Check the original research first, before you re-tweet the URL

Summary: 4 tips for using storytelling to create great fact-based content.
Martha Lane Fox (founder of is right in suggesting instinct should be ditched.

Recently I came across a LinkedIn Update from my colleague Karen Dietz that made it clear that if I started my blog post with a story, I would get:

  1. 300 percent more visitors, And
  2. 68.5 percent more reader engagement beyond the first mobile phone screen.

Who would not want to achieve such results? I was intrigued.

Then my colleague Sandra turned around and said:

“Urs, show me the numbers.”

I answered:

“Sure Sandra, no problem. I just need to dig for them first.”

So I shared my insights with Sandra, but also thought that my experience hunting for these numbers is definitely worth sharing with you!

Learn about 4 things great bloggers do better.

This post is part of our series on business analytics and big data.

[su_custom_gallery source=”media: 3581″ limit=”7″ link=”image” target=”blank” width=”780px” height=”309px” Title=”Karen Dietz Update on LinkedIn: Is this maybe too good to be true?” alt=”Karen Dietz Update on LinkedIn: Is this maybe too good to be true?”]

Permanent Link to the above Status Update from Karen, found on my LinkedIn Update list 2016-03-27.

1. Storytelling is what it takes

So I clicked on the LinkedIn post that got me to Karen’s page with the story (2016-03-28). There I clicked a link again. This brought me to 5 Storytelling Methods to Captivate Your Audience (2016-02-28), published in the Search Engine Journal.

Here the author outlines that somebody else did an A/B test. One of the blog entries had a story at the beginning and the other started with the topic of the blog entry right away. Sure enough, the former supposedly got 300 percent more readers than the one without a story at the beginning.

The Search Engine Journal’s entry referred me to a Buffer blog entry by Alex Thompson entitled, The power of storytelling: How we got 300% more people to read our content, from 2014-04-22. Here, he supposedly unravels the mystery by going into detail as far as this case study is concerned.

After some digging, I learned that the A/B test was really sending two types of emails containing the blog entry. One began with a story and the other dove right in.

Okay, is testing whether a blog entry attracts readers versus what works better in an emailed newsletter the same? Personally, I think those are two vastly different things.

Plus, Alex never gets around to telling us exactly how many people participated in the A/B test and how the sample was selected (e.g., clients, webpage visitors, combination thereof, etc.).

But the example below does not suggest this kind of storytelling works, does it?

[su_custom_gallery source=”media: 3675″ limit=”7″ link=”image” target=”blank” width=”780px” height=”563px” Title=”Nemu Chu at Kissmetrics Blog – telling me a crazy story in 173 words before you get to the beef I want to read is not effective use of the story metaphor ” alt=”Nemu Chu at Kissmetrics Blog – telling me a crazy story in 173 words before you get to the beef I want to read is not effective use of the story metaphor”]

2. Gut feelings are out, science is in

The fact is that science tells us that a person decides whether or not to read your story within the first five to ten seconds. If just your title is 12 words long, you have five seconds left to get the person’s attention – at most.

Using a story about driving a Porsche blindfolded is cute… but will it get your target audience’s attention? Of course, we are all smart and at least one of us will point out:

What is the target audience? Are these geeks doing social media monitoring, managers or housemen/housewives?

This is an important question. Research with over 400,000 page visitors to some of the biggest websites in the US provides the answer. It points out regardless of your target audience, they want a headline that is relevant to them. As well, if the first three lines of text fail to convey anything important, 60 percent will already be gone by line four.

Hence, striving for high quality content means short introductory stories at the beginning might work very well. Long-winded intros are less likely to encourage your reader to go beyond the second mobile screen.

3. Facebook or Twitter: Check before sharing

Getting 300 percent more readers thanks to starting a blog entry with a story is a wonderful result. But I hope you do not mind me asking:

– What type of story are we talking about (e.g., length, relevance, etc.)?
– What type of story will work with my audience?

I was unable to get an answer to these questions in those blog entries as mentioned above.

So I took the trouble to dig a bit deeper in the subject matter. For instance, in the Search Engine Journal’s entry the author had used a model from a study on mice (see below).

[su_custom_gallery source=”media: 3598″ limit=”7″ link=”image” target=”blank” width=”781px” height=”472px” Title=”Nice graphic – that is the proposed model, but what about the one confirmed by Lisrel analysis? That looks a bit different!” alt=”Nice graphic – that is the proposed model, but what about the one confirmed by Lisrel analysis? That looks a bit different!”]

