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Communications have evolved from the ‘one-to- many’ relationship towards the ‘many-to-many’ relationship. In this hyper-connected world, where everyone with a smartphone is a reporter and anyone with internet access is a publisher, we are all media – simultaneously receiving, broadcasting and participating. On social media, brands and organisations are being investigated, hacked, dismantled, remixed and shaped by audiences worldwide, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not.
In the UK, there are more Twitter users than newspaper readers. More video is uploaded in 60 days on YouTube than the three major U.S. networks produced in 60 years. As Facebook nears one billion active users, it is clear that people are hugely engaged with each other – but are they really engaging with brands and businesses (and the causes they hold dear) as much as they could be? What drives people to spend time, effort and energy on some things but not others? Why are we more engaged with kittens on YouTube than uprisings against dictatorships in the Middle East?
An engaged audience is a must for any organisation. But engagement starts with people. People choose to engage. Their choices result in advocacy, shares, attention, likes, follows and purchases. We know this because we’re becoming more skilled at measuring engagement. We understand its effects. But do we really understand its causes?
Working alongside anthropologist Dr. Grant McCracken, psychologist Dr. Olivier Oullier and neuroscientist Dr. Thomas Ramsøy we have uncovered The Science of Engagement.
Through an understanding of this science, we have identified the 10 common characteristics of engagement (the “Principles of Engagement”) and its 19 constituent parts (the “Elements”).
The Principles include the science of reciprocity, the importance of immediacy, the marrying of experience and expectation and the clear distinction between capturing and building engagement. The Elements range from ‘Aesthetics’ and ‘Belonging’ to ‘Respect’ and ‘Newness.’ The Principles underpin the theory behind The Science of Engagement whilst the Elements provide the practical building blocks for successful engagement.
Understanding The Science of Engagement means organisations can amplify and direct their communications for maximum effect.
The 10 Principles of Engagement
Taking input from our panel and extensive research, we define engagement as:
The intensity of an individual’s connection or participation with a brand or organisation.
Engagement requires an emotional connection between a brand or organisation and an individual. This emotional connection leads to action, whether purchases, shares, Likes or Tweets, which are measured as participation. Because engagement is relative, its intensity can be measured by the strength of an individual’s connection or participation. This varies depending on time, context, personal and environmental factors.
Our research reveals ten Principles of Engagement. These underpin its Elements and establish the parameters for effective engagement.
1. Engagement is a finite resource, not an infinite commodity
Engagement with one thing is always at the expense of another. Attention and effort are limited. Paying attention demands a small cost, while interaction or participation demand a much higher cost. Brands must be realistic about what they demand from people and clear in communicating what people can expect in return. Different environments pose different challenges for engagement – whether at home or on-the-go, alone or with friends, at night or in the morning. Knowledge of these factors will help brands identify the most relevant and opportune moments for engagement.
2. Engagement requires reciprocity
Engagement costs people time, effort and energy. The brain processes this cost in relation to the expected reward. Those seeking high engagement must offer a high reward. This can be a tangible reward, such as a voucher, but can also be a softer, more long-term reward, such as a sense of belonging, self-actualisation or status. Softer rewards are adaptable, allowing audiences to serve their personal needs. This requires an understanding of the common ground between the individual’s goals and the brand or organisation’s goals.
3. Engagement is not binary
Engagement is not a light to be switched on or off within people. It shines all the time, varying in intensity from person to person, time to time, and context to context. Whether brands choose to acknowledge it or not matters less. How and when they choose to capitalise on the right types of engagement across various channels and topics is the real issue.
4. Engagement is about what we want or what we like
Our brains process all decisions as potential rewards driven by two systems: what we want and what we like. Our wanting system (System One) is driven by subconscious desires. These decisions we call our ‘gut feelings.’ They are mental short cuts – instinctive, impulsive and often related to immediate and primal rewards, such as a piece of chocolate or sex. System One decisions are most often short-term. Our liking system (System Two) is driven by conscious desires. This refers to how we make a plan for obtaining something in the future. It is how we make sense of the world consciously and articulate our thoughts, desires and aspirations. Our liking system helps us navigate the future. System Two decisions are most often long-term.
5. Immediacy delivers engagement
Our brains have evolved to make snap decisions based on the anticipation of immediate reward. These decisions are not always conscious – consider System One thinking. Communications’ call-to-action requires a direct connection to the reward. Rewards that are perceived as immediate deliver higher engagement.
