12 Ways to Begin Long-Form Content
You’ve got a brilliant idea. And it’s a detailed idea—it’s the kind of idea that merits a long-form blog post, not just a tweet or two. You dash to the keyboard and put together an outline. This only makes you more excited about writing your post. You’ve got an original idea, a relevant subject, and an organized structure. You are guaranteed to win at the Internet as soon as this content gets published.
But first you have to actually write the opening sentence. And the more you love your idea, the harder this is—and if you can’t hook your readers with the opening, they’re unlikely to read the rest of your brilliant idea. How do you craft an interesting beginning to your long-form content that will not only guarantee people read it, but also comment on it, share it, and drive it up to the lofty heights of Google’s ranking system?
Sad to say, there is no opening sentence that guarantees these results. However, there are proven strategies to write compelling openings for long-form content. Here are my 12 favorite ways to begin a content post, including classic strategies, less conventional openings, and hated practices that actually work.
1. Classic Opening Strategies
- Ask a Leading Question
What is the biggest obstacle that digital marketing campaigns face today?
The advantage of leading with a question is that it makes your post curious and conversational. Even though the reader cannot answer you outside the comments section, he will ponder possible answers to your question and then keep reading it to see if he answered correctly (or at least, in a way that agrees with you).
- Use a Quotation from Those Who Know Such Things
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
–Arthur C. Clarke
This proven opening strategy works because you get to begin with the words of an expert. In addition to borrowing language by a reputed author, this technique also implies that those words support whatever you’re about to argue. The main downside is that you have to find a compelling and relevant quote from someone that the reader would recognize and respect.
- Start with a Provocative, Short Statement
Everyone hates ads.
The information age is finished.
Provocative statements have the potential to grab the reader’s attention by disrupting her expectations. She thought he was reading a nice, polite blog post and then BOOM—she finds a fundamental assumption questioned. Because surprise is key to making these work, it’s crucial these statements are short enough that the reader doesn’t see the disruption coming. You also need to actually prove whatever unexpected statement you make in the post itself.
- Lead with Statistics or Numbers
70% of people immediately close blog posts that don’t begin with numerical facts.
This is arguably the most boring of the classic strategies, but leading with an interesting statistic immediately gives your post a foundation of analytic rigor. Statistics imply you’ve done your research, making the rest of the post more trustworthy. Of course, now you have to find a relevant stat from a reputable source to back up your argument. If this takes a long time, you might wish you’d tried another strategy.
2. Less Conventional Openings
- Let Me Tell You a Story…
Two minutes into a presentation on gameification in marketing, the speaker used earning extra airline peanuts as an example of gaming rewards. “My God,” I thought, “he literally said customers are working for peanuts.”
Everyone loves a good story well-told, and this strategy can get the reader leaning forward to find out what happens next. Once you have the reader’s attention, use an elegant transition to tie your story to the core subject of your content post. When the end of the story interweaves with your main point, your reader is hooked.
- Offer a Seemingly Unrelated Comparison that Is Actually a Metaphor
Despite some differences, premium face cream and hyperlocal digital advertising have a lot in common. For example, both use targeting on areas in need of an uplift.
The key here is subverting the reader’s expectations by presenting insightful information in a new way. Challenge the reader’s thinking with an inventive or funny comparison, and you can pique his interest to read the rest of your post.
- Begin at the Ending
Not only did a major cruise line increase brand awareness by 28%, but it also booked more than 500 new passengers last quarter. How did this happen?
Her mouse hovered over the Confirm Purchase button. We were about to find out if we’d reached the right customer at the right time, or the right one a little too late.
Instead of building suspense like a typical post, skip to the most important part of the story. Beginning with the end is a nice way of telling a results-oriented reader that getting through this story will be worth it. Start at the climax, and you throw your reader right into the crux of the post, and entice her to find out how she got there.
- Unexpected Humor
“In the beginning the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” –Douglas Adams
While this isn’t the easiest approach, beginning with a surprise joke is a great way to approach a topic in a more lateral, creative way. Using unexpected humor suggests to the reader that what you wrote isn’t the same old tired discussion of a familiar topic, and he’ll be more likely to read the entire post.
3. Hated Practices that Actually Work
- Make a General Statement about Life
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…
As much as your high school English teacher taught you not to begin with general statements to reach a universal reader, Thomas Jefferson used this approach in the Declaration of Independence. The lesson from this is that general statements CAN work, but they need to be gorgeously written and avoid cliché.
- Beat Up the Straw Man
After 45 minutes on hold with the cable company, I realized definitively that customer service meant nothing to them. Here are eight ways customers know a company doesn’t value them.
Beating up a straw man is not a sophisticated way to win over a reader, but if you choose a universally scorned evil like cable companies, telemarketers, or the NSA, the reader will often so identify with your criticism that blinding hate will overshadow the reader’s reason. Before he sees through your ploy, he’s already reading your post. Sneaky, but effective.
- Refer to a Recent Popular Post Written by Someone More Important.
As Nate Silver pointed out in the latest fivethirtyeight post…
Consider this the less-elegant version of beginning a post with a quote from someone famous. Here you ride the buzz of a public figure’s recent statements or arguments to introduce your own thoughts on the subject. It’s crucial that the statements you’re referring to are widely known and familiar to your audience.
- Jump Right In (Because Artistry Is for Sissies and Nonprofits).Shoppers are buying something this summer, and the right digital solution can make sure you’re the one selling it to them. Here’s how it works.
Let’s face it—sometimes your reader wants you to get to the point as fast as possible. This is when a direct opening is your best move. It also gives you more space in the post to discuss the subject at hand, since you’re not spending more than a sentence opening the post.
A Clever Opening Is Just the Beginning
So how do you choose the opening strategy that’s right for you? Know your subject matter cold. The better you’ve outlined your idea, the easier it will be to tailor one of these opening strategies to fit your post. More importantly, remember that your brilliant blog post is only one part of a larger content strategy.
How will you boost your brand exposure and help your company lead the online conversation? What technology and best practices will you use to target the right content at the right audiences? We’d love to hear your answers to these questions in the comments section below—and if you need help, we’re ready to partner with you toward a smarter content strategy.