Put aside the metrics—social shares, page views, time spent on page—and audience engagement in content marketing really boils down to this:
Can you get people to *willingly* stick around and value your content, maybe even enough to share it with others?
That largely makes it a content creation problem and, at a more granular level, it involves these questions:
Are people reading on to the next line of your blog post?
Are they clicking through to the next slide in your SlideShare?
Are they actually paying attention throughout your content?
One solution to the problem of engagement, which I've seen breed success in our content and in others', is to feed your audience's most natural addiction.
The "Science" of Engagement
You’ve likely read blog posts about the effectiveness of storytelling and analogies when it comes to boosting engagement in content marketing.
But these tactics often share a common feature: they provoke our pattern-seeking brains.
According to Dr. Michael Shermer, an American science writer:
“Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.”
“Gestalt Psychology” further explains our tendency to organize the world around us into logical categories and patterns that make sense to us. We instinctively seek out similarities and search for patterns in an attempt to find (or create) order. That's why unexpected anomalies in our established perception, like in the famous Charlie Chaplin mask example above, can throw us off.
As a people we're addicted to order and averse to chaos. That's the innate appeal of art. The difference between "noise" and "music", "stuff happening" and "story", is a strategically composed experience built to provoke our pattern-addicted brains.
With this in mind, you can encourage engagement by better channeling your audience's attention through a piece of content. You can even strategically surprise your audience when you know what they’re expecting.
The techniques I'm going to cover can help you as a content creator:
- Make your content easier to follow for the people who consume it
- Deliver a more enjoyable experience for your audience
- Demonstrate creativity and impress your audience
- Create cohesion without being predictable
- Improve engagement metrics—time on page, social shares, bounce rate, etc.
Make Your Content Sing
People may skim a blog post with their eyes, absorbing only the information that they need, but they read content with their ears, so to speak. They’re hearing your words in their heads.
Copywriters know this. And that’s why alliteration is a common feature in their writing:
Alliteration arrests attention by creating an acoustic association between words.
Alliteration, in the right amount, resonates well with audiences because it makes the words roll right off the tongue. It’s all in the repetition of sounds that create cohesion in what is, at first glance, just a bunch of words.
Here are some popular alliterating phrases every marketer should know and love:
- Content is King
- Metrics that Matter
- Plain and Simple
You can even go further and use rhyme to create a more pronounced association between words.
Poems, songs, jingles—these genres often employ rhyme schemes that keep our attention from one line to the next by developing a more obvious acoustic pattern.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you write a 1,500 word SEO poem about your industry. But we did manage to pull off a rhyming SlideShare for the holidays that garnered over 45,000 views in less than a month (although to be fair, this SlideShare also leveraged parody, which I'll talk about later).
Build Patterns Into Your Structure
You can also craft patterns into your sentence structure and the “bigger picture” of your content to make it cleaner and easier to navigate for readers.
First up is Parallelism, a common technique applied to speeches, copy, and other types of writing where your goal is to captivate and persuade your audience.
To put it plainly: It’s about applying a similar, usually grammatical structure across phrases or sentences.
To put it with parallel structure: It’s about creating rhythm, leveraging consistency, and building momentum.
Examples of persuasive parallelism include:
- "What goes around, comes around." (Catchy and memorable, right?)
- "Easy come, easy go." (There's equal weight on both sides of the comma.)
- "Don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!" (When you invert a parallel structure like this, it's called chiasmus and gives readers a cause to pause.)
While this works well for proverbs and speeches, one of the best ways to apply parallelism to your content is when you’re writing subheads within a piece of content to develop a theme through grammar, tone, or the way you frame your topic.
Let's say I’m writing about the various traits that make up a good content marketer, compare the following series of subheads, and see which is more appealing:
When you apply parallelism:
- A scientist’s desire to test
- A journalist’s nose for news
- A copywriter’s way with words
When you ignore parallelism:
- The desire to test everything
- Investigative skills
- Strong grasp of language
Other ways to leverage parallelism include:
- Applying similar sentence structure to your lists.
- Using fewer words to develop an idea by avoiding unnecessary repetition.
- Formatting consistently in bulleted lists to highlight key information so it's easy to scan.
Be Familiar AND Different
Repeat exposure to certain patterns has conditioned us to hold certain expectations as members of an audience. You can cater to these expectations to keep your audience entrenched in your writing.
The “Rule of Three” is one example.
While I’d rather call it the “Suggestion of Three”, it tells us that examples, steps, lists, and sequences in general, feel complete when they come in groups of 3.
Some examples of the Rule of Three include:
- Beginning, middle, end.
- Lather, rinse, repeat.
- The three little pigs/billy goats gruff/musketeers/stooges
- This list until I decided to make this point...
Story is another device that leverages existing structural patterns.
One of the reasons why stories are effective at engaging audiences is because they rely on familiar formulas. People innately understand the direction a story will go because they’ve experienced similar patterns, archetypes and tropes before.
When you predict the ending of a movie or see a plot twist coming, it might be because you've caught on to a pattern you've already seen elsewhere.
Parody can expand on the effects of a story's structure by aligning with popular culture to create something that's accessible for your audience, engaging, and easy to relate to.
This social media marketing spin on Game of Thrones from Hootsuite is an example of parody done right. While its effect is limited to those who've seen the show, the widespread popularity made this a safe bet.
Add Layers of Meaning With Patterns
If you want to build a deeper connection between two ideas and evoke an emotional response from your audience, you can add layers of meaning across writing, design and ideas.
Analogies, for example, are often used to explain and argue concepts in an engaging, easy-to-digest manner. They explore a subject by connecting common elements of one unfamiliar topic to something that the audience is more familiar with.
You can take analogies further by patterning your words around a theme to more closely associate two ideas through metaphor.
Here’s an example of a relatively successful SlideShare that Uberflip’s super-talented designer Quentin Zancanaro and I created that employs a thematic pattern:
We wanted to talk about eBooks in the context of something you build. So the following list was generated:
“Building” vs. "eBooks"
- architect (author)
- build (write)
- assemble (design)
- bricks (research)
- blueprint (outline)
- structure (table of contents)
- tools (everything you use to create it)
- wall (page)
- door (opt-in form)
Most of these aren’t words or images you’d usually apply to eBooks. But they start to seem more at home as you develop your analogy. Naturally, this is many times more effective when there are visuals to echo the metaphor.
The “Art” of Engagement
You're more likely to see these strategies I've covered employed in the art and entertainment industry than in B2B content marketing. It's no surprise since "content" in those industries lives and dies based on its ability to engage an audience.
But it's the same case in content marketing, no? How effective is content that doesn't deliver a valuable experience that really resonates with your audience?
Creating engaging content is still the #1 challenge for B2B content marketers and an important problem to address when it influences the growth metrics that affect revenue and the harder-to-measure benefits like brand awareness and loyalty.
There’s no easy solution aside from providing content that your audience finds valuable. Oh, and getting it in front of the right audience in a responsive experience is helpful too.
But the next time you're creating a piece of content and start thinking "no one's actually going to read this", remember that there’s a sweet spot, so to speak, in our palate for patterns that provokes our minds and keep us entrenched in an experience.
And whether you're creating art or marketing content, speaking to this fundamental part of human nature is one way you can keep your audience on the edge of their seats. At the very least, they'll stick around a little longer.