A piece of fruit depicts the healthy mental effects of quality snackable content.
Creativity Marketing Transformation

Is Snackable Content Making Us All Sick?

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Snackable content is not the solution to a weak message. On the other hand, if your message is clear, strong, and poignant, then bite-sized treats may be the best delivery.

Allow me to illustrate.

Last week my husband and I had dinner at the famous Inn at Little Washington. Foodies everywhere know it by name. The Washington Post calls the Inn’s chef/owner the “Pope of American haute cuisine.” West Coast Americans have their own similarly elevated experience at the celebrated French Laundry.

The twelve-course tasting menu with wine pairings easily costs a table-for-two about a thousand bucks, and three hours after a guest sits down, the small, delightful kitchen treats continue to appear. As we absorbed every hospitable touch, we and our fellow dining room neighbors exchanged giddy smiles. Our side-glances acknowledged how extravagant everything was. From the velvety pillows behind our backs to the loving, thoughtful staff, every touch had one purpose: to charm me, the guest. It was divine.

My husband and I smiled in the dark car all the way home.

If you’ve ever had such a dining experience, you’re likely reliving it now as I share mine. Remember the delight? The surprising culinary romance? How about the restroom attendant’s warm kindness, the hand towels, toothpicks, and cologne?

The next day I awoke still smiling. I padded downstairs and opened my cupboard. Cereal, applesauce, and tortilla chips shrugged back at me. Ingratitude welled up. Oh, to rewind and revisit the previous evening. The creative, considerate artistry in every little portion replayed again as the chef’s self-expression usurped my logic. I had been spoiled.

Here were two forms of bite-sized foods, but each offered a drastically different experience.

Snackability

Most marketers liked the term “snackable content” the first time it appeared. I, for one, was hooked from the beginning. The word “snackable” did so many things for me on a philological level.

As a consumer, the phrase promised me gratifying stories and information that would satisfy quicker, and with a pleasing crunch. My content would arrive in a visually fun, crinkly package that wouldn’t take all day to consume. The salt and sugar levels made the stuff “naughty,” so it was even more fun to see friends consuming, sharing, even applauding it.

Marketers touted the benefits of snackable content until search engines began favoring long-form. Here's a new perspective on both.

Image attribution: anyjazz65

And ho, as a content creator, I was especially pleased. Here’s a product I can deliver without much cost whatsoever. It doesn’t take a lot of time or mental energy to produce snackable nuggets that would (get this!) hook readers, so they’d return for more, addicted.

But that was a few years ago, and things have changed.

Snackable content now supersaturates my online experience, both as a consumer and as a brand storyteller. Entertainment is hit-or-miss, infographics have replaced many illuminating case studies, and the thought-provoking perspectives I’m hungry for have been replaced by snark, which satisfies my mind but leaves me feeling a little less curious, or, dare I say, empathetic. As a creator, I must sift through page after page of dubious search results to find credible sources that deserve the spotlight.

The effect has been mixed. The more sweet and salty content that was published, the more marketers shouted fallacies to promote the method. Falsehoods like “Your readers have the attention of a goldfish,” a myth that has since been so debunked, did more to soothe marketers’ scruples than to truly paint the picture of today’s audiences. After all, if we could convince ourselves that readers can’t handle more than a six-second story, then that’s all we need to invest in, and that can’t be too hard. Or so we figured.

“It seems so often that we’re told we’re morons, and that everything has to be really short and that attention spans are only 140 characters,” said Serial podcast co-creator Julie Snyder in her Forward17 Conference keynote. “But it’s not true. We do have patience for journalism that takes its time. And that has been so heartening to learn.”

Marketers touted the benefits of snackable content until search engines began favoring long-form. Here's a new perspective on both.

