Rethinking interactive content marketing

This guide was created for content marketers that have yet to discover the wonderful world of interactive content. Its aim is to induce enough FOMO to pressure you into getting started this week. If you're already publishing interactive content, there's some content tracking ideas you might enjoy.

This guide starts with why interactive content is important, followed by how to think about creating it. It includes practical content tracking advice, examples from the real world, and short interviews with Nicky Case and Nathan Bashaw. I've included an automated coaching bot to help you create and ship your first (or next) interactive project.

The content marketing landscape

Clicking the orange squiggles will expand additional text.

I scoured the internet for articles about interactive content as part of the research process for this guide. I wanted to know what state the interactive content industry is in. I needed to be sure of a few things before attempting to take a stab at it. The industry that is. My expectations matched reality. The first google search page for interactive content has a few shallow articles but doesn’t have a single interactive article. These results go on for pages.

This is kind of embarrassing for the marketing industry. There's been a wonderful explosion of tools and browser capabilities in the recent past. Yet content marketing, a multi-billion dollar industry, is marching on without any champions of innovation. There's a shortage of incredible product and features pages with hands-on demos. There's a lack of B2B sites that explain product benefits through compelling, interactive simulations.

They exist only sporadically. Occasionally here and infrequently there. For shame.

Instead of beautiful interactivity, the content marketing industry is stuck with articles that follow a painfully predictable pattern:

  • A few paragraphs about how content is king; how everyone should start using interactive content.
  • A handful of bullet points about how important interactive content is followed by a 10,000 word deluge.
  • Some links to examples of interactive content campaigns.

Truth be told, it’s a sad state of affairs. It's sad because it's representative of the general state of interactive content in marketing. But it's not too late to jump on the interactive bandwagon while it's still relevant and useful enough to carry us all.

If this guide does its job, you'll be part of a new wave of interactive publishers.

How do you feel about the current state of interactive content marketing?

1.   It’s fine, I don't get the complaining
2.   Yeah I guess it could be better
3.   We need more Elon Musks of interactive content

What are your design options?

Form must follow function. Your interactive content needs to serve a purpose. Here's 4 examples:

Teaching via interactivity
Encouraging further exploration
To stimulate or entertain
To remove doubt and purchase friction

Your content needs one or more of these types of purposes. Once you decide to take on an interactive project, brainstorm some purposes before you move on.

If you've never been part of an interactive project, start small. No, smaller. Less scope means less chance of you throwing in the towel halfway through the project. Hard constraints and scope limitations are your friends.

The content must serve you, and it must also serve your audience. Write down concrete purposes for each perspective - yours, and your audience's.

Once that's done you should probably pick one or two interactives from the tried and tested list:

maleable text
micro games
images with hover hotspots
choose-your-own-adventure videos
adjustable data visualisations

These are beginner-friendly. They're popular types and all have comprehensive tutorials online. There are also tools that help you publish these interactives without any coding at all.

Challenge yourself to publish something by the end of the next calendar month. Yes I mean you!

Here's a free, automated coaching bot to help you create something. If you provide your email, my project coaching tool will email you 9 times until your deadline. The messages include tips and gentle reminders to keep on pushing until your interactive project is up and live for the world to enjoy.

I want to help you succeed in publishing your next interactive project.

The argument for better content

Martin Jonasson and Petri Purho demonstrate how they turned a boring old game of breakout into a juicy masterpiece.

This juiciness represents what better content can be. It applies to marketing pieces too.

Let me try to explain why rich, "juicy" content can benefit your readers. Imagine regular, flat text as the result of a database query. Databases give you specific answers to specific questions. The specific question that your article has asked might not be the same questions that your readers have in mind.

When you introduce certain interactives, you're providing an improved interface for accessing that hypothetical database information. Good interactives let your readers structure their queries on their own terms.

You have the chance to provide tools for deeper understanding with every piece your publish. There's a massive gap in the market for this type of content.

Getting started with interactive content

That's the why of the matter. Now let's focus on the how.

