The Psychology of Engagement

Of late, engagement has become advertising's holy grail. It is said with great certainty that for an ad to be effective, it must engage the consumer. But it turns out that engagement is a fuzzier concept than is generally conceded, and its effects are by no means proven.

What is engagement? And how do we know whether someone is engaged with an ad? If we look at discussions of engagement, three attributes seem necessary. First, a definition of engagement must include capturing attention. In addition to capturing attention, the consumer must interact with the object. This leads us to the third necessary attribute of engagement: The interaction must be positive. This provides a working definition: A consumer is engaged when she notices and interacts positively with an ad or brand.

How to Measure Engagement

How do we measure engagement? Often we rely on self-report; in some form, we ask the consumer whether he recalls and/or felt positively involved with the ad. If we favor behavioral measures, we look at time spent on an ad, click-throughs, etc. This brings up an immediate problem, namely that these measures usually do not correlate with one another. But even if we assume that these measures overlap, with each assessing some aspect of engagement, does engagement, measured in these ways, really matter?

Engagement is only important if it predicts behavior toward the brand or product. It is not clear that engagement predicts consumer behavior. In fact, it often does not.

So now we have two problems: We are not exactly sure what engagement is or how to best measure it. Additionally, we are not sure that engagement, as traditionally assessed, predicts anything related to consumer behavior. We can begin to address these weaknesses by examining the untested assumptions in our understanding of engagement. The most basic assumption is that engagement must be conscious. After all, how can something be an object of attention if consciousness is not involved? How can something elicit an emotional reaction if we are not aware of it? How can there be an interaction (positive or otherwise) outside of awareness? It turns out that not only are all of these things possible, but they happen all the time.

The Ubiquity of Unconscious Processing

We need to measure unconscious as well as conscious engagement to achieve a true assessment of engagement. While neurophysiological and psychophysiological measures provide one means for getting at emotional reactions, a more practical way to measure the unconscious effects of an ad is through the strengths of the associations it triggers. Knowing the relative strengths of the associations enables us to tell the unconscious story of the ad, informing us how the ad resonates with the consumer and how strongly he or she has engaged.

Such tests use reaction time technology to assess what captures attention. Measuring the relative reaction times to different associations tells us how strongly each captured attention. This method is both convenient and scalable, as data can be collected on the Internet and via smartphones or tablets, so large numbers of individuals can be assessed. Information obtained through this technique provides an invaluable supplement to conscious understanding.

To measure emotional reactions, marketers can take advantage of the fact that emotional processing is more rapid than cognitive processing. Our first reaction to any experience is emotional. Cognitive understanding comes later. To assess this, the researcher can present a central aspect of the brand (e.g., a logo) too rapidly for the conscious, cognitive brain to process but slowly enough to be processed emotionally. This yields positive and negative emotional reactions to the product or brand, providing an unconscious measure of engagement (attention, emotions, interaction) to go along with traditional conscious measures. Combining the results of conscious and unconscious engagement yields a fuller picture of the person's engagement with an ad and should offer better predictive power.

Unconscious Associations

Assessing unconscious engagement is subtle and requires indirect measurement. To look at unconscious associations, researchers must work collaboratively to develop associations to test. Fifteen is a good number because beyond that, the respondent becomes fatigued and validity declines. The choices we make are based on what the clients hopes their message will communicate and what they do not want to communicate.

In testing, people are presented with messages—ads, tag lines, trailers, etc.—and then presented with each of the associations printed in one of four colors. The respondent's task is to ignore the word itself and click on the correct color. The time it takes to do so is the measure of interest. The longer it takes to react—to click on the correct color—the more the person attended to it (was engaged).This is because they could not help processing the association even though they were told not to. We then measure the power of this involuntary attention through reaction time.

Unconscious Emotional Reactions

To assess unconscious emotional reactions, we take advantage of the greater speed of emotional versus cognitive response. We present the object of interest at a speed too quickly for conscious identification but slowly enough to be processed emotionally and follow with an image that can be consciously identified and processed cognitively. We then ask questions about that image. The person will answer in a way that is biased by the object that was processed emotionally. That is, she will evaluate the image in a way that is influenced by her emotional reaction to the object, which reveals her unconscious evaluation of the object.

Putting It Together

By combining the results of conscious and unconscious measures, we can determine the engagement value of the message tested. Some messages will be strong consciously but weak unconsciously. Some will be strong unconsciously but not consciously. Some will be weak on both levels. And some will be strong on both levels. The latter is usually what we desire, although there can be instances where we are looking for unconsciously or consciously powerful engagement. In any case, by looking at both levels, we maximize consumer engagement and, therefore, the impact of our messages.

Joel Weinberger is the cofounder of Implicit Strategies.

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