What even is engaging content?

‘We need to create engaging content.’ I hear that a lot. I have said it myself on more than one occasion and I have written an article titled Copywriting for Engagement. But no more. I want to create useful content and if that encourages engagement with our brand/product/service, then bonus. But ‘engagement’ won’t be the catalyst for my content production because what even is engaging content?

The definition of ‘engaging’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is:

  • obliging
  • absorbing, interesting
  • winning attractive

Ah! I suppose it’s fair if you want your content to be absorbing and interesting, but that doesn’t mean it is useful too, which it really needs to be. It has to serve a core purpose based on user needs, goals and expectations.

Another definition of ‘engaging’, from Google search results, takes us deeper into the rabbit hole of linguistic fogginess:

  • charming and attractive

When have you ever heard a client say they want their content to be charming and attractive. When have you ever wanted YOUR content to be those things? Please say never.

To pull us back to the surface, somewhat, this definition from dictionary.com is the nearest reason as to why you may describe content as engaging:

  • to occupy the attention or efforts of a person or persons

Ok, but like the first definition, this doesn’t mean this content is serving any purpose beyond someone reading it. Now what?

Measure all the engagement

Well that brings us onto the next tenuous issue with the adjective that has placed me firmly on my soapbox. Measurement. How can you measure if something is engaging? Social media shares, likes, follows, retweets, favourites and mentions all seem to be a common answer for how people measure engagement. It doesn’t add up though when you think about it.

Great, 75 people retweeted the link to your blog post. That’s the most you’ve ever had. Your content must be really engaging. Engagement with your content is successful. Now, how many of the people who retweeted that link are customers, or potential customers, or started a trial of your product/service, or joined a mailing list, or bought something?

Quality or quantity?

If your goal is to encourage and increase all of that social media interaction then you’ve achieved it. I would rather 100 followers who care about what content I’m sharing, find it useful and come back, rather than 1000 followers who won’t have any further interaction with my content beyond one retweet.

Usefulness trumps engagement

Having useful content that elicits engagement is fine, but that’s not where the spotlight should be pointing. To say you create engaging content sounds nice. It sounds like you are producing content that people like, and that may well be the case, but I struggle to see how engaging content can nurture real business benefits whilst helping your users achieve their goal. In most cases where engagement/engaging is used it can be swapped with a more relevant and accurate word:

Let’s write in an engaging tone

Let’s write in an authentic tone

Let’s use engagement as a measure of success

Let’s use increased trial sign-ups as a measure of success

Let’s create engaging content

Let’s create useful content that serves a purpose

The lost meaning

Through repeated and neglectful use, engaging has lost its true meaning. What’s worrying is if conversations about content are happening where engaging and engagement are used to inform and measure content, well it sets teams up for failure because if you were tasked with writing something engaging, where would you start? If you were tasked with reporting on the engagement of the company’s monthly content, where would you start? We’ve already acknowledged that social media stats seem to be the first stop, but then what?

Let’s focus instead on creating useful content. Our users will thank us for it.

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