Content Psychology 101
Discover what goes on in your readers' brains and how to make sure your content marketing gets the engagement it deserves
Content Psychology 101
What goes on in the heads of our readers?
when we read?
Our brains do some pretty amazing
gymnastics when we sit down to read
The secret life of
the human brain
Surprisingly, our brains contain no "hard-wired" circuitry to deal with the written word. Humanity's first attempts at written communication - cave paintings and iconography - made use of our innate ability to recognise "real" objects and exploited these skills to convey a message. These very natural forms of communication spread themselves far and wide throughout civilisation.
Information is remembered roughly six times better if presented visually
Brain hacks and squiggles
But then, around 3,000 years ago something strange happened: we began to warp these icons and pictures into ever more abstract symbols to convey information in a more concise way. This was the birth of the alphabet and the written word as we know it.
Some curious things happen when we read. First, we "hack" together those inbuilt circuits which allowed us to "read" cave paintings and iconography, and by bending them to a new purpose, we are able to identify the little squiggles and shapes that we call letters. We then join these letters up into words and begin to read their meaning, and it's at that moment that our brains do something very surprising - they start secretly "visualising" the individual words to build up a picture without us even knowing.
We take reading for granted, but it involves some serious brain power
When you read a sentence, research shows that your brain takes each word in turn and constructs a visual picture of the concept it conveys - and it does so entirely behind your back and without you knowing!
As an experiment, try reading this sentence: The bear ate the honey.
When you read that, your brain identified the key concepts and the relationships between them, and used this information to construct a subconscious image of the scene. Your brain then, still without your knowledge, used this visualisation to help you understand the message being conveyed. What is even more remarkable is that this seems to happen even when very abstract concepts are being expressed. Your reading brain is quite simply amazing.
Have you ever watched a film adaptation of a favourite novel and thought "that's not how I imagined it"? And have you ever then thought how strange a statement that is considering there were almost certainly no pictures in the book? Well, now you know - the book may not have had pictures, but your brain just couldn't resist creating them to aid your understanding of the story. Incidentally, this is why children's books use a combination of images and text - the images act as "training wheels" while the child's brain learns to create its own visual representations.
We see the effects of this miraculous process in some unexpected ways. For example, the use of imagery has a profound effect on information retention with studies showing that written copy supported by contextual images is recalled 6.5 times better than words alone.
Visuals also help to persuade. A study by 3M showed that an additional 50% of people will be persuaded by an argument if it is presented in a visually-rich format versus a text only one. No change to the argument itself, just the use of visuals.
Your brain can't help but create a visual representation of everything you read
For anyone creating content, this information should stop us dead in our tracks. If visual information has such a profound impact on how we engage with and retain information, shouldn't we be doing all we can to take advantage of this in our work? Clever advertisers figured out the power of images long ago and used it to get us to buy their products instead of their competitors’ offerings. But the use of imagery in content is typically less sophisticated - we might include a single image at the top of a blog post, but that’s it.
We are far more likely to agree with an argument if it is presented visually
Modern content platforms are changing that, however.
Visuals are processed 60,000x faster than text
Information presented in a visual way is ingested at lightning speed.
90% of brain power is spent on visual activity
That's pretty amazing when you consider all the other important and complex things you do in your day-to-day life.
Vision has cannibalised our other senses
Scientists believe that our need for visual processing power has caused roughly 60% of our genes related to the sense of smell to be irreparably damaged.
Open and closed minds
Providing an oasis of calm for busy minds
Too busy to think?
What does your typical workday feel like? Hectic, manic, and not enough seconds in the day to get everything done? If you're nodding along, you're not alone - this is how most of us feel every single day. What impact does this state of mind have on how we consume content during office hours?
Open and Closed minds
Research by Donald W. MacKinnon and popularised by John Cleese (of all people) says that our minds work in either an Open or Closed mode.
The Closed Mode is characterised by complexity, stress, pressure and deadlines. This is how most of us feel at work, and MacKinnon's research showed that when in this mode, it is almost impossible for our mind to move beyond our immediate demands to consider new ideas or be receptive to new messages, thoughts or proposals.
In contrast, the Open Mode is accessed when we're more relaxed and feel free from pressure, distractions, demands and complexity. We're completely engrossed and focused on what we're doing and are unperturbed by anything external.
Like an oasis of calm in our otherwise hectic lives, our mind is at ease and in
balance with the task at hand. It is in the Open Mode that we are open to new information, new possibilities and new messages.
Like an oasis of calm in our otherwise hectic lives
The holy grail
For content creators, the Open Mode is the holy grail. When readers are in this mode, our messages will be properly considered and evaluated with a curious, receptive approach, rather than consumed and discarded hastily as we move on to tick off the next item in our todo list.
