Do you prefer shorter or longer content? As marketers, you can use the curiosity gap concept to attract and retain your audience’s attention.
Today’s guest is Andrew Davis, a well-respected marketing keynote speaker who helps people around the world solve marketing and business challenges. He describes how marketers can create content that encourages their customers to take action, stay engaged, and keep coming back for more.
You’re listening to the Actionable Marketing Podcast powered by CoSchedule, the only way to organize your marketing in one place, helping marketers stay focused, deliver projects on time, and keep their entire marketing team happy.
Ben: Hi there. Welcome to another episode of the Actionable Marketing Podcast. I’m your host, Ben Sailer, and on today’s show we have an awesome conversation with the well-respected marketing keynote speaker, Andrew Davis. As some listeners might know, Andrew transitioned into marketing from a career in local television news. That’s where he learned all about how to not only attract but to retain his viewers attention by utilizing a concept called the curiosity gap.
Now, before this conversation, I myself was curious by exactly how he manages to be such a captivating speaker. I think the understanding how this concept works is really a big part of it. He was very generous in sharing his expertise in this area, too, so if you’re interested in learning how you can ignore content length, just by understanding how to capture people’s attention and hold onto it for as long as you want or as long as you need, so hope your audience take the action that they’re looking to take, to solve their problem, to find your product, or whatever the case may be, then you need to hear what he has to say. So, without further delay, here’s Andrew.
Hi, Andrew, and welcome to the show.
Andrew: Hey, thanks so much for having me, Ben. This is fun.
Ben: For sure. I’m really excited to have you on. Also, I’m sure that many of our listeners are familiar with you and are familiar with your work. Would you mind introducing yourself?
Andrew: Sure. I’m Andrew Davis. I’m a marketing guy who spends half of his career working in the television industry and the other half working as a digital agency guy. I sold my agency in 2012 and now I spend all of my time traveling around the world, speaking to people about solving some of the biggest marketing and business challenges in the world today. It’s a lot of fun.
Ben: Awesome. Very cool. Something that I’ve seen that you’ve been talking about a lot recently is the other concept of creating curiosity gaps. We’ll get into what that means a little bit more and a few questions here.
Andrew: Right there, Ben. You’re using curiosity to keep people engaged. That was good. See?
Ben: Right. I just want to keep people…
Andrew: Yes, exactly. You’re using it.
Ben: Yeah, and we’ll get to that point. Something that you talk about as part of that is that there is this trend of people wanting to create shorter content in order to catch shrinking attention spans. What’s wrong with that advice?
Andrew: Well, what’s wrong with that advice is that, especially in the marketing world, we’re given this advice that your content has to be short because that’s what the data tells us works. Yes, that’s true. The data tells us that the shorter the content you create, the more people will consume it.
However, it’s a falsity when you consider the fact that, if you’re talking about creating a YouTube video, (I think) the average view time for a YouTube video is like 2 minutes and 34 seconds. We got to remember, first of all, it’s an average. That means that some people are watching a whole 45 minutes on YouTube and some people are watching 12 seconds. That’s how you get to two minutes.
At the end of the day, it’s just an average. But when you think about real consumer behavior, I think for me the paradox is that the very same people who tell you they don’t have time to consume your content because it’s too long, are watching a whole day’s worth of binge watching Stranger Things or The Crown online.
It signals to me that it’s not the fact that they have no time, it’s just that they don’t want to make time to consume your content, and we’ve got to reconcile the two. I think we should put on ourselves as marketers to stop blaming the consumer for having no time or having a short attention span and we have to actually realize that it’s our job to create content that earns their attention.
The other paradox is that the more stuff you take out of your content to make it shorter, the less consumable it is. You’re taking out all the elements that actually make it great. If you just keep cutting your copy, your video, or your podcast the point at which it just gets the minor point you wanted to get across, sure people might consume it, but they’re never going to come back. They certainly won’t enjoy it. They’re not going to binge watch, binge listen to, or binge read the next five.
It’s our job to actually realize that it takes time to earn your audience’s trust and if we’re going to do that, we have to do it right. We have to really realize that it doesn’t matter how long it is you can keep someone’s attention for as long as you want (to be totally honest) if you’re really good at understanding a few key components to what makes them pay attention and how to craft the contents to make it work that way.
