Want your articles to spread like Gangnam online? You’d better master the art of capturing the micro-attention of your readers. Here are 10 guiding principles to help you on the path of writeousness (yes, that word just happened). 

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1. Craft a compelling headline.

A catchy headline can make all the difference to the success of an article. Content startup UpWorthy has gained millions of readers based on their ability to rewrite headlines about serious and important issues in a catchy, web-friendly way. If you want your content to spread online it is worthwhile to dedicate extra time to crafting an enticing headline.

2. Start with the most important content.

 Summarize the point of your article in the first paragraph. Be specific in this summary, and try to add immediate value. Even if some of your readers won't get further than this, their first impression of an article of often determines whether or not they'll share the post with their networks.  

3. A post should only be as long as necessary.

Beware the ever-shrinking attention span of your reader! Even in super-short form web-publishing formats like the Facebook status it has been proven that posts with less characters get shared more. In longer formats like articles and blog posts your article should be compelling from beginning to end. Usually the easiest way to achieve this is to simply write shorter articles. There are a few masters who can hold reader attention for long-pieces on the internet. Those writers and those pieces become the stuff of web legend.

4. Where a picture will say more than words can, use it.

 It’s worth spending the time to select the picture that will bring your writing to life.  Also, a good caption to a picture is as important as a good picture for the story. I’ve learned this from using Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook that a fairly ordinary photograph can become a conversation point by accompanying it with a caption. You could, for example use the caption to draw the viewer’s attention to a particular aspect of the picture, or to help them see the picture differently. 

5. Format for the Skim-Reader

The skim-reader is not a lesser being. The skim-reader is half your audience! Use formatting such as sub-headings, bold, italic, underlined, and bullet points to help content stand out for skim-readers and search engines.

7. Be specific.

If you are vague online, you will lose your reader. Also, using specific language is a great way to get search traffic on different search terms. For example, instead of just saying “the horse” every time you mention it in your article, you might try “the Arabian thoroughbred”. 

8. Cite your Sources.

Use hyperlinks to reference points that may require back-reading or validation. This is part of enhancing the user experience of your article. It helps build trust and interest in the issue you’re writing about. 

9. Tight prose wins.

Editing for clarity and simplicity, down to the sentence-structure level will make a difference.  On the web, full-stops tend to beat commas and semi-colons. Rather break a long, complex sentence filled with commas and semi-colons into a few shorter sentences. Also, take care to craft a few take-out sentences that social media readers can use to summarize highlights when they are sharing your article. While you’re at it, eliminate cliches. 

10. Check before you publish.

It’s very difficult, and embarrassing to try to retract misinformation or grammatical mistakes once your post is live on the web - particularly on Twitter and Facebook where your post can be quoted and shared on profiles and pages that you don't control. Even if you might lose the scoop by taking a little bit longer to confirm your facts, it is better in the long run to gain the trust of your readers. 

11. Encourage Social Commentary. 

Your work as a writer online doesn’t end when your article is published. You should share your writing on your own social channels, and also participate in the commentary around it. People are encouraged to comment when the writer responds and acknowledges their contribution.

The commenters may not be experts in the subject you’re writing about (although they could be). They may even be completely clueless about the issue. However, their opinions on a subject can be indicative of public perception about an issue, and therefore very interesting and relevant. The comments are often as interesting as the main piece.

So there you have it. I went up to Mount Table, and came back with these Commandments. Fortunately they're not written on stone tablets (so old school since the iPad, really) so we can remix them if we want. If you like, then please hit the little heart below, or leave comment below to enhance it.

"Across consumer markets, attention is becoming the scarcest - and so most strategically vital - resource in the value chain. Attention scarcity is fundamentally reshaping the economics of most industries it touches; beginning with the media industry"  - Umair Haque, Bubblegeneration

Online tools and resources that enable large-scale participation and media sharing such as Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia have been adopted into regular use by hundreds of millions of people in the last three years - perhaps because they enable people to collaborate, manage complexity and find information more efficiently than they would be able to without these tools. In South Africa and other emergent markets, mobile phones have been similarly used to not only enable one-to-one communications, but to enable learning, banking, networking, healthcare and access to news.

It is in this context of cheap, on-demand, real-time, and often social media access that newspapers are struggling to retain market share. Quite obviously, a new value proposition needs to be identified, given that the competitive landscape has changed along with consumer expectations.

In this post I will propose that the core value proposition of newspapers is intrinsically tied to what I see as the most pressing challenge of media consumers today: conserving time while maximizing reward.

