How to Earn Engaged Readers in the Attention-deficit Era

In some ways, everyone is in the publishing business now. Not so long ago brands realized that one of the most effective ways to build authority online was by positioning themselves as the go-to resource for their target audiences.

This, of course, has created a tsunami of content that’s drowning everyone in information.

According to MarketingProfs, more than 2,000,000 blog posts get published online every day. We’ll even do the maths for you here: that means 1,400 new articles surface on the Web every minute.

The unintended consequence of this is that people have become weary of the plethora of information they are increasingly exposed to – and much more adept at tuning it out. Audiences have become more selective and time-efficient: Nielsen’s recent study has confirmed that on average, when users are looking at your website, they will only digest 20 percent of the content displayed on your page.

The solution to one problem has therefore created a much bigger problem in and of itself: how do you break through the noise and get your target audience to notice and actually interact with your content?

You’re not entitled to anyone’s attention – you have to earn it


Having spoken to quite a few content editors we’ve identified a widespread logical fallacy. When discussing the attention phenomena in the distraction era, a surprisingly high number of content professionals showed an attitude of entitlement; this attitude is fueled by the belief it’s sufficient to produce quality articles, publish them and then wait for the audience to applaud.

While value remains a necessary ingredient in this context, it’s unfortunately not enough and here’s why:

Firstly, a shift in power has occurred and ignoring the possible consequences of this is dangerous. Newsrooms are not the stars of the show anymore, the audience is. Secondly, news has become incredibly fluid and now inhabits many different forms. It’s true that the age of hyper-connectivity brought us closer than ever before, but it has also made it extremely hard to become worthy of people’s attention if we don’t bring unique value to the table.

Even though numerous reports claim that people don’t really read content anymore, experience has shown that isn’t quite true. Publishers like The Washington Post and The Guardian, and countless other smaller ones, manage to generate a healthy level of engagement. The volume of online content may be increasing exponentially, but human capacity to consume it will not – and cannot – match this kind of growth: ours is finite.

Really, the issue is one of navigation and discovery: people are not sick of content in general, they’re sick of trawling through a polluted content feed in search of the thing they’re looking for.

The steps you’re going to take to spark interest depend on the core of your target audience. Meaning, what works for small publishers that mostly write about local stories won’t necessarily be a great fit for big media organizations that report on everything and anything happening nation-wide or globally.

Before you grab a magnifying glass and start analyzing your existing content from every angle, it’s highly advisable to first make sure that your core strategy is on the right course.

If you regularly publish 500-word articles on the grounds that “Google loves fresh content” and that “the more you create, the bigger the chances you’ll have of getting noticed” – then, at best, you’re wasting your time.

As Earl J. Wilkinson, the CEO of INMA, reminded us at the recent Media Innovation Week in Amsterdam: “90 percent of traffic is driven by 10 percent of your content.”

The trick is to find and understand that 10 percent and focus only on creating the material that gets you noticed.

If you’re not crafting your stories with actual purpose and value for the readers in mind, then you shouldn’t be creating them at all. Regardless of the size and stature of your publication, every single piece of content you create must have a solid reason for why you’re creating it. If it’s just for “generating traffic”, then your desired readers probably won’t respond to it.

Pursue relevant topics where you can actually win

The content you decide to produce should be working towards one or more of your wider goals. You should be able to justify to anyone why you took the decision to write that specific article.

The idea here is to provide someone with a reason to read your material and follow your publication.

This is at the heart of the subscription and membership culture. If readers are moved to become financially or emotionally invested in your publication (and hopefully both), then you’re onto a winner.

At Zetland, in Denmark, a diligent focus on their readers’ interests, passions and concerns were not only instrumental in the publication’s creation and direction, but it has also enabled it to thrive. It’s now frequently cited as an example whenever the subject of subscription and membership success is raised.

In Switzerland, Republik, a crowd-funded news publication founded by journalists raised its target seed money in a matter of hours because its mission and standpoint – to set up a non-partisan, independent news outlet where investigative journalists could do what they do best – was something which clearly resonated with a key demographic.

Even Fox in the USA falls into this category. The news network may be either loathed or loved depending on your own politics, but there’s no doubt that the decision to pin its colors to a particular ideological framework and continue to be unashamedly partisan in its reporting style has been the key to its success.

