Design Online Content for Skimmers

People do more skimming online than reading, so you need to design and package your content to convert skimmers into readers.

People do more skimming online than reading, so you need to design and package your content to convert skimmers into readers.

Content providers beware. The explosion of online content has turned readers into skimmers. We still read what interests us, but we typically skim over most everything else.

Say what you want about shrinking attention spans or rising visual IQs, the evolving patterns of viewership have less to do with verbal and visual intelligence and more to do with survival. There is simply no other way to cope with masses of online material than to skim.

Developing content creation strategies that recognize our reading/skimming habits is essential if you want to be noticed. Here are some suggestions:

1  Create online content that people can skim. Design content with concise verbiage, good imagery and clear packaging that makes it easy to get the point even when skimming.

2  Include more visual content. Not pictures for picture’s sake, but quality visual content that tells your story better and more quickly than words. It can be photography, video, a chart, an infographic or a doodle that grabs the eye of a skimmer. Take consolation in data suggesting people remember more of what they see than what they read.

3  Place content where skimmers congregate. User data shows social media sites such as Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram are growing rapidly because they cater to cursory readers.

4  Leverage the online capability of layering content. As people skim, they look for what interests them, which they read more intently. Online architecture and links let people drill down on what interests them, even as they skim. Embedding links needs to be an integral part of content creation.

5  Offer content that answers questions or solves problems. Readability assessments reveal people will read content that answers their questions or offers problem-solving assistance. This requires sharp targeting, drawing on credible research, to find who is asking the questions you answer and problems you solve – and where they go to find reliable information and advice. People are more apt to read your content if they trust it.

6  Provide content that is pleasurable to read. Evidence indicates people take more time reading – or actually reading – material they enjoy. You may have to tell the boss to deep-six his merchandising message and substitute other content, perhaps content generated by other consumers or site users. Instead of describing the features of your product, show how a consumer can enjoy it.

7  Think about riding a bus. This is a useful metaphor for designing content aimed at increasing numbers of mobile users. If you can find ways to stick out as someone thumbs through sites amid jostling and looking for your exit, then you are probably creating content that is tailored to skimmers.

8  Make your content appealing to share. Sharing is a trait of skimmers. They assume other skimmers may miss something they should see. Don't get your heart broken if sharers haven't read your entire content. Getting into circulation is a form of validation of your content that will impress some skimmers to treat it as trusted content – and actually read it.

If this seems a little discouraging, don't let it get you down. You have to walk before you can run, and you may have to abide skimming to convert scanners into readers.

Matching Visuals to Your Message

Viewers expect higher quality visual images. You should demand matching your visual assets to your brand message.

Viewers expect higher quality visual images. You should demand matching your visual assets to your brand message.

Most people by now have gotten the picture that visual communications are effective. But adding visual pop to actual communications still for many remains a mystery.

Anna Guerrero, in a blog posted by, offers some practical tips on how to lure viewers. Guerrero's core point is that just adding visual content doesn't do the trick. You need quality visual assets that tell your story better than any words can.

Her tips include using high-quality photography, website screenshots, infographics, candid images, original designs and a striking color palette – stuff that stands out and grabs the eye.

Maybe Guerrero's most profound point is the need to match your visuals with your message. To convey that your organization is full of "fun people," show a behind-the-scenes picture of your team working while doing something funny. To reduce a complex topic into something simple, create an infographic that walks the viewer through the issue in digestible chunks. To establish credibility, post a screenshot showing the original source of information that you are citing.

Visual symbols play a large part in brand recognition – and loyalty. They can be leveraged by associating them with strong, compatible visual assets that express a more specific message. The example Guerrero pointed to was the Kaleidoscope Blog on Pinterest and its distinctive, easily recognizable design.

Striking photography pulls people in, as she showed with an eye-popping picture of a woman applying bright red lipstick with a man caressing her cheek with his lips. The picture was visibly relevant to the Facebook post headline and the content: "8 Reason to Fall in Love with the Girl Who Rocks Red Lipstick." The image, Guerrero notes, wasn't the result of an expensive photo shoot; it was a piece of stock photography.

Successful visual communications usually flow from information design processes that give equal weight at the start to all assets. Information designers don't make words look pretty or discard words in favor of snazzy pictures. They choose the best combination that tells the story in a way the intended audience will notice.

It is true that effective communications in the digital age almost always include visual assets. Viewers have come to expect it. With so many people sending pictures from smartphones and designing personalized greeting cards on their tablets, their expectations have risen for more presentational value. And they just don't want pictures; they want good pictures.

Good pictures don't always mean the same thing across communication channels. Quirky works on Instagram and elegance pays dividends on Pinterest. That is a direct reflection of the dominant demographics that use each platform. What you post on Facebook is different than what you post on your website or as a blog illustration.

