The best and the worst of content 2020
2020 has seen the huge switch to online and virtual. Events that would have taken place in the real world have become online content. We’ve met, exercised, socialised, and learnt online. Dates, family gatherings and even funerals have happened online. In many ways, our lives have become online content. But this blog isn’t about that shift.
When we’re talking about content in this context, we’re mainly talking about written content – blogs, guides, newsletters, social media updates, web pages; useful information shaped for a business’ audience that’s written and shared online.
When the whole world goes into collective shock, what did it mean for this kind of content? What connected, and what content repelled and got ignored?
We’ve both been thinking hard about our own online content-fuelled experiences. Here are the biggest lessons we’ll carry forward for the way we communicate with our communities and clients in 2021.
What didn’t work for us in 2020
The emotional toll of dealing with lockdown has been huge. I don’t think we realise its full impact yet. But one of the consequences of this increased mental load has been a long rumble of impatience and surges of rage directed towards messages that struck the wrong note.
- Tone deaf content – content that carried on regardless, ignoring the fact that our world had fundamentally changed.
- Robo content – it was a year when we became acutely aware of the influence of algorithms. It affected our kids A-level results and put futures at stake. Maybe that’s why we were even less inclined to be warm to content served up that way. We don’t want to believe we’re entirely predictable.
- Dark pattern ‘marketing’ content – anything that felt like we were being ‘marketing at’ or ‘sold to’ unwittingly. We became furious at dark patterns – tricks to make you sign up for or buy things you didn’t mean to (Amazon Prime anyone?). The veil was lifted – we saw right through it with new eyes and refused to be manipulated in times like this. An end to that type of communication. No more! Be gone.
- Poorly designed content – saying it badly. Little attention to wording, format, visual layout, reader needs (like the Government’s impenetrable PowerPoint pandemic updates!). When online is the only option and our patience is frayed, we want simple, clear and easy. Just enough, not too much.
- No content – saying nothing. Some people dropped off our radar completely. The people who succeeded for us kept going, even if they were sharing their worries/lack of direction.
Content that cut through for us, personally
Content Sharon loved
“Because I’m writing content, for me and for my clients, and looking for content for client newsletters, it’s hard to switch off enough to ‘love’ the kind of content we’re talking about here. I rarely read a blog without dissecting it as I read it – how did they do that, I’d move that higher up, you could say that with fewer words.
At times, my social media habit became ‘doom scrolling’, jumping from one bad thing to the next, anxiety levels rising. Twitter stopped being the place where I stumbled upon those serendipitous finds, and so I switched off. What I looked for most from the words I chose to read was ‘escape’ and ‘connection’. People who made sense of what was happening, or people who took me right away from it for a few hours. If you’re talking content that I love – completely for pleasure, with no strings attached – I get my content fix in podcasts and novels.
- Fortunately. I do love this. Jane and Fi’s conversations are like conversations I have with my friends. Funny, insightful, ridiculous, important; the rambling chat is a joy.
- Grounded. Louis Theroux always draws great material from his interviewees, and the chats feel personal and revelatory.
- Desert Island Discs. Life stories and the way we make sense of them are always fascinating. It doesn’t matter who the guest is, the simple format never fails to draw out interesting memories and connections. Lauren Laverne is a lovely, gentle host.
- Novelists I’ve enjoyed recently: Kate Atkinson, Marion Keyes, Richard Osman, Graham Norton, Jenny Eclair, Matt Haig, Ann Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver, Bernadine Evaristo
Content I seek out to help me in my own business tends to be around business models, psychology, coaching. I’m looking for ways to build a business that’s profitable, and give me more time. I love the way Denise Duffield Thomas writes about business and money. She’s funny and refreshing, and she makes me laugh.”
Sonja’s valuable content
“I spent a lot of time online this year – too much time – trying to make sense of the chaos all around. I found myself craving the ideas of those I trusted, loved and respected. I sought their personal views, their experiences, their take on what was happening. I guess I have been looking for leadership, for kindred spirit, for signs of life and hope on the other side of all of this.
I think people have been braver in sharing their thoughts and ideas this year than ever before. The buttoned up professionalism has thankfully fallen away in favour of empathy, honesty and humanity and long may that continue.
Here are a few content sources I’ve been drawn back to again and again:
- The Red Hand Files. I love singer and songwriter Nick Cave’s achingly honest posts on his blog, The Red Hand Files. Personal and intimate in response to people’s questions to him, covering anything from music and poetry to love, addiction and loss. Compassionately written, beautifully designed. Nick says: “When I started the Files I had a small idea that people were in need of more thoughtful discourse. I felt a similar need. I felt that social media was by its nature undermining both nuance and connectivity. I thought that, for my fans at least, The Red Hand Files could go some way to remedy that.” I like that.
