"Why do people talk so much about their own attitudes and experiences? It's more than just vanity; we're actually wired to find it pleasurable. Harvard neuroscientists Jason Mitchell and Diana Tamir found that disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding... sharing personal opinions activated the same brain circuits that respond to rewards like food and money." - Jonah Berger, "Contagious"

Virality isn't an accident. There's a formula- a very real reason why people react strongly to videos, photos, and articles that they discover through their personal networks.

In this section we’ll take a look at how media powerhouses like Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Thrillist, Business Insider and more, approach content and engagement.

What’s good content anyway?

What makes good content "good" is highly subjective- we can find a handful of different reasons why we like or dislike anything.

That reaction, whether positive or negative, is a function of interest. While positive reaction is the desired result, it’s important that people are reacting to the content. Bad publicity is

The key is to understand why people consume content, and create content solely for that purpose.

We find content interesting because it fulfills our individual emotional needs:

1) Emotional Gifts- allows individuals to communicate empathetically to others through media. A reader effectively says, "this made me feel X I want you to feel X” or “I heard you’re feeling Y, I’d like you to feel X”.

Emotional gifts can be:

  • Inspirational
  • Awkward
  • Stress relief
  • Happy or sad

2) Social information- helps individuals communicate more about a point of view. It can also explain why that point of view matters to them.

Social information includes

  • Facts about what your customers like
  • Facts about what their friends like
  • Proving an argument
  • Humble bragging

3) Identity- is a tricky, but also incredibly powerful, reason why platforms like Snapchat are so popular. Content that speaks to identity lets individuals express themselves in a more articulate, or more exciting, way than they could through other means. It can also explain a part of themselves that they are actively trying to understand, and share the self discovery (or development) with others.

Identity can include content that touches on:

  • Occupation
  • Sexuality
  • Locality
  • Gender

If we take a look at any of the most popular articles for any topic, or subject area, we’ll see that they speak to at least one of the three needs listed above.

"So, what's the point of all this touchy-feely stuff?"

Aside from it being a fundamental part of how we communicate as humans, it's also a critical component of engagement- the holy grail metric of social media and content marketing.

What’s engagement?

WhaT's Engagement (2).png


Understanding what makes for good content is only part of the problem. Where most content strategies fail is by creating content that doesn't address one (or all) of the needs above, and as result doesn't lead to a form of meaningful engagement.

Getting a grip on the thousands of different ways to combine all moving parts of a great content marketing strategy is tough. But once you can identify what works, the amount of demand that can be generated is nearly infinite. It pays to put in the work.

That's easier said then done especially when you consider how many brands are under-performing across social media. According to TrackMaven, content output increased by 35% in 2015 while engagement decreased by 17%.

"We’re all pumping out more and more content, but unfortunately, we’re getting fewer results from it. This is because our audiences have reached their content saturation rate. They’ve maxed out how much content they can consume. So now they either start ignoring all of this overabundant content generally, or they get pickier about quality and relevance." Pam Neely "The State of Social Media Engagement and 3 Proven Ways to Boost It

Clearly publishing more content isn't the solution. But producing high-value content that drives engagement for your niche is.

Once you understand the various niches surrounding your business, the types of individuals who compose them, their pain points, and which platforms they frequent, you can begin to reverse the engagement trend. In doing so you'll out-smart the likes of Huffington Post, and Business Insider simply by being awesome.

“Niche when multiplied becomes the foundation of our society. “- Ze Frank, President of Buzzfeed Motion Pictures

While your company may not be the next Buzzfeed, it's important to understand the opportunity at hand.

What Buzzfeed has mastered is the ability to connect with niches through well crafted headlines, meticulously tested video content, and instantly recognizable formating. They've proven that when it comes to content and social media marketing the opportunity isn’t in scale, but in many niches. Why? Because a collection of niches forms your customer base and audience. It's this grassroots approach that makes powerful content an effective growth hack.

When you think about it that way, it’s not unreasonable to think you could become the Buzzfeed of your niche. Whether you’re selling office furniture, or tax compliance software the same basic emotional triggers, desires, and needs still apply. The challenge is customizing content to fit your niche's specific needs, biases, and voice.

At the end of the day marketing is all about telling a story people can buy. People buy what they want, not just what they need. Often times the need is created out of a strong want.

There are a lot of reasons why people buy: they want to feel smarter, cooler, richer, better looking, more successful etc. Consumers and businesses alike imagine that their life will improve just by using a particular product- they want the promises of that brand, the brand's identity, projected on to them. It obviously helps when the product delivers on that promise.

But at the end of the day it doesn't matter if you’re a B2B SaaS company, or a socially-conscious B2C- your customers are all humans. Humans always want more.