The most difficult part is getting started. This isn't when you start researching interactive tools. It's not when you wonder about the award winning creations you hope to publish. I'm talking about when you sit down and start notarizing realistic goals, ideas, and narratives.

That's the first step, and it happens to be the most difficult one. Exactly how you'll implement your ideas is moot. If you continue with your project, these thoughts are just implementation details. They'll sort themselves out.

After you begin, momentum will keep you going regardless of how difficult you find it. So to get started you just have to get started.

It's crucial to note that you can get going without using any interactive content frameworks. It's alright to be chaotic and messy your first few times. If you start noticing patterns and solutions, you can formalize that into your natural working framework as you fumble forward.

Converting your existing content

When brainstorming how to reformat your existing content, stick to how your readers' specific interactions within your specific idea will benefit you. You need to get something out of your creation. Obviously.

Spend the rest of your planning time understanding the flow of your idea from your audience’s perspective. Figure out how you'll make them fall in love with it. Also, your audience needs to be well defined. You need to think of 5 real people that you’d create your interactive content for. If you struggle with this then scrap your idea and move onto your next idea.

Around 40% of internet surfers respond better to visual information than plain text. The more engaging and entertaining your content is, the more likely people are to interact with it. Heavy interaction is correlated with higher conversion rates.

But there's much stronger justification for interaction than mere engagement. It's impossible for any document to comprehensively and accurately represent the intended meaning of its author. Additional vectors of communication (like interactivity) mean better odds that your content will “click” in the mind of your readers.

There’s a stat online wherein a DemandGen Report study claimed that 91% of buyers seek out visual and interactive content. Whether or not this number is accurate, the hunt for interactivity is real.

Interactive content goes viral quite frequently. Static text only goes viral if the content is extraordinary.

I'd love to hear how you've converted existing, static content into richer, more interactive assets. Mail me your stories!

Your company is lagging behind

There are thousands of non-marketers taking advantage of JavaScript to its full potential.

Media companies like The New York Times have established themselves as key players in the field of interactive journalism. Check out some of NYT's interactive work over at the graphics team's Twitter account.

The magic of data visualization has also reached the mainstream. People are growing familiar with seeing interactive journalism. The bar for content quality is rising fast, as are expectations.

People want extra value from modern content formats and competition is heating up everywhere you look online.

I created a calculator to drive home this point. You can estimate how much interactive content you'll be competing with over the next several years. Even with a limited number of direct content creators, your inbound marketing content will be facing serious competition in no time.

Content market estimator

Content creators:
Industry growth rate:
Interactive content ratio:
Content pieces per publisher per year:

Why marketers don’t use interactive content

Since interactive content marketing is so rare, there must be reasons for its rarity. Let’s briefly explore some of these in case they apply to you.


Lack of budget is a problem for any marketing project. Luckily there are enough tools on the web that budget can almost be considered a non-issue. Tools like Qzzr, PlayBuzz, Shorthand, and SnapApp let you to inject polls, calculators, and other interactive experiences into your content. They're far cheaper than you fear.

If you want something custom it’s obviously going to cost you more. That being said, even a $20,000 investment into a single interactive asset can have a return of $100,000 and above. Just look to the million dollar quiz for inspiration. Stop thinking budget. Start thinking investment.

Interactive content marketing is very possible with small investments.

Staff and resourcing

If you’re a solo freelancer or have resource constraints, you can still publish interactive content. Outsource your work or find a trusted partner to help you through your production process.

CMI cited that 9% of content marketers feel that a shortage of time is their greatest content challenge. I say partner up!

Technical expertise

You or your team might not have the skills to build something on your own.

Try contacting Crew. Maybe browse through Codepen and start following talented creatives as part of your morning reading. Find relevant people to follow on Twitter. You can also hit me up or tweet me and I'll try to help you out. Even if I won’t be able to assist personally, I’ll do my best to point you to someone that'll be able to partner up.

I'd personally avoid sites like Upwork because of horror stories like this. But I’m not affiliated with any of these linked sites so shop around at your own discretion.

