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TL;DR

MarTechExec takeaway

"Interactive content really can transform the way you not only approach content marketing as a whole, but also how you engage with your target audience. It opens up a true two-way dialogue between you and them, but you need to practice due diligence there in order to reap the rewards." – Lana K. Moore, Executive Editor at MarTechExec (@martechexec)

Definition

Interactive content is content that is action-oriented and engagement-based. It’s designed to encourage user participation, usually as part of a marketing campaign, with some type of conversion as the end goal.

Guiding principles

Keeping our audiences engaged is a full-time job — We totally get that. So if you’re pressed for time, rest assured that we’ve still got your back.

Here’s our highlight reel on making your interactive content a success:

Pass the controller, please

The best interactive content gives users a solid sense of control. Include different options for them to pick from, like in the form of quiz questions or game characters. But remember to design these options strategically. In other words, don’t add options for the sake of options.

Tell your tale

Interactive content guides users from one conversion to the next. Because of this, it’s crucial that your interactive content tells a story that aligns with your objective. Make sure any and all interactive content has a clear beginning, middle and end.

Pave the way to profit

While the story that you tell through interactive content can only go on for so long, it should always promise more to come. Add clear calls-to-action that tell the user what to do next and why — as in, how does it benefit them, and how does it connect to your campaign’s message?

What is interactive content?

Marketers like to use “interactive content” interchangeably with other terms. This is an amateur mistake, but it’s easily fixed.

Let’s set the record straight by defining the verbiage in plain, simple English.

But before that, let’s ensure we’re on the same page when it comes to what content actually is.

I wrote about this in the content marketing edition of our Martech Master Series — Content Marketing for the Modern Customer Journey: A Guide for Marketers Willing to Walk the Walk. In it, I defined content as tangible marketing material, like blog posts, webinars, infographics and GIFs.

Interactive content is based on the idea of trading a user’s attention for a brand’s offer. In order for the user to reap a reward, they have to deliberately engage with the brand’s content. And this doesn’t happen in a single click. What makes content truly interactive is that it’s a multi-step process in which the user decides which steps to take.

Dynamic content (AKA adaptive content or smart content) does change based on each user — but not because of deliberate action. It changes based on a user’s past behavior, which the business collects as data, which is used to personalize content to every new user, thus making it “dynamic.”

Active content is normal content with an added “next step” for the user to take — a call-to-action, basically. It tells the user what to do, but it doesn’t necessarily tell them when, where or how to do it. “Active content” might’ve been the hot term a few years ago, but now it’s pretty much the bare minimum on any marketing team.

Passive content (AKA static content) is just… content. It doesn’t end with a CTA. It doesn’t tie into a larger campaign. It’s not a means to an end — It’s just an end. Most of us know that passive content is the least strategic of all content types. That said, there’s still plenty of it swimming around out there.

Interactive content in action

It’s undeniable: Interactive content is drastically different from other content types. And when we look at those who’ve done it best, we see those differences really come to light.

Among those who use it, the top five most popular types of interactive content are:

  • Interactive infographics (52 percent)
  • Contests (47 percent)
  • Calculators (46 percent)
  • Quizzes (46 percent)
  • Assessments (46 percent)

Here are a few stellar examples worth spotlighting.

Interactive infographics

Bryan JamesSpecies in Pieces takes you on a virtual safari featuring 30 endangered species. Species in Pieces allows you to click through the species, learn about their endangered status, download wallpapers, purchase a branded poster and more.

While it isn’t tied to any specific organization or cause, this interactive infographic is a perfect example of what interactive content can and should be.

Contests

Fairmont Hotels held a contest offering a free stay at one of their locations, plus some extra spending money for things like golfing and the spa. The offer itself is alluring enough to bring entries rolling in, but the brand didn’t stop there.

They made the contest interactive by asking the user to “reveal their travel personality” by picking from five options: Urban, Sophisticated, Adventurous, Tranquil or Exotic. Not only does this make the contest more engaging for users but it also gives Fairmont Hotels some seriously valuable audience lifestyle data.

Calculators

Water bottle brand CamelBak came out a pretty nifty Hydration Calculator that estimates how much water you should be drinking based on several factors, like the user’s age and gender, activity type, intensity, duration and more.

At the end, the calculator gives you your estimate and also translates that estimate based on their volume of their own products. What’s more, they also offer a 20 percent off coupon for “the CamelBak bottle that’s right for you.”

Quizzes

To promote one of its new credit cards, Chase Bank sponsored a Buzzfeed quiz called “If You Get 9/9 On This Quiz, You’re Probably Really Good With Money.” Not only does Chase use trivia questions to gamify finances (what a feat), it also explicitly compliments high-scoring users before they even take the quiz.

