Simon Lord is VP of marketing at Turtl. Previously Simon worked at the Financial Times heading up marketing and customer success for B2B subscriptions. Here, Simon gives us best practice advice for creating, publishing, and measuring thought leadership content.

How to win readers’ attention is the theme that underpins the principles and best practices we use with clients. And we can also take advantage of our database of reader behavior with over eight billion data points – recording how readers consume and interact with digital content.

Here are my five best practices for digital publishing based on our experience and what the data tells us. I’ve added some great thought leadership examples to show how this type of content can be executed beautifully – and tracked in great detail.

#1. Create a coherent narrative

The human brain loves a story. When listening to a story, our brains respond as if we, personally, are experiencing the events described. And because you are having a richer brain event, you enjoy the experience more, understand the information more deeply, and retain it for longer. Taking account of this psychological principle can help you drive better reader engagement.

Click to read Content Psychology 101

When it comes to applying this to thought leadership, an immediate question is whether your example delivers a story and is it “chunked up” into a coherent narrative.

  • Does it have chapters to help the reader understand the story?
  • Are the chapters or sections in the right sequence?
  • Are the chapters signposted and easy to understand?
  • Does the way the information is presented support chunking up the information?

#2. Use images to hook the reader in

It’s a cliched term that “one picture is worth a thousand words”, but psychological studies back up the use of images. To cite a specific example: in the late 1970s, 3M conducted a study into the effects of using imagery in the context of a presentation. An image-enhanced version of the presentation was perceived as more concise, clear, interesting, and crucially – 43% more persuasive. Studies have also shown that images help memory recall. I can personally vouch for YouTube DIY videos being much easier to follow than written instructions!

We’ve found that animations on the front cover of a document are a great way to draw people in. This animation shown here is pretty basic and you can get much more sophisticated with embedded videos. Then use images to support the narrative we discussed earlier: have each new chapter in the piece accompanied by a relevant image to help introduce the new subject and cement the concept in the reader’s mind for improved recollection. Imagery and different layouts can ensure the experience is visually rich and distinctive to further increase reader attention.

#3. Make it easy to navigate your thought leadership examples

There’s the obvious one of making your content mobile responsive and readable on different devices. You can see how the PDF is just not optimized for digital reading. At the FT, 60-70% of our subscriber traffic was from mobile devices so designing for mobile first – which meant deciding what to remove – was a prerequisite.

Psychological studies can also help inform how readers want to navigate digital content. There are a couple of psychological concepts to consider here within the broad framework of self-determination theory:

  • Autonomy: enable readers to make their own journey through the content and read sections in the order that make the most sense to them. Don’t default to a traditional, linear “start at the top and scroll to the bottom” experience.
  • Relatedness: give readers the opportunity to answer questions and engage with video and other interactive elements as they consume the content. Try to make it more of a two-way conversation within the content (as opposed to a one-way reading experience) with the reader putting as much into the piece as they got out of it.

In practical terms, avoid endless scrolling especially on long pieces, because people get lost. Use different page and column layouts and interactive elements to make it an active reading experience. Think polls, surveys, in-page videos, calculators, quizzes, interactive charts, and competitions. This chimes with my experience at the FT: some of the highest performing pieces were created by our data journalism team, creating interactive graphics and games, like the Uber game and US or UK election trackers.

Click to read Content Psychology 101

#4. Add personalization to your toolbox

Personalization has been a hot topic for a while and it has become an expectation from consumers: a McKinsey study from 2021 showed 71% of consumers expect personalized interactions from companies, and 76% get frustrated when this doesn’t happen. However, only 32% of marketers say their CMS facilitates personalization.

Our Turtl data shows that clients using personalization delivered higher reader engagement than non-personalized content.

I think it’s worth pointing out that the easiest to execute is “’basic personalization”’ which consists of adding simple elements such as a reader/business name or logo to the content. Whereas “’deep personalization”’ requires more information to shape a piece of content around an individual, team, or company’s interests. In Turtl we see this when creators add rules to hide or include certain pages, text, videos, images, etc. based on reader or target-audience preferences.

As the level of personalization goes up, engagement increases, with content that has deep personalization delivering an 84% increase in engagement when you take into account bounce rates, readers and pages read.
Click to read The data behind personalization | Turtl Labs + Curious Reader


#5. Make use of analytics to optimize and iterate 

If you want to prove the value of thought leadership content to the business, you need to understand how people are engaging with it. This is even more crucial in the current economic environment and it can sometimes be forgotten: I speak from personal experience that getting thought leadership content published can be such an effort, that you get it out there, hope there aren’t any typos, and then move on to the next project.

Analytics tools and platforms provide precise and accessible data, making it easier than ever to understand how your audience is engaging with your content. I’m showing here the analytics screen within Turtl for our thought leadership research as an example. The first question is typically around discovery or distribution – how many people have found your thought leadership examples?  It’s too easy to overlook distribution and promotion.

Then the kind of questions to ask:

  • How long did they read it for?
  • How many sections did they read? Which sections?
  • How long did they spend reading each?

From the analytics, we can see 95% of readers read the Executive Summary for over four minutes on average, with 10% of people watching the video. 84% of readers read the Key Findings section, but with a lower read time of two and a half minutes – so they are picking and choosing what to pay attention to.

Might we restructure the content and improve layouts to boost engagement with the Key Findings? A decent proportion (42%) of readers spent time in the Appendix, so is there some content in the Appendix we can pull forward and make more visible? Would adding more visuals help people stay engaged?

Contrast this with what you get with a PDF – the number of downloads. Digital publishing means you can fix typos, restructure content and improve layouts at any point to improve the experience for the next reader. Don’t be afraid to test improvements and drive better performance.

If you’d like to learn more, you can watch Simon speak with thought leadership experts Alan Alpar and Jason Mlicki in this recorded webinar. Alternatively, you can read Rethinking Thought Leadership, a report created from research conducted by Buday Thought Leadership PartnersRattleback, and Phronesis.

Click to read Rethinking Thought Leadership

Speak to us if you’d like to get more insights from your thought leadership examples. Our team can show you how to publish thought leadership documents that increase engagement and reach.

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