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The Art and Science of Emotional Engagement

Updated Dec. 24, 2020

Fun fact: Neuroimaging shows that when evaluating brands, consumers primarily use emotions rather than factual information. This is as true for brand-created content as it is for traditional advertising spots and banners.

We can see the power of emotional content at work in marketing that went viral. Nike’s What Are Girls Made of?, and Apple’s Misunderstood campaigns both spring to mind.

But we’ve also seen how emotional content can go terribly awry — like those sad ASPCA commercials with Sarah McLachlan or Peleton’s The Gift That Gives Back campaign.

For content creators, using emotion can be an incredibly powerful engagement tactic, but we must use it artfully. Let’s explore the science of emotion and how we can use it in an empathetic way to create more meaningful content.

Science of emotion

Emotional engagement is affected by scientific principles that directly impact content creation. Here are four key areas:

  • Design
  • Color
  • Images
  • Branding


Designs often fall into patterns of sameness around the latest trends. However, designs that evoke the greatest emotional response tend to involve something out of the norm. Elements of surprise can prevent your content from being filtered out by Broca’s area in the brain.

Designs that evoke the greatest emotional response involve something out of the norm, says @SFBakerGeek via @CMIContent. Share on X

Additionally, introducing schema incongruity – information conflicting with an established schema – has the potential to increase interest, memorability, and persuasiveness in consumers.

As an extreme example, this video for consumer product Squatty Potty went viral precisely because it was weird and surprising.

Generally, you don’t associate unicorns, ice cream, and English guys in doublets with pooping … and yet, the Squatty Potty’s video features them all. A bit disturbing? Yes. Memorable? It’s hard to argue with over 38 million YouTube views. Persuasive? The company earned $30 million in revenue in 2017.


Color can have a powerful impact on a viewer’s emotional response. Studies show visuals in color can increase people’s willingness to read a piece of content by 80%. Using specific colors can have a significant impact on mood; for example, red evokes strong emotions, while yellow can foster happy feelings, and blue creates a calm, trustworthy atmosphere.

Visuals in color can increase willingness to read the content by 80% via @xerox from @SFBakerGeek via @CMIContent. Share on X

Coca-Cola consistently uses red as its brand color. Red not only evokes a strong emotional response, it cultivates a positive, friendly energy that makes consumers want to participate. This ad from the Taste the Feeling campaign uses the color red to great effect, drawing attention to the people drinking Cokes and inviting consumers to join the party.

An image showing an example of an ad from Coca-Cola’s Taste the Feeling campaign that uses the color red to great effect, drawing attention to the women drinking Cokes.


MailChimp uses yellow to stand out from the crowd as it did in its out-of-home and digital brand campaign.

Image by Mailchimp that shows a billboard using the color yellow to stand out from the crowd.

A large body of research confirms the emotional power of visuals — Visual Teaching Alliance quotes David Hyerle’s field guide that says 90% of all information transmitted to the brain is visual. In fact, images can increase trust and belief in the information being conveyed — a known phenomenon that comedian Stephen Colbert calls the truthiness effect.

Images can increase trust & belief in the information conveyed, according to @ResearchDigest #research via @CMIContent. Share on X

Images also evoke emotional responses. For example, photos of people have been shown to increase empathy, and photos of babies tend to be more engaging than other types of imagery.

In one case study, a South African financial institution sent 50,000 direct-mail pieces featuring an image of a person. In some, the person was the same gender as the recipient; in other cases, the person in the photo was the opposite gender. For male customers, using a photo of a female in the offer letter significantly increased response; the effect had about as much impact as if the bank offered a drop in the interest rate by 4.5 percentage points.


Most consumers have an unconscious aversion to being persuaded. They see a piece of branded content and are immediately resistant to the message. Experiments have shown that a more subtle inclusion of branding can increase views by as much as 20%.