How do you typically publish content?
- Scrolling web page
- Interactive content
Conventional document formats such as PDF and scrolling web pages do little or nothing to create this “oasis of calm” that our content deserves - but there are other options available. Interactive, highly visual content experiences, like the one you’re reading right now, are increasingly used by big brands such as Cisco, The Economist and Allianz to deliver their most important messages in a far more impactful and memorable way.
Accessing the Open mode is vital for our messages to engage and inspire
The medium is
It's not what you say, it's the way that you say it
The BBC, Sky News
and a Canadian philosopher
Tens of millions of pounds are poured into research by companies like Sky and the BBC to determine the very best way to present the news on television. Countless A/B trials and psychological theories are used to understand the specific combination of visuals, audio, text and animation that results in the most engaging experience for viewers.
The news stories themselves, of course, remain the same, but the way in which they are presented is tweaked and honed to deliver the best results for the channel. These businesses understand that the medium is the message.
The Medium is the Message
This famous phrase was coined by the godfather of modern media theory, Marshall McLuhan, in 1964, but what was he getting at? In short, he was describing the fact that the way in which a message is communicated has a material impact on how the message itself is perceived.
The BBC and Sky News understand this and know that the way they present the news is just as important as the news itself. They know that without a properly optimised medium, their news stories will not have the desired impact on their viewers and they will move on to other channels. On the other hand, a properly optimised medium will engage, entertain and resonate with its audience and keep them watching, reading and listening along.
For interpersonal communication, we understand this concept intuitively to the point where it seems like common sense. Phrases such as "it's not what you said, it's the way you said it" are commonplace and we all know what they mean, but we typically do not take the intellectual leap to understand just how profound the relationship between the medium and the message really is.
Lawyers are human too
In one study, a legal contract is presented to two different sets of lawyers in two different forms: one group receive the contract with standard legal typesetting and formatting, and the other as a professionally designed, thoughtfully composed document using columns, typography and colour. The text, of course, remains the same across both versions. Does design make a difference?
When asked for their legal comments, the first group are far more critical and pernickety in their responses, while the second group are much more positive and accepting of the clauses, providing less red-line and objections.
This may sound unbelievable but consider this: if your new employer sent you an employment contract written in green, 30 point Comic Sans font, you would be extremely sceptical of the credentials of the sender and go over it with a fine-tooth comb...and rightly so!
And so we see that even in some of the most important aspects of our business and personal lives, the medium really is the message. If we stop and think about the mediums we use to distribute our content online, can we really say that they are properly optimised for the task, or are they just old habits that have never really been challenged?
Has Technology Changed Us?
Narrated by Gillian Anderson for the Open University
Interactive content experiences
Same words, better medium; drastically improved results
Making use of
what we've learnt
We’ve looked at the fascinating science behind the way we read, the Open and Closed states of mind and how our choice of medium affects the way our messages are perceived - but how can we take advantage of this new knowledge to improve the content our businesses create day in, day out?
The key is to make the intellectual leap and realise that effective content is about far more than just the words. If we take an important, well-written article and place it into a standard scrolling web page or PDF, we’re silently telling our readers: “This is nothing special; consume it as quickly as possible, like you always do, and get on with your to do list”. We can’t then be surprised when this is exactly the course of action they take.
87% of marketers say interactive content outperforms static content
Instead, we need to offer readers an experience; something that takes them out of their everyday mindset and makes it easy for them to give our words the time and space they deserve. Visuals, interaction, unique and interesting layouts, the chance to explore - all of these attributes are necessary to create that “oasis of calm” which leads to better respect for and understanding of what we’re trying to say. When our choice of medium does justice to the work that has gone into our message, our readers repay us many times over with their time and attention.
Interactive content experiences, like the one you’re enjoying right now, have only recently been made possible thanks to the advent of technologies such as HTML5 and CSS3. They present exciting new opportunities to start delivering content far more effectively and are already being embraced enthusiastically as a replacement for PDF by brands as diverse as Cisco, Willis Towers Watson, Baker McKenzie and BNP Paribas.
The improvements these new formats bring are hard to overstate. From drastically improved engagement metrics, to increased lead quality, to time and cost savings on creation, to the whole new levels of analytical insight available - interactive content is making legacy formats look archaic and backwards. Adopters become advocates overnight and never look back.
Not everyone is ready to make the leap, but if you’re curious to find out more, a conversation with the people at Turtl is the very best place to start. Whether you’d like to learn how interactive content can help your business or you just want to find out more about what you’ve read today, we’re always happy to talk.
Big brands like Frost & Sullivan are looking to interactive content to help drive growth
Do you produce interactive content?
- Yes, I do
- No, I don't
- No, but I'm curious!