Visual imagery should be part of your communications toolkit. More important, it must be part of your brand narrative.

Telling Your Brand Story in a Logo

Telling Your Brand Story in a Logo.jpg

Your logo should tell people more than just your name.In a noisy world, logos should do more than serve as a reminder of a brand identity. They should add definition to the brand.

Logos have become an avenue for visually explaining a brand. A British firm called Oomph produced an infographic with 40 examples of logos with subliminal or not-so-subtle messaging about their brands. 

A good example is the Baskin Robbins logo, which uses two colors to work 31 into its "BR," reflecting the ice cream company's value proposition of offering 31 different flavors. The symbolism in this logo is hard to miss, even if you are color-blind. It tells you the company's name and what it offers. A nice piece of work for a logo.

Zoos frequently have logos with subliminal or familiar features. The San Diego Zoo spells out "zoo" with animal paws. The Cologne Zoo combines an image and its negative space to create pictures of an elephant, giraffe, rhinoceros and the distinctive spires of the city's most recognizable landmark. The Pittsburgh Zoo accomplishes something similar with an illustration of a tree, with the negative space under the branches in the shape of a gorilla and a lion facing each other.

The Pinterest logo starts with a "P" fashioned like a "pin" to describe the social media site devoted to galleries of pictures that people pin and share.

The Tostitos logo is a drawing that shows two stick figures (the "ts") enjoying themselves with a chip and a dip, with a Southwestern-looking backdrop, which pretty much covers the positioning of this food product.

The Milwaukee Brewers logo is a mitt, drawn so the "m" is the fingers of a mitt and the "b" is the thumb and pocket. The baseball in the middle completes the visual sentence. 

VIA Rail Canada's logo leverages the straight lines of the "V", "I" and "A" to project an image of railroad tracks, reinforcing its business.

The story of these examples isn't how clever artists can be; it is a lesson in how to infuse a logo with more depth of meaning.

A well-designed logo can reinforce a brand personality or underline a brand promise. It can be a familiar face in the crowd and a voice for what you do and stand for. It should be a lot more than just a pretty picture. 

Great Websites Strike a Balance

Websites that balance simplicity with consistency are the most effective. Science says so.

Consistency is important from a usability standpoint. Website visitors bring certain expectations when visiting a typical website. According to a recent article on, “Prototypicality is the basic mental image your brain creates to categorize everything you interact with. From furniture to websites, your brain has created a template for how things should look and feel.”

That is why most websites in a particular category share a similar layout. When designing a website, be sure to research what others in your sector are doing. It’s important that your website feels familiar to users, especially in terms of where to find certain items.

More Than a Pretty Picture

With Facebook fatigue and a puzzling new algorithm, some people are ready to step back a pace on social media. Maybe they should simply redirect their energies to a different platform — Pinterest. 

Its user numbers aren't as gaudy as Facebook's, but its visual interface is more focused and appealing, especially to women — who make up 80 percent of the people who "pin" on Pinterest.

Facebook allows you to upload photos to your feed, but Pinterest enables you to create boards centered on subject matter, whether it's recipes involving Nilla Wafers or the splendors of Paris.

Nilla Wafers has centered a campaign to reconnect with consumers on Pinterest. Its packaging encourages purchasers or store browsers to check out visually inspiring pins with recipes and holiday ideas. The pins became a vehicle to drive clicks on the Mondelelez Snackworks website.

The vertically designed recipes evoked the sense of looking at an actual cookbook and attracted attention based on that familiarity. They aimed at people who like to cook, a great demographic match with the majority of pinners on the platform. Recipes are one of the social network's most popular forms of content.

Growth of Social Media Advertising

Social media advertising is growing rapidly, but the key to success remains in having vital social media sites featuring compelling original content.Social media ads are becoming a staple of integrated marketing campaigns as marketers look for ways to surround their target audiences. And people are taking notice of more ad traffic on their social media streams.

A survey by Vizu confirms advertisers are embracing social media ads as a way to drive traffic to their websites. A report by BIA/Kelsey predicts native social media ads will grow from $1.5 billion this year to $3.9 billion in 2016.

But marketers aren't abandoning other tactics, such as online display, TV and print ads. Instead, social media ads seem to be the latest great idea to take their place as just another outreach tool to audiences, much like mobile apps.

Social media ads are proliferating, explains Ryan Holmes, CEO at HootSuite, because they produce results — at least better results as measured by numbers of clicks than stale ideas such as online banner ads. 

Trends to Watch in 2013

2012 has been an exciting year in marketing public relations. Here, we highlight trends we expect to drive change and marketing innovations during 2013.