Misc reasons

If you've got other reasons for not developing interactive assets, I'd love to hear what they are. Share them with me and I'll add those reasons to this list.

How comfortable are you with interactive content?

1.   Lost and afraid of starting
2.   Lost but optimistic about starting
3.   Optimistic and I've started planning
4.   Excited and I've started creating
5.   I've already published some work

Real world inspirations

The great thing about Codepen is that you can embed pens onto any page. So with that I present to you some creative demos. Click on Run Pen to start the embedded pens.

See the Pen Soldiers of Fortune by Chris Gannon (@chrisgannon) on CodePen.

See the Pen Shel Silverstein's Everything On It by Sarah Drasner (@sdras) on CodePen.

See the Pen Leapy grid (?) by Godje (@Godje) on CodePen.

Codepen is filled with cool, random, little experiments like these. Here's some links to more complete interactive content.

Expert interviews

I reached out to two awesome creators. The interviews are short because this article is long enough as it is.

A quick chat

Nicky Case uses code to visualize and explain the world, and has been creating independent and weird web games for over a decade. Nicky's work includes the infamous Parable of the Polygons.
Nathan is the CEO of Hardbound. He creates wonderful stories designed for mobile screens. The best way to understand is to check Hardbound out for yourself.

Tracking content marketing

I need you to ask yourself some difficult questions today. I know you think that because your site has tracking installed that you're data-driven and make insightful guesses based on interaction information.

But do you? How much do you really know about how your content is being consumed? You might have services like Google Analytics, Mixpanel, or Kissmetrics doing a lot of grunt work for you. But they work in another department. They report to sales, not marketing. They're measuring funnel data for the boss. Content marketing friends, you're invited to the party but you gotta bring your own booze.

Those tools are incredible. They come out the box, batteries included, designed to help you collect tons of data and tear it apart. They're designed to help you filter through it and segment it and visualize it. Their plug-and-play nature is perfect for this type of collection.

But the problem, and yes you do have a problem, is that these platforms aren't really collecting content consumption data. They're collecting the behavioural data - the actions based on your content. Popular analytics software tracks clicks and scrolls but it doesn't tell you anything about how specific sentences and paragraphs are consumed. They're tracking data at a level of abstraction away from where they need to be collecting the data.

That's a pretty broad accusation. I'll concede that video companies like Wistia can show you exactly which parts of your video each viewer has seen. That's so beautiful. Isn't it strange that this feature isn't standard for tracking text?

Mixpanel does have a feature called autotrack that comes very close. The platform has this cool autotrack editor that lets you add event tracking without any code. No code means widespread adoption which is excellent. Once you set it up, the tracking for your new event will even provide you with older data prior to your event's definition. Magical historical data.

Don't take my word for it

Josh Schwarz said it best. “Traffic measures are useful for understanding the scale of a site, but they are not meaningful for the evaluation of content”. Preach, brother.

Measuring your content's engagement rates means you can infer whether it’s providing any value. Value is determined from a range of signals and the pageviews metric isn't one of these.

Scalar values aren't able to provide you the data depth you need to build insights. Your Google Analytics account can tell you average session times and page read times for your site, but Google Analytics metrics aren't the right metrics for tracking content engagement. Not without custom events anyway. GA metrics track time on page and time on site by calculating the differences in timestamps of page loads. It has no concept of whether someone is consuming your content or whether it’s sitting in inactive tab number 34 on your browser.

Inflated numbers lead to poor decision making and can have actual monetary implications. Implementing tracking that measures actual engagement time will mean accurate data and a better feedback loop for your content strategists.

In case that’s all a bit confusing, look at the 2 counters below. They both started counting the moment you loaded this guide. The left one will count until you close this page. The right one will pause if this page becomes inactive. Try opening a new tab and coming back a few seconds later.

Regular timer
Tab-aware timer

Now that you've tabbed back to this page, notice the difference? The right counter is more accurate about your time spent on this article. I get it, you might think that a few seconds in time difference might not mean much. But if 5,000 visitors read your content while browsing around dozens of tabs, that difference can significantly warp true read times.

