In Learner Engagement

Let’s discuss “stickiness.” When we create anything with a message, how do we know it will have an impact? Consider all of the commercials you may have seen in the past week. Do you remember any of them? Can you articulate why they stuck with you? Or think about the hundreds of emails and memos you read last week. Again, why did some jump out and lodge in your brain, while others slid off into darkness and oblivion?

This is the essence of the “sticky” question. And at Brella, where we create media for clients day-in and day-out, we think about it a great deal. All of our clients want their media to be impactful, but realistically, some will be much more successful than others.

When possible, we look to research for insight into sticky messaging. Behold a few of the more interesting findings we’ve come across, and applied in the service of our clients:

The child-play theories of Lev Vygotsky. Working in Moscow in the 1920s, Vygotsky was the first psychologist to document the effect of play on learning. He theorized that “play” was a force-multiplier, a gateway to faster and better learning—and we apply his theories every day through techniques such as playful UX design, gamification, and whiteboard video.

As Vygotsky wrote, “In play, the child is always behaving beyond his age, above his usual everyday behavior; in play he is, as it were, a head above himself. Play contains in a concentrated form, as in the focus of a magnifying glass, all developmental tendencies; it is as if the child tries to jump above his usual level.” (For our purposes, replace “child” with “audience,” since we’re all kids at heart.)

Matt Bezdek’s research on stakes, narrative, and attention. In B2B and B2C communication, there’s an established norm of avoiding all tension. Admitting a challenge exists? Why, that implies all is not perfect, and we can’t do that! And yet, this business writing trope may be (somewhat) self-defeating, as Bezdek’s research shows. If we want our messaging to stick, we must show stakes and challenges. From the linked article:

Matt Bezdek, a postdoctoral psychology researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, studies the neurological impact of those ancient tools in his lab today. “In moments when perceived threats to characters are increasing in a narrative, the audience focuses their attention,” Bezdek says. “There’s decreased processing of the visual periphery and increased processing of wherever the narrative is taking place.”

When we watch movies, in other words, we remember more when there’s more at stake. In memory tests, Bezdek says, people remember the events of a film that occur at moments of high suspense better than they do events from the movie’s calmer points.

So if you want your point to be memorable, don’t be shy about showing challenge and suspense.

Green and Brock’s study of narrative transportation and persuasion: You may already be familiar with narrative transportation theory, but Green and Brock, working from Ohio State University in the early 2000s, demonstrated a direct relationship between narrative and persuasion. In other words, you’re more likely to be swayed and engaged by a story than by a string of facts, or by a logical argument.

Note that their work showed it doesn’t matter if the story is true, or fact-based. The mere creation of a narrative framework increases persuasion with the audience: “[T]ransportation and corresponding beliefs were generally unaffected by labeling a story as fact or as fiction.”

Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt: True story: a 1920s radical playwright in Berlin wants to alienate audiences by showing them artificial, ridiculous things on stage, and by revealing the stage-hands and mechanics of the plays. He believes this will jolt the middle-class audiences out of the narrative and force them to think!

The opposite happens, and this is how the “alienation effect” (sometimes called the “distancing effect”) is discovered. In essence, the alienation effect works like so: you show the audience elements that are clearly, obviously artificial. The audience’s brain says, “Oh, it’s make-believe time,” and they become more deeply engaged. This effect has real, direct bearing on audience attention and retention.

Video’s influence on audience impact is also supported by a study conducted in our own backyard. Northwestern University released a study titled Media and memory: the efficacy of video and print materials, in which researchers conducted impact and retention tests on patients and asthma education. This study indicated that short-term retention (or “stickiness”) increased with video education, and that long-term learning was keyed to “reviewable materials” and repeated exposure to messaging.

The bottom line: Brella wants each and every client to succeed in getting their message out effectively. So we keep our eyes on current research, and we aren’t afraid to go back a century to the founding theories of learning and message impact. If you’re keen to have a sticky message, and you’re ready to consult on the strategy and execution of your media, consider sending Brella a note!