Is there a science to engagement?

Engagement is the key metric communicators are looking for today. We want our audience to engage in our marketing, in our content, in our social media posts and in our businesses. We know we need to be relevant and of value to our audience. We also need to be consistent over time.

But engagement levels seem to be dropping as our audience becomes more and more distracted in a distracting world. How well do we understand engagement and is there an underlying science to it?

What is engagement?

There are a couple of definitions of engagement, from holding one’s attention to being committed to be married. One of the interesting aspects about being engaged to be married is that there is a commitment with the intention to take an action i.e. to get married. 

Relating this to communication, we need to generate a commitment from our audience with the intention that they too will take action. This could be to consume more of our communication, spread it for us or even make a purchase relating to it.

When it comes to measuring engagement levels the obvious metrics of likes, shares and comments can be grouped under the participation banner. The pinnacle of this being collaboration and user-generated content. Examples can be seen in gaming and other forms of storytelling. But is there a way of scientifically understanding what determines engagement? 

Reward system

In 2014 UK PR firm Weber Shandwick partnered with behavioural insights company Canvas8 to produce a report called The Science of Engagement. The report found that engagement is driven by reward, and the depth of engagement is determined by the size and immediacy of the expected reward. 

Rewards come in many forms but ultimately we are information-seeking machines. According to neuroscience, we are constantly looking for new information. This comes from our prehistoric past when we needed to forage for food. Today we forage for information and novelty plays a big part in determining where we focus our attention.

Emotional triggers

In 2016 BBC StoryWorks also did research into the science of engagement. They partnered with Crowd Emotion who use facial tracking software to track and measure the facial responses of a consumer as they engage in a piece of content. 

The system is based on the fact that we reveal our true emotions through our facial features even if we’re trying to hide them, and that they can be tracked and measured. From the data they captured they were able to separate our emotions into six categories: Happiness, surprise, puzzlement, fear, sadness and rejection.

They found that content which triggers serious emotions like puzzlement, fear and sadness deepens the subconscious relationship between the content and the consumer. With puzzlement, it is better to create intrigue than to confuse the audience. 

Using lighter emotions like happiness and surprise are sometimes more appropriate than the more serious ones. Interestingly they found that social media tends to be driven by happiness, puzzlement and fear.


To summerise, there is an emerging science to engagement. On the one hand, we need to create messages that promises the audience a reward for their time and effort. It’s a kind of payoff for them and it is usually a new piece of information. And on the other hand, we need to use emotion to deepen the connection between our audience and our communication.

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