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The Art and Science of Influential Web Content: What Rhetoric Really Is

In this excerpt from her book, Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content, Colleen Jones distills many of the useful ideas from the debate on the theory and scope of rhetoric into four principles for web content and offers advice on when to use what principles.
This chapter is from the book

The ancient Greeks knew more than how to wear a toga. They introduced principles of rhetoric, such as persuasive appeals, identification, repetition, and seizing the opportune moment. These principles will help your web content influence results.

...persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.

—William Bernbach, advertising mogul

Despite its practical value, rhetoric is a lost art. We don’t get to learn it in school, especially in the United States. Even worse, rhetoric is sometimes mistaken for a dark art. Politicians abuse it by making empty promises. Let’s move forward by looking back at what the ancient Greeks (and other smart rhetoricians) actually had in mind.

What Rhetoric Really Is

The philosopher Aristotle defined rhetoric as figuring out the best way to persuade in a situation.1 Today, Andrea Lunsford, a respected professor at Stanford University, defines rhetoric as “the art, practice, and study of human communication.”2

Over thousands of years, smart scholars and practitioners have debated the theory and scope of rhetoric.3 I’ve distilled many of the useful ideas from that debate into four principles for web content.

1. The Tried-and-True Appeals

What’s the number one principle of rhetoric? Aristotle would say it’s not one but three—the persuasive appeals. He introduced them in Rhetoric as ethos (credibility), logos (logic), and pathos (emotion). This trio has shaped notions of persuasion ever since.

Aristotle insisted on always combining these appeals. In that spirit, I include them together in this first (and longest) principle of rhetoric.

A. Credibility

It’s why people should trust and listen to you or your organization. Typical points of credibility include

  • Experience: You have a lot of it, or your experience is specialized.
  • Success: You’ve achieved something important or are having success now.
  • Reputation: People in the community know you as having a certain characteristic, expertise, or offering.
  • Endorsement/Association: A credible brand or person says you are credible or connects with you in a credible way.
  • Certification: You have earned a certain security or achievement level.
  • Longevity: You’ve been around for a while.
  • Similarity: You have a lot in common with the users. (I’ll discuss this more in principle 2, Irresistible Identification.)

Use Credibility at the Right Time

The less people know about you, the more you need to prove your credibility. When you’re established, sometimes you need to prove that your credibility is still relevant. The trick is to convey your credibility without making people yawn.

Apply Credibility to Content

Much has changed since ancient Greek times. We communicate largely through digital content. So, let’s look at how that content can show your credibility.

Quality Content Over Time

You’ll build a reputation as a trusted resource if you publish consistently good content over time. It’s like being the person who always says something useful. What’s even better? Becoming known for a particular approach to content. Mashable, for example, built its name in the interactive design community for offering handy lists (Figure 4.1).

Figure 4.1: Mashable built credibility on its signature list content.

Reviews, Awards, and Other Kudos

Focus on useful praise from sources your users know and value. For instance, the household products retailer earned features from trusted media such as Good Housekeeping and CNN (Figure 4.2).

Figure 4.2: Pertinent awards and quotes greet customers at Alice.


Pick quotes from people your users respect and can relate to. Alice rotates quotes from actual customers that describe how the service helped them save time, money, and stress (Figure 4.2).

Partner or Advertising Affiliations

If your website has advertising, your advertisers reflect on your credibility. The design trade journal A List Apart, for example, includes only select advertisers who are respected in the design community (Figure 4.3).

Figure 4.3: A List Apart features quality advertisers such as Parsons: The New School for Design.

If you’re not a media property, business partnerships or alliances serve a similar purpose.

Expert Contributions

If a respected expert contributes content to your website, you gain credibility. In turn, if you’re invited to be the expert contributor, you gain credibility. American Express Open Forum, a knowledge center for small businesses, offers content from experts at Mashable and Small Business Trends (Figure 4.4).

Figure 4.4: American Express Open Forum includes content from outside experts.

Curated Content from Credible Sources

Curating content is showcasing good content in a unique way. When you curate content from credible sources, you enhance your own credibility. The Brain Traffic Twitter feed, for example, highlights work by content strategists around the world and commentary from industry publications (Figure 4.5).

Figure 4.5: Brain Traffic’s Twitter feed curates content in and around content strategy.


When you ground your facts with references, you not only ensure you’re telling the truth but also align with credible sources (Figure 4.6).

Figure 4.6: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites sources for its facts and guidelines.

Brand, Organization, or Product History

Sometimes, your organization or product has a rich and relevant history. The original Mini Cooper, for example, was designed to offer less expensive and more efficient transportation in the 1960s. Mini Cooper’s website makes that story pertinent to today’s environmental concerns (Figure 4.7).