We will look at three key themes that I believe will distinguish successful newspapers in the coming decade:

  1. Attention as an Asset

  2. Usability as a Differentiator

  3. Free and Fee


Attention as an Asset

The explosion in media types available, and of-course in the amount and variety of content, has created thousands or millions of niche media tastes. Media consumers today are faced with a mind-boggling array of content to choose from. Their challenge is not finding news and information, but finding news and information that fits their needs and lifestyles.

Most media consumers today are operating in a form of perpetual attention deficit: there is simply more content available to them than they could possibly attend to. So, people have books they’d love to read, but don’t; movies they’d love to watch, but don’t; newspapers they’d love to read, but don’t. The media that goes unattended to is not necessarily of an inferior quality, but somehow it doesn’t fit into the lifestyle of the person that misses it.

According to the polymath Nobel laureate, Herbert Simon:
in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it

The concept of an attention scarcity sits uncomfortably juxtaposed with the industrial model of news production. Information is intrinsically valuable in the industrial model because it is relatively scarce, exclusive and hierarchical. It makes sense then, to build empires around a particular access channel that is exclusive and popular - such as print. However, once information becomes freely available on the internet it may be easily accessed and shared by anyone who can operate a search engine and send an email. Thus, in sectors where information is abundant and available, the only ‘cost’ of information is the time and effort that it takes to engage with it.

The good news for the media in all of this is that businesses in virtually all consumer-facing sectors are facing a similar rise in competitors. They too operate in a marketplace driven by demand for thinly spread consumer attention. Media in general, being the purveyors of Attention, stand to benefit from this if they can effectively present advertising and other commercial content in a way that consumers appreciate and attend to.

In order to successfully adapt to this new economy, newspapers may need to start emphasising Attention, over Content. By this I mean that consumers will be drawn to news sources that are able to add value to the information in ways that enhance their experience of it - through having a more trustworthy brand, effective design, accessibility, community and engagement for example.

The quality of Attention is determined by the intensity of its focus. In other words, the more it excludes to concentrate on the matter at hand, the better its quality.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observes that our nervous systems are only capable of processing 110 bytes of information per second. We therefore have a limited physiological capacity to process information. Concentrating on someone giving an average presentation, for example, consumes around 60 bytes of that capacity and it is what makes it difficult for one to concentrate on more than two voices at a time (Shannon, 1948)1.

Thus it follows that moving towards cheaper news prices (free in many cases) and more advertising may be adversely affecting the quality of reader’s attention. A lower quality of attention may translate into a lower quality of experience for the reader, and hence less likelihood of a repeat encounter with the offending news outlet.

Usability as a Differentiator

For many people, the ‘instinctive’ response in the face of all the variety of content available to them is to go faster, multitask, and spend more time engaging with media. Even the most casual observer would notice, for example, the compulsive engagement of smartphone users with their devices.

Newspapers may need to start focusing more on the holistic experience of news consumption in the context of their readers’ lifestyles. On a simple level, this may mean changing the ways news is laid out and written, as well as ensuring a seamless brand experience across other channels such as internet, mobile phones and e-readers.

Herbert Simon’s research (1996, 143-144) points out that designers of under-utilised information systems incorrectly represented their design problem as information scarcity rather than attention scarcity, and as a result they built systems that excelled at providing more and more information to people, when what was really needed were systems that excelled at filtering out unimportant or irrelevant information.

Simple ways of helping people to filter irrelevant information can be applied to print newspapers. For example, The Daily Maverick, a new online publication based in South Africa makes navigating it’s email newsletter simpler by formatting informative article abstracts into three useful sub-categories:

  • While you were sleeping” (news from the world that happened overnight);

  • Coming up today” (important events for the day ahead); and

  • In case you missed it” (the previous day’s news that missed the last publication deadline).


These categories would be different for publications with different readerships, but in this case they fit perfectly into The Daily Maverick’s value proposition to make their reader “the smartest person in the room” by equipping them with tidbits of news to spark conversation.

In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Professor Barry Schwartz asserts that “too many choices can paralyze people into inaction, and cause them to be dissatisfied with even good decisions”. To build on that idea, I would suggest that strong brands help reduce the cognitive dissonance that media consumers may experience when faced with the overwhelming variety of content from various outlets. To illustrate this, I would cite Apple as a brand that has so effectively distinguished it’s brand that to many people their choice of which laptop to buy may amount simple to “do I want a Macbook or Macbook Pro” (as an Apple fan, that was certainly my experience).

