3 Ways to Keep Content Zombies from Eating Your Brains

Woman under attack from Zombies

The undead are white hot these days. From the “Walking Dead” to “World War Z,” zombies have hit the mainstream—they’re everywhere. Some talk about a Zombie Apocalypse as if it’s a forgone conclusion. A friend recently told me he’s shopping for a new vehicle, and it needs to be a four-wheel drive SUV so he can outrun the zombies.

The recent growth of the non-living community includes what I call “Content Zombies”—online content that’s had the life and meaning sucked out of it, but continues to shamble along on corporate Websites and blogs. Content zombies will relentlessly pursue you, groaning their dead messages in your ear. Then they will try to eat your brains.

Technology companies seem to have a penchant for creating content zombies. Here are just a couple of examples from some tech sites. (Note: I’ve inserted the word “Foo” instead of the actual company or product name).

“Tomorrow starts here. Explore what happens when we wake up the world … Each day, more and more people, process, data and things join what we call the Internet of Foo things. And as we wake up the world, amazing things will happen.”

You don’t have to tell me twice: you’re gonna wake up the world! With Internet things!

“Foo Corporation is focused on enabling health systems and payers to drive continuous improvements in care. Foo software helps healthcare professionals across care settings to use data to gain critical insights, collaborate with each other and with patients, and to develop and implement innovative care solutions.”

No idea what that really means, but I’m glad the insights are critical and the improvements continuous.

Confession: in my past, I’ve unleashed a few content zombies. Not by choice. It pains me to think of how the carefully crafted prose I (or another writer) created was often tortured into empty phrases without real story or utility, all so it could “snap to messaging.” Many times, content zombies are born out of ambiguous, bureaucratic approval processes. We’ll talk about how to battle that horror another day. Today, I want to share three tips to help you fight content zombification:

1.  Start with your audience

And not only start with them, stay with and end with them, too. Arm yourself with data about your audience so you craft content based on what they want and need.

Website tools such as Google Analytics, Webtrends, or Site Catalyst can provide metrics about your site’s audience, including geographies, referring traffic sources (direct, organic search, paid search, etc.), the time spent on specific pages of your site, and in some cases, social activities.

If you have a product or marketing team, awesome! See if they have customer profiles, audience segmentation data, or personas they can share with you. Your content’s substance, tone, and structure should all reflect your audience at the center.

2.  Stop selling

Stay focused on what will be most helpful to your readers, not what your organization feels it absolutely must say to sell its products and services, the company, its executives and culture, or its point of view.

Too often, online content gets worked over by marketers or executives, resulting in marketing or corporate speak that isn’t clear, and thus sounds as fake and foreign as it really is. You want your content to be so clear, useful, and entertaining that your audience will not only stay on your site or blog to read it, they’ll bookmark it, comment on it, and share it with their social networks—in other words, they’ll engage.

You’re not going to see someone sharing content that sounds like corporate decay: “Dude, check out the synergistic innovation on this ‘About Us’ page!”

3.  Make your content compellingly readable

You have just a few seconds to capture your reader’s attention online. This means you need to be catchy yet precise—tell people upfront what they’ll get in exchange for their time. There are a few ways to help you make sure your content is scanable and readable. Our content team advocates these best practices:

  • Start with the unexpected. Need a unique title or content idea? Check out our Content Idea Generator.
  • Avoid the “Wall of Words”—an off-putting, dense Web page of words without imagery, sidebars or other visual breaks for the reader. If your content is several paragraphs long, break up the text using full-width images, but also sub-headlines, bulleted or nested lists, pull quotes, and sidebars.
  • Keep sentences to 13-14 words in length and paragraphs to six or seven lines. Use the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests or similar tools to help you measure how readable your content is by complexity and grade level.

I hope you find these tips useful—let me know what you think. Please share your own content zombie stories. I also hope you have your “bug-out bag” ready to go for the coming global zombie plague. Be careful out there, content creators.

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  1. Unfortunately, what seems like the majority of content I consume these days (especially in the internet marketing space) all feels like this. I rejoice when every 3 or 4 days I actually stumble across a piece of content that someone has taken their time to make useful instead of just being a means to an end.

