Audiences excel at ignoring our words. To earn their readership, we have to weigh design as much as we weigh writing.
As someone who studied writing at three universities—and subsequently taught writing at three universities—it pains me to say this, but there’s no denying people will go to great lengths to avoid reading.
Segments of my former students avoided it by means of SparkNotes. Others, by means of simply sleeping in or praying for snow—or, during final exam time, for plagues of blood and locusts. I wish I could say I only observed such literary allergies among students confirmed to be "academically at-risk," but I can’t.
While the students who went on to complete graduate work in the Ivy Leagues might not have avoided reading altogether, they certainly worked to minimize it (sometimes out of necessity, sometimes for reasons less admirable). What eventually becomes of these students? They go to work, they realize they now have even less reading time than they had in undergrad, and they spend the next 20 years being marketed to as the prized 25-45 demographic (while the good folks doing the marketing wonder why messages so often go ignored).
The result leads us—or those of us seeking attention by means other than sexy models and covert product placements—to a crossroads.
Do we roll over and accept the low conversion rates facilitated by reluctant readership? Or do we heed the signs the newspaper industry largely ignored—and start modernizing our words with proper design?
When the going got tough, the Chicago Sun-Times (among others) opted to spend less money on images. A lot less money. While I can sympathize with their budgetary challenges, I’m not so sure I’d have bet on reducing visuals as a means of rekindling an audience that’s increasingly favoring more vibrant multimedia alternatives.
There are enough studies confirming the effects of visuals in marketing as to make citing them redundant. However, there’s far less content focused on the quality of these graphics. Creating epic content by way of strong writing is important (it’s how I earn a living)—but even the best content can’t undo the effects of poor design and graphics that essentially say "don’t read me."
Good design isn’t everything, and it certainly doesn’t negate the need to create strong wording. However, bad design can negate even the strongest wording in its entirety. Ask yourself these three questions to determine how effective your design will be:
Strong words and concepts will keep people reading, but only if strong visuals convince them to start in the first place. In the aggregate, an allocated design budget plays as much a role in your marketing campaign’s success as does your budget for content.
An investment in one without the other is an investment unlikely to yield returns.
—Matt Siegel is a freelance writer specializing in content marketing and branding.