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Writing to Attract, Retain and Engage

The written word is a powerful thing.

Used responsibly, it can educate people about the possibilities that they face, inspire them to improve their circumstances, and empower them to take the necessary actions.

Used irresponsibly, it can cheat and manipulate.

And used badly, it’s just dull, boring, and pedantic.

Which do you want your writing to be?

I’m going to guess that we’re on the same page about wanting our writing to be educational, inspiring and empowering—is that a fair assumption?

There are three main functions of good writing in the context of blogging and copywriting, and those are to attract a reader, to retain that reader, and most importantly, to engage that reader. Let’s explore all three.

Writing to attract: make it sexy

The first thing that you need to do is grab someone’s attention, and you do that by making your writing sexy. I don’t mean sexy in the “appealing to sex” sense of the word (though that certainly works, as in the case of Stacey Herbert’s 5 Things You Should Do To Lose Your Blogging Virginity Like a Slut or Demian Farnworth’s Dirty Little Secret to Seducing Your Readers).

No, I mean sexy as in excitingly appealing; something that just grabs the reader’s attention. You do this by appealing to a core human drive, which is one of the following:

You’ll notice that the sexiest part of the post is the headline—because that is the part that draws people in. You’ll also notice that it’s possible to target several drives with the same headline!

Of course, the selection of which drive to target isn’t random—it’s a function of figuring out who your audience is, and then identifying what their most burning desires and drives are.

Writing to retain: make it useful and entertaining

Getting attention is great, but it’s just the beginning. Once you’ve attracted readers to your content, you’ve got to retain it. There are two ways to do this: you can be useful, or you can be entertaining. Ideally, you should do both.

You make content useful with language, because language is basically the “packaging” that you use to deliver your ideas to the reader. Putting your ideas in a simple bulleted list is one way of doing the packaging, and imparting the information as a story is quite another. One way allows the reader to skim and skip over your content, whereas the other can get them to read, think about, and engage with your information.

Don’t get me wrong—you’ve got to have useful information in there, too. If you’ve got nothing useful to offer—whether it’s an insight, a strategy, a process, or a tool – then no matter how much you “dress it up”, it still won’t have much value. But assuming you do have some good information to share, it’s often the packaging that makes it truly valuable to the reader.

Rather than speaking in generalities, here is the formula that I use to package my own information in guest posts (I try to start each section with a heading):

  1. Start with a hook. The first thing you need to do is grab the reader’s attention. Start with a short sentence that will pique curiosity, and then build it into an opening that will make people want to keep reading. You can do this by telling a story (they keep reading to see how it ends), by painting a picture of an outcome (they keep reading to learn how you got there), or by being confrontational (they keep reading because they disagree). Keep your paragraphs short, and make sure to hook their attention before the tag.
  2. Pivot to the problem. First thing after the tag, pivot from your hook, which might only be related to your post’s core concept as an illustrative example, to the problem that lies at the heart of the matter. Explain the problem—what are the symptoms, and what are the outcomes?
  3. Explain the cause. Next, explain the underlying logic behind the problem—what is causing it, and why do people do things that way? What are the mistaken assumptions that are leading that to happen?
  4. Share the solution. Having uncovered the mistaken assumptions, and core processes that are causing the problem, you can now share the solution. By now, people should be super-eager to read it!
  5. Call to action. Don’t end the post without pivoting back to the reader, and their own situation. Ask a question about their experience as it relates to your post. Try to make it a question that is easy to answer—my first post on Copyblogger got tons of comments (208 at last count), mostly because I asked people about their favorite business books, and everyone has one to share!

No joke—I follow this formula 80% of the time when I write, and it works like a charm; my guest posts are consistently commented and shared, and I’ve had repeat appearances on many of the larger blogs that I post for (this is my fourth appearance on ProBlogger).

I want this to be super-concrete, so here are five examples of guest posts that I’ve written following this formula. If you really want to get a sense of how it works, try printing them out and then noting the sections:

  1. Desperate Housewives on Writing, Storytelling, and Selling on Big Girl Branding
  2. Steak or Peanut Butter—How to Land Authority Blogs on E-Junkie
  3. Write From The Heart: Does Authenticity Really Work? on Write Speak Sell
  4. The Viral Content Formula That Could Double Your Readership on Think Traffic
  5. How to Chain an Elephant: Breaking the Shackles We’ve Placed on Ourselves on Steve Scott’s site.

