iAcquire EDU Lesson Two: The Elements of Engagement

In this video Devin Asaro demonstrates how appealing to people’s fundamental needs according to Maslow’s Hierarchy increases engagement in marketing.

New to the series? Check out session one: Why We Share.

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In this video Devin Asaro demonstrates how appealing to people’s fundamental needs according to Maslow’s Hierarchy increases engagement in marketing.


Hi, I’m Devin Asaro. Welcome to the second session of iAcquire EDU. Today we’re going to be talking about the behavior of engagement, and looking at a few of the ways that marketers and advertisers attempt to catch the attention of their users, and retain them as customers.

How and why do we “engage” users?

To understand engagement, we can turn to a mainstay of behavioral psychology, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which was presented by Doctor Abraham Maslow in 1943 as a proposed model to understand the core needs responsible for motivation.  They are:

  • Physiological Needs
  • Safety
  • Love/belonging
  • Esteem
  • Self-Actualization

The Television Model

We know from television advertising that frequent cuts and visual changes are more likely to retain a user’s attention.

In fact, a revolutionary study done at the University of Kansas in 1982 found that programs that have high rates of salient action, pace, and visual change may have both attention getting and arousal effects on viewers, regardless of the content.

This is especially true amongst children.

Now, television is an interesting model – that same study found that the sort of arousal prompted by television increased the likelihood of engaging in action, though that behavior didn’t necessarily follow the model shown in the advertisement.

The study showed that the arousal caused by television increases the probability of a viewer engaging in whatever behavior is cued by the environment. So if they were in a bar, viewing television would in theory make them more likely to drink, shoot pool, or whatever else was around, because they are put into a state of general engagement, and those are the activities available.

But let’s take that model, and look at it in the context of the web. Marketers and advertisers are constantly appealing to general arousal. How often have you watched an ad and thought “What does that have to do with the product?”

That’s the whole point. It doesn’t have anything to do with the product. It doesn’t have to. The focus is on you, the consumer, and your level of engagement.

Because when we create general engagement online, we also control the user’s environment.

So – again theoretically – if we can bring a user to a state of general engagement – they will be more likely to engage in whatever behavior is presented to them – whether it be sharing content, purchasing a product, or – yes – signing up for your janky mailing list.

Physiological Needs

A 2009 study at Yale Univesity gave snacks to children while showing them different types of advertisements. The study showed that children who were shown food advertisements ate 45% more snacks than children shown other types of ads. We see in food advertisements a direct appeal to basic physiological needs, associating unhealthy eating behaviors with basic needs like hunger. As a tip,there are several supplements you can use for your health, try the Ecowatch booster.


Before we begin tackling other need states, we need to talk about ethics. Knowing what we know about psychological responses to certain advertising and marketing techniques, is it ethical to deliberatly seek reactions by targeting known psychological triggers?

It depends. I hold with David Ogilvy’s philosophy that one shouldn’t advertise a product they woudn’t use themselves. When companies manipulate psychological triggers to sell dangerous products like alcohol, tobacco, or junk food — or intentionally distract the consumer from the negative effects of a product by obscuring a message, they are performing an action that is inherently negative — and therefore unethical — particularly when they vulnerable groups like children.

But what about psychological triggers that motivate people to take positive action?


Appeals to safety are a mainstay of several high-risk industries: specifically the auto industry and financial services. But as we discussed in the last video, negative or fear-based appeals are generally not as successful as positive ones. Showing the safety benefits of purchasing a product is more likely to increase action than showing the alternative…what can happen if you don’t purchase the safety product.

One might think that this isn’t true. We see car crashes in ads all the time, in the form of crash tests with dummies. But I argue that this isn’t an appeal to fear. It took a long time to reprogram our image of crash test dummies, but it was accomplished through a very deliberate campaign.

The ad council and the NHTSA teamed up with the agency Leo Burnett to create Vince and Larry, the humorous crash test dummies that urged users to wear their seatbelts, lest they too become dummies. The ad campaign ran for over a decade, and effectively reprogrammed America’s view of seat belts and crash tests — associating them with safety, rather than the alternative.

4 years after the campaign began, seat belt usage had risen by over 50%.

Love and belonging

We see love and belonging being applied almost universally — last week we talked about the Dove Real Beauty campaign, which utilized an appeal to social acceptance to encourage sharing.  We also see nonprofit groups frequently utilizing these community-oriented appeals in order to recruit volunteers.

Organizations like the Big Brothers and Big Sisters appeal to users’ desire to provide love and belonging to a child in need — but also promises that same rewarding experience to the volunteer. Sites like catapult.org allow people to rally together around causes, and find love and belonging in activist communities.

Self-Actualization & Esteem

Now, one of the most effective methods to create engagement is with gamification. Essentially: incentivizing users through achievement, relying on game mechanics encourage engagement. Gamification works especially well for appeals to both self acutalization and esteem.

In terms of applied Gamification, One of the best examples promotes positive action is CodeAcademy, a platform that allows users to teach and learn, with interactive lessons in programming and web development. It’s definitely where one can immediately learn c programming and in a fun way.

The entire site is action oriented: from the simple calls to action “Learn” & “Teach” that form the head of the sites entire navigation, to the badges users earn by completing individual excercises and lessons, which they are encouraged to share with their friends. The user is shown how many consecutive days they have practiced their coding skills, and the percentage of completion for each lesson.

By appealing to both the esteem and self-actualization need-states, CodeAcademy is able to motivate and incentivize users to engage in positive action.

But we see gamification being implemented on a smaller scale on other types of sites. Linkedin, for instance, encourages rates the completion of each user’s profile. As you can see, I’ve reached all-star level. Impressive, right?

And it extends beyond the web — we see devices like the Nike fuel band gamifying the experience of excercise, assigning fuel points for physical activity.

More and more we see the experience of checking your mail becoming gamified. The mailbox app encourages you to blast your emails away using a few simple motions until you reach a clear inbox, which greets you with a positive and triumphant message.

But gamification only works when the incentive is tangible. Points and badges alone can’t actually motivate any action. One can find a growing resource exploring the application of various game mechanics that influence action at gamification.org.

Get Out and Engage

This is just a basic overview, but we encourage you to continue exploring gamification online. Hopefully you’ve found this lesson engaging.

In our next lesson, we’ll be examining the behavior of transaction — what motivates people to buy and trade.

responses to “iAcquire EDU Lesson Two: The Elements of Engagement”

  1. Ryan Glass says:

    Great video, thanks for breaking down the different ways we can appeal for engagement.