Image attribution: M. Appelman

The root problem, I believe, is that marketers are still treating their content as advertisements, not business assets. “When we see the cost of that ebook, or that white paper, or the novel, or whatever it is we want to create, we go, ‘Wow, that is going to [cost] twenty times one ad,'” said Robert Rose, chief strategy officer of the Content Marketing Institute, on a recent This Old Marketing podcast. “‘We should have fifteen pieces, or twenty short pieces, because that’ll mitigate the risk, [since] it won’t cost as much.’ In other words, fifteen blog posts that talk about the top ten reasons you need aluminum siding on your house doesn’t cost as much as the handbook for how to manage aluminum siding on your house.” He goes on to conclude that if marketers only measure their content as a replacement for interrupt advertising, then they’re always going to be unimpressed with the results. If, however, the end product is a deep, immersive, heavy package of long-form content, then they’ve produced a revenue-generating asset that—watch carefully—can be broken down into tasty, wholesome nuggets for readers to enjoy whenever, wherever. And one of those options is, of course, all at once.

Marketers touted the benefits of snackable content until search engines began favoring long-form. Here's a new perspective on both.

Image Attribution: SomewhereInLife

Selling Snacks

I mentioned earlier how gung ho I was about snackable content when the term first appeared. I confess I’d been sold. Credible wordsmiths used the analogy of food to peddle the concept, and it worked. You already had the perfect conditions for a connection: The word “consume” works when describing both food and stories, so it was only a matter of time before marketers crafted a robust analogy to sell short, concise, shareable stuff and call it “snacks.” In hindsight, the analogy was so good, so smart, that it covered the philosophy’s major flaws.

Perhaps number one on the list of drawbacks is the type of audience you’ll attract if you bait “traffic” instead of humans. Do you want intelligent, curious, eager readers sharing your stories, or the guy (there’s one in every circle) who sends friends “21 Tweets From People Who Found Katy Perry’s Hosting Cringey”?

But that’s just the beginning. There’s so much more to lose than the caliber of reader you attract. There’s the diminished reach, weaker search engine ranking, and lowered engagement of short-form content to consider.

Snacking and Starving

Let’s not forget the user experience. It’s not the bite-sized portion that sickens readers. It’s the pseudo-foods that are giving consumers disordered conditions like brain fog and sensory overload.

Marketers touted the benefits of snackable content until search engines began favoring long-form. Here's a new perspective on both.

Image attribution: Alexander Lyubavin

And since marketers had their heyday with the cutesy snack analogy, a new wave of anti-short-form advocates has emerged, crafting equally compelling arguments in favor of long-form content. And I hate to stir the pot (pun shamelessly intended), but I believe both perspectives could use some very basic help:

It’s time to stop thinking about quality and quantity as opposites.

Perhaps one more true story can help do just that.

In the seventeenth century, British doctors were baffled by the leg-curling sickness that was killing otherwise healthy men aboard military ships.

“By the time that the Seven Years War with France had ended in 1763, the tallies showed that 1,512 British soldiers had been killed in action and 100,000 had been killed by scurvy,” writes Simon Singh in his popular book, Trick or Treatment.

Do you know what scurvy is? It’s not a virus, fungus, or bacteria. It’s a vitamin C deficiency. In other words, the occasional bite of fresh fruit could have saved 100,000 men. Heavily processed snacks can indeed contribute to the rise of diabetes, heart disease, and the obesity epidemic we see today, sure. But in this case, a healthy snack could have saved a hundred thousand brothers, fathers, sons, and husbands.

Marketers touted the benefits of snackable content until search engines began favoring long-form. Here's a new perspective on both.

Image attribution: Ava Lowery

To be clear, fresh fruit is a healthy snack. And in digital storytelling, so is a well-placed tweet. It’s not like these soldiers were dying for a lack of Lay’s potato chips. They were dying for healthy, vitamin-rich foods, and so are our audiences. Snackability can save your content strategy, but if you rely on brassy factoids alone to deliver nutrients to your tired audiences, readers will move on in search of true sustenance.

My husband and I have already eyeballed a few dates for our next visit to the Inn at Little Washington. We must return for some of Chef’s delectable snacks.

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Featured image attribution: Ted Rabbitts

Bethany Johnson is a multiple award-winning content marketing writer and speaker. Her work empowers marketers to ditch interrupt advertising in favor of original content that converts passive readers into active followers. Thriving brands like Tom's of Maine, MasterCard, ADP, Fidelity and Philips currently rely on Bethany's fresh style to connect with audiences daily. As a consultant, she combines simple change management principles with her insider knowledge of freelancing to show traditional marketing teams how to flourish in today's wild gig economy. For more, visit bethanyjohnson.com.

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