Figure 4.7: Mini Cooper offers an appropriate brand history.

Security and Privacy Cues

When you ask people to share personal information, you need to show that your website is safe. shows security logos and a brief explanation of privacy on its registration form (Figure 4.8).

Figure 4.8: Grasshopper shows its safety certifications.

B. Logic

It’s whether your argument or reasoning is formed well (also known as being valid). At a minimum, good reasoning comprises these key elements:4

  • Claim: It’s what you assert to be true, such as a value proposition.
  • Evidence: It’s what supports your claim, such as facts, statistics, and testimonials.
  • Warrant: It’s why you can make the claim based on the evidence. Sometimes, the warrant is implied because it is an assumption (or set of assumptions).

Your argument generally is good if

  • Your claim likely is true when your evidence is true.
  • Users can understand the warrant quickly.

As a simple example, REI claims it is the first U.S.-based travel company to become 100 percent carbon neutral. The evidence is REI’s policy of buying credits to support renewable energy (such as solar and wind). The warrant is that the renewable energy work neutralizes carbon emissions, so buying those credits compensates for REI’s emissions.

Make Sense to Your Users

Even if you form solid logic, users make or break it. Users must accept your evidence as good evidence. For example, REI emphasizes that it buys energy credits from the respected Bonneville Environmental Foundation. Users also must share enough in common with you to understand the assumptions. In the case of REI, REI customers tend to care about the environment, and people who care about the environment likely are familiar with carbon credits.

Often, the more you ask of people’s time or money, the more evidence you’ll need to offer. Many people spend more time researching to buy a car than they do to buy driving gloves, for instance. That’s why offers not only car advertisements but a wealth of content to research features, performance, expert opinion, and more.

Apply Logic to Content

While most web content involves at least some reasoning, certain content types lend themselves more to articulating an argument:

  • Blog post
  • Media article/editorial
  • Expert review
  • Product or service description
  • White paper/fact sheet/report
  • Interview

In addition, certain content types make good evidence to support an argument:

  • Charts, graphs, and data visualizations
  • Testimonials and case studies

For example, offers reasoning why it is secure both in its copy and in a video interview with the CEO (Figure 4.9).

Figure 4.9: Mint makes the case that it is secure.

For a useful look at the nuances of forming arguments, I recommend Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning by David Zarefsky and Everything’s an Argument by Andrea Lunsford and John J. Ruszkiewicz.

C. Emotion

It’s how you tap into people’s emotions to hold their interest, gain their sympathies, or motivate them to act. Appealing to emotion involves these related elements:

  • Tone: The mood conveyed through your words, images, and other content.
  • Style: Vivid word choice or imagery that’s charged with emotion.

Let’s look at a simple yet clever example from Grasshopper. Instead of a typical name, Grasshopper calls one of its voicemail plans “grow” (Figure 4.10). What entrepreneur doesn’t aspire to grow?

Figure 4.10: Grasshopper taps into emotion with the plan name “grow.”

Handle Feeling with Care

Who determines whether emotion works? Your users. Injecting emotion into your web content is like igniting a fire. You can shine brilliantly—or burn badly. If you consider your users’ cultural values and beliefs, you’re more likely to shine.

In my experience with international brands, different countries and regions respond differently to emotion. Some cultures prefer subtle appeals, while others respond to bold appeals. I’ve shown a range in Table 4.1.

Table 4.1: Sample of Cultural Considerations


Preferred Style


Canada and Western Europe


We neutralize our carbon emissions.

United States


Our travel is 100% carbon neutral.

Middle East

Very bold

We’re the first and best 100% carbon neutral travel company.

Apply Emotion to Content

Content offers many opportunities to charm your users’ emotions.


It’s the personality or feel of your content. Two very different examples are Bliss and Bliss is sassy, while HowStuffWorks is dissecting (Figure 4.11).

Figure 4.11: Bliss has a sassy voice, while HowStuffWorks has an analytical voice.

Sensory Detail

When you portray how things look, sound, smell, taste, or feel, you trigger people’s gut reactions. Lindt, for instance, describes how wonderfully chocolate engages all five senses, tempting a chocoholic like me (Figure 4.12).

Figure 4.12: Lindt uses sensory detail to evoke emotion.

Associations with Words and Images

Beyond their literal meanings, words and images stir up feelings (also called connotations). “Grow” in the previous Grasshopper example meant not only a larger voicemail plan but also the ambition to thrive. Refer to Figure 4.10.

