Not long ago, brands “hooked” audiences by asking melodramatic questions like, “Are you tired of trying to juggle your remote control, salty snacks, and romance novel all at once?!” Then the hammy announcer would proclaim, “Have we got a product for you!” Sometimes, for fun, I watch vintage ads and enjoy the showy promises that follow those overly dramatic questions.
I’m so glad things have changed. To date, I’ve composed over a thousand pieces of thought-provoking brand storytelling for content engagement. Still, a year ago, just as my freelance writing career was really taking off, I began to panic. I had developed the skills to hook and keep readers, but I was running out of ideas to do just that. After all, there are only a handful of ways to really grab someone’s attention and entertain him or her to the end, right?
My panic wasn’t unwarranted. I had good reason to be nervous. It’s true: once you’ve recycled the same content engagement techniques a few times, the “hook” starts to look more like hype. Ironically, I’m thankful for the inner dread that prompted me to switch tactics. Today I don’t try to hook anyone. Hooks have measurable limits. Try writing a thousand stories, white papers, e-books, articles, or video scripts, and you’ll agree: a hook, or worse, “grab,” can only do so much.
Instead, I start a conversation. Each piece I compose starts a dialogue with my reader. By the time our story is underway, my audience is already curious, nodding, annoyed, smiling, wincing, frustrated, or thankful.
In other words, they have a contribution to make.
Image attribution: Didriks
I have ditched the effort to hook readers, and I’ve begun lively exchanges with them, instead. Here’s how.
Coming out with a controversial statement won’t win you points at a cocktail party, but online, readers love a mental or moral challenge. Start off fearlessly yet with kindness and your audience won’t be able to resist digging in to learn how you rationalize your points. When you confront people face-to-face, sure, you can expect a defensive posture. In print, though, you’re safer to suggest unconventional ways of seeing things. A striking observation works wonders.
“I’m conflicted.” Admitting you’re open to both sides of an issue humanizes your voice, forming an instant connection with a reader.
Alternatives could include, “I must be missing something here.” Or, my favorite, “Someone, please help me understand.”
Image attribution: Francois Bester
If you’re always posing as the “industry expert,” you may never score a robust conversation. After all, who wants to contribute when someone is already leading the discussion as the authority? In fact, this is one reason purely informational content underperforms next to the entertaining, provocative stuff.
Before moving to the next method, hold up. This one (admitting you’re open) is tricky. When not played just right, it can come across as a softball, which is the quickest way to lose an otherwise eager conversationalist. So don’t confuse this with a feeble, spongy angle. Instead, start the conversation by showing the strong legitimacy of two opposing forces and how they might both be true. Then, ask readers to chime in.
Newsjacking is among the silliest hooks I’ve ever employed. Early in my freelance writing career, I consumed shameful advice from desperate advertising experts and learned how to bend headlines so clients could get a slice of the online traffic pie. It was a screwy service to offer. Yup, that was me. And I wasn’t alone.
In 2012, Hubspot, today a hero in marketing, applauded a handful of newsjacking brands that exploited Hurricane Sandy as the story unfolded. Not long after, the visionary brand posted an apology for the move, acknowledging the indelicacy of it all.
Today I use current events to personalize content engagement by asking how readers receive each news story. A good example might be to simply ask, “Where were you when that headline broke?” Everyone remembers, and they want to share. This approach tells readers they’re wordlessly invited to divulge more than the one-word answer to the simple question.
Image attribution: Mayr
Lean in, writers, because here in the headlines is the perfect opportunity to compassionately spark an organic, safe conversation based on current events—without taking advantage of someone’s position, pain, or anger.
“Confessions of a Google Spammer,” published exactly a year ago, was so gripping from the very first sentence to the last. As a reader myself, I wish there were more redeeming stories like this out there.
Don’t be gross, and don’t sensationalize your troubles. Do, however, offer up a nugget to show you weren’t always so on point. The silent, internal question readers ask then, is, “If this is true, how did the writer cope or change?” What you’ve done is you’ve thrown a protagonist’s world out of balance. Readers are compelled to find out what happens next.
Image attribution: Thomas Szynkiewicz
Some brands already embrace storytelling as their primary medium for starting reader-propelled conversations. Instead of telling readers what to buy, they’re opening their own platform as an outlet for the masses to share. The result has been an awakening of ordinary stories that, once told, can be built upon and retold.
Last year I stumbled upon a brilliant realization that time-wizened psychologists have known for years: When people ask a question, they’re often subconsciously curious about something else entirely. So sure, I’ll use AnswerThePublic to find out what folks are asking, but I’ll probe each question to find the raw nerve behind it. For example, when a blogger’s highest-ranked page is titled “How I Built a Thriving Business With 3 Kids, No Money, and No Skills” (or something equally sensational), people don’t flock to the story for the details on how the guy actually did it. No, readers want to know how they can do it.
Image attribution: John Benson
Calling out a reader’s subliminal curiosities is a great way to start an internal dialogue a reader feels drawn to continue. Start an article with “Let’s be real.” This is the most polite way to suggest readers have a facade erected, and they’re safe to admit it.
A few months ago, I wrote a guide for writers that illustrated the art of a perfectly crafted cliffhanger. The only problem is, I never really delivered, in the simplest of terms, how to create a cliffhanger. Instead, I built more thirst to learn. Then, in true suspense-writer fashion, I left readers frustrated, wanting more. It was an exercise in storified lust.
The basal answer is to leave something out. Readers can’t stomach a partially finished point. They crave closure, and if, for example, you’re describing an elaborate analogy and you leave out an important element, they’ll pipe up. And once they do, you’ll find …
We began this discussion by exploring ways to grab a reader’s attention, but who has ever wanted to be “grabbed?” Instead, just engage in a little banter.
These conversation starters keep readers noodling long after they’ve moved on to other things. The inner conversation lingers. With a sigh, the laptop closes or the phone is set down, and your audience moves on, but an unseen part of the mind continues the dialogue. This invisible effect is much more valuable than higher levels of disinvested traffic.
Which one of these tactics will stay with you as you move on to what’s next? Come back after you’ve thought about it a while. I’ll be here, ready to yammer. After all, like you, I love a good back-and-forth.
Featured Image Attribution: Sagar