– 8 – 10 Min Read –
Engaging and effective B2B communication needs to be focused, probably short, possibly chunked, and for MR audiences ideally backed up with key evidence points referenced in hyperlinks or footnotes. The competition for attention is increasing; well-narrated, original, evidence-based communication is increasingly valuable. tl;dr
Familiar with the phrase tl;dr? It’s digital shorthand for “too long; didn’t read”, you occasionally see it at either the beginning or end of a longer article giving a short synopsis.
It’s symbolic for the broadly perceived need to make articles, content pieces, analyses short and snappy – in a time-poor era.
tl;dr is also the main theme of the hip 2019 re:publica 2019 digital communications conference, held annually in Berlin.
In the MR world it could easily stand for “top-line; didn’t read” ;). We all know the challenge ;)
Crisis time for MR activators and B2B “communicators”?
Is the tl;dr slang a nudge that we need to start thinking seriously about ditching words, become visual storytellers, learning from Instagram et al.?
It might seem so. For someone who has been blogging for about 9 years now on market research issues (Research and Reflect), there are certainly moments where you wonder if it’s worth the effort.
Social status: nerd. Audience engagement: low. Other metrics – off the cliff. Hmm.
What’s going on? The environment for writers, communicators and insight-activators is certainly changing fast, even in the comparatively slow-moving environment of B2B and MR.
Here’s my reading of the situation, with 2 main hypotheses:
1) Information competition is the real issue, not dwindling attention spans or the inability to cope with information overload.
Yes, there is indeed too much content around – email newsletters, Webinars, LinkedIn updates etc etc.
However, we seem to be building our abilities to handle huge information streams, the so-called fire-hose, perhaps as an evolutionary mechanism.
– A study of over 2000 business people in the USA by Prezi (State of Attention) found that 6 out of 10 business professionals claim an improvement in their own ability to give a piece of content their undivided attention over the previous 12 months.
95% of those surveyed stated they multi-tasked during meetings; relatively few (one in 5) confessed to a business error derived from this!
– Pew Research from 2016 suggests that issues with information overload are actually decreasing for many USA citizens. You can read the data here: Pew Information Overload
So it would seem the “phrase information” overload isn’t accurate any more.
Some software providers are helping with cognitive ease. Gmail’s tri-partite categorization into “primary/ social/promotions” is an example.
More fundamentally, there is little evidence that I am aware of that human attention spans are actually getting shorter.
The much quoted claim from a 2015 Microsoft Canada study that our average attention span is 8 seconds, comparing poorly to a goldfish, is backed up by little or no evidence. (BBC/ Busting the Attention Span Myth).
In fact, the whole measurement framework of “humans have an attention span of x number of seconds” seems ungrounded.
Scientists from Princeton Neuroscience Institute suggest that our attention floats in and out around 4 times per second, allowing our brains to switch from what the researchers call “maximum focus or a broader situational awareness”.
The challenge is to hold people’s attention, stop them from phasing out.
2. As the quantity of digital communication becomes inflationary and Social Media monetization takes centre stage, quality (originality, well-argued pieces, unbiased) can suffer.
As stated above, we are inundated with all manner of messaging, our Smartphones are a constant presence and reminder. The following is also worth highlighting:
– Sales pushes are increasingly muddying the waters of Content Marketing.
Talks on how to solve problem xyz – are given by… solution providers of said company. Yawn.
– Key Social Media channels are shifting to monetization, interrupting natural content feeds with sponsored ads and irrelevant content.
– Unsolicited emails are on the up, at least that’s my experience.
GDPR seems to have done a great job in making some companies very careful about data protection in Europe; with others, especially those outside the EU, it seems to have had no impact at all.
– Much b2b communication is sadly cheesy, shallow, jargon-ridden.
Anyone can create a PPT deck, write a corporate blog or create an email campaign – it costs little or nothing. Small problem: whilst not everybody’s good at it, most of us are poor witnesses of our own behavior, and that includes writing and creative skills.
In other words – on the push side, there’s a lot of sub-prime stuff out there.
MR has to up its act, more on that below.
So what conclusions on the need for brevity, suggested by tl;dr?
1. The tl;dr meme is to an extent misleading.
Keeping it short is probably a good general tip – but it’s not mandatory. Short can be shallow, and in fact lead dialectically to a thirst for longer, deeper.
Audiences are adept at both filtering and multi-tasking – tl;dr to me means getting to the point quickly, being concise, non-repetitive, engaging.
2. Long copy (or other formats) can work well if audiences are provided with substance, new knowledge, and are fed reasons to stay hooked.
Contemporary novelists Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard are successfully writing and selling novels of many hundreds of pages.
“Long copy” has an obvious challenge: story-telling, much as I hate that overused phrase. To continually pull the audience in, keep them engaged. For MR that mean getting to the point fast, ensuring substance is digestible, using story-telling techniques.
Foot notes do not, however, have to be a thing of the past ;)
3. Writing skills are undervalued – they’re possibly even becoming a shortage commodity.
Language can be extremely engaging in evoking pictures, emotions, moods – in the hands of the right people.
Motto here: if you don’t know how, fess up, hire a professional. DIY can easily go wrong, making a poor impression.
Some examples of B2B digital communication that work well:
• Seth Godin’s marketing blog posts (Seth Godin Blog) are invariably only a few paragraphs long and make a single point clearly.
• Siamack Salari’s LinkedIn posts are full of valuable tips on best practice in ethnography, citing examples from his work in the form of short stories. Entertaining and informative stuff.
To wrap up, and without going into too much detail:
• Tl;r is a good reminder to communicators that audiences are demanding, likely impatient. That doesn’t mean all stuff needs to be only a few sentences or seconds long.
• Digital is indeed different. It’s about getting to the point faster – assume your audience is intelligent and impatient, not in a hurry.
• Structuring clearly helps – make it easy for your readers to understand your purpose and key messages quickly, and allow them to dive deeper if they wish.
• Understand the value of a headline – beware click bait stuff!
• Add to a body of knowledge, keep opinion pieces balanced or strongly polemical – if in doubt, refer to others who know more.
• Be topical – talk to the conversational headlines.
• Imitate craftsmanship principles, pare back your prose relentlessly, be mindful of elegance and rhythm. Avoid repetition, make outputs sumptuous, tactile, carefully thought-out – tell a good short story.
In-bound marketing works – push stuff doesn’t. People will come to you, you don’t need to overegg it or treat communications like a sales funnel: that way lies madness.