Basically, the user’s win or loss is still their win. A low scorer will be more inclined to look into the credit card that Chase promises will help them “spend with confidence.” And while a high scorer might not want or need the card, they’re likely to have a positive impression of the Chase brand thanks to that little ego boost.

Assessments

Though sometimes confused for quizzes, the goal of an assessment is drastically different than that of a quiz.

Assessments help push users through the Consideration stage of the customer journey and into the Decision stage by analyzing their current problem(s) and offering a path to a solution — kind of like a mini, digital consultation. Because of the service-focused nature of assessments, they’re usually reserved for B2B.

This interactive assessment from ServiceNow is a perfect example. Users click through questions to assess their strengths and weaknesses in IT Service Management (ITSM).

In the end, ServiceNow gives the user a final “grade” and prompts them to contact the business for next steps.

Too legit to quit

Interactive content has been popularizing brands for decades — long before sponsored Buzzfeed quizzes became the norm. Trivial as it may sometimes seem, interactive content — and those who master it — are well-deserving of marketers’ praise.

Because… They’re essentially hacking the human brain.

Behind the micro-interactions and funky cartoons lies a strategy steeped in decades of research on consumer psychology. Marketers swear by interactive content because it’s built on proven psychological concepts — namely, active learning, Cognitive Evaluation Theory and the Norm of Reciprocity.

Recall me maybe?

Interactive content is all about active learning, or “any instructional method that engages students in the learning process.” While this concept is rooted in actual, formal education, it’s 100 percent applicable to marketing.

Because, if you think about it, marketing is really just the process of teaching consumers about products and services that can help them reach their goals.

Research of over 6,000 college students found that those in “classes promoting engagement” scored twice as high on concept-based tests compared to students in “traditional courses.”

And before you pull out your skeptical spectacles, note this: The researchers made it crystal clear that the differences were completely related to “the nature of active engagement” and not the “extra time spent on a given topic.”

In other words, interactive content works because active learning works — not because of the extra time users spend scrolling through a quiz or leveling up on a game.

Choose it or lose it

Human beings thrive in controllable environments — whether or not we want to admit it. And when other people — or brands — give us control, say by navigating an interactive quiz or infographic, we automatically like them more. This is called Cognitive Evaluation Theory, and it’s a key pillar of consumer psychology.

When we as marketers give users a sense of control, it increases brand favorability — the little seed from which brand loyalty ultimately grows.

Adding user-controlled elements to your interactive content need not be extreme, either. Studies show that simply adding haptics (AKA touch technology) to video ads results in 50 percent higher brand favorability.

Interactive IOU

The Norm of Reciprocity says that when someone gives us something, tangible or not, we naturally feel obliged to return the favor. It’s our psyche’s version of a guilt trip. And it’s surprisingly effective.

Research shows that users are more likely to be loyal to a brand if it offers them some sort of value in exchange, like:

  • Small gifts, like gift cards, discounts and special offers (59 percent)
  • Personalized interactions (51 percent)
  • Ability to personalize products (41 percent)
  • New experiences, products or services (41 percent)
  • Ability to exchange loyalty points/rewards with partner companies (39 percent)
  • Innovative and creative engagement through VR or AR (33 percent)

Delivering value is a tenet of interactive content — whether through the fun of gamification, reward of a contest, guidance of an assessment or otherwise.

No pain, no attain

According to eMarketer, 33 percent of North American B2B marketers use interactive content. While this isn’t a shameful number, per se, it pales in comparison to the use of other tactics, like:

  • Social media posts (94 percent of respondents using)
  • Case studies (73 percent of respondents using)
  • Ebooks/white papers (71 percent of respondents using)
  • Infographics (65 percent of respondents using)

Given these statistics, we’re left to wonder why, if interactive content is as lucrative as headlines claim, more marketers aren’t using it.

To cast light on the confusion, we need to dig deeper into the challenges of using interactive content in marketing — and why they make success so hard to attain.

Missing the mark

When done well, storytelling is a key driver of interactive content success — After all, our brains feed off story models to help us grasp new ideas.

And great stories don’t need to be elaborate, either — Something as simple as “Here is your problem. Here are its effects. Here’s hows we can help” can do the trick.

But many a marketer has failed at interactive content due to over-simplifying or complicating its core story. This leaves the user confused as to why they’re being asked to interact with your content — What’s in it for them? Is there a catch? And what are you ultimately driving them to do?

Considering the average human attention span doesn’t even surpass 10 seconds, it’s critical that we give interactive content just enough substance to keep users engaged — Not too much to overwhelm them, and not too little to bore them.

