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Witches and Beatniks

Murder, jazz, and non-conformism

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storytelling

Maybe Neo-Nazis are just dead bored.

I watched this video today, and I think there’s something important to learn from it.

The poor idiot claims he’s doing it for fun. I’m inclined to believe him—which is not a justification; I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for him but trying to understand the reason behind his behavior. Later he says that he’s been in jail and that he enjoys offending people. I’m speculating here, but if he told the truth and he was once in jail at such young age, probably he’s poor and uneducated. In other words: powerless. And if he gets his kicks from being offensive it is because that may be the only way he feels in control. He finds meaning on causing a reaction, even a negative reaction.

Where did he learn to behave like that? There’s a part of violence that is innate, of course, but we live in a society where violence has become increasingly costly. Violent individuals risk punishment, condemnation, and ostracism—not to mention the wrath from Twitter. This guy barely escaped a beating. Why then does he behave like a jackass? My guess is, as he swiftly confesses, because he’s bored. Yes, he may be an idiot too, but being an idiot doesn’t make him engage in reckless behavior, being an idiot simply prevents him from foreseeing the consequences of engaging in reckless behavior. Boredom is what forces him to find his kicks in violence. Boredom signals the brain to look for a different goal because the current one is not rewarding enough or even toxic. Any goal! Even destructive behavior like consuming drugs, skipping school or attending a Neo-Nazi rally.

Combine boredom with the way we acquire most of our knowledge: by consuming mass media. Is media doing a good job educating us? The problem will only get worse with automation when millions find themselves with nothing to do but consume more media.

When I was eight years old, I was called to see the school psychologist. He asked me to make a drawing. Guessing I shouldn’t draw a My Little Pony and expose myself as a sissy I draw the manliest thing I could think of: the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard. I put particular attention on the Confederate Flag on the roof. I didn’t mention that I found the Duke Boys sexy, I just let the man wearing glasses think I was as manly as any other boy my age, and fascinated by cars and adventure. That’s what the General Lee meant to me: manliness. I rated manliness positively, so you could say I had a positive attitude toward the Confederate Flag too. It didn’t mean oppression and slavery to me — I was eight, I had no idea!

My attitude had a function: liking the General Lee made me appear manly in front of others, which was necessary for my survival. Back then, I would have rejected anyone’s arguments trying to convince me that the General Lee was a bad influence, but maybe I would have been opened to hear that liking My Little Pony was okay for a boy.

We should ask ourselves: What function does a Neo-Nazi attitude serve? Telling them they’re dead wrong isn’t enough. They probably know they’re wrong, but they stick to their wrong ideas for a reason. Why?

And then, where are they getting those ideas from? Could it be from media that tends to underrepresented minorities and glorify aggression? I’m not talking only about Fox News. Take this year’s Atomic Blonde, a beautifully shot, superbly directed all praise for violence. The film has a twist at the end trying to convince us that Charlize Theron’s character is not only incredibly beautiful and resilient but incredibly smart and cunning too. Well, if she were that smart she wouldn’t have risked her own life just to kill all those people. Yet we are too engrossed in the narrative to question her motives. Narratives reduce counter-arguing, that’s why they’re so persuasive. We get too busy interpreting the events in a narrative that there’s little cognitive power left behind to judge its meaning.

Take “irresponsible” Prissy, from Gone With the Wind, to go back to a classic example. In one scene, Prissy gets slapped for lying to Scarlett O’Hara about knowing how to deliver babies. Because we are transported by the story and are seeing it through the eyes of Scarlett, who’s alone and dead worried about Melanie, we agree with the slapping. However, as a commenter says on YouTube, Prissy has no reason to “give a damn about either of those two white bitches.” Why should she? Prissy is only a teenager and a domestic slave. She’s a fictional character of course, but slaves like her were probably beaten often, starved, separated from their family, and received no compensation for their work. Why should she feel sympathy for her oppressors? Nevertheless, because it is Scarlett’s and not Prissy’s story the one we follow, and because we’re too busy worrying what will happen next—will Melanie survive?—we don’t stop to ponder over Prissy’s motives.

