By Patrick Hayslett published February 11, 2014

Create More Effective Content Marketing with the Active Reading Technique

pencil-notebook-textJoe Pulizzi once cautioned marketers that competition is not limited to your own niche. Every other industry and entertainment form wants your customer’s limited time and attention. With fewer and shorter windows of opportunity, effective content marketing has to be considered best-of-breed among everyone — not just your immediate competitors. Fortunately, top-tier content marketers consistently win the war for engagement by using an “active reading” approach. With a little practice, you can too.

What is active reading?

Harvard University, which promotes the reading habit as an essential skill for its students to develop, likens active reading to critically and actively engaging and interacting with text. There are two types of active reading that are particularly relevant to effective content marketing:

  • Active reading as a skill to help content creators learn more about their target topic than the competition knows
  • Active reading as a technique for presenting the topic’s practical applications in clearer detail and more engaging formats

In short, active reading affects both content creators and content consumers in very specific and beneficial ways.

The content creator’s ability to learn

The way your business consumes content has a direct impact on the content experiences you create for your followers. Active reading asks content marketers to work harder at learning the things we teach our followers.

The fact that we even need to is ironic. I can say without reservation that marketers are some of the most studious professionals I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I can also say that in our passion to learn, many of us absorb information like a blank canvas — in a way that ultimately renders us passive recipients. Essentially, we replace critical thinking about any one subject with the ability to acquire a large volume of more general information because we don’t want to fall behind in our ever-evolving industry.

Active reading is an intelligent and challenging way for diligent marketers to get back on track. By leading us to truly engage with the content we consume, it obliges us to focus our attention in fewer directions — no matter how strongly we feel like we might miss out on other important content that’s out there.

There are many ways that active reading conditions us to learn more about the content we consume, its real-world implications, and how it fits in the grand scheme of things. Princeton University and City College of San Francisco list excellent tips for active reading. Here are two of the best tips I’ve learned from my own experience:

1. Look for the author’s opinions: These can be expressed directly or indirectly. The authoritative tone frequently used today can reveal opinions expressed as statement of fact. Compare the author’s opinions with your own experiences and beliefs —– remember, it’s OK to disagree.

  • Learning tip: Knowing how and why you agree or disagree (or realizing that you haven’t yet formed a solid opinion) provides a pathway for you to conduct further research and learn more. Write your opinions down as you’re reading so you don’t forget them.
  • Content creation ideas: The author’s opinion is a topic — know it, interact with it and follow its progression all the way to your next great idea. Give yourself the permission and time to meander through this journey; it’s how learning happens.

2. Look for questions that the content doesn’t answer: If you have a question about an important topic that matters, other people likely will as well. Be sure to write down your questions and, more importantly, seek out the answers.

  • Learning tip: Asking questions will lead you to new content in search of answers. It teaches critical thinking and puts you on a level with the great content marketers that always seem to know what’s next. It keeps you up to date and relevant.
  • Content creation ideas: The answers, controversies, continued dilemmas, and even your story of the journey itself will generate a host of new content ideas. Epic content isn’t conjured up in a brilliant moment of isolated creativity — it’s the result of daily critical thinking and deep engagement with the content you consume.

Epic content ideas can be found on the other side of the powerful questions an active reader asks when consuming content, such as:

  • What is the author’s purpose in creating this content? What do they hope to achieve?
  • What is the author really saying?
  • Why is the author saying it?
  • How does the author feel about it?
  • Is the author right, wrong, or some of both? In what ways?
  • What else would I like to know? What’s next?
  • Who are my followers and how could this help them?

Takeaway: You’ve invested the time and effort to interrogate different content. Pay it forward and share what you’ve learned in the new content you create. The more an idea has been “processed” by you, the more unique it is. It bears your stamp and begins to define the x-factor that sets you apart. You’re not just a curation machine — this is better than any headline gimmick or style guide. Remember, you can’t pull epic content out of thin air!

Creating active content for your followers

Once you learn to consume content in an active manner, you can guide your followers on a similar journey. Active content asks your readers to do more work, so the trick lies in the way you ask the reader to this work. I have found that it’s best to create a content journey.

CMI exemplifies this on its home page with its “How-To Guides” that provide a structured journey, from “Getting Started” all the way to “Measurement.” The readers do more work by interacting with your content for longer, but it’s the kind of work they want to do. Everyone loves a road map.

What next?

I believe that every good piece of active content guides your followers to ask critical questions, and then points them in the right direction to find the answers they seek. The ideal interaction starts with your ideas and guides the reader to evolve your ideas into something uniquely their own. That is how you achieve engagement — not through attempted creative “genius” designed to make your content go viral.

Exercise: Try to dissect this post and see where the journey leads. Try staying on that journey until you come up with something you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

If you want something to get you started, how about this:

I said that the best way to get engagement is through an active content experience, not creative gimmicks. I presented an opinion as a fact. Am I right? Wrong? A little of both? Where does it take you? What does it mean to you, and what will it mean to your followers?

I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this topic — see you on the comments board!

