How to make your writing stand out in the attention economy

For some audiences—particularly top business execs—written content is indispensable in researching important decisions. Here’s how communicators are thinking about their skill sets.

The greatest challenge facing brand storytellers and content creators is the competition for audiences’ attention.

For every message you send to a customer, an employee, an investor or some other target demographic, you have to think about how you can stand out. You’re not solely competing against other brand messages, either. You are competing against the entire internet, TV and audio programming, and other distractions.

“It’s very competitive now where people get their information,” says Amy Carr, U.S. general manager for TimeZoneOne. Carr knows a thing or two about fighting for audience eyeballs having worked for TimeOut Chicago, the Chicago Tribune, and most recently as editor-in-chief of Chicago magazine before joining TimeZoneOne.

“We’re constantly bombarded with information on our social media accounts and TV and radio and billboards and everything,” she says. “So, how do we help reach the audience that wants the information and give them something that’s truthful, interesting and compelling?”

The tempting answer is to embrace new formats: Short video on platforms like TikTok and YouTube continue to entice content managers and creators looking for new audiences. But, some are focusing on the power of the humble written word.

Investing in writing

Greentarget, a strategic PR and content creation firm, sees written content as a potent tool to reach its most coveted demographic: top business leaders.

“Our specialty is serving major professional services firms,” explains John Corey, president and founding partner of Greentarget. For Corey, these firms include “major law firms, management, consulting firms, accounting firms, organizations that compete on expertise and reputation.”

And in its research, Greentarget has found that the written word is essential in persuading these top decision-makers.

“The written word is extremely important to them,” says Corey. “We found in each of the last 10 years that the written word across the number of different formats—it could be articles, it could be alerts, it could be newsletters, research reports, white papers—they value that more than video, more than podcasts.”

Corey admits there has been some movement toward CEOs and business leaders placing more value on video, but writing is still the leader—and a great investment depending on your target audience.

Jennifer Smith, former WSJ reporter and the new director of content and editorial strategy for Greentarget, sees writing as increasingly valuable after the COVID-19 pandemic limited companies’ ability to connect with audiences.

“Everybody has a limited amount of time, a limited fragmented attention span,” Smith says. “You could argue that that’s gotten more fragmented during the pandemic because we have fewer opportunities to be talking with people in person.”

If you are relying more on alternative communication opportunities—webinars, email and other vehicles—writing becomes even more important.  “You really need to make sure that you’re using words, the right words and making them count so that they are sticking in people’s heads,” Smith says.

A journalistic lens

Even if you decide to produce content that isn’t written articles and newsletters, a journalistic approach is essential for standing out in the crowded content marketplace. Smith says that her work now is closely aligned to her approach when reporting stories for the Wall Street Journal.

Brand managers and storytellers must ask the same questions, she says: ”What makes this thing different from other things? Why is this thing newsworthy? What makes this expert worth listening to?”

When audiences are too busy to pay attention, every message has to be raked over the coals and second-guessed. “The attention economy is, is pretty it’s pretty stretched and fragmented right now, says Smith. “You really have to have a sharp and clear case for why people should be paying attention.”

A journalistic approach can also help identify issues with social media content. “I think if we’re doing our jobs right, we are approaching it very similarly to the way journalists do,” says Carr of promotional campaigns on social media channels.

That’s why agencies like Greentarget and TimeZoneOne are hoping their team members will hang onto their journalist training and viewpoints.

“We want [Jen Smith] to keep that professional journalistic mantle,” says Corey, “because that is what is gonna make the content and the narratives that we’re producing for clients all the more valuable.”

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