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It takes a lot to grab an Internet user’s attention today. Half of all web page visits last for 10 seconds or less, and most visitors will read no more than 28 percent of the text on any given page.
It’s no wonder that marketers are keen on turning their products into “snackable” moments, ready for a web audience whose attention is split by an increasing number of content creators. Every content marketer is looking for a slice of the pie, no matter how small, in the hope that that small impression will translate into a moment, a click and eventually a conversion.
Micro-content is by nature promotional, meant to encourage an action or elicit an emotion from a consumer, but is not an outright advertisement. Rather, it serves as the reason to act, showing the audience with a few words, a picture or a video why investing their attention in more of your content is worth their time.
While micro-content now mainly refers to bites of content that can be shared over social media, companies have long been using small bits of their product to create memorable moments and impressions to hook consumers to keep them coming back. Let’s travel back in time and take a look at how brands have been using micro-content through the years.
Since the 17th Century
Collecting trade cards, early predecessors of trading cards and business cards, became a popular pastime in the U.S. in the 19th century, though early trade card examples date back as early as the 17th century:
Businesses distributed these cards as form of advertising, and often featured colorful illustrations, cartoons and sayings as a way to capture the attention of potential consumers. Businesses valued them as “a cheap and effective way to reach consumers,” who would often then keep the card, or distribute it to someone else.
As technology became more sophisticated, photographs became a feature of trade cards, and the advertising component became more subtle. Baseball players, whose sport was reaching popularity about the same time as photography, became a popular portrait subject. In 1886, the first baseball tobacco cards were printed and used as protective liners to packs of cigarettes.
Later, baseball cards began to make their way into more kid-friendly products like candy and gum as a way to cater to young consumers.
The Topps company, one of the most prolific sports cards producers, began as a tobacco distribution company, then became a chewing gum company that used jokes and card freebies in their products as a form of advertising. Eventually they turned to producing the cards full-time as the core of their business.
Gum wrappers and Bazooka Joe
While the Topps company primarily sold gum, it created the Bazooka Joe comic strip, a long-running comic that began in 1953 and was printed on individual gum wrappers that were included in every package of Bazooka bubble gum. The wrappers would also include special offers or other extras.
The comic strip was discontinued in 2012 after Bazooka reported flagging sales. In its place, Bazooka decided to use brain teasers and activities on the inside of their new gum wrappers as part of a comprehensive rebrand. With its sixty-year run, the marketing campaign can hardly be called unsuccessful.
Other businesses that implemented similar strategies in advertising include popsicle makers, who include jokes on the popsicle sticks; Cracker Jacks, which includes a variety of prizes in its packaging and cereal companies, which sometimes include children’s toys in the cereal boxes of those brands that are targeted towards kids.
Happy Meal toys
Since McDonald’s first introduced the Happy Meal in 1979, the Happy Meal toy has been a key part of the company’s strategy of marketing to children.
While encouraging kids to get their parents to take them to McDonald’s, most of the toys don’t feature the company’s characters or logos. Rather, they use brands and characters that are popular with kids at the moment, capitalizing off of the success of brands like Disney by providing a captive and powerful demographic.
Who, after all, can forget the McDonald’s Teenie Beanies tie-in with TY’s Beanie Babies? The 1996-2000 campaign, which sparked fights and long lines in franchise locations, sold the miniature plush dolls for $2 each along with the purchase of a Happy Meal, though many sold on the aftermarket for much higher prices (full disclosure: the author was one of these people).
When Twitter debuted in 2006, commentators wondered how anything meaningful could possibly be said in only 140 characters. Eight years later, the most common tweet length is only 28 characters, falling well below the limit. The instantaneous nature of Twitter allows brands and users to create and distribute micro-content in record time, allowing them to react to events in real time.
This famous tweet from Oreos during the blackout at the Super Bowl earned more than 22,000 interactions on Twitter; a result of quick thinking and good execution.
Power out? No problem. pic.twitter.com/dnQ7pOgC
— Oreo Cookie (@Oreo) February 4, 2013
First released in 2010, Instagram quickly became the domain of people’s vacation, baby, food and pet photos. Since then, the photo sharing site — now part of Facebook — has become one of the fastest growing online social networks.
While social interactions take center stage on platforms like Facebook, Instagram is content-first, emphasizing the photo over conversations and comments. This makes it a perfect medium to showcase single images and short videos.
However, unlike Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, Instagram doesn’t allow the audience to continue the sharing chain – no “share” or “re-Instagram this” option is available yet.
Visualizations – upping the social game
Small visualizations of data or illustrations of ideas can be used as micro-content by many industries. Online newspapers regularly use screenshots of their news apps and data stories to create a quick impression with followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
FiveThirtyEight, the data news site created by Nate Silver, formerly of the New York Times, creates small, fun and digestible pieces of content to promote their work. To better suit this micro-content for the casual social media audience, FiveThirtyEight likes to hand-draw many of their social graphics.
Financial institutions and businesses also share visualizations to explain key parts of their business or show key developments in their business. This graphic from Goldman Sachs shows the composition of capital markets in an interactive visual guide.
— Goldman Sachs (@GoldmanSachs) March 4, 2014
The increasingly diverse world of products and services that market themselves on the internet is forcing marketers to become smarter, faster and more inventive.
With the ever-shifting social media landscape, content marketers and analytics experts will be challenged to come up with new ways to reach audiences quickly and measure the effectiveness of these efforts.
However, by understanding the types of micro-content that have been used successfully in the past, it is easier to predict what may work in the future.
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Allison McCartney is an editor at the PBS NewsHour focused on education and informational graphics, and a freelance designer in the Visual.ly marketplace. She has a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, where she studied Middle Eastern history and art. You can follow her on Twitter @anmccartney.