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The truth about engagement



This article will focus on the neuroscience of engagement and how best to think about it in digital marketing. This is easy enough to do, providing that readers forget all the hype they've ever read about engagement.

The next few pages will:

  • Define "engagement" as most people recognize it in their everyday lives

  • Discuss what happens in the brain -- the neuroscience -- when we're engaged (with a brief foray into the neurology of a "like" in social media)

  • Tie that brain science back to everyday life

  • Use what we've covered to create an engagement template to use with digital properties.

The truth about engagement

What is engagement?

Let's start with some forms of engagement you may already be familiar with.

Have you ever been engaged to someone (as in "planning to get married")? Have you ever heard someone described as a "very engaging speaker?" Have you heard of someone referred to as being "very engaged in their work?"

How about yourself: Have you ever been very engaged by a conference presentation or presenter? Or told someone you can't talk because you have to focus on something? Or because some task is requiring all your attention? Or asked someone to wait a second while you finish something?

Let's go simple: Have you ever told someone "Shhh!" during the final seconds of a televised game? Or asked someone to give you a few minutes so you could finish a section of a book?

The list can go on. What is similar about each item on the list is that attention is focused on one thing and one thing only.

When we're engaged to be married, we're publicly stating that we're focusing our romantic (and other) attention on one person only. An engaging speaker is one who causes his or her audience to focus their attention on him or her. An engaging presentation is one that focuses our attention on itself -- ditto a presenter. Someone who is engaged in their work is focusing most, if not all, of their attention on whatever task they're doing -- ditto an exciting game or book.

When we focus, pay attention to, need to finish something, or concentrate on one thing and one thing only, we're devoting more and more brain function (conscious and non-conscious resources) to performing two things and two things only.

Two for the price of one

In the above examples, did you notice we went from "one" to "two?" From hippocampus to dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to working memory to behavioral centers, our gray matter is rerouting blood flow, oxygen, complex sugars, proteins, and enzymes to do two things. One of these things is focusing our attention (keeping us "engaged").

So what's the other thing? Equally important yet seldom recognized is that we're ignoring what's not engaging us.

In order to focus our conscious attention on something, we must create non-conscious filters to exclude ("ignore") any information not relevant to what our conscious mind is focusing on. Some filters are learned from parents, friends, and teachers. Others we create on the spot.

Excluded information is a distraction, and we need to put as much, if not more, energy into ignoring distractions as we do into staying focused ("engaged").

In fact, the effort we put into focusing and ignoring is directly proportional to how important our conscious minds believe the task is and how important our non-conscious minds believe the distractions are.

Have you ever seen a cat preparing to pounce on a bird or mouse? That cat is engaged. Being a predator (however cute and furry) is incredibly engaging. It requires a lot of focus, rapid evaluation of information as either relevant or distractive, and quick action based on those evaluations.

Cat pouncing and predation plays into solving the engagement puzzle because engagement is how our modern minds make use of all that hunter-gatherer wiring evolution designed in us over the last 7 million years.

Let's bring this back to marketing. You want engaged consumers? Give them something to hunt.

Our clever, clever minds

Our non-conscious mind is smarter than our conscious mind. It knows there are some distractions that must break our focus and concentration.

Neuroscientists call these important distractions "meaningful noise." Examples include our child's cry of pain or fear, a car speeding towards us, and anything from The Beatles' "Abbey Road" album.

Did that "Abbey Road" reference stop you -- anything from a full stop to a furrowed brow to a subtle "Huh?" to a mild chuckle? That's an example of meaningful noise.

If you just kept on reading and never noticed it, then you're not focusing on this column, and I'm not doing my job of getting and keeping you engaged.

The "Abbey Road" reference is meaningful noise because our conscious minds flag it as possibly incongruous information, the non-conscious rears its head (forgive the pun) to determine what got through the filters and why, and the end result is a "confusion point."

The incongruity creates noise that our minds attempt to filter (rapidly evaluate) as relevant or distractive information. We experience those confusion points as anything from full stops to amused chuckles.

Confusion points can be used to decrease or increase engagement (an example of relevant and engaging meaningful noise is described in the article "When it's OK to confuse your customers").

