How to Get Engaged and Why It Sometimes Doesn’t Work Out – Add the Unconscious

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Joel Weinberger
Joel Weinberger



mental-psych-brain-head-phrenologyIt is said with great certainty that for an ad to be effective, it must “engage” the consumer. Yet it seems that less than half of the ads produced achieve engagement because, I suspect, no one really knows how to measure it.

Engagement is not anchored in any metric and has at present no agreed upon meaning. So here is a stab at identifying three characteristics of engagement: 1. engagement involves capturing attention. 2. The consumer must interact with the object of attention. 3. The interaction must be positive.

A consumer is engaged when s/he notices and then interacts positively with an ad or brand.


An Elusive Measurement

How can we measure engagement? Usually, we ask the consumer whether he or she recalls and felt positively involved with the ad. Maybe we look at time spent on an ad, click through, etc. These measures are only important if they predict behavior towards the brand or product being advertised. But it is not clear that engagement, measured in these ways, predicts consumer behavior. In fact, it often does not. So we’re back to less than half of marketers who can say that messaging engages consumers.


Add the Unconscious

Here’s why: These measures of engagement are incomplete because unconscious mental processes have been neglected. We need to measure unconscious as well as conscious engagement to achieve a true assessment of engagement.

One practical way to measure the unconscious effects of an ad (or any message) is by probing the strengths of the associations it triggers. Knowing the relative strengths of the associations triggered by an ad enables us to tell the ad’s unconscious story. It can tell us what about the ad resonates with the consumer and how strongly he or she is engaged. Such testing employs reaction time technology to assess what about the ad captures one’s attention, while having the advantage of being convenient and scalable.

The data can be collected via the Internet, smartphone, or tablet so that large numbers of individuals can be quickly assessed. Populations can be segmented and the engagement of subpopulations can be compared. The information obtained through this technique can be an important supplement to conscious understanding.

Another way to measure unconscious engagement takes advantage of the fact that our first reaction to any experience is emotional; cognitive (conscious) understanding follows. To assess this, the researcher can present a central aspect of the message (e.g., brand 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 message.

So we have two unconscious measures of engagement (attention, emotion) to complement more traditional conscious measures.


A Case Study: Global Meet’s Tagline

We conducted a study for Premier Global Services” (PGI) Global Meet, which provides web and audio conferencing. They wanted a tagline that would engage potential customers. We looked at six:

  1. Better meetings at a better price with GlobalMeet.
  2. Better web meetings, better value with GlobalMeet.
  3. Reliable online meetings without online hassles. GlobalMeet.
  4. Simply reliable and affordable web and audio conferencing with GlobalMeet.
  5. Simply stunning. Simply reliable. Simply GlobalMeet.
  6. Simply stunning. Simply reliable. Simply GlobalMeet for web and audio meetings.

In addition to the typical conscious evaluations of each, we assessed unconscious associations and emotional reactions.


Conscious Measure and Results

We asked respondents to evaluate each tag line on a scale of 1-7.

The tag lines that people consciously resonated to most were:

Simply stunning. Simply reliable. Simply GlobalMeet for web and audio meetings.

Simply stunning. Simply reliable. Simply GlobalMeet.

Reliable online meetings without online hassles.

Consciously, people were most engaged by a product purported to be reliable and easy to use.


Unconscious Measure and Results

To assess unconscious engagement, we looked at fifteen (15) associations:

Positive Associations Negative Associations

Superior Cheap

Good Value Poor Quality

Affordable Frustrating

All-in-One Too Complicated

Comfortable Won’t Work

Visually Attractive

Easy to Use


Great Experience



People were presented with the tag lines followed by the associations in one of four colors (Red, Blue, Green, Yellow). The task was to click on the correct color and ignore the association. The longer it took to click on the correct color, the more the person attended to it (was engaged by it). They could not help processing the association even though they were told not to.

The tag lines showing the most engagement unconsciously were:

Better web meetings, better value with GlobalMeet.

Simply stunning. Simply reliable. Simply GlobalMeet.

Simply stunning. Simply reliable. Simply GlobalMeet for web and audio meetings.

People liked the word “better” unconsciously. Consumers also liked “value.” Finally, respondents were engaged unconsciously by the word “Simply.”


Using Conscious and Unconscious Results to Pick the Most Engaging Tagline

Having conscious and unconscious results allowed us to choose the strongest overall tag line by eliminating choices that would look good at only one of these levels. “Better web meetings, better value” ranked very strongly unconsciously but relatively low consciously. “Reliable online meetings without online hassles” ranked strongly consciously but relatively low unconsciously.

That left “Simply stunning. Simply reliable. Simply GlobalMeet for web and audio meetings.” and “Simply stunning. Simply reliable. Simply GlobalMeet.” We recommended the former because it was stronger consciously and had a slightly better associative profile unconsciously.



Only by looking at both conscious and unconscious processes would we have been able to make this recommendation. Had we only looked at the typical conscious results, we would have chosen “Better Meetings at a Better Price.” However, this tag line would not been engaging at an unconscious level. Because we looked at both levels, we were able to recommend a tag line that worked at both the conscious and unconscious levels to provide maximum impact and engagement. Combining the results of conscious and unconscious engagement yielded a more complete picture of the person’s engagement with a message.

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