Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat But It Could Save Your Content

I’m a curious person.

No, not in the sense that I’m bizarre or odd (stop sniggering). I’m curious in the sense that my ADHD-addled brain becomes obsessed with finding answers whenever it stumbles across an interesting question. That’s what I find interesting.

I spent an entire Saturday afternoon trying to confirm how many issues Princess Tina’s weekly British comic were published between 1967-1973. (Or rather 1974 – I eventually proved all of the published sources wrong. Take ThatDenis Gifford and your Complete Catalogue!

Okay, so maybe I’m a Little It is odd.

Curiosity can be both obsessive as well as trivial. Everybody is curious in their own way. Curiousness is what makes us human.

And, sometimes, it’s the seemingly trivial questions that lead to the most incredible findings. To Isaac Newton, a falling apple wasn’t just a bonk on the head but a question that demanded to be answered – and eventually lead to his theory of gravity. That’s some industrial-strength curiosity.

To us non-geniuses, curiosity drives us to explore the world around us every day.

It’s a big reason why people seek out content. It’s also what keeps someone reading or watching until the end. What’s the answer? What is the reason for this? How does it end?

With any luck, curiosity can lead them click on more links (hopefully ones that are ours) as they explore the rabbit hole that has captured and captured their imagination.

Clickbait can also be explained by curiosity. To exploit curiosity, it might be tempting to try a darker, more manipulative strategy. But it probably won’t pay off. Here’s why.

Curiosity keeps people clicking as they go down the rabbit holes that capture their imagination. But there are risks to manipulating curiosity in #ContentMarketing, says @Kimota via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

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Curiosity clicked the hyperlink

You’re probably familiar with headlines like these: “Number Four Will Shock You” and “You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!” But clickbait isn’t always so blatant. Clickbait can be defined as omitting a vital (but ultimately trivial) piece from a headline. Consider this article from my news feed this morning: “Expat baffled by common Aussie supermarket item,” the headline blares.

What is it? Is this really that strange? She looks stupefied. What are we doing in Australia to deserve such a reaction by an expat? (To be honest, that’s probably a long list.)

Yes, I clicked (purely for the purpose of researching this article).

The answer was a capicum. If you’re reading this in the U.S., you call them peppers. Or bell peppers. Just know that you’re wrong. They are called capsicums. The other, more hotter peppers are chilis. You’re welcome.

Is the headline really worth 500+ words? It was thirty seconds of my life I won’t get back.

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Is this clickbait or not?

Another common clickbait technique involves using the headline to ask a question. This form makes the reader more curious by asking questions about something they didn’t know.

As Betteridge’s law of headlines states, “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.’”

TechCrunch’s Ian Betteridge gave us his tongue in cheek maxim in a 2009 piece that criticized the practice. “The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.”

Don’t panic. We’ve all used questions in our headlines at some point. But Betteridge’s law targets those headlines where the question is disingenuous. The curiosity is misplaced. The answer is as underwhelming as an expat’s capsicum.

Clickbait is a common problem in content marketing. I see headlines and social media posts that promise to reveal the secret to success in any field of interest the marketer wants to target. They don’t give any clues to what they are trying to reveal. Specific Information lies beyond the link

Of course, the trick, ingredient, or key almost always turns out to be more metaphorical capsicums – particularly for anyone with more than a basic understanding of the topic.

Capsicum may be sufficient if your ideal audience is a novice or an amateur still grasping the basics. But a novice won’t be satisfied for long and will soon start looking for more nutritious fare.

Capsicum content is definitely not good if your goal is to attract more skilled, knowledgeable, or deeply curious readers. Of course, they’re also more likely to be high-value audience members such as influencers or even potential customers.

Appealing to curiosity can be a powerful way to get people to read your content. canDeliver the goods.

Appealing to curiosity is extremely powerful – as long as your #ContentMarketing delivers deep enough answers, says @Kimota via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

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Alice said, “Curioser and more curious.”

It is easy to think that curiosity and interest are synonymous. If you’re interested in a topic, by definition, you should be curious to learn more about it.

Yet it’s possible for large swathes of your audience to be passively interested in your content without ever being actively curious. Think about how many cookbooks people buy even though they have never tried any of the recipes. You can also see how many people are avid gardeners with only a window box.