Ben: Got it, and part of this, too, that I think is just pushed towards shorter content, may be pushing back against the previous trend about [...] making their content as long as possible.
Ben: So, back when people were told that, “Oh, you need long content for SEO, [...] what’s wrong with that advice, too?
Andrew: Well, I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with any of this advice. These are all good points that people should pay attention to and learn, but they’re not rules and they’re not hard and fast. There isn’t one way.
I still know that longer content is weighted much more favorably by a lot of search engines, so that’s unbelievably good. I think the difference is, in the old days it was fine to just write something really, really long, with a lot of keywords shoved into it, and it didn’t have to be readable or interesting to the consumer.
However, today search engines are much smarter and they’re actually looking at how long are people consuming this content. Are they making it all the way through? Are they referencing stuff that’s way at the bottom? Are the clicking links that are way at the bottom? Which signals to the search engine that this is valuable content all the way throughout. Which means if you can’t get the consumer from the top of your content to the bottom of your content or from the beginning of your content to the end of the content, you’re actually just creating long content for SEO purposes, isn’t that helpful.
We’re not just writing for machine. We’re writing for a human or were creating for a human. That means we need to understand how their brain works and how to actually grab and then hold their attention for as long as possible. Most of us (as marketers anyway) are really good at grabbing people’s attention.
That’s fun to do on social media, get people so excited that they click a link. But on the other side of that link, the payoff isn’t what the expectations you set in the promotion of the link. You’re actually doing much more harm to your brand than not. You’re actually using curiosity. You’re using one of those elements to get people to take action or to consume the next piece of content.
I think what we’re trying to do is to end somewhere in the middle, where you have a great performing piece of SEO content, that works not just because it’s about the topic you swore it was about when you wrote the piece, but secondly that it’s actually entertaining to read and gets people emotionally involved in the content, even if you’re writing about the most boring topic on the planet. That’s the key (I think) making it work for everyone.
Ben: I love that. This is something you touched on a little bit there, about still keeping people’s curiosity in order to hold their attention for essentially as long as you’re able to. Can you explain how the concept of the curiosity gap works? And typically, what you mean by that term?
Andrew: Curiosity gap is just a void between what you know and what you want to know. The curiosity gap, very simply, is also called an open loop. It means that in your brain, you’ve opened a question that your brain must answer. Curiosity gap is a really simple tool that any writer or content creator can use to get people to continue to look for the answer.
Now, I’m talking primarily subconsciously. You don’t have to have a “route and out question,” like, “How many cats live in a basket? I’ll tell you in a second.” That’s a curiosity gap and you’re trying to find the answer.
Curiosity gaps are also things that you can actually plot and plan in your content, to ensure that you’re dropping a question, you’re putting a question into the mind of the consumer, and as they consume the content, they’re gratiated. They’re gratified by getting the answer to that open loop or closing that curiosity gap. We just have to create a void between what they know and what they want to know to keep them reading.
Stranger Things is a great example of that. Any show that’s binge-worthy is doing a great job of creating curiosity gaps. Not just from episode-to-episode, but even within an episode. To get you to watch a whole episode of a television show (as what I learned even in TV news), the goal is to keep you coming back, to stay with the content for as long as possible. Which means you need to open up a curiosity gap in the mind of the consumer, give them some information, keep the plot moving along, and before you close that curiosity gap, you want to introduce a new one and then close the first one. That keeps them moving forward.
One of my first jobs in television was actually writing little news teasers. Everybody watches the local news or has. In television news, at the end of each segment (before they go to commercial break), there’s always the “what’s coming up next.” You can just say, “Hey, coming up next we’re going to do the weather.” No one’s really interested in that, but if you say, “Hey, in just two minutes I’m going to tell you about the amazing weather phenomenon that’s headed our way. I’ll see you in two minutes,” people are like, “Whoa. What’s the phenomenon?” That’s a curiosity gap that’s put in your mind and now you’ve got to know what’s happening.
So, we got to create curiosity gaps to keep people engaged in our content. Keep them moving forward, and that’s the key phenomenon. Does that answer the question? I get really excited about curiosity gaps. I just go on and on.
Ben: Yeah. Actually, I think that explains it extremely well. Something else I’m curious to know about there, just knowing that you arrived upon this concept, sort of like the television news world, it sounds like this is just a basic practice in that space. What maybe gave you the spark of inspiration to think that that probably work for marketing, too? Like why don’t we just give this a shot in that way?