2. Irresistible Identification

Identification is overcoming our differences to find common ground. It’s the key principle to help you attract the right people. Rhetorician Kenneth Burke defined identification as “any of the wide variety of means by which an author may establish a shared sense of values, attitudes, and interests with his [or her] readers [users].”6 When users identify with you, they’re more likely to be drawn to you.

Identify on the Right Level

We connect with people who are like us on different levels.


People relate superficially to people who share the same demographics. We can identify quickly with people who appear to be just like us. For example, the Alice home page features a thirty-something woman—a key demographic for household goods (Figure 4.13).

Figure 4.13: The photo of a woman represents an important demographic for Alice.


People connect more intensely to other people in a similar role or with like values, interests, and beliefs. Relating to people deeply can transcend shallow differences. In his historic campaign to become the first African American president of the United States, Barack Obama stressed change (Figure 4.14). That value came to life in the slogan “change we can believe in” and web content such as interviews, videos, photos, tweets, and other web content that showed Obama’s personality and way of thinking as a change.

Figure 4.14: Content on the Obama campaign website appealed to people’s values.

Not Everyone Will Identify with You—and That’s OK

It’s hard to watch people turn away from your company or cause. Even the successful Obama campaign didn’t attract everyone. When you try to reach everyone, you risk reaching no one. As content marketing expert Joe Pulizzi says, “Your brand has to stand for something. If everyone loves you, you might be doing something wrong.”7 As long as you’re attracting the people you want to attract—whether qualified leads or enthusiastic supporters—you can rest easy if someone turns away.

Apply Identification to Content

To attract people who identify with you or your organization, web content can help.


It’s representing your organization with a person or character (or two or three) who relates well to your users. For example, HowStuffWorks offers a collection of podcasts hosted by relevant personalities. The most popular is Stuff You Should Know. On this podcast, the self-proclaimed geeks Josh and Chuck banter about, well, stuff they think other geeks should know (Figure 4.15).

Figure 4.15: Josh and Chuck represent geekdom for HowStuffWorks.

Another example is @sharpiesusan, a persona who embodies Sharpie on Twitter. (For more about how Sharpie’s use of personas evolved, see the sidebar Sharpie’s Shift from Celebrities to Personas and Users.)

User-Generated Content

Similar to personas, your users can represent you well. How? Through comments and content they contribute to your social networking space. The right potential customers will identify with your current customers. The trick is to facilitate the discussion so it stays true to your brand and your users. FootSmart, for example, carefully cultivates community on its active Facebook page (Figure 4.16).

Figure 4.16: FootSmart actively facilitates discussion on its Facebook page.

Cause Content

Another approach is creating content around a cause. Research from the public relations firm Edelman has found that supporting a cause could even inspire users to switch brands.8 Select a cause that fits your brand values and your users’ values. For example, REI devotes much content to environmental concerns (Figure 4.17).

Figure 4.17: The environment is a cause close to the hearts of many REI users and relates to REI’s brand as an outdoor outfitter.

Story Content

Still another approach to identification is telling a story, or narrative. A story allows you to bring values to life in a memorable—even entertaining—way.9 Because a story often involves credibility, logic, and emotion, too, it makes a strong influential impact. You can find a story in almost anything, but I find two types work well for practical purposes.

Brand/Organization Story

If you’re a startup, tell the tale of solving a tough problem or making a big change to help people. Grasshopper, for example, offers the concise but compelling story of its founding (Figure 4.18). If you’re more established, explore your history (see Credibility) or the story of an innovation or accomplishment.

Figure 4.18: Grasshopper tells the tale of its entrepreneurial roots.

Client/Customer Case Study

Case studies recount how you help your users. One approach is dramatization. For example, BooneOakley, an advertising agency in North Carolina, humorously explains why it’s different (Figure 4.19). The agency shares the story of Billy, a typical marketing director who goes to the typical advertising agencies in New York and gets typical work—only to be fired, then untypically killed.

Figure 4.19: BooneOakley, located in North Carolina, dramatizes why it’s different through the story of a marketing director.

A different approach is to present actual customer stories. A series of iPhone videos, for instance, showcases real users explaining how the iPhone saved the day. In one, a pilot recalls how he looked up the weather on the iPhone to help his flight avoid a three-hour delay (Figure 4.20).

Figure 4.20: A pilot explains how the iPhone helped him.

Although Burke defined identification in the 1950s, I wonder whether he had a crystal ball that let him glimpse the 21st century. He felt identification could happen within a short paragraph, a long series of communications over time, and everything in between. So, now, let’s turn to two principles of timing.

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