Publishers need to think about producing more than just news. If they want to break through the content noise, they need to inform, educate, and inspire. The goal is to pursue quality, not quantity. They need to take the time to understand the exact information their audience is searching for and conduct detailed content gap analysis to find unique opportunities for appearing on people’s radar.

Running controversial topics is not the answer; starting a dialogue, on the other hand, is. Their main focus should be on addressing the fiery questions their readers are having low-key discussions about or are troubled by.

At a time where relevant traffic is the only currency worth having, investing in keyword research is a no-brainer. The benefits of doing frequent and thorough keyword research are endless. Apart from understanding which topics to cover and how to promote them in organic and paid search – conducting frequent keywords research also helps publishers a lot with learning more about their actual readers.

Publishers who invest in KW research will learn how their readers think and behave. What search terms they use, when they think about certain topics and what problems they deal with on regular basis. This is all extremely valuable information in the hand of an intelligent editor.  

Extra focus on the headline


In the content saturation era, nothing is more important than a powerful headline. You have only one chance to make a first impression, so you better do everything in your power to make it a positive one.

Without a compelling and an attractive teaser that perfectly describes the point and overall significance of your content, searchers won’t be tempted to read more of your work. Tests have shown that the amount of traffic may vary by as much as 500 percent simply because of the way the headline is formulated.

As Copyblogger’s study has shown: 8 out of 10 people will read a headline, and only 2 out of those 10 will decide to dig deeper into your article.

From a publisher’s perspective, writing outstanding headlines is critical for expanding readership bases and generating more engaged traffic.

However, developing attractive and compelling summaries of your articles in just a couple of words is never an easy task. In fact, it’s often harder than writing an entire article from scratch.

There are numerous studies online dedicated to analyzing headlines and helping publishers understand how to cater to their audiences’ preferences in this particular segment.

Even though there is no one-size fits all formula, the numbers have proven that most users click on headlines that:

  • Come in a form of simple language – The language you choose to write your headlines in will have a huge impact on their engagement. When you insert words that are bland, uninspiring, or mostly unfamiliar to your targeted readers – the end result is often disappointing. If you want to win your readers’ trust and get them to click on your content, you must do everything you can to tailor the headline to their own jargon and the way they are used to communicate.
  • Comes in a form of a bold statement or discovery – As we have seen from the above-linked headline study, the phrase “Will Make You” generates the most engagement on Facebook. The second place goes to the “This is Why” construction. That is because these two phrases don’t demand anything from a reader. They start bold and guarantee a certain epiphany or emotion at the end for the article, which naturally makes them a safe bet for the readers because they feel like they won’t leave the article ‘empty-handed’.
  • Responds correctly to the topic that interests them – Every tagline you write should target a specific keyword with a decent keyword volume. Understanding how and why people search certain topics will certainly provide editors and journalists with a slight competitive advantage over their peers. KW analysis does not only help with identifying which sets of words bring the most engaged visits – it also helps with understanding users’ intent, which is crucial.
  • Respect the 4Us format – The 4Us is probably the most popular copywriting method for grabbing the targeted audience’s interest. It was designed with headlines in mind and focuses on four elements: usefulness, uniqueness, urgency, and ultra-specificity. The goal of this approach is to make sure that your headlines meet all the Us described in this formula.
  • Follow the SHINE – The SHINE is another simple copywriting formula used for making headlines stand out. It is basically an acronym (S – Specificity; H – Helpfulness; I – Immediacy; N – Newsworthiness; E – Entertainment value) used mainly by fitness experts. However, the approach is applicable in other industries as well. The idea here is to first identify the problem, and then work on its solution.

Trust in information that data actually provides

Even though a lot of editors and journalists still rely on basic analytical skills and their ‘gut feeling’ while deciding which stories to pursue on their media outlets, practice has shown that this method is becoming less and less effective.

Poor engagement rates suggest that it’s not really enough to produce content your newsroom crew thinks the readers will enjoy.

In order to map which type of content works, which doesn’t, and what kind of topics are worth writing more about – top-level media managers have started relying on big data systems to path their way to success.

Big data is more than a buzzword that gets thrown around in Internet discussions.