Andrew: Funnily enough, I think for me writing teasers or promos are the two easiest jobs they give everybody out of college in television news. It’s like, “We don’t trust you with the real news. We just trust you with this stuff for now.” It came second nature to me when I started working in the marketing business at an agency. I actually was working in the startup world before that as a marketer. I went from television news to essentially marketing for a software company.
One of the things I constantly found hilarious was we’re creating 60-page white papers (on how to create a website in the late 1990s) the people were supposed to read. I worked at the company and was very interested in what we’re doing, but couldn’t read past page 3 and I was like, “Guys, we just need to tease what’s coming later if you want people to actually get to the end of this thing.” People were like, “What do you mean? It’s a white paper. People are going to be so excited, they’ll even read the whole thing.” I was like, “I don’t think so.”
It came very early on in the marketing world that I thought this would work. It didn’t really turn into something I was really passionate about until I read the umpteenth article on the average length of everything post. There’s an answer in the online world for all of those, like how long should your emails be? How many emails is too many emails? How long should your podcast be? How long is too long for a webinar? It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter. If you want to write a really long email and blast it out to everyone of your customers, go for it. If you’re really good at it, you can probably get most of the people that open that email to read the whole thing.
In fact, if you’re really good at it, you would stop asking questions like, “Hey, what’s the best subject line to get people to open your email?” because getting people to open your email is all about creating a curiosity gap in the subject line. So, write a subject line that places a question subconsciously, unintentionally in the back of my mind where I got to click to find out the answer.
When you look at the list of all the best subject lines, like the highest performing subject lines, they all create a curiosity gap, like Five Things You Were Too Afraid to Ask. That’s a curiosity gap. I got to know what are the five things. Anything with the list. So, we got to be careful.
Just to be really clear, curiosity gaps can be either used for good or for evil. I fit squarely in the good camp because you and I both clicks those clickbait headlines that promise to deliver an amazing experience on the other side.
I read the news a lot of times at lunchtime with my wife, Elizabeth, and they always get us when we’re reading the news headlines with lately, especially with all these headlines about the British Royal Family. “You’ll never going to believe with what happened with Prince Charles,” and I’m like, “Whoa, we should read that.” Then when we click the link we’re like, “That’s it? We would have believed that.”
So that’s using a curiosity gap, to get me to take action and create some clickbait, where the pay-off doesn’t measure up to the tension you’ve built. We have to be very careful as marketers because you can destroy the trust with your audience if you start creating curiosity gaps in the subject line and never pay them off.
Or you create such tension in the video you’re creating or the podcast you schedule, that people are like, “I got hear the ending,” and then it turns out the ending is blah, that’s going to really affect the way they feel. The feeling is what we’re out to earn. We want people to be excited, interested, and feel like they got what they wanted out of our content, and that this was worth the time and energy they spent consuming it.
Hopefully, they feel so great about it, they either share it with somebody else and say, “This is a great read. You’re going to love it,” or, “I learned so much,” or, “Wow, this is really insightful,” or they’re going to say, “I trust you guys to help me with whatever. If you’re CoSchedule, I trust you guys to help me with all my planning for all my social media stuff.” That’s the key. We’ve got to use it for good instead of evil.
Ben: I would agree with that and I would hope that everybody listening… If they thought of hearing this and getting the wrong idea.
Andrew: I can just picture someone plotting in their lair down in the marketing basement. Yes, to work that attempt.
Ben: Something that’s super interesting to me about curiosity gaps is that this concept isn’t new. In fact, this is just a standard best practice for television news and it has been for a long time. You know that this works and it’s not just another marketing fad, buzzword, or something that you’re going to start implementing now, only to be told as some distant point in the future that this is old news and this tactic doesn’t work anymore. I think this is about as time-tested of a concept or tactic as what you’re ever likely to encounter. Now, back to the show.
So, if I’m a marketer and I’m listening to this show or if I’m a marketer [...] listening to this show?
Andrew: You should, absolutely.
Ben: How would you recommend listeners start outlining or planning a piece, with the intention of creating a curiosity gap? What would be the beginning steps of that process look like?
