Kevin Dugan

Four Tips to Help You Create Content in a tl;dr World

By: Kevin Dugan | March 5, 2015 | 

Four Tips to Help You Create Content in a tl;dr WorldBy Kevin Dugan

Four tips to help you create content in a tl;dr world. How well did I communicate my topic in that headline?

Have you ever thought about why certain headlines appeal to you while other’s don’t?

According to Outbrain, my headline is just barely long enough.

After serving up hundreds of thousands of stories, the content discovery platform knows we’re more likely to click through headlines with 12 to 18 words in them

The need to apply science to the art of headline writing when you create content is a minor industry symptom of a more serious and far-reaching disease: The consumer’s ever-shrinking attention span.

The average attention span is a mere eight seconds. 

And if this doesn’t seem short, consider the goldfish clocks in at nine seconds. 


How to Communicate While Marketing in a World of Brevity

And, more troubling, mobile makes our eight-second window of opportunity seem even smaller.

When we create content, it must be mobile-friendly, easy to access, consume, and share during in-between moments such as riding on an elevator or waiting for a meeting to start.

We even say something is tl;dr because, evidently, saying it was “too long, (so I) didn’t read” is too cumbersome. This doesn’t mean we should relentlessly shorten the length of every message we publish.

Consider these four tips to help you create content in a world of brevity.

Build a Plan with Cobblestones and Cornerstones

One issue with going tl;dr on messaging is ensuring it all rolls up into a broader plan. The concept of cobblestones and cornerstones can help make this happen.

When the Star Wars franchise first started to tell its story, George Lucas already knew all six chapters.

He also knew the entire story was too long to tell in a single movie. So, while he started with one cobblestone, he always had the bigger cornerstone in mind.

Consider how key editorial cornerstones can support your longer, broader plan when you create content.

Then atomize these cornerstones into as many pieces of content, or cobblestones, as the plan warrants.

BuzzFeed took this approach, at a tactical level, when it wanted to communicate to potential advertisers how technology is changing media.

The publisher knew some funny .gifs, or a quiz wouldn’t get prospects to part with ad dollars. To create content advertisers cared about, they built BuzzFeed Insights

BuzzFeed atomizes a white-paper-sized story into four trend-focused stories. Each story is a cross between a blog post and an infographic.

The single-page site gets the broader message across and its execution reinforces the BuzzFeed brand.

Use Data to Make it All Relevant

Stories must engage the audience and help a brand reach its business goals—all without mentioning the brand!

When you create content, a story’s role in connecting brands to consumers can seem unrealistic. But data can help any editorial strategy meet these seemingly contradictory requirements, and help you communicate with consumers more effectively.

A variety of data sources can help—from internal data such as web analytics and customer service inquiries to external data such as search queries and social conversations.

This informed approach to helping you create content is why I can advise almost any consumer packaged goods (CPG) brand to include a story with a slow cooker recipe in their editorial calendar.

Search queries, social data, and web analytics have shown the boring crock-pot’s convenience and simplicity make it a well-performing topic, regardless of the season.

And data can fuel more than the launch. It should also be used to optimize each wave of stories, ensuring they only improve in effectiveness. 

Create Content Where Story Drives the Form

When you create content, it relies on data science, but the process is a mix of art and science.

Content created with a science-only approach is bad enough that parody sites such as Clickhole have emerged to poke fun at this faux pas.

But a simple, three-word mantra can keep your left-brain on the right track: Story Drives Form.

This means: Focus on the story first and then consider how you wish to communicate it.  When you sit down to create content, as yourself, “Should it take the form of a video, an infographic, or a more traditional article?”

  • Short-Form Video: Any story where seeing is believing may seem a fit for video. But keep in mind short stories with a high level of utility or entertainment value tend to work hardest.
  • Visual Infographic: This easily shared format is great for several quick factoids or a story with a handful of numbers. If you have a text-heavy message? Think again.
  • Long-Form Editorial: A complex topic isn’t a bad thing if it’s of interest to your audience. It may warrant a longer article, a white paper or even a series of articles to tell the right story.