I then found the original paper from which the above graphic was taken. Read it here (sign up free to view and download the paper): The Customer loyalty to content-based Web sites: The case of an online health-care service. Journal of Services Marketing, Vol 18(3):175-186, May 2004

The paper yielded some interesting new facts that we should ponder.

For instance, on page 179 of the paper, the reader is told that the study is based on 421 usable responses on a health site. Where the site is located and in which language content is written is not clear.

We are also told that the online survey was responded to by 6 percent of those that were asked to fill it out while visiting the website. Moreover, 93 percent of these respondents are women (see page 180).

Just looking at this information tells us that the study does not allow us to generalise from its findings due to sample selection and so forth.

Also, “Need fulfillment” is set to equal content quality by the Search Engine Journal’s author Razvan Gavrilas. However, as the study clarifies, need fulfillment was measured using four items. We are not given their exact wording except one: Net Clinic meets my personal needs (page 179). For all I know, this could mean finding the doctor’s address I am looking for. That does not measure content quality, does it?

Put differently, the study does not address quality content. Hence, the Search Engine Journal’s author simply misconstrued the study’s findings, then wrote a great story about it. But storytelling based on misinterpreting research findings does not help us gain and maintain our readers’ trust.

4. Checklist

This story perfectly illustrates that one best check one’s sources carefully. Unless you prefer to have metaphorical egg on your face as a blogger?

Here are four science-based tips that will help you use storytelling effectively while building trust and reputation for your publication.

[su_box title=”The no bullshit guide to better blogging” box_color=”#86bac5″ title_color=”#ffffff”]
1. Mobile readers want you to get to the point – fast.
First, tell me why you think I should read this, and what I will get out of it (20 words max).

Second, don’t give me a 170-word story about the blindfolded Porsche driver. Start your blog entry with a great story but keep it to about 30 to 50 words maximum.

By the time they hit 60 to 100 words (including the headline), readers want to be convinced that reading onward is worth their time.

2. Remember your favourite librarian’s advice.
I remember a librarian telling students in her workshop for new library users: “When doing your semester paper, do not cite an article you found in some paper’s reference list before checking the original. It could be that the author misquoted it or misinterpreted the original paper’s findings.”

Of course, for some of us the clincher was that she stated: “If your professor knows the author or has read the original study, they will know if you misquoted or misinterpreted something. That could not only be embarrassing, but as importantly, lower your grade.”

Just checking a URL in a LInkedIn news update leading to a blog will not do. Go to the original study the blogger refers to and make sure they got it right.

3. Great science is a start.
As a blogger, check your sources. Does the article or white paper from Adobe represent science or a poorly-veiled sales pitch, though nicely packaged?

A first danger sign is a report that contains superfluous content or lacks a method section. Another sign could be that a lot of color and ink has been wasted to make things look pretty, but the report lacks any depth or detail.

4. Instinct and gut feelings have no place here.
Some examples:

10 Qualities of People With High Emotional Intelligence
These Are the 30 Most Motivational Books Ever Written
9 Affirmations the Most Successful People Repeat Each and Every Day
The Top 8 Skills Wealthy People Have Mastered

The headlines above are great link bait. And yes, unless our headline stirs the reader’s interest, they will never read anything beyond it.

Nevertheless, claiming something or suggesting a checklist based on your opinion will not do. Martha Lane Fox is right, ditch your instinct and opinions, but back your choices up with data and facts.

Of course, some master the art of an attention grabbing headline and then really deliver the bacon in their blog entries, such as: WordStream: 5 Lazy Tips to Cut Your PPC Budget in Half


5.  Bottom line

CLICK - Starting with best science is a good start, but it must also lead to a better life.Asked what advice she wished she had received at 25, Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of led with hiring. Instinct should be ditched, she told the BBC, in favour of a slower-burn audition of candidates (as mentioned by Emma De Vita 2016-03-28, FT p. 8).

Believing a person’s CV or LinkedIn Update (with a link to an article) is fine. Better yet is to go and check the original article, including research, to see if the claims made can be trusted.

In the case of hiring, encourage many staff to talk to the person. If possible, ask the candidate to spend a day or two at your office.

