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Want to Develop Engaging Content? First Step: Understand What Engaging Means

We recently released new research on B2B Content Marketing. The report is chock full of great insights into what content marketers are doing and where they are struggling (check it out to see how you compare).

The research also identified a number of places where content marketers could use guidance – and the CMI contributors are here to help. In the coming weeks, they’ll weigh in with actionable ideas on how content marketers can improve what they’re doing.

The first topic we’re tackling is the challenge that was identified most often by content marketers: producing engaging content. In the coming weeks, our contributors will be giving you tips on how to make content more engaging – and measure the results.

But, before we get into specifics, I wanted to get everyone on the same page. I asked, “First things first – what does engaging mean to you?”  Read on to learn how our experts define this often-used term. 

Genuinely engaging content is so attractive and appealing that it disarms you from your very first encounter…and makes you want to linger to learn more. When it really connects with you, it will take your breath away. It’s a little bit like love at first sight.



Newt Barrett (@newtbarrett)

Engaging content offers something new: a new perspective, an unexpected laugh, bits of knowledge, or something helpful, inspiring, or entertaining. Engaging content gives your reader a peek at something he or she hasn’t seen before, but can relate to in some way.

Shelly Bowen (@shelbow)

To be engaging, content must be relevant to the reader at the moment.  To increase your content’s appeal, take a page from the National Enquirer’s playbook. As a marketer, use titillating headlines and write about hot topics that grab your audience’s attention making them want to find out more. Appeal to multiple senses by making your information easy to scan and include an interesting photo. Don’t forget to make your story share-worthy to get readers to distribute it to their colleagues.

Heidi Cohen (@heidicohen)

Hyperbole and exclamation points do not engage readers. Engaging content starts and ends with telling a good story. Good stories require compelling characters, insider details and tales of challenges overcome. Like every area of life, there is no shortage of good stories in the business world. But many clients and customers are unwilling to share their story for fear of giving away proprietary information or a perceived competitive advantage. In many cases, it’s even company policy, which is kind of like saying marketing is against company policy.

There are two effective ways of overcoming such obstacles. First, with strong assurances that no competitive information will be revealed, get the support of a manager or executive high enough in the client’s organization who has a vested interest in sharing the story and who can sign off on the final copy. Second, start at the beginning and include the option to share the customer’s story in the job quote and proposal process—with the right to review and approve the content—and in the contract.

David Drickhamer (@leanroi)

Engaging content is anything that provides value to the lives of your prospects, customers or community members. It does not have to be elaborate, it simply needs to be valuable. Everyone is always talking about “relevancy” and interchanging that with “engagement” but really it’s about how much value are you genuinely adding to a person’s professional or personal life–and, I’m not talking about your product.

Barbra Gago (@barbragago)

Engaging content draws me into the moment. It gets me to think–but not so much that my head hurts. It leads me to see a need I didn’t see before, to view an old topic or idea in a new way, or to consider a different and better solution. It’s unique. It subtly disrupts my way of thinking without interrupting me like an ad. And, engaging content doesn’t feel like I’m being “marketed to.” Why? Because it focuses on me, not the marketer.

Colleen Jones (@leenjones)

Engaging means stopping someone in their tracks, then signaling, ‘This is really important’ and ‘This will be entertaining & informative.’ That’s just to earn the first engagement. To sustain it, it’s all about telling a really good story and telling it well (a plea for great copywriting!).

Our short paper called The Holy Trinity of B2B Marketing talks about the three questions that sustain engagement: “Who the hell are you?”, “Why should I care?”, and “Why should I believe you?”.

Doug Kessler (@dougkessler)

The problem in creating engaging content lies in trying to appeal to the rationality of readers. Engaging content is emotionally relevant. It triggers unconscious and conscious reactions in the brains of people.

The first point of engagement is attention, so that readers stay to experience your message. A powerful tactic is through negative information.  Following that, there is an emotional pathway that connects with readers to build credibility, trust, provide social proof, create desire and offer solutions to problems.

Content can be so engaging a reader is compelled to take action. Other times, they will register an emotion like respect, trust, curiosity and desire, and earmark the source in memory or digitally.

Patsi Krakoff (@Patsiblogsquad)

I think the question has it wrong. The issue is not what it means to “me” but what it means to my target audience. Something that’s dry as dust to may be groundbreaking to others. The key to creating engaging content, as in all marketing, is beginning with the customer and his/her needs.

Before you create a whit of content, you need to understand what your customers’ and prospects’ pressing problems are. Ask yourself – or better yet your customers — What are your biggest challenges?” and “What’s keeping you up at night?” Help solve those issues in your content and I promise you’ll get an engaged audience.

Wendy Marx (@wendymarx)

Engaging content is written in a conversational form. If I hear a strong voice or feel like I’m being spoken to directly, I become engaged. Strong writing will always draw me in. However, if the content is too formal or stiff, I immediately lose interest. I prefer to read something addressing me directly with lots of ‘you’ and ‘your’ sprinkled around.