6. Engagement decisions are post-rationalised
People are often unaware of the reasons behind their decisions. When they pledge to get healthy, save money or learn more, they are demonstrating System Two engagement. Later, when they are tired and grab fast food before collapsing in front of the television, the primitive urge of System One takes over. People say to themselves ‘I deserved it,’ and that ‘tomorrow I’ll restart the diet.’ Communications equip the conscious brain with a rational story justifying subconscious impulses. This is both the story people tell themselves and the story they share with others. However, sustained conflict between the two systems creates internal conflict. People unhappily, or even worse, resentfully, engage. System One urges, supported by System Two planning, are a powerful branding proposition: immediacy harmonised with aspiration.
7. Engagement can be divided into ‘capture’ and ‘build’
Take the example of flat pack furniture. You need a chair. You travel to the store. Your need, combined with the furniture’s availability, utility and design, captures your attention. It could even be the special offer that initiates interest. This is the initial engagement (‘Capture’). Once home, engagement transforms. The investment you make in assembling the chair builds long-term engagement (‘Build’). The personally assembled product carries greater engagement than it did when it was boxed in- store. Professor Michael I. Norton, Associate Professor of Business Administration in the Harvard University Marketing Unit, termed this behaviour the ‘IKEA effect.’ Like the special offer, communications can capture our attention. Shout loud enough and everyone will look. Keep shouting and you may go unheard. Combining novel ways to capture attention with audience resonance builds engagement. Next time, you won’t have to shout so loud.
8. Engagement benefits from being multi- layered
“Religion is the benchmark for engagement,” says Dr. Oullier. Religion applies multiple layers of engagement, each reinforcing the other.
It initially captures engagement with a great narrative, accessibility and the promise of reward. It builds long-term engagement through social involvement, shared values, integrity, and ultimately, providing a sense of purpose. Neuroscience tells us that the sheer number of associations that a person has with a brand leads to a positive effect on engagement. Associations can be both broad and deep. This could be about touch points or senses – sight, sounds, smells, tastes and touch – to create a force so compelling that it bids for space in the most lucrative areas of the brain.
9. Negatives always outweigh positives
Our brains are more driven to minimise risks than seek potential gains. When we make decisions, we give more weight to the negative than the positive. Studies suggest that negative emotions carry roughly twice as much weight as positive ones. This means that, in times of crisis, minimising any negatives holds more importance than highlighting positives, especially on social media, where audiences outweigh communicators and information travels at light-speed. Understanding that negative reviews, associations, experiences, testimonials or comments are given far more credence than positive ones is a key concern for engagement. We can be positively engaged, but we are strongly influenced by negativity.
10. Engagement marries experience with expectation
Any engagement decision is shaped by an individual’s personal experience (with a brand, business or organisation), and also their expectations. Over-delivery is a surprise, under- delivery is a disappointment. Because each experience primes future decisions to engage, over time, individuals grow to expect what they have previously experienced. This shapes the decision to engage. Marrying the two delivers engagement.
Defining the 19 Elements of Engagement
1. Access — Access relates to how easy something is to obtain. When faced with a range of choices, people’s selection is most often based on convenience and availability. Access captures engagement.
The science: the brain tries to minimise the cost of reward in terms of effort, energy and time. High accessibility means low cost.
In action: fast food or second-choice purchases.
2. Aesthetics — People are visual creatures. Eyes are the primary channel through which they receive information. Closely linked to ‘associations,’ aesthetics capture engagement.
The science: things that are aesthetically appealing command visual attention.
In action: a piece of art or bright colours.
3. Associations — Connections with indirect memories, whether positive or negative, capture engagement. Associations are most often subconscious and can traverse multiple senses.
The science: the brain categorises information in relation to what it already knows. Positive synaptic associations help frame decision- making.
In action: the colour green evokes nature and nostalgic music evokes associations with the past.
4. Belonging — Belonging is about familiarity. It is a social habit and requires group acceptance. It builds engagement over a prolonged period of time.
The science: people are inherently social and collaborate together in teams, tribes or families.
In action: sports teams or social clubs.
5. Desire — Desire is a hole that needs to be filled, driven by a sense of lacking. The brain seeks and anticipates rewards. Desire is a ‘subconscious want’ that captures engagement.
The science: when presented with stimuli, the brain responds immediately. If the stimuli are positive, it assigns a value and releases dopamine. Desire has its origin in the experience of satisfaction.