Headlines such as “6 things successful people do every morning” are great teasers. Inc. Wire is a master at this. However, besides some opinions from the authors of such entries, science does not play any role.

Instead, reading tea leaves or misinterpreting research if some is used is most likely the case. In turn, the suggestions should be taken with a grain of salt.

Would you rather trust a therapy to save your life based on somebody’s opinion or the best science and tests?
Are you willing to invest your hard earned cash in something somebody just believes in?
Would you not sleep better tonight if the numbers tell the story?

Let us focus more on observation of behaviour, instead of claims or accounts of people’s behaviour (e.g., as stipulated by authors of a blog or magazine article).

6. Have your say – join the conversation

I have decided to follow Sandra’s advice: “Urs, show me the numbers!”

  • What do you advise corporate bloggers to do to write high quality content?
  • Do you like reading a made-up kind of story at the beginning of a corporate blog entry?
  • Do you prefer the author cutting to the chase straight away in a blog entry?
  • Does any news you get from corporate blogs affect your decision-making at work?

The author declares that he had no conflict of interest with respect to the content, authorship or publication of this blog entry.

Final thoughts

The sad fact is that in a world where BuzzFeed, Gawker, Vice, Vox and others increasingly chase advertising dollars, fewer and fewer resources are left over to check original sources. Instead, storytelling or headlines use click bait, sensationalism and so forth to get the clicks needed to gain the most pageviews.

The only option we have is to not waste our time on such content. If many of us stop, it will result in fewer clicks and advertising dollars for such sites. I have therefore decided to no longer visit Inc. Wire’s content. Nor do I care about Gawker or BuzzFeed. But I will not hold my breath that things will improve soon… Of course, quality content is not free – somebody pays. In the case of this blog, it’s my company :-)

8 replies
  1. Peter Müller
    Peter Müller says:

    Hi Urs

    This is a very nice post and it illustrates very nicely that quality is what really matters. If we call that science (i.e. checking up the original source … reading and then deciding is it good enough or should we ignore it) .

    The cases you point out show that maybe before posting on LinkedIn we should take the time and check-up on the literature cited or mentioned.
    I recently came across an article in Wirtschaftswoche Artikel – What your desk mess tells me about you.

    When I read the article online, nowhere was a link given to the companies being mentioned (e.g., Steelcase did a study… office furniture manufacturer). So how can I know if this was not a sloppy kind of marketing study disguised as research?

    • Urs E. Gattiker
      Urs E. Gattiker says:

      Dear Peter

      Thanks so much for your feedback and the link to the Wirtschaftswoche Artikel. But yes, we have to check ourselves to make sure that what is touted as a study is useful. Of course, this takes time.

      Incidentally, a nice side-effect of us checking first, before sharing is that the number of status updates would drop dramatically.

      Nobody has that much time on his hands to check more than 1 or 2 sources each day.
      If we want to check the facts first before re-tweeting, we automatically will send out fewer status updates each day. Put differently, we will check only those status updates and their embedded URLs that interest us. Once we have read up on the material we will then share the tweet or status update we got in our feed.

      A great relieve for our fans, friends and followers. Fewer updates with no rubbish or unsubstantiated updates we are sending anylonger.
      Must be heaven.

      Thanks for sharing

  2. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    Hi Urs,

    You asked me what I ususally do to attract the reader to read my posts. As a fashion blogger I like to opt for the following strategy when writing my blog posts:
    First I put the key value of the blog post for the reader into the headline.
    Then I try to tease the reader into reading on by shortly (!) describing a typical situation or problem she faces when dressing.
    The third step is to promise a solution or support to solve the problem or at least improve the situation.
    Of course these three steps should be very concise – 7 to 10 lines should be enough. That’s the really difficult task. But it is managable :-)

    I am convinced: If you cannot get clear about what the takeaway of the blog post will be for the reader within the headline and the first few lines you will have problems grabbing the attention for your content.

    I hope this helps in the discussion.

    Have a nice day, Urs!


    • Urs E. Gattiker
      Urs E. Gattiker says:

      Liebe Stephanie
      Thank you for the great comment. I find your four tips make a lot of sense.
      It goes back to the tests with 400,000 website visitors (see link in blog entry) where the researchers found that to grab your reader’s attention you need to show her:
      – what is in it for me,
      – describe a situation I can relate to, AND
      – tell me that I will get a solution if I read this entry.