Even then, it’s possible to be involved in an activity without necessarily being that curious about it. According to George Loewenstein, Carnegie Mellon University, curiosity and interest can be distinguished.

For example, a person might be interested in pottery and want to learn more about the techniques, materials, and history. Curiosity, in contrast, according to our definition, only arises when a specific knowledge gap occurs, such as, ‘What is the difference between high and low fire pottery?’ Thus, interest and curiosity differ by their objects of desire (specific knowledge vs. general knowledge/activity engagement).

There are many theories and definitions of curiosity. But curiosity is the compulsion to search for answers. SpecificAs a content marketer, knowledge was a standout.

This isn’t specific knowledge in the sense of “How to create awesome Instagram Reels.” That’s appealing to an activity-based interest no different from throwing pots.

The curious may be more interested in understanding how and why a technique works than taking information and advice as gospel.

In other words, some content is about providing quick answers just to get the job done – no further curiosity required. Other content seeks to explore, explain, or expand the topic to deepen the reader’s understanding and open up new possibilities – or even lead to new, independent conclusions.

In 2012, Loewenstein and Russell Golman published a paper that specified three factors that determine the intensity of a person’s curiosity.

  1. Importance How important information is to an individual.
  2. Salience: How attentive is one to the information gap.
  3. Surprise: Is there a contradiction or violation of expectations in a new piece?

For example, it was because of my deep interest and knowledge in British comics (It is important) that, when I came across some examples of Princess Tina I’d previously not seen (salience), I noticed certain details that contradicted what I thought to be true (Surprise). I was therefore intrigued by the discrepancy and determined to solve it.

Clickbait’s problem is that it exaggerates or overstates the importance, salience, and/or surprise in order to create an information gap which is either an illusion, or not worth filling.

So how do you ensure your content provides a satisfactory filling for your audience’s curiosity gaps?

The problem with clickbait is that it creates an information gap that’s not worth filling. @Kimota explains what to do instead via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Know – want to know – learned

One educational technique used in schools to boost salience – and curiosity – among students is a Know – Want to Know – Learned chart (KWL).

For example, a class might list what they know about the topic in the Know column before they start a new unit of study. Then they write what they want to know in the second column – identifying and highlighting their information gaps and fuelling their curiosity. The students then write in the third column what they have learned from the activity or book.

What’s great about this approach is that it treats curiosity as a product of prior knowledge.

Contrary to this, many brands plan content in reverse. They start with the most basic information and then tell their audience what it is.

This approach assumes the audience isn’t already better informed. It’s more concerned with easy content than with what information the target persona is burning with curiosity to find out.

Content marketers don’t get to whiteboard a KWL chart with the audience before each piece of content. A similar approach could be used internally to plan content to increase curiosity and retention.

Learn: What does the target persona already know – or believe to be true? This ensures that the content is appropriate for their level of skill and interests. You might assume they’ve already read the articles that come up for relevant keyword searches.

Want to learn more? What information gaps might they be looking for that your content can fill? If the persona isn’t aware of the gap – perhaps because new research challenges previous assumptions – how can you create salience by framing the content in relation to their prior knowledge?

What we learned: Is the final content able to fill in the information gaps highlighted? Are the answers as interesting, relevant, and useful as the questions? No capsicums.

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Why, why, WHY??

If your content is unequivocal and absolute, if it refuses to acknowledge the information gap exists, it risks curtailing the reader’s curiosity.

Unfortunately, content marketing’s obsession with thought leadership means a lot of content DoesUnder the misapprehension of any doubts threatening its authority, it will frame itself as complete and definitive.

“When information is portrayed, implicitly or explicitly, as complete, curiosity is stifled,” Markey and Loewenstein write, “but when an information gap is highlighted, curiosity is aroused and exploration increases.”

If curiosity is created and fuelled by information gaps, then it makes sense for your content to be at least a little open-ended to give the reader’s curiosity somewhere to go.

Be willing to admit what isn’t known as well as what is. Be open about what’s opinion or theory and what’s a provable fact. Be open about the fact that there may be other views or interpretations.

Celebrate information gaps, don’t hide them. Instead, use them to inspire readers to do further research, more content, and more links.

This means that the people who create and publish your content must be as curious about the topic than the audience.

If you don’t, you run the risk that your audience will run out of questions.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute