It goes without saying that we are increasingly betting our businesses on our websites. They represent us, who we are and what we stand for.

Your website is the first impression people have of you, not those fancy plants in the foyer, a charming handshake, or your passionate attention to customer service.

Your website is you and it meets all of your prospects. That's the great thing about it, it scales to meet hundreds andthousands of new people every day.

Engage, Persuade and Educate

Every visit to the website is your chance to engage, persuade and educate each visitor. However, as their cursors hover over the back button, that chance might be brief. In marketing, they call it 'consent,' when someone has agreed to participate in your marketing campaign. Right now, for a few brief moments only, you have their consent and their full attention.

Real-Life Examples of Engagement

I think of it like this. I walk into a suit shop to buy a suit.The assistant sizes me up (literally) and suggests I might want to look at this rack, where suits of my size are hanging.He then asks me some questions. What color do I like? What style?He tests my reaction to this suit and then that suit.I nod and shake my head as we refine my requirements. We then discover that the ideal suit for me is not here, but... maybe, he has one "out back."

With a flourish, he returns, clutching the "very thing" (his words!). His effort to find my suit and to understand me is rewarded with a sale, for fractionally more than I was intending to spend.

How to Make the Engagement Work

I think you'd agree that was a successful engagement, but what did this engagement need to make it work?

Firstly, the basics: the suit shop needed to be there and it needed to have some suits in it, and the assistant needed to have a clear understanding of what I was likely to look for.

In the case of your website, you need to do some content planning, have some understanding of who you are writing content for and the purpose of your site. What's the ‘call to action’ you want your visitor to answer?

Whether it's a blog, a corporate product site or a local authority website -- it needs an engagement objective, which will need some understanding of your potential audience and why you are here.

Back to the suit shop analogy, we are at the point where I have arrived, the assistant looks me over and recommends a size.

In terms of a website, we can think of this as the search terms the visitor used to find you, or the place they came from. If they arrived from a link on CMSWire, it will be safe to assume these guys are interested in your CMS products, and you can therefore direct them to the right rail of content.

Or can you? Do you have your content organized in a logical fashion, displaying all your finest products or services along nicely ordered rails in a way that the visitor needs to see it? Does your visitor want to see all your products by feature, by size or is the visitor looking for the lowest price?

Engagement Through Understanding

Next, the assistant has a look at me and asks me some basic questions and our conversation, our engagement, continues as he tries to understand what I am interested in. This endeavor should be the same on your website as you track what a user is looking at, what they are interested in and where they have been.

Learning Opportunities

You can look at your web analytics data and optimize your site for some future visitor but what's great for my fictional assistant is he can adapt to my behavior. And that's what our website should be doing.

Not just a quick analysis of "other people who bought this, also bought that", but of intuitively and subtly finding the next piece of content they might be interested in, that might extend their stay or grow their engagement.

Now he shows me a series of pairs of suits, comparing each as we refine my suit style needs. On your website, this is multi-variant or A/B testing; establishing your audience’s preference for each to get a better understanding of what content is good for this type of visitor. Do people download your PDF when it's displayed with this image or that image? Do people respond to the offer if we sell at a discount or if we throw in free stuff?

Understanding Your Content

Finally, my engagement with the assistant is making progress and we understand one another. The problem is the suit is not on the rack, it's "out back," or at least he thinks it might be. This is probably one of the most important parts of the story from a web content management perspective.

It's about understanding your content, about knowing what you have, understanding its meaning, its context, whether it's appropriate, of good quality and accessible. So that your website can, with a flourish, show your visitor "the very thing” and achieve another engagement objective.

The engagement objective of the suit shop is the sale. The shop owner can now measure and demonstrate that this was the right place to build a suit shop and that they have the kind of content their audience wants. In the same way, a marketer can demonstrate the value of the website, by measuring against objectives.

But it's not always going to be like that, I may have walked out of the store as they didn't quite have the style I liked. The difference is, next time a person like me walks in, they will know that people like me want that kind of suit. They have an actionable insight into making the store better.

Producing Engaging Content is a Cycle

The point of this story is that producing engaging content is a cycle. Firstly, we need to understand our objectives – what is the content for? Then we need to plan our content around the needs of our audience and deliver it in a relevant, accessible and personalized way.

As we present the content, we need to continue to learn about the needs of our newfound audience. We then need to convert that understanding into actionable insights that we apply, optimizing that brief opportunity to engage through dynamically delivering an individualized web experience.

About the Author

Ian Truscott is a VP for  WCM Product Strategy at the Web CMS vendor Alterian that offers two web content management systems: Morello and Immediacy. Truscott tweets under the handle of IanTruscott and blogs about web content management, multi-channel engagement and persuasive content. Most recently, he also published a book called The Little Book of Web Engagement.