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What reading trends mean for content marketers

As published in SmartBrief

A recent Gallup poll reported that Americans are reading less than they have in 30 years. In fact, a recent Pew Research survey shows that nearly a quarter of Americans haven’t read a book in the past year.  For content marketers, these statistics might be alarming. After all, it’s never seemed harder to grab readers’ attention and keep it. And with TikTok allowing people to consume content in bite-sized 10-second chunks, the thought of getting someone to spend five minutes reading a blog post might feel hopeless.

And yet, not all is lost.

Book sales are actually increasing year over year, with an especially large boom in 2021. This tells us that Americans do have an interest in reading. They’re seeking out and buying books that excite them — they just might not have the time or focus to actually read them.

How can marketers capitalize on this interest in reading, and then get readers to follow through and engage with content? In this article, we’ll draw on experiences creating content for brands like Google, Coinbase, Twitter, Amazon, Microsoft and many more and isolate the common threads that lead to engaging readable content.

Know your audience

In a crowded content ecosystem, getting a reader to choose your brand’s publication isn’t easy. And once they do make it to your site, you want to make sure you’re providing the kind of content they want. But how do you know what they want? Generally, the process can be broken down into three parts:

  1. Create content
  2. Test performance
  3. Revise strategy using these KPIs

It’s not so different from an author turning in a draft, getting notes from their editor, then revising their draft based on those notes. The editor is using their experience and knowledge of the market to offer notes that will make the book more commercially viable.

Say you’re writing a newsletter. You might include a mix of interviews, how-to posts and shorter “bite-sized” text snippets. When the newsletter goes live, you dive into the data and figure out which pages are being opened and which pieces are getting read to the end.

On a broader level, you’re seeing if your newsletter is actually working as a marketing tool and increasing sales for your business.

All these analytics help you better understand your audience and meet them where they are. Again, the fact that they subscribed to your newsletter shows you they want to read. Once they’ve opened the newsletter, it’s up to you as a content creator to know what they want and deliver.

Keep it readable

A 400-page book can be intimidating. No wonder so many readers wait for a beach vacation before they finally crack open that novel they’ve been putting off. Going off the grid with no distractions can feel like the only time we have the mental space to actually sit down and engage with something challenging.

Luckily, content marketers aren’t asking that much. Stephen King might be asking for 20 hours of your time, but we’re merely asking for five minutes. The inherently quicker, lighter nature of online content offers some distinct advantages. It’s easier to keep your writing concise. Short sentences. Short paragraphs. Minimal extraneous detail.

Your readers don’t have a lot of time and there are a multitude of distractions compromising their focus. Hook them early with a clear “promise.” This could be an eye-catching headline or a surprising stat in the first line of the piece. Then keep their attention with crisp, readable prose, usually broken into subheadings.

In describing his approach to writing, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.” This sums it up perfectly. You aren’t looking to dumb down your content — you’re merely looking to say a lot with a little.

Earn their trust

The best way to judge the quality of your content is to track if readers come back for more. Are they returning to see what else you have to say, or are you losing them to the many other brands and creators vying for their attention?

To earn your readers’ trust, you have to offer value. Customers won’t read everything you publish, but there should be enough out there so they can find something they like across touchpoints.

This means your post might be educational or offer a deeper dive into a topic with real examples that affirm or challenge what readers suspect to be true. This kind of content is “evergreen.” It’s something they might come back to again and again as a lasting resource.

Or perhaps you’re interpreting a piece of news or current events in a way that isn’t immediately obvious or covered on another platform. If it’s a well-formed opinion backed by real evidence, you might hit the sweet spot and create something they’ll share with friends or discuss in person. The content is memorable and surprising.

You can also target highly specific audience segments and offer something immediately useful to readers who need to learn about that topic in the moment to complete a task. This is content that is urgent and serves a clear need. In any case, you’re offering content that is thoughtful and never disposable. Once you stray from this, you’ll lose readers.

Final thoughts

This three-pronged approach of 1) understanding your audience’s needs, 2) crafting simple readable content that meets those needs, then 3) leaving them satisfied so that they come back for more has worked for brands big and small.

Today’s readers aren’t disengaged — they’re simply a bit more demanding. With more distractions, they need content that won’t waste what little time they have. Approaching content thoughtfully with their needs in mind can help you turn this challenge into an opportunity — and craft content that stands out from the noise.