A subtle inclusion of #branding can increase views as much as 20%, according to @harvardbiz #research via @CMIContent. Share on X

The Kate Spade brand has done a fantastic job of creating content that highlights the company without explicitly talking about its products in its #loveinspades 2019 campaign. Each commercial features a group of friends hanging out and getting dressed, but the focus is on their interactions with each other, not on brand placements.

.@KateSpade is a great example of #content that highlights the brand w/o talking product, via @SFBakerGeek via @CMIContent. Share on X
HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: What It Means to Get Branded Content Right

Art of emotion

Knowing the science that impacts our audience’s emotional response is useful. However, it takes an artful approach to turn this science into impactful, engaging content. It’s all too easy for brands to misuse psychological levers in an attempt to make an impact on viewers or readers.

As content creators, how do we walk the line between good emotional engagement and audience manipulation? It takes empathy, continuous refinement, and above all, a relevant story.

1. Start with your audience’s motivation

What do your audience members really want from your content: Inspiration? Education? Practical advice? Latest news? Depending on their motivation, the emotions you cultivate, and the way you go about cultivating them will differ.

For example, if your audience is interested in inspiration, you want to evoke emotions like awe and curiosity. Conversely, if your audience is interested in financial news, you want to go after fear or reassurance, depending on the news.

Meditation app Calm uses soothing colors and Zen photography to create a relaxed, focused feel.

2. Inspire trust with a believable story

This is where brands often fail when trying to craft emotion-driven content. If your story isn’t believable, your audience won’t trust you. If they don’t trust you, they discount any emotions they feel from your piece. Content from brands is particularly at risk for a knee-jerk emotional shutdown because consumers are used to manipulative advertising tactics that play on their emotions.

If your story isn’t believable, your audience won’t trust you, says @SFBakerGeek via @CMIContent. Share on X

To engage viewers, your story must be relevant, and it has to be genuine. Dove’s Courage is Beautiful ad campaign honoring COVID-19 front-line workers uses images of nurses and doctors to make a visceral impact on viewers without much editorializing.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: 7 Steps to Getting Brand Trust Right

3. Invite people to actively participate

The best stories immerse the audience in the action. Allowing your viewers to actively participate provides a deeper channel for emotional connection. With interactive content, your audience is in the driver’s seat, following their own path, answering questions, drilling down for more information, and exploring topics through multiple lenses or perspectives. This, in turn, provides you with insights into what your audience cares about.

Maybelline’s #TheGlamourEye influencer campaign uses interactive video to help viewers explore different looks.

4. Create a full emotional arc

If advertising is a soap opera, your content marketing should be a drama. A quick-hit emotional high drives engagement fleetingly, but a thoughtfully crafted emotional arc keeps your audience interested in the story.

Mattress company Casper impressively manages to fit a full emotional arc into a few panels of a subway ad:

Image showing how Casper impressively manages to fit a full emotional arc into a few panels of a subway ad.

Without a crafted emotional arc, your audience will lose interest in the story, says @SFBakerGeek via @CMIContent. Share on X

5. Use data to optimize your approach

Refining your approach and figuring out the precise topic, tone, and slant that resonates with your audience requires testing. As you publish new content with an emotional thread, look closely at your performance metrics to uncover what’s working and what isn’t.

Content analytics platforms like Contently’s measure content performance by individual piece and by topic, persona, or funnel type, providing data to refine your approach.

Image showing a screenshot of Contently’s analytics dashboard.

#Content analytics platforms like @Contently’s measure content performance by individual piece and by topic, persona, or funnel type, says @SFBakerGeek via @CMIContent. Share on X

Bottom line

Emotion is the key to driving strong engagement with your content. Using the science of emotional resonance and the art of creativity, you can design stories that appeal to your audience in a meaningful, real way. These stories will inspire members of your audience to share and will keep them coming back for more.

Please note: Tools mentioned in the post are identified by the author. If you know of a relevant tool (from your company or ones you used), please share in the comments.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute