Drive User Engagement Through the Familiarity Principle

5 minute read

How do you get a second-grader to like you?

In one study, elementary school students looked at photos of women who had floated in and out of their classrooms that week. Some women had dropped by only once. Others had come back four or five times. Though there were few surface or behavioral differences between them, students consistently rated women they’d seen regularly to be nicer, smarter, and even prettier.

Psychologist Robert Zajonc dubbed this the “familiarity principle,” which tells us that the more we’re exposed to a stimuli, the more we like it. Familiarity triggers user engagement on a subconscious level.

For product marketers, it sounds too good to be true—all you need to do is show up, and suddenly people will like you. But getting a customer’s attention and registering a notice is simply the biggest challenges today.

To rise above the noise, it’s the oldest but time-tested way of getting noticed that’s the most effective—getting face-to-face.

The Limits of Mere Exposure

Zajonc is the first to note that his findings are applicable to the advertising industry. In fact, he forecasted the rise of product placement to drive engagement and action. Writing in the 1960’s, he indicated that though contemporary ad agencies understood the power of association (for example, linking celebrities to brands), they “seldom dared to utilize mere exposure.”

That has since changed. Marketers now rely on the smallest of touchpoints in their strategies. For each sip of Coke someone takes on Big Bang Theory, there’s a marketer employing the familiarity principle. Even mere exposure, the thinking goes, is good exposure.

On the surface, it makes marketing seem like a simple 1:1 formula. The more brand exposure, the better brand association, the quicker to the aha moment. The problem marketers run into is that to get the most touchpoints they can afford, they resort to cheap and impersonal means of communicating. Think barrages of spam emails and telemarketing calls.

As psychologists following Zajonc’s footsteps recognized, not all touchpoints are created equal—especially when it comes to user engagement. Quality as well as quantity, they’ve discovered, affects the familiarity principle. Because after a certain point of impersonal touchpoints, familiarity just breeds contempt.

Increased exposure can still boost brand associations, researchers conclude, but only if the impressions themselves are favorable or neutral. Seeing a stranger’s face in your classroom is a neutral experience. Receiving telemarketing calls is a nuisance.

Favorable impressions can be hard to come by in the Internet Age, where attention spans are low and expectations are high. But there is a tried-and-true way to make touchpoints meaningful and drive user engagement: human interaction.

Get Personal

It’s a phenomenon that stares you down in the grocery store. Literally.

Have you ever noticed that mascots on sugary cereal boxes are always gazing down? It’s so they make eye contact with children, whose gaze as they stroll through the aisle is much lower than their parents. Mascots might be looking down from an adult perspective, but they’re making direct eye contact with their target audience.

Researchers at Cornell found that when a spokesperson (or cereal mascot) made eye contact, potential buyers felt 16% higher brand trust and 28% higher brand connection. Trust level, too, goes up about 18% if you make eye contact with someone—even if that someone is Tony the Tiger.

Getting facetime with clients matters. It’s because interpersonal connection—whether it’s eye contact, physical presence, or emotional engagement—makes us a lot more willing to devote our attention and resources to something.

When consumers feel disconnected, they’re better able to tune something out. A robocall is easily dismissed. Eye contact is not.

Scale User Engagement With Video

Brands need to be vying for more facetime and higher levels of engagement with customers—but if you’re not General Mills, and don’t have a massive marketing budget, sometimes it just doesn’t feel feasible. That’s because a lot of marketers think it’s hard to get facetime at scale.

Companies instead find cheap ways to get around this, dismissing the difference between a drip email and an in-person meeting. One is cheap and scalable but yields little fruit. The other is expensive and time-consuming, but effective and gets you quicker to the aha moment. So how do you get the benefits of face-to-face interaction without sacrificing the impersonal feeling of an automated response?

There’s a way to be your own spokesperson and not have to sacrifice the sense of automation: video. It’s an efficient means of connecting with users, and doing it at scale. It injects personality into your touchpoints, making them hard to tune out.

Wistia case study


Wistia video thumbnail - Take The Survey

See this video in context of Wistia’s survey here.

At Wistia, we were having a hard time getting customers to fill out a survey. The survey was boring, and so was the email we sent it in. We needed to get people interested in doing something that felt like a chore. So we made a video.

It paid off. Big time. Not only did a lot more people click through the email, we got a huge response to the survey. Of the thousands of people who watched us do the hustle, nearly 50% of them filled out the survey. That’s an incredibly high rate of user engagement.

This response is not unique to Wistia. Putting video in an introductory marketing email increases the click-through rate by 96%. That’s almost double the response.

Bamboo hr case study

Nobody likes a spammy sales call. Customers get so many of these that it’s hard to listen—much less get excited—about receiving one. They feel impersonal and generic.

Wistia video thumbnail - Be Human: BambooHR

This video from Bamboo HR gets across all the content of a sales call in a package that customers not only relate to but enjoy. The direct, single-camera approach is friendly and personal, extending clients an electronic handshake in a way that’s sure to make an impression, engage the recipient, and increase the likelihood of response. After all, it’s harder to dismiss a face than a voice.

Wistia video thumbnail - Meet Chris

Bamboo HR takes the principle even further in this voicemail. It’s the same information as the first video, but injects even more personality, and takes a big risk: humor. They want you to know that they aren’t just a machine—they’re real people. With character.

Here’s what Bamboo HR’s Brenton Williams has to say about the impact of video voicemails on engagement and building a relationship with customers:

It brings our company culture to life, and I think people like that. They like to know they’re dealing with real humans who care and are willing to give you their time. We typically use employees in our videos, and constantly have customers and prospects saying, “Hey! That was you in the video!” It’s an instant connection, and suddenly you’re a real person, not just a name at the bottom of an email. That’s vital for our us. We’re a month-to-month service and we rely on genuine relationships to keep us in business.

The Future of Product Marketing with Video

Marketers know the implicit value of a genuine relationship. But it’s hard to assign a numeric value to the level of user engagement that would lead to a genuine relationship—for now. That’s because attribution modeling, or the process of assigning value to different touchpoints in conversion paths, is an imperfect science. Did a user engage and a customer convert because of a Facebook ad? A phone call? A combination of the two?

Video has the power to increase marketers’ understanding of how the familiarity principle affects conversion rates. It offers metrics that can tell marketers where viewers lost interest, clicked through, or re-watched. Video, then, is a dual-pronged tool: it helps marketers both promote user engagement and understand conversions and how users got to the aha moment.

As companies get smarter about attribution modeling, we’ll have a stronger sense of exactly what role video can play in the familiarity principle. But some places are early to the game, and are already reaping the benefits. By using a scalable means of face-to-face interaction, they get the touchpoints with customers that matter and the conversion rates to show for it.

It’s important to show your customers the people behind your brand—and video marketing is the best tool in your arsenal to get there.

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