Sarah Mitchell (@globalcopywrite)

Engaging: tending to draw favorable attention or interest.

Engaging content touches me on multiple levels. It stimulates me intellectually by challenging my beliefs. And it touches me emotionally by connecting with my hopes and fears.

Content marketers should consider using adult learning principles as guidelines for developing engaging content. With apologies to M. Knowles, for your target audience:

  • Involve them in the content development process
  • Leverage their experience
  • Clearly define content objectives and outcomes
  • Make content applicable to their work
  • Relate content to their interests

John Nawn (@perfectmeeting)

We’re not talking about the “Put a Ring on It” type of engagement here.  This is the type of engagement where you don’t have the advantage of eye-to-eye contact.  Yet you need to secure a prospect and keep them in a three-quarter face lock all within the five seconds of their attention span.

For a prospect, engaging content needs to do one, or even better, both of two things:

  • Help me
  • Entertain me

This may seem selfish on the part of the prospect, but their time is valuable.  You simply must recognize who your prospects are and fulfill their needs and/or make them laugh.

Elise Redlin-Cook (@redlincook)

Engaging content – content that is valuable enough to attract and hold your attention – provides a clear ‘Return On Time Spent‘ consuming the content. This comes in several forms:

  • Intellectual value in the education and knowledge provided
  • Aspirational value in its ability to get me to think bigger or differently in regard to a particular topic
  • Emotional value in its ability to inspire or to affect my mood
  • Social value in that it provides something of interest to others in my personal sphere that I can share – the act of which will enhance my social capital
  • Entertainment value

Lisa Petrilli (@LisaPetrilli)

For me, engaging content means leveraging both ideas and technology so that they work together for the best result.

On the idea side, the content is positioned to spark audience curiosity by being creative and relevant, and having some type of a call to action that invites the audience to add their own thoughts and expand the conversation.  Using a blog post as an example, you might write about a framework that would help your audience accomplish something that they struggle with today, and end the post with a question to learn if any readers might already be applying elements from the framework you’ve provided.

On the technology side, engaging content must be designed and distributed in a format and through vehicles that empower the audience and make it as easy as possible for them to engage.  Going back to the blog example, you might upgrade your comment system from the stock WordPress comment application to something like Disqus Comment System to make it easier for your readers to participate as other readers add their comments.

Nate Riggs (@nateriggs)

Engaging content calls upon a deep understanding of the audience and tightly choreographed elements to deliver an experience that completely engrosses the reader/viewer/listener. Like a well-advertised and produced movie, book or concert, engaging content draws in and connects with viewers, readers, or listeners, and leaves them wanting more. Ideally, the engagement inspires conversation, whether with peers and colleagues, or with the company that produced the eBook, white paper, webinar, video, podcast or other content.

Stephanie Tilton (@stephanietilton)

Engaging means the same thing to me today as it did the first time I looked it up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a child. Engaging: “tending to draw favorable attention or interest.” There really isn’t a reason to add any more complexity to the definition simply because we are now faced with the challenge to produce “engaging” content. Keeping it simple has its rewards.

Jeremy Victor (@jeremyvictor)

“Engaging” is one of those now-overused buzzwords that can mean different things depending on the context, industry and application.  I go back to the sage words of my high school English teacher:  great writing educates and entertains. One or the other at minimum — but ideally, both.  The writer can’t be the judge of whether she’s hit the mark:  only the reader can judge that.  So to some extent, trying to write “engaging content” is a fool’s errand.  The writer can only know her content is engaging after the fact. Content that is truly engaging motivates the reader to take action, preferably (but not necessarily) the one the writer has called for.

Jennifer Watson (@ContextComm)

“Engaging” to me means grabbing a reader’s interest and attention, drawing him/her into reading more – because the content is incredibly relevant, informative even entertaining – and causing him/her to accord value to the content – ideally, enough value to take an action.

‘Engaging’ content has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with my audience. It requires understanding the world that my audience lives in and communicating with language and terms that genuinely resonate with my audience.

CB Whittemore (@cbwhittemore)


Whew. A ton of useful info, right? While each of our contributors has a slightly different take on this question (and some people suggested ideas that I haven’t even considered before), here are some of the similarities:

  • Make sure content is relevant to your audience and helps them with an issue they have right now.
  • Give your audience something that they can’t find anywhere else.
  • Be entertaining, educational or both.
  • Tell the audience a story.
  • Invite the viewer to engage with you further by adding a call to action.

I’d love to get your thoughts. What is your definition of engagement? Is there anything you would add to this list? Let us know in the comments!

Want your audience to take notice and take action on your brand’s content? Our newest Guide to Essential Content Marketing Tactics has tips, insights, and ideas that can help increase your success with today’s top content marketing plays.

Other posts in this series: