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Content That Annoys Readers

Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2020 at 3:03 PM

Is your content aversive to your readers? If you don’t know, perhaps the time has come to ask.

By William Dunkerley

Beware, your content has two sides to it -- one intended, the other unintended.

Creating interesting and engaging content is a pretty universal objective of editors. Providing articles that will attract new readers is important too. Copy that pleases is an easy goal to understand and focus on.

The other side of the coin is copy that annoys readers. We don't set out to do that. But sometimes it happens. What's the result? Some annoyed readers will write to complain. Others just silently don't renew if they get really annoyed or are continually disappointed. Neither is a desired outcome.

Survey Says

Typically when we conduct surveys we test for content that readers value most. Rarely do we ask what annoys them. Therefore, our sense of what readers want is more acute than that of what rubs them the wrong way.

Last month in our sister publication STRAT (a newsletter of print and online publishing strategy), we asked the question "Do Readers Hate Your Ads?" The article addressed the topic of ads that cause an aversive reaction. There are a number of in-vogue advertising practices that elicit negative reactions. The term we coined for this is Aversive Advertising Syndrome (AAS).

In response we heard from noted editorial expert Howard Rauch, president of Editorial Solutions. He commented:

"To a certain extent, this interesting discussion could apply to what we might identify as Aversive Editorial Syndrome (AES). This exists in those cases where advertising hooks dictate editorial content coverage -- often to the degree where topics with clearly high reader takeaway value get lost in the shuffle. I often find AES examples in print and online news sections due to an emphasis on vendor-first news priority."

That provided the stimulus for this article.

Balancing Reader and Advertiser Needs

Rauch’s comment relates to content selection. Many editors experience pressure from their ad departments to carry content that will help them sell ads.

Take for instance a magazine intended for plumbers. There might be a lot of ad money out there from companies that sell new or replacement faucets. Naturally your ad sales team will be interested in capturing a good share of that money. Being able to show a prospective advertiser that your coverage includes lots of articles about faucets might help interest the advertisers in your magazine. It might clinch a sale in the view of the ad guys.

Editors certainly recognize their vested interested in having their publications succeed financially and that ad sales are fundamentally a good thing. But there is a real conflict here. What if faucets are not a high-interest topic for readers? Too much coverage will appear to them as editorial clutter. It is content not in sync with their important interests. Even worse, the undesired content may be edging out what they're really looking for in your publication. All this can be potentially very disappointing and even annoying. Hence AES appears.

Identifying Annoying Content

So what content might be annoying your readers? In the absence of specific research data, we can only speculate. Where to start? Perhaps it can be informative to consider the kinds of things that annoy consumers in general. Best Life magazine did an article on that titled "50 Things You Do Every Day That Annoy Other People." Here are a few of the examples given:

--Looking at your phone when you're talking to someone in person

--Tapping your feet

--Talking at the movies

--Eating loudly

--Typing in all caps

We asked around for some anecdotal evidence of publication content that annoys. Here are the examples we were given:

--Content that is off topic. If you subscribe to a magazine about electrical engineering, too many articles about investment opportunities can be too much.

--Articles that sound like they were written by a PR agency. You can spot them by their overriding promotional tone.

--Product or entertainment review articles that sound like a commercial. Too much hype.

--A lack of clarity when describing a process.

--Explanations about something new that mistakenly presume previous knowledge.

--Articles that present nothing new -- just same old stuff.

--Recommendations that don't pan out and instead turn out to be impractical or misleading.

--Consumer product reviews that feature only high-end products with no budget alternatives.

--Online comments from wackos.

--A pet aversive reaction of my own arose with a local newspaper I used to read. It was prone to running the same story twice in the same edition. It didn't happen every day or even every week, but it was frequently enough to notice that it was a common goof. Most readers probably weren't bothered. But as an editor myself I recognized it as a symptom of sloppy editorial control.

There's another point in that little vignette: What is aversive for one person may not be a problem for others. In a larger sense, what bothers readers in the content theme of one publication may be okay in another.

The solution to Aversive Editorial Syndrome is to find out what potentially irritates your readers. We're always concerned about covering the hot-button issues that concern our readers. Recognition of possible AES should lead us to find out what the hot-button turn-offs are.

Perhaps your next reader survey should include the question "Honestly, what is the top thing about our content that annoys or disappoints you?" The answers may be an eye-opener.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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