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Atlantic Writer Misses What Makes Twitter Truly Great: Social Proof

Microfilm

Last Monday Derek Thompson (senior editor at The Atlantic) missed a wonderful opportunity to talk about one of the things that makes Twitter truly great.

Let me give you some context.

Less than three weeks after deleting the Twitter app from his phone (part of a slew of 2015 resolutions revolving around better productivity), Derek redownloaded the app. Eventually he discovered a new feature: “View Tweet Activity.”

This got him exploring, asking questions, and digging deeper into analytics only to discover what I thought was a common truth: Twitter drives very little traffic to your articles.

Thompson writes, “Alas, my most popular tweets averaged a click-through rate of about 1.7 percent.” For reference, he notes a digital display ad in East Asia gets about the same rate. He concluded, “my prodigious use of Twitter in the last 30 days has cumulatively driven less traffic to TheAtlantic.com than one of my below-average stories.”

That discovery is related to another bit of conventional wisdom, the dirty little secret of our social sharing economy: people don’t actually read what they share.

Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, a company that monitors web analytics on giant sites like Upworthy, confirmed as much last year when he tweeted:

We’ve found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading.

Fortunately, Thompson didn’t declare Twitter dead or worthless.

Instead, he walked away with a different conclusion: “Twitter is sending less than 2 percent of its overall engagement back to the web.” Which he then closes with this statement: “99 percent of my work on Twitter belongs to Twitter.”

This is not a bad discovery to make. It’s called digital sharecropping. A concept he demonstrates he clearly understood when he writes, “Apps don’t pay my rent. A website does.”

So why share your articles on Twitter? Simple: for the social proof.

If you look at the feeds of top-shelf influencers you’ll see a prodigious flow of articles. If they genuinely read each one, vetted it, and shared it, they would be professional readers.

But that’s not what they get paid to do.

And fair enough: you blew through the one-thousand word article in less than four seconds. That may be reading. But it’s certainly not comprehension. But do we really care in the age of skimming?

The number one benefit in all this sharing is the on-page endorsement. Look at this:

assume nothing social proof

Think of those 1,388 shares as votes for this article.

Listen. We all look at the number of shares before we read an article. It’s a heuristic that helps us decide what to read — and not to read.

As social proof, those numbers are so important some people argue you should remove social share buttons — particularly in a conversion context — until you get a significant number.

Which is curious why The Atlantic and Business Insider display the buttons, but not the numbers. Instead, they rest on other heuristics like comments.

atlantic comments

Is this because the shares are low? If so, there’s another approach. Sites like TechCrunch simply roll all the shares into one number:

TechCrunch

These votes employ the user and wisdom of the crowd variety of social proof, not to mention a high share count plays into people’s fear of missing out.

So more Twitter shares — even if they don’t send substantial traffic — means a better chance someone will actually read your article.

And in the battle for consumer attention, every advantage counts. And let’s not forget one final benefit behind using Twitter:  chances of getting your tweets indexed by Google.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Scared You Aren’t Good Enough to Start a Blog? Read This Short Parable

hazy-water

Lying on his back, blinking the blood out of his eyes, the king watched a red kite reel in the sky. The scent of pine and old snow in the air. He rolled onto his stomach, pushed himself to his feet. He touched his left eye.

It was gone.

He lumbered down the rocky valley following the narrow stream. He paused in a meadow of foxtail, to regain his sense of direction. The sun hung hot over the trees in the east. He put his hand to his left eye.

It was still gone.

In the afternoon he lie beneath a warped juniper. Slept while the wind swarmed. When he awoke with a start a nearby hare jumped and bounded uphill, disappearing behind a crop of rocks. The king put his hand to his left eye.

It was still gone.

The following day, at dawn, he drank from a pond. While still crouched he touched his left eye. He wept long, hard. And then he rose to his feet, eyed a storm cloud, and lumbered west.

He marched through rain, through cold, through dark. But he marched.

By evening of the fourth day he spotted a large camp. A few souls wandered with canes about the space between the battered tents. Their eyes were covered by a swath of dirty cloth.

