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How journalists improve reader engagement

by Randall Craig on October 21, 2016

Filed in: Blog, Communication, Content, Make It Happen Tipsheet

Tagged as: , ,

What is the one lesson that appears in every newspaper article, every magazine article, and for that matter, every bestselling book?  Journalists and editors realize that they have to work exceptionally hard to get people to actually read what they write. And unless you actually do so, their work has no value – so they have become experts on “hooking” you in.  Here’s how they do it.

When a reader is reading, they are actually engaged in two activities: they are consuming the content, and they are evaluating whether they will read further.   The competition for the reader’s attention is intense: an article or advertisement on the same page, other information sources, social media, new emails, work deadlines, telephone calls (incoming and outgoing), an interesting conversation from the next office, the desire for a coffee, and more.   Readers ask themselves: “Is there more value in reading the next paragraph than doing something else?  Should I just give it a quick scan?  Or bail completely?”

For this reason, every sentence (and every word) needs to play two roles: to inform, and to lead the reader to continue reading.  A key role of the editor is to make sure that both of these happen.  It isn’t that difficult – it just needs to be intentional.

The article starts with a headline. This will often be designed to elicit an emotional response (blunt, intriguing, shocking, funny, etc) yet contain enough information to cause the reader to look at the first paragraph.

The first sentence of the paragraph then “grabs” the reader, while the remainder has enough meat in it that the reader will assume the entire article has value and continue reading. The last sentence of the first paragraph will lead the reader to the first sentence of the next paragraph (which “grabs” the reader), and so on. Eventually, the reader will get to the last paragraph, which will typically lead the reader to the next step: related articles or videos, a lead generation form, a call to purchase, a real-world action, or perhaps just to leave a comment, share, or like the article itself.

This week’s action plan:  This very same concept can be used when we speak, write an email or report, or engage in any type of communication.  The hierarchy from the headline to the first sentence to the first paragraph to the next is not complex, yet we often blow the subject line of an email or the first paragraph of a business report, by not thinking through this hierarchy when we write.  This week, double-check the next email that you send, speech that you deliver, or report that you write:  How might an editor make a change to keep them engaged?

Meta:  Consider how you chose to read this tipsheet:  The title, “How journalists improve reader engagement” got you to the first paragraph.  The first paragraph opening sentence “What is the one lesson that appears in every newspaper article, every magazine article, and for that matter, every bestselling book?” was designed to intrigue, and set you up for the answer.  The second paragraph gives you the answer, but sets you up for the more detailed how-to, which is what the remainder of the article contains.  And the final paragraph (above) contains the call-to-action.  (If you are so inclined, read a few more of these Tipsheets, at, and see how the hierarchy of engagement is used.)

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Randall Craig

@RandallCraig (follow me)
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Randall has been advising on Digital Strategy since 1994 when he put the Toronto Star online, the Globe and Mail's GlobeInvestor/Globefund, several financial institutions, and about 100+ other major organizations. He is the author of eight books, including Digital Transformation for Associations, the Everything Guide to Starting an Online Business, and Social Media for Business. He speaks and advises on Digital Transformation, Digital Trust, and Social Media. More at

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