Your Content Marketing Strategy is Doomed Without Design

By Annu Subramanian

At this point, we’ve heard that a million times. And with July marking content marketing month, it’s that glorious time of the year when the SEO community can direct its attention to this reigning medium of information distribution, whether it is in the form of blog posts, case studies, white papers, infographics, industry leadership memos, photos or videos.

But a strong content marketing effort is not the elusive key to success, particularly online. In fact, today, a great content marketing strategy alone is an incomplete marketing strategy.

And that’s because if you don’t include great design, you’re doomed.

I’m the content marketing summer intern. During the academic year I study at George Washington University in D.C. and I love my school.

GW has two logos.

Can you guess which one is promoted at basketball games, and which one is printed on the official University stationery?
Design is so transformative it can mean the difference between George Washington looking like the diplomatic founder of our nation whose foreign policy shaped centuries of American interventionist theory, or a ruthless warrior daring you to challenge him.

And design isn’t just a way to draw eyeballs to your website or company – it also determines how visitors interact with and even purchase from you. According to the LA Times, Netflix, a video and TV subscription company, is testing a new design to drive up sales. Netflix doesn’t just view its design as a means to enhance its visual referent — the company’s revenue depends on it.

And yours should, too.

The content marketing age means the public has more access to more free information than ever before, and the amount of new content produced daily is tremendous. Your prospective clients and customers are forced to wade through an ever-rising stream of words, data and social media sites, so distinguishing yourself early and fast is crucial.

That’s where eye-popping design will enchant a visitor and your consistent image will foster loyalty.

Social media’s major players are adjusting to reflect the trend toward visual content. Facebook changed its design for Pages to reflect a more visual layout with its cover photo and timeline structure. Companies have been responding by increasing the amount of photographs and visual content they post to their Facebook pages. Pinterest, with its skyrocketing membership, is an exclusively photo and video-sharing website, and so it forces users who want to win followers to put their best design foot forward.

Content marketing and design are becoming inextricable from one another, and, any longer, it appears even great content will suffer if it is not presented with good design.

See, for example, REI’s guide to choosing a backpack. The text-heavy, visually snooze-worthy setup is functional, but doesn’t engage.

 Now check out REI’s backpack infographic, charting the same information.

Backpacks Infographic: How to Find the Right Backpack for You

By re-imagining the facts in a visually-appealing way, REI was able to reach a wider audience, as thousands of people shared the infographic on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. And as visual products and design will pique interest even when people aren’t outright looking for it, REI likely benefited from traffic it wouldn’t have otherwise achieved.

New e-commerce clothing store Everlane understands that, and is using design to leverage itself over industry competitors. The company, which aims to provide customers with high-quality clothing without the huge retail price tag, uses illustrated graphics to demonstrate how their competitors drive up prices in order to make obscene profits.

Infographics aren’t just for enlightening potential customers and clients, it gives your own message authority. Everlane’s excellent blog also offers an inspiring amalgamation of infographics, beautiful photographs and product .gifs that should provide more ideas.

Content marketing is also blending more with design as efforts migrate to mobile. As more and more visitors use three and nine-inch screens to visit websites, content marketing material must meet those needs. A text-heavy page is an eyesore to read on a smartphone and so traditional web layouts are rapidly becoming obsolete. Interactive, easy-to-read and colorful content prevails.

The Starbucks iPhone App gives users an entirely different mobile experience from the one they’d have on a computer. For the most part, this is because of its highly visual design and interactive features that make a user want to keep exploring. Through this app, Starbucks has been able to foster brand loyalty with its consumers, even when they’re on the go.

Websites with poor design, even when their content is fit for a king, get fewer views and visitors spend less time on their pages than those with an appealing look. That can mean lost revenue, fewer recommendations and not as many mentions on social media.

Now of course, there are times when your industry is a bit… dry. Your audience is esoteric, your language is jargon-y or your peers haven’t felt a need to revamp their image, so you haven’t, either. Thus far, you’ve told yourself you have no need to focus energy or capital on design.

That was just the case with the financial media industry.

While the field of journalism has moved quickly toward pushing for new design and making content more aesthetically pleasing, financial journalism has remained stubbornly, well, boring-looking. Coverage of mergers and acquisitions, IPOs and tax abatements doesn’t intuitively draw an audience that demands attractive infographics and neon-orange Helvetica headlines.

Until now, that is.

When Bloomberg LP bought New York-based financial magazine Businessweek in 2009, the magazine’s design, in print and online, was a whole lot like every other financial news magazine: more like a car manual than a visual feast. But in 2010, that changed, as the company’s new vision called for great design to draw more readers to Businessweek’s excellent reporting – even when it’s on stories that might be considered boring by the public.

Take, for example, a feature about the tenuous future of two airlines in the wake of their merger, a number heavy article that might have not immediately drawn a less-financially savvy reader. Until it was illustrated like this:

The same went for Bloomberg Businessweek’s website. Here’s what looked like three years ago:

And here’s what it looks like now:

Through its engaging design, Businessweek has been able to satisfy two important objectives: 1) Be bold enough to draw people to what could be seen as boring content; and 2) Be memorable enough to draw an audience to content that is being replicated and reported by dozens of competitors.
Without great design, your stellar content might find itself relegated to the back of the virtual cupboard, collecting dust and deflecting pageviews. Indeed, design won’t bring poor content to the top, but it will distinguish great content in a world where there’s no dearth of information about everything.

It’s content marketing month, and there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that these days, content marketing is the fundamental means to drawing new customers and maintaining brand loyalty. But without a great visual presence, everything suffers.

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