Author: Patrick Hayslett

Patrick Hayslett works with LinguaLinx, a global marketing firm specializing in language translation and localization, to help companies and government agencies communicate with today’s diverse world. He has over 10 years of B2B and B2C marketing experience. Patrick blogs about content marketing, curation, social media, and brand journalism. He loves to chat with like-minded professionals on Twitter.

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  • Chase Red Baron Roberts

    Thanks for this article. I really liked the links to Harvard, Princeton and San Fran. Bookmarked for sure.

    You nailed the “blank canvas” bit!

    • Patrick Hayslett

      Glad someone agrees! I suspect the blank canvas also has to do with consuming content through info bits. We pass that format along as authors, which is good, but it doesn’t mean the depth of our expertise has to be limited to the scope of an info bit.

      If you go back to those bookmarked links and they end up influencing your experiences as a content creator, I’d love to hear about it!

  • Nisha Salim

    I have recently taken to mind-mapping and sketch-noting to do active-reading and active-listening. You’re right about learners being passive recipients of information, this is so true for me. I often used to find myself not able to recollect even key points from an article or webinar which I read or listened to just a few days back. But now my mindmaps and sketchnotes really help cut through the clutter in my brain and remind me of the important stuff. And they don’t take much time to review either.

    I also agree about the authoritative tone that is so commonly used today to convey opinions as statements of fact. Refusing to accept an individual’s (or group’s) opinion as gospel truth is a great way to differentiate; so it’s worth developing a mindset that views things objectively and critically.

    • Patrick Hayslett

      I couldn’t agree with you more!

      Do you have any good resources on mind-mapping and sketch noting that you could point me and other commenters to?

      Has your new approach to learning changed the way you create content for others?

      • Nisha Salim

        I would be delighted to point you to some resources.

        For mind mapping, I recommend this TEDx talk by Tony Buzan –

        And also a how-to –

        I don’t use a mind-mapping software, I find a pen and paper good enough and even easier.

        For sketchnoting, you will find several resources here –

        I also love how Sacha Chua does her sketchnotes –

        Hope this helps. If you need anything else, please feel free to ask.

        • Patrick Hayslett

          Thanks Nisha! I took a look at Sacha’s sketchnotes too – very interesting.

          They remind me of “charticles” which to the best of my understanding are articles told in visual format like a cartoon/infographic hybrid.

          Seems like infographics are undergoing some evolution – maybe sketchnotes are a next step. Looks like potential here.

        • sachac

          Yes, actively engaging with the content really helps. =) I picked up the SQ3R method in school before, and I often use it when I need to read something closely.

          Sketchnoting is fun, too! It’s a great way to remember a book, and it makes it so easy to pass the book’s key ideas on. If people are curious, here are some other resources for getting started:

          Another, harder, but really effective way to remember what a book says is to apply it to your life. Then you have experiences of your own to share in follow-up blog posts, and you’ve got even more questions and ideas. =)

  • Guest

    Glad someone agrees! I suspect the blank canvas also has to do with consuming content through info bits. We pass that along as authors, which is good, but it doesn’t mean our expertise has to be limited to info bit knowledge.

  • SherryLamoreaux

    Side comment: The verb “consume” when applied to content always slows me down – and frankly, irritates me. (When we consume resources, they are gone. Not so with content, unless you’re eating the paper…) I suppose that we encounter and (take in) content so many ways these days that “read” and its active verb cousins are not broad enough. Is there a better option that anyone has found? Dear Abby, should I just get over it?

    • Patrick Hayslett

      “Dear Abby, should I just get over it?” There you go Sherry, that’s a potential next blog post for you. Don’t get over it at all. Roll with it. Perfect example of interacting with content and making it your own:

      “I was reading this article that talks about ‘consuming’ content, which always slows me down and irritates me. Here’s why…”

      You just actively read my article with critical thinking and identified an idea that may be useful for others – myself included – to hear about!

      • SherryLamoreaux

        Ha! If I had a potentially better verb I’d make the case for it. Overall, I think it would fit best in a piece about how we talk to our audiences, the language that we use among ourselves and whether it resonates with our audiences. At my company we talk to marketers, so I could use “consume” and they’d understand. (Perhaps I am the only one who gags?) But our customers market to every size and stripe of their own customers, and the words they choose matter. It sorta fits under the persona umbrella – know who you’re talking to and their language.

        • Patrick Hayslett

          I think you’re exactly right – talk to personas in their own language so they accept you as “one of us.” And no, you’re definitely not the only one who has pet peeves with marketing lingo or some of the necessary language for personas.

          For the longest time, “ecosystem” annoyed me. I wondered if every marketer was studying turtles on the Galapagos Islands and I was missing out.

          I understand the need for it though. Wyatt Christman has a good response above re: the need for multimedia and engaging all the senses. It’s an ecosystem, so I get that.

          Or “disruptive innovation.” What other kind is there? Again, I understand that innovation has been so watered down that it’s necessary to emphasize innovation is disruptive by its very nature. But still…

      • SherryLamoreaux

        And, this is a great, thoughtful, provocative article. Thanks!

