In the near term, 2021 promises a continued environment of limited in-person engagement and a need for more virtual engagement. So marketers will need to continue to innovate in order to make their digital content stand out amidst a crowded field of digital engagements. One clear way to win at that game is to find ways to make your messaging more interactive.

Listening to the panels at CES earlier this month, I was struck by hearing the word “joy” come up at least a dozen times when marketers were describing what companies are trying to provide to consumers in 2021 and beyond. How can that joy be achieved? Content that immerses us in a compelling story and new world might be the escape we need. And content that provides some form of interactivity is more engaging still. Interactivity can be used to create interesting, educational, and genuinely fun content. It can be used to connect people and create new communities. It can offer personalization to drive customer loyalty and also provide insights on customer behavior.

Whatever else happens this year, it’s safe to say that brands will be investing in ever more interactive content. From chatbots that give current customers quick and easy access to help to Mercedes’ interactive owner’s manuals, companies have been finding innovative ways to use interactive digital tools to improve operations and customer service. But new opportunities for interactive content can have a big impact for marketing as well, accompanying virtual events, social campaigns and other customer touchpoints.

Why Interactive?

Even well before the pandemic, the content consultancy Ion found that only 36% of static content engaged customers enough to generate conversions, but that number skyrocketed to 70% or more for interactive content. They also found that the majority of marketing professionals agreed interactive content was not just better at grabbing attention. It enhanced the retention of brand messaging, led to more repeat visitors, and even provided a valuable way to repurpose existing content. Even relatively dry long-form content like financial reports and white papers can be made into interactive experiences that present info and visualize data in new ways.

Not only do consumers genuinely enjoy interactive content, whether it’s educational or pure entertainment, they’ve come to expect it. Younger customers were raised on digital content. But they’re also savvy to engagement tactics and keenly aware that their interactions are trackable. They’re also willing to ignore even the brands that they follow because there is so much content out there. That’s why it’s important to understand exactly what it is customers want when they engage with a brand. And it turns out interactive content has another massive benefit to long-term engagement – it provides loads of data insights.

In 2020, over half of content marketers were using interactive engagements and 75% planned to increase usage. The technological acceleration that the pandemic seems to have imposed on every aspect of business seems likely to increase this trend if anything. And since interactive content is easily trackable, the insights that data provides companies can be invaluable.

Of course the internet and social media are chock full of certain types of interactive content – celebrity quizzes, fan polls, social games, etc. – much of it created by individuals rather than brands. It’s certainly a viable strategy to create content that can win in the vitality game of the social platforms. But it’s also possible to cut through the noise by developing sophisticated virtual offerings outside of those platforms. When competing for the time and attention of your customers, production values are key. Interactive engagements don’t necessarily need to be flashy, but they do need to have something that sets you apart from the rest of the crowd. Any content is only compelling when it’s purpose-driven, so good meaningful storytelling will always be the backbone of any successful engagement.

What Interactive?

It’s clear that 2021 isn’t going to bring back face-to-face interactions as fully or quickly as we had hoped. But that also means there will continue to be more opportunities to engage with customers digitally. And even once we do all get back out into the world, compelling interactive engagements will surely lead to greater long-term brand admiration and loyalty. So investing in better experiences now is not just catering to a captive audience – it’s playing the long game.

Creating a compelling interactive experience starts with finding the right concept. Always work from your core messaging and value proposition. Some types of information lend themselves to interesting visual experiences more than others, but smart creating thinking makes all the difference. Numerical data is great example – infographics can tell a visually interesting story out of otherwise dense data, and interactivity can help to explicate and extend that story. For some examples of interactive infographics done well, check out World’s Biggest Data Breaches & Hacks or The Evolution of the Web – both are based predominantly on numeric and time data and visualize it compellingly and interactively. Or consider an example like the BBC’s Will a robot take your job?, which tells a more nuanced and text-based story, but does so in an inherently interactive way and incorporates compelling visuals. None of these are brand stories, but the fundamental techniques can easily be adapted by marketers.

Location-based stories can also work very well as interactive content. When colleges could no longer offer tours to prospective students, many of them (for instance, Harvard) offered virtual tours via their websites. And such experiences needn’t be so literal – National Geographic took a more illustration approach to their architectural analysis of The New New York Skyline and even incorporated 3D models of some of the projects. Here again, these same techniques could easily be coopted by clever marketers.

Gamification is another common tactic for engaging interactive content. When Macy’s couldn’t have kids come to visit Santa in their stores at Christmas, they created Santaland at Home instead, which incorporated very simple games appropriate for small children. On the other end of the spectrum, the US Army created a full role-playing console game called Proving Grounds that allows players to experience what soldiers do. After the runaway success of their show The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix created playable bots of Beth Harman at different ages that fans could play against. And when the AR showrooms that Volkswagen created since traditional auto shows were cancelled proved extremely popular, they created an AR racing game to accompany them.

Regardless of the specific tactic you choose to build your creative approach around, it should be clear from the examples above that there are numerous ways to use interactivity to tell an interesting story, to make your content stand out, and to more effectively engage customers in your brand.

Featured Image: AR racing game from Volkswagen