[00:00:00] Matt Bailey: “Read well, and you’ll write well.” Those were the words of my college literature professor, and I’ll never forget them. Reading classics instills an amazing vocabulary that empowers an incredible grasp of the language. Reading a variety of authors enables you to see and appreciate life from different perspectives. “Read well, and you’ll write well.”
In this series, I am listing the seven digital marketing skills that’ll never go out of style, or as one listener commented, these aren’t just limited to digital or even marketing. These are simply seven skills that are always in demand.
[00:00:50] Bumper Intro-Outro: Welcome to Endless Coffee Cup, a regular discussion of marketing news, culture, and media for our complex digital lifestyle. Join Matt Bailey as he engages in conversation to find insights beyond the latest headlines and deeper understanding for those involved in marketing. Grab a cup of coffee, have a seat, and thanks for joining.
[00:01:23] Matt Bailey: Skill number two is writing. Now, there are many forms of writing, but to keep this even slightly focused on digital marketing, there are specific areas of writing within digital communications and marketing that I’m going to address. I would put it under the headline of, “Writing for Humans.”
In digital communications the content is fluid. It moves through different digital media. It’s repurposed across channels and should be completely focused on informing, motivating, and engaging audiences. Now, I’m mainly coming from an SEO standpoint. Having been in search engine optimization since 1996, the writing aspects have changed and adapted with the times and technology, and along the way, we’ve not only learned what works for search engines, but we’ve learned a lot more about what works for humans.
There were and are many in the SEO industry who write to gain rankings, sometimes bypassing the humans in the process. I once heard an SEO professional claim that they shouldn’t be measured by increased conversions or any other economic factors, as his only job was to increase rankings. He didn’t think he should be held responsible for anything after the Google search. I think he shorted himself and his abilities, but the general thinking was that for content, rankings came first and searchers and their responses to the content came last.
Jakob Nielsen at Nielsen Norman Group has pioneered online usability in interface design, writing, and digital communication. For anyone involved in this industry, I always recommend his newsletter and his extensive back catalog of studies, research, and usability heuristics. You simply cannot do better.
While the core skill is the ability to develop content that informs, persuades, and moves people to action, in this work, it must also include keywords and associated content to rank well and be relevant for researchers’ inquiry. This is the first part of digital communication writing skills. Balancing the need for visitors to find the information they need and ranking well with the same content. Now, fortunately search engines have made it easier with their improvements to language processing and evaluation.
However, the second part of this skill is understanding that people simply do not read online. Jakob Nielsen, who I mentioned early, tells us from his extensive research, “What people do online can hardly be called reading.” You see, online when we encounter a page of content, we don’t read. We scan. A block of text, a paragraph is an obstacle for the eyes and people avoid it. A seasoned digital writer in online content knows this, understands it, and plans for it.
You see, it’s not just about the content on the page. It’s also about how that content is presented. Online, people scan a page looking for keywords or visual anchors that will provide placement or a scent, S C E N T, scent of where people find the information they need. Digital information has made us less patient and less involved in evaluating content. Readers want information fast and clear, and there’s no time for parsing paragraphs and following sentences.
Digital writers accommodate these behaviors through a number of online writing techniques. The first is using HTML markup to arrange and display the text in an organized logical format with a visual hierarchy. Just from a glance, a reader should be able to establish the most important content by the design and presentation of that content.
One of the most frequent questions I get is, “Do I have to know HTML to do SEO?” My answer is no you don’t, but it is one of the best tools you’ll use. Now, you may not have to know HTML, especially if you’re writing content and using a content management system that allows you to apply this markup, such as H1, H2, and H3 headings, bullet points, lists, bold text, and hyperlinked text. These simple markup techniques used appropriately can increase the reading and retention of your content.
The H1 is the primary headline. There should be only one per page. Just like the headline of a newspaper, there’s only one headline on the page. The H2 is the subheading, and here is where you divide your content into major sections for each subheading. H3’s are used for further divisions of the content, or they could be used for heading a separate list of links or content. The bottom line here is not to underestimate the power of these headings.