Bridging the gap between branding & niche authenticity

Ultimately content marketing's goal is to sell your company's story long before the product is in the hands of the customer. People rarely buy a product for its features alone- content allows you to build authentic hype around your brand to get people excited and intrigued about your product. Being able to harness the excitement is what fuels growth.

Understand this: The average person is bombarded with so much information on a daily basis that they struggle to make sense of it all.

Stories are the ways the human mind collects information to process it for later consumption. If a message doesn’t follow a narrative of some sort, isn’t contextualized by social relationships, feels inauthentic for any reason, then it raises a red flag. Audiences ignore it.

What we consume is shaped by our worldview- a series of values, biases, experiences, and assumptions about the future. A person’s worldview is influenced by their parents, the schools they attended, the places they’ve lived, the vacations they've taken etc. By looking into these biases you can identify the nuances that will allow you to connect with your audience in deeply personal ways.

Since the individuals who make up your target audience (and target customers) are very similar you can assume that replicating any popular content pieces will lead to success. The human brain is geared to make quick decisions, and because of where these decisions are being made- in a search engine, in a news feed, in a mobile app- consumers increasingly make quick decisions based on biases and past experiences.

If a piece of content, or a format, has done well in your niche it will likely work for you. You don't want to be a copy cat, but you don't need to reinvent the wheel. People want more of what they already like, and what they're familiar with. As Pablo Picasso said, "good artists copy, great artists steal." Through careful testing and tweaking you can develop what's worked for others into your very own style.

Through millions of years of evolution the human brain has developed patterns, or heuristics, that enable it to make split second decisions. Where this was once crucial to making life and death decisions while hunting, or eating poison, it has little real use in modern life.

However, the very same mechanisms impact decision making for modern consumers. This where content can step in to buy your brand a few more minutes of listening time before your audience blocks out the message of an unfamiliar brand.

High-value content cleverly persuades your audience to engage with your messaging through Kahneman's System 1, and then wins them over with hard data that feeds System 2.

Creating great content that drives engagement is simple if you understand the following:

1) Biases: what to consume, and what to ignore are driven by biases that define us as individuals.

2) Niche: niches are filled with individuals who posses similar world views and needs. By creating content for niches you can engage people deeply passionate about a particular set of ideas, beliefs, or lifestyles.

3) Our need to share information: high-quality content speaks to an innate need for sharing emotional gifts, social information, and identity.

Behavioral Economics & Content Marketing- A match made in heaven

In Daniel Kahneman's “Thinking Fast & Slow", he states that the human thought process can be broken down into two systems: System 1 and System 2.  According to Kahneman, “When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do.” Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book. Kahneman describes System 1 as effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps.”

He also describe circumstances in which System 2 takes over, overruling the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1. You will be invited to think of the two systems as agents with their individual abilities, limitations, and functions.”

In other words what really makes great content marketing powerful, is its ability to fool a reader into believing it is engaging with System 2- a higher cognitive function- but is really speaking to System 1.

This is essentially what click-bait does. The reason why we hate it is because it doesn't turn the tease into anything of substance. By the time System 2 realizes what’s happened we’ve already clicked the link, the publisher generated a revenue event, and we're left holding an empty bag.

The catch is that most publishers do not have an incentive to have you read through an article. For a business engaging in content marketing speaking to a reader's System 2 is crucial, because System 2 craves authenticity. In the end it's System 2 that chooses to act on the initial interest of System 1 and engage.

To sum it up, behavioral economics does fantastic job of explaining the thought processes that underly content driven conversions. By attracting your reader to your messaging, and then providing them with valuable information they're open to what ever suggestions you might propose to them so long as it's logical.

Furthermore, by breaking down complex ideas that support the reader’s generic biases you can walk them through a series of miniature moments of clarity. These moments of clarity when appropriately matched with emotional gifts, social information, and identity make for powerful content that will generate the engagement you want: meaningful social shares, link backs, subscriptions, and purchases.

(Great title + bias friendly intro) x (information rich content + depth of knowledge) = conversions and shares

Tailoring your brand’s stories to your customer’s worldview also creates distance between your brand and the bottom line- profit.

When you engage with your audience on their own terms you not only humanize your messaging, but you create conversations far removed from the purchasing decision. This helps potential customers become more comfortable with your company and feel less pressure to buy. The low-pressure environment actually has the effect of increasing sales, referrals, the total amount purchased, and the frequency of purchases.

Not only can authenticity help you address your audience’s needs for emotional gifts, social information, and identity but you can sell more without coming off as pushy, salesy, or cheesy. Authenticity is what makes or breaks content marketing- authentic stories always resonate, and continue to drive traffic years after they’re published. 

Read More: How to Become a Niche Media Powerhouse

Read More: Creating a Framework for Mind-Blowing Content