A Content Strategy For Audience Engagement

By robert pratten, August 5th, 2010

When audiences connect well to your content, they go through three stages of engagement: Discovery, Experience and Exploration as shown in below.

The key to a successful content strategy is understanding (a) that there are these stages of engagement (b) what content is required for each stage and (c) what the goals are for each stage.

Failure to appreciate or acknowledge that there are these stages of engagement typically results in audiences being expected to do too much work too soon – which most won’t do – and hence the content fails at the Discovery stage and the real experience never begins. Or, expositional-type content that belongs in Exploration is offered as Experience content and hence fails to engage because it doesn’t tell a story.

Ignoring these stages is like expecting a kiss from a stranger before flirting with them or expecting to run off and get married after only the first date. Maybe in Vegas, but usually not anywhere else.

With transmedia, one media may act as Discovery content for another. For example, the comic book serving as Discovery content for a movie or, in the example of the Xbox game Alan Wake, six webisodes act as Discovery content for the game. However, it’s important to remember that each media also has its own Discovery>Experience>Exploration stages as shown in below.

This is particularly important for indies who may think that creating a comic book for their movie will result automatically in an audience for their movie. It won’t. The comic book first has to be discovered and experienced and it’s only if the content is good enough will the reader begin exploring and “discover” the movie.

Note that I’m fond of encouraging an iterative approach to creating transmedia projects but here I’m also proposing a recursive approach: each and every piece of content should attempt to lure, convince and deliver.

Engaging the Five Senses
The next illustration uses the metaphor of sensory engagement to illustrate how audiences connect to your content. The concept is that audiences are at first suspicious of new content and that if we are to draw them in and lead them to the highest level of engagement – contributing to the canon – then we must resolves their reservations and satisfy their needs at each stage.

Smell and teasers
The first sensory stage is smell. The audience approaches tentatively and sniffs: is there a whiff of the familiar?

We are creatures of habit because evolution has shown it serves us well. Repeating past satisfying experiences is a successful strategy for survival in the wild and with entertainment it’s a good indicator too.

The audience needs to be reassured that your content is worth its time and attention. You need to reduce the perceived risk by communicating “trustworthyness”, “coolness”, “quality”, ”appropriateness” – whatever values are sought by the audience for this type of project.

To communicate the correct values, I’ve created a content class called “Teasers”. Of course the “teaser” is familiar to indie filmmakers – a 30 second or less video intended to bait the trap; not to explain or reveal too much but only to temp further engagement. In this model however, I’ve broadened the teaser into a full content category to include all content that can be digested with the minimal amount of attention.

The figure shows the five content classes I’ve defined for each stage of engagement: Teaser, Trailer, Target, Participation and Collaboration.

Note that I had to create a name for the “target content” to avoid confusion with all the other content! Because of the recursive nature of this approach, any content might be at one time the target content and another time Discovery content.

Note too that because of the need to communicate quickly, visual clues from pictures, photos and web design are going to dominate the Teaser content class. But it’s also the headlines you communicate: well-known cast or crew, one-line quotes from reviewers and so on.

Taste and trailers
If your project smells familiar then the audience can progress to a more specific, personal question: will I like it?

The teaser has convinced the audience your project is something they might like, but what can you tell them to reassure them it’s worth their additional time and (possibly) money?

The movie trailer is a commercial. Its intention is to convince the audience that this movie is for them. In this model I’ve expanded the trailer to a class for all content that persuades. By which I mean content that removes the barrier between Discovery and Experience: it’s the barrier between the known – the Teaser and Trailer content – and the unknown – the target content.

This barrier is represented by toll gate 2 – TG2.

In this model, tollgates are barriers between one stage and another.

TG1 is tollgate 1. It’s the barrier that prevents audiences knowing that your project exists. TG1 can be breached by search engine optimization (SEO), recommendations, links and anything that puts your content on the map. But the first audience encounter should be with your Teaser content.

Tollgate 2 requires a little more explanation.

Think of TG2 as a wall that the audience must climb. The first tollgate image below shows how the project and business model will unavoidably create barriers to your content – some unintentional, some intentional.

Content that you provide in Discovery helps the audience scale the wall – as shown in below. In this example, price creates a barrier to entry that of course can only be scaled by the audience paying the fee. However, the tollgate is far higher than solely the price and the audience will only part with its money once the perception of the tollgate is lower than the payment. Stated simply, buyers rarely make decisions not to purchase based on price – it’s all those other barriers that have to be overcome first: value, suitability, risk, convenience, context and so on.