You write a great headline that includes your keyword, then develop a number of subheadings that contextualize the primary keyword with additional topics. When you use this format, it immediately attracts the eyes of the reader. And this is because we scan pages using these same stylistic features. We read the headline or at least the first five words, and then we look quickly at the subheadings to locate which one will have the answer we need. Again, we’re looking for the keyword or reading only the first three to five words.
Then anytime there are bullet points, it slows the reader down. Using bullet points can increase the readability and retention of the content. Even more, using keywords, benefits, or action verbs in the bullet points increases readability. And to make it even more enticing, bolding the first two to three words or important words in the bullet points makes the readers pause much more efficient. By the way, uh, any bullet points that have more than seven or eight words, that’s a sentence. It’s not a bullet point.
When we add these visual anchors throughout the text, we can slow the reader’s initial scan because we’re giving them visual anchor points where they can find keyword-based concepts, and they need those to answer their questions. Digital writing breaks up long paragraphs. In fact, on a webpage, a paragraph should be no longer than three sentences, maybe even two.
We are writing for an impatient audience and the skills needed to do this are based in constant research and education. Just as a carpenter sharpens their tools, a writer needs to understand their audience and needs to stay up on the research of how people engage with content online and the neuroscience that informs us.
But this goes well beyond just populating a page with content. There is a purpose to the content. As an example, I was once asked to evaluate a website for a company. In the conference room the in-house web developers were being singled out for the problems of the website. According to the marketing team, the shopping cart didn’t work. The sales were down, and the website was full of problems.
[00:10:00] Later in the meeting I asked the marketers in the room if any of them had attempted to use the site and purchase a product and it became strangely quiet, especially when the CMO echoed the question and realized that no one from the marketing team had even attempted a purchase on the website. In evaluating the website, my team found that the structure and operation of the website and the shopping cart were done extremely well. In no way was anything functionally broken.
However, there was something broken. It was instructions. What had happened is that the web team was tasked with developing the platform and the process. And what they were well… and while they were qualified to do that, what they were not well versed in were the accompanying instructions, content, and the conversion content necessary for a good user experience. Aha, good old UX.
This, I explained, was on the marketing team. The instructions, calls to action, explanations, and the checkout were functional, but not exceptional and they would inhibit the sales. What the site needed was a writer’s touch to make the entire user experience clearer, more logical, and enjoyable. Doing this would increase their year over year sales by over $10 million. That’s the power of writing content that attracts and forms and persuades.
And this is because good writers study and apply the psychological aspects of persuasion throughout their writing. Understanding what shapes people’s decisions, how to create compelling narratives, and how to stir emotion and interest, these are the heart of the copywriting skill. In digital marketing this goes well beyond an optimized page.
The skill translates to social media posts, storytelling through quick posts, and little bits of information, but also writing compelling ad copy that reaches a searcher with a few dozen words and moves them to click on the ad. It translates to a beautiful subject line that grabs our attention and emails that draw us in. The increase of content marketing demands skilled writers.
Unfortunately, I think we’ve all read too much content that does not have the hallmarks of a skilled writer behind the words. Usually, it just merely recites established facts, provides little analysis, and sometimes it’s barely coherent. It’s no accident that many of the early SEO pioneers were copywriters by trade.
For myself I, I started building websites based on my journalism background. That’s why I focus so much on headlines, subheadings, bullet points, captions, and links. I quickly saw the patterns of how search engines relied on keywords and HTML markup to rank sites accordingly. Content writers saw the same patterns.
This is also why when I had my agency, I always hired based on the ability to write. I could teach any writer how to do SEO, email, paid search, and content development, because they had the core skills already. And to do these tactical things were easy. They could be taught and learned very quickly. In addition, I could trust them to communicate clearly with clients, prospects, and each other through verbal and written communications.
This is what makes writing one of my top seven digital marketing skills that’ll never go out of style. What do you think? Please let me know in the comments. Let me know what you think about my seven skills and if there’s anything you’d like to add and what you think is necessary for marketers to compete in the next decade or two. And so, thank you, dear listener, for tuning in to another episode of the Endless Coffee Cup podcast.