    1. I totally agree, Jamie. I, too, rejoice when I see content that is actually useful or entertains me or both. Thanks for reading & commenting.

  2. I enjoyed your article. Those very sincere and almost interchangeable corporate statements are both so saccharin.
    I have a sneaking suspicion that the statement on healthcare was actually from GE Healthcare (former employer)or the GEHC/Microsoft partnership company, Caradigm.

  3. Something bureaucrats don’t seem to understand, is that there is no law forcing them to “communicate” with empty phrases. Portent has been wonderful in goosing everybody’s bureaucratic butts to strive for what’s important in a visceral kind of way. When that fails, we can always look to the pathetic site data as justification to do something different!

    1. Janet, we are SO there with you! Thanks for the great comments. Yes, many times, data is the only way to demonstrate how readers are NOT engaging with your content or brand. Keep on striving and we’ll do the same. Thanks for reading!

  4. I’m going to add a comment in here just to say a big thanks to the Internet community for being so insanely cool. It’s very rare to find such an engaged and happy bunch, and the number of you who have read through this giant forest of content is impressive. That’s why I came back – to write something bigger and better.

    1. Bhupendra,
      Wow, thanks for the compliment! Portent strives to be a Force for Internet Marketing Goodness. We love what we do and we try to infuse that into everything we do.
      Thanks again,

  5. I Like it! Kudos for you on the pop culture approach of this post. It reminds me of an infographic we did for a client that sold medical supplies. We took a zombie approach to the infographic. It works, catches people attention for sure. Well it did mine!
    I really like “stop selling”. I think to many people lose track of providing useful free content for their audience. Do it, you’ll reap the benefits!

    1. Thanks, Kris. Send me a link to your infographic! We find that adding some pop culture goodness to the mix is usually a good thing. Agree on “stop selling” … I think I should make a t-shirt that says “It’s about the audience!”
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. Thank u for calling out that ubiquitous “dead head” content problem. Looking forward to your tips being executed so more online mktg. is sleek and has a punch. Here’s to the World War Web Z!

    1. Thanks, Kathryn! I have seen quite a few content zombies in my day and we are determined to create content that has meaning! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  7. I don’t know if I should laugh about it or be sad about how some content fail miserably, but I’m reminded again (aside from the ones you mentioned, Sandra) of one important lesson I have learned back in the days when I was still in school. Stop embellishing the statements. Focus on the message.
    Another help is to ask someone read aloud what you’ve written before posting it online. A good content should be understood the first time you read it. If not, make it simpler. The simpler the content, the better it stays with your readers.
    Well written piece, Sandra. 🙂

    1. Riza,
      Thanks for your comments. You’re right about reading aloud–good reminder! Thanks for reading.

  8. Hello Sandra
    the trouble is that many people don’t know why they exist, why they do what they do, and the corporations are just the perfect places to avoid answering these questions.
    perhaps because of this global confusion it is good to start any entrepreneurial venture from a common ground… belief that life can be better, people are amazing even if they are xxxing scary at times, with a belief in great future built also thanks to our products…
    “Stay focused on what will be most helpful to your readers, not what your organization feels it absolutely must say to sell its products and services” : super.
    This is a great tip: “Keep sentences to 13-14 words in length and paragraphs to six or seven lines. Use the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests or similar tools to help you measure how readable your content is by complexity and grade level.”
    many thanks!

  9. Hi Sandra, Great post, I just stumbled on this by chance! I have been creating content for a while now and am glad I read point 2- Stop Selling because that is what a little voice is always screaming at me. I constantly try to talk too the audience rather than at them!

  10. Hi Sandra,
    I noticed the zombie picture in my feedly and I am glad I clicked through!
    You combine two of my favourite topics, quality content and zombies, to create an incredibly informative and awesome post.
    What you’re saying couldn’t be truer.
    Everyone’s been a victim of having some higher power water-down their content at some point or another,
    But in todays ever changing web, we can’t afford to be unleashing constant content zombies.
    If a site want’s to do well it’s got to up it’s game and start creating content with heart, not zombified content that wants to eat your heart.

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