Andrew: It’s easiest if you start with stories that are easy to tell, for one. You may get really ambitious and all of a sudden want to tell a really confusing and complicated story using curiosity gap. Certainly you can do it, but the more confusing or convoluted the story is, the harder it is to understand the simple structure of creating curiosity gaps.
I like to recommend that mark your start with creating a customer testimonial case study type of story and use curiosity to get people excited about the story. There’s a very simple formula I have. I call it the story box. Just imagine if you’re listening to this, that you draw on a box on a piece of paper. From the top left all the way around the box back to the top left, you got essentially a square. If you divide those four sides and divide those into halves, you now got eight pieces.
Think of those as your story structure, all eight pieces. The first thing you want to do to create a curiosity gap in the mind of your audience for a case study is to immediately raise the stakes. Raising the stakes is all about just showing me what the audience wants and then threatening it for as long as possible.
That means that in the first box, you got to show me what the audience wants. If you’re selling CoSchedule and you’re trying to do a CoSchedule case study, you have to tell me that scheduling stuff is really hard—I can empathize with that—but what we want is something that can take care of all the scheduling needs and we never post twice or have any problems. I just wanted to be on auto pilot. That’s what the audience desires. Everybody reading this should be like, “Wow, I would love that.”
Now, you’ve got a threat in that case study’s success for as long as possible. The best way to do it is just to think of three pairs of problems. Basically it’s show me what the audience desires, then challenge what that solution might be, and then show me the outcome of that potential solution.
Let’s say, for example, somebody was like, “Hey, when we first look for a solution to our scheduling problems, we actually just hired a virtual assistant who is going to actually schedule all of this stuff. It was a great idea, except...” so we’re actually showing what the challenge was. The “except” is essentially the outcome, “she was great with a few exceptions. She posted some stuff twice, she forgot about a bunch of things were really important, we never had the chance to approve things, she made some mistakes with that.”
So now, I’m seeing that the success of my outcome is being threatened. You just do that two more times. So, you have challenge, outcome, challenge, outcome, challenge, outcome, and then the very end of the video, at the end of your story box, you have to reinforce the actual pay-off. So, at the end of it it should be, “Hey, when I signed up for CoSchedule, within two months we had scheduled everything, we’ve seen a huge increase in engagement, we’ve never missed anything and it’s on autopilot.
All of a sudden, you just reinforced what the audience’s desire was. All along the way, those little challenges and threats are building tension in the mind of the consumer and they’re creating curiosity gaps. They want to know what happens each and every time, to get to what the audience desires at the beginning. Does that help? It sounds really complicated and I wish you guys were seeing me on video. Ben can see me. I drew a box in the air.
Ben: The visual aid was very helpful.
Andrew: I could draw one.
Ben: Yeah. Well, you know what? I think that made a lot of sense, just the basic concepts. You’re starting with the outcome [...]. If you want to get to this, this is the thing that might prevent you from getting there. Obviously, there’s a lot that happens between point A and B. I think that’s a great explanation.
Andrew: You want to keep the story simple and clear, especially when you’re starting out. The key is if you can plot the next challenge before the previous one is closed, you’re creating those curiosity gaps all the way through. You’re not delaying the pay-off for each one.
The second hint, by the way, especially when you’re doing a case study, is to delay the reveal. Don’t tell me this is a CoSchedule case study. As soon as you do that, people tune out. They’re like, “Oh, it’s an advertisement.” I’m not trying to (again) be shady about this. I’m just trying to be realistic about the fact that if you want people to get emotionally involved, you’ve got to actually delay the reveal at the end.
The fact that the final outcome and solution will help them achieve their goals after trying all these other things is important, but what’s really important is that the user wants to know who solved this problem, like, “Wow, they’re seeing tremendous success. I can’t believe this. Who is it that they got to solve this problem?” and when they’re asking that question subconsciously and intentionally, and they’re at the height of their tension, that’s when you want to drop it on them. That’s when they’re like, “Oh! I feel so much better. That’s all? I just need to sign up for CoSchedule? Why haven’t I done that?”
Ben: I love it because that’s really starting with them and their problems. You’re not even inserting yourself into the picture until you addressed what they actually care about.
Andrew: That’s right, exactly.
Ben: Let’s say that a listener start trying to apply this concept. As often happens, like our first few attempts if anything, are not likely to be successful.
Andrew: Fair enough.
