PR must adapt to a nation of skimmers

In a recent article, Slate writer Farhad Manjoo delves into a telling yet not unsurprising fact about how individuals are consuming content online and offline: we have become a nation of skimmers.

In a recent article, Slate writer Farhad Manjoo delves into a telling yet not unsurprising fact about how individuals are consuming content online and offline: we have become a nation of skimmers.

Call it the Twitterization of society if you will. We no longer have the time or inclination to read through the entirety of news articles, press releases, website content, and other information that media outlets and, of greater relevance, organizations that PR firms represent, are creating in an effort to communicate with target audiences.

Manjoo had his team dissect where Slate readers drop off in accessing and viewing site articles, and found 38% of readers landing on a story page do not even interact (i.e. – read) the story at all. He also found most visitors read about 50% of the article, and that there is not a significant correlation between how much of an article is read and the willingness of that reader to share the article via social media. In other words, many people tweet or re-tweet an article with little knowledge of exactly what they are even tweeting. 

What does this all mean? Well, it probably means that half of you have already moved on to some video spoof of Google Glass on Funny or Die by now. But for the rest of you, these statistics hold significance for the role of PR professionals as content creators and distributors. After spending years, if not decades, waxing on about a client's product or service to the point where press releases more closely resembled novellas, PR professionals are awakening to the fact that forced brevity has its advantages.

How can the PR industry adapt to a nation of skimmers? Here are a few strategies to consider:

Shift from text to visual – The power of visual communications is increasingly evident. Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab asked 2,440 participants how they evaluated the credibility of digital content they were shown. Almost half (46.1%) said that the contents design look was the No. 1 criterion for discerning the credibility of the presented material. This isn't just about infographics, as even these visual representations can prove too data dense for some readers. Depending on the audience, it may be necessary to break data down even further, to “bite-sized” snapshots that are easily consumed and shared via social media.

Disrupt the content vehicle – Not everyone skims. A CTO who downloads your client's whitepaper on data analytics knows that to extract full value from the white paper, he or she will need to read it. But that doesn't mean he will enjoy the experience. Consider other ways to present the white-paper content, such as gamification (enabling readers to interact with content via an online game); virtual presentations that combine video, audio, and two-way collaboration; or data visualizations. Data visualizations are dynamic and interactive mediums that convey how multiple data points relate over time. Wikipedia defines them as visual representation of data, meaning "information that has been abstracted in some schematic form, including attributes or variables for the units of information.” There are many cases of when data visualizations are more compelling than traditional narrative-delivered content (i.e. - white papers).

Move away from all or nothing approach – Often, individuals have the choice to either download an entire piece of content or access none of it at all. Brands are increasingly gating content by volume. For example, utilize a Slideshare presentation that provides a quick, engaging burst of content, and then invite the Slideshare viewers to access further content if they want to. 

Reorganize your content – Much has been written about how to effectively construct a press release as it relates to putting the meat upfront so that it is read before people drop off. The Slate article certainly reinforces the importance of getting to the point quickly. The value – or lack thereof – of press releases remains hotly debated, and no matter what side of the argument you are on, do not restrict yourself to the traditional release format. If people drop off after a paragraph of the release, identify ways to engage them further, whether it is through video, re-directs, or other non-text content.

Brian Lustig is a partner at Bluetext, an integrated communications services firm based in Washington DC.

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