Interactive overkill

According to Forbes contributor Scott Severson, an aversion to content marketing is already taking hold. “Banner blindness exists because people generally don’t like to be sold to or interrupted,” Severson said. “Content blindness occurs because the signal-to-noise ratio is increasing.”

This noise is especially problematic in interactive content, since it’s easy for marketers to get carried away with all its bells and whistles.

The end result on the user is the Paradox of Choice, which occurs when the user has too many options to choose from and thus chooses no option at all. In terms of interactive content, the Paradox of Choice is caused by:

  • Too many potential answers to a quiz question
  • Too many steps to take to earn a reward
  • Too many solutions offered at the end of an assessment

…just to name a few.

All eyes on the prize

Interactive content bets on positive reinforcement — the idea that rewarding someone for doing something helps “teach” them to do it more (like giving a dog a treat every time it rolls over).

This sounds good and dandy, but it isn’t always so. Placing too much emphasis on an incentive in interactive content — like a contest prize or a spot on your game’s leaderboard — can lead to something called the overjustification effect.

This means, in layman’s terms, that offering a reward for a certain action can actually make someone less likely to do that action in the future when a reward isn’t present.

Conversion Uplift wrote a great piece about the effect of overjustification in marketing — specifically, in gamification. And they use  Pokémon Go as an example.

They explain that “achievements and rewards that are purely linked to repetition (e.g. number of hands played) or completing set tasks (collect 10 standard Pokémon’s)” make the user less motivated to engage by their own free will.

Is your interactive content legit?

Using the info we’ve covered so far, I challenge you to start looking at interactive content in a way that’s more true-to-term. To help you define what exactly that means, I’ve put together a 15-point checklist for evaluating your interactive content.

Without further ado, let’s get to ‘em.

Your interactive content is legit if…

  1. It follows a strategy that aligns with your marketing objectives
  2. It has a designated place in the customer journey, either in the Awareness, Consideration, Decision or Loyalty stage
  3. It entices the user within the first 8 seconds (AKA the average human attention span)
  4. It starts off by answering “What’s in it for me?” (from the user’s POV)
  5. It tells a story that connects to the other stages of the customer journey — instead of being a story online within itself
  6. It involves multiple steps — not just a single click, a share, a like, etc.
  7. It clearly and concisely gives users directions at each step
  8. It gives the user different “routes” to take (AKA options to choose from)
  9. It emphasizes message over flair, avoiding interactive elements that could distract the user
  10. It uses a medium that makes sense for the type of content and your type of business
  11. It works just as well on one device, browser or OS as it does any other
  12. It shows brand consistency through colors, fonts, tone, etc.
  13. It includes any necessary citations and attributions
  14. It has an SEO-friendly title and description
  15. It ends with a call-to-action that the user can easily act on

A new era of engagement

We challenged a panel of martech experts to name the most significant changes interactive content will face in the coming years — both good and bad.

As usual, they didn’t disappoint. Here’s what they predict for the future of interactive content, based on their own interactions (no pun intended) and professional experience.

Taking customer cues

Huffington Post contributor Beverly Macy wrote a piece about the new “Culture of Proximity,” which describe how “today, millennials ― and everyone else ― live with only one degree of separation from everything.” And, truth be told, they own it.

61 percent of Millennials feel they have an influence on pop culture and have a degree of ownership over the things they like. Marketers need to keep their eyes, ears and feedback forms open in order to keep a pulse on customer sentiment to drive innovation.

“Every year, technology is allowing the general public to create more complex things with increasing ease. Marketers are going to have to follow the trends set by the public to stay relevant.” — Jordan Harling, Chief Digital Strategist at Roman Blinds Direct

“We're already starting to see responsively generated content on major news platforms, social media, and YouTube. As we increase the relegation of content creation, presentation, and delivery to algorithms, we're likely to see a resurgence for the authentic voices in media.” —Meghan Athavale, Chief Executive Officer at Lumo Play

“There’s a clear indication that interactive content technology, over the next 3 to 5 years, will center around the customer experience as dictated by individual behaviors both on- and off-line.” — Roger Hurni, Managing Partner at LighthousePE

All-in immersive

Interactive content is a stepping stone toward a totally immersive customer experience — something they’re truly craving, research shows.

According to eMarketer, 27 percent of U.S. internet users would like brands to offer to more VR events and experiences. And brands are hearing them out.

Another eMarketer report shows that the global market for VR and AR will increase from $11 billion in 2017 to $215 billion in 2021. That’s roughly an 1800 percent increase in just four years.

