6.12.2009

Lure, Bait, Hook & Reel - How To Write For An Audience Online

I was helping a friend of mine assess an article intended to be online. She was curious as to how she could make the product more engaging.

Now, I can't show you exactly what I was helping her figure out, since it's an in-progress project for her company, and as such, is still under wraps. So for the purposes of this post, I'm going to pretend the topic was something I know quite a bit about - the movie Akira.

Imagine that I wanted to learn more about this anime that everyone and their brother talks about the second anything anime is brought up. It's tremendously popular -- hell, this wacko guy on the internet even got an Akira sleeve tattoo - why's it so special? So, I Google "Akira Review".

The very first article that popped up (from Animeworld.com) looks, format-wise, VERY similiar to the screen my friend initially showed me and needed help on (I'm focusing ONLY on the review portion):





It's written very typically, your standard-length paragraphs and rich in content. But that's the problem. This is what the brain sees when your eyes initially look at that page:





Yeah. A bunch of blocks of text. When we initially scan a page, this is what happens - we see things in blocks, and text just lumps together as "that's text, the stuff I'll have to read in a moment, what else is there?"

Now, there's nothing "wrong" with what you're seeing above. It's just that, considering the medium, there's also nothing "right" about it. If it were in a book, it'd be fine - people open books with the intention of digesting blocks of text very slowly, to garner information. If it were in a magazine, it'd probably be a "flip-past" article, given the transient nature of magazine readers.

And online, it's practically begging to be ignored -- even if it came highly recommended to me, it'd only be of use if I were specifically looking for that particular information, and even then, I'd be in "scan mode", since my google toolbar allows me to be just a few clicks away from yet more information on my topic.

So, I did just that. I went back to my search results to the 2nd result, and I find IGN's review:




And when we apply the "what does my brain see" filter:




(Note that the ad has been blocked out. That's because we, as web users, have become conditioned as to what ads look like [anything that's 300px x 250px, or at the very top as a banner or along the side columns as a tower ad])

Now, the point here is not that IGN's review is better, per se. It's just that, as soon as I land on the page, they've hooked me. I'm intrigued. I see two images (one of which is incredibly beautiful), and this big bold rating. It gives me instant gratification - I am not immediately inclined to look elsewhere, I'm at least intrigued to read the page.

Basically, in the consulting I've done on "social media" and corporate blogging, the very first thing I try to instill in my clients is that there has to be a reason for me to want to be social with you. The days of "If you build it, they will come" are long since gone. It's harder than ever to build any sort of audience for your product, brand or concept, simply due to signal-to-noise ratio. And while there's a tremendous amount more that companies have to do to overcome people's hesitance to get "social" with them, it's helpful for anyone looking to write on the web to know the Fishing analogy.

Have you ever been fishing? If you have, this is going to make perfect sense. If you haven't, it's alright -- you can still follow along. But next time you're idly watching television and flipping through channels and happen to see one of those "Amazin' Bass Catchin' with Billy Bud" shows, give it about 10 minutes and watch a catch or two. It'll sink right in.

You can linkbait, you can spam, and you can even pay people to send links to your articles. But if you're stuff isn't set up right, they're just going to pass it by. So, first you need something shiny to get their attention:

The Lure. In the case of the AAW review, it was first in the search results list, and I clicked. But then I left and went to the IGN review -- proof that being first doesn't guarantee an audience:




Now, once they've noticed you, there needs to be a reason for your reader to approach. And nothing works better than a nice, meaty piece of:

Bait. For the IGN review, the bait was an 8.0 rating and pictures of the movie (a visual piece of entertainment... It would make sense to put pictures or even a video clip of it in the review).



Now, you gotta snag me with once i've decided to bite so you can set:

The Hook. And it's important to remember that, for the entire article, it's a fight on your part to reel me in. The entire time, imagine that i'm struggling to get off that hook, and you're struggling to reel me in. With IGN, they were comical in their captions, without being offensive or insulting.


If I make it to the end of your article, you've got me in the boat. If I leave before the end, you lost me - I'm one of the ones who got away. That's why it's imperative that you don't just rely on the individual tools and actually become a proficient word-angler. You've got to write with purpose, convey information, and keep me interested while informing me -- but you can't overwhelm me with tons of information all at once.

And with IGN, their review was written... Well, moderately competently (for the record, I think they missed a lot of the point of the film, but eh... It was written well). The paragraphs were just the right size for digestion on the web. There were enough callouts (in this case images, but bulletpoints, charts, graphs, or quotes from inside the article also work) to keep me visually on-pace with the information being presented.

In short, IGN won an audience member today because they understand the nuance of writing for the web:

  • Lure me with in-context promises of what I need (whether it be from search results or someone sharing a link with a friend);
  • Bait me with something that immediately satisfies my hunger for information;
  • Hook me with visually compelling and interesting content;
  • Reel me in with a well-written, well-paced article.

Hopefully, this will help you in producing content for your site.