The point is, we are bored, we are powerless, and we acquire most of our knowledge from narratives that may be distorting reality but at the same time are so engaging that they limit our capability for critical thinking. Punching nazis may temporarily improve our mood but won’t solve the problem. The obvious answer is education, but education tends to be incredibly boring too. What we need is our education system to learn from the entertainment industry on how to become more engaging so that destructive behavior doesn’t become a way to escape boredom. And we need entertainers to become more educated too, so they can create better content.

 

Turn it into a game. Applying Principles of Gamification to Create Better Stories

Storytellers want their stories to be addictive so that the readers keep turning pages and viewers keep asking for more. How does one achieve that? What does engagement entail? My proposal here is to turn stories into a game for the readers—or listeners, or viewers, anyone that consumes a story—to play.

No, I’m not proposing to write interactive stories in which readers decide with a click what is going to happen next, but for storytellers to use gamification principles when crafting a story to increase engagement. Basically, to reconcile the transportation-imagery model (Green & Brock, 2002; Laer, De Ruyter, Visconti, Wetzels, 2014) with self-determination theory (Ryan,& Deci, 2000) and Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow (Green & Brock, 2002). Don’t worry; I’ll try to lay my arguments in plain English.

Let us begin by defining terms. What is engagement? That which keeps you interested and willing to continue performing an activity, such as reading a book or watching a movie until interrupted by boredom. In other words, something is engaging when it is not boring. Lame definition, I know, but this is our first aha! moment: the first step to increase engagement is to avoid boredom.

We could blame boredom on the readers’ ignorance or lack of discipline, but the truth is that even the most compelling stories can become boring if told the wrong way. Likewise, the simplest adventures can be a rollercoaster of fun if spiced up. Is that what you should do, then, add more salt and pepper to your story? Yes, but, as the cliché says, one must also learn when to kill his darlings—those that are boring, that is.

Boredom is an emotion, and as every emotion, its function is to direct behavior (Bench & Lench, 2013). Boredom is related to disgust (Toohey, 2011), and as disgust, it convinces you to stop, plain and simple. Boredom signals the brain that the current goal is no longer attractive, even toxic (Willis, 2014), and that a different goal must be pursued (Bench & Lench, 2013). Therefore the feelings of discomfort one suffers when bored and still forced to continue. Not only that, boredom cuts the communication between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of your brain, impeding the formation of long-term memories (Willis, 2014).

Yes, boredom can prevent you from acquiring valuable knowledge. It is an evolutionary advantage to increase the chances of survival: Just like disgust prevents us from getting sick by not eating what we find repulsive, boredom prevents us from devoting our undivided attention to a single, unrewarding activity for too long. The world is a scary place, and if we wonder for too long why the sky is blue or how many angels can dance on a pin head, we may get eaten, killed, or left behind. The risk may not be as high in this modern world, but your brain doesn’t care. No matter how much time you have on your hands, your subconscious still decides whether a current task deserves your whole attention or not. That is, perhaps, why you keep checking your social media accounts every ten minutes, because you’re not sufficiently engaged at work.

So far this may sound like redundant advice: to be interesting one must not be boring, but the temptation to write long, insipid, unrewarding back stories or fill up pages with exposition exists. If it is boring, cut it, regardless of how beautiful the prose. Your readers’ brains will reject it anyway.

So how not to be boring? If boredom is an indication to stop and pursue a different goal, you need the opposite, to motivate your readers to continue by leading them into a state of flow, one that demands intense focus but is also meaningful, challenging, and rewarding by itself (Green & Brock, 2002) as when you read an amazing story or play an interesting game, and you simply don’t get bored. Applied to narratives, we say that an engaged reader has been transported to the world of the story to the point that they ignore their physical surroundings and instead “see the action of the story unfolding before them” (Green & Brock, 202, p. 317).