He entered the camp, built a roaring fire, and, throughout the night, replaced every dirty swath with a clean strip he tore from his own robe.

Then he ate.

The next day he taught the men how to shape yew into a bow, the women to milk cattle. The young men to plow, the young women to dye cloth. And, beneath the stars, he taught the children about the sun and the moon.

Over time they replaced the tents with houses made of stone. And until the end of his life he quietly ruled this small kingdom of the blind. The king with one eye.

So: what’s the moral? Leave your answers in the comments. And please share this story with people who need it.

Writing Landing Page Copy? Do This

Lamplight

Last Friday I participated in Page Fights: Copy Edition.

Covered a lot of material critiquing ten landing pages in under 40 minutes. And would sum everything I said in this simple statement:

Your landing page copy is nothing more than a conversation with your ideal prospect.”

Your landing page copy is not some random facts about you or your product. It’s a conversation that begins with an understanding of what is in your prospect’s mind.

And you enter that conversation by saying, “Hey, you’re not alone.” The four most powerful words in our language (sans “hey”).

Once you have her attention, then you make her feel like you care. Like you really understand. That it doesn’t have to be this way. That there is hope.

So you paint a picture of what her life will be like if she takes you up on your offer. You show her a better version of herself.

Then you prove you can deliver on your promise. That you are someone she can trust.

Finally, tell her what to do. Push her in the right direction.

Every single word should support and advance that conversation. If it doesn’t, cut it.

By the way, can anyone name the formula I used to frame this conversation? Share your answer in the comments.

The Awesome Benefits of Publishing Often

Window Wood

You are the hack who butchers your ideas. It’s okay. That’s true for everyone. We butcher our ideas when we commit them to paper or hit publish.

But it must be done.

Otherwise we freeze. And never write. We fear the botched performance. The corruption of sublime ideas once they hit the atmosphere.

Corruption, however, is essential to creation.

See, there are two modes to creation. First, there is the birth of the idea, which happens in your head. Second, you turn that idea into reality (hit publish), which usually confirms your suspicion: the idea wasn’t that great.

But here’s the thing.

Rough drafts will almost never reflect your original idea. A rough draft reflects sloppy thinking. And the older the writer you are the better you understand that principle.

See, rewriting — an arduous taskhelps you to think clearly. So the more you write not only the better writer you become — but the better your thoughts become, too.

In other words, as your writing improves so do your ideas. But that’s not all.

Writing Improves Everything

Over time the opinion of your ideas decreases. Which should encourage you.

Since your ideas are not as great as you think they are the damage done by publishing them is diminished. So, you publish frequently. And frequent publishing forces you to come up with new ideas faster.

Which means more opportunity to stumble across a truly great idea. Just like any numbers game.

Image source: Leon Ephraïm

How to Write a Brilliant Long Sentence

Nepal

Our world is full of useful guidelines on how to write for the web. Sensible, everyday guidelines. But, over time, we morph those guidelines into laws. Unbreakable rules that spoil the fun. Sour the adventure.

Take writing short sentences, for instance.

It’s a useful guideline. Full of benefits. Meant to be inviting. Easy on the eyes. Breezy for the brain. Certainly the short sentence is a boon in this mean, cold world. Where a busy reader is likely to give your humdinger of a headline a once-over, your first line a second glance, then disappear.

Forever.

But the short sentence can become boring. Breathtakingly boring. It can become repetitive. Monotonous. Monotone. Routine. And dry. Which frustrates the reader.

See, there comes a moment in every article or sales letter where all that tension building up behind those cute, compact, and simple sentences (you know, those one-subject, one-verb constructions, with an occasional direct object thrown in if the writer is feeling frisky) must be released.

In fact, there is a secret tradition between you and the reader which says short sentences promise a surprise is on the way. Some goodie. A toy in the cereal box. But tease the reader too long and she checks out.

That’s where the long sentence enters. That sometimes complex and strange construction winding its way through your paragraphs.

