Persuasion in digital contexts

Image: Prue Greene, Senior Curriculum Support Officer, K-12 English, Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre

Persuasion is certainly a hot ticket item in light of the announced National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) text type to be tested this year. While it may look as if I am on the persuasion band wagon, this article and the workshops that have driven it were conceived long before the text type was announced. Persuasion (in its various forms) and the way in which it is taught in schools could do with a serious extension to include the ways in which it works online. There is a considerable array of persuasive texts, processes and digital products available to teachers for use in the classroom once they are aware of how it all works in this context and have the language to deal with it.

The premise that underlies any study of persuasion in digital contexts is that we live in a participatory culture rather than a spectatorial one (Jenkins, 2005). In other words, students are no longer passive receivers of the information available online (Web 1.0), rather, they are participants in online culture and therefore participants in texts (Web 2.0). They are content producers. Each comment on Facebook, response to a video, sound track, article or upload of an image is content.

Advertisers and marketers have long understood this and very cleverly exploit the way in which young people and adults use the web and participate with social media sites and tools. They also understand that social media is about developing an online identity, a way of distinguishing yourself from others or a way to become just like everyone else in the tribe. A promotional website is just the start of the story. No website can be thought to be ‘of the moment’ without links to its social media and being embedded with associated YouTube videos. The story or product therefore continues across various platforms with the capacity for the consumer to interact and participate in different ways. Young people are very good at moving from one platform to another through transmedia stories. They expect to find stories morphing into multiple forms of media; movie, blog, Facebook page, website, game and YouTube for example.


What is important when considering these manifestations is that the purpose of websites, communication and social media applications becomes fluid and mixed. For example, you could say that purpose of social media is to connect people and to aid in communication.

However, if you consider the ability to embed a favourite YouTube video in your home page or wall and to include like links to particular products, the purpose of social media becomes mixed. Is it persuasion, entertainment, communication or identity creation and enhancement? It is all of these things, but the most seductive of all is the ability of users to personalise their experience and use of the site.

The dynamics of the web and the ability to personalise your interaction with it is one of the distinguishing features of Web 2.0. Consider the difference between the Google and iGoogle search engine pages. iGoogle encourages users to create their own search page by providing a wide selection of tools to display on the page which reflect the users own interests and needs. These widgets update automatically and can be swapped around at any time. Is this persuasive? Yes, it is. Any empowerment of user experience is persuasive. It fosters the illusion of control and individuality coupled with the ability to stay aware and informed.

Once a search item is typed into Google the persuasion game continues. Most commercial sites employ search engine optimising techniques to ensure that their site gets to the top of the list once you hit the enter key. Keywords, links and website design can all be manipulated to perform better in search engines. The importance of individual words and their placement is paramount in creating the most findable link. Surely this is a skill often overlooked in teaching students to write, if writing for the web is taught at all in schools. Of course, no matter what you search for, paid advertising links will appear on the right hand side of the screen. The order in which they appear relates closely to how much you are willing to pay for the privilege.

Involvement and connection

As in the print or moving image world, there are different kinds of websites and genres. Some mirror their old world counterparts and some are new types of hybrids. Corporate and eCommerce sites such as eBayare blatantly persuasive. More subtle are search engines, video and image sharing, social media, media and news sites. They increasingly consider their audience to be participants rather than passive consumers of their products, and organise their campaigns to reflect this change. The new questions advertisers and marketers ask are:

  • How will you involve people in your story or product?
  • How will you sustain this involvement?

For instance, if your product is a film, your story might start with a movie trailer posted on YouTube, a production/talent blog and/or a tie in with a book, and the production of an official site and social media campaign. These all continue with the release of the film and cross promote the book and the new game out in time for Christmas. Later the DVD will come out and pay TV or free-to-air release of the film will follow. The involvement begins with fan sites on social media and is kept regularly updated with enticing copy. The trailer elicits comments and hits. ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ trailer had over 19 million viewings in the months previous to release, well before the actual release of the film and allowed loyal fans to express their interest in the coming movie (Figure 1).

Image: Figure 1 A search for Harry Potter and the deathly hallows trailer has 14 900 000 hits and related search options are offered at the bottom of the search page

Facebook fan pages are very closely developed and maintained by advertisers and marketers. They rate fans as either casual, engaged or committed. It is their job to convert the casual to the committed through targeted and relevant postings. The companies get feedback from their fans about likes and dislikes, and reward them for their loyalty with give-aways and discounts. The Coca-Cola Facebook page (Figure 2) has an amazing 19,869,352 people registered as liking this product, which says much about product association and the development of identity.

