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The Building Blocks of Engaging Content: Definitions, Measurements, and Advice From Experts 


We all need to make our content engaging, but what does that mean?

As SiteTuners CEO Tim Ash says, “Engaging content simply means ‘useful to the visitor.’”

It’s a simple definition but not an easy thing to do. How do you create that useful content and how do you evaluate whether it’s truly engaging your audience?

Some of the experts speaking at Content Marketing World this September share their ideas on how to define engaging content, how to create it, and how to measure it. You can tailor that insight to craft an engaging content plan for your organization.

Defining engagement

The challenge with the term “engaging content” is that it can mean many things, but it generally means content that’s good for your audience and good for your business. Your company needs to specifically define what “good” means for it and you need to define what’s “good” for your audience based on research. Here is how CMWorld presenters define engagement for their purposes.

Stop time

Engaging content makes the person stop everything to spend time and energy reading and taking in your message. It holds the answer to something they’ve been struggling with or wondering about, promises laughter or positive emotions, or helps them learn something they desperately need to know right then.

David MacLaren, CEO & founder, MediaValet

Put a ring on it

As everyone knows, engagement is a prelude to marriage, and trust is a prerequisite for every long-term relationship. Marketers who want to build trust are taking the time to listen to their buyers talk about their buying decisions. They’re gaining insight into the questions their buyers ask and developing content that emphasizes the answers buyers want to hear.

Marketers who want to build trust take the time to listen to their buyers says @buyerpersona #CMWorld Click To Tweet

What’s the measure of success? Sales cycles are shorter and the conversation is less focused on price or features when buyers trust that the company is best qualified to deliver on their expectations.

Adele Revella, CEO, Buyer Persona Institute

Know what C-suite thinks

Your CEO defines engagement as “it produced profitable revenue.” The closer you can get to providing that, the easier it is to justify your investment in content marketing.

Karl Sakas, agency consultant, Sakas & Company

Creating engaging content

Once you decide and define engaging content, your next step is to actually create the content (the execution can be the tricky part, no?). Here are some additional tips on how exactly to do that.

Think emotionally

Engaging content is content that informs, entertains, and adds value. Start with the emotion your audience is feeling. Are they scared? Frustrated? Skeptical? Now ask what’s the opposite of that emotion? Poke at your audience’s emotions to motivate them to take action, whether that action is to look for more content from you, pick up the phone and call, or talk to someone face to face.

Engaging means interesting. Plan an exercise with your team in which you mind map content ideas based on your audience’s emotional journeys. Look at the interconnected experiences you need to deliver that take them on that journey. To measure this, use:

  • Primary indicators – what business objectives are moved forward (e.g., more leads). These are the kind of metrics that an executive team wants to know.
  • Secondary indicators – blog or email subscribers, webinar attendees, downloads, etc. These are what content marketers want to know.
  • User indicators – followers, video views, or webinar registrations. These measurements present the early picture and bubble up to inform the secondary and primary indicators.

Carla Johnson, marketing and customer experience strategist, Type A Communications

Don’t ever forget readers

Ultimately, engaging content is about the reader, not about you or your company. Yes, when you do it right, it does provide value to your company and your bottom line, but your audience should never read a piece of your content and walk away with the impression that you’re just trying to sell, sell, sell. Remembering that and focusing on delivering on their needs and wants — not your own — can make your content more engaging.

John Hall, co-founder and CEO, Influence & Co.

Engaging #content is about the reader, not about you or your company says @johnhall #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Be yourself

We like to think that we intuitively know what people want (and don’t want) to engage with online. But there is a whole science behind content with “emotional resonance,” down to even the colors and calls to action that create it. Contagious author Jonah Berger explains that there are six essential elements to “engaging content” with clear emotional triggers. Authenticity is at the core.

Authenticity is a core element of engaging #content says @j1berger #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Focus on being your authentic self and you’ll hit that emotional resonance because authenticity is personal. Brands don’t need to hide behind “brand voice” anymore. Ditch brand voice and talk how you (and your audience) talk.

Allen Gannett, CEO, TrackMaven

Ditch brand voice & talk how you & your audience talk says @Allen #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Do the research

The best way to build that understanding of valuable content is through regular and consistent market research. Market research will help you understand what your audience is looking for. Signals from your publishing will help you to understand what stories, topics, times, and formats are working best for your audience. You have to make it easy for people.

