Keeping an audience engaged: How language shapes readers’ attention

By our News Team | 2023

Why do some articles captivate readers and encourage them to keep reading, while others make them lose interest after just a few sentences?

Researchers from three US universities have published a new article in the American Marketing Associations’ peer-reviewed Journal of Marketing that examines how and why the language used in content engages readers.

The study is authored by Jonah Berger, Wendy W. Moe and David A. Schweidel from the University of Pennsylvania, University of Maryland, and Emory University.

Content Marketing

Image by Agata from Pixabay

Everyone wants to hold an audience’s attention. Brands want consumers to watch their ads, leaders want employees to read their emails, and teachers want students to listen to their lectures. Similarly, media companies want readers to consume more content.

Why do some articles captivate readers and encourage them to keep reading, while others make them lose interest after just a few sentences? And how does the content (i.e., the language used) shape whether audiences stay engaged? 

The study addresses these questions by utilising natural language processing of over 600,000 reading sessions from 35,000 pieces of content, combined with controlled experiments.

The authors emphasise that it is important to distinguish sustained attention from other types of engagement. One way of measuring engagement is clicks, views, or other such metrics that measure how many people were exposed to a piece of content.

Research focused on holding readers’ attention

As Berger explains: “While prior research has examined how headlines or advertisements attract attention, we wished to explore how the content is able to hold a reader’s attention. Focusing on short-term metrics like views and clicks can lead to clickbait or headlines that attract attention, but it does not necessarily lead to content being consumed.”

Adds Moe: “Our study shows that language that is easier to process encourages continued reading, as does language that evokes emotion. But not all emotional language has the same impact. Instead, these effects are driven by the degree to which different discrete emotions evoke arousal and uncertainty.”

Notes Schweidel: “Consistent with this, language that is anxious, exciting, and hopeful encourages reading while language that is sad discourages it,” 

Among the lessons for marketers:

  • The study demonstrates the important role of emotional language and how different linguistic features shape content consumption.
  • Since content creators do not just want clicks, the research shows that simple shifts in language can encourage sustained attention. While it is often assumed that certain topics are better at keeping people engaged (e.g., celebrity gossip rather than financial literacy), the findings show that writing in certain ways can increase sustained attention – even for ‘less engaging’ topics.
  • What holds attention is not always the same as what grabs attention or encourages word of mouth. While more certain language can increase likes and shares, emotions that make people feel certain are actually detrimental when it comes to sustaining attention. 
  • Although some people have argued that content which requires more cognitive processing should increase clicks, the study shows that content which requires more processing has the opposite effect when it comes to holding attention. Retaining attention is a different type of engagement, and findings from one type of engagement may not necessarily carry over to others. Consequently, when developing content, managers should think carefully about which outcomes they care most about and design the content with that in mind.

You can read more about the research here.