It’s Not That Americans Won’t Read; We’ve Spoiled Them

I enjoy Denny Hatch’s e-zine. He’s always no-nonsense and very down-to-earth (to use two clichés) when analyzing an industry that often appears to run in circles with its hands flailing in the air.

In his June 22nd 2010 article, “Why Americans Can’t, Don’t and Won’t Read ” (Target Marketing ), he cites an example of direct e-mail abuse. Essentially, the subject line was sufficient to get him to open the email, but the copy desperately needed an editor…or two.

He asserts that Americans can’t, don’t, and won’t read because our brains have been re-wired and our time has been “hijacked by amateurs.” While I agree that our time has been hijacked by amateurs, I disagree that Americans, don’t and won’t read.

Americans aren’t dumb or lazy, we’re overworked and discriminating. (I recall writing something on this in June of 2009, Has the Internet Changed Writing for Better or for Worse?)

Hatch’s Takeaways to Consider

  1. If you are not a professional writer and you have a message that you want people (other than family and friends) to read, hire a professional writer.
  2. Amateur writers usually waste the reader’s time, look like fools and piss people off.
  3. Stay on message.
  4. Ruthlessly self-edit.
  5. If you want to be found on Google, put on retainer an expert in search engine marketing/search engine optimization (SEM/SEO).
  6. SEM/SEO IS rocket science.
  7. We are drowning in a tsunami of humanity screaming for our attention.
  8. “The technology is rewiring our brains.” —Nora Volkow
  9. “Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave.”
    —Matt Richtel, “Hooked on Gadgets and Paying the Mental Price”
  10. “The average attention span of an adult is 20 minutes.”
    —Brad Vander Zanden, University of Tennessee
  11. “On the Internet, the average attention span is three to five minutes. We have to cater to that.”
    —Steven Hirsch, co-chairman, Vivid Entertainment
  12. “Last week, researchers at Stanford University published a study showing that the most persistent multitaskers perform badly in a variety of tasks. They don’t focus as well as non-multitaskers. They’re more distractible. They’re weaker at shifting from one task to another and at organizing information. They are, as a matter of fact, worse at multitasking than people who don’t ordinarily multitask.”
    —Ruth Pennebaker, The New York Times
  13. For important—really important—correspondence, DO NOT USE e-mail. Send it via Certified Mail, Registered Mail or Federal Express, and pay for proof of delivery.

In short, if you are a writer—professional or amateur—you are kicking shit uphill with pointed boots.

Hatch goes on to cite a huge list of statistics, massaged by a variety of sources, that muddy—and sully—some very valid points. If you skip over the listed statistics—at best taken out of context—and drop down to the “Takeaways to Consider,” there are a few good things here (at right):

He’s dead correct that if you’re not a professional writer and you have a message you need people to read: hire a professional writer. Americans’ brains haven’t been as re-wired as everyone thinks.

Yes, we’re pressed for time, but more importantly, with the advent of computer word processing packages, there is no excuse for poor writing. Way back in the hand-written, manual type-set days, editing was laborious. Prosaic prose was not only stylish, but expedient: in short, it took more time to edit a “brain dump” down to slick prose than it did to just type-set the brain dump. There were also far fewer people doing it, and they tended to take far more time with the process. Today, not only is self-editing fast and easy, a good chunk of the mechanical errors will be underlined for you by clever word processing packages.

The flip-side is that because the method is easier, there are a lot of people writing who haven’t bothered to master the craft. It is these people who waste everyone’s time and make hooking the readership more difficult for those who know what they’re doing. (I recall saying something about this in August of 2008: Good Marketing Equals Good Content)

So a resounding yes to Hatch’s points 1-4 (see sidebar).

Points 5 & 6 are also valid. SEM/SEO is not quite rocket science, but not for amateurs either. The underlying principals are simple: put content and links on web – Google likes. Doing this well is complicated, takes trial and error experience, and a brain that can analyze and act on the details. It also takes a clear vision of the goal. Generating top Google rankings and increasing traffic to a website is easy – getting quality traffic and conversions is hard.

The rest of his “takeaways” are quotes maligning the average American’s attention span. I think I can argue that if the topic is entertaining and informative, the average American can and will devote far more than 3 minutes (Web attention span average) or 20 minutes (general attention span) to your message. Here are a couple of unmassaged statistics to support my point:

1,052,803 titles published in 2009 (Bowker), selling $1.54 billion, with young adult the fastest growing segment. (Association of American Publishers).

Short attention span? Hardly.

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 784 pages – 11 million copies sold.
  • Twilight: 544 pages – 17 million copies old.

I will offer up this analogy:

“A marketer griping about the American public being too (stupid, inattentive, etc.) to read or understand their message is like a writer grousing that the agent/editor is too (stupid, unimaginative, etc.) to see the genius in their novel.”

You can quote me.

Seriously, though, if you want your message to be read, please see Hatch’s points 1-4. Write well, write in an entertaining manner, and keep your message clear.

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This entry was posted by on Thursday, June 24, 2010.
Filed under: Articles, For Writers, Marketing
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