It’s like the ground beneath a hiker suddenly gives way and carries her down the mountainside, breathless, until she finds her footing again on the solid path, and plods on, savoring the joy of surviving the near miss.

That’s the power of a good long sentence. Something you can — and should — pull off in the prosaic world of web writing.

But before you run off to pump some long sentences into your prose, there’s something you should know. In the wrong hands long sentences can become dreadful. Or simply weak.

Note …

An abundance of And

Some writers believe longs sentences are  simply made by coupling clauses with the word and. This is called polysyndeton, and yes, it is one of twelve literary devices you can use to take charge of your boring writing. But it’s a cheap way to get a long sentence.

In the right hands, a long sentence coupled with the word and will build in power and pace. The action pushes the plot forward because the writer is pointing the gaze of the reader to something going on in the world. He’s obeying the golden rule of writing.

But in the wrong hands, this trick becomes nothing more than a meaningless connector. You might as well use periods.

Anaphora abuse

This is another literary trick I taught you. In this case, same word starts multiple clauses. This Dave Eggers sentence is a classic example of anaphora:

I fly past the smaller shops, past the men drinking wine on the benches, past the old men playing dominoes, past the restaurants and the Arabs selling clothes and rugs and shoes, past the twins my age, Ahok and Awach Ugieth, two very kind and hardworking girls carrying bundles of kindling on their heads, Hello, Hello, we say, and finally I step into the darkness of my father’s stores, completely out of breath.”

The repeated word is past. And it works because the writer is describing a boy running through an African marketplace. It’s a sentence that mirrors the action of the subject. It is pointing the reader to something happening in the world (in this case, a fictional world).

But too many anaphoras and the copy can become confusing, burdensome. In that case, you might as well use periods.

Endless supply of semicolons

The amateur writer thinks churning out a long list connected with semicolons is the same thing as churning out a brilliant long sentence. Like so:

I was in a surly mood when I woke up so I went to the record store; bought a Wagner album; teased the clerk; downed an iced tea; taunted the vendor who sold it to me; stole cheese from my roommate to make a sandwich; dropped the album on the record player, slid my headphones on, and devoured the sandwich in three bites; three hours later I was in a worse mood.

There is pace. It builds. But this is just the word and in a different gown. Not a sexy long sentence. You might as well use periods.

The parenthetical pain

Usually occurs when the writer has to explain something that happened before (backstory). That’s not a bad thing, mind you. It’s only a bad thing if the backstory is more interesting than the present action. And if that’s the case, then just dispense with the present, and begin in the past.

My two attempts at a long sentence in the opening of this article involve parenthetical statements. Remove those statements and the sentences work just fine. Better, in fact.

The magic of resumptive modifier

This neat trick repeats a word in the second clause that was used in the first. Jesse Hines use this simple sentence as an example:

The restaurant serves excellent sushi, sushi that bursts with flavor.”

The bolded word is repeated, and then its meaning is expanded. Slick, but not much of a long sentence. There is a better way.

Swimming in summative modifiers

These modifiers summarizes something said in the previous statement, usually the main clause. In Rhetorical Style, Jean Fahnestock writes, “The resumptive modifier reaches into a string of terms and pulls out one for the emphasis of repetition.”

For example:

The defensive coaches taught risk-taking, ball-hawking, and perpetual movementthree strategies that bewildered the opposition and resulted in many bad passes, steals, and easy fastbreak baskets.

New information about the three bolded phrases is added in the second clause. And the second clause begins with a reference to those three phrases.

In the introduction I created a summative modifier in my second long sentence. But instead of putting it at the end of the sentence, I stuck it in the middle. That, too, is a no-no.

Let me show you why.

Branch to the right

The simplest and best way to write a long sentence is to state the subject and verb as early as you can in the beginning of the sentence, and simply to branch to the right.

Gasper Hicks stared down at the dead teenager at the foot of his door and realized he knew him; knew him as a boy, from the days when Gasper taught Sunday school, knew him as a blonde, dirt-faced kid desperate for attention, knew him as one of the dozen anxious children they bussed from the trailer park.