In 2018, more companies from all sides of the online business spectrum are looking to secure large quantities of data from their targeted audiences in order to leverage the insights and further improve the quality and relevance of their work.

For example, let’s focus on The Weather Channel and Netflix. By analyzing the patterns of its digital and mobile users in 3 million locations across the globe – along with the unique climate data in each of these places – The Weather Company has managed to become a monster advertising platform, successfully promoting such items as anti-frizz products to people in humid locations. Netflix, on the other hand, uses big data analytics to tap into their users’ viewing habits and create/buy content that they know in advance will resonate well with their audiences.

Understanding what their readers think, how they react to their output, and what makes them come to and leave their pages – will certainly help publishers increase the overall engagement rates across their website.

However, this is often easier said than done, especially in the news world. If you don’t have a tech-savvy editor or a data analyst in your ranks, it can be difficult to successfully understand the mechanics of your readers’ behavior and incorporate it in your future content production efforts.

Luckily for you, tools like Content Insights – which delves into the depths of big data and translates complex editorial statistics into actionable insights – can help publishers take their game to the next level.

Make your content easily digestible (on mobile devices too)


As it was already mentioned in one of the previous articles on this blog, Google has officially rolled out its mobile-first indexing update. This means that the world’s most popular search engine is going to look first at mobile versions of websites when calculating how and where to position them in the search results for specific queries.

The main reason why Google decided to move in this direction is user behavior. According to Heatwise’s study, nearly 60 percent of all online searches now come from mobile devices.

For a majority of media outlets, mobile traffic ranges from 15 percent to as high as 60 percent, so it’s of crucial importance to take this information on board and quickly adapt to the new terrain.

Apart from making their brands Google-friendly, media organizations need to optimize for mobile to ensure that their content is properly displayed across all devices.

If you want to make your articles easily accessible on mobile, as a publisher you cannot just focus on the technical part of the optimization process. Getting a responsive design is just the first step to becoming ‘mobile ready’.

To ensure that their material gets successfully digested by their mobile readers, media organizations need to rethink how they format their articles. They should focus on editing their content in a way that looks good both on mobile and desktop devices. This means producing shorter sentences and paragraphs that don’t beat around the bush, but make it easy for mobile users to consume the information they came for.

Don’t just share links, produce original content for each of your valuable platforms

A study from 2017 has shown that around two-thirds of all Americans get at least some of their news via social media. Social networks are huge traffic sources for media outlets of all shapes and sizes, but only a handful of them know how to draw genuinely engaged readers from these websites.


A lot of publishers that struggle to generate engagement nurture the same bad habit of cross-posting identical content across different social media platforms.

Just like any other bad habit, cross-posting brings a certain amount of legit benefits to the table: it keeps social profiles active, it saves time, and it makes it easy for readers to develop a habit of visiting the organization’s website, not social profiles.

Of course, these advantages are easily outweighed by all the drawbacks.

Apart from accidentally promoting wrong formats across the wrong networks and nurturing a monotonous approach to social media – publishers who mindlessly cross-post their articles are missing out on a crucial element of social marketing, and that is to actually make use of the platforms on which their current and potential readers hang out.

Just as you don’t want to be the guy that tells the same joke at every party, you don’t want to be the brand that shares the exact same thing on every network.

There are more than a few publishers online today that understand that every social network is a story for itself and that it requires a unique approach to creating and promoting content.

Let’s look at Cheddar for a second. Even though this is a fairly new publication (launched only 2 years ago), Cheddar has already managed to get on people’s radar and become one of the more well-known projects in the media world.

It has revolutionized and reshaped how most users see and digest business media, not just how they consume it through social.

Cheddar is a live and on-demand video news network focused on covering innovative products and all tech-related topics that shape and influence the lives of younger generations. It first aired on Facebook Live (before the network had an API allowing devices to tap into the tech), and then it blew up everywhere. This media house was created because there were no real news outlets that specifically targeted younger audiences.

In addition to Cheddar whose unique content strategy has bridged the tricky gap between millennials and reporting, there are more than a couple of traditional news sources that have remained true to their old-school style of reporting, but have also found a way to make proper use of their social media profiles and feed their audiences with material that works well for platforms on which it appears.