Marketing's goal is to cause our clever, clever minds to evaluate information rapidly as relevant and actionable ("engaging").

More specifically, the way marketers want to use the valuation is to create conversion, branding, and -- a recent development -- to provoke the consumer to "like" the brand within social media.

Defining engagement for business

Neuroscience might define engagement as the willing or unwilling allocation of neural resources along specific sensory channels. The two most obvious sensory channels are vision and hearing.

The individual who shuts their eyes to better hear some music is "engaged" by the music. Although this may not seem like predatory behavior, the same neural reward pathways are active as with the cat that is about to pounce.

Likewise, the guy who turns off his car radio so he can locate a specific address or street is "shutting" his ears in order to better see. He is "engaged" in locating an address.

This allocation of resources -- engagement -- is where profits happen.

Engagement resources are located in the cognitive, behavioral/effective, and motivational ({C,B/e,M}) brain regions. We know engagement is occurring because specific and easily measurable cognitive, behavioral/effective, and motivational neural activity is taking place.

These neural activities overlap, and these activities take place in the brains of everybody on the planet. When I'm on the court, I have the same {C,B/e,M} matrix as a world class tennis player. The difference is one of degree: The cognitive effort of the world class player is much higher than mine, and her motivation is greatly different -- a world title versus a Scotch in the club house at the end of the game.

The muscles and motions involved -- behavioral/effective element -- are also the same, except the world class player's is highly tuned due to their higher cognitive and motivational factors.

This is predation again. Whether a Scotch or a championship title, our brains are working towards a reward, and our {C,B/e,M}s are hunting down that reward.

Measuring engagement

Emotional engagement is the most easily measurable form of engagement. Emotional engagement is common to all {C,B/e,M}s and brings us back to being engaged to someone -- that form of predation that allowed our species to survive the 7 million years it took for that wiring to get in place.

We humans may think well of our rational minds, but any neuromarketer will tell you that emotions rule the world of commerce. The emotional mind's power has been demonstrated in everything from the Kennedy-Nixon debates to Baylor College's Pepsi-Coke challenge to Ogilvy's Rory Sutherland demonstrating that electronic cigarettes satisfy while nicotine patches and gum do not -- even though electronic cigarettes deliver no nicotine kick. Emotions may come into play at the end of the sales funnel (as with Audi purchasers) or at the beginning (Nissan Leaf purchasers).

Without emotional commitment, all you get is buyer regret and remorse at best and troublesome customers at worst.

The emotional mind's {C,B/e,M} control over our rational mind is best demonstrated by those non-conscious filters that are active when we're highly engaged. Abrupt interruptions usually trigger irritation that is demonstrated by an emotional response (we're rarely polite when we tell someone to "Shhh!").

High levels of engagement in meaningful noisy environments are called "high perceptual-load conditions."

Marketers rarely want to subject consumers to such things -- we don't want consumers working to pay attention. They'll fatigue rapidly (!) and go somewhere else.

So the goal of marketing is to create high engagement in "low perceptual-load conditions."

Marketing recognizes low perceptual-load conditions as someone using a browser, watching TV, and reading a newspaper or magazine. High perceptual-load conditions are people using their mobiles, tablets, and notebooks while commuting to work, at the cafe, at the beach, or in the bar.

There are lots of creative, usability, or just plain common sense reasons to create different content for mobiles, tablets, etc., versus browsers, print, and video.

But, before you get there, engagement reason numero uno is that the {C,B/e,M} requirements are so different from one medium to the next. What causes engagement in TV will be ignored on a tablet, and vice versa.

Engaging emotions like love

Emotional engagement is easy to measure because modern society puts such a premium on not being emotional. Modern people put lots of effort into masking their emotional thoughts, and that effort is demonstrated in subtle behaviors called "psychomotor behavioral cues."

The stronger the emotional engagement the greater the masking effort and the more exaggerated these psychomotor behavioral cues become. These cues are easily measurable through different interfaces: browser, mobile, tablet, and more.

Someone may "like" your page, brand, or product, but if the accompanying cues aren't demonstrating an actual act of liking (genuine affection), then that person's click and your efforts pursuing them are worthless. (This is similar to the distinction between a "Facebook friend" and the friend you ask to be the best man at your wedding.)