Writing to engage: make it resonate

If you’ve attracted and retained an audience, then you’re definitely on the right track. But let’s face it: the real sign of a successful blog isn’t just traffic—it’s comments and subscribers. Both of these things require that your audience not just like what you’re doing, but engage with it.

So how do you get people to engage?

This is where the science becomes more of an art, and sometimes the best art is created by breaking the rules. I was recently berated about a grammatical error by a commenter who argued that “grammatical accuracy is a prime need when we claim to be authentic writers”.

I disagreed—the line in question, while technically grammatically incorrect, mirrored normal conversational speech patterns, and I don’t think there would have been any confusion in the mind of my readers.

And that is my advice to you: to engage your readers, write as though you were talking.

Here’s how to do it. When you sit down to write, imagine your target reader sitting across the table from you, in rapt attention. Then write exactly what you would say to them. Edit out the “ums” and “aahs”, and make yourself just a little more eloquent than you might otherwise be, but other than that your writing should read like a conversation.

Since I’m a big fan of examples, let’s start with some of my favorite authors: pick up books by Malcolm Gladwell, A.J. Jacobs, and Patrick Lencioni—these are authors whose writing carries you through, even if it’s a whole book about reading the encyclopedia!

Read and enjoy their books, but pay attention to their styles.

Another great place to look for inspiration and lessons is the dialogue of your favorite TV shows. I particularly like the West Wing and Gilmore Girls for this – the dialogue is witty and clever, and does a great job of simplifying and communicating complex ideas. Watch the shows, pick your favorite characters, and try to imagine how they would explain whatever it is that you want to write about.

Attract, retain, and engage

Okay, I think that about covers it—we’ve talked about how to attract the attention of your audience, how to retain them as loyal readers, and how to engage them in a conversation that will grow your audience in size and profitability.

So, what do you think? What part of the attraction, retention, and engagement triad do you find most challenging? Do you have a favorite trick for doing them?

Danny Iny is an author, strategist, serial entrepreneur, and proud co-founder of Firepole Marketing, the definitive marketing training program for small businesses, entrepreneurs, and non-marketers. Visit his site today for a free cheat sheet about Why Guru Strategies for Blog Growth DON’T WORK… and What Does!, or follow him on Twitter @DannyIny.

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Comments

  1. Well done Danny! This was a pretty sexy post–and I like it that you mentioned Lencioni. Never thought someone in the blogosphere would like him [thought now I think about it makes sense].

  2. Sharing the solution is the best way to attract readers and make them want to share your posts. Great points worth following!

    • Gregory C. says:

      I came here to say this: the first and foremost way to have engaging is to have content that solves problems, period.

      There are a few exceptions (some notably popular personal bloggers), but generally, if you are not writing to solve problems (the “problem” could simply be to provide entertainment), you are wasting your time.

    • Hey Tilen, thank you for your kind words. I agree – there has to be a meaningful solution in your writing, otherwise what’s the point, right?

  3. Vladimir says:

    I just like to be honest and straight to the point…
    That way I won’t run into problems with my readers or customers in the future.

    Thanks for the great article post :)

  4. Ah Huann says:

    This is truly a great blog post! And I’ve learned that there’re so many useful blogs in this post. Very useful & “sexy” indeed.

    Good job!

  5. Marlee says:

    Danny!

    What a fantastic guide you’ve created here. You truly have a gift of teaching. This is so easy to follow, and with your examples, easy to emulate. Thank you for taking the time to make the process so clear.

    I especially like the way you’ve set forth engagement. Personally, I find that to be most important part of writing if you desire to have an impact. Being grammatically correct may not necessarily make your point any better understood. Choosing to know and speak to your audience should supersede any desire to be a smarty-pants. :)

    • Hey Marlee, great to see you here, and thank you very much for your kind words – it means a lot coming from you. :)

      Yeah, but sometimes it’s hard to resist the urge to be a smarty-pants… ;)

  6. Kevin Kimes says:

    I consider myself reasonably skilled in the tactics of writing, but have plenty of room for improvement in the strategy area. These points provide exactly what I need, the strategies to most effectively deploy my tactics.

    I tend to write similarly to how I speak, except for the obvious lack of vocal intonation, speed and pauses, and visual interaction. With the lack of those things, it reads in a way that may be considered rather dry.

    This might be the first blog post I actually print out for reference. Thanks for the excellent lesson.

    • Wow, Kevin, I’m really flattered – thank you! I’m very glad that you found the post helpful.

