Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: To succeed at inbound marketing, you need awesome content. Or maybe you’ve heard it another way. At the Inbound 2015 conference this fall, phrases like “remarkable content,” “killer content,” and even “stellar content” reverberated off the walls of the cavernous Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
Unfortunately, when you’re staring at a blank Word doc and racking your brain for ways to write content that will actually attract visitors to your business’s website, keep them there, keep them coming back, and eventually get them to buy something, a snappy adjective in front of the word “content” will only get you so far.
What is there to remark on in remarkable content? How does awesome content inspire awe? What, exactly, does killer content kill? And what rocket fuel lifts stellar content into the cosmos?
In other words, how do you know if your content’s any good?
Someone asked a similar question to cognitive neuroscientist Carmen Simon in a recent AMA (which, apparently, is millennial for “asking me anything”) on Inbound.org. The discussion with Dr. Simon caught my eye for two reasons:
- Because I’ve always thought the only thing that matters about inbound marketing content—the only measure of its quality—is how readers respond to it. I thought Dr. Simon, as an expert on the human mind, might have some good ideas about what people do and don’t respond to.
- I had waited in line—twice—for Dr. Simon’s talk at Inbound 2015, and was locked out—twice. I figured something interesting must be happening behind that conference room door.
Engaging Content: A Brain Science Perspective
An Inbound.org reader asked Dr. Simon, “What increases engagement with content on a scientific level?” Simon replied with one of the clearest explanations of “killer content” I’ve ever encountered. I’ll let her explain it fully in her own words (follow the link here to her AMA), but here’s the short version:
“The brain is constantly seeking rewards and avoiding punishment.”
That’s really all there is to it. As a reader progresses through your content, he is pulled forward (or in the words of the AMA questioner, engaged) by rewards or the promise of rewards; he is repelled by punishment or the looming specter of punishment. You want your content to reward your readers as much as possible while punishing them as little as possible.
What is a Reward and What is a Punishment?
Dr. Simon doesn’t expand on her idea of rewards and punishments as much as I would have liked (maybe you had to make it to one of her Inbound talks), but as I see it, a reward is anything that adds positively to someone’s life as he or she reads a piece of content. A punishment is anything that stands in the way of the reader’s getting those rewards. Too much punishment and not enough reward and you will lose the reader.
For example, as a reader of this particular article, you might feel rewarded because it’s answered some specific questions you had about content creation and now, as a content creator, your life is going to be easier. Or maybe you feel rewarded because my witty commentary and sparkling wordplay have provided a welcome respite to your dreary, humorless workday.
On the other hand, maybe this article has been one long, painful slog through dense, incomprehensible sentences. (If so, I’m sorry.) Maybe you didn’t get the answers you were looking for and you’re angry at me for wasting a few precious minutes of your life. (Again, sorry.) These are punishments.
The decision your brain is making right now—and will continue to make as you read this article—is, are the rewards worth the punishment? And if you stick with the article, are the coming (perceived) rewards worth the coming (perceived) punishments?
Examples of content rewards:
- It provides a clear answer to a tough question.
- It commiserates with you and your situation.
- It surprises you with unexpected or enjoyable word choices.
- It doesn’t waste time.
Examples of content punishments:
- It doesn’t answer a question it promised to answer.
- It seems written for someone else in a different situation.
- It’s boring.
- It’s difficult to understand.
- It wastes time.
What Rewards Your Audience?
Of course, this is all easier said than done. It’s one thing for me to tell you to reward your readers, not punish them, it’s another thing to know what will reward and what will punish your particular readers. As Dr. Simon says, “Knowing what your audience finds rewarding is where most of the work needs to take place before creating content.” But that is, in my view, the main project of inbound marketing (and one of the best uses of your inbound marketing budget).
At least now we have a better idea of what makes awesome content do damn awesome.