Why design matters in content marketing

This interview of Margery Stegman by Stephanie Tilton of Ten Ton Marketing for the Savvy B2B Marketing Blog followed their collaboration on an eBook for AG Salesworks. Here they discuss the important role that design plays in content marketing and how marketers can get involved in the design process.

Q. Why is design is such a critical element of the content that companies publish?
A. Design is critical for numerous reasons:

Not everyone reads the same way - some want to skim for the top message while others want to dive in deep. With design devices, you can facilitate that. In print, the headline establishes the top-level message. Subheads and call-outs point to secondary messages. And sidebars are used to highlight detail that complements the main body.

65% of people are visual learners. If you don't plan for this, you're not connecting with a significant portion of your audience. Verbal learners can take something away from copy, but visual learners can completely miss it. This is tied to the concept of understanding what content types/formats your audience prefers. Just as you might provide a downloadable transcript of a podcast or video for those who prefer to read, you need to address the preference for those who are hard-wired to digest information visually.

Design establishes or expands upon a company's visual identity within its marketplace. In any business sector, there are standouts. The companies that rise above certainly have great products or services, exemplary customer service and well-crafted messages. They also have recognizable visual identities. Typography can highlight a certain message, and an image can enhance or further convey the key message/value, whether on a site, in an eBook, or on a trade show booth.

Design can inspire your audience to take a desired action by calling attention to your offering. This is an example of how design works in concert with the copy. If we've done it right, we compel people by making the initial case via a compelling headline with supporting details that are easy to access and summed up with "here's what we want you do."

Q. How can design impact readability and "enjoyability"?

A. Carefully considered typography establishes different reading levels, leading to increased understanding of the information. From headlines down to captions, type treatment enables readers to scan, capturing the highest level of message down to the smallest detail depending on their interest. Moreover, type style impacts readability and can emotionally engage readers.

Similarly, images elicit emotion, reinforce key messages, and can actually help readers remember content. For example, if you want a lighthearted feel, you should use marry images to your headings to capture that. If you pick images that convey humor or a concept and they aren't cliché or trite, people will associate the images and words, which helps them retain the information. This is a mnemonic device. The combination of strong copy and images create a way to help brains better remember information. Just like peanut butter and jelly - you can enjoy them separately, but they're better together.

Design can also make the reading experience easier in this age of information overload. Creating a visual/information hierarchy using typography, image, and color can help overwhelmed readers more easily understand the relative importance of various pieces of information.

The quality and consistency of images can also make or break a piece of content. For your eBook, I spent many hours looking for photos that would connect with the content.

Q. At what point during the development of an eBook should marketers start thinking about design/talking to a designer?

A. Whether it's an eBook or other communications vehicle, it can be helpful to talk with a designer early in the process. Budget is one reason. An experienced designer can make recommendations on how to achieve communications goals depending on the available resources. If you don't plan for it in the beginning, you'll end up compromising.

Designers know what subtleties to look for. What are the communication and business goals, and how complex is the information that needs to be communicated? A designer can suggest unique approaches that will draw greater attention to the message and help achieve your goal.

What kind of images will best support this concept, and what layout will best help readers digest the information? It can take quite a while to determine how to best present that. Some people think designers just grab stock images. But we pick images that interrelate through composition, color, and concept - and that takes an enormous amount of time.

It can be fine for us to get involved in a project after the content is complete, as long as marketers are aware of the costs to create a document of a certain length. Otherwise, they may find their budget won't cover the cost to design and produce it.

At what point you engage a designer also impacts the schedule. Just as the client wants and needs to review copy and make changes until they're happy with it, the same is true for the design - marketers need to account for that part of the process.

Q. An eBook topic/theme can lend itself to many design options. How can marketers decide on the best design for their eBooks?
A. Know your audience well, and know your communications and business goals and what tone you want to set.

We provide a detailed questionnaire that helps clients address these key issues, along with requirements and preferences. For example, what value are you delivering? Are there visual/branding guidelines that need to be worked in? Do you - or your audience - have a preference for a color because it elicits an emotional response?

Q. What should marketers expect when working with a designer on an eBook? Please describe the process.

A. Regardless of the content we're developing, we start with an initial meeting to learn about goals, requirements, preferences, audiences, messages, time frame and budget. Next we develop a proposal detailing tasks, costs, and schedule. Then we jump into the design phase.

For an eBook, we typically show two initial design options. And we usually start with an inside spread because we've found it's the most effective way to present the concept, image style, and typographic treatment. Based on the client's feedback, we develop a revised spread.

Once the design direction is approved, we develop two or three covers. Since the cover creates the initial impression, it's advantageous from a creative and budgetary perspective to choose from several options. Here again, we create a revised cover based on the client's feedback.

Finally, there's the implementation - or production - process. We acquire images through stock sources or we create custom photos/illustrations. We do the layout with the final copy and images and present it to the client as a PDF for review. Once all revisions are incorporated, we do the final layout, where we add any URL links before creating the final PDF.

Though not many pieces are printed these days, if the client wants the eBook printed, we will prepare the files for the printer, write specifications, and get estimates and supervise the press run.

Q. What steps/considerations can streamline the design process?