There are no hard and fast rules here–it is the art of story creation after all. But by focusing on the story first, the right form should become clear.

If someone starts a project form first, without an idea of the story to tell, it’s understandable. Try shifting the focus back to the story before deciding which form it will take.

And remember that taking a cobblestone and cornerstone approach means it might take all three of the above examples, working in concert, to tell a single story. 

Test Short-Form to Decide When to Go Long-Form

The tips to create content so far focus upstream on the planning stages. But in the thick of a plan’s execution, we may need to decide how many stories are needed on a certain topic to help us reach our goals.

This is especially true if you’re using data to optimize your content.

Testing small pieces of content on social platforms is one way to do this. More time and resources can be invested in a topic based on the levels of engagement these smaller stories receive.

Let’s say a CPG brand is publishing content for the do-it-yourself consumer. A story they find on how to up-cycle IKEA furniture sounds like the perfect topic.

So take the following steps to test audience interest before creating new content around it.


Insights from the planning data may support the decision to create the video series, but this process reconfirms demand for a specific topic before investing in content creation to support it.

Attention spans will continue to shrink. But the audience will always dedicate time and attention to relevant and engaging content

We must do more than shrink our content down to bumper sticker phrases and one-line church sign wisdom.

We must be smarter about how we create content, as a whole.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

About Kevin Dugan

Kevin Dugan is the other half of the Bad Pitch blog and has been immersed in all forms of content, social media, and online technology through a nearly 25 year career in marketing. He’s currently director of content for Magnetic Content Studios and helps brands tell their stories in a way that doesn’t bore you or tick you off.

  • You so smart! I laughed out loud at the slow cooker recipes. The crockpot is my favorite weekday tool. Seriously. It’s so easy to look like woman of the year when you have meals from the crockpot. The idea to test short-form is super interesting. I’d never thought of that. And now we shall. Thank you! And thanks for the really good content. I was excited when I saw your draft in our admin.

  • prblog

    ginidietrich Thanks Gini! There’s no shame in the slow cooker game. But it is like ‘tussin for CPG content marketing. “Broken bone? Just rub some slow cooker in there real good. Let it soak in and you’ll be fine.”

    The idea re: testing short form to go long form will increase in importance. Theories are that the middle ground content will fall victim to short attention spans. So I might consume a ton of small pieces of content during the week about drones before deciding to dig deeper over the weekend with a really long form piece on the topic. But those mid-sized articles in between? Meh. 

    The big reason I give it credibility is how well media have been using Instagram videos and Snapchat Discover (the rough equivalents of a gif) to tell news stories. How much detail do you need? We’ll see.

  • prblog SUPER interesting. I always test headlines on Twitter, but this takes it a bit further. Plus, I imagine it saves a ton of time.

  • prblog

    ginidietrich – badpitch and SpinSucks go together like peas n’ carrots. Or something like that.

  • I love the Star Wars analogy. Thinking about the content you produce as cobblestones that lay the foundation you are trying to build definitely changes your content strategy perspective. Hmmm…..

    And also, obviously all of this is Gini’s fault.

  • ginidietrich

    prblog Yeah!!

  • prblog

    LauraPetrolino Glad you like it, Laura. Big ups to Tom Martin for that concept. I foist this link as it gives him proper credit. 
    And, yes, it’s always Gini’s fault.

  • Interesting about ideal headline length being 12-18 words. Yoast is always nagging me that my headlines are too long at 6 or 7 words (something about the ideal width for Google). 
    It’s funny, I use the goldfish-squirrel(!) thing in my presentations. Everyone (but Gini) loves a great squirrel pic. So I’ll just leave this here for her:

  • The headline discussion is interesting. On mobile I use apps. So I go to Huff Post, Guardian, NY Daily News etc for reading. Once there yes I choose what to read based on headlines. But the topic is usually what is the decider. I am very active every day doing this and there really is no way for any of these platforms to reach me outside of their app. So having content I want inside the app is key. I used to ‘discover’ content via social media but that has become a very small % now of my reading. 

