One of the most common challenges for any publisher is the need to create content at a consistent clip without sacrificing quality. Consistency is probably the most important habit that a publisher needs to learn to build – it’s what creates audience loyalty, increases readership and ultimately drives business outcomes.
The most important factor in generating content is to know what to write about – and why. Explainers can provide a particularly effective tool to distill information because they don’t require a news hook, which makes them somewhat simpler to pull off. They can be planned ahead of time and satisfy audiences’ need to be well-informed and educated.
Content broadly can fall into two camps: Content that is relevant at a specific time because it is related to something that is time-sensitive, or content that isn’t. That second group – evergreen content – can, when executed correctly, pay dividends for brand publishers because it theoretically can be a regular source of traffic for a long time after it’s published.
The problem is that brand publishers often mistake creating evergreen content with simply throwing a bunch of relevant keywords in one place in the hopes that people will stumble on it regularly. But as the tide turns towards more useful content on the Web, evergreen content should take more cues from quality journalism, versus content marketing.
One popular evergreen format is the explainer.
What is an explainer?
An explainer is any content designed to act as a guide to a specific topic. Explainers range widely in format, length, medium and topic areas, but all of them have one thing in common: They are designed to help an audience learn about something and if done right, go away feeling satisfied that they have.
Explainers have to be written with authority – the goal is to create a 360-degree view of a certain topic. That means that they are ideally about a topic that the brand has permission to speak about, and that the audience it is trying to reach also wants to know about.
The most successful explainers rely on a variety of reporting and sources to create the fullest view of a topic. That means that writers should seek to report out explainers – speak to experts, either within the company or external experts – wherever possible, and then augment original reporting with supporting data, research or other information.
Note: Like any other piece of content, explainers and their sub-formats can be disseminated through a variety of distribution methods. Depending on the brand, its audience’s needs, and resources, explainers in various formats can be fitted into one or multiple distribution methods, including text-only, video, audio or even live events.
Choosing topics for explainers
When deciding whether an explainer is necessary, brand publishing teams should take into consideration factors unique to their own operations, such as the audience they are targeting and whether this audience could benefit from an explainer. At a minimum, the topic should have some nuance that it needs an explainer – failing that, an explainer can feel like a misguided choice of format.
While ultimately it depends on the target audience, there are a few types of topics that lend themselves to explainers.
A noted trend can be ideal fodder for an explainer. Trend stories generally focus on the what and seek to report out that something notable is happening. Explainers can be extremely valuable as a way to explain why something is happening. For example, a company that makes wearable technology may want to create an explainer around why more people are interested in tracking health data.
New and notable technological developments are tailormade for explainers. Depending on the sector in question and what audiences may need, brand publishers can leverage significant internal and external expertise to delve deep into new technical terms and technologies. And because technical terms are often looked up via search engines, they can make for long-lasting and successful explainers.
Explainers can also be helpful to shed light on processes and procedures that audiences need to know about. A dental brand may explain the process of manufacturing their products, while a sports team may explain the process by which they choose rookie players. Explainers about processes can help audiences understand the “behind-the-scenes” of specific actions.
Whether it’s a new law that affects the brand and the sector it works in, or some type of regulatory action, audiences often could use authoritative context on what it means for them. Explainers can be extremely handy as a way to put those changes into perspective.
There are many ways to execute explainers. While it depends on the topic at hand, there are some common sub-formats brand publishers can consider.
X number of things you need to know about subject Y.
This is a popular – and perhaps overused – explainer approach, but it remains an effective one. Formatting explainers in a “list” can make it easy to digest. The reader knows what to expect going in and, if the explainer is executed well, can come away from a relatively short piece of content with significant value.
Question and answer
Q&As are effective formats for a multitude of different purposes. But a Q&A can also stand-in for an explainer. The key is for writers or reporters to find a subject matter expert who is an authority on the topic at hand. For example, a Q&A can be a way to explain a new regularity action if it’s with someone who understands the regulation and its impact on the audience.
Alternatively, another way to do a Q&A is to interview multiple experts, then for the writer to paraphrase answers or quote directly to provide a more well-rounded way to explain a specific topic.
Process or timeline
Some explainers seek to break down subjects more linearly by taking the reader through a series of steps or events in chronological order. For example: an explainer for a manufacturing process might break it down into 10 or 15 individual stages, while an explainer for an important historical or political event might document contributing events or factors that preceded or caused it.
Numbers and data
There can be instances where the best way to explain something is through numbers, charts or data. These formats are typically only effective if there’s legitimate reason to organize an explainer around data, and if the data points tell a compelling story by themselves. In practice, those instances are relatively few and far between. Relatedly, infographics, diagrams and other visual explainers can often be gimmicky, but in certain instances, they can add huge value when used to augment and complement a well-written, text-based explainer.