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The Challenge of Keeping an Audience Engaged: How Language Shapes Attention

The Challenge of Keeping an Audience Engaged: How Language Shapes Attention

Jonah Berger, Wendy W. Moe and David A. Schweidel

Everyone wants to hold an audience’s attention. Brands want consumers to watch their ads, leaders want employees to read their emails, and teachers want students to listen to their lectures.

Similarly, media companies want readers to consume more content. The reason is simple: The further down a news story readers read, the more advertising revenue that article generates; the longer audiences spend watching videos, the higher the rate brands can command. And the more a piece of content holds attention, the more consumers learn about the product, service, or issue discussed.

Why do some articles captivate readers and encourage them to keep reading, while others make them lose interest after just a few sentences? And how does the content (i.e., the language used) shape whether audiences stay engaged?


In a new Journal of Marketing study, we address these questions with a multi-method investigation. By utilizing natural language processing of over 600,000 reading sessions from 35,000 pieces of content, combined with controlled experiments, we illustrate how language holds attention.

Sustained Attention vs. Clickbait

It is important to distinguish sustained attention from other types of engagement. One way of measuring engagement is clicks, views, or other such metrics that measure how many people were exposed to a piece of content. While prior research has examined how headlines or advertisements attract attention, we wish to explore how the content is able to hold a reader’s attention. Focusing on short-term metrics like views and clicks can lead to clickbait or headlines that attract attention, but it does not necessarily lead to content being consumed. 

Companies like YouTube and Facebook use measures like “dwell time,” or how long users spend consuming a piece of content, to better measure engagement, estimate relevance, and improve rankings and recommendations. A catchy headline might lead readers to click on a link, for example, but once they open the article, how much of it do they actually read? Do they stop after the first few sentences? Do they persist for most of the article? Holding attention refers to whether content retains the attracted attention, keeping audiences engaged.

Our study shows that language that is easier to process encourages continued reading, as does language that evokes emotion. But not all emotional language has the same impact. Instead, these effects are driven by the degree to which different discrete emotions evoke arousal and uncertainty. Consistent with this, we also learn that language that is anxious, exciting, and hopeful encourages reading, whereas language that is sad discourages it. A simulation highlights the implications of these findings for content recommendation algorithms trained to sustain attention.

Managerial Implications and Lessons

Our study offers four main lessons for chief marketing officers:

  • It deepens understanding around what holds attention. While some research has examined what attracts attention or what drives word of mouth, there has been less focus on how language sustains attention or makes people consume more content once they have started. We demonstrate the important role of emotional language and show how different linguistic features shape content consumption. 
  • Our findings help improve content design for advertisers, marketers, publishers, and presenters. Since content creators do not just want clicks, we show how simple shifts in language can encourage sustained attention. Further, while it is often assumed that certain topics are just better at keeping people engaged (e.g., celebrity gossip rather than financial literacy), we show how writing in certain ways can increase sustained attention, even for “less engaging” topics.
  • The results highlight that what holds attention is not always the same as what grabs attention or encourages word of mouth. While more certain language can increase likes and shares, we show that emotions that make people feel certain are actually detrimental when it comes to sustaining attention. Although some have argued that content requiring more cognitive processing should increase clicks, we show that content that requires more processing has the opposite effect when it comes to holding attention. Retaining attention is a different type of engagement, and findings from one type of engagement may not necessarily carry over to others. Consequently, when developing content, managers should think carefully about which outcomes they care most about and design the content with that in mind.
  • Because online content consumption has become a critical social issue, our findings have important social implications. Disinformation and hate speech have been linked to negative outcomes for individuals as well as society, and our results highlight language’s critical role in this process. If angry and anxious content holds attention, as our simulation shows, training algorithms to maximize sustained attention may lead this content to be recommended, with potentially negative implications for consumer welfare.

Read the Full Study for Complete Details

From: Jonah Berger, Wendy W. Moe, and David A. Schweidel, “What Holds Attention? Linguistic Drivers of Engagement,” Journal of Marketing.

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Jonah Berger is Associate Professor of Marketing, University of Pennsylvania, USA.

Wendy W. Moe is Dean’s Professor of Marketing, University of Maryland, USA.

David A. Schweidel is Rebecca Cheney McGreevy Endowed Chair and Professor of Marketing, Emory University, USA.