How to Win the Internet with High Performing Content

by Rakhal Ebeli @rakhalebeli

Why do we read some articles and not others? This question has likely caused much frustration and perplexity. Why is it, you may have asked, that after investing time, research and energy, some content simply doesn’t work?

The answer can in part be explained by emotional psychology.

According to Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, the human brain is governed by two modes of thought – one fast, one slow. In the first, system, our reactions are guided by impulse, emotion and instinct. In the second, we use a slower, more logical and conscious mode of thinking.

So, what does this mean for content?

Good content mixes emotion and value

Research by Sonya Song shows that the most engaging content activates both fast thinking and slow thinking systems. While pictures of cute kittens appeal to our fast-thinking mode, prompting us to click almost unconsciously, they are less likely to sustain long-term engagement. In other words, click bait might grab our attention but it does not keep it.

Sonya argues, “Attention triggered by primitive tricks is fairly cheap. To gain more engaged attention, sophisticated messages would be a better choice.”

If, for instance, a reader takes in ‘slowly’ a long form article on the obesity epidemic, they will be less responsive to attention-grabbing headlines for fast-food. High-performing content draws on both systems, simultaneously engaging our fast-thinking mode with “beautiful photos, simple messages and uppercase words” and our slow-thinking mode with value-add, complex messages.

Positive associations work

The success of content also relates to how well it reflects the reader’s values. On social media, for example, news and posts are curated to maintain a particular image. Sonya explains, “people… attempt to build ideal self-images by associating themselves with tangible objects, such as branded goods.”

“What I have found so far is that ‘smart’ stories will get shared more often.”

In short, those who want to appear clever, share clever articles.  Understanding these motivations is crucial to creating content that does not get lost in the digital abyss.

Readers want a turning point

Studying the Boston Globe Facebook page, Sonya found that posts with a “turning point” were the most conversational. She argues this is because turning points engage both fast and slow thinking: “They first present a problem (tied-game, tornado, cancer, disconnection, etc.) and then provide a solution or a triumph…As a turning point disrupts the flow of a message, it may slow down people’s thinking and engage System 2.”

From this, we can gather that stories – content that follow a narrative arch – generate greater click-through and engagement.  


Understanding the psychology behind why we do or do not click, read, engage is an important first step in creating content that meets marketing objectives.

As Sonya concludes, the point is to “bridge people’s behavior online with whatever goal the newsrooms and brands want to build.”