The Art and Science of Content Engagement

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Steve Kerho
Steve Kerho




The amount of information delivered to consumers today far exceeds the amount we can take in. In 2015, the amount of media delivered will exceed 74 gigabytes daily, which is equal to approximately nine DVDs worth of data sent to the average consumer on a typical day. 

To date, we’ve responded to this by increasing the number of hours we spend with media, and by attempting to “multi-task.” Americans are expected to consume media for an average of 15.5 hours per person per day in 2015, not counting workplace time. Depending on what combination of devices we’re using, we spend more than half of this time with multiple screens.

In “How Much Media? 2013 Report on American Consumers,” the author writes:

As we increase the number of simultaneous media streams going into the home, and increase our multi-tasking behaviors, a lot of content assumes the role of background or secondary content streams. Moreover, this increasing level of multi-tasking is creating competition between media streams to be the dominant stream at any one time.

In this competitive consumption environment, successful content marketing must effectively interrupt another task and also sustain attention. Only truly arresting, potent content can break through and become the “dominant” stream in a multi-stream realm.

Turning to Science

Engagement is the multi-dimensional process by which the human brain attends to, interacts with and retains some stimuli. In this age of divided attention and multiple, concurrent stimuli, achieving successful content engagement relies on higher-order understanding and advanced techniques.

Neuroscience shows us how we can capture the multi-tasking brain’s attention; psychology helps us understand and capitalize on consumer’s innate desires and proclivities; and the science of design teaches us how to tantalize the eye and the brain through digital media.

Design for Content

Compelling design is often neglected in content marketing, though it is vital to content success. All design elements have some degree of influence on how well a piece of content: 

  • Seizes attention
  • Sustains engagement
  • Elicits emotion
  • Delivers a “delightful” consumption experience
  • Can be easily scanned
  • Can be quickly comprehended
  • Can be remembered

To attract and hold the attention of readers, you should:

1) Support “F” Pattern Scanning

We know from eye tracking studies that people read somewhat differently on the web. Most scan rather than read, and more often than not, their eyes sweep the page in an “F” pattern. Consumers only scroll below the fold if they are sufficiently intrigued by the visible part of the page, although Facebook and Pinterest have done much to retrain consumers to embrace long scrolling pages.

2) Quickly Convey the Story Arc

Content design should accommodate these behaviors. Visuals and text should be arranged so that prevalent eye patterns pick them up. Headings, subheadings and leading sentences must convey the key content and act as an abbreviated storytelling arc. Clarity and readability in typefaces must be assured at-a-glance.

3) Employ Visual Shorthand

Images, especially moving images, are quickly registered, so should be used to seize attention. A new study from MIT shows that the brain takes only 13 milliseconds to identify and find meaning in a visual. In today’s multi-tasking world, images are not only powerful, they’re imperative; visual shorthand has become an art and it’s taking on a central role in content creation. Omnipresent icons, symbols and signs guide us. They’re power tools for visual content.

4) Use Circular Layouts with Multiple Entry/Exit points

Whether on or offline, circular layouts with multiple entry and exit points can keep the eye engaged and empower the reader. Bullets, capital letters, captions and call-outs keep the reader engaged. Variety within the types of graphics used, e.g., a mix of photography, illustration, and infographics will also sustain attention.

Engage With Patterns 

Our brains are always striving to make sense out of the barrage of stimuli they receive. We are wired to search for patterns that our past experiences have shown will lead to success. Jonah Lehrer, in How We Decide, writes that our brain produces a pleasure inducing neurochemical called dopamine when we recognize familiar patterns in the world around us.

These discoveries in neuroscience provide a strong argument for using repeated patterns artfully in content design, balanced with enough variety to sustain attention.

1) Variety is Key

Content marketers strive to maximize the amount and accuracy of what a consumer takes away from a content piece. Doug Rohrer, a psychologist at the University of South Florida and an expert at learning style theory, asserts that there are more similarities than differences in how our brains learn, and that variety is a key learning aid across the board.

2) Engaging with Visuals and Emotions

Visuals not only get our attention, they can also help us remember. Studies have shown that text accompanied by images is more engaging and remembered longer, particularly if the image reinforces the central point. We also remember something longer if it has triggered our emotions. Colors evoke different emotions and can be leveraged to improve message retention. For example, yellow can trigger joy, red passion or anger, blue tranquility or sadness. 

3) Frequency Matters

We also know that “the brain has a short attention span and needs repetition and multiple-channel processing for deeper learning to occur.” Our brains stay engaged when something remains to decipher and/or interact with. Content strategists can exploit these dynamics by presenting key content differently in different channels, by using a variety of visuals, graphics and typefaces, and by leveraging more immersive content types, such as games and apps. 

Tell an Epic Story Across All Channels 

In brand marketing to date, most brands have told stories to consumers. Rarely did they stray from the classic plot in which a consumer has a problem that the brand solves, becoming the hero. The brand was always at the center of the story-telling circle.

Modern brands must still be great storytellers to attract and influence consumers, but in the digital age, brands can and should break the traditional mold. The brand and consumer should strive to have a multi-dimensional storytelling exchange. 


Successful brands use stories to educate, entertain and to collaborate with consumers. Consumer-generated stories also play a key role for the modern brand. That’s because consumers want to tell their own stories, as well as stories coming from places other than the brand, such as professionals, influencers, their peers and their social networks. Consumers want to collaborate with brands as a means of shaping something bigger than they are, as a means of self-expression and personal participation.

Story ideas can come from many sources -- therefore, content marketers must recognize the seed of a great story to capitalize upon. When a story possesses such power that it binds the brand community together, it qualifies as “big content.” Stories relate events on the surface, and they foster common experience at the core. 

A rich story can live in multiple channels and multiple formats. In some categories with multiple purchase influencers, the story can be enriched by telling it through different perspectives and different channels.


Not all channels need to tell the entire story, and content should not be replicated identically across channels. In fact, there are advantages to revealing differing parts of a complex story in linked channels. Each channel’s unique strength is leveraged to include additional detail or different emphasis. 

A single story with strength in each main narrative element can lend both depth and breadth to a brand’s presence in the marketplace.

Perhaps most importantly, the “big idea” behind content execution is the creation of the thread that organizes the vast amount of creative assets into a clear narrative -- aligned to the consumer’s journey and facilitating business objectives.

Framing individual tactics according to their role in the greater content plan makes sure that every element is evaluated according to its planned use and desired outcome.

This is an excerpt from the new MXM Content Marketing Playbook, which captures best practices for forging a high-performing content strategy, creating superior content, and tackling content measurement.


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