In other words, if you keep the subject and the verb together, then you should not confuse the reader, no matter what you pile on afterwards. When you branch to the right, the reader, Stephen Pinker, author of The Sense of style, says, “never has to keep a phrase suspended in memory for long while new words pour in. That tree has been shaped to spread the cognitive load over time.”

Read this 2,167 word monster sentence by Gabriel Garcia Marquez called “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship” and you’ll see what I mean. It works because the action went in one direction and did not depend upon anything in the past.

But I wouldn’t recommend such an approach for web writing. A wee bit excessive.

Fortunately English is a right-branching language, so it should come naturally. But beware. Those parenthetical lame backstories or list of semicolons can slip in. And keep in mind, modifiers at the start of sentence are useful, but keep them short.

Image source: Dorothy Lin

A Creative Trick for Mastering the Art of Conversational Writing

Warhol Bus Sunglasses

Speaking is a natural act. Every single human being has the ability to do it. And at a very young age. The reason why says cognitive scientist and linguist Stephen Pinker is because we have a language instinct.

We master this instinct as we imitate sounds made by mom and dad, brother and sister, nana and popo. Soon we are forming one word sentences, then two and three words sentences, and, at around age two, we are demanding to put our seat belts on ourselves while “you worry about yourself.”

Writing, however, is another story.

Man has an indistinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children, whereas no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write. – Charles Darwin

Because writing is a recent invention (roughly 5,200 years old), it’s not instinctual and has to be encouraged and taught. And for anyone who has learned to write — or teaches young writers — we all know that’s not easy. Writing is hard because it is not natural. And this unnaturalness usually shows up in wobbly, demented prose.

This can be overcome, however, by writing with a conversational tone. In other words, writing like you speak. But funny thing is … when we sit down to type out a post or book or sales letter … we tighten up, balk, and blame the weather-breakfast-horoscope.

There are several reasons for this.

One, who wouldn’t stall when faced with the reality that, unlike spoken words, written words become permanent public fixtures once we publish them? From that moment onward we face criticism and ridicule.

Not so with speech. Its transitory nature makes it pretty tempting to pop off what ever is on our mind with little fear for fallout. How often have you, six months or six years down the road, said, “Dang, I wish I’d never said that”?

The other reason we get stiff when we think about writing is that it really is not a natural act. Unlike the act of speaking, where you are face-to-face with another person, when you sit down (or stand up if that’s your thing) to write, you’ve entered the land of make believe: you have to pretend like you are talking to someone when you’re not. We call people who do that lunatics (eccentric if they have a lot of money in the bank).

And that weirdness renders some creative, but wooden and dense prose. “I have an indispensable attraction with the fabric enveloping your hip region.” You mean you like her skirt?

Pulitzer-prize winning journalist David Leonhardt (now editor of NY Times’ The Upshot) was no stranger to  wordslaw when he began his career. So for several months he wrote all of his rough drafts in Yahoo Mail instead of Microsoft Word and trained himself to be a plain-spoken writer. And it’s probably safe to say he imagined he was in a conversation when he wrote those rough drafts.

Of course, instead of writing a rough draft, you could use your phone’s voice memo or software like Dragon Naturally Speaking that turns voice into text. Again, just pretend you are talking to someone else. By the way, nice side benefit to this approach is you’ll naturally work in your own voice and style into your prose.

And don’t forget to read what you wrote out loud. (For a funny version of this advice, see this.)

Want some more lessons on how to write clear or concise copy? Then see 9 Ways to Write Clear Copy and 6 More Exercises to Help You Write Concise Copy.

One Way to Break Your Weakness for Stuffy Prose

Warhol Limo Window

A lifestyle of curating ideas is one where you purposefully choose to read books and articles that will fill a commonplace book. Which means you should be reading like a mad man (or woman).

Even if it means reading the same thing over and over again.

