SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Online content creators who want to keep people reading should start by making them angry or anxious, new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business shows.
The working paper by Maryland Smith marketing professor Wendy W. Moe and two co-authors confirms what storytellers have long understood: That emotion drives engagement. But the authors find that not all emotion works the same when the goal is to hold the interest of online readers.
“Content that evokes anger and anxiety encourages further reading, while content that evokes sadness discourages it,” they write.
Readability factors, such as familiar vocabulary and simple sentence structure, also keep people moving from one paragraph to the next. “A range of content features that capture processing ease are linked to continued engagement,” the authors write.
Previous efforts to measure reader engagement have been hampered by limited availability of data.
Publishers of printed products like newspapers and magazines, for example, can track circulation. But they have no record of which articles people actually read or how far they get before they turn the page.
Online publishers track different metrics, including clicks and pageviews. “But clicks and views don’t always translate into reads,” the authors write. “And content has more impact if people actually read it.”
The authors overcome the research challenge by working with a content intelligence company that tracks reader engagement for online publishers. The authors use natural language processing to analyze a dataset of more than 825,000 reading sessions of 35,000 articles from nine major online publishers.
The authors then conduct a second study with test subjects exposed to online content designed to evoke specific emotions.
Some might expect any emotion, regardless of type, to encourage continued reading. Others might divide emotions into two categories — positive and negative — and expect different results. What the authors observe is more complex.
“Anger, anxiety and sadness are all negative emotions,” they write. “But while evoking anxiety and anger encouraged reading, evoking sadness discouraged it.”
Their analysis suggests the reason has to do with the way different emotions stimulate uncertainty and arousal. Uncertainty increases attention as readers try to resolve predictions about what will happen next, while arousal triggers high-priority stimuli.
Sadness evokes uncertainty, but it also lowers arousal levels. Anger and anxiety, on the other hand, evoke high uncertainty and high arousal at the same time.
“People are more likely to continue reading after passages that should evoke more arousal and uncertainty,” the authors conclude. “And specific emotions shape the amount of arousal and uncertainty people feel, which in turn, shape reading.”
Read more: “What Makes Stories More Engaging? Continued Reading in Online Content,” is a working paper by Jonah Berger at the University of Pennsylvania, Wendy W. Moe at Maryland Smith, and David Schweidel at Emory University.
Wendy W. Moe is the Associate Dean of Master’s Programs, Dean’s professor of marketing, and Co-Director of the Smith Analytics Consortium at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She earned her Bachelor of Science, Master of Arts and PhD from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and her MBA from Georgetown University.
Research interests: Developing models for online and social media marketing and studies issues related to digital marketing and data analytics.
Selected accomplishments: Her research in web analytics was the foundation for NetConversions, an early innovator in online data collection and analysis. She was part of the founding team that brought the company from startup to acquisition in 2004. She is a highly published academic with her research appearing in numerous leading business journals. She is the author of “Social Media Intelligence” (Cambridge: 2014). She serves on the Board of Trustees for the Marketing Science Institute, is the co-editor of the Journal of Interactive Marketing, and is on the editorial review boards for the Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research and Marketing Science. She consults for numerous corporations and government agencies, helping them develop and implement state-of-the-art statistical models in the area of web analytics, social media intelligence and forecasting, and frequently serves as an expert witness in litigation.
About this series: Maryland Smith celebrates Women Leading Research during Women’s History Month. The initiative is organized in partnership with ADVANCE, an initiative to transform the University of Maryland by investing in a culture of inclusive excellence. Other Women's History Month activities include the eighth annual Women Leading Women forum on March 5, 2019.
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