Discover the Real Value of the E Word (and How to Embrace It)


You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

For marketers, “that” word is engagement. And we use it a lot.

We use it in strategy meetings, tweets, videos, and blog posts. We’ve selected “creating more engaging content” as one of our top priorities in Content Marketing Institute annual surveys. We’ve listed “engagement” as one of our most important content marketing goals in the very same survey. At a recent content marketing event, one speaker used the E word 335,000 times in a 45-minute breakout session. (OK, I didn’t keep count but she used the word A LOT.)

But what exactly do YOU mean when you say the E word?

Some consider engagement to be the number of shares a piece of content receives. Others believe engagement is the number of visitors to a blog post or the number of views a video receives. Still others claim they measure engagement by tracking the number of comments or conversations that result from a single piece of content. Some count “likes” and “favorites” as proof that their content is engaging.

Chances are your definition of engagement is different from mine, which is different from theirs.

We use the E word so often that, within a marketing context, the word has lost all meaning.

It’s time to fix this.

What is engagement?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “engage” means to “occupy or attract (someone’s interest or attention),” while “interest” is the state of “wanting to know or learn about something” and “attention” is “regarding something as interesting or important.”

Marketing engagement is the act of occupying your audience’s desire to know or learn over time. Therefore, if you’re going to measure engagement with your content, you must focus on time-based metrics like time on page or duration of website visit. However, mediums like audio and video have an even better metric for understanding engagement.

Once you hit the play button on a video you’re barreling toward its end with a limited number of options along the way: pause, rewind, fast-forward, stop, and play. As a viewer, you can also bail on the video at any time. Because video is a linear medium, measuring audience engagement is simple: How many people make it to the end?

Getting to the end of a video is essential, as this is where you most often place the call to action. If your “learn more,” “download now,” or “buy now” buttons are the destination and your content consumers never make it to the end of the video, how can you expect them to take action?

YouTube provides one of the most significant engagement metrics of any social platform. Buried in YouTube’s analytics is a simple chart called “audience retention,” comparing the number of views at the beginning of the video with the number of views at the end (or any point in between).

#YouTube provides one of the most significant engagement metrics of any social platform, says @DrewDavisHere. Click To Tweet


For example, a video with an average audience retention rate of 25% means most viewers watch only 25% of it. A content creator’s ultimate goal is to produce video content with 100% audience retention (meaning the average viewer watches the entire video). That would be a genuinely engaging video. Why? Because, remember, engagement is defined in marketing as occupying your audience’s desire to know something over time. The longer you retain your viewers, the more engaging your content.

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What type of video gets highest engagement?

After researching hundreds of videos over the last two years, I’ve learned one type of video typically has the highest audience retention rates: how-to videos. For example, the world’s most-consumed bow-tie tutorial video has millions of views and most of those viewers make it all the way to the end. By definition it’s engaging.

How-to #videos typically have the highest audience retention rates, says @DrewDavisHere. Click To Tweet

But why do good how-to videos have such high audience retention rates? The viewer has a question, “How do I tie a bow tie?” and the video has the answer. However, if you want to tie a bow tie successfully you can’t bail on the how-to video halfway through. You can’t skip a step. You have to watch the entire tutorial.

How-to videos occupy their audience’s desire to know the answer to a question over time. That’s engagement.

So, engaging content should keep the audience chasing answers.

But what about all the other content you create? How do you make it engaging?


How do you keep your audience curious?

There are two compelling psychological phenomena at work when we consume any piece of content. Not only do these mental factors explain why how-to videos are so engaging, but they also uncover the secret behind successful clickbait.

Humans are curious creatures. We love to fill the gap between what we already know and what we want to know (or even need to know.) Psychologists call this void the curiosity gap. When you create how-to content the curiosity gap is obvious: The audience is consciously asking the first question, such as, “How do I tie a bow tie?” The video maintains the viewer’s attention by ensuring that the end of each step invites the viewer to ask, “What’s next?”

To maintain your audience’s attention, you must manufacture curiosity gaps. How? I’ll get to that after I tell you about the second psychological phenomenon you can employ to maintain your audience’s attention.

(See what I did there? I manufactured a curiosity gap.)

Anytime you create a curiosity gap in the minds of your viewers you’re also leveraging another unbelievably powerful psychological state. Human beings have an innate need for closure: a sincere desire for a firm answer to a question and a natural aversion toward ambiguity. Our need for closure creates tension that compels us to take action even when we know it may cause us pain or make us uncomfortable. Our need for closure explains why clickbait works.

