Media Shower writer Frederick Reese is an award-winning journalist who specializes in big data, finance, food, and health. You can follow him on Twitter.

The inventor and statesman Benjamin Franklin once said, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” This advice has never been more relevant than it is today. With the Washington Post projecting that one in every three Americans – as of 2015 – has written a blog on Facebook or elsewhere, the everyday Internet user will find no end of content to wade through online. For a content producer, he or she has eight seconds – the average attention span of a person browsing online – to make a connection and convince the user to read on.

That’s – on average – 40 words. If your goal is to create meaningful content that convinces readers to finish consuming your posts and to act on your calls to action, you only have 40 words to make your case. This is a difficult proposition – convincing someone to pay attention to just one leaf in the forest – and there are different philosophies on how to keep readers engaged. One philosophy that has been proven to work consists of a simple three-step checklist.

Step One: Start Strong

A reader’s first impressions of an article is set with the first sentence. Opening sentences such as “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins,” “All this happened, more or less,” and “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish” all effectively set the tone of what’s to follow. More importantly, it makes the reader want to read more.

The first sentence is an open invitation to the reader. Regardless of it being a quote, a statistic or an amusing anecdote, the best openers tease the reader and pique his/her interest without being condescending or insulting. They ask a rhetorical question or set up a hypothetical situation that the rest of the article promises to answer. The best way to think about an opening sentence is to imagine it as an attractive woman’s smile from across the bar; if it is done right, it should be all the enticement needed to get someone to come over to her.

pretty woman

Like an attractive woman’s smile from across the way, a good opening sentence should be all the enticement needed to draw attention.

As the first sentence is essential to the way an article is read, typically it is the last thing to be written. It is important to take the time to ensure that what you intend is actually inferred from the first word.

Step Two: Make the Article Worth the Reader’s Time

How many times has this happened to you: you stumble upon an interesting post, only to say “What?” after reading it? One of the worst feelings in the world is to feel that you have wasted your time; it makes you feel resentful and powerless. Reading a bad blog post would likely change your opinion on the blog itself, the post’s author and/or the product or service the post may have been promoting.

While figuring out what a perfect article looks like is something best left for the philosophers and the web forums, most readers can instantly recognize a bad post. Among the qualities that points to a bad post is:
• a failure to answer the question its lede or headline has set out for the article,
• a poor structure that is difficult to follow,
• writing that is needlessly complicated or does not take into consideration who the reader is, and
• excessive keyword-stuffing

The worst sin, however, when it comes to article writing, is making the post boring. If it reads like a manual, the reader will treat it like a manual–quickly skimming over it once for anything important and then quickly forgetting where he or she last left it. It is important to know that a blog post is a product that the reader is buying with his/her time; just like any other product, the reader is expecting quality and exceptional value when making a purchase.

instruction manual

You should make every effort to keep your content from reading like one of these.

Step Three: End Well

A common mistake many blog post writers commit is making the call to action the most prominent part of the article. To the reader, that’s the same as saying the point of going to a restaurant is to pay the check at the end of the meal. The call to action must be a part of the experience, the natural continuation or conclusion to the discussion the post was having with the reader.

A well-written post would be able to convey its purpose – to get the reader to act on the call to action – in a way that is neither obvious nor inorganic. It would not only give the reader valuable, actionable information, but would also create a buzz among its readers. The best posts tend to go viral not because of the strength of their calls to action, but because their content value is so high that many people want to share it.

restaurant bill

Just as no restaurant would announce that the point of their service is to get you to pay, you shouldn’t announce that the point of your article is your call to action.

This is but one philosophy toward creating strong content. Understanding what works and what doesn’t is the first step in creating a viable strategy for content marketing – and giving value to your readers. The difference between an overlooked post and a bookmarked article can sometimes be what you choose to say with the first 40 words… or the last few.

You can check out some other success stories of how various pieces went viral.