I’ve been very fortunate to attract a lot of attention with the Squidoo lens I created on Pema Chodron. There are usually multiple reasons why a particular piece takes off (Pema’s tremendous wisdom and the power of her writing and speaking are obviously central), but I thought I’d examine one component that’s relevant to anyone trying to create awareness on the Web.
Short Attention Span Theater
Every successful Web experience today starts with a little piece of Short Attention Span Theater. While you’ve got a few folks (hi mom!) who make a point of visiting your site, most traffic comes from some form of referral. You might get a link from a popular blog, hits from social media sites like Digg or StumbleUpon, or you may be having a good Google day. Even RSS subscribers are being "referred" by the RSS reader technology.
Those referrals have two things in common: they don’t owe you anything, and they decide in an instant whether or not they’re going to take the time to read your post today. You have a period of anywhere from 1-3 seconds to make an impression. That’s all the time you’re given to grab attention and let people know why they want to keep reading.
I suspect that the Pema lens owes about 85% of its success to its first two sentences. Yes, the rest of the content follows up on the promise delivered by those two sentences, but without them, no one would look at the rest of the content.
(In case you’re trying to remember where the phrase comes from, the original Short Attention Span Theater was a Comedy Central show in the early 90s.)
What works about this intro?
She’s funny, she has kids and grandkids, she has an opinion about how Cher looks after all the plastic surgery. She’s not your parents’ Buddhist nun, in other words.
The first sentence describes a person who’s not too remarkable. A lot of people have kids and grandkids, most of us think we are funny, and having an opinion about Cher’s plastic surgery doesn’t stand out much. But none of these are what we expect from a Buddhist nun.
The photo reinforces the paradox. An ordinary-looking woman, someone you might see at the grocery store in Des Moines or Kalamazoo, wearing traditional Buddhist robes.
Questions immediately start to fire off in the reader’s mind. "Buddhist nuns can have kids? So, what, is she married? And if she’s thinking about Cher, does she watch television or read People, or how does that work?" Our expectations have been jolted. The world doesn’t work exactly the way we think it did. Our attention has been grabbed.
Most Web articles on Pema Chodron don’t get a lot of traffic, even though she is relatively well-known (in the small world of American Buddhists), because most of those pages are a little stodgy. They preach to the choir. They’re interesting to people who already know they’re interested.
But what’s interesting about Pema is precisely that she isn’t stodgy. And that she has a real ability to take something that seems esoteric (Buddhist teaching) and make it feel useful and ordinary.
To put it in crass marketing terms, I was marketing a remarkable product. All I did was write two unremarkable sentences that point to what’s remarkable about her.
The most natural thing in the world is to begin at the beginning. An introduction just begs us to set out all the background. If you write books, you can still do that (quickly). If you write for the Web, it’s a luxury you can’t afford.
One nice thing about the SquidWho pages is that they insert a Wikipedia module for you right after the introduction. That’s a good place for background. Either my interest has been engaged and I’ll settle in to learn a little more, or it hasn’t and I’ve moved on to the next site. I was fortunate that the Wikipedia article itself has a good strong intro, which draws readers further in and starts to flesh out the story.
I wish everything I created got the same attention, but so far, I’m afraid it doesn’t. But if you want a very different example of a Squidoo lens about a remarkable individual, have a look at my lens on El Rey. As I look at it, the intro just isn’t as strong, is it? I still like the lens. He’s no Pema Chodron, but he might make you laugh.