The Evolving Role of Text in a Visual World

A random fellow reading at the Reagan Building in Washington, DC.

Text gets a hard time in today’s digital media world. After all, it serves as a primary communications form, and it’s not dying anytime soon. When you look at the most popular forms of B2B content marketing, the number two corporate investment is written materials.

However, according to the Content Marketing Institute, only 1/3 of the top content forms are “text first” (let’s be honest a good video or photo gallery requires scripting and captions), but digital written content investments increased for 61 percent of brands.

So what’s happening with text in 2019? Here is what the Content Marketing Institute’s research says.

Content Marketing Institute Research

Two larger trends drive the above content trends. One is the much-discussed movement towards visual and audio media thanks to the increased use of smartphones and in-home smart speakers. The second is a general sense of distrust and fatigue when it comes to short frequent listicles and other forms of clickbait blogs/articles. Customers — both consumer and B2B — have grown wise to the short daily article as a content marketing tactic propagated by influencers and brands.

That doesn’t mean quality articles are dead. Far from it. Just look at the successes demonstrated by The Athletic and Medium (I maintain a Medium blog). You can still see demand for quality articles and writing.

The Decline of Short Blogs as a Content Marketing Form

This commuter seems to prefer longer forms of media.

If you are publishing a daily blog for the sake of publishing daily without impact and value then you are wasting your time. According to Social Media World’s content marketing trends to watch in 2019 article:

No more lazy marketers copying the hottest viral headlines and topics, and fooling themselves into thinking they’re “making it their own” or adding their own personality – when in reality, they’re almost word for word copying and pasting.

Consumers and decision makers are getting smart at avoiding clickbait, and they’re seeking for real content that can help solve their problems quickly and easily. They want you to earn their trust.

What can you do if you rely on written communications such as blogs? Write something better?

Yes, in many ways you can overcome lame content fatigue by writing more meaningful content. You can also go the opposite way, and try to make short high impact outreach an objective. For example, shorter punchier emails are easier because people don’t have to suffer through drivel.

Still if SEO is a primary objective for your content, data shows that longer form content achieves better performance if you are writing blog posts. That’s my personal experience, too, and one of the reasons why I publish marketing blogs less frequently, Instead, I focus on more in-depth articles here and on Medium with deeper discussions and more impact.

The research reaffirms this approach. It pays to invest in creating high-value content that does not waste people’s time with cheap click-bait drivel.

What Text Forms Work Now?

This gentleman is enjoying his lunch with a book.

Quality content with longer more expansive and well thought out information works. It’s not easy to one-off a thousand or two thousand word article with quality graphics, images, and videos. An article or blog of this nature requires thought. Creating it usually stretches over several days.

Further, if the content is valuable and unique, then readers stay on site. That creates an opportunity for Google-cookied browsers to recognize the content as a quality piece. While social shares can still serve as a validator, Google’s algorithm isn’t as easy to game as it was during Twitter’s heyday earlier in the decade. Now it rewards the best answer to search, not the most popular article of the day on a social network.

According to Search Engine Journal:

Google wants substance, evidence, and facts from authority entities on whatever the topic may be. Turns out, longer content typically has these elements baked into it. That’s a big reason why long-form content ranks better in organic search than short content.

Average content length for Page 1 results is around 1,900 words, according to a 2016 study. That’s a lot longer than the 200- or 500-word blog posts most writers or webmasters think is ideal.

So does that mean write 1900 word articles? No, it means focus on deep meaningful content. Mine tend to average about 1000 give or take. Quality remains the most important element, though.

If only 250 words are needed to convey a concept well, and in a manner that helps readers, then that should be the length. If I need 2500 words to articulate the article theory, then that is the correct length.

And as with all content today, it helps to have diverse media — pictures, charts, videos, graphs, audio podcasts — associated with the article.

Is Text Dying Then?

More people are moving beyond text towards alternative forms of media.

Many would argue that today’s customer doesn’t have the patience for a long article. Certainly, you do. You wouldn’t have gotten this far if you didn’t, LOL!

Still, using long-form content as the only vehicle for communications is likely a death sentence for almost every consumer brand and most B2B brands. Some of this shift happened because of our declining literacy rates in the United States.

ADD inspired smartphone culture. But it would be unwise to ignore ” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>A recent Pearson article encapsulated this trend well:

The Pew Research Center reported last year that 23% of Americans surveyed said they hadn’t read a single book in 2013. In 2006, that statistic was 16%. The decline in overall reading coincides with statistics from last year’s National Association of Educational Progress report, which found that just 37% of high school seniors were at a proficient or higher level of reading.

My writing friend Marsha Weiner likes to say that the use of emoticons in our everyday social updates is a regression towards hieroglyphics. They certainly leave more to interpretation.

Whether it’s because of attention spans, media preference, or reading skills, more and more people prefer alternative media sources to the written word. I anticipate this trend will only continue as electronic media evolve to make our entertainment and learning experiences easier. This includes visual, audio, and video, or a combination of several or all forms. Marketers need to embrace other media trends to convey their message.

Moving Beyond Text

Marketers need to meet their customers in the media forms they prefer, or they will walk away.

Many marketers avoid talking about creating compelling visuals and how they perform without long. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then why don’t more brands use images to sell their story? And then there is creating podcasts, customer-centric events, and video. They know these media forms work, but don’t seem to adapt them.

Is it because marketers don’t know how to use these content forms? Or because justifying budget seems too scary? Or are they skeptical?

What was the personal best content marketing initiative was this past year? Not the announcement of a new book on marketing AI.

Though the announcement of Welcome to the Machine was very popular, a photo essay about federal workers suffering from the consequences of this year’s federal shutdown worked best. The Shutdown Stories photo essay generated more views, feedback, and deal flow than any other individual piece of content I published online in the past year.

Five years ago, I guarantee you it would have been the opposite. The medium has changed.

Account-based marketing company Triblio offers one of my favorite examples of the evolving nature of written content. The company offers guides to its potential customers about industry issues. These visual decks, much like the content you will find on SlideShare, serve as a replacement for the redundant white paper of yesteryear.

Text plays a critical role, working with graphics to deliver intelligence to the customer. Triblio’s content is very good and easy to understand, surpassing many of the boring articles about ABM I have read over the past five years.

Marketers need to evolve their playbook to incorporate the media forms that most compel their audiences. Yes, text will always have a place in the mix. But increasingly, the visual and audio media drive, with text offering a supporting role.