Social reputation sparkles

All things social will officially transition from their old ‘just for kids’ reputation to a well-earned position as drivers of strategic objectives. From crowd-sourcing to recruiting, selling to engagement — social strategy will be a first order of business.

Direct consumer engagement trumps media relations

PR has long evolved beyond being a synonym for media relations. In the rise of social media such as Facebook, blogging platforms, Twitter, YouTube and other sharable content networks, clients decreased traditional media spends in favor of creative campaigns that engage directly with consumers. We predict more brands than ever will embrace the opportunity to tell their own stories and share value-added content through their own online communication assets.

Visual marketing continues explosive growth

Images took center-stage this year, led by the visual superstar Pinterest. More than being a pretty face (or product shot), visuals showed their dramatic power to increase stakeholder engagement, linking up with goals from driving e-commerce sales to influencing voter sentiments during the presidential campaign. ‘Show, don’t tell’ will move from a novelty best practice to the norm, with the most consistent and creative brands claiming leadership positions in the marketplace.

Content Confectioner

Does the chocolate image wake up your sweet tooth? I could tell you that the candies are locally made in Portland with melt-in-your-mouth sea salt and quality chocolate, how they have perfect flavor profiles and are the ideal size for a guilt-free treat. But the image probably inspires you faster.

If you saw this photo on a chocolate company’s blog, you might pin the image to Pinterest or share it with you friends on Facebook. If I’m the chocolate company owner, I’ve just used shareable content to empower you to help me market my brand through the most powerful form of marketing, your word-of-mouth recommendations.

This is the potency of visual communication. Adam Vincenzini describes the image-powered web as “the notion that Internet users prefer the most efficient and engaging methods of communication.” Images equal efficiency. Fast Company calls visual marketing “the breakout trend for 2012,” noting a 2012 ROI Research study that found “forty-four percent of respondents are more likely to engage with brands if they post pictures than any other media.” Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are leading channels for visual storytelling.

Here are my 13 tips to help you become a Content Confectioner — a creator of crave-able, sharable brand assets.

1.  Start with Your Goals

What are your marketing and brand goals, values and key messages? Think about what those things look like. How you can show and share them with your stakeholders?

2. Be a Reporter

Reporters seek and share stories. Do this for your brand. Shift your perspective to look for the significance of the everyday – teams, routines, the work and production environment. How does the everyday drive toward your brand promise? If you make this perspective shift, you’ll always have a story to share.

3. Get the Tools

You’re not obligated to add a $2,000 DSLR line item to your budget. I swear by my iPhone camera. It’s portable and takes high-quality images with flash and focus options. You can send images easily to Facebook, Instagram or email. The right tool is one you can obtain and use often. Do your homework. Test the options. And go for it.

4. Eyes Wide Open, Camera Ready

The aforementioned iPhone has more than 4,000 photos on it (yes, they’re backed up). Keep a camera with you and err on the side of taking more images than you’ll use to create an image bank for your brand. This practice supports quicker content creation. It also increases your odds of capturing million-dollar moments and images. Think of it as gathering lots of ingredients for limitless recipes.

Targeting Your Audience Via Social Media

While social media has become increasingly popular with almost every demographic, there is still a lot of room for zeroing in on the audience you want to reach.

Pinterest has roared into the galaxy of social media superstars as a female favorite. Its online metaphor of boards and pins creates an organized visual bouquet of everything from recipes to architectural designs.

Brands are flocking to Pinterest because of its high degree of audience interaction. People can track boards that interest them without being friends. It's about content as much as relationships.

If you have a product aimed at a female audience, Pinterest is a smart place to be.

Matt Wilson, writing for, describes the success of Major League Baseball's Fan Cave, which has emerged as much more than an inviting New York location to watch baseball games.

On the third day the Fan Cave opened, it held an online contest to see who could pitch a perfect game in MLB 2011. It attracted tons of tweets, Wilson says. Now there is a full-time video crew at the Fan Cave to record celebrity and player drop-ins, which are posted on the Fan Cave website. A contest was held to name cave dwellers that drew 22,000 applicants and whittled down to 50 "finalists" who were asked to campaign for themselves in their respective hometowns.

"It was like having 50 PR firms out there promoting your initiative," a MLB official tells Wilson.

The goal was to interest a younger audience in baseball, and it has worked. MLB says its Fan Cave audience is 17 to 18 years younger than the average fan that goes to games. Just as important, 35 percent of the Fan Cave audience "likes" or shares content, reflecting a high level of engagement compared to other sports leagues.

Smartphone usage is skyrocketing, especially among African-American and Hispanic users. Several research studies indicate minority groups have embraced online shopping through mobile devices at nearly double the rate of the Caucasian population in the United States, offering a clear opportunity for marketers trying to reach those audiences.