Ben: I mean, if they are, more power to you. That’s awesome. But let’s say somebody tries to apply those concepts to something they’re working on and they’re just struggling for whatever reason. The results don’t show up right away or they’re just they’re just satisfied with the outcome. Where would you recommend that they begin diagnosing potential problems with their application of this advice?
Andrew: Okay, this is great. Here is the easiest thing for you to do. First of all, kudos for trying listener. I’m glad you’ve been trying in our hypothetical example. Let’s say if you’re not seeing the results you wanted when you’re trying to create curiosity gaps, what you actually need to do is listen for two pieces of feedback, either from your readers, people you work with, a friend, or a family member, even, and you’re not asking them for specific advice.
What you want to do is you want to just ask them to read something or consume something, and tell you when they feel like it’s too long. The key is asking them, “When is this too long?” By the way, if somebody ever tells you, “Hey, Ben. This is great. Is there anyway you can make it shorter?” they’re saying the same thing. What they’re actually saying is, “I don’t have any more questions. You’ve eliminated my curiosity and your story is longer.” Think of it this way. You ran out of questions before I ran out of content. That’s the problem.
What you need to do is find out where that happens. The first thing you should do before you think about cutting anything or making it shorter is actually re-order the elements. So, figure out how you can actually just take a paragraph from three paragraphs below that, move it up, and create a curiosity gap.
It’s almost like you’re inserting a “meanwhile” in the beginning and they’re like, “Wait, meanwhile? Okay,” and then it leaves them hanging there like, “Oh, wait. I got to find the answer what happened after that.” Even though it feels like you’re taking a sidetrack or is it really working, you’ve got to actually just move the material around.
The truth is when I look at especially case studies by brands, every case study I’ve ever watched or consumed has all the right elements for a great story using curiosity. They’re just in the wrong order. That’s it. The reason people tell you, “The case study’s too long, I don’t want to read it,” is because you’re telling it in a linear fashion. Very clearly this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this happened. You start mixing it up, that’s when the story gets interesting and you start creating curiosity gaps. So don’t cut a thing. That’s my first piece of advice. Go back and re-order the content.
The second thing I would suggest is you should consume reality TV. Now, this sounds really like bad advice, but I want you to watch reality TV. Not because I think reality TV is great, but I think that reality TV is one of the easiest ways to see the power of curiosity gaps at work. So, I want you to watch just an episode of anything. Pick any reality TV show. The Voice, Tiny Houses, Naked and Afraid. Pick one of them and watch it on a meta level.
I want you to just ask yourself where are they creating curiosity gaps? How are they keeping people engaged by inviting them to chase answers through the course of a 45-minute or an hour-long show or a 30-minute show? Even The Voice does it great. They increase your attention every time they’re like, “Hey, who do you want to work with?” or, “Who are we going to eliminate?” watch how the editor cuts around, increases the tension, and that big long beat they have in between that.
It’s not just about the time. It’s about what they show and what you hear. All of those things are increasing tension. So, think about the order they do things. Reality TV is the best way to learn how to tell a great story, create great content using curiosity gaps and earning your audiences’ attention. Just watch some reality TV and re-ignite your enthusiasm for the power of curiosity.
Ben: I will admit that’s not the advice I expected, but I love it. It makes perfect sense.
Andrew: It’s really good. Just watch a cooking competition show and you’ll be like, “Wow, look at that.” Every time they go to commercial break, remember what I said about teases. They’re like, “And Bob’s eliminated. No. I don’t know. We don’t know. Went to commercial break.” It’s good.
Ben: That’s definitely making me think a lot differently about every competitive cooking show I’ve ever [...].
Andrew: It will, really. My wife has told me many times that I ruined watching television for her because I was like, “Oh, look at that. Curiosity gap.” We were watching The Crown Season 3 and there’s a couple episodes that get really slow. Honestly, it’s because they opened no curiosity gaps or they raised tension for too long without a pay-off.
Ben: Got it. I love it. Well, thanks so much for your time and for sharing your insight with our listeners. This is an awesome conversation and this has been a lot of fun.
Andrew: Thanks so much and I really appreciate it. Enjoy yourself and just stay in touch. I can’t wait to listen to the final show and say hi to everybody. If you have a question about curiosity gap, you’ll find me online somewhere.
Ben was the Inbound Marketing Director at CoSchedule. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.