“Eschew obfuscation?” No, thanks—we’d rather just “avoid confusion.” And so would your audience.
If we asked you to define the purpose of content marketing, what would you say?
A. “To get more customers so we can grow and be more profitable.”
B. “To make our brand more recognizable.”
C. “To pass along important or educational information.”
D. “To build a relationship with our current customers.”
E. “You’re going to say, ‘All of the above,’ aren’t you?”
No, we aren’t! We’re—oh, fine, you’re right. The answer is E. That’s because content—whether read, watched or heard—does most of the heavy lifting in today’s marketing. If your eyes have ever glazed over while reading a legal document, or if you’ve ever played a stealth game of Buzzword Bingo in a meeting because you couldn’t follow the corporate-speak, then you already know that when it comes to content, clarity is everything.
The Joy of Jargon
Okay, we’re kidding. There is no joy in jargon—at least, not the “shifting-paradigms-while-thinking-outside-the-box-to-create-synergies” kind. Don’t get us wrong; there’s no reason you can’t sprinkle a few (repeat: a few) industry-specific terms or acronyms through your content. After all, what would health care be without “FPOs” and “HMOs,” or law enforcement without “10/4s” and “suspects?” As long as the majority of the content is clear and readable, any reader should be able to figure out the context.
However, when you forget to account for your entire audience—or when you’re so eager to display your knowledge that you toss around jargon or complicated information willy-nilly—you risk turning those disengaged readers into lost prospects.
Take the following example, which we discovered in a news article about bad writing. It was created by a company manager to describe his or her job. See if you can figure out the manager’s title from this description:
“It is my job to ensure proper process deployment activities take place to support process institutionalization and sustainment. Business process management is the core deliverable of my role, which requires that I identify process competency gaps and fill those gaps.”
We couldn’t, either. We had to read more of the article to discover that this 40-word buzzwords-gone-wild description means this person is… <drum roll> a training director.
Thankfully, most mainstream content isn’t this dense. However, it’s a good reminder that what’s understandable to you may look like a foreign language to your readers.
We should also note that it goes both ways—content that’s too simplistic for a technical audience risks boring them. It’s definitely a balancing act, but one that’s worth mastering.
Writing Content that Sticks the Landing
There are as many different audiences as there are marketers to communicate to them, so we won’t get audience-specific in this article. However, there are some principles of clear communications that apply to any type of content or audience:
Know your audience.
Or maybe that should be: KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE! And yes, the emphasis is intentional, because this the first and most important step. Otherwise, you’re just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks—and wasting your precious marketing budget producing content that never gets opened, read, clicked or shared.
The better you know what makes your audience tick, the more you can tailor your content marketing strategy. This is where your buyer personas, if you have them, will come in handy. Hootsuite’s online guide to defining your target market may also be helpful.
Match the reading level to your audience.
Have you ever noticed the Readability Statistics (you might know them as the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level or Flesch Reading Ease scores) that come up in Microsoft Word at the end of your spelling and grammar check? For this article we’ll talk about the Grade Level score, which does exactly what it says: matches the readability of your writing to a school grade level. The lower the score, the more accessible it is to younger readers. This article, for instance, scores at 9.1 (or 8.6 if we take out the jargon words), which means it can be easily read by an ninth-grader. Newspaper articles are generally aimed at the sixth- to eighth-grade level, while more academic pieces like white papers or special reports usually score at an eleventh-grade level or higher.
The chart below will give you a good idea of the readability at each grade level. There are dozens of readability tests available, but since Microsoft Word is such a widely used program we’ve used Flesch-Kincaid as our example.
|0 – 4||For those just learning to read.|
|5||Very easy to read, with shorter sentences and simpler words. Easily understood by an average 11-year-old student.|
|6||Easy to read. Conversational English for consumers.|
|7||Fairly easy to read.|
|8 – 9||Plain English. Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students. This is a good level for content intended for the general public.|
|10 – 12||Fairly difficult to read.|
|13 – 18||Difficult or very difficult to read. The highest levels are best understood by university graduates.|
Structure your writing for easy reading.
What would you rather read: a 200-page Ph.D., dissertation titled, “The Mechanics of Secure Virtual Architecture vs. an Analysis of Fluid Displacement” (yes, we made that up), or The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway? While we won’t judge you if you chose the dissertation, Hemingway’s terse, plain words and spare sentences and paragraphs are definitely an easier read. In fact, The Old Man and the Sea scores at a fourth-grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale.
If you want to follow Papa’s example and aim for shorter sentences and simpler words, keep in mind that with content it’s a good idea to vary the sentence structure a bit. Too many short sentences create choppy copy, and too many long sentences are a challenge to read. A mix of long and short sentences tends to work best. Also, you can make your content easy to scan—especially online and on mobile devices—by using headers, bullets and shorter paragraphs.
Aim for content with a conversational feel.
Even a technical white paper can be more engaging when the reader isn’t trying to translate long sentences and complex words. It’s a good idea to run any piece of content—whether it’s an article, paper, ad, website copy, script or email—through the Word readability review to see where it scores. If it’s too high, try shortening your sentences and using less-complicated words. If it’s too basic, you can always strengthen it with additional information.
Consider outsourcing your content marketing.
Let’s face it; not everyone enjoys writing, some of us can’t take a non-jittery video to save our lives and others would rather sit in a pit of snakes than hear our voice in a podcast. However, it’s also a reality of our content-driven world that if you don’t have fresh content available on a regular basis to engage information-hungry prospects, they’ll move on to someone who does. Luckily, there are a number of marketing agencies and content providers staffed by creative professionals who love to do it all.
If you do decide to outsource, ask your industry contacts for referrals and be sure to interview prospective content creators to ensure the right fit. Someone who already creates content for your industry will be more familiar with your audience, although many agencies and freelancers have experience with a wide range of industries.
We know that the idea of creating content can be scary. But it’s also exciting—and easier than ever. Grammar rules have evolved and actually relaxed in many cases. Thanks to smartphones, you carry the technology to take the perfect picture, shoot a video or record an interview in your pocket or purse. And when you’re ready to transition to more frequent or professional content, there are armies of agencies and freelancers available to help you out. The information is endless, and so are the possibilities.
But do us all a favor and lay off the “core competencies,” the “tiger teams” and the “bouncebackabilities” (yes, sadly, that is a thing), okay?
If you’d like some guidance in creating a content strategy and content that will drive leads, Spry Ideas is ready to help. Contact our Marketing Director, Jeremy Sterling, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-546-5434 for more information.
- “Bad Writing: As Written Communication Skills Deteriorate, Business Schools Take Aim,” by the Associated Press, foxnews.com, updated January 13, 2015.
- “Buyer Personas You Want to Use: The 9 Essential Parts,” by Marcia Riefer Johnston, contentmarketinginstitute.com, May 12, 2016.
- “How to Define Your Target Market: A Guide to Audience Research,” by Christina Newberry, blog.hootsuite.com, October 31, 2018.
- “Readability test” entry from Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org, edited October 2, 2017.
- “How the Flesch Reading Ease Test Can Help You Write Clear and Concise Copy,” by Clifford Chi, blog.hubspot.com, updated July 24, 2019.