When fully transported, the decision to continue is automatic. If you get bored, the decision to proceed or not becomes conscious and will depend on an external reward rather than intrinsic enjoyment derived from the activity, as in “I better finish reading this BORING article if I want to pass the finals,” or “I better stop here, this article is BORING, and I have much better things to do.” That is the tenet of self-determination theory, which explains motivation. Concerning consuming stories, we can say that readers are intrinsically motivated to read a story when the story is rewarding by itself, and extrinsically motivated when reading depends on an external reward, like obtaining a good grade.

What this means is that to craft an interesting story, you must reward your readers because rewards keep them engaged.

Does that mean stories should be a sugary road to happiness? All the contrary. Rewards bring you joy, of course, but joy, like all emotions, fades with time and has a diminishing marginal utility (Bench & Lench, 2013). One pony is fantastic, two ponies better, why not, but the sixth pony is just meh! By pony number fourteen you are probably so sick of those tiny horses, you can’t care less if all die. Transportation is off, and you return to the real world. For stories to be rewarding they need to be painful too; otherwise, the rewards become meaningless. Conflict brings some of that pain. Pain is what makes rewards delicious. Too much pain, however, and the activity becomes harrowing. How much is too much? Conflict arouses your readers’ interest but only when there is hope this conflict will get resolved, and in the measure of the emotions it arouses. As directives of behavior emotions serve also as indicators of progress toward a goal (Bench & Lench, 2013), so what truly keeps readers engaged are the little steps toward a distant yet attainable goal. Here we get closer to what makes a story engaging: goal setting.

A reader’s goal is to be entertained as she relives how characters suffer and rejoice toward achieving their goals. To be engaged then, or transported—we should prefer this term since we are talking about being engaged in a story—means to emotionally identify with the characters’ predicament, empathize with their plight, and wish for them to achieve their goals, regardless of what these are. Goal setting is not the only determinant of transportation but an essential one because without goals there cannot be an emotional investment in the characters and we get bored!

Therefore the success of the hero’s journey, a classic map to create engaging stories. You have a hero, one with a clear goal and a journey that is but a rollercoaster of emotions as he rejects the quest first, then accepts it, then succeeds, then fails, then gets help from a supernatural power, then fails again, then succeeds. The problem I see with the Hero’s Journey is that it becomes a recipe that storytellers follow to achieve success rather than an example. Works with children, who are easy to please, but as you mature and have watched or read your fair share of stories, you gain the ability to anticipate any new development. When the rewards start coming at a predictable pace, the story becomes less engaging (Eyal, 2012).

How does this relate to gamification? Gamification refers to the application of game elements to non-gaming activities to increase motivation (Conaway & Garay, 2014; Crowley, Breslin, Corcoran, & Young, 2012; Landers & Callan, 2011). Understanding what causes a state of flow, and Self-Determination Theory explains how games keep you motivated.

Let us use a game we all know to explain it: Candy Crush Saga. Solving puzzles is basically a waste of your time, and as we said before boredom protects us from wasting time. Why then is the game so addictive? Because we derive satisfaction from solving puzzles, it makes us feel smart. What Candy Crush Saga does is to allow the player to reach a state of flow, one that demands her full attention and is rewarding by itself (Morris, Croker, Zimmerman, Gill, & Romig, 2013). Then, the game keeps the player motivated by satisfying her needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which per Self-Determination Theory are key to motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Candy Crush Saga satisfies your need for autonomy by allowing you to play at your own pace and devote only as much time—or money, if one decides to buy the boosters—as you want. You can play the game anywhere, anytime, as long as you have a device with an internet connection.

