How Marketers Can Increase Engagement by Asking Big Questions

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on December 21
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Traditional images of teachers envision them lecturing at the class--the so-called "sage on the stage." In truth, the most powerful educators ask questions.  Content needs to follow suit. After all, content must inspire engagement.  Lectures can be pretty boring.  So, how do marketers develop content that inspires ongoing commentary, discussion and engagement? The question is not rhetorical.  I pose it sincerely--I'm looking for ideas and recommendations.  

Sure, I have some practical tips of my own to share--tips largely inherited from my years as an English teacher.  For even the most seasoned teachers, developing content and questions that could inspire ansgty, often stressed- and grade-obsessed college- and high-school students into inspired, truly meaningful discussions represented an ongoing challenge.  Students were busy--preoccupied with immediate demands.  And preoccupation with daily tasks can short-circuit our ability to contemplate big-picture "why" questions.  Of course, the latter challenge does not fade.  In fact, it arguably represents a defining challenge of our adult, professional lives.

As I said, I have some recommendations for how to present content that inspires the kind of thought that takes us outside our daily round.  But I don't have any final solutions.   How to ask truly engaging "big questions" is itself a big question.  Here's my take:

Don't be afraid to go beyond the pratical problem-solution paradigm: Effective marketers know that creating engaging content means developing information that provides a particular target audiences with practical solutions to real, relevant problems--"news they can use."  Writing for a tech audience, for instance, means providing content like technical roadmaps that empower developers to plan long-term strategies.  But truly engaging content goes even further: It also generates the bigger, more opened-ended kinds of questions that inspire ongoing discussion.  A powerful technical roadmap does not simply provide information and practical solutions; it also inspires thought about the ways in which changing social needs generate new demands on technical innovation.

Content thus has 2 opposite goals:(1) Present solution-based, pratical guidance while (2) also provoking open-ended questions that defy final solutions.  Simply put, effective content at once solves pratical prolems while simultaneously posing problems that defy solution!

While opposite, the two goals are not incompatible: Stories, for instance, can focus on prolem-solution plots while also opening up bigger topics of discussion that continually resist easy resolution.  A case study about the practical benefits of environmentally friendly clothes detergent can still provoke big-picture questions about our relationship to ecosystems: A story can demonstrate how detergent will get your clothes clean (solve an immediate practical problem), but the relevant content story can also inspire reflection about, for instance, humanity's role as caretakers of the planet.   Powerful content provokes these kinds of problematic, even contentious, questions--and not in arbitrarily controversial ways.  

Like literature, effective market messaging possesses an open-ended quality that engages readers in a certain degree of productive ambiguity. Consider the classic example of Steve Jobs' "Think Different" campaign:  At once inspiring and empowering, the slogan also provokes all kinds of big-picture philosophical questions regarding what it means to think: To what extent can we "think different," given we are raised in cultural environments that largely determine the very concept of thought?  How do we "think different" and remain relevant?  Most of all, what precisely, does the slogan actually mean?  The words "think differnt" can be read in a variety of ways.  I will resist the temptation to get too into the differences at play in the ambiguous lack of the adverb "differently": "think different" can mean much more that thinking differently.    Think different suggests an imperative to interrgoate the very meaning of "different"--an imperative that raises a whole new line of big questions!  

The particular mportance of big questions in digital media: The point is that powerful content does not simply solve problems; it also problematizes in ways that provoke and inspire thought.  Presented effectively, big questions generate intrinsic interest that compel us to engage content: That irrepressible sense that we just have to comment on a post.  

The importance of inspiring commentary and discussion takes on newrelevance for digital content, where the networked structure of narratives presented in interactive formats (like social media and online forums) encourages more open-ended visions of storytelling.  Simply put, unlike the texts presented in books and other print forms, narratives presented in digital media don’t technically have a prescribed or bounded end.  Digital texts are literally unbounded; they have the potential to evolve into never-ending stories, extending outward through boundless discussions and networks of textual commentary.  This is not merely a matter of encouraging philosophical reflection for its own sake, but of sound marketing strategy: Discussion drives ongoing engagement. The best discussions take on a life of their own.  In classrooms, great discussions turn students into teachers--not just passive recipients of ideas, but actively engaged creators of new insights.  Online, great discussions transform readers into authors of new ideas.

 The pratical challenge: How do we produce content that engages big questions?  Next time you write a piece of content, there are a few things you can do to make sure the piece presents material that can inspire bigger questions. First--believe me--pretty much all content has the potential to inspire bigger questions.  The challenge involves highlighting these latent, deeper dimensions.  For a start, try brainstorming potential big-picture questions connected to your content. Ask yourself about the broader implications of your claims: If X is true, what else would follow?  Write a list of the questions you develop.  You can use these questions later on, at the end of a posting, or in a follow-up commentary note to provoke engagement, further commentary, and even get a better sense of how readers are respinding to your efforts.

How do you know if a question is in fact a big question?  Look for some key elements.  Big questions

  1. Are open-ended; that is, they typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer;
  2. Are thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate;
  3. Call for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction: They cannot   be effectively answered with simple “yes or no” answers, nor can they be resolved instrumentally, with simple statements of information;
  4. Point toward important issues that readers can relate to in many ways and which generate ideas transferrable across a number of professional and non-professional contexts;
  5. Raise additional questions and spark further inquiry;
  6. Require support and justification, not just an answer;
  7. Recur over time; that is, big questions can and should be revisited again and again.

And, please feel free to share and ideas or comments on this piece.  

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