Curiosity and the art of fascination

In this social media age of information overload, how can advertisers make consumers genuinely interested in what they have to say? Ian Leslie thinks he has the answer.

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

If I want to gain your attention, I can do it in very different ways. I can drop you an e-mail explaining that I just had an interesting conversation with Sir Martin Sorrell about you. Or I can come and stand at your desk and shout in your ear.

Which would you prefer?

We live in an attention economy, and there is fierce competition for this scarce resource. Desperate to make the most of social media, many brands behave as if it’s enough to get in the face of the consumer by any means possible. It’s all attention, right?

Wrong. Not all attention is the same, and some types of attention are more valuable than others. Perhaps the most valuable is curiosity. Aristotle called it "the desire to know". When people are genuinely interested in what you have to say, they listen, they converse and they come back for more.

Anyone can grab your attention for a second or two if they come and shout in your ear. Fewer people, and fewer brands, can make you want to give it. Curiosity is attention plus desire. That makes it extremely powerful.

One of the people who understands this is Peter Koechley, a co-founder of the viral news site Upworthy, which reinvented the headline for the social media age. In traditional media, the headline is a summary of the story below. Koechley realised that, in an age of information overload, people are more likely to click and share if the headline withholds crucial information about the story it links to.

Great storytellers of all kinds are expert at creating curiosity gaps

Koechley drew on a theory of curiosity formulated by the behavioural economist George Loewenstein, who proposed that it is best-understood as a response to an information gap. If you know nothing about a subject, you’re less likely to be curious about it; similarly, if you know everything about it. But when you know something, but not everything, you experience an almost physical sensation; you want to close that gap. This is the itch of curiosity.

Upworthy’s headlines tell you a little, but it’s the gaps that make you click:

"His first 4 sentences are interesting. The 5th blew my mind."

"Dustin Hoffman breaks down crying explaining something that every woman sadly already experienced."

As Koechley puts it: "Social headlines need to create a curiosity gap. Too vague and I don’t care. Too specific, I don’t need to click." The Huffington Post, Gawker and others have followed suit.

Great storytellers of all kinds are expert at creating curiosity gaps; at withholding, as well as dispensing, information. Agatha Christie tells you that Mr Ratchett was stabbed to death in his compartment – that gains your attention. The gap – nobody knows who did it – sucks you in.

By not telling you everything, great movies and books set up a magnetic current of mystery that draws you through them. A common mistake of bad stories is to tell too much too quickly, blunting the edge of their audience’s curiosity.

What lessons can brands draw from this? Should advertisers aim to open up curiosity gaps, inducing that itch to click? Yes – but that’s not all they should do.

If you open up a gap, you’d better have something good to show people when they make the effort to close it. BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti, for instance, eschews the curiosity gap, citing the danger that readers will eventually become tired and cynical unless the story always delivers on the promise.

Advertisers are creating more elaborate social media stunts than ever, but it’s getting harder to elicit more than a shrug from consumers increasingly weary of cheap tricks. Focus too intently on generating the itch of curiosity and consumers will find a cream to get rid of it once and for all. There’s a Twitter account called @savedyouaclick that fills in the gap on viral headlines so you don’t have to: "Bible. RT @Gawker You’ll never guess Hillary Clinton’s favorite book."

Ambitious brands should aspire to the deepest and most valuable form of curiosity: fascination. Great brands enthral us. We return to them because they interest us in a way that goes beyond information. The best brands are stories we don’t want to end. Our curiosity about them is a renewable resource.

The principle of withholding still applies. Coca-Cola’s "secret formula" was never about guarding proprietary information but a way of creating the perception that what you don’t know about this brand is even more interesting, more magical, than what you do know. Apple is expert ?at generating the perception that Cupertino is full of world-changing secrets (which is sometimes true, sometimes not). Kate Moss has stayed at the top of her industry for decades by barely saying a word.

In the age of transparency, mystery is more powerful than ever.

Ian Leslie is a brand strategist and author. His latest book is Curious: The Desire To Know And Why Your Future Depends on It