Marissa Ellis, writing on the Madame Noire blog, reports "21 percent of African-Americans utilize their phone to engage in online shopping, reading product reviews and maintaining a shopping list, compared to only 13 of white shoppers."

"Don't think the industry hasn't taken notice," Ellis adds.

Curating Yourself Online

RebelMouse enables users to unite their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites on a single, personalized "social web front page."

The digital newspaper has a visual feel that Jay Yarrow, writing for Business Insider, says is a combination of Flipboard, Tumblr, Pinterest and The extra advantage is that your RebelMouse home page constantly refreshes, even displaying a discriminating eye to choose the best visual assets you have to offer.

Developed by Paul Berry, former chief technology officer for the Huffington Post, RebelMouse provides an easy way to aggregate a user's social sharing, but also add content directly and provide analytics indicating how people are interacting with your posts.

Berry describes his new online progeny as a tool for people and brands to publish content. "RebelMouse should help them be good at it and help them engage with influencers as well," says Berry.

The underlying value — and the key to Berry monetizing RebelMouse — is providing a central hub to see someone's entire online presence. This could be extremely valuable for brands or individuals with huge followings on various social media sites.

Berry has attracted gobs of media coverage even though RebelMouse has just moved from beta testing and, according to Berry, now has 25,000 sites posted. He promises to add more design options to allow greater customization.

Several digital commentators said RebelMouse doesn't contain any revolutionary tools or tricks. Its value comes from its simplicity and relative ease of use, which in turn produce an elegant home page and sophisticated analytics. It is, in effect, curating yourself.

Exposing Your Boxers

Brian Alessi, a high school biology teacher, wants to change the face of boxer shorts — literally. But he will have to do it using the tried-and-true techniques of marketing PR because he lacks the budget or brand power to gain attention.

Alessi is off to a good start. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a full-page article in its Sunday edition about his "21st century" briefs, which include added layers for better absorption, a pocket for credit cards and a fly shifted one inch to the right. Alessi's quest to improve men's underwear was inspired by watching his dad, a dentist, walk around the house in just his boxers. His design has earned a U.S patent.

Named Ubatuba, after a Brazilian beach resort, Alessi's underwear solves problems vexing men for decades, or longer.  "The traditional fly-in-the-middle design is stupid," Alessi says, noting his off-center design prevents unintended "fall out." Extra fabric in the front, he adds, addresses a common problem experienced by any man "who ever wore khaki trousers." The credit card holder serves the same purpose as a woman's bra to hold valuables where a street thief might feel squeamish to look.

Alessi sunk his entire life savings into his underwear enterprise. Now his challenge is to get the word out about his hip boxers.

With limited cash, Alessi turned to contacting reporters and bloggers, asking them to give his briefs a try. Free-lancer Steve Rubenstein did, liked how they felt and wrote a story, which made its way to the Sunday Style section of the SF Chronicle. The full-page piece then earned online mentions on Twitter and Facebook.

However, Alessi may not be doing all he can to capitalize on his earned media exposure. His website is mostly an electronic brochure, lacking the sparkle and wit Rubenstein infused into his article. In fact, there isn't even an online newsroom to include articles such as Rubenstein's that could serve as lively testimonials to the benefits of his boxers.

Video is another obvious choice for a subject like underwear. Alessi has a YouTube video that lacks the pizzazz or humor viewers would expect from an underwear video. Even the lackluster video cannot be found on the Ubatuba website.

Putting the Zip in Your Communications

A media audit is an excellent way to see whether your media coverage conveys your key messages — and whether your communications match up to your strategic objectives.

This simple form of research can yield invaluable insight into the effectiveness of your communications and how they can be improved.

It is common nowadays for organizations to conduct social media audits. Nothing wrong with that, but too often a social media audit misses surveying the broader impact of all communications, ensuring they reinforce, not confuse, your messaging.

A comprehensive media audit will examine both internal and external communications, talking to employees, customers, stakeholders and the media. What you learn from these focused conversations can be lined up against objectives such as key messages, target audiences and successful calls to action. Did you actually send the messages you intended? Did those messages reach your target audience via the tactics and channels you chose? Did employees, customers and stakeholders respond? Did the media find you believable?

Even highly successful communications programs can benefit from a media audit, which can illuminate ideas to freshen your message and leverage new channels. For example, an award-winning communications program designed as recently as three years may not have integrated Pinterest, Instagram or Cinemagram into its arsenal.

A practical value of media audits, which senior managers appreciate, is information that can be used to allocate always-scarce communications resources. You may discover it pays richer dividends to strengthen the content on your website and spend less time on Twitter. Or maybe your networking on LinkedIn can be expanded through more intensive blogging.