Candy Crush Saga satisfies your need to feel competent, with puzzles that are easy to solve at the beginning but get increasingly challenging as you progress. Instead of boring us, the increasing challenge keeps us going, and we only quit when the game becomes too easy or too difficult—or reality calls. Additionally, the game continually rewards you for your good decisions with catchy sounds, power ups, explosions of color, and words like “divine” and “tasty.” By the time you complete level 252 with over two million points you feel nothing less than the Queen or the King of the world, especially because completing a level is yes, product of your own effort but also occurs relatively at random, which keep you even more hooked: uncertainty increases our willingness to continue, because our dopamine levels increase with anticipation (Rose, 2012; Eyal, 2012). In other words, we are happier when we are about to attain what we want than when we attain it. Lastly, if you fail, no big deal, you can try again, and then again, and again, until you complete the level. Candy Crush Saga won’t judge you. It celebrates you the same whether it took you ten minutes or a year to complete a level.

It doesn’t stop there: The game also makes you feel part of a community, satisfying your need for relatedness by allowing to brag about your success on social media, see your friends’ progress, help them or ask for their help, and gives meaning to your apparently purposeless efforts by interjecting the story of how Tiffi lends a hand to the residents of Candy Kingdom. These may be only fictional characters, but they sure are grateful.

To summarize, the elements of gamification are: 1. progress path, through the use of challenges; 2. constant feedback, on what you do right and what you do wrong, and instant gratification to keep the user motivated and make forward movement obvious; 3. social connection, with both real and fictional characters, providing competition and support, and 4. interface and user experience, which refers to the aesthetics of the game (Conaway and Garay,2014).

How can you apply this to increase transportation?

Let’s recapitulate. To increase transportation, a reader must willingly join the characters’ on an emotionally bumpy quest to achieve their goals. Bumpy, because if it isn’t challenging enough, the journey becomes boring. To remain engaged, the reader must constantly be rewarded, but these rewards must come after solving the challenges along the trip. If the trip is too easy, the reader may get bored; if it is too difficult, the reader will get frustrated, and bored and frustrated readers quit. Because seeing the characters’ attain their goals is the ultimate reward—in addition to those smaller rewards collected along the way—these goals must be set as early as possible. The reader must know what the purpose of immersing into a story is. Otherwise, boredom will signal the reader’s brains to occupy herself with something else.

In essence, transportation results from leading readers into a state of flow, but not any state of flow, but one that leads to the creation of mental imagery and developing empathy for others. Solving a simple puzzle involves no characters. Narrative transportation occurs only when the task at hand involves interpreting a story, a sequence of events with identifiable characters. Interpreting is the key word. One must differentiate then between a story, as one that is told, and a narrative, as one that is interpreted by the reader (Laer, De Ruyter, Visconti, & Wetzels, 2014). The difference is important because interpreting is what makes consuming a story an active and progressively challenging task that can lead to a state of flow. Therefore, all the writing advice clichés: Show; don’t tell. Less is more. Make the reader read between the lines, and kill your darlings. In other words, provide just enough information so that the reader is forced to solve a puzzle. Exposition should set the rules not drive the story. Too many rules and nobody will want to play. Too little rules and players will get confused. Start easy and acknowledge the reader’s abilities and familiarity with the subject, the characters or the genre. Do not waste time explaining how a submarine operates, unless the reader needs the information to solve a future puzzle. If she does, bring the information closer to that puzzle; if she doesn’t, delete it. That not only makes a story engaging but also satisfies the readers’ need for autonomy, for they become the ones building the story with you. Give them control over the little details; let them decide the make and color of the heroes’ automobiles; the clothes they wear, etc. It is not a matter of losing control but of staying in control by constantly teasing, by leading the path with crumbs, create anticipation, and not losing their attention. An increased sense of presence should result not only from the creation of mental imagery suggested by the story but also by speculative thoughts.

For instance, in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Besson, 2017), the origins of the city are suggested with a series of images of the International Space Station accompanied by a well known song, Space Oddity. The Bowie song puts you in a good mood and because we all know it (and love it) and because the International Space Station is also a concept we are all familiar with, as viewers we easily reach a state of transportation and do not question what comes next: the City of a Thousand Planets, Alpha, growing from all sorts of interplanetary species joining the station. The details of how the different technologies and politics were reconciled are irrelevant. We are too busy interpreting and enjoying the story. Had Besson chosen to explain the origin of Alpha with exposition, say by listing the circumstances under which each civilization joined the station, the result may not have been as transporting. What he did was to exploit the knowledge that most viewers already possessed: a catchy song that suggests the magic of space exploration and the existence of a real international enterprise, and then lead the viewers to connect the dots.