David Pembroke, founder and CEO, contentgroup

Turn spotlight on audience

An editor whom I disliked intensely imparted one piece of wisdom that I have never forgotten: find the reader value. Too often in custom publishing, sponsors are focused on content that puts them in the best light. That’s great, but that’s not custom content — that’s advertising. Engaging content clearly states the reader value, not the value to the sponsor. Sometimes this means the writer has to act as the advocate for reader, rather than letting the marketing people demand content based on their goals, rather than the reader’s needs.

Howard Baldwin, freelance writer and editor

Think small but deep

Let’s talk about engagement in the context of depth. Engaging content is meaningful and memorable. Engaging content first must create depth, before you can get to all that breadth that marketers are so hot to find.

Think of it this way: Look for small numbers of people reacting in big ways to your content … if your project or piece receives a few lengthy emails, with reactions ending in exclamations rather than periods, or if you see people writing some kind of original comment above that retweet and it’s fraught with feeling, you’ve struck gold. You’ve found depth of meaning. You’ve created something engaging.

Jay Acunzo, vice president of platform, NextView Ventures

Will they pay for it?

Assume you need to create content that your prospects would be willing to pay for, but you’ll give it away free anyway. How would you meet and exceed that bar? What can you educate customers and prospects about that makes their world, their perspective, their instincts significantly better? You earn their ongoing attention by delivering value at this level. One of the easiest ways to measure this is to watch correlation of content engagement and buyer journey movement. Establish causality between your content and its ability to mobilize prospects towards a revenue-producing event.

Matt Heinz, president, Heinz Marketing

Create well-supported triangle

Engaging content has personality, value, and substance. If it lacks any one of those three elements, the content will sound just like everything else on the web. I prefer to measure the ultimate goal of engaging content using conversion rate to subscribers.

Michael Brenner, CEO, Marketing Insider Group

Engaging #content has personality, value, & substance says @BrennerMichael #CMWorld Click To Tweet
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Pull, don’t push away

To engage readers (and quickly), novelists begin the story in the middle of the action. If you’re a content marketer, how do you begin content creation “in the middle of the action” and therefore create content that draws in the audience? By speaking to their pain points. Your audience’s story has already begun; determine where you can interrupt that plot to provide answers and relief.

Nicole Sholly, director of creative services, Relevance

Ask the highest question

The most important question to ask is “what’s our purpose?” when trying to come up with content that engages. Answers to this one simple but door-to-creativity opening question can uncover content that has real value to prospects and customers. By value, there are two levels. There’s practical value, where the content has a function or utility that when engaged with solves some problem or answers some question for the user or site visitor. And there’s a “greater good” value in which the person’s life is somehow enriched by the interaction, inspired by some story that may be directly connected to the product or service, or tangentially connected to the product or service (which is, in my opinion, the best storytelling content). Finally, having this “purpose focus” to the content does something else that’s just as important, which is to keep the content team inspired and genuinely interested in the content, therefore willing to put in the work to get it done.

Russell Sparkman, co-founder and CEO, FusionSpark Media, Inc.

Provoke action

The best way to create engaging content is to try to make an emotional connection with the reader and/or addressing a specific need. The goal is to write as if you are speaking directly to the reader about something they have a defined interest in. Obviously, not every piece of content will be able to connect with every reader, but if you are addressing the reader’s pain points, and providing solutions, you’ll make that connection.

Stoney deGeyter, CEO, Pole Position Marketing

Write as if you are talking to the reader about something they have a defined interest in by @StoneyD Click To Tweet

Ask your audience

Engage your audience by involving them in the conversation. Ask them questions, solicit comments. A simple “that’s our opinion, what’s yours,” type of question works well.

The trick to measuring engagement is having something to measure, such as click-throughs or sign-ups.

Chuck Hester, managing partner, The Hester Group

Measure engaging content

You now think you’ve created engaging content, but you won’t actually know if it is until you evaluate its success. Of course, how you define engagement and how you measure it are very connected. Read on for more specific measurement ideas.

Be specific

Engagement isn’t necessarily a vague thing. There are two classic engagement metrics for web pages:

  • bounce rate – the percentage of people who entered and exited on that page
  • time on page – how long the average visitor stayed

Compare these stats against the site average to see if the content is “engaging.”