“Mixed reality (MR) will bring a new dimension to interactivity, blending 360 virtual reality content with AR synthetic objects to cultivate more comprehensive engagement between consumer and brands.” —  Tarif Sayed, Chief Executive Officer at Holo Media

“Brands and marketers need to find new ways to build better relationships between people and their brand. Consumers respond to content that makes them think, feel, and immerses them in new ways.” — Christophe Mallet, Co-Founder at Somewhere Else

“The internet is already over-saturated with content so the marketers who can leverage data to offer a more relevant experience will have the edge.” — Ashley Walsh, Vice President of Marketing at Formstack

Interactive for everyone

As all new martech does, the rise of interactive content will lead to the development of new, less expensive, more accessible tools for marketers to use.

This will even the playing field between corporate superpowers, SMBs and startups. As a result, interactive content will be “the new normal.”

“Over the next 3-5 years, industry professionals can shift focus on lowering the entry price point, increasing the amount of content, and producing wearables that are both lighter weight and of higher resolution.” — Annie Eaton, Chief Executive Officer at Futurus

“As data becomes cheaper and technology becomes more capable, TV show-like experiences that are interactive, social, and based on mobile platforms will become commonplace.” — Brennan White, Chief Executive Officer at Cortex

“The next five years will see that amount increase as more and more vertical industries, including sports, retail, and hospitality, tap into the power of mobile devices to create never-before-seen experiences.” — Alex Hertel, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder at Xperiel

Martech magic at work

To say the interactive content marketing moves at lightning speed would be an understatement.

And while we can’t say for sure that our wildest tech dreams will come true, we can look to current trends in interactive content as indicators for future innovation.

User-centric universe

The shift away from product-centric marketing is impossible to ignore. Now, user experience (UX) design and customer experience (CX) management are the name of the game.

Research indicates that “customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator” by 2020. And 89 percent of marketers say interactive content makes this differentiation possible.

“If we have learned anything about brand engagements, it is that the customer is not just willing to engage with relevant content, but they want to be the star of the show.” — Jason Donahue, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Sidewalk

“Customers and users are increasingly expecting to be known and understood by the brands and companies they engage with.” — Chris Bintliff, Marketing Strategist at Not Really Rocket Science

“Interactive content technology gives consumers an active choice to engage with content and other consumers who share the same interests. For marketers, this is a gold mine.” —  Jen Boyadjian, Founder and Managing Director at Boyadjian Consulting

Merging media

Instead of standing alone, interactive content will complement other tactics to make marketing campaigns all the more engaging for restless users — which, according to eMarketer, is a smart financial choice.

50 percent of North American content marketers agree that combining traditional content with interactive content enhances message retention.

“The news of Apple releasing a stand-alone augmented reality headset in 2020 makes Tim Cook’s vision even more tangible: AR is going to be as big as the smartphone.” — Christophe Mallet, Co-Founder at Somewhere Else

“The current state of software and hardware gives us endless possibilities. Let’s put a smartwatch together with the VR glasses and we can place the user right in the middle of a sword fight. Who knows what else can we come up with?” — Filip Jaskólski, Head of Developers Program at LiveChat

“Today’s consumer interacts with content online, and off. On their watches, phones, in their cars, in planes, in augmented reality, virtual reality, while they’re working, playing, exercising, relaxing, and everything in between. The creation of content needs to take all of this into account.” — Aaron Dubois, Vice President of Digital at Phelps

Partner up for profit

As interactive content becomes more accessible, brands won’t just use it for their own benefit — they’ll partner with others, too, either through strategic partnerships or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Research shows that these efforts pay off — literally.

According to eMarketer, 49 percent of U.S. internet users are likely to buy a product or service in response to a company demonstrating CSR.

“Walt Disney Animation Studios developed a coding and programming game for young children, and they use upcoming or recent movie characters to teach the code.” — Wes Marsh, Director of Digital Marketing at Solodev

“IKEA leveraged the Apple VR Kit so you could project their merchandise right into your flat. It’s a great example of an app that is both surprising and also practical.” — Filip Jaskólski, Head of Developers Program at LiveChat

“Apple’s new animojis allow people to map their facial movements to an emoji. Instantly people were lip-syncing their animations to karaoke classics, causing brands to hop on the trend.” — Jordan Harling, Chief Digital Strategist at Roman Blinds Direct

Final thoughts

Interactive content is, honestly, an anomaly.

While it’s founded in the most basic ideas of consumer psychology, it’s complicated by modern phenomenons like content blindness, the paradox of choice and society’s dwindling attention span.

The rise of interactive content represents a shift for us marketers — away from spray-and-pray, bandwagoning and static content and toward hyper-personalization, innovation and continuous engagement.