Content Marketing
Brain Games: Discover the Psychology Behind Interactive Content

Brain Games: Discover the Psychology Behind Interactive Content

August 18, 2016
6 min read

Ever wondered what makes interactive content so effective?

You’ve probably heard that it improves engagement rates, click-throughs, and conversions by as much as 40%, but maybe you’re wondering, “Why?”

We’re glad you asked. The best place to look for an explanation is by studying the psychology behind interactive content – why it works, how it works, and what’s happening behind the scenes.

In this post, we’ll do just that. Let’s dive into the driving forces that make interactive content so powerful and break down what’s happening along the way when a user engages with this form of content.

Consumption of Interactive Content

Before we jump into the psychological processes that make interactive content so effective, let’s take a moment to understand the basics of information processing in the human brain.

Learning happens when information is processed through the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. When the learner can use multiple senses at once to interpret new data, the learning process is enhanced. Think about it: Video with visuals, text, and audio can more quickly communicate ideas than standalone text.

Visuals are especially effective for learning, as they can be interpreted and understood much more quickly than written copy or audio. Pair them with engaging content, and you’ve created an experience that truly sticks with the learner.

As you can see in the image above, visual content marketing makes information processing happen more quickly. Visuals process 60,000 times faster than text, while visuals in the form of video increase conversions by as much as 86%. Look at the retention rates, too: Visual content sticks 80% of the time compared to 20% for read material and 10% for audio material. Overall, visual content is 40 times more likely to be shared, too.

Now that we have a better sense of how learning happens when interactive content is consumed, let’s go a little deeper and understand the psychological factors behind why it’s so effective and engaging.

Constructivism and Interactive Content

One of the major psychological factors in the effectiveness of interactive content is that of constructivism, a theory from Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky.

Constructivism explains that experiences inform our learning process, and that new information is linked to existing knowledge. Additionally, the theory explains that as we learn and understand different concepts, we make better, more informed decisions.

From an interactive content perspective, it is clear why this medium is so effective. It puts the user in a position not only to learn, but to engage and interact with the presented content. Interactive content empowers the user to educate him or herself, and then to make decisions about follow-up actions (like conversion) based on what they’ve just learned.

You can see constructivism at work in this interactive assessment from ServiceNow:

While users are interacting with the quiz, they’re actively spotting areas for improvement with their IT – and they’re being presented with a solution for the areas they struggle with at the end. At the same time, they’re building on the existing knowledge they have about their IT pain points, and this quiz gets them thinking about the missing pieces that would resolve those problems.

Piaget and Active Learning

Jean Piaget, another prominent psychologist who worked with Vygotsky, explains that active learning is a much more powerful form of education than passive learning. In other words, if the content is related to ideas that the audience already knows and it’s engaging, it’s going to be more effective than if it’s brand new and one-sided – like an information dump.

Think about your own learning experiences – which have been more compelling? Were they the ones in which you were actively participating and building off of your existing knowledge? Or were they the ones in which the teacher spewed a bunch of new information without ever asking questions? Probably not the latter.

Piaget explains that both children and adults learn and remember more when they are involved in the process – and this is where interactive content again hits the mark. By giving the user a voice and an opportunity to participate, they become more likely to remember (and act on) the information that’s being shared.

Think about a traditional white paper vs. an interactive white paper. One is purely informational, while the other provides both information and an opportunity for the user to share his or her input on the data presented.


On a similar note, the psychology of gamification also explains how game elements help engage participants in a learning or informational process. It also helps explains why game-like interactive content (think about those polls or personality quizzes you’ve been sucked into on Facebook) are so interesting and fun for participants.

Unlike static content, interactive content, with an element of gamification, transforms a traditionally one-sided, non-engaging experience into an exciting, personalized experience. It’s very much like a game. Your unique input impacts the outcome.

Author Andreas Lieberoth explains, “People can be made more intrinsically motivated simply by presenting an activity as a game.” Therefore, adding an interactive angle to content puts users in the mindframe of play – and motivates them to move through the material with greater attention and focus.

