Posted: May 22, 2014
One of the most refreshing plot twists in the web marketing story has been the resurgence of interest in content--not just where to publish, what to measure, and how to optimize, but in the actual stuff itself. What makes a story stick with people? How do we keep readers greedily turning (or, better said, scrolling down) the page? How do we utilize content to strengthen relationships with our readers?
I say "resurgence" because the study and practice of effective, persuasive communication (known in academic circles as rhetoric) is an ancient artform, as old as Aristotle himself. Wait, wait--stay with me. I can feel your eyelids drooping at the mere thought of a rhetorical romp through ancient Greece. Still, a quick perusal of the average website’s content shows that we’ve been sleeping on rhetoric for too long. Instead of grabbing your pillow, brew a fresh cup of coffee and let’s discuss four Greek rhetorical concepts that will help you craft content that captivates and compels.
First, a quick disclaimer: all content choices should stem from a clear understanding of your target audience. After all, if you don’t know who is reading or using your content, then choosing specific rhetorical strategies makes little sense. Start by clearly defining your target audiences through careful user research and strategic planning.
In his book Rhetoric, Aristotle outlines three persuasive appeals, or strategies, that together comprise the core of his rhetorical theory. The first of those are ethos appeals, better known as character or credibility appeals. Ethos appeals establish our trustworthiness, our expertise, or our character connection with a target audience.
Colleges and universities employ plenty of not-so-subtle ethos appeals in their web content, some that work well and others that don’t. Headlines touting high rankings and honors, quotes from professors with prestigious titles, and lengthy "About Us" pages are common examples. These can each serve their purpose on certain pages and with certain audiences. A President’s page, for example, should probably build a powerful case for the President’s excellence and unique qualifications.
The best ethos appeals, though, establish not only respect but also what Colleen Jones calls an "irresistible identification," a sense of connection and empathy between author and audience.
Beware the "brag factor." In everyday conversation, we tire of people who pepper every point with proofs of their expertise. In the same way, let the particular audience and the rhetorical opportunity determine your subtle strategy for building trust and confidence.
- Have an English professor (expert, credible source) post a blog on your undergraduate admissions page about how to write an outstanding admissions essay.
- Produce a short video interviewing professors about why that latest News and World Report ranking should matter to prospective students.
- Prominently feature "A Day in the Life" testimonials from real students who can speak to your institution’s brand pillars in action.
Pathos appeals are strategies that evoke an emotional response. It’s no secret that our emotions play an influential role in shaping our attitudes and actions. Appealing to readers’ sense of conviction or compassion, to their excitement or fear, to their pride or nostalgia or sense of humor can help carry the message you intend to communicate.
Gifted storytellers use a variety of strategies to strike emotional chords, including everything from plot structure and characterization to tone, voice, and diction. An even easier way to employ pathos appeals in your web content is by choosing pictures and graphic elements that set a desired emotional tone. Photos of beaming graduates, "Throwback Thursday" images from classes gone by, "candid camera" shots of professors and staffers, and gripping athletics photos can evoke an instantaneous emotional response.
Beware the "cheese" factor. Whether it’s sentiment that turns too sappy or a joke that crosses a cultural line, pathos appeals can be easily overplayed. In my experience, pathos appeals are best used as subtle, supporting strategies rather than the predominant approach within a given piece of content.
- Survey recent graduates about their favorite campus memories.
- Publish brief "This Day in 19XX" on your alumni giving page with major milestones in student and campus life.
- Produce a behind-the-scenes documentary about a team’s playoff or championship run.
Logos appeals are logical appeals, efforts to build a clear, logical case for whatever message you hope to convey. People often assume logos appeals involve packing our prose with relevant statistical data. Sometimes that’s true. Certain arguments are strengthened by offering clear (and accurate) supporting data, like a page about a program’s graduation rate and job placement statistics or information related to financial aid.
The real purpose of logos appeals, of building a strong argumentative case, is to ensure that our messages make logical sense to our readers, that we prove our claims to be true.
Intentionally or not, institution’s make certain promises to their audiences. "A degree from our institution is a sound investment." "You’ll get a job when you graduate." "The residential experience will be fun." "Working here is rewarding." "Your gift will be used wisely to meet a certain need." Whatever the promises implied in our messaging strategies, our content should show, not just tell readers that our claims are true and viable.
Beware the "bore" factor. On the web, bored readers bounce. It’s tempting, especially within academic communities, to pack our pages with every supporting point and proof we can conjure. Instead, strive for content that’s concise, consumable, and compelling, and offer opportunities to learn more.
- Publish information about graduates’ jobs, starting salaries, average debt, and satisfaction after graduation.
- Write academic program pages that make a concise, compelling case for the value of choosing that academic major.
- Feature "portfolio" pages highlighting innovative or important research using language average readers will find exciting.
Finally, the Greeks had two words for time, "chronos" and "kairos." Chronos dealt with sequential time, as in the time of day, while kairos might be better understood as the sense of timeliness, as in the right or opportune time. Rhetoricians have long argued that choosing the right moment to make a point is as crucial as any of the appeals you might employ.
As content creators, we should always consider the timeliness of a given message, searching for opportunities to align our content with what’s currently happening in our readers’ worlds. Choosing the right (or wrong) message at the right (or wrong) moment can make the difference in whether our story will resonate or disappoint.
Considering kairos also helps content strategists govern choices across an institution’s content ecosystem. After all, delivering the right message to the right audience at the right time in an engagement process can help move an audience from earliest awareness all the way to conversion.
For more about how to package timely, relevant content for specific audiences throughout an engagement process, check out our blog about our content strategy work with California Western School of Law. You can also shoot us an email or swing by in person to talk shop. We'd love to hear your thoughts.