Received wisdom holds that sales and marketing materials need to look slick and professional. Fonts that are easy on the eye, simple design and a flowing layout are the order of the day. These principles apply equally to all communications – from company websites and video through to email marketing and thought leadership content. Essentially: make it look good and make it easy to read.
There is growing evidence to suggest, however, that it may be helpful to make at least part of the process harder to encourage audiences to think more deeply and genuinely engage with your content. As Daft Punk famously sang, work it harder, make it better (whether doing it faster makes us stronger is open to question).
It’s long been known that people recall and comprehend less on screen than in print. Originally, this was thought to be down to poor screen resolution. But now this has improved to a significantly higher resolution than in print – and yet the problem remains.
The problem is that the online experience is often so smooth that people fail to commit enough of their thinking capacity to reading and understanding the communication. People are cognitive misers – they try to conserve their resources so that they can manage the full range of tasks and situations they deal with on a daily basis. The ease of reading can lead them to underestimate the thinking power necessary for the message to be understood, internalised and memorised. They fail to read everything closely and so gloss over important details – a tendency that is amplified on mobile and tablet screens.
Organisations need to work hard and jolt people back to consciousness, using different techniques to make the experience less fluent and so awaken the more deliberative part of their brain. This will increase the mental resources committed to the task and, in doing so, increase the impact of the communication.
Uber provides a prime example of how to do this. It has trialled different ways to grab attention during surge pricing, including asking users to type in the price increase before they order a cab. While surge pricing may be lucrative, Uber wants people to notice and remember these changes to ensure they don’t flock to social media to complain when a ride suddenly costs three times the usual price.
Most of the time, however, the likes of Uber and big retailers design processes that are simple and fluent, given they don’t want people to think too much. Amazon has long recognised the benefits of making online transactions as smooth as possible, introducing the one-click purchase to help maximise revenues.
When it comes to thought leadership, however, it’s less about swift commercial transactions and more about stimulating fresh thinking, building relationships and encouraging new conversations.
Given that purpose, here are some quick tips to encourage deliberative thinking and an audience response:
- Use a mix of fonts and different typefaces. Simply moving away from Arial, Calibri and other familiar fonts can cause us to pause and renew our attention.
- Send thought leadership material to key targets in hard copy form. Recall tends to be higher when reading printed materials … but getting people off their mobile device can be a challenge!
- Feature key points in the middle of the screen/document, not in the margins. Information presented ‘at the edges’ is more likely to be missed.
- Encourage people to write down something about what they’re reading e.g. key points, first impressions or key criticisms. The physical process of writing (as opposed to typing) improves concentration and understanding.
- Provide clear questions for people to respond to, with simple instructions. Signpost how and where people can get involved.
Thought leadership content still needs to be based on high quality insight, regardless of presentation and medium delivery. But with more people accessing material online, it’s important to consider the impact that this has on how people understand and act on the basis of digitally-based information. One thing is for certain: attention spans are waning. So much so that even print needs to be shorter and punchier than it once was (research shows there is a preference for 800 word articles over lengthy white papers etc.).
Ultimately, we need to be careful and think through the purpose of any communication – if you’re looking for a transaction, make it as slick as possible; but if you want to engage an audience, think it through more carefully. Equally, we don’t want to make it so difficult to read or watch that people simply turn off and disengage.
Returning to the French music duo one more time: work it harder, make it better.