In action: wanting a piece of chocolate or impulsive spending.
6. Empathy — The ability to relate to another person’s situation, feelings or experiences is a fundamental human trait. Empathy is a subconscious process that builds engagement.
The science: understanding or observing something engages the same neural structures as actually doing it.
In action: caring about a film or story’s protagonist.
7. Enhancement — Self-improvement is a fundamental human motivator. Enhancement is about improvement relative to social environment. It is often connected to status and enhanced by competition. Enhancement can either capture engagement (technology upgrade) or build engagement over time (learning a skill).
The science: as part of natural selection, people are driven by competition and a motivation to be ahead of the crowd.
In action: learning a new language or purchasing a new computer.
8. Escape — Reality is complex. Escape transports people away from physical and psychological realities. It both captures and builds engagement.
The science: people use their imaginations to project fears and desires, in order to find release from reality and satisfaction.
In action: fantasy films or dream holidays.
9. Experience — Connections with direct memories, whether positive or negative, affect engagement. Bad memories halt engagement. Good experiences encourage repeat engagement.
The science: anchoring this primes the brain to release dopamine in anticipation of repeating a positive experience. People are inclined to repeat good experiences and develop habits.
In action: repeat purchases or routines.
10. Herd behaviour — People follow the crowd, adhere to social norms and take subconscious leads from others. Herd behaviour can either be the spark that captures engagement, or the tool that builds it.
The science: the ability to understand other people’s emotions and intentions builds mirror neurons. This strengthens social norms and social acceptance.
In action: riot behaviour or flash-mobs.
11. Integrity — Integrity is about honesty and commitment. Over a period of time, integrity results from delivery of defined principles and promises (shared values), even in the face of temptation. Integrity builds trust and engagement.
The science: similar to respect, integrity requires reciprocity, mirroring of values and delivery. Our brains constantly aim to minimise threats and seek out consistency.
In action: delivery on CSR principles or politicians delivering on promises.
12. Intrigue — Intrigue results from being given an incomplete picture. It is an invitation to fill in the blanks. The unknown sparks curiosity, driven by fear of missing out. Porous communications absorb audiences. Intrigue can both capture and build engagement.
The science: the brain responds strongly to ambiguity. It engages classical fear structures.
In action: a detective novel or a jigsaw puzzle.
13. Involvement — This is developed through ownership or investment of either effort, time or money. Through involvement, a product or brand becomes a small part of the investor. Involvement is a subconscious process which builds over time.
The science: there is a fundamental human need for control – an ability to influence and produce desired outcomes in one’s environment.
In action: the ‘IKEA effect’ states that people tend to place increased value on things in which they have invested time, effort and energy.
14. Meaning — This gives people a direction, a sense of purpose or a reason for being. Meaning builds repeat engagement.
The science: psychologically, people seek meaning in everything; however, some things are perceived as more meaningful than others.
In action: religion gives people a purpose or work gives them a sense of direction.
15. Newness — Anything new, original or innovative stands out from the crowd. Newness captures attention and engages people in the short term.
The science: the ‘contrast effect’ determines that newness stands out against uniformity. Coupled with positive associations, this creates an inclination to investigate.
In action: new technology or unread emails.
16. Pleasure — Pleasure is the sensory experience resulting from a stimulus. Pleasure happens after the ‘wanting.’ It is subconscious and maintains engagement.
The science: pleasure triggers an opiate release in the brain and continued pleasure releases dopamine as a reward.
In action: sex or winning on a slot machine.
17. Respect — Respect is about achievement and requires mutually shared values. It develops from an individual’s recognition of another’s feats in delivering a common goal. Respect inspires.
The science: the psychology of reciprocity and mirroring – respect is personal and context-dependent. People seek those who set benchmarks and provide direction – this instills belief and motivates.
In action: visionary business leaders or Olympians.
18. Shared values — The mutual pursuit of goals. Shared values are considered, rational and build long-term engagement.
The science: shared values create an in-group bias that encourages people to spend more time and energy on something. The importance of reciprocity in shared values emerges from social psychology.
In action: an open source community or Mumsnet.
19. Social totems — These provide commonality for social interaction, allowing people who have little in common to share something. Social totems capture engagement.
The science: social totems break down social barriers, unite common interests and encourage reciprocity.
In action: learning to play golf or watching soap operas.