- Henneke Duistermaat. Happening upon Henneke’s content in my Twitter feed or inbox always makes me smile, and I’ve particularly appreciated her generous retweets, handpicked recommendations and heartfelt illustrated posts this year. She balances caring, honest, interesting and helpful better than anyone I know. If you’re after true inspiration on writing, creativity and work/life balance, follow Henneke.
- The You Are The Media online lunch clubs. Mark Masters’ monthly get togethers have been a delightful slice of joy through lockdown this year. The sessions are always warm, helpful and so much fun that superstar special guests from around the world have cued up to get in on the action. A veritable valuable party, expertly compared by the irrepressible Mark Masters from his home by the beach in Bournemouth. They have lit us up in the darkest of times.”
Six enduring content lessons to remember
Looking back through the examples of content we’ve appreciated this year – the posts that have cut through and connected – some clear themes and lessons emerge for the content we choose to create and craft next year.
1. Be sensitive to context, always
There’s no doubt about it, finding the right words this year has been hard. Difficult because at times we haven’t known what to say, and doubly difficult because we didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Should you admit your business was suffering? Was it okay to say that you were managing fine? Was it appropriate to sell?
The answer to all of the above was ‘yes’, if you kept in mind that your audience was dealing with new challenges on every front too. We appreciated people who tried to communicate in this new landscape, and who cared about how their words landed. Messages crafted with empathy were received well.
At the start of Lockdown, Sharon tore up her content plan and wrote something new in response to what people were experiencing.
“I knew that just tagging ‘in unprecedented times’ at the start of a breezy blog about writing better sales copy would strike completely the wrong note. One of my most read blogs during the first lockdown was on dealing with overwhelm. It reflected how I was feeling, and how I knew my friends and clients were feeling too.”
This year, more than ever before, heartfelt empathy for what people are feeling, with sensitivity to what’s happening for them right now, has been a superpower.
2. Have the courage to get personal
Intimacy takes courage, but that’s what has cut through this year. We’ve been drawn to content that has been super honest, written from the heart.
Content that makes us feel something – laugh, cry, smile – cuts through the noise.
Sonja’s Medium post on lessons from the loss of her mum (Grief, Hope and Clarity) was hard to write, but it really resonated with people. Web designer, Christian Tait’s Instagram posts about the voluntary work he does at Slimbridge and his growing love of gardening and horticulture have been lovely to see. And we enjoyed hearing what people have learned from their journeys this year (like this from Corine and Steve of Spring Leadership, for example).
Sharing slices of real life is connecting more than ever. Sharon’s slightly dishevelled photo of us running was her most liked LinkedIn post of the year.
Share the good things. And the bad things. The hard things. Report on your journey. And the lessons that fall out from that.
3. Go the extra mile for your clients and customers
We’ve talked about helpful content many times before. It’s the backbone to the Valuable Content way. This year we were more grateful than ever for content that’s thoughtfully designed to help us – content that takes you by the hand and explains something properly.
Truly helpful content shone through brighter than ever.
For example, we loved this super helpful post from designer Lizzie Everard, demystifying the process of commissioning animation. And Deckchair’s MVP games and tools to help teams deliver better digital products faster.
4. Glorious distractions are welcome
When the news is so overwhelmingly grim and social media feeds are riddled with anxiety, we’ve appreciated content that shines a light on the positive, quirky and beautiful.
The good news newsletter is really having a moment. The Optimist from The Washington Post is a great example. And shout out to The Clec, Cohesive’s eclectic and beautiful fortnightly mix of stories designed to take you away from it all.
5. Share the good news, even in dark times
It’s easy to think that celebratory, good news will land badly at times like this, but this year we badly needed good news.
It felt good when someone posted a win – an award, a much wanted project, a new source of funding, a career change. It showed that there were some green roots of recovery in an economic landscape that could feel very bleak at times. And if they can do it, we can do it too.
Bring on the positivity!
6. Keep writing, especially when everything is changing
Writing grounds you. Centres you. It gets your own thoughts clear. When we’ve all had to rethink our businesses, the writing process itself is useful. How many changes of direction this year have started out as some scribbles and sums on the back of an envelope?
Picking up a pen and sketching out an idea is where great things start. Keeping a journal is a fantastic way of paying attention to what you’re feeling and thinking, and writing your way towards the future you want. Sharing it is brave, but so powerful – the feedback and encouragement you get will guide you.
Write it down.
It all starts with words
We’ve seen plenty of examples of courageous, heartwarming, helpful content to celebrate in this most difficult of years. And we’ve found that people were more happy to share it too. We all want to help out our friends and colleagues. And although we haven’t been able to see each other face-to-face, we’ve been able to pass on things to read or watch.
When everything goes to pot, touches of humanity shine brighter than ever. Our words become a proxy for everything we can’t do together in the real world. Hug, commiserate, cheer, reminisce, dream, learn. Word of mouth, person to person, great content spreads.
Here’s to more of this type of valuable content in 2021.