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Opinion: How to create engaging content in the attention-deficit era

Let’s be honest: when you open a certain article in your browser, do you actually read it, top to bottom, or do you skim through the content and try to grasp the core idea, and then move on?

We all do it and it’s not our fault. At least, not entirely.

Some studies suggest human brain processes 34 gigabytes of information every day, which makes it hard to filter and prioritize all the sensations that come from the outer world. This is what disintegrates our concentration and makes us intuitively search for key points and conclusions when reading online.

We simply don’t have the time nor the patience. We always look for a way to invest the least cognitive strain possible, no matter what we do.

But aren’t our brains supposed to be capable of flexibly handling this avalanche of information?

And more importantly – how should you, as a content creator, adapt?

Where Has Our Attention Gone?

The truth is, we’re not coping very well with this information overload, and there is a scientific explanation for it. Human brain has evolved during a simpler, pre-digital era, where there was far less information thrown at us. Today, we face a confusion of what information is relevant, and what isn’t, which can be exhausting.

Our attention span is declining. Research show people generally lose focus after around eight seconds, which is an equivalent to the attention span of a goldfish.

There are other experts such as Dr Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University, who argues that we shouldn’t take this piece of statistics for granted, as concentration is very task-dependant.

Be that as it may, we cannot deny that our attention is all over the place. The problem of the lack of focus has been a research subject of many social scientists and psychologists. It would be wrong to say that we’ve reached a dead end in our path of brain development.

Far from it.

Focus is a matter of practice and requires discipline. As Daniel Goleman, psychologist and science journalist, explained in his book “Focus”, there are useful techniques such as mindfulness and a variety of other exercises that can help us gain greater control of our mind.

So, we’re not doomed to attention deficit after all.

Knowing this scientific backstory is crucial as it can help you create engaging content. Here’s exactly how to do it: 

1. Your Content Needs to be Relevant and Intriguing

In order to make your content engaging, you have to create it with a clear intent. The core of engaging content is relevancy.

Think about who your target audience is and what they care about. You need to produce content that is not only of high quality, but also useful and actionable. It should solve a real problem and actually address one of the pain points your audience struggles with.

To identify these pain points, you can check out online communities where your target group usually interacts, snoop around social media, or check out forum sites that are not industry-specific, but very well developed and with a rich user base, such as Quora and Reddit.

Once you identify their questions and dilemmas, you need to work on providing the most comprehensive and actionable answer.

But, that doesn’t necessarily make it intriguing, right?

There are several ways to hook the attention of your reader:

  • Make it a bit controversial (people love content that dares to question some accepted standards or truths, and typically find content that goes against the mainstream engaging – if the argumentation is well developed within the logical structure of the article)

  • Use pop culture references (try explaining a difficult topic using analogies that your audience resonates with)

  • Offer unique value (expert roundups, research results, case studies – all of this makes your publishing space unique and likely to draw attention)

It’s also advisable to include links to scientific research, news, and other factual sources. Not only does this provide your content with credibility and signals you actually know what you are writing about, but it also draws reader’s attention. People love to read interpretations and digests, as well as reports on current trends – which opens up room for experimentation.

Moving on to another important element: visual design and text format of your content.

2. Make Your Content Consumable and Visually Appealing

I am not going to start a debate on whether the content matters more than formatting, or is it vice versa. However, I will underline the importance of creating a visually appealing and consumable structure for your reader.

There is a variety of things to technical things to take in mind here. You should take in mind the design of your website (the layout, the amount of whitespace, margins, etc.), the general font choice, and the contrast between the background color and the color of the font. Your text needs to be easily read and some fonts won’t do you a favor here.

Think about how you organize your content. Here are some of the great tips you can use:

  • Avoid creating big chunks of text that make it harder for readers to follow

  • Separate your thoughts into paragraphs that are no longer than 6-7 lines

  • Turn to bullet points when listing several different things in order to make the sequence visually clear and consumable for the reader

  • Use bold formatting to point out important notions or key phrases in order to draw readers’ attention and help them navigate through the text easier

  • Strategically position subheadings in order to section the article post in the most logical way there is

  • Use attention grabbers to visually point out important thoughts or expert quotes

In addition to all of this, you need to think about images and photographs that break the monotony of your article post and keep readers around. Whether you use designed visuals, free royalty images, or iStock photos – you need to choose the ones that align with your topic and are of great quality.

There are some general visual rules you need to follow in order to improve user-friendly experience and get the reader’s attention.

Ensure to measure performance of your posts via Google Analytics (or some other content analytics tool) and be open to experimenting with different layouts and visuals.

Truth be told, it’s hard to really measure engagement and isolate which factors brought you the higher engagement rates. This is why you should prepare for some trial and error until you get to the relevant formula that works for your specific case.

3. Incorporate Storytelling and Add Content Variety

Humans have a natural, inborn interest for stories, which makes storytelling one of the most powerful methods of grabbing and keeping the attention of your readers. Simply put, certain narrative structures communicate with us on the level of collective unconscious and have the power to strongly draw us in.

Needless to say, there are many different ways to tell a story and the core of the narrative could be weaved around something that is fun, unusual, shocking, awe-inspiring, or deeply emotional.

Once you decide on the topic, think about your strong sides and what you can bring to the table for your readers, such as:

In addition to this, your story should go beyond the scope of just one medium. Think about adding content variety to your strategy. This means you should focus on producing infographics, slideshows, videos, or designed eBooks and whitepapers.

For instance, many experts forecast video will become a dominant format in content marketing, especially because watching videos demands less cognitive strain than actually reading the text. With Snapchat and Instagram stories taking the world by storm, it’s not that hard to see where these expert forecasts come from.

But does this mean you should go all in on video? Of course not. Insights about current trends are valuable, but text will never become redundant in the world of content marketing. You need to be aware of how the user behavior is evolving, but not become a slave to these shifts.

Over to You

The fact that people have less attention and less time to waste does not mean you should indulge their cognitive laziness and produce only short-form content. Don’t give up on detailed, in-depth articles. If you have value to share, you need to find the best way to communicate it with your readers.

Take on a challenge and keep your audience hooked. Try out different tactics I’ve mentioned above until you get it right.

The first step is to understand that, as a content creator, you are not entitled to anyone’s attention. You have to work hard in order to earn it.

Andy Baran, Senior Content Contributor, SEOptimer    @seoptimer

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