William Faulkner wrote a short story called “Pantaloon in Black” that I cannot stop reading. It is in his collection Go Down, Moses. I’ve only read three other stories in that collection — “Pantaloon in Black” is that seductive.

The main character, sprawling in grief after his young wife dies, is in constant, self-destructive motion. Always striding, lifting, drinking. Thus, the plot is a fluid, manic current.

Unstoppable and fatal.

It is a wonder to read. And I want to write like that. But better.

As Steven Pinker says and research suggests, studying the classic style will break you of your weakness for corporatese, academese, bureaucratese, and legalese — in other words, wordslaw.

The question is: how far are you willing to go for the right word?

The 5 Ingredients of a Great Marketing Story [Free Poster]

Story Header

More than a year ago, Sonia Simone wrote the defining piece on how to create a great marketing story.

The article summarizes what we believe at Copyblogger … and describes what we try to do with each article we write, podcast we record, and so on.

In honor of such a great article, Copyblogger Media designer Lauren Mancke and I thought it was high time we convert Sonia’s article into a sleek poster in the style of the outstanding storytellers from the era of silent films.

So, print it, pin it, but whatever you do … use it. Click here to download a PDF of the infographic, which is suitable for printing and hanging near your workspace when you need to see it most.


The Amazingly Simple Anatomy of a Meaningful Marketing Story [Infographic]

What’s your marketing story? How does your marketing story capture your audience’s attention? Why is it meaningful for your readers? Do you use these five elements or additional principles?

Share your thoughts. Brutal and all.

6 Ways an Empathy Map Can Make Your Headlines Even Sexier

Map Color

We all have our pet formulas. The go-to sources we love for great headline ideas.

For some it’s a swipe file full of head-turing advertising headlines. For others it’s scanning the headlines of their favorite magazines. Still others work their way through a set of templates like Jon Morrow’s Headline Hacks or Copyblogger’s Magnetic Headlines.

My old-standbys are the fifth chapter in a rugged copy of Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples and the four Us (unique, ultra-specific, useful, and urgent).

TAM-1

But write long enough and you’ll exhaust these sources and start looking for alternatives. Something to add a little juice to your headlines.

Having been in this business for nearly fifteen years I’ve worn out quite a few alternatives. And I’ve seen quite a few problems crop up, too. [Read more…]

Alienating Your Audience? Your Reading Habits Might Be the Problem, Study Says

Reading on a Kindle

Recent research suggests that reading Faulkner might make you kinder, gentler compared to reading Clancy, Gladwell, or nothing at all.

The results make sense.

Literary fiction is bent on perceiving reality through the eyes of the characters. Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” is a good example. Darl, Dewey Dell, Jewel, Vardaman, Cash, and so on, tell the story of Addie Bundsen’s death and burial from their point of view. Whether you can trust their POVs only adds to the suspense.

Popular fiction, on the other hand, chooses to put a high premium on the plot, with the main character getting the meat of the development. You see life through his or her eyes, but the stakes are often so high that little attention is paid to their interior lives.

By the way, I find this research ironic. Novelists in general tend to be anti-social. This paradox is stretched when you realize that a good novelist is also empathetic to the human condition.

But do literary novelists really care?

Their listening ability, one that isn’t beyond overhearing conversations not meant for their ears, is for selfish purposes. To get the story. The novelist isn’t a social scientist looking for ways to improve the human lot (for the most part).

He just needs material.

Like when Quentin Tarantino, as screenwriter, the modern equivalent of a novelist, overheard the notion that “Sicilian’s have nigger blood” and knew he had to use it. He found the perfect place in the conversation between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper in True Romance.

And try to interrupt a novelist in the middle of his work. You will have your head removed. Try to engage a writer at dinner, and he will be dull, absent (unless he is lights-out drunk). Ask her out for coffee, and she will refuse.

So isn’t it funny that this cranky deadbeat whom we call a novelist can possibly help people navigate the emotionally sensitive waters of, say, a blind date or funeral or even blogging? I think it is. But what do I know … I’m as socially inept as they get. What do you think?

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