But if someone both clicks "like" and demonstrates deep emotional cues (akin, for example, to a "love" relationship)? Reach out to them, and hurry!

Rewarding our predatory minds

Our minds use our predator wiring to achieve effort-based rewards in modern society.

The amount of effort can vary greatly: An endurance athlete may savor an energy drink at the end of a triathlon, while I'll savor a good cigar at the end of a long presentation.

But the effort is not nearly as important as the reward. The reward has to be psychologically commensurate (not physically commensurate) with the individual's concept of their effort (what's called a "fair-exchange"), and the reward has to be sensory in nature.

Do visitors put in lots of effort to convert on your digital property and are rewarded with a simple "Thank you?" Kiss those visitors good bye. Without a reward commensurate to effort, you'll lose them to competitors regardless of how much competitors reward them.

Is a lot of effort required, but the eventual reward is musical fanfare, dancers discoing across the screen, blinking lights, and a big, red "My God you're good!" moving from bottom left to upper right? Kiss those visitors hello.

A three-step engagement template

Creating and keeping engagement and delivering a renewable effort-based reward are easy to do. Three steps are involved regardless of perceptual load, and these steps make use of how our senses, our predatory wiring, and emotional engagement work together.

Tease the senses
Remember the cat preparing to pounce? That preparation occurred because the cat's senses were being teased by the mouse. It could hear it but not see it, see but not touch, touch but not taste, and so on.

Preparation is anticipation, and few things are as engaging as anticipating a reward for our efforts, so provide that visitor with a mix of sensory data and remember to mix it up!

Don't provide all your sensory data at once: When you do that, the "desire" {C,B/e,M} shuts down because there's nothing to anticipate. Tease the cat. Get it ready to pounce.

Close, but no cigar
A large part of anticipation involves being close to but not having, or, in the words of Hannibal Lecter, "We begin by coveting what we see every day."

We covet what we see: Our eyes seek out what we want but do not have.

There is an old axiom that the value of a service decreases exponentially after the service is rendered. That's because the {C,B/e,M} driving anticipation and desire has been replaced by a {C,B/e,M} that includes neither. Once the coveted object is attained, there's nothing left to covet. (Think of Groucho Marx's famous quip, "I don't want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.")

So, step two of engagement is to keep your prospects close -- but not too close.

But wait, there's more
I mentioned delivering a renewable reward above. Engagement is maintained when we know there will always be something just a little bit further away, just a little bit better, and just a little bit more enticing than what we have right now.

So, fulfill your customer's immediate desire, but when doing so, replace it with another desire. Sell them the car, but make sure they know about next year's model, or the next model up, or the latest sound system, or onboard assistant that's right out there, waiting for them, and just a little bit beyond their immediate reach.

The only difference between high and low perceptual-load -- mobile versus TV -- is that the mobile method must be obvious and easy to understand ("No thinking allowed!")


Engagement is easy to create and maintain and doesn't require expensive hardware, fancy headgear, advanced analytics, or isolated environments to monitor and measure.

Here's another way to describe the simple three-step engagement process:

Use their senses to entice them. Make sure the senses you're enticing -- vision, hearing, taste, touch, smell -- are specific to your brand offering. You can even stimulate taste, touch, smell, and more online via images, music, animation/video, text, and so on.

Keep them sensorially active. Bring your consumers closer, closer, closer, but not close enough to "get" it until you're prepared to...

Give them what they want. But promise them more. Replace "this" desire with a new desire and you'll keep their engagement muscles working for you.

I mentioned above that engagement is easily measurable. Currently, patented technology is being used to develop a "Love/Like" tool that determines how many visitor's "likes" will turn into how many dollars and when.

Joseph Carrabis is the founder and chief research officer for NextStage Evolution.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet

"Human intelligence" image via Shutterstock.

