What makes content popular (or not), according to research

A new study finds that speed, coverage and narrative motion matter, underscoring a larger point – that formats should be central to your content strategy.

If all content creation is part art and part science, most of us will agree the art gets most of the credit because it’s more exciting to talk about.

But research proves that there is a scientific formula for producing popular content. The more you lean into it, the more likely you are to succeed.

This is what a new study found: Audiences prefer content of a certain pace, breadth and narrative flow across different media. The methodology used natural language processing to review 50,000 text files across film, TV and academic research to find commonalities in the content that was most popular.

Here are the details:

  • If the Channel Fits. What makes something successful in one medium doesn’t mean it will be successful in another. Mostly, this is due to audience expectations of a given medium. It’s why channel matters so much as part of a content strategy, and why adding channels of distribution shouldn’t be taken lightly.
  • Gradients of Attention. In movies and TV, audiences preferred fast-moving narratives. But on TV, audiences didn’t want a lot of ground covered (e.g. a sprawling plot) in an episode. The researchers hypothesized that audiences may be looking for a “quick diversion” when they watch TV, and don’t have the tolerance for narrative development in TV the way they do for a movie.
  • The Metrics that Matter. Toward academic papers, judged by citations as the success metric, audiences showed significantly different preferences: papers that moved slowly, that covered more ground, and that circled back to similar themes were cited more often.
  • Attention to the Very End. Whatever happens at the end of a TV show, movie or academic paper matters more to the audience than the rest of the content: It’s more proximate and therefore more memorable.

We’ve written before about the necessary discipline of executing a content strategy. Formats – repeatable content types that speak to an audience need and have a firm structure by which they deliver content – are critical to putting a content strategy into practice. (Check out some examples of formats here).

Constraints can feel limiting, but the truth is that new ideas can take you down if you don’t develop that critical lens first.

Here’s a three-step process to guide your strategy, putting formats at the center:

  • Understand your audience and where they’re consuming content. Invest in quantitative and qualitative data to understand audience behavior, needs and pain points.
  • Develop signature formats that can consistently deliver in those channels. Use audience pain points to guide formats. Is your audience too busy to read? Are they mobile during the day? How can you save them time or make their lives better?
  • Match your call to action to the format and moment. If the end of your content is the most memorable, use it to drive the most high-value action back to your business. But, it has to feel appropriate to the format and moment; be wary of asking for too much from a passive audience.
  • Stay on top of audience needs and pain points to be relevant with everything you create. Flow topics of interest and new needs from audience members over your formats. This way, you can be relevant and reliable in what you produce.

TL;DR: New research shows the structure of content within a channel is directly related to its success. Your organization should define the unique structure of your content into a format, use that format to organize ideas, and deliver that format reliably to your audience.

Looking to determine what format is right for your audience and your business goals? Let us know and we’d be happy to chat it through with you.


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