Content marketing seems simple on the surface; write content that people want to read, and they’ll be more likely to visit your site. But what, exactly makes content worth reading? What makes a person interested or motivated enough to click on a link to read an article?

In some applications, these questions are easy to answer. People like informative content, entertaining content, and well-researched, original content. But those are still vague terms that don’t exactly tell you why people like some forms of content more than others.

To help us understand how the gears of the modern reader’s mind turn, we can look to a handful of basic psychological principles. These principles govern a significant chunk of user behaviors relevant to content marketing, so understanding them and implementing strategies around them can make you a better content marketer.

  1. The Information Gap. The information gap is a psychological concept that can be reduced to an even simpler concept: curiosity. The “information gap” itself is a void between the information that we currently have and the information we want to have. For example, think of the clichéd “mystery box” prize occasionally offered to game show contestants or as a contest reward. You have information that something valuable, possibly desirable is in the box in front of you, but you don’t know what’s actually there. Because you know there’s something valuable in there, you are naturally driven to greater curiosity about what’s actually in there. In content marketing, you can exploit this by leading your readers and customers to more points of missing information. Use headlines, titles, and lead-ins that let them know there’s something valuable waiting for them in your content, but don’t tell them what that valuable information is. They won’t be able to resist reading more
  2. Informational Social Influence. Informational social influence is sometimes referred to as “social proof.” It’s a psychological phenomenon where people naturally adopt the behaviors of others in a specific group in order to conform with social standards. In a practical context, imagine a party where everybody is standing up, talking to each other. As a newcomer to the party, it would be unlikely that you’d sit down—instead, you’d stand and possibly walk around. In content marketing, this concept is somewhat subtler—rather than adopting the strict behaviors of a crowd, users are more likely to trust the actions and thoughts of key influencers, who by proxy command larger audiences. The takeaway here is that a major social influencer could easily socially influence people to read and comment on your article. Work to recruit more social influencers to your cause, and maximize the visibility and engagement of your individual works.
  3. The Rule of Reciprocity. The rule of reciprocity is pretty simple, and you can probably ascertain its meaning from its wording alone. If someone does something for you, you are psychologically predisposed to do something for them in kind. It’s a classic “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” scenario, and it works on a practical level. There are a few ways to use this in a content marketing campaign, the most notable being in building an audience. if you follow someone on a social media platform and share a piece of their content, they’ll be likely to follow you back and share one of your pieces as well. You can also work to comment with others, make recommendations for new clients or good content to read, or engage in group discussions regularly. The more you give back to your community, the more you’re going to get from it.
  4. The Verbatim Effect. The “verbatim” effect is a psychological bias in memory that predisposes people to remember the gist of what they’ve read or heard more than the specific language used to describe it in more detail. For example, if you write out the instructions, “press the power button on your computer to initiate the startup process, and upon seeing a login screen, enter both your username and your password to gain entry to your device,” people won’t remember it. Instead, they’ll remember “Start your computer.” Use this to your advantage in two ways when writing content. First, make sure your post is digestible by including concise, bold headlines as subheaders throughout your piece—it will guide readers’ eyes and help them remember the gist of your article. Second, try include simple, concise descriptions along with your more detailed entries to get the best of both worlds when it comes to reader retention.
  5. The Paradox of Choice. The paradox of choice refers to the idea that more choices are a good thing; it would seem like having a greater number of options in workplaces, restaurants, or other items would lead to happier, more satisfactory results. However, any more than a handful of choices can make people uncomfortable, stressed, and ultimately less satisfied with whatever decisions they make. To resolve this paradox in your content marketing campaign, try to limit the quantity of pieces that reach your audience; focus your efforts on your greatest pieces, and leave the others to be discovered only by the people who really want them.

Keep these psychological concepts and principles in mind as you flesh out your overall content marketing strategy. Experiment to see what strategies have the greatest effect on your audience, and use that information to inform your next round of improvements.