Free and Fee

Few people would argue that newspapers shouldn’t operate online. The online news channel, along with online advertising and payments continue to grow even as print readership and advertising revenues decline.

However, in the online environment content is abundant. When faced with the choice of marginally better content for a fee, or good-enough content for free, they tend to choose the free content.

Much news content online is serendipitously encountered - consumers haven’t gone out looking for it specifically, but have been referred to it by a peer or encountered it via a Search Engine. It is difficult to get people to pull out their credit cards to read an article they have encountered by chance and with cursory interest.

In the case of serendipitous encounters with news, it would be a mistake to hide content behind a password protected “walled garden”. The main argument against this is perhaps that Google and other search engines will not index password protected content, so a significant channel of new readership will be foregone.

On the other hand, the challenge with completely free content is that it tends to rely on more advertising and advertorials. The problem with this is two-fold: firstly, it may lower the quality of the reader’s experience, and secondly, it may begin to infringe on editorial and journalistic independence.

There have been alternate calls for newspapers to go free or to continue charging fees, whether in print or online. I would argue for a blended approach, often called Freemium pricing.

Freemium pricing works with two basic pricing levels: free and premium. Free content is used to attract attention and showcase the product. Premium content is exclusive and may offer greater access, functionality, or a better quality of experience.

In the context of the Attention Economy, we would assert that all the newspaper’s content should be freely available online, since content is no longer a distinctive value proposition for newspapers. However, consumers should be charged for features that enhance their experience of the content - for example, to remove adverts, to receive the print edition,  the mobile application, or even the email newsletter.

Consumers of free news may have lower expectations of free content and may make advertising viable. However, serious news consumers would be willing to pay for a better quality reading experience. A blanket approach to either make content free or paid for is shortsighted and limiting.

Conclusion

I would assert that media consumption is not only driven by the quality of content, but also the quality of the experience in engaging with the content. Increasingly, considerations such as branding, integration with social-communities, personalisation and elegance need to be integrated into the core value proposition of newspapers.

News content should be free and easy to share, but a small percentage of users who are prepared to pay for a better quality experience of the content may ensure the continued viability and freedom of the press.

(This piece was originally written with Elaine Rumboll for the World Association of Newspapers' project "Charting the Course for Newspaper Companies,” a compilation of visions for the future of newspaper companies)
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AuthorDave Duarte
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As public lead for Creative Commons South Africa, I'm often faced with content publishers asking me questions like: How can we possibly afford to stay in business while giving away the fruits of our labour for free?

I'll cover three basic ways.

1. Advertising

The most obvious answer is that you can make your money back from advertising. However, quality journalism and production is not cheap, so it is quite difficult to make sufficient profit from advertising and affiliate revenue alone if you're relying on original content to bring in your readers.  Archived content can, however, provide bonus revenue from people coming across old content that you may already have recovered your costs on.

2. E-Commerce and Affiliate Revenue


A number of publications, such as Backpackers.com are using e-commerce to fund their publications (in addition to advertising). You can also get commissions from related products and services that you recommend via your site (some publications have ethical issues with this, as it can be seen to bias the writing toward the particular products/companies that affiliations have been set up with).

3. Freemium

Some companies, such as MarketingProfs, give away some of their articles for free but charge for full access to all their articles. Others, like Trendwatching, give their content away for free, but charge a premium for high-quality summaries and live presentations of it. There are many ways to apply freemium - for example, you can give free access for a limited time only, or free digital access to drive print subsriptions or attendance at events. Andrew Chen has devised a useful little spreadsheet to help you evaluate the viability of freemium for your product or service.

Chris Anderson has identified four types of free that can work in business, an article worth checking out. I've reproduced his visual summary below:

The Four Types of Free

Lastly, you may find that giving your content away for free doesn't work for you. The fact is, that despite the overwhelming amounts of free content available online today, it's still time consuming to find the best knowledge and information that you can trust and use. People, like me, are still prepared to pay a little extra for access to well researched and produced  information. Walter Isaacson wrote an insightful piece about the need to charge for content in this week's Time magazine (which is, ironically, available for free HERE)

Oh, and by the way... Creative Commons is not all about content creators giving content away for free. Yes, you can sell your own Creative Commons licensed work, while limiting others from doing the same.  Creative Commons licenses allow others to share your work, while giving you credit for what you've done. They can only sell it if you have allowed for commercial use of it.