Want some advice? You probably do.
Whether it’s to eat healthier, run faster, work smarter, love better, or simply get that bathroom door to stop squeaking, we are a culture that devours practical information and advice.
The proof is all around us. It’s why weight loss is a $60 billion industry; why self-help experts still dominate daytime television; and why media brands devoted to health, gardening, fitness, and money continue to publish the same listicles on every magazine cover.
The evidence is equally powerful online. According to a 2008 Pew Research survey, 83 percent of American Internet users seek out information on their hobbies and interests, 75 percent seek health information and advice, and 55 percent look for how-to information. Providing useful tips is a now critical part of what most major publications offer, whether it’s BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, or The Wall Street Journal.
But giving good advice isn’t as easy as it seems. There is an art and science to service journalism that’s easy to overlook. And as a result, much of the advice being doled out by businesses, governments, nonprofits, and even established editorial outlets isn’t as effective as it could be with a few strategic tweaks.
1. Offer more than one way out
Offer readers a single solution to a problem, and it’s your fix, not theirs. But give a number of approaches and you empower the audience to identify their own path forward. When they are successful, they’ll appreciate your brand more. Providing long numbered lists of tips is a tactic that publications like Prevention, Men’s Health, BuzzFeed, and Real Simple have turned into an art form.
Let’s say you just got stung by a bee. You know you’re not allergic, but you still want a quick home remedy for the pain. Go to WebMD or Mayo Clinic websites, and you will get formal medical checklists on how to proceed, including whether or not to call 911. But that’s not relevant to your situation. However, on Mother Earth News, you can read “8 Natural Bee Sting Treatment Options,” which is far more interesting and useful. The content gives sound advice for the initial treatment, letting you pick and choose as you see fit.
Which gets to another important reason to give readers options: Consumers love to browse advice in the same way that cooks browse recipes. No chef plans on cooking all the recipes they look at, but there’s entertainment, value, and motivation in seeing all the possibilities.
2. Keep the format simple
If consumers love to browse advice, then you need to arrange your advice in a format that’s easy to consume. That’s why listicles are so ubiquitous—a consumer can quickly scan the advice before diving into those tips that most appeal to them.
Ease of usage is also why infographics are so popular. While graphics are best known for bringing data to life, they are a smart way to advice giving as well. For example, if you’re about to go on an job interview, you could read a lengthy article on how to prepare or you could spend a few minutes on “Acing the Job Interview,” a colorful infographic from Mint that features a step-by-step approach and important statistics.
3. Practice “maniacal specificity”
Eat less sugar. Get more exercise. Relax. These are vague generalities that most people hear repeatedly—meaning they have zero value. The art of advice lies in “maniacal specificity,” or giving people ways to take action without the need for any further research.
Consider “The Traveler’s Guide to Tipping Internationally,” published on Tailwinds, which is the digital magazine for the travel service Hipmunk. The article breaks down the topic by country and service, telling the reader exactly how much to tip depending on the culture. It’s extremely useful information, and by the time you’re done, you won’t have to look elsewhere.
4. Make your menu enticing
An appealing restaurant menu should offer both classic dishes and new variations. Think of your expertise the same way. If your advice is all intuitive, then the reader probably won’t come to you the next time there’s a problem. Create a mixture of tips that are interesting and entertaining—some tried and true, and some unconventional.
If you’re trying to plan a first date, there are thousands of listicles online, many of which are unoriginal. But Psychology Today took a fresh approach, asking several psychiatrists and psychologists for their recommendations. The resulting collection of 21 first-date ideas makes for a creative menu, featuring suggestions like dining in the dark and hiring an expert to teach you a skill or hobby.
5. Choose the right sources
Consumers are open to getting information and advice from companies, but that trust is fragile. If the content includes a product pitch, isn’t supported by independent sources, or fails to address a range of viewpoints, consumer trust drops quickly, per a 2014 Kentico survey. Strengthen that trust in your advice content by using independent sources and expert interviews from people who aren’t overtly biased.
What are the best practices when it comes to attribution? First, explain how you compiled your advice in the introductory paragraphs. Are the tips based on interviews with experts? A review of .gov and .org websites? Your internal expert team? Let the audience know so there’s no need for skepticism.
6. Give context and be honest
Some advice is more proven than others. If one tip represents the gold standard approach that most professionals recommend, say so. If another tip isn’t backed by science but is considered safe and effective, include that background information. It’s just an easy way to respect the audience’s intelligence.
“Natural Remedy Options for Asthma Treatment,” from Everyday Health, does a good job of walking the line between advocacy and caution. The author is honest about which cures have been backed by scientific studies but still offers alternatives and lets medical sources provide guidance and insight when necessary.
7. Remember the fundamental benefits
In a narrow sense, your content might be about clever ways to decorate a room or how to throw a great party, but there are underlying benefits to most examples of service journalism that should be addressed whenever possible. The big four are: saving money, saving time, reducing hassle, and improving health. If your advice can deliver on one or more of these fundamental benefits while still addressing a specific topic, there’s a good chance consumers will give it a chance. If you’re operating outside of those four fundamental benefits, that’s not a problem, it just means you’ll probably appeal to more of a niche audience.
8. Don’t fix people—enable them
Why is Oprah Winfrey still so popular after decades of being at the forefront of giving advice? Because she makes people feel good about themselves. She empowers them regardless of the topic.
The same should be true of your advice content. One of the truisms of great marketing is not to insult your consumers or make them feel incompetent. Content that feels condescending or talks down to the reader will struggle to break through. Make sure your language frames the topic with positivity so people don’t get discouraged. This BuzzFeed article about studying for finals is irreverent, direct, and goofy, but, most importantly, it makes a connection with the reader built on motivation and encouragement when it very easily could’ve gone negative.
Remember, getting traction may depend more on how you position your insights rather than the insights themselves. So the next time you’re ready to write a how-to, make sure you take my advice.