Take this headline: Man Tries to Hug a Lion. You Won’t Believe What Happens Next.

We’ve been trained to spot clickbait and that headline is a classic of the form. We all know that whatever is behind the click won’t measure up to the expectation the headline sets. But our emotional need for closure overwhelms our ability to reason. We must know what happens next. We need the answer and we must avoid ambiguity. We click the bait.

Want proof? You’re probably still wondering what happened to the man who tried to hug a lion. Guess what? The lion hugs him back. (Not that unbelievable, really.)

Herein lies the problem with clickbait: The payoff must be proportional to the curiosity gap. Otherwise, your content erodes your target audience’s trust over time.

Create content momentum by manufacturing curiosity gaps that tickle the deep-seated need for closure. This is how you encourage your audience to stick with you to the very end of your content. The greater the tension, the longer you engage the audience. And the bigger the payoff, the more likely you are to inspire your audience to act.

Create #content momentum by manufacturing curiosity gaps, says @DrewDavisHere. Click To Tweet

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3 simple ways to manufacture gaps

Scottish playwright and literary critic William Archer describes drama as “anticipation mingled with uncertainty.” Your content needs drama.

Storytellers routinely employ the power of curiosity gaps and our need for closure by implementing one of the most compelling literary devices of all: suspense. If you are to create engaging content (even how-to content), you must build suspense.

You don’t have to look far for suspenseful inspiration – just turn on the television.

Dive right in

The final episode aired in 2010, but Law & Order remains the longest-running crime drama on American prime time television. Each episode followed a crime, often ripped from real-life headlines, from two separate perspectives: the police investigation and the prosecution in court.

Law & Order used a simple but powerful technique to immediately grab and keep the viewer’s attention. Every episode begins with the crime; no setup, no character building, no preamble. The crime creates the curiosity gaps, piquing a need for closure with one central question: Who did it?

In the television business this is called a “cold open.” Instead of spending the first quarter of your next case study or testimonial detailing who it’s about, what they do, or the problem they have, start with the most pivotal, dramatic point in the story. Raise a central question and entice your audience to chase the answer.

Raise a central question and entice your audience to chase the answer, says @DrewDavisHere. #writingtips Click To Tweet

Bury the lede

As a former journalist, I spent years writing ledes designed to mention the most critical and exciting elements of a story. My training implored me to include brief answers to who, what, why, when, where, and how the critical event in the story took place, all within the first few lines of an article. Journalists are trained to front-load the information because newspaper editors assume most readers won’t consume the entire article.

However, to build suspense, you must remember that you control the information – and, most importantly, when you divulge it.

Instead of front-loading your content with answers to every one of the reader’s questions, build suspense by excluding some essential story elements. Keep your audience curious.

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Delay the reveal

If you’ve ever watched a makeover marathon on HGTV, you’re familiar with one of the most potent suspense-building secrets in the reality-television business: the big reveal.

Mention your product w/ in first 85% of content & you eliminate opportunity for big reveal. @DrewDavisHere Click To Tweet

When telling the stories of customers and clients, marketers are often quick to reveal that the answer to each problem is their product or service. Unfortunately, if you mention your company or the product you sell within the first 85% of your content you’re eliminating the opportunity for a big reveal.

Delaying any mention of your brand and the outcome of your story until the last 15% of your case studies and testimonials increases the tension and enhances the story. Too many reveal the clients’ outcome even in the title of the video. Remember, there’s no reason to watch the entire story unless the viewer is chasing the answer to a central question, such as how did they solve these problems? The longer you delay the reveal the bigger the catharsis when the solution is revealed.

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The hard truth about engagement

Remember, your goal is to create genuinely engaging content, which maintains the interest or attention of your audience over time.

Unfortunately, when someone says, “Your content is too long,” what they’re really saying is, “I ran out of questions before you ran out of content.”

Your #content’s not too long. The reader ran out of questions before you ran out of content. @DrewDavisHere Click To Tweet

Keep your audience curious and you’ll keep it engaged – no matter the length.

A version of this article originally appeared in the August issue of  Chief Content OfficerSign up today to receive your free CCO subscription.

Let Andrew Davis engage you during his keynote talk at Content Marketing World Sept. 4-7 in Cleveland, Ohio. Register today and use code BLOG100 to save $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute