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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!