Why do we get hooked so easily by questions?
Ever been chatting to a colleague when a “oh, what’s his name, you know, that actor, you know, that TV series, big in Germany…” moment arises? Days later, ‘Eureka – David Hasselhoff!’ you’ll shout, and feel gratified, even relieved? Then you realise your brain had been quietly beavering away at that question? Curiosity. Once piqued it becomes an implacable force that must be sated. A natural instinct that both stimulates and drives behavior.
Leo Burnett believed curiosity was the secret of great creative people. Stimulating curiosity is a known educational approach. Comedy works by tantalizing us with questions before side-swiping our expectations with off-kilter answers. In film and literature, curiosity is used as ‘cliff-hanger’ moments or attention grabbing headlines like “5 Things You Did Wrong Today.”
My belief is that curiosity is an evolutionary formed predatory instinct – quite simply, food comes to those who seek it out. Then, as evolved hominids, this cognitive process morphed into an innate desire to explore the mysteries of our world.
So why does curiosity have this hold on us?
Let’s begin with the neuroscience of curiosity. As Jonah Lehrer from Wired wrote, results from an fMRI experiment at Caltech revealed that “we’re most curious when we know a little about a subject (our curiosity has been piqued) but not too much (we’re still uncertain about the answer). This supports the information gap theory of curiosity, which was first developed by George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon in the early 90s. According to Loewenstein, curiosity is rather simple: It comes when we feel a gap ‘between what we know and what we want to know’. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.” Other research presents a case for these cognitive processes being essential for creative innovation (supporting Burnett’s assertion).
So curiosity is tapping into the same dopamine pathways that sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll stimulate. Questions, puzzles, problems, and patterns aren’t just intriguing – they’re addictive.
So how can brands use curiosity to build consumer engagement?
Well, think back to those literary devices. Storytelling creates engaging experiences because it creates an environment in which the storyteller has full control. If you’ve ever blitzed ten episodes of ‘24’ in one day, you’ll know what I mean. This is why advertising agencies are moving away from the ‘gone in sixty seconds’ rush of a traditional ad spot, to the cunning artifice that storytelling enables. Draw out the moment and you create richer, more engaging interactions, and more opportunities to build brand believers.
Curiosity is best paired with the mechanics of reward and goal achievement. Gamification and game mechanics are a great way to stimulate curiosity and use intrinsic incentives that Daniel Pink states help maintain people’s motivation.
Brand activation often relies on these aspects. Your brand is your emotional guideline, but your activation tactics can play with ways to encourage interaction. Through this, you then create opportunities to build emotional connections with consumers.
Our digital world presents many opportunities for interactions, however making them interesting and relevant remains the challenge. Augmented reality – though still very limited – hooks into our curiosity by enabling people to peek into a fantasy, mystery laden realm. The recent much publicised Reddit Cryptic Code is still unexplained… a marketing ploy or bored cryptographer? No matter which, it provides a great example of how curiosity can motivate people and provide great media coverage if done well.
For brands that tantalise, excite and build suspense, making people dig and ask questions, their consumer experiences are powerful and long lasting. “What’s in the egg?” has kept Kinder Surprise selling for generations.
The allure of mystery is also used by prestige brands. Aspirational positioning needs to maintain distance from the consumer; it must never be fully attainable – does this not partly tap into our curious nature? “What happens if I do buy that Burberry bag…?”
Social media is probably the best environment in which to use this cognitive ploy adeptly. From simple polls “Where’s the top holiday vacation this year?” to more complex hooks – “Which Game of Thrones House do you belong to?” curiosity can be a compelling theme to content creation.
Whilst curiosity can be a boundless opportunity to motivate your consumers to interact with your brands, don’t lose sight of your brand basics and remember, don’t get too addicted.