      Actually, vocal intonation can carry across in writing, too – that’s what punctuation is for. :)

  7. Pete Dimas says:

    I’ve definitely adopted the idea that the headline is what sells the post, just like it being the most important part of the sales letter.

    If possible, I also try to incorporate a long-tail keyword phrase that is not getting much use on Google so that my post might even get a decent ranking in the search engines from the title.

    I think if I can get them to bite, I can usually keep them chewing. :)

    • Hi Pete, that’s a great strategy – we actually try to do the same at Firepole Marketing – usually for long tail phrases that get between 500-2,000 monthly searches, and are not too competitive based on research in a tool like Traffic Travis. :)

  8. Graham Lutz says:

    I’m not convinced that it’s all that important to open with something catchy…does anyone else skip from the headline straight to the first heading without reading the “intro”? because I sure do!

    • Dino Dogan says:

      That sez a lot, doesnt it?

      I think bloggers think they have to be long winded and give preambles in their posts…as if they’re writing a book.

      Being frugal, direct and clear is very important to me, when writing AND reading.

      I love when the first paragraph “hooks” me…I read it, but if it doesn deliver, I dont stick around past the first heading.

      Having said that, this was an awesome post, Danny. And thnx for the link :-)

      • It does, Dino, but more about different reading styles than anything else.

        Don’t get me wrong – I think writing should be tight and concise, including the intro that grabs attention – if it doesn’t hook, then what’s the point, right? :)

    • Hey Graham, you raise a good point – there are different kinds of readers who have different styles for getting through a post. That’s why it all has to be interesting! :D

  9. Andrea says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post, and I will use many of the tips to help enhance my blog. Thanks for the awesome information!

  10. Danny – first, thanks for mentioning the post you wrote for my blog Write Speak Sell. Using a “hook” to grab people’s attention is the first rule of good journalism — I learned it way back when and it’s even more important now with so many sources of information to choose from. First, it starts with the headline and then the opening sentence. If you don’t engage the reader immeduatrekt you may be lucky, as a previous person commenting, Graham Lutz said, and the reader may skip to the subheads to see if s/he wants to stick around. Problem/solution is also a tested method. Find out the reader’s pain and then fix it.

    • Hey Jeannette, you’re right, but a lot of bloggers aren’t journalists (in training, I mean). :)

      But yeah – the most important rule of copywriter is that each line of text has to get you to read the next one, until you get to the point of taking an action.

      I know what you mean about problem/solution, but I find that model to be a bit wanting, because it glosses over some things that are important; particularly, credibility, and a demonstration of understanding the reader’s situation (otherwise the solution won’t be taken seriously).

      I worry about over-simplifying models, because people who already know how to write (like yourself) don’t really need them, and people who don’t won’t get much value out of them…

      But that’s just my pet peeve as a writer… ;)

  11. AstroGremlin says:

    The Blogosphere is little different than a newstand, where you can count on edited, focused content. If every other paper has a fish wrapped in it, you are prepared to drop it fast.

    • You’re right, but the flip side of that is that when there’s so much noise and low-quality content out there, it’s easier to stand out when you do a really good job. Does that make sense?

  12. I have just seen this post whilst sitting in a cafe after moving to Bali yesterday. To say this made my day is an understatement. The Indonesian women here think I’m nuts, smiling punching the air and all sorts, what an honor to be included. Thank you
    Stacey

  13. Monja Wessel says:

    Great post – I agree with you, you need to grab the readers attention. When sending out my newsletters I could see that a changing of a headline increased the opening rate. For example if you say – don´t open this if you are not a bargain shopper! you can be sure that your opening rate increases :D also, people love when you are talking about a secret – e.g. say: psssst…. secret inside! then your opening rate also increases. I believe it is the same with blogposts. if the heading catches my attention i read until i find the answer to my question. we just need to make sure that we don´t fool our readers – if you have no secret to mention and no bargain to shop it´s better to shut up ;-)

    • Hey Monja, thank you for sharing your experiments – this is a very valuable addition to the conversation!

      And yes, of course, you have to be able to back your promises up by delivering real value. :)

    • We learn from our experiences. Getting the attention of your readers in not an easy task especially if the target has different preferences.

  14. Stuart says:

    Awesome post Danny! And not just because I squeezed in there ;-)

    Writing to hook the audience is what we all hope to gain, usually by a lot of methods and practices. But the single best way I can think of to attract, regain, and engage a reader, is simply to open up. Tell a story. Be real.