Is the experience rewarding? Absolutely. Not only is aesthetically beautiful, but it inspires a sense of hope in the future of humanity. Then it becomes valuable knowledge for what is coming next, the most exotic world you could ever imagine, compressed in a relatively small space, the size of a “city.” By the time we return to Alpha, we do not question its existence, or how it became such a chaotic place, but it remains an intriguing place, we want to know ans see more, and thus we continue engaged.

The Alpha sequence does not introduce us to the main characters or their goals; nonetheless, it sets a clear goal in the reader’s mind: to learn more about this world. It prepares us for wanting more.

Cinema as a medium has the advantage of being more immersive than print narratives because a film can provide in one frame much more detailed information than text could in one line and without disrupting the pace of the narrative (Biocca, 2002). Immersion, however, does not guarantee continuous engagement. All the contrary, ambiguity does, because ambiguity leads to the creation of mental imagery and speculative thoughts. Take the opening scene in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

‘My dear Mr. Bennet,’ said his lady to him one day, ‘have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?’

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

‘But it is,’ returned she; ‘for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.’

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

‘Do you not want to know who has taken it?’ cried his wife impatiently.

‘YOU want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.” (Austen, 2009, Kindle Location 21659)

Austen takes advantage of our familiarity with similar characters and circumstances to let us deduce that Mrs. Bennet talks a lot, but her husband doesn’t. From the text we also infer that the new resident of Netherfield Park is rich and single, that the Bennets have daughters of an appropriate age to be married, and that Mrs. Bennet wants to marry one of them with him. Nothing of this is stated, though, merely suggested. The reader becomes acquainted with the characters, and that without being told what they look like, how they’re dressed, where exactly the action takes place, or any other information irrelevant to the story. I imagine the Bennets in a small drawing room, one similar to the many drawing rooms I’ve seen in British movies, Mr. Bennet busy with a book, Mrs. Bennet pretending to be examining the curtains. Austen presents us with a challenge, that of interpreting the story, but she gives us the absolute liberty to recreate the scene in whichever manner we want. In a game, we have the autonomy to move and explore with liberty as long as we follow certain rules. In Austen’s novels, we have the autonomy to imagine what the Bennets look like, where they are, as we discover what they want. Our reward? Elegant yet easy to follow prose, which plays the role of hyper realistic graphics, and the comedic situation. Impossible not to smile at Mrs. Bennet’s attempt to call her husband’s attention! By the time we meet the Bennet daughters, we have already sided with their mother’s intentions whether we approve of them or not. Alas, when Lizzy and Mr. Darcy first meet, they dislike each other intensely… And how fortunate that is! It would have been a waste of our time if the story ended without any obstacles. Finally, not every reader will be enthused about the limited options for the Bennet daughters, but as the story progresses, it becomes impossible not to relate and dream about living too in that world, England’s countryside at the turn of the nineteen century, despite the lack of comfort, the threat of war, the poor hygiene, and other circumstances from which the narrative distracts us.