Touch and sight
It’s only when the audience touches the target content that it can see it for what it is. If your Discovery content has done its job then the audience’ expectations will be met or exceeded. But if you have deceived or misled them then they’ll be disappointed.

There is nothing more you can do at this point. The target content is what it is. This is what the audience came for and it has to deliver.

After – though sometimes during- the Experience comes the Exploration. The tollgate TG3 is the barrier to be climbed to have the audience increase its willing engagement. Sometimes there can be confusion and this will lead to unwilling engagement: the audience experiences the content but doesn’t quite “get it” and hence searches for an explanation or for help. In these situations of unwilling engagement, a high barrier at TG3 will lead to resentment.

Ordinarily we want the audience to engage further so reducing the height of TG3 should be a priority: make content easy to find and easy to access; signpost what content should follow the target content.

Listening and Participation
Although content in the participation stage may be available before the Experience, its goal is to aid exploration – not to tease or persuade (even though audiences might use it for reassurance to lower TG2).

Having experienced the target content – either in part or in full – the audience now listens for affirmation. They ask questions to themselves and to others and seek content that answers their questions or fulfils their desire for more.

Good content stimulates debate. Audiences want to discuss and share their experiences with others. They’ll also want to extend the experience and will search for add-ons or new target content.

Some audience members will want to show their affiliation to the content by buying merchandise or embedding widgets; they’ll want to encourage their friends to try the target content.

Content in this Exploration category is intended to reward and empower the advocate and to educate: it provides additional understanding and value to the target content. In this regard it may be acceptable to have “expositional” content such as character biographies, backstories and so on.

In this engagement model the ultimate audience engagement is collaboration or contribution. Not everyone in the audience will progress to this stage and some authors may think this undesirable.

Collaboration is not that same as participation. Participation might be passive (reading additional content and exploring the world) or active – voting, sharing, commenting, discussing, Tweeting and so on. Collaboration is adding to the storyworld: writing fan fiction, creating videos or illustrations. It’s providing new content that you, as author, are free to embrace or reject.

Between participation and collaboration is tollgate 4 – it’s a barrier created by the audience’ perceived lack of time and skills, fear of ridicule and lack of information about how to contribute to the world. You can lower this barrier by providing tools, methods, encouragement and a supportive environment.

How To Use The 5-Senese Engagement Model
The premise with this approach is that a transmedia storyworld maybe too vast to expect an audience to jump right in. They have to be teased and led like Hansel and Gretel by a trail of breadcrumbs. Imagine your world to be a huge cavern – if you blindfold your audience and then first open their eyes once they’re inside, the vastness is overwhelming – it’s a new and scary place. Your audience needs orientation. They have to be guided through an entrance tunnel and see the cavern open up before their eyes and at their own pace. The more complex the world, the more handholding you need to do.

There’s also the issue of the time, energy and cost required to digest a whole storyworld. Far better to give the audience smaller snacks at first until their appetite grows for larger, more time-consuming content.

Note that this content strategy is for audience engagement. When combined with the platform selection methodology, start first with revenue-generating target content and see how it might be prioritized by platform. Then use this engagement model to understand the relationship between the platforms and to identify additional content to aid Discovery and Exploration.


Posted in audience-building cross-media design experience movies social media storytelling transmedia

robert pratten is a transmedia consultant and content creator. He’s also a critically acclaimed award-winning feature film director, writer & producer. In a previous life he worked as a marketing consultant to the telecoms industry and was an internationally recognized expert in the field of Intelligent Networks. Past clients include Nokia, Ericsson, Lucent, Telia and Telmex. Follow at http://twitter.com/zenfilms

twitter site
I Hate Perfume – RADAR S3 Ep 34 [vid]
Christopher Brosius is a perfumer who designs scents unlike any you have ever smelled. In his shop CB I Hate Perfume, Christopher manages to capture… read more
The Purpose of Film Festivals, Part 2
How small festivals can be the future of meatspace film distribution In the past several years I’ve had the opportunity to participate in and listen… read more
Can a Story Be Too Real?
Maureen McHugh has a piece up on MimeFeed about The Illusion of Authenticity, in which she talks about the most compelling storytelling as an alchemical… read more