    If nothing else, you’ll get brownie points for being so transparent.

    Cheers Danny :-)

    • Hey Stuart, great to see you here. You’re right – people respond to authenticity, for a lot of reasons. It’s a great way to hook the audience and provide value all in one shot (because people relate to your story, and connect with you). :)

  15. It’a all about first enticing the read then making him enjoy it so he will come back.

  16. Great tip’s I would like to add a strategy that I use. I burnt out a few years ago because I was trying to add so much value to each post and spending hours on each one. I now aim to do standard posts and a few real high value posts I have found this helps me not burn out and keeps my blog updated with fresh content and I can then put all the time I want to the higher value posts.

    Also having a good hook as a headline is so important if your readers subscribe via email it will have a big impact on your email open rates.

    • Hmmm… I’m not sure I agree with you about that. I think it’s better to slow down posting frequency and make every piece as good as you can – I don’t want to train my readers to expect anything less than my best.

      • Fair point Danny I agree that you should not sacrifice post quality for frequency but my mistake was trying to write a post like an essay rather than trying to write a blog post. Also readers would subscribe then get something in two weeks then something three weeks after that, so there was no continued engagement or consistency for the subscriber. I try to balance frequency and quality at the moment by breaking bigger subjects into separate post’s maybe I will take the frequency down to every other day.

  17. Jeff says:

    Hi Danny – this post really got me thinking (guess you call that attracted, retained and engaged all in one :-)

    I have a couple of quite popular blogs and have mixed feelings about moving to guest posting (have not done it to date) – part of it comes from seeing so many blogs moving in that direction and honestly, for most, I have lost interest because my bond was originally with the site’s creator.

    Then again, having other perspectives may widen the audience — not over the hump just yet, but sure was an interesting article.

    One of the other topics that almost nobody spends good time on is how to illicit participation – call to action is good, but there has to be more…I notice on my own posts, some really hit home and have hundreds of comments while others I figure are going to illicit lots of comments do not. Haven’t got that one figured out yet.

    Jeff

  18. Danny,

    You are certainly “bringing sexy back” to online writing!

    I have been an avid reader for a long time and having a “hook” early on is an essential part of writing. You have to grab em’ early or the go. It can really be that simple. Great points, great examples. What more can I really say!

    Thanks so much for including a link to the awesome guest post you did on my site too.

    You are a guy who is going places, and now we know some reasons why…

    -Steve

  19. Hey Danny,

    Great post and I also LOVE the way you’ve been answering everyone!

    Danny – as a video blogger, I actually have to “write + speak to attract/retain/engage”.

    I do use a number of the tips you share with us in this post, but there are many I’m not so this is perfect, as I am always grateful to learn more and be a better blogger and video blogger.

    Thansk my friend for such wise advice!

    Krizia
    Women Entrepreneurs HQ Show

  20. Jen Gresham says:

    Great post, Danny and thanks so much for including me. I like the company I’m keeping these days!

    A note on engagement: some bloggers think engagement is having a lot of retweets. Some think it’s views. But others, like me, think engagement has more to do with the conversation that’s going on. There’s no one right answer, but I don’t care how much traffic you have on Alexa, I always find it a bit sad to see a blog with 4 and 5 comments per post.

    The first way to engage commenters is to make them feel something. The reason your grammatical error sparked replies is because some people feel passionately about grammar. If you aren’t writing about things they are passionate about (which is different than just solving their problems), your comment section is going to look sparse.

    The second key to getting more comments is to reply to them! Seems obvious, but so many bloggers seem to think they can’t be bothered, or they want to look too busy/important to have time to comment. I realize replying to every comment isn’t scalable when you get to a very large subscriber number, but it’s amazing how long you can keep it up.

    Great resource you have here. Thanks for sharing it!

    • Hey Jen, thank you for your comment, and I agree with you – comments are the best measure of engagement, because you can really gauge how people feel from what they write.

      That’s a great point – the commenter who was responding about my grammar left an engaged and involved comment – which I appreciated, even if I disagreed with him.

      And yes, I agree with you about replying to comments. Blogging is a conversational medium – how could you not? It’s just rude…

  21. Diana Simon says:

    Hi Danny,

    You sure a guest posting every where! Good for you.

    My biggest challenge is attract because I just have the hardest time coming up with “sexy” headlines. I am not sure how I can improve on this and with your tips along with practice I will get there :)