Laer et al. (2014) list identifiable characters, imaginable plot, and verisimilitude as antecedents dependent on the storyteller, and familiarity, attention, transportability, and demographics such as gender and age, as antecedents dependent on the story receiver that influence transportation. My proposal is not to change these ingredients, but the way they are cooked: as a series of puzzles following a progress path, providing feedback, social connection, and a pleasurable user experience. A storyteller must not limit to introduce characters and their goals but invite readers to recreate these characters and infer their goals based on the rules that the storyteller sets upon consideration of the readers’ abilities, that is by taking advantage of the readers’ experience and their willingness to confront a challenge, because this will satisfy the readers’ need for autonomy and competence. The storyteller must also reward readers with beautiful images, witty lines, and by allowing progress to be evident to keep the readers’ attention, and be careful to provide these rewards only when they are deserved, after some good tormenting, and not as often or in a pattern that makes them predictable, to satisfy the readers’ need for competence. And a storyteller must invite his readers to bond with his characters and feel part of their world, and their circumstances. Who wouldn’t change places with Harry Potter, orphaned as a baby, raised without love, surrounded by enemies, and in constant peril, for a chance of attending courses at Hogwarts and Christmas at the Weasley’s? A story needs to satisfy our need for relatedness to be complete.

References:

Austen, Jane (2009). The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Annotated with Biography and Critical Essays) (Kindle Locations 21662-21666). Douglas Editions. Kindle Edition.

Bench, S. W., & Lench, H. C. (2013). On the function of boredom. Behavioral Sciences, 3(3), 459-472. doi:10.3390/bs3030459

Besson, L. (Director). (2017). Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets [Film]. France: Europa Corp.

Conaway, R., & Garay, M. (2014). Gamification and service marketing. SpringerPlus, 3(1), 653. doi:10.1186/2193-1801-3-653

Crowley, D., Breslin, J., Corcoran, P., & Young, K. (2012). Gamification of Citizen Sensing through Mobile Social Reporting. Paper presented at the Games Innovation Conference (IGIC), 2012 IEEE International.

Eyal, N. (2012). Hooks: An Intro on How to Manufacture Desire. Retrieved March 26, 2016, from http://www.nirandfar.com/2012/03/how-to-manufacture-desire.html

Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2002). In the mind’s eye: transportation-imagery model of narrative persuasion, in M. C. Green, J. J. Strange & T. C. Brock (Eds.), Narrative impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations (pp. 315-342). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Laer, T. V., De Ruyter, K. , Visconti, L. M., & Wetzels, M. (2014). The extended transportation-imagery model: A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of consumers’ narrative transportation. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(5), 797-817. doi:10.1086/673383

Landers, R., & Callan, R. (2011). Casual Social Games as Serious Games: The Psychology of Gamification in Undergraduate Education and Employee Training. In M. Ma (Ed.), Serious Games and Edutainment Applications (pp. 399-421). London: Springer-Verlag.

Morris, B., Croker, S., Zimmerman, C., Gill, D., & Romig, C. (2013). Gaming science: The “Gamification” of scientific thinking. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1-16. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00607

Rose, F. (2012). The art of immersion: how the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the way we tell stories (Kindle ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. In Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67 (2000) doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020, available online at http://www.idealibrary.com

Willis, J. (2014). Neuroscience Reveals That Boredom Hurts. Phi Delta Kappan, 95 (8), 28-32. Doi: 10.1177/003172171409500807.

How to increase engagement using the secrets of successful vloggers

Have you heard about Bethany Mota? Bethany is part of a generation of successful video bloggers (or vloggers) who have made a successful career by, apparently, just being themselves and playing silly in front of a webcam.

Bethany was 13 years old when she created her first YouTube video in 2009, a makeup tutorial for products she had just bought from MAC and Sephora. She made her video out of boredom, trying to reduce the stress of being bullied online by a classmate, using herself as a model and her bedroom as the location. The video and the ones that followed earned her a small community of followers. Soon Bethany expanded to outfit ideas, hair tutorials, and decoration advice. Today, she has over 10 million followers on YouTube — that is one and a half million more than Lady Gaga — 10 million on Instagram — Vogue Magazine has a little under 16 — and 4 million on Twitter — Madonna has only 1.5 million.

Do these numbers make you jealous? Don’t be ashamed if they do; they are big enough to make the best brands VERY jealous. Prada’s YouTube channel has only 66 thousand followers. Chanel has only 805 thousand. It makes one wonder: how can I replicate Bethany’s success? Was it luck? Talent? What is her secret?