      So I went and checked my blog entry above immediately. Do I meet your KPIs. Well yes and no it looks like. I get a B but probably not an A :-), Stephanie.
      I tell about what you call key value in the title.
      Next, the first 2 lines in the blog entry give more away to the reader about this blog entry.
      Thereafter, I provide a short description about an issue most bloggers must deal with.
      Finally, after about 13 lines I state again what you get in this blog entry.

      So I follow your advice pretty close although I fail to manage in 7 to 10 lines. So I have to improve next time :-)

      Stephanie, this was very helpful for me personally. Thank you.

  3. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    Dear Urs,

    please don’t be too harsh on yourself!
    I am convinced you are deserving an A!
    Even if there are 15 to 20 lines until your point is made, it still seems to me an excellent post introduction.

    I cannot do it within 7 to 10 lines myself every time. I think the whole discussion is no rocket science and depends a lot on:

    1. which device you are using – for mobile devices it is almost impossible to produce this kind of introduction within 7 to 10 lines – and
    2. the complexity of the topic – “fashion” cannot be compared with “scientific evaluation of content marketing”.

    So in my opinion everything is perfect and we just should relax :-)

    Have a nice day!

    • Urs E. Gattiker
      Urs E. Gattiker says:

      Dear Stephanie

      Thanks so much for your feedback. Like every student I love As. I agree with everything you say especially:

      1 – Depends on your topic fashion versus some difficult stuff like scientific evaluation of content marketing,
      2 – Is it for fun, work, study or a combination thereoff AND
      3 – The topic attracts certain readers ….. (highly specialized or general audience).

      I believe with fashion or style you may have a wide variety of readers. They are all interested in the topic. Nevertheless, they primarily read such content for fun and not work.
      Hence, they expect something different than the geek who needs something to do his engineering job better.

      With the mobile phone you can be happy if you get the ghist or overall idea across in the first 5 lines. In fact it might take 2 screens before you get to the major part of the story.

      Because of our ever shorter attention span (depending on what person, circumstances ranges anywhere from 2 to 5 seconds …. or maybe 8 seconds if you believe some others), it gets ever more difficult to avoid hype and provide quality at the same time.

      Quality means also that the reader must take the time to read the complete story to understand fully.

      Welcome to a world of Instagram, where I like or dislike your image and hope this helps me learn calculus :-) NOT !

      Stephanie, thanks for sharing and this discussion. You influenced me a great deal. So much I took your suggestions, ideas and the science in this blog post as a checklist for writing my next entry on the German blog.
      There I had a quick intro, some storytelling thereafter, and here comes the problem solution…

      I think I get an A again :-)

      Danke – Thank You – Merci

  4. Sabina @OceanblueStyle at Manderley
    Sabina @OceanblueStyle at Manderley says:

    Dear Urs,

    being a fashion blogger I feel like my readers appreciate the inspiration. Also the fact that there is someone out therem creating new ideas beyond existing and limiting views of what grown-up women should be like.

    MeerModeMut is a slogan that reaches beyond the item I am wearing, so its also quite feminist and political. That is when numbers start to matter.

    Being a journalist helps creating an article.

    But online is slightly different. So I prefer reading texts with layouts readable on smartphone.

    Looking forward to more great reads! Sabina

    • Urs E. Gattiker
      Urs E. Gattiker says:

      Yes Sabina

      Inspiration is a real thing. It takes more than just beautiful images that show me in front of another great building, pool or whatever.

      As a shopper of clothing, shoes, accessories, personal care, etc. I want to know things like:

      1. Why did the person choose the outfit… what deliberations did she go through to put together this pants with this pair of shoes or jewellery.

      2. why did you go in this store for this brand or what went through your mind when you decided not to wear something.

      Picture alone do not make it easier for me as a fellow shopper or industrial buyer to learn what makes it easier for my client to buy my product.

      Sometimes I see blogs with beautiful people that try to be cool, put themselves in the right pose and so forth. Nice to look at, yes?

      However, when I go shopping I need to be sure that the new outfit I buy will with stand my daily grind at the office. As well, it should make me look sharp or maybe at least respectable enough to be let in the front door :-) And as importantly, I want to feel comfortable and good in those cloths, shoes and so forth.

      Sabina, thanks so much for having this dialogue with me. It is inspiring !

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