Many people are spending their days trying to get people to care. It's advertising campaigns, news media and influencers – just to name a few. There's just one problem: Most people don't care. And you will have to find ways to change that.
If you read this article, you will learn how you can use knowledge about how our brains work, to get more people to care.
What makes us engaged?
Emotions have always been the secret sauce of engagement – we need to feel to care. Most marketers and click bate news outlets talk about sensations and emotions in every second sentence. But the truth is: engagement doesn't have to come from conscious feelings. Understanding the brain and how it processes and categorises information can play a large part in how someone feels about something.
While part of how we think about the world is a conscious or semi-conscious thought process – "she was nice" or "cute dog" would probably both fall into this category. But many of our mental processes about how we perceive the world are unconscious.
Also, our brain is sluggish. We take every shortcut we can find, saving lots of energy over time. One of the shortcuts we are using to understand the world is associations.
Concepts with shared attributes activate partly the same parts of our brains, and therefore we unconsciously link them together. This concept is called "networks of association". Since I'm not a neuroscientist (and we don't have all day), I won't try to explain this further. Instead, it would help if you read some of Drew Westen's work in political psychology to get more insight.
Two things to understand before you keep reading are:
- Our brains work by associating items with each other
- This process is unconscious
Why are networks of associations relevant in marketing?
Getting people to feel something used to be about making them upset or happy or sad. Now you might start to realise there's another very effective way. You can make your audience feel in line with your goals without them even knowing – only because of how you package your message. If you create your message with the brain in mind, you can piggyback on neuroscience to get people engaged.
Packaging a message is more than just wrapping paper on a pair of socks, or the big white box that arrives from Net-A-Porter (– although, everyone knows that the outside is at least as important as the inside when it comes to gifts). Packaging includes everything from the colour of your dress at an introductory meeting to product names. It is everything that makes you perceive something a certain way.
Compare how you feel about:
- The environment vs The air we breathe and the water we drink.
- The unemployed vs The people who've lost their jobs through no fault of their own.
The two cases above are good examples of how the packaging of "the same" message or idea can differ significantly in how it makes us feel.
You need to actively control the associations you activate in your audience's brains to get the outcome you want. And this isn't just about pairing things with known positives. Some things that you might think are neutral objects have positive associations, and others have negative.
The nine most common associations to "immigrants", when tested among Americans*, consists of five positive and four negative connections:
- Opportunity (+)
- Better Life (+)
- Nation of Immigrants (+)
- Hard Working (+)
- American Dream (+)
- Law Breakers (-)
- Government Benefits (-)
- Don't speak English (-)
- Don't pay taxes (-)
*Westen & Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner, 2008 Handbook for Progressive Messaging
Some cases where networks of association matter
The fact that someone named "network neutrality" and tried to get people excited is, therefore, a little bit sad. Few people will be enthusiastic by the neutral. When we talk about network neutrality, the patterns activated in our neural networks are very similar to when we are talking about vanilla ice cream or a boring car. It's the same with gay rights; few people get excited by "rights".
Instead, some brilliant packing of activism is the concept of "pro-life" created by the American conservatives. The term "pro-life" activates the same, or similar, neural networks in our brains as when we think about positive stuff. This activation has nothing to do with our feelings towards abortion (yet), but the term "pro-life" creates positive associations in our brains. Few sane human beings want to be "anti-life". (Therefore, the opponents have started to rebrand this group as "anti-choice" or "anti-free choice").
The packaging above becomes even more interesting because the groups that are pro-life are also the groups advocating weapons – a tool commonly used to end lives. So instead, they are using freedom as their main argument. Because who wants to be against freedom?
Being pro-life and pro-gun are rhetorically incompatible positions. But this paradox is something that American conservatives ignore. The naming is purely communicative, and most Americans don't give this a single thought.
Republicans are brilliant at packing politics in a way that makes people's minds instinctively feel the way they want. For example, did you know that Obama Care and The Affordable Care Act are the same? The first name is the packaging by the Republicans (to make sure people don't fancy it), and the other is the "correct" name. Interestingly, politicians talk very little about what this initiative could be about: "a family doctor for everyone".
There are two lessons to learn in this – one about net neutrality and one about engagement.
Lesson 1. When we talk about network neutrality, we shouldn't talk about the importance of a neutral internet. Instead, we should talk about the core idea of net neutrality: why a free internet is essential. (Your internet service provider should not be allowed to charge different rates on different website traffic.)
Lesson 2. What we call things do matter. This statement is not just about good copywriting – it's about good brainwashing. You impact someone's feelings towards an object or idea purely by how you name it. You will undoubtedly have an advantage when people listen to what you say.
Don't talk about important issues with vanilla ice-cream language if you want to get people excited. If your goal is to make people angry, name it and talk about it in words that are close to anger in the neural networks of the audience. The same goes for happiness, fear and every other feeling.
How do you find out how the association networks of your audience look?
I usually start by looking at social media behaviour. Tweets, Instagram hashtags, Reddit content and Facebook groups are sources I use regularly. If I'm lucky, I can add focus groups to the mix; having the opportunity to listen to people talk about a topic uncovers a lot of the underlying emotions and associations.
The next step is trial and error. Always spend time analysing the results from your messaging. Did people react as you intended? What was the response? Do this repeatedly, and you will become a messaging machine.
And once again. This practice is about so much more than good copywriting. However, a copywriter with analytical skills will probably have an advantage.
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