Themes and Humanistic Psychology

Another psychological element behind interactive content is that of themes, which have a key role in the realm of humanistic psychology. Psychologists who specialize in this type of study explain that themes help humans learn and understand concepts by connecting new knowledge to previous knowledge, much like a spiderweb. As learning occurs, the web grows larger – and more connections between ideas are established.

Themes help us better detect patterns and make associations more quickly – which is why interactive content that pulls from the user’s existing realm of experiences is so effective. As an interactive quiz, assessment, poll, or calculator expands the user’s existing knowledge base, their brains’ synapses are firing and making connections related to problem-solving.

So what does this look like in action?

In the example from Euler Hermes, we can see how the interactive assessment is working from a theme the participant is already familiar with: Strategic credit management. This assessment isn’t presenting any new ideas or asking questions that users can’t easily answer – it’s simply teasing out pain points that primes them for a solution.

Marketers’ Insight on the Effectiveness of Interactive Content

We know why interactive content is effective, but what do real marketers have to say about working with interactive content? Do they think it’s a powerful resource that’s psychology-driven?

We spoke with a few experts who’ve deployed interactive content to see what they think about this form of content and how it worked for their organizations.

More Personalized = More Effective

Emma Siemasko worked closely with interactive content when she was on the content strategy team at Grasshopper, a telecommunication company owned by Citrix. She shared her thoughts on why this format produced such positive results for the company.

“By interacting with the content, the user gets a personalized response, something that feels tailored to their needs,” she explained. “It’s sort of the ultimate flattery. If users thinks a brand understands their unique needs, they’re interested. It’s like being in a conversation with someone where they want to know all about you.”

She also shared that the interactive format generated impressive ROI.

“The interactive quiz was so much more exciting than an eBook or standard article. And because of that, it performed well. It got thousands of organic clicks and social shares,” Siemasko said.

Anticipation & Gamification Give a Content a Fresh Angle

Hannah Levy, head of content strategy for Amino, a consumer healthcare company, shared that her team deployed their first piece of interactive content last fall with incredible results.

“Interactive content works because it allows users to be both engaged and invested in the content, Levy said. “It creates a sense of anticipation as the user waits for their customized results to be produced by an assessment or calculator.”

She and her team plan to continue to deploy interactive content because aside from the engagement it produced, it also gave them a unique angle on information presentation that helped earn media coverage and set them apart from competitors.

“Psychologically, interactive content taps into gamification, and helps guide the user through the material – all while allowing for a more personalized experience,” she said. “It’s a great way to keep people with limited attention spans interested.”

Tapping Into the Science of “Me”

Kelli Lawless of noted that her interactive content targeting the Millennial and younger consumers has also out-performed static content by a large margin.

From a psychology standpoint, she believes that interactive content taps into what she calls “the science of me.”

“Increasingly, we expect to be treated as special snowflakes and our content consumption is no exception,” she said. “Interactive allows for that ‘special’,personalized feel even when there may only be a few variations to the experience,” she said.

“It also addresses a desire for connection” Lawless said. “Even though it’s digital, the feeling of connection or ‘you get me’ is more real when a person is allowed to drive their own experience and receive a payoff. It’s likely lighting up the reward centers of the brain.”

Interactive Content: Tapping Into Psychology For Effective Conversions

From the science behind interactive content’s effectiveness to the marketers who can attest to the results it produces, it’s not difficult to understand why more and more companies are focusing on producing interactive content.

By creating learning experiences with engaging content, marketers using interactive marketing materials are helping prospective customers find their own way down the sales funnel – rather than forcing them through with one-sided information.

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula", and Founder of Marketing Insider Group. Recognized as a Top Content Marketing expert and Digital Marketing Leader, Michael leverages his experience from roles in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as his leadership in leading teams and driving growth for thriving startups. Today, Michael delivers empowering keynotes on marketing and leadership, and facilitates actionable workshops on content marketing strategy. Connect with Michael today.

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