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Engaging Content: How to Define and Create It

Today’s guest blog post is written by Clayton Lainsbury, Founder & CEO of Crowd Content. Clayton and members of his team will be in attendance at Content Marketing World 2015, and are also sponsoring our evening event at the Music Hall with special guests, the Barenaked Ladies. 

Marketers have a big problem producing engaging content. They also have a tough time defining it. In this post, psychology helps explain why people engage with our content and what we can do to craft more engaging content for our audiences. I argue that the basis of engagement is personal relevance and depth of mental processing. I then ask for your opinion in the comments section or in person at Content Marketing World 2015 to help keep this discussion moving forward.



The number one challenge reported by content marketers over the last five years is the inability to produce engaging content.

The challenge appears as a top response in content marketing research performed by Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs. In fact, their most recent study refers to the challenge as “a perennial top challenge over the last five years”, giving the impression that it’s expected to be at the top of the list and won’t be going away anytime soon.


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Last year, I wrote an article exploring the question: what is quality content? Shortly after, I asked the same question to the attendees of Content Marketing World 2014. The idea was to identify some defining characteristics of, and bring some meaning to, the most frequently used buzzword in the industry—“quality content”.

The exercise generated some passionate and insightful responses. Can you guess what the top answer was?

Quality content is… wait for it… engaging.

(If you don’t believe me, check out the responses from 0:54 to 1:28 in this video.)

And why wouldn’t we answer with “engaging”? I think most of us agree, myself included, that engaging content has a powerful effect on readers and yields positive results for marketers.

The problem is that we are left with another buzzword. And the problem with buzzwords is they don’t carry a lot of substance or actionable advice with them.

Ashley, a commenter on the video, summed it up well with the following comment:

“Great compilation, though I’d love to know what people think is “engaging” content. It’s a buzzword, all right, and certainly related and integral to content marketing, but I don’t think we all agree on what that means.”

Great point, Ashley. And that’s why I’m writing this article. It’s also why we’ll be set up again this year at Content Marketing World 2015 asking the 3,500 content marketers in attendance how they define engaging content.

To get things started, I’ve done some quick research and looked at a few scientific theories that can help us understand what engaging content is and how to produce it.

In the end, I conclude that engaging content is (1) personally relevant to your audience and (2) crafted in an interactive way that causes your audience to think deeply.

Note: It should be recognized that Michele Linn of CMI published an excellent piece on engaging content in September of 2010 with several insightful definitions from CMI contributors. However, seeing as it’s been five years since then and “producing engaging content” is still the industry’s #1 challenge, my goal is to revisit the topic, see if any definitions have been updated, and build on what was discussed in her article. 

Engaging Content Builds Relationships

Before we examine what it means to engage your audience, let’s first ask the question, why? Why is engagement at the top of every content marketer’s mind?

To answer this question, I started looking at the top reported objectives for content marketing.

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Taken from the same research referenced above, a few of the most prominent content marketing objectives are:

  • Brand awareness
  • Engagement (oddly enough)
  • Customer retention / loyalty
  • Customer evangelism
  • Lead nurturing

Does engaging content help us achieve these goals?

I think it does, and I’ll explain why.

All of these objectives share a common trait. They are each contingent on building a lasting relationship with your audience.

And, as I’ll explain in this article, engagement is the primary driver for creating memorable, lasting relationships.

Quick Psychology Lesson: How We Remember

Let’s take a quick look at how our memory works. This might help us understand how lasting relationships are developed and how engaging content fits into the equation.

It’s safe to say that for a lasting relationship to exist, the parties need to “remember” each other. In marketing terms this translates to your audience remembering your brand or your content.

When psychologists talk about human memory, they use the terms encoding and retrieval.

Encoding refers to the process of storing information in your brain. Retrieval, as it sounds, refers to the point later down the road when you bring that information to consciousness (or remember it).

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Here’s the important part → a person’s ability to retrieve information is highly dependent on how it was encoded in the first place.

This means that if we can understand the characteristics of encoding that yield the highest probability of retrieval, we can use these techniques when crafting our content. This will maximize the chances that our audience will connect with and remember our content, along with our brand.

People Remember Powerful Experiences, Not Content

Although we talk about engaging content, what we really should be talking about is engaging experiences.

An experience, after all, is the output (or result) of our content. The more engaging and compelling the content is, the deeper and more powerful the experience will be for the audience.

In turn, a stronger and longer lasting relationship will begin.

To help demonstrate this, we can look at a psychological theory called the Levels of Processing Effect, which states:

“Deeper levels of analysis produce more elaborate, longer lasting, and stronger memory traces than shallow levels of analysis.”

