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The Art and Science of Emotional Engagement


Fun fact: Neuro-imagery 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 campaigns that went viral. Always’ Like a Girl, Dove’s Real Beauty, and Apple’s Misunderstood campaigns all spring to mind.

But we’ve also seen how emotional content can go terribly awry — like those sad ASPCA commercials with Sarah McLachlan or Nationwide’s Make Safe Happen campaign.

As content creators, emotion can be an incredibly powerful engagement tactic, but we have to 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 a number of 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. Click To Tweet

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

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

Generally, you don’t associate unicorns, ice cream, and English guys in doublets with pooping … and yet, these all feature in Squatty Potty’s video. A bit disturbing? Yes. Memorable? It’s hard to argue with almost 28 million YouTube views. Persuasive? The company sold $15 million in merchandise in 2015.


Color can have a powerful impact on a viewer’s emotional response. Studies have shown that 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 people's willingness to read a piece of content by 80% via @xerox @SFBakerGeek. Click To Tweet

Coca-Cola has consistently used 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 recent 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.


Virgin America is another brand that consistently uses color in its campaigns. In a recent print ad campaign, the airline used the color purple to cultivate a feeling of exclusivity, luxury, and imaginativeness while maintaining its trademark humorous visual tone.



A large body of research confirms the emotional power of visuals — Visual Teaching Alliance quotes David Hyerle’s field guide that 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 being conveyed via @ResearchDigest. Click To Tweet

Virtual reality company StoryUp created a highly impactful campaign for the nonprofit organization Central Missouri Honor Flight called Honor Everywhere. Using 360-degree video, it gave veterans a virtual tour of memorial sites in Washington, D.C. By creating such a rich, visual experience for veterans, it also gained a lot of media attention.

Images can also evoke specific emotional responses. For example, photos of people have been shown to increase empathy, and photos of attractive people, especially women, 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 that featured a photo of a person. In some cases, 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 take-up; 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. When they see a piece of branded content, they become 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 by as much as 20% via @harvardbiz. Click To Tweet

Kate Spade has done a fantastic job of creating content that highlights the brand without explicitly talking about its products in its Miss Adventure series. In the first episode, the story of Anna Kendrick getting locked out of her apartment with her dog takes center stage while Kate Spade’s products are a secondary focus.

.@KateSpade is a great example of content that highlights the brand w/out talking product via @SFBakerGeek. Click To Tweet

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 does your audience 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’ll want to evoke emotions like awe and curiosity. Conversely, if your audience is interested in financial news, you’ll want to go after a different set of emotions — fear or reassurance, depending on the news.


Meditation app Headspace uses calming colors and cute line art to tap into the customers’ motivation to live a calmer, happier life.

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’ll 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 via @SFBakerGeek. Click To Tweet

To engage viewers, your story has to be relevant, and it has to be genuine.

Kleenex’s Messages of Care campaign highlights meaningful, real-life stories, including this one about a NICU worker in Marietta, Georgia.

3. Invite people to actively participate

The best stories pull in the audience, immersing them in the action. Allowing your viewers to actively participate provides an even deeper channel for emotional connection. With interactive content, you can put people in the driver’s seat, allowing them to follow their own path, answer questions, drill down for more information, and explore topics through multiple lenses or perspectives. This, in turn, provides you with insights on what your audience cares about.


Clinique’s Play with Pop interactive video campaign allows consumers to swap between musical styles and explore related cosmetic collections.

4. Create a full emotional arc

If advertising is a soap-opera episode, your content marketing should be a drama. A quick-hit emotional high may drive engagement fleetingly, but without a thoughtfully crafted emotional arc, your audience will quickly lose interest in your story.


Mattress company Casper manages to fit a full emotional arc into a few panels of a subway ad — impressive.

Without a crafted emotional arc, your audience will quickly lose interest in your story via @SFBakerGeek. Click To Tweet

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.

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 your audience to share and keep them coming back for more.

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Cover image by Ryan McGuire-Bells Design, Gratisography, via

Please note:  All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team.  No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).