Click to enlarge

Usually, the term means something more emotional. When content does connect emotionally, it often triggers actions that don’t appear in analytics, but they’re equally important: comments and shares. If the content inspires visitors to subscribe, download, become a lead, or buy, that’s the ultimate engagement.

Andy Crestodina, co-founder, strategic director, Orbit Media

If #content inspires visitors to subscribe, download, or buy, that’s the ultimate engagement via @Crestodina Click To Tweet

Say something

Unfortunately, engagement is not an exact science. I prefer to look at comments. Commenting on someone’s content is the ultimate form of engagement. It’s even more intimate than socially sharing content. However, the vast majority of content marketers don’t necessarily maintain a commenting culture on their blogs. Creating and building a culture that promotes audience engagement through comments should be a goal.

Chad Pollitt, vice president of audience, co-founder, Relevance

Creating a culture that promotes audience engagement through comments should be a goal via @ChadPollitt Click To Tweet

See the forest for the trees

If an e-book falls in the forest and no one engages with it, it doesn’t make a sound. It’s easy to make content that gets downloaded or clicks – just have a great title that promises value and/or entertainment. Delivering on that promise is far harder – and all too rare.

Signs of engagement are there if you look for them: comments, shares, time on page, clicks to other goodies. And don’t forget the subtler “ripples”: invitations to speak at events; personal emails from people you respect; hugs …

Doug Kessler, creative director and co-founder, Velocity

Know your business goals

“Engaging content” is a b.s. term that we all use way too much. (I’m guilty of this as much as anyone.) You need to define what kind of engagement matters to your business: Is it more email subscribers? More shares? More time spent with comments? More leads? The best way to figure that out is to work backwards from your business goals. Your company’s business goals should determine your content objectives, which should, in turn, determine the key performance indicators (KPIs) you measure. Here’s a sample chart from the Content Methodology Best Practices Report by Rebecca Lieb and me.


Click to enlarge

Identify the metrics that are meaningful to you, track which content and tactics work best, and optimize from there.

Joe Lazauskas, editor-in-chief, Contently

Focus on second step

Engagement means more than number of visitors, downloads, or webinar registrations. What counts more are the “second steps” – the time spent on site, the other pages visited, the shares, the comments, sign-ups, and the questions. That’s how you know that your content is resonating.

Roger Parker, founder, Published and Profitable

You know your #content is resonating by shares, sign-ups, ?’s, & time spent on site says @Rogercparker Click To Tweet
How to Measure Engagement the Right Way

Think next step

Engagement isn’t just about getting people to consume our content. It should also be about what they do next as a result. I’m not saying this something should be “buy our product” or “sign up as a lead”. It could be any meaningful action along the customer journey. Did anyone make that recipe or put your DIY advice into practice? That’s genuine engagement but it can be much harder to measure.

The humble call to action is the most obvious example. If the CTA links to more detailed information, for example, then the number of clicks will indicate how many people were motivated to find out more or take the next step. That’s why I advise clients to put as much effort into measuring what happens at the end of the content and not just the number of downloads, shares, etc.

Measure what happens at the end of the #content & not just the # of downloads, shares, via @kimota #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Jonathan Crossfield, storyteller, @Kimota

Factor in 3 things

Our measure for engagement focuses on three elements: Mass of social engagement around a piece of content (likes, RT, comments, backlinks, etc.), distance (how far does a piece of content travel on the social web), and longevity (how long before it dies off).

These elements will vary vastly from one piece of content to the next, much more so from author to author and between social platforms. These elements often impact engagement more than the content itself. The lesson? Think about the container (publishing and distribution) as much as you think about the content itself.

Pierre-Loic Assayag, CEO and co-founder, Traackr

Think about publishing & distribution as much as the #content itself says @pierreloic #CMWorld Click To Tweet


The need for “engaging content” is ubiquitous. How to define, create, and measure engaging content is not. Your company needs to define what it means for your audience and business through proper research, quality content development, and analysis of the metrics most important to your organization.

Overwhelmed by all this advice? Start small. Analyze a month’s worth of content — see what kept people on your site the longest and what drove the most email subscribers — that will help identify what content attracts an audience. After all, if your audience isn’t consuming your content, it’s definitely not engaging.

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To hear more from these experts, register today for Content Marketing World Sept. 6-9 in Cleveland. Use code BLOG100 to save $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute