40 Ways to Engage: Research Shows “Experience” Can Guide Content
We’ve all heard that good content is supposed to be engaging. And now there are plenty of tools to measure engagement.
But that leaves a big gap: What kind of content is engaging, and how do we create content that engages our audience?
Content marketers that focus on platforms and metrics can lose sight of these questions. And the answers you read about don’t tend to be very useful. Good content is supposed to be credible, authentic, relevant, compelling, “high-quality” (I’m guilty of using that last one), and so on. Most of these terms are just different plays on the word “useful.” But what is useful?
It’s easy to equate “useful” with “utilitarian.” Useful content solves the “pain points” of our customers. That’s what our product does, of course—but content marketing isn’t a hard sell, so our goal becomes solving pain points that relate vaguely to your content. Selling a Swiffer? Roll out the housekeeping tips!
Fair enough. But the fact is there are many ways our content can be valued by our audience. Researchers at Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School have done us a huge service by spelling these out in their book, Medill on Media Engagement.
A Northwestern team spent several years interviewing and surveying thousands of media consumers to study how they connect with content. They grouped clusters of subjective statements (for example, “it’s an escape” or “it’s my reward for doing other things”) into what they called “experiences” (in this case, “timeout”). Here are just a few of the 40 experiences they discovered:
Positive engagement: Anchor camaraderie, civic, community connection, co-producing, entertainment and diversion, feel good, identity, inspiration, makes me smarter, talk about and share, timeout, trust and credibility, utilitarian
Disengagement: Cynicism, lack of local focus, negativity, overload, sameness, shallowness
In this article the researchers describe the full roster of experiences. The project also found some great examples of media outlets that repositioned themselves based on the experience they were trying to create:
The Food Network tripled its viewership during the recession by listening to its audience, which was less interested in haute cuisine than on cheap-and-easy meals explained by accessible hosts.
Popular Science readers told editors they didn’t just see it as an educational tool —they also saw it as a leisure activity (i.e. a “timeout experience”). In response, the editors reduced jargon, added infographics and produced more short pieces that could be easily read during a moment of downtime.
When the Minneapolis Star Tribune turned around its front page to deemphasize traditional new judgment in favor of experiences--“talk about and share,” “civic” and “entertainment and diversion”—favorable impressions soared among young readers.
The Medill project focused on consumer media, but there’s no reason why its lessons can’t apply to custom content, Medill professor Edward Malthouse told me in an interview. After all, most consumers won’t care if it’s branded content or traditional media that is providing them with a given experience. He mentions Home Depot, which sells “inspiration” with content revolving around its slogan: “You can do it. We can help.”
I first heard about the Medill research during a meeting of the Custom Content Council, and it really connected with me. As a former newspaper guy, I sometimes worried that content marketers were acting with one hand behind our back: How can we connect with our audience as well as consumer media, when they could focus on the audience while we focused on projecting the brand? But the Medill research reminded me that branded content—even though it is “biased” for the brand—could go well beyond thinly-veiled marketing messages. It could make us laugh, inspire us, help us improve our lives, build a community and more. (Conversely, consumer media has been known to lose sight of its audience.)
The main value of the “experience filter” for custom content creators is its ability to separate half-hearted efforts from the real thing. Writing, design, production, delivery—your choices in all these areas should be guided by the experience you want to provide for your audience. Get any of it wrong, and the experience suffers:
Your magazine may have glossy pages and great design, but unless the copy is equally engaging, then it’s not a “timeout.”
Just because your game looks like a game (and has lots of brand mentions during gameplay) doesn’t make it “entertaining.”
Just because your copy describes a lot of “steps” doesn’t make it “utilitarian.”
You may have a laundry list of social media sharing buttons on your content, but that doesn’t make it any more “talk about and share”-worthy.
Audiences don’t care about specifications, platforms, or brand guidelines—they care about experience. So how do you find the experiences that engage your target audience (and fit your brand)? And how do you and create content that fits those experience? Stay tuned for my next post….
Richard Sine writes about business, personal finance and health for magazines and content marketers. He writes regularly for Men’s Health magazine and for brands such as Fidelity Investments, UPS and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.