In other words, people remember stuff that makes them think.


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Graphic illustrating how we are more likely to remember information when we consider the deeper meaning of that information at the time of encoding.

For example, psychologists behind the theory (Craik and Tulving) performed a test where participants were given a list of words. Each word had a question after it. Some questions were considered “shallow”, like “is the word shown in italics?”

Other questions were “deeper”—a sentence was provided and the question was “would the word fit in this sentence?”

The results showed that words followed by “deeper” questions were more likely to be remembered.

This tells us that if we can create content that gets our audiences thinking and interacting with it on a deeper level, we are more likely to engage them and create a powerful, memorable experience.

People Remember Personally Relevant Experiences

If we understand that our content marketing objectives are dependent on lasting relationships, and that lasting relationships are a product of powerful experiences, then how can we ensure we deliver powerful experiences to our audience?

What steps can we take to increase the chances that our published content will engage?

As we just discussed above, getting our audience to interact with our content on a deeper level helps.

However, there’s one more concept we can borrow from psychology to make our content even more engaging, even more memorable.

I’m referring to the Self-Reference Effect.

The Self-Reference Effect tells us that people are more likely to remember “information that relates to oneself in comparison to material that has less personal relevance.”

In other words, if the content is important to you (relevant), then you are more likely to remember it.

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 Chart displaying the power of personally relevant information on our memory.

To demonstrate this, the same “word memory” test explained above was performed again, but this time, some of the questions asked if the participant could relate the word to themselves.

For example, if the word was “generous”, you may think about how you lent your friend lunch money the other day and conclude, yes, generous does apply to me.

In this version of the test, words followed by questions that involved self-reference were even more likely to be remembered.

Bringing It all Together to Create Engaging Content

The deep thinking caused by powerful, personally relevant experiences creates lasting relationships with our audiences. These lasting relationships help fulfill top reported content marketing objectives like brand awareness, customer retention, customer evangelism, and lead nurturing.

What actionable advice can we take from this? Well, for starters, topic selection for every piece of content you develop is extremely important. If your topics are not personally relevant to your audience, you’re already at a disadvantage when it comes to engaging them.

Make sure your topics always provide value to your target audience and strive to make them as personally relevant as possible.

Next, try to get your audience thinking deeply. Craft your content in an interactive way, even if it’s just text. Ask questions, surface new ideas to a common problem, tell a story, or keep it suspenseful. Any way to get them thinking and processing your information (your content) helps keep them engaged.

What Do You Think Engaging Content Is?

This is just my opinion. What do you think? Tell us in the comments below. By pooling our thoughts together, we may be able to move this concept forward and help the industry overcome our number one, five years running challenge of “producing engaging content” (or at least have some fun in the process).

Better yet, stop by the Crowd Content booth at Content Marketing World 2015 this September 9th and 10th and let us know in person. Not registered? There’s still time! Code CMI100 saves $100 at registration.


  1. Laura Dohan says:

    Thanks for explaining the science behind it! Now that we understand that, it’s time to come up with an industry benchmark for what exactly ENGAGING content is. How can a brand engage with its audience through high quality content?

    • Laura, I think the nature of content (the fact that it is very much an “art”) makes it difficult to establish clear benchmarks or guidelines for creating it effectively. Many times, you don’t know you have something engaging until it’s published and you see the metrics. However, I think discussions like this can help us bring more “science” into the creative process which could add a little more predictability for creative teams.

  2. Stephanie Bethune says:

    Great research, Clayton. The challenge to produce engaging content is a *huge* one, but you reveal some important principles to focus on when creating content.
    For personally relevant content, do you find this requires targeting specific audience personas, or can you create content that will be personally relevant to any consumer?

    • Clayton Lainsbury says:

      Thanks, Stephanie. I think the same principle applies here as it does to developing or marketing any product — if you try to appeal to everyone, you won’t reach anyone. If you understand this limitation and create content that appeals to a well defined audience, your chances of coming off as relevant to each person in that audience should increase.

  3. Alex says:

    Great article Clayon. I find so many small businesses in particular struggle with creating content alone, then add in engaging content and it’s a whole different ball game. Businesses need to find balance and know their audience. What you are posting, especially on social media should be of interest to those that follow you, or what’s the point? Without creating a relationship with that customer, the odds of lead generation are slim. Wish I could come to Content Marketing World 2015!

    • Thanks for your comment, Alex! I would add that not only should your SM content be of interest to your audience, but you should strive to make it unique (different from, or a progression of, what other sources have already published). The argument could be made that if it’s already available everywhere else, its relevance power diminishes.

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