As much as I would love to give you a recipe with easy-to-follow steps and accurate measures for replicating Bethany’s success on social media, such thing does not exist. Thankfully, psychology and media experts like Henry Jenkins and Robert Cialdini have studied similar phenomena before, and from Petty & Cacioppo’s Elaboration Likelihood Model we can learn how to strategize possible routes to engagement and persuasion. Here, I use Bethany’s success as an example to explain the experts’ recommendations to increase engagement.

To consume your content, your public has to be motivated

Easier said than done, so bear with me on this one. As I mentioned in a previous blog, motivation depends on satisfying the needs of autonomy, capability, and relatedness. In other words, to become engaged with a message such as a blog post, readers need to do so willingly, they need to be able to understand, and they need to relate to the contents of the message. Satisfying the needs of autonomy and capability when creating content to share on social media is almost a given. No one forces Bethany’s followers to watch her videos. They do so out of genuine interest. Bethany’s viewers are also plenty capable of understanding her videos: the videos are in English, they portray situations which are easy to relate to and understand, and, thanks to the affordances of mobile technology, her viewers can watch them pretty much anywhere, anytime, using a mobile device. Also, because of the affordances of social media, her viewers can find the videos without much difficulty because their close network of friends spread them each time one of them likes, upvotes, shares or comments on a video. The tricky part is then fulfilling the public’s need for relatedness. Who watches Bethany’s videos? I do not. I cannot relate. Do you? Unless you are a teenage girl or have one at home, you probably don’t either. Her audience is young girls mostly, specifically young girls that relate to what she talks about (makeup, hair, fashion) and find her advice valuable because they are interested in the same subjects. Should you run to Sephora and start creating makeup tutorials then? Nope. The lesson to be learned here is not to attempt to lure everyone but merely a few. Create content for a particular audience. Bethany sticks to subjects that are of interest to teenagers living a middle-class, sheltered lifestyle, and covers brands that she knows her followers can afford, like Forever 21 and Aéropostale.

Before you start creating content to spread on social media, figure out who your audience is. Ask yourself these questions: Who buys my product? How do they use it? What are their needs? How can I help them fulfill these needs?  If what you are trying to do is broaden your existing audience, then figure out who specifically you want to attract. The smaller your audience, the easier it will be to create content they can relate to. See it this way: Bethany fails to engage 99.87 percent of the population on this planet, now hovering close to 7.5 billion. The 0.13 percent she draws, however, can guarantee her an estimated $40,000 a month business.

The windy road is often the fastest

The central tenet of Elaboration Likelihood Model is that there are two routes to persuasion:

A central route that relies on the diligent consideration of rational arguments; as when I say that eating broccoli is good because of its anti-cancer properties, and you decide to start eating it because you can verify the validity of my statement and do not want cancer, and

A peripheral route that relies on heuristics and other mental shortcuts, as when I say: Broccoli is fun! It looks like a little tree! Celebrities love it! You wanna be healthy, huh, so why don’t you try it?

Taking the central route leads to longer lasting change and less counter-arguing, yet rational arguments are often BORING. Most times, it is easier to lead your audience through a peripheral route, and once engaged, give them the cold hard facts: Broccoli is high in fiber.

 

Increase engagement by appealing to heuristics

The first thing one notices when watching one of Bethany’s videos, like this one for Valentine’s Day is that she is quite attractive. Beautiful hair, flawless skin, big eyes. Then, that she’s also quite expressive, cheery, bouncy, and even a little childish. Bethany is quite likeable! And because she is good-looking, confident, and the video looks professionally made, we can safely guess that she knows a thing or two about making things look pretty. Finally, we notice the number of people that have watched the video. Whoa! Nine million views and counting. We have not watched much of her video, but after a few seconds, we already know that Bethany is pleasant to watch, she seems to be an expert on the subject of beauty, and over nine million viewers have endorsed her message. One can only conclude that, if beauty advice is a topic that interests us, her message is worth watching. Note that we reach this conclusion before a careful deliberation on the merits of her video, but by using heuristics, mental shortcuts based on experience and driven by emotions that we use to save time every time we need to make a decision. Any decision. As humans, we prefer to guess rather than to elaborate, because elaborating takes time. The lesson to be learned from Bethany is that for your message to successfully reach your target audience, you need to convince them first that there’s value in spending time going through your entire message. The sooner, the better, because there are zillions of other things, including cat videos, potentially more interesting than your content going around on the Internet. The Internet is a cruel, nasty place, where nobody has time for the central route. Unless your viewers are super motivated to engage in your content, appealing to heuristics, the peripheral route, is a more effective way to persuade them that your content is worth their time, at least until they have enough information to decide whether the information is relevant or not.

