Counteracting Content Shock

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Counteracting Content Shock

Years of psychological studies have shown that design has a huge impact on our emotions. Your content's design is no exception; the effect is involuntary. By putting careful thought into constructing the design of your content, you can better arm yourself against the threat of content shock.

By Bart De Pelsmaeker

Ever since Mark Schaefer coined the term content shock a year ago, the content marketing world has been abuzz with the phrase, with naysayers, supporters and skeptics all tossing in their two cents. While content shock is very real, it doesn’t have to mean the end of your association’s content marketing as some have suggested. If you pay more attention to the design of your content, you can rise above the noise and actually be heard.What is Content Shock?

Schaefer defines content shock as, "The emerging marketing epoch defined when exponentially increasing volumes of content intersect our limited human capacity to consume it.” Simply put, in a world where content is multiplying at such a rapid rate, supply is far surpassing demand.

So, what’s an association to do? One popular solutions is to shift focus from owned media to earned and paid media, as Christopher Penn, vice president of SHIFT Communications points out: "The most important strategic change to keep in mind is that earned media will become paramount in the Content Shock if you don’t already have a large, loyal audience.”

Paid media is a no-brainer if you have the resources. The deeper your pockets, the wider your audience, although you still need creative and quality content to make an impression. Earned media, on the other hand, is about building relationships with influencers to establish connections with their audiences and hopefully, build a loyal following of your own.

Aside from being the cheaper option, earned media can sometimes be far more effective than paid media because of the emotional factor that comes with real, human connections. While we can (and do) tune out the noise of paid media, genuine engagement through earned media taps into emotions. Basically, it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) feel like marketing.

This same emotional factor found with earned media is also apparent in content design. By putting careful thought into constructing the design of your content, you can better arm yourself against the threat of content shock.

How can Content Design Help?

Content design is the way in which content is laid out. Typography, color scheme, images, spacing, and user experience all contribute to your content’s design. It’s about the flow of things and whether or not they are pleasing to the eye. In a split second, content design can make or break a reader’s decision to dig in or to exit out of the page altogether.

Years of psychological studies have shown that design has a huge impact on our emotions. Your content’s design is no exception; the effect is involuntary. For instance, have you ever been drawn to a certain webpage or article before you even read it? Have you ever passed over a blog without even thinking twice about it? Your response to these scenarios has nothing to do with the actual quality of the content and has everything to do with a visceral reaction.

According to a blog postby 3.7 Designs, "Much of human behavior is still rooted and influenced by our ‘old brain,’ the part of our mind controlling the survival instincts that kept our ancestors alive. The old brain reacts much faster than conscious thought…these reactions are called visceral reactions as they originate from the central nervous system.”

When we use content design to harness visceral reactions, we can connect with our audience on a subconscious level.

Understanding the Target Audience

Understanding your audience is the first step to effectively integrating your content with design. Learn the personalities, values, and needs of your target audience. For example, let’s say your audience is mainly risk-taking teen skater bros who like to challenge authority. Your content design is going to be edgier in font, color and layout than, say, an audience of soccer moms.

If a soccer mom were to end up on that page, she will most likely move away from it before even reading a word of content. Conversely, if she were to land on a page with content design more tailored toward the soccer mom persona, she is far more likely to stay, read the content, and maybe even take action.

Director of user experience at MailChimp, Aarron Walter, backs up this point in his book, Designing for Emotion. He defines emotion as the "lingua franca of humanity” or the native tongue that every human is born with. He goes on to explain that "design can create an experience for users that makes them feel like there’s a person, not a machine, at the other end of the connection.”

Elements of Design

While an infinite number of design options exist, a few design elements are best for creating these emotional experiences with your audience. Here are three key components:

1. Layout. Clare McDermott, editor of Chief Content Officer Magazine, uses the metaphor of a bento box to help visualize what she calls information design in content marketing. "Information design is the art of presenting content in a way that makes it easier for your readers to understand and remember your message. Just like the bento box, a well-organized article or report should include highly visual modular elements that separate sections of your work and embellish key points,” she says. The idea of a bento-box style arrangement not only simplifies the digestion of your content for readers, but it also helps tap into their emotions. The way a design is laid out affects the way we group individual objects within, and in turn, elicits a cognitive and emotional response.

2. Whitespace. Herbert Lui, creative director at Wonder Shuttle, believes in the importance of design and how it can really make a difference to readers. He also warns that, when handled poorly, it can also be your Achilles heel.

"White space is important not only for article pages, but also lead generation. Grouping together related fields can make it appear as though there are fewer objects, because our brains see groups of objects as one,” he says. For example, in the case of a call-to-action (CTA) button, if white space is limited enough, the user will naturally group multiple objects into one, which will contribute to the CTA being requested. The more white space there is, the less connected elements will be. When it comes to CTAs, that connection is important, so you’ll want to reduce that white space and place your CTA close to other elements that will help to convince users to take action.

3. Color. Color and emotion: These longtime pals have walked hand-in-hand down the path of influence for ages. Numerous studies have been done on the psychological effects color has on our purchase patterns and behaviors, as well as its effect on how much time we spend reading. One study shows that 93 percent of buyers will pick an item over another because of its visual appearance. Think about how brands associated with health, growth, and nature use the color green (like Starbucks, Subway, and Whole Foods), whereas companies that use black are perceived as sophisticated, luxurious, and sexy (like Chanel, Nike, and Playboy).

Make Your Content Mobile

Another part of content design is mobile optimization. When the apocalyptic content shock crashes down around us, it will only be the best content that rises to the top. That means that even good or mediocre content will be missed because of the overwhelming supply and flat demand. When your content is designed to appear beautifully and readable across all devices, it will survive the content shock crash.

There are two ways to achieve this. The first is to build content specifically for mobile. The second is to use responsive (or adaptive) design on your main content. If you choose to ignore mobile, you will risk losing many viewers, even your long-time fans.


Change is already taking place. We live in the era of the Digital Natives, who spend most of their time online. They need to feel respected and highly value their web experiences. This is a new stage, where visitors don’t need to be shown how to act, but why. Search engines are ultimately aiming to mirror complex human search patterns. The lesson here is that we should expect even more UX and SEO factors to coincide in the future as a result.

Bart DePelsmaeker is a digital marketing veteran and the founder of Readz.

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