Below are some more counters. The first one will only tick over while its orange container is visible to you. If it's off-screen, there's no point in tracking your engagement with an element you can't access. This is significantly more accurate than either of the previous two timers.

Viewport timer
Perpetual timer

The final timer above started counting the first time you visited this page. It ticks only when you're on this page.When you close your tab or browser window and come back later, it'll resume from where it left off instead of starting from scratch.

What if you decide to leave this page open while grabbing a snack from the kitchen mid-article? You might come back 5 minutes later, resume reading and finish a bit later than you would have otherwise.

Google Analytics will report yet another inflated time on page figure. That's because it wasn't designed for granular engagement tracking. But with the right kind of thinking, you're able to cover cases like the kitchen snack conundrum, without too much effort.

If there's enough interest, I’ll do a follow up post with a breakdown of how you can implement these tracking strategies yourself.

Sign up to be notified when I publish new content, including the content marketing tracking tutorial. Done. What's your name?

The examples above use a level of granularity detailed enough to warrant being called content marketing engagement metrics. Knowing how much attention people give to certain parts of your writing can guide you writing more interesting content. Knowing who's reading what can help you segment people and understand exactly what works for different parts of your funnel.

That's content marketing tracking. As in tracking the content. As in not blindly deciding what to publish next. As in you've got real world numbers to corroborate or disprove the demand of topic X for power users or guide about Y for first-time users.

I'm completely certain that there are many people out there that share my views. I'm also certain that a portion of you folks have written and deployed your own custom code to track this kind of stuff. Hit me up on Twitter and tell me about your implementation. I'm hungry to learn what neat tracking tricks you've rolled out?

49% of the B2B crowd think measuring content effectiveness is their biggest content marketing challenge. Maybe more of the internet's meta-marketing needs to delve deeper into measurement strategies. You can read a bit more about content marketing analytics in my guest post on the Mention blog.

Content marketing's golden standards

We need to set better benchmarks for ourselves. We need to establish what our golden standards are. We, as an industry, need to know what level of quality to aim towards. What are the factors for deciding how to measure this?

The age of shallow analytics is over. Machine learning is here and exciting everyone. The true value of ML cannot be tarnished by the current flood of vaporware, bullshit speculation and snake oil. Initiatives like OpenAI's Universe are going to lead to breakthroughs in democratized AI implementations, but maybe not quite yet.

Deep learning will eventually become the interface we need for marketing insights. But before that happens, these systems require a list of heuristics that the AI needs to learn from. This is where you can come in.

The internet needs an authoritative resource for how to measure content marketing. Not authoritative as in a 10,000 word guide that has won the top SEO spot. We need something academic, falsifiable, and informative. More marketers need to know what content marketing mistakes to avoid in terms of planning and implementation. Ping me on Twitter and let's plan some time to begin putting together a stringent, definitive list of heuristics.

Analytics for this article

If this article garners enough interest I'll put together a follow up post. It'll have a small demonstration of some more of the engagement numbers for this article. The stack of paper notes on my work desk show around 14 different graphs for measurements like average number of interactions and average number of paragraphs consumed. Be sure to tweet me, mail me, or sign up for my newsletter to signal interest.


The changeover to interactive content is anything but simple. The required learning curve as well as the change in mindset can both feel overwhelmingly steep. It doesn't need to be this way. The biggest challenge isn’t a technological problem, but a perspective problem. Once you begin thinking of content marketing in terms of product management, and adapt to the appropriate production processes, it gets a lot simpler.

It’s alright to make things up as you go along. It’s alright to be questionably derivative. It’s all alright so long as you begin with a concerted effort. Good luck!

Pawel Janiak

Pawel Janiak

I'm a Software developer on a mission to improve interactive content marketing. I'm also clearly not a designer.

Special shout out to Nicky and Nathan for the interviews. Thanks to Julian Shapiro for the critique. Thanks to Bjorn Rombaut for bringing to life the cool fluid checkboxes. Leonides Delgado for the Noun Project icon.

Published on 9 January 2017