  • William J. Holland

    A medieval approach to textual engagement is difficult in a digital medium. I suppose a new interface will emerge to facilitate this kind of engagement. Secondly, will socialist monolithic institutions like Universities respect the engendered criticism such engagement procures? My guess is be sure you’re NOT a PhD candidate.

    • Patrick Hayslett

      How about multimedia engagement? Is the difficulty just in the tendencies to view content in short form?

      I also doubt that monolithic institutions are prepared to deal with some of the advice they dish out re: critical thinking and constructive criticism as a form of engagement.

      But maybe the niche a content creator works within *is* ready?

  • wyatt christman

    Dissection is a core skill Tim Ferriss uses regularly and describes in his book The Four Hour Chef, all about learning effectively. As you mentioned dissecting an article or even a website is a great way to learn and extend ideas. Free writing also (see Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind) is a great way to expand ideas. I find it helpful to practice regularly. It is good to get beyond anything experienced in school and use these techniques as part of regular creative habits. What you suggest though is counter to what people do, skim and move on.

    • Patrick Hayslett

      Hi Wyatt. What I suggest is definitely counter to what people do in terms of skim and move on.

      It’s taking a bit of a risk, but a risk worth testing.

      I don’t think what I suggest has to be long form content necessarily. The goal is more to remove the “skim” part and replace it with “engage.” If you can create short content that causes a person to interact at a deeper (but not burdensome) level, you hit jackpot.

      Is this in line with what you have been experiencing?

      • wyatt christman

        Hi Patrick, thanks for the reply! Yes, the jackpot comes when words are crafted to make an instant impact. Obviously bolding sentences you know are something people would want to share and making that tweetable is one level of “engagement” but is it really engagement when you tweet something? Is the mind actively engaged? Using images more to communicate ideas is what makes infographics so popular. Yet that again is a form of skimming. I think more engagement comes from listening which is why podcasts are gaining popularity again. When you do something to switch off part of the mind like running and then listening to a podcast, you are not only likely to cover more content but it hits another part of the brain. Really to get full engagement you need a multimedia approach. :-) Just reading won’t do it.

        • Patrick Hayslett

          Great reminder. Do you think the tech trend of hopping from device to device like smart phone to tablet strengthens a multimedia approach, or makes it more challenging to get true engagement yet again?

  • JonYoffie

    Now that everyone is a publisher and we’re inundating the market with content, often with duplicate subject matter, aren’t we training readers to do just the opposite of what you’re asking?

    • Patrick Hayslett

      Hi Jon,

      Thanks for that great question…

      Yes, I believe we’re training readers to do the opposite of what I’m asking. That’s why I decided to write this post. I’m hoping to convince content marketers that we need to up our game and come up with more unique and useful content.

      Tactics are great, but the content itself has taken a back seat. Too much of one. I don’t think the “information overload” is an issue of too much information as it is of content that’s empty calories.

  • Mahak Vasudev

    Thanks for the great article! It was refreshing. I am going to start doing this when I write next.

    • Patrick Hayslett

      Great – and you’re welcome! Let us know how your next writing turns out after you try this?

  • Helen

    “Active reading” sounds like the Evelyn Wood program i enrolled in in college. Those tricks to study and understand have never left me. Putting a new spin on it, makes it new again. Giving writers objectives in their work may not be novel but this is a
    good reminder that ideas matter and so do the words in which they are
    described; and those ideas start with something else we have read, heard or seen. Thanks for these ideas.

    • Patrick Hayslett

      You’re welcome Helen, thanks for commenting! I don’t know about Evelyn Wood, but “Objectives” reminds me of a resume or some science lab from high school. I’ve learned very quickly though – and seen for myself – that “ad hoc” usually means ineffective. And you’re right – saying something with a slightly different spin or metaphor can be powerful.

  • mevaga24

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  • Thinktankjunk

    Active reading really seems to be a key skill to boost your knowledge on a sustainable basis.I was just wondering what software could be helpful 4 the best execution.
    For me evernote works pretty good. Are there any other effective tools out there that helps you staying active?

    • Patrick Hayslett

      Sustainable is the key word there. Couldn’t have phrased it better myself! That’s the difference between a creator and someone full of hot air!

      Evernote is great. I do well with Kindle clippings too. I even *gasp* physically write things down into a notebook or journal. Old school – but I can’t deny a learning osmosis happens when I do it.

      Another great way to tell if you retained info is to try to explain it to someone else without the material in front of you.

      You know you’re actively learning if, when you’re finished with the material, you have a lot more questions than answers and you’re off on a spree googling things :-)

      • Thinktankjunk

        Thanks for your response and really helpful insights. Didn’t know that physical writing is still alive, I have to try this one out:-). To be honest, some years ago I have installed a flipchart @home and it’s pretty cool and productive to make some progress. After visualising something you are working on, just picture and sync It with your knowledge base like evernote.

        Explanation in real world is the master degree of proofing your arguments. It’s not the easy way but also very progressive.