What is engaging content?

by Philip Webb on 11 May 2012

Our clients sometimes want to know how to make their content engaging. This is the Holy Grail – publishing content that site visitors will want to stay for. So, content writers are duly called in, UX designers make the content easy to find, and visual designers make it look appealing. And the result is…well, often it’s dull. This isn’t just because it’s hard to make some corporate messages or offerings exciting when they’re inherently unexciting, although that is sometimes the case. So a new rallying cry is delivered from boardrooms: Set up a Facebook page, invite comments from the outside world, allow people to share or like the content – foster a ‘social community’.

The trouble with this approach is that it doesn’t address perhaps the most obvious quality engaging content has – the thing that makes it engaging in the first place. Change.

In fact this is what people are doing when they engage with it. They’re not just passively consuming it – they’re assimilating it, responding to it and in the process they’re mutating it into something else. It’s this quality that most Internet success stories either have engineered into them, or possess by accident.

The sheer ever-increasing weight of content itself is one of the drivers for this. Internet content is self-perpetuating. There’s now so much content out there, and easier and easier ways for any person to create it, that there’s a hunger for meta-content to make some sense of it. In other words, content begets content and so we look for some way to impose order. It is in our nature to look for patterns, to group, list and order things and in doing so we change those things, adding to the total sum of everything.

Engaging content changes what already exists and tells us something new. How? OK, 3 examples: Linkfluence, Pinterest and Change.org.


Linkfluence is a French start-up that develops analytics solutions for the social web. I came across it in an article on the Guardian that used its information visualisation tool to produce a map of the websites cited in the link-filled manifesto of Anders Breivik. The interactive map categorises the political make-up of the websites that he cites and shows the relationships between them.

It illustrates how he has woven many mainstream and opposing extremist sources of material into a world view that he claims led him to commit the atrocity. It’s a dizzying glimpse into a twisted conspiracist mind. The content is all out there, some of it mainstream and moderate, and Breivik trawled through it to make his own warped connections.

Linkfluence allows us to either drill into the detail or step back and see the bigger picture – to examine existing content in a new light, to look at the reach and comparative influence of ideas. The hyperlinks that connect pieces of content are generally viewed as just the bits of infrastructure that allow users to go on a journey however random or rambling. They’re only apparent at the page-level. But by elevating them away from the content they represent, Linkfluence has given us something new – the underlying structure of content, one that pulses as that content changes over time.


Pinterest, for those who haven’t heard of it, is effectively an online community that gives people a simple moodboard tool to create and share their interests visually. The basic building blocks of the site’s content are images that already exist. Of course, you can upload your own images too but it’s distinct from say, Flickr or Instagram, in that its focus is in organising images (new or existing) to express a personal taste.

The fun is in the collection as much as it is in the individual images that make up the collection. People who love 70s disco record covers or Swedish furniture design or the Muppets can set up a pinboard and navigate the web in search of the images that best represent their love. Curation is the key. One interesting aspect of the community is that the choice of pinboard is a form of self-expression in itself, whether narrow like ‘Cows’ or wide like ‘Beauty’ or simply ‘Things I love’.

From a UX perspective, we might examine the phenomenal success of a site like Pinterest by dwelling on the clever functionality that allows you to gather the images that speak to you on your web wanderings, or perhaps the way images can be re-used (or repined) in a different pinboard. Many of the standard functions of such communities are here: followers, repins, comments from admirers, and these functions allow the establishment of trends so that popular pinboards can rise to the attention of the masses. But at the most fundamental level, Pinterest is engaging to the people who love it because it allows them to make sense of what’s out there – to create a garden in the jungle, to shape the bewildering abundance of content in a way that pleases them.


Change.org is an online campaigning platform that allows people to create and sign petitions. It has helped put the spotlight onto causes that have otherwise been ignored through more official channels. After the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin was shot dead in February in Florida by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighbourhood watch leader, no prosecution followed. Martin’s parents used Change.org to launch a petition to appeal for judicial action. The petition subsequently went global, attracting 2.2 million signatures. Zimmerman has now been charged with second-degree murder.

Ben Rattray, the founder of Change.org, stumbled on the key to success only after earlier incarnations of blogging sites had failed. He realised that the petitions posted by some bloggers to add to their campaign were more popular and influential than the actual blogs.

So petitions trump blogs. The question is why? Blogs can become enormously successful, but they’re still just largely static pieces of content that others may consume or comment on or tweet about. The fact that ten thousand people read a blog is a testament to that blog’s popularity. But it’s not as powerful as ten thousand people reading a similar piece of content and deciding to act on it, to pool their opinions.

The thing is, because Change.org has had on the face of it some effect by bringing causes to the fore, users know that their online signature has the potential to make a difference. That’s why the content on Change.org is engaging. The site makes it clear that sometimes a petition results in a victory. It’s compelling because there are no barriers to starting a petition, and when you do, you can monitor its progress and how it stacks up against the most popular petitions in a kind of survival of the fittest. In other words, the petition can change – it can go from a ripple to a tidal wave, and petition-signers can derive satisfaction from having been a part of that.

There’s an immediate sense that the site is dynamic – that spending effort on this site will result in something actually happening in the real world. For example, the atlas graphic on the homepage that highlights whenever anyone around the world has signed a petition. Actually, which petition they’ve signed is beside the point, at least on this level because it demonstrates that the site is actively elevating causes that might have been buried in obscurity. The graphic is saying: ‘If you create a petition here it will be seen by a multitude of like-minded people.’ And it’s also saying: ‘Signatures are arriving like raindrops every instant – change is incremental but over time it’ll build up.’

What can be done to make content more engaging?

I think the writing is on the wall for static content. Content has a greater chance of becoming engaging if it can be changed by the intervention of users. It’s up to designers to facilitate that change – to provide the means for it. It’s also up to designers to collate the changed content and present it in such a way as to promote its fluid nature.

Then it’s up to users to do what they do best. Engage…

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