Joseph Carrabis is Founder and CRO of The NextStage Companies, NextStage Global and NextStage Analytics, companies that specialize in helping clients improve their marketing efforts and understand customer behavior. He's also applied neuroscience,...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Joseph Carrabis

2012, June 26

Hello Ms. Hanke and thanks for the kind words.
"Cost-per-engagement"? I'm probably not the correct person to answer this question as my first response is the counter-question, "How is 'engagement' being defined?"
Part of NextStage's work and research involves rigorously defining things with the purpose of being able to defend measurements and the actions they suggest. A by-product of this is that our definition of 'engagement' is static (unchanging) across all clients; "Engagement is the demonstration of Attention via psychomotor activity that serves to focus an individual's Attention." (see "Attention, Engagement and Trust: The Internet Trinity and Websites" http://www.bizmediascience.com/2007/10/attention_engagement_and_trust.html). You can see that the definition I gave in 2007 is pretty much the same as the one I used in this iMedia article. Other advantages to having a rigorously defined and universally applicable definition are
* There's no re-engineering required from client to client
* One can quickly determine if a client's specific goals are achievable
* Any applications/tools resulting from the definition are both commutative (what causes engagement "here" will cause engagement "there" with all relevant factors equal) and transitive (the engagement measurement methodology "here" is the same as the engagement measurement methodology "there").
This rigorous definition allows clients to find value in several ways (specific reasons pages aren't working and how to fix them, search term/landing page incongruities, where audiences can be broadened or abandoned and how, ...)
Applying definitional rigor to a CPE concept is simple to do -- we need to know if all networks and publishers use the same definition and apply it the same way. Applying universal validity is equally simple -- we need to know if the definition and application of same are commutative and transitive.
To the concept of trends...I shy away from trends. Anybody who's using the same measurement definition today that they were using five years ago isn't following trends (see "Joseph Carrabis - Fear Álainn", http://www.emerkirrane.com/2011/01/28/joseph-carrabis-fear-alainn/, specifically my response to Q3: What the heck is a NeuroMarketer?).
Will CPE replace CTR? It depends how well it's promoted and how successful it is at generating ROI. Agencies, networks, publishers et al can promote the heck out of it and if, in the end, it's not more successful (demonstrates positive ROI) than any other metric then it, too, will be abandoned when the next trend comes along. This "trending" brings us back to a universally applicable, rigorous definition: it may not be pretty, it may not be trendy, but the engagement values you get today are the values you got yesterday unless something changed, hence you have a good fix what changes on your digital property worked, how much, which way and why.
Or, as one of our NextStageologists said, "When you've captured someone's imagination you've co-opted their mind and made it work for you."

Commenter: Marielle Hanke

2012, June 25

Joseph, what a wonderful piece! Really enjoyed it.
As I'm sure you are aware, a growing number of ad networks and publishers have begun offering a new pricing model call cost-per-engagement (CPE). (Full disclosure, my company Cloud Nine Media is one of these networks and we sell our inventory almost exclusively on a CPE basis). Do you support this trend and how likely do you think CPE will establish itself as an alternative to CTR for measuring the success of online campaigns? @CloudNineMedia

Commenter: Joseph Carrabis

2012, June 22

Hello and thanks for the nod, Mr. Troja.
Re fans to fanatics and keeping the love alive, one of the things we're researching currently is how to create a "Steve Jobs" on demand for different brands. One thing we've documented so far is that people will accept (even applaud) a messianic (extremely charismatic) figure's eccentricities provided trust between icon and audience remains intact. We wouldn't be iPhoning, iPading and iPoding our way into the future if Steve Jobs ever "broke faith" with Applenauts.
We think the fans->fanatics link is in such things. I'd appreciate your (and others') thoughts on this.
Thanks again,

Commenter: Tom Troja

2012, June 22

Great article that gets to the core of what we should do and why... liked the clarity of the goal of marketing is to create high engagement in "low perceptual-load conditions.". Love to hear more around building long term social relationships, keeping people loving brands after the purchase and turning fans into fanatics for the brand. How does the brain work around that?

Commenter: Joseph Carrabis

2012, June 22

Thanks for the nod, Mr. Emery. I *like* the term "serial likers" (gave me a chuckle over my morning coffee). - Joseph

Commenter: Brant Emery

2012, June 22

A brilliant article! Nice to research clearly applied and related effectively. I like the idea of being able to algorithmically assess lovers from 'serial likers' - certainly reflects reality and is a next step in helping brands focus their strategies further. Good stuff!