JAN 19, 2017

Don't Take the Bait

In the Legacy Code Rocks podcast that I edit, there’s frequent mention of Conway’s Law.

I quickly grew tired of not knowing what it meant. So I looked it up. According to Wikipedia:

“Conway’s law is an adage named after computer programmer Melvin Conway, who introduced the idea in 1967. It was first dubbed Conway’s law by participants at the 1968 National Symposium on Modular Programming. It states that ‘organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.’ The law is based on the reasoning that in order for a software module to function, multiple authors must communicate frequently with each other. Therefore, the software interfaces structure of a system will reflect the social boundaries of the organization(s) that produced it, across which communication is more difficult. Conway’s law was intended as a valid sociological observation, although sometimes it’s taken in a humorous context.”

Even though it originated in the software world, it’s easy to extrapolate the idea to pretty much anything an organization produces, including content. I would even say that it’s not only the communication structures that permeate the content, but also the organization’s values and culture.

Disappointing Content = Dissatisfied Client

Recently, we entered into an informal partnership with dev.to to repost some of our content. The team was super flexible. There was only one aspect they insisted on: “This relationship only makes sense if the core devotion is spreading good programming ideas, not strictly the commercial, and I trust this is an org that understands that.” Preaching to the choir. High-quality, useful content only! And I’m guessing for the very same reasons we, at Corgibytes, have chosen that path: because we want our content to reflect who we are as an organization. We want our content to showcase the talented individuals that make up the team. And we want our name to be associated with trust and expertise.

First Round Review – which featured our CEO, Andrea, a while back – ran a brilliant article called The [Adjective] [Number] Things You Need to Know About Clickbait. In it, Tara-Nicholle Nelson stated: “Trust is earned in drips and lost in buckets. Every clickbait headline endangers customer trust.” Hallelujah and amen! I touched on this in my last post from the reader’s perspective, and how frustrating it is to feel like we just wasted our time.

In case you’re thinking clickbait’s only those “You won’t believe what happened next!” articles that show up in your Facebook feed, not so fast. Wikipedia defines clickbait as “web content that is aimed at generating online advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy.” And I include in that those pretend “tech articles.” Have you ever researched a product or a service and found yourself following this promising headline thinking you’d get solid information only to be lead to a “review” that was really just a poorly-written, lengthy ad? Unless there was an advertorial warning, to me, that’s clickbait. It’s cheap advertising for them, and I’m getting no value out of it.

In my role as Lead Content Whisperer, I live by that trust factor. I know that we earn our readers’ trust one person at a time. And we can lose it by the Twitter-load.

The Content Churn

I’m familiar with the excuses for churning out such rubbish. “The deadlines are too tight!” “There’s too much to do!” “There are KPIs to meet!” I get it. I really do. I’ve worked for a content mill before, and, as a writer, I was constantly told to write clickbait titles. And if I didn’t, they stopped sending me work. Truly, all that company cared about was the numbers. To be able to say to the client: “Look at all those clicks we got for you!” Yes, they’re short-term wins, but your audience, be it a potential customer, a community-member, or a loyal reader, will likely end up feeling betrayed and will associate your company name with deceit. They may not even tell you how they feel, they just won’t come back. “Because of bad content?” It’s about more than the content itself. It’s about what it represents.

Your content is a reflection of your company. It illustrates organizational values. Posts are your corporate voice. Will one bad article drive everyone away? Highly unlikely (unless it’s on a whole new level of stupid). Just like I didn’t stop watching X-Files after that disgusting “Home” episode (seriously, I refuse to link to it). But it will eat away a tiny bit at the trust that was built. And, if you keep it up, it won’t take long before your readers find another place where they can enjoy reliable, high-quality information.

Building and Maintaining Trust

In the First Round article, Tara-Nicholle continued that “It’s easier to do clickbait and it’s scarier to go deep with people. But I can tell you that deep calls unto deep — and that drives engagement.” And we have proof of that concept. Not that long ago, Don wrote a post entitled On Getting Old(er) in Tech. I’d say that’s as far from a clickbait title as it gets. It’s clear and straightforward. And the post itself delivers in spades. It’s no coincidence that it was also our most popular article. By far. It was shared, commented on, picked up by Hacker News, and more. All because it was honest and resonated with others, old and young alike.

I’m not saying you should pour your heart out in every single post. But you should always write from a genuine place. Whether it be frustration, excitement, confusion, etc. “Who has time for that?!?” It doesn’t have to be that complex. And a simple solution is to turn to your organization’s core values for help.

By writing content inspired by the organization’s values, you will write from a place that is real and in line with strategic goals. You could even glance at the strategic plan if you’re that stuck. Using those elements as broad guidelines – kind of like a framework –, you can then focus your attention on what problems the team members are facing, what tools they use every day, what stumbling blocks are stalling their careers, what languages they are learning, and share solutions and ideas. It really doesn’t take that much more effort to add value to an article.

Content Quality Check

As a content author, when you have your topic in place, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it sound familiar or is it suspiciously easy to write?
    • Unless you master a topic and you talk about it/work with it all day long, if the words flow a little too easily, chances are you’ve read it or heard it before and are just repeating that material. Make sure to dig a little deeper.
  • Am I in line with my organization’s core values?
    • Being in line with the company’s core values helps ensure that your content resonates with your main audience. Just like what you offer isn’t for everyone, neither is your content. And by focusing on the values of the company, you’ll pique the interest of readers that share those.
  • Am I sharing information that could be useful?
    • Do your best to provide insights, examples, something that your reader can build on or modify to use in their own environment.
  • Am I knowledgable on the topic? If not, have I researched it?
    • No need for thesis-type research here. But make sure that you can back up what you say with facts should anyone have questions about what you bring up. Make sure you can expand on it and that you understand what you cover enough to clarify certain aspects. Make sure the information you pass along has more than only a kernel of truth. Stay away from “Inspired by true events” kind of articles. Keep that for your sci-fi novel.
  • Does the title reflect the content?
    • Avoid stuff like “You won’t believe this!”, “I was shocked by what I saw!” Mysterious is fine, as long as it makes sense for the piece. I’m also all good with exclamation points. In the right context.
  • Am I putting myself in the article?
    • Unless you’re ghostwriting – or have been explicitly told not to do this –, integrating your point of view adds value to the piece. It’s the sum of your personal and professional experience that makes up your voice as an author. Showcase it.

Don’t Give In

And, after all of this, what if you’re a content author who has no choice but to provide clickbait stuff? You can still fight it. As a reader. The main reason companies keep putting out that derivative drivel is to meet those KPIs. So make the numbers sink. Don’t click on the links. Don’t click for a week. Or even a day. Take it upon yourself to make it a Don’t Take the Bait Day. For an entire day, don’t click on those types of articles. Reward the outlets who care about delivering value to the readers. Give them your much-needed and much-deserved clicks.

You know that suggestive headline is nothing more than empty promises. You know that they won’t deliver. So, don’t do it. Don’t take the bait! And try not to write any either.