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Using emotional language can increase reader engagement in marketing campaigns, study finds - Breakthrough
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Using emotional language can increase reader engagement in marketing campaigns, study finds

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, University of Maryland, and Emory University analysed over 600,000 reading sessions from 35,000 pieces of content.

Holding an audience’s attention is critical for businesses, media companies, and educators alike. A new study, titled “What Holds Attention? Linguistic Drivers of Engagement,” published in the Journal of Marketing, explores how the language used in content affects readers’ engagement. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, University of Maryland, and Emory University utilised natural language processing of over 600,000 reading sessions from 35,000 pieces of content, combined with controlled experiments, to understand the impact of language on sustained attention. This article delves deeper into the study’s findings and implications for businesses.

Sustained attention versus clickbait

The study distinguishes between sustained attention and other types of engagement, such as clicks or views, that measure how many people were exposed to a piece of content. Sustained attention measures how long audiences spend consuming a piece of content. The study found that content creators must focus on sustaining an audience’s attention, not just attracting clicks or views. The study’s lead author, Jonah Berger, explained, “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.”

The impact of emotional language

The study found that language that is easier to process encourages continued reading, as does language that evokes emotion. However, not all emotional language has the same impact on sustained attention. The study revealed that language that is anxious, exciting, and hopeful encourages reading, while language that is sad discourages it. The degree to which different emotions evoke arousal and uncertainty drives these effects. The study’s co-author, David A. Schweidel, noted, “a simulation highlights the implications of these findings for content recommendation algorithms trained to sustain attention.”

Managerial implications and lessons

The study’s findings offer several lessons for businesses and content creators to improve their audience engagement:

Deepening Understanding: The study deepens understanding around what holds attention. While prior research focused on what attracts attention or what drives word of mouth, this study demonstrates the critical role of emotional language in sustaining attention and how different linguistic features shape content consumption.

Improving Content Design: The study highlights that simple shifts in language can encourage sustained attention. Content creators can use the study’s findings to improve content design and encourage sustained attention, even for “less engaging” topics. This is particularly useful for advertisers, marketers, publishers, and presenters who want to create content that sustains an audience’s attention.

Differentiating Engagement: The study’s findings also highlight that what holds attention is not always the same as what grabs attention or encourages word of mouth. Content that requires more cognitive processing has the opposite effect when it comes to holding attention. Consequently, managers must carefully consider their desired outcomes and design their content accordingly.

Social Implications: The study’s findings have important social implications as disinformation and hate speech have been linked to negative outcomes for individuals and society. The study’s co-author, Wendy W. Moe, noted that “if angry and anxious content holds attention, training algorithms to maximize sustained attention may lead to negative implications for consumer welfare.” 

E-commerce marketing service providers can also benefit from the study’s findings. Sustaining an audience’s attention is critical for e-commerce businesses, particularly during the purchasing journey. E-commerce marketing service providers can use the study’s findings to improve their product descriptions, website copy, and email marketing. By using emotional language that evokes positive emotions such as excitement and hope, e-commerce businesses can encourage sustained attention and increase the likelihood of a purchase.

Conclusion

In conclusion, sustaining an audience’s attention is critical for businesses, media companies, and educators. The language used in content is a crucial factor in holding attention, and emotional language that evokes arousal and uncertainty encourages sustained reading. The study’s findings provide useful insights for businesses and content creators to improve their audience engagement, from deepening their understanding of what holds attention to improving content design and differentiating engagement. As online content consumption becomes an increasingly critical social issue, the study’s findings also highlight the important role of language in shaping individuals’ and society’s well-being. By using the study’s insights, businesses and content creators can create more engaging content that sustains an audience’s attention while also promoting positive outcomes for individuals and society.

Vey Law

Vey Law is a reporter at Breakthrough.

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