Good, but you don’t have time for a course on consumer psychology, do you? Cialdini mentions six basic principles of persuasion based on our use of heuristics for decision-making. Above I mentioned the three most important:

1. Liking, either the speaker or the way the message is delivered: using fancy colors, music, humor, etc. You do not have to be as gorgeous as Bethany to be liked. Being funny and relatable helps.

2. Authority, recognizing that the speaker must be an expert on the matter at hand,

3. Consensus, public validation of the message.

The other three are:

4. Reciprocity, our desire to repay people like Bethany for her valuable and funny advice with our attention, first, and maybe then with a “Like,” or by purchasing their product. Think about it, how many times did a restaurant earn your business with a free sample?

5. Consistency, our desire to stick to what we commit in public. Credo Mobile marketing strategy relies on reminding the public that they are as committed to social progress and environmental causes as their customers are. You cannot use another carrier if you truly care about the environment, can you?

6. Scarcity, as in “this offer will not last!” Scarcity appeals to our fear of losing an opportunity. Sure, by now we all know that that 30 percent discount will happen again next month — but what if it does not? Taking advantage of the now is an evolutionary advantage acquired during a time when winters were harsh and summers were relentless.

 

Tell a Story

What is stronger than Superman? A story about Superman! In the Running Late for School video, Bethany starts by telling us a story. The birds chirping let us know it’s morning time, we see her tossing and turning, then when her alarm clock goes off, she pushes it off the bed table. Oh, no, she’s going to be late! Then comes the core of her message: Running Late for school? Easy & quick hairstyles under 5 minutes. If we weren’t interested in the subject before, now we are, because by following her narrative and understanding her goal—making it on time to school and still look ravishing—we got emotionally involved. We want to know whether she will make it on time and how. Yep, Bethany’s is a simple story that won’t entice everyone, but remember the only people you need to lure are your target audience. Not every message can easily be turned into a story and stories are not always the most efficient way to deliver a message because they are not as economical as simple rhetoric — it takes Bethany a full 36 seconds of introductory narrative before she starts talking; that’s longer than most commercials. However, when motivation is low, stories are your best bet to increase engagement.

How can you create an engaging story? The recipe is simple:

Identifiable characters. Bethany uses herself. It doesn’t matter who you use, as long as you make it clear that the story is about that character.

Familiar situations that your viewer can relate to. In Bethany’s video, we easily infer it is morning time inside a teenage girl’s bedroom.

Conflict. A dismissed alarm clock. Uh-oh, she’s going to be late.

Clear goals. Making it on time to school while still looking good, as stated in the video title

Resolution. Following Bethany’s advice for Easy & quick hairstyles under 5 minutes.

Note that Bethany’s story is not about how her product saved the planet from zombies, but about how using her product, beauty advice, can save an ordinary girl from an embarrassing situation. Your story should not be about what your product does then but about how it helps people succeed or avoid failure. At ePaisa, we constantly use stories to show how our product can change merchants’ lives, like this one about a man that learned that not embracing technology can be costly.

Want to learn more about creating persuasive messages? I created this video to help communicators on choosing the shortest route to persuasion based on their audience’s motivation to engage. It’s a bit long, so watch it at your own risk 😉

— Originally written for ePaisa.com

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