The 5 Keys to Better Interactive Content

The first interactive piece of content I worked on was a physics animation series for Paul Hewitt’s Conceptual Physics program back in 2005. It was my first job out of college, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

I was supposed to be a project manager, keeping everyone on track with deadlines, review rounds, and phone calls. Instead, I dove headfirst into interactive content development with the author, an interactive media vendor, and an art house. Somehow, I survived.

I’ve learned a lot since then about how to take a story and turn it into a compelling, effective piece of interactive content. While your team may not be jumping on the interactive bandwagon yet, they likely will be at some point in the near future. According to DemandGen’s “2015 Content Preferences Survey,” 91 percent of B2B buyers prefer more interactive and visual content that they can access on demand.

Let me say from experience: Concepting and creating interactive content is not the same as working on static content. If you’ve been writing traditional blog posts, e-books, whitepapers, and case studies for years, you may be starting to get freaked out. That’s okay. I’m here to reassure you that interactive content creation isn’t as complicated as it may seem; it just takes a different mindset.

Here are the five most important lessons I’ve learned from working on interactive content over the past few years. And at the end, check out the interactive overview to see how companies like Red Bull and Oracle have produced innovative content that goes well beyond the standard blog post.

1. There are many ways to tell a story

Traditional content tends to follow the same linear structure. You have an introduction that sets up a thesis. Supporting arguments fall within organized sections or chapters. Then a neat conclusion wraps everything up. You progress from one point to another, and skipping around is not encouraged.

With interactive content, you’re no longer confined to telling your stories in the same linear fashion. You can develop your thesis using a variety of different media—text, images, GIFs, videos, and audio clips, to name a few—and give viewers the freedom to explore different topics based on their interests or pain points.

The best interactive content starts with your story, your audience, and your goals. Once you’ve established these three foundational elements, you can decide what your content should look like. There are so many narrative and creative possibilities—that’s part of what makes interactive content creation so interesting.

2. Focus on clear information architecture

Breaking away from a linear narrative is one of the empowering parts of interactive content development. In order to do this successfully, however, you have to design a clear information architecture—that is, a navigation and structural framework that helps users find their way around. For example, on a typical website, your navigation menus serve as the foundation for how your web content is organized and consumed.

A few key pieces of architecture to consider include:

  • A global navigation menu that lets people jump between topics
  • On-screen prompts that shows which elements are clickable or hoverable
  • Links between sections or pages within a content piece
  • Calls to action that tell viewers where to go or what to do next once they finish your story

3. Longform articles don’t work as interactive content

I don’t want to sound like a hater, but here’s a hard truth I’ve discovered working with both editorial and marketing content creators: Hacking longform content into interactive experiences doesn’t end well.

The problem is that when you start with an existing longform piece, it’s hard to let go of all those words. They cling to you, begging to be spared the heavy wrath of the delete key. These projects tend to be too text-heavy, which makes for a much weaker user experience. You layer on some bells and whistles on top of a traditional narrative. It’s long and clunky and awkward. It just doesn’t work.

Try starting from scratch with a story you want to tell before determining the best way to tell it, then think about all of the tools at your disposal—text, yes, but also images, videos, audio, animations, and pop-ups.

4. An iterative design process yields much better results

A traditional web content development process looks something like this:

  1. You choose a topic and writes some copy.
  2. You hand over the copy to design.
  3. The designer builds a layout, styles, and visuals to accompany the copy.
  4. You review and approves the design.
  5. The developer takes a first pass at a build.
  6. The designer, developer, and you go back and forth with several review rounds until the final experience is in a decent place.
  7. The developer sends the piece through extensive cross-browser testing and quality assurance.
  8. The code gets deployed.

If you’ve ever been through this process before, you know how painful it can be. At various points along the way, friction and communication breakdowns are inevitable. The original creative vision morphs and gets diluted due to time and technical constraints. And it usually takes a few weeks to go from concept to live experience.

I’ve found that working iteratively yields much better results than working in a linear workflow. Considering the story and the design simultaneously leads to more efficient collaboration as well as a much more inspired output. Bringing in a developer early should also help you stay on time and on budget.

5. Always include good examples

Whether you’re a content marketer trying to illustrate best practices in your industry or an educator teaching basic Newtonian physics principles, examples can really drive home your point. In fact, examples are just as important in interactive content as text content because they support your argument both semantically and visually. Using videos, animations, and GIFs to support your concepts can bring your ideas to life. Just make sure to properly attribute and permission third-party media before using it in your work.

For more examples of smart interactive content, check out the graphic below.

Ashley Taylor Anderson is director of content at Ceros, an interactive content marketing software startup. She’s a writer and marketer who’s spent her career knee-deep in the B2B technology space. In previous professional lives, she worked as a science textbook editor, interactive media producer, and pastry chef. When she’s not in front of a computer typing, you can usually find her nose-deep in a book, strolling a museum, or cursing at her sewing machine.

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