Image: Figure 2 The Coca-Cola Facebook page

Entertainment and humour

It is safe to say the ‘holy grail’ for most advertisers and marketers is to have one of their products or videos ‘go viral’. This means that their video is so entertaining that it is viewed by millions of people, by choice, through a video hosting site. The knowledge of this video is spread by sending its link through social media as recommended viewing. An excellent example is the recent Old Spice campaign which had many more viewers than if it had just been broadcast on television. All of them chose to see the advertisement.

In response to viewers’ comments, the company made a further number of video responses by the character in the same style and humour as the original advertisement – yes, the web responds. There is no doubt that humour contributes greatly to getting a video to go viral but quirkiness and interactivity can also play a part.

YouTube videos are easily downloadable and therefore easily re-made, re-authored and mashed-up to produce a series of memes that parody the original production. These can be also excellent forms of persuasion as they generate extra viewings of the product.

Designing and writing to persuade on the web

It is extremely difficult to develop a hard and fast system to describe the features of a website. Website design changes so rapidly – most commercial sites are redesigned every four to five years. Currently, the trend is to provide multiple points of access so that consumers/participants can choose how they wish to engage with the content. The user drives the narrative of the site rather than the producer. Websites do have conventions such as navigation links that traverse the top, right or left hand side of the page and banners which can utilise Flash to reveal a range of images and words. Images, font choices and colour all produce a set of meanings and connotations related to the site’s purpose and corporate image.

More revealing is what the site can do or link to and how the content is arranged. The site must allow the user to access the content in a way that suits their needs – this can be pre-empted by arranging the content to reflect new trends. For example, a book seller might re-arrange and rebadge some navigation buttons so that users can go to the new big thing in

YA literature: vampire books. The site might also have a video player showing related videos (this reflects the cross media movement of story mentioned earlier) and links to social media. Of course, competitions incentivise the site and provide ways in which to gather email addresses and names. If you do not tick the box which stops the company contacting you through email, you can expect to be on their list for promotional emails.

Emails are the most direct form of persuasion because they come to your very own virtual letterbox – exactly where you live, sort of. There is a very interesting gap in the levels of sophistication of emails that attempt to persuade. If you have been lucky enough to have been left several million dollars in Nigeria or been contacted by a needy widow who has money to deposit in your account you will probably know the features of a not very persuasive email. I find these so interesting because they give us wonderful examples of poor spelling, inappropriate tone and register, unusual use of grammar and punctuation.

It is a profound moment when you explain to students that good grammar, spelling and punctuation are persuasive. The other indicator of their obvious purpose is that these kinds of emails are in plain text. They do not have colour, logos or images which makes it easier to get through fairly rigorous spam filters. They also lack any sign of authority, reveal far too much information about themselves and rely on extreme amounts of emotive language to entice the reader to respond.

Effective persuasive emails have succinct subject lines, they do not exaggerate their company’s claims, they are well written, they use colour and images and logos which enhance their authenticity, even if you do not buy steel garden sheds and have never wanted to.

Even though reading longer texts on computers and tablet devices has become more common, it is still true that consumers/participants are usually on a mission and want short well written web content that is actionable. Studies show that only small amounts (the first two to three words) of headings on web pages are ever read. Therefore it is important that information bearing words and sentence fragments are pulled to the front of sentences – users do not need well-crafted sentences when they are searching for content.

Each and every website requires users to take action, to click on something, to participate in their own version of what the site has to offer. Naturally, the data about what parts of the site the consumer clicks on is fed back through analytical software to the site’s owner and shapes the way in which future design is crafted.

Using digital persuasion in the classroom

In responding to the persuasive features of online texts the nature of what is persuasive must take into account the very nature of the internet and digital communications itself.

This has to expand the metalanguage and discourse currently available for students to use. Language techniques (call to action, emotive language, etcetera) and visual features (colour, symbolism, etcetera) are not enough. It is these features’ placement on the page, their searchability, their actions and how they link to other content and social media that really keep users engaged with the site. The key questions must be asked:

  • How does this site involve people?
  • How does the site sustain this involvement?

The same questions can also be posed in the creation of persuasive texts.

For instance, if students compose persuasive speeches, letters or even posters, the text’s life in digital contexts and the involvement of people is what really makes it truly persuasive in contemporary contexts. The poster can be uploaded to Voicethread, the letter to a blog and the speech recorded for uploading.

Students are content producers and content must have a life that traverses platforms and even forms. The key questions should be:

  • How can I involve people in my text?
  • How can I sustain this involvement?

This is the way of the digital world.

References and further reading

Voicethread, Voice Thread LLC, accessed 14 January 2018.

Writing, National Assessment Program (NAP), ACARA, accessed 14 January 2018.

Keywords: social media; manipulation; advertising; writing

How to cite this article: Greene, P. 2011, ‘Persuasion in digital contexts’, Scan (30)1

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