analytics

Finally, when comparing stats, it’s nice to know that users are hitting the same code and interacting with the same content. We’ve also gained new perspectives on how users behave, and have already seen positive changes reflected in our metrics.

The best thing about our recent launch is that, for us, there’s no longer a ‘real’ Lot18.com. Instead there’s a Lot18 experience, with any visitor – regardless of the device used – capturing a particular facet. As a result, our development group is closer to the business and can act almost like an extension of the customer-service department, providing a better online-shopping experience – which can’t be bad in the highly competitive ecommerce space.