For example, the BBC is creating content solely for Instagram, and so far – it’s working out brilliantly for them. Using the #BBCShorts hashtag, they post 15 second-long stories every day to make daily news instantly digestible for people who are addicted to ‘Instagram tapping’. The videos include a headline, in all caps, and the text runs across the bottom of the screen to explain the footage.

The Guardian has a different strategy from BBC. Under the #GuardianCam hashtag, this media organization publishes content on Instagram that lets followers see inside their newsrooms from around the world. It gives the people a front seat at how The Guardian works, which is definitely unique. Every week, different journalists from different cities update The Guardian’s main Instagram profile to provide some extra images of major news events.

As it can be clearly seen from the listed examples, understanding their audience’s habits and how and why they digest information through specific social networks has certainly helped these publishers increase their engagement rates.

Each separate channel reflects specific media-consuming habits and you need to keep that in mind. Investing an extra effort counts. Blind-cross posting creates disengaged followers, but it can also put your brand on notorious spam lists.

For example, Twitter is one of the biggest social networks that limit automation and posting of identical content. This is how they separate spam account and bots from the real users.

Facebook, for instance, kills organic reach for brands who constantly repost the same things. Don’t think these platforms don’t have mechanisms to weed out spam: it’s a constant battle, but they’re on the case, so don’t fall victim to their algorithmic culls through laziness.

Harness the power of great visuals


Apart from reinventing their dated content formatting habits and a stale approach to social networks, media outlets need to work on the visual appeal of their content as well. They need to diversify their content and actually try to surprise readers with more creative solutions to traditional reporting.

News websites consistently rank at the bottom for user retention because they don’t work on their structure, formatting, appeal, and accessibility of their outlets. They often have the biggest bounce rates, which definitely underlines the fact that the readers are having a hard time extracting the information they are seeking. So, they simply wander off to another website.

For too long, the digital presence of large news organizations looked little more than digitized clones of their print selves and despite the massive technological changes over the past decade, little has changed as to how news is presented. The same old formats and dated practices continue to live on across the Web, even though everyone knows they’re ineffective.

In 2018, it takes 50 milliseconds to form a first opinion, so those first impressions have never been so time critical. According to Skyword’s study, images play a key role here. Articles that use supporting imagery, generate 94 percent more views than those without. Posts that have an image after every 75-100 words receive twice as many social actions than those that don’t.

The value of visual communication is hard to ignore or dispute, especially from an editorial perspective. There’s something called the “picture superiority effect”, which suggests images are more likely to be remembered than words.

Knowing this can help you explore different types of visual formats (such as infographics), or come up with eye-catching ways to complement your words with images; for example, you can visually display key statistics or extract well-defined quotes from the article that can grab the attention. By strategically using visual content and clear structuring, you can ease the burden of cognitive strain your readers will experience.

TIME magazine, for instance, makes great use of its visual assets. Last July, TIME tweeted a 19-second-long animated GIF which showed Donald Trump slowly morphing into Vladimir Putin. This post was meant to illustrate a particular moment in the US foreign policy, following the pair’s meeting in Finland. Of course, the tweet generated tons of engagement for the publisher and perfectly illustrated TIME’s ideological stance on the matter.

Media houses already have these tools at their disposal – but they need to think harder (and more creatively) about how to use them more effectively.

Closing words

For a currency to be valuable, Ev Williams has said it needs to be scarce. Attention is now so scarce that it’s priceless.

For the publisher, this presents a tricky problem of how to break through the noise without compromising quality or lowering their standards by embracing pitiful attention-grabbing techniques and tricks.

The good news is that there’s much more of an understanding across the industry that those vanity metric-hunting tactics don’t benefit anyone – and nor do they do much to address the problems involved in truly engaging your key audience.

The advent of business models which align quality content with engaged readers can only help bring discussions about all this to the fore. Quick fixes and the attitude of ‘it worked once, it should work now’ have proven to be successful only at holding publishers back, not helping them advance forward. Where we’re seeing success now, it’s in places which have taken the time to consider the points outlined here.

In the end, being agile and adapting to the modern pulse of readers doesn’t mean you’re betraying your profession; it means you are breaking through its traditional forms. It’s certainly not an ‘easy’ solution to such a huge problem, but it is the right one.


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