    I think as we have all now been working more since the recession ended the sliver of time and chance to insert into our awareness has gotten smaller and smaller. Which to me has actually benefited big names with Apps vs small websites trying to make it. I am much more likely to go to those on my laptop than mobile.

    So big challenges for content marketers and content producers with the volume of content increasing and the amount of time and space they are trying to get into shrinking. Will it all collapse into a black hole singularity with only Ziggy cartoons making it through?

  • prblog

    RobBiesenbach Good point re: Yoast Rob. That’s obviously a search-driven idea and Outbrain is definitely assuming the consumer is in front of the headline, along with several others to choose from. So Yoast is thinking: shorter to help folks find it. Outbrain being a content discovery network, they’re assuming you’re spending money to distribute the content and they’ll bring the right audience to the content. 

    IMHO, headlines are a mix of art and science and Yoast and Outbrain provide very helpful guidelines for us to consider.

    Oh, and now that I know Gini doesn’t like pictures of squirrels….all I want to do is send her pics of squirrels. Funny how that works.

  • prblog

    Howie Goldfarb Love the black hole concept…even if it’s in jest. I think you’re right regarding apps vs. sites only. Google is clearly thinking that way too, Howie. They just announced your search results will be negatively impacted if your site isn’t mobile-friendly. And Outbrain’s advice would still apply – assuming they’re being served at the end of mobile articles as well as they are on the websites of the publications you’re consuming. Need to check that out myself. Regardless, my point here is that Outbrain’s content discovery takes place at the end of the articles your consuming. Your headline-driven consumption still applies here. But just giving context to Outbrain’s take on length.

  • halberstadt_b

    I really appreciate the accuracy of this article.  So often, it is difficult to connect with an audience if your message is too long and cumbersome to read.  I myself am incredibly guilty of skimming through article after article until I find something “Buzzfeed-esque” to satisfy my need.  I particularly liked the mention of the cornerstone/cobblestone method of delivering a story.  Compartmentalizing the story into different installments makes it less overwhelming for the reader and also makes them want to come back for more.  Great piece!

  • prblog

    halberstadt_b Thanks for your feedback! Re: too long and cumbersome, it seems to be applying to video/TV as well. A friend and I were ranting this weekend how watching SNL has become…finding the best skit everyone’s talking about online and simply watching it. But that may just be the old man in me. Regardless, the cobblestone and cornerstone approach has been very helpful to me over time. Cheers!

  • CaptainKinship

    Couldn’t agree more about tailoring your content to meet the attention spans of your audience — or perhaps more accurately, how long they’re willing to wait for you to get to the point! 😉

    I think there is something to be said about considering the context in which you’re sharing content here, for example. For a lot of social media and web platforms people are quickly overloaded with information, so being able to provide a tight piece of information with an alluring headline is pretty much necessary for success.

    But, you have to consider of course the backlash that is occurring with a lot of these ‘clickbait’ articles and sites, where content that creates the ‘curiosity gap’ is increasingly being seen in a negative way.

    It’s a cheap trick of writing, and though sadly I agree with you about the waning attention span, you have to wonder whether or not by going along with designing content around the internet’s ‘low attention span content’ is only making it worse. While I do think that it’s more important than ever to design content which matches the form that your audience is searching for — and is willing to wade through to find the information they want — too easily can we assume that we’re in a symmetrical relationship with stakeholders in terms of the content they want, only to realise that they’re actually going through a lot of different articles across the web because they’re missing out on an exhaustive set of information directly due to an organisational belief of a tl;dr world. As such, you’re so right to underline a commitment to understanding your data data to optimize content. If people want more, we should be giving it to them (asap!), rather than letting them be stolen by competitor sources.

    Thanks Kevin!

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