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Hey, what do Stanley Kubrick and a Chief Marketing Officer have in common? If you said awesome designer shoes, you’re probably correct. But, in addition, they’re both in the business of stimulating consumer brain function for fun and profit. When audiences watched The Shining in 1980, their terrified brains responded with surges of adrenaline, dopamine and endorphins.

These are the kinds of chemicals the brain creates when you do things like jump out of an airplane, drive a car over 120mph or get into a fistfight. But audiences didn’t have to do any of those things to get that chemical high during The Shining. They just sat there eating popcorn and Raisinets, getting all of the rush with none of the risk.

So aside from creating a modern horror masterpiece and exceptional piece of art, Kubric basically manipulated the brain chemistry of millions with a thrilling movie that became one of the highest-grossing films of that year. Plus, Catman Struthers was in it, so it pretty much couldn’t fail.

Dopamine: The Currency of Social Media

Whenever you do something the brain perceives as rewarding—such as take a bite of something delicious, hug somebody you love, workout or win a big hand at poker—your brain produces a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is neurotransmitter delivered along the brain’s mesocortical, nigrostriatal and mesolimbic pathways to reward numerous parts of the brain and make you feel good in various ways simultaneously.

The point of this neurochemical mechanism is to reinforce whatever you just did so that you’ll do it again, with the brain’s assumption being that what you did was worthwhile such as completing a big project or finishing a marathon. This is where neural reward systems can also be our downfall. You’ll also get an initial dopamine dump from eating an entire large pizza by yourself while binge watching Ozark.

American adults spend, on average, between two and four hours on their smartphones—much of it on social media. And getting those Likes, Shares and Comments delivers dopamine using the same neurotransmitters as any other “rewarding” behavior. So basically we’re all walking around with a device that can self-administer dopamine on demand, much like a patient in a hospital bed clicking a morphine drip.

And what’s more? Dopamine isn’t only released while experiencing something rewarding, but also during the mere anticipation of something rewarding happening in the near future. So just knowing you’re about to watch a movie that’s terrifying, eat a cheeseburger or sneak in an afternoon nap can create a dopamine spike; maybe even a larger spike than the experience of the act you’re anticipating.

Your Content Has to be Killer, or It Will Bomb

So now that we know social media has granted us a direct connection into the brain chemistry of hundreds of millions of strangers, how can we use this awareness to give our social media the neurochemical impact of a blockbuster hit? Your content has to play on the brain’s reward system just like Jack Nicholson breaking through a hotel door with an axe, or that more-than-100-likes feeling. Here are just a few tactics to make that happen:

  1. Deliver real value around something the audience deeply cares about. Do your buyers flip companies, maintain refineries or perform biomedical research? Deliver content that promises to better communicate with business owners, find better turnaround talent or write more persuasive grants—and truly delivers. For most healthy people, the ability to do their job well equates to their survival instinct on some level. So helping them do their thing resonates. Sure, this seems obvious. But how much me-focused content do you see versus something that’s truly useful to buyers?

  2. Create content that’s emotionally evocative. That doesn’t mean all of your social media content has to have puppy dogs or humor (though most audiences do love dogs). But it does mean that the best content isn’t just viewed or read; it’s felt. Sure, that video showcasing your new valve needs to show how it works and explain why it’s better. But rather than renderings and generic voiceover, why not couch the story around a plant manager explaining how the valve helped his plant and customers overcome an important issue?

  3. Take a tip for Kubric and scare people, artfully. It’s not good for your brand to lean into negativity as a rule. But we’ve written, edited, published and run analytics on lots of content. Under certain circumstances it’s OK to publish content that reads: “Five Common Ways OEMs Lose Customers Forever” even though you could do the same thing with “OEM Customer Retention Best Practices.” Best practices? Meh, sure. The prospect of losing a customer for life, getting fired and not being able to buy that sweet convertible you want? Much more of a brain dump.

  4. Communicate visually, not just in text. OK, you’re reading this; but it’s a deep dive. In general, though, video and pictures do a much better job of getting those brain juices flowing than words on a page. I haven’t seen the research, but I’m willing to bet that when people hear the title The Shining, they think of Kubrick’s movie as opposed to the original Stephen King novel. According to research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the brain can identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds. To put that into perspective, it takes about 400 milliseconds to blink. Images can also have raw and immediate impact on the brain. A large part of the brain is dedicated to visual processing because our brains have evolved to recognize immediate threats in our environment quickly, a mechanism which saved our ancestors from predators and today helps us quickly identify and avoid boring people at cocktail parties.

  5. Stimulate problem solving skills. When you solve a problem with one of those “Aha!” moments, dopamine is released through deep-brain structures such as the nucleus accumbens. This results in a feeling of happiness. So any kind of social media content that allows for problem solving generally sees high engagement when done well. This might also explain the popularity of the pub quiz.

Neuroscience can even give you cues as to the best time to schedule content. According to one recent study, circadian rhythms and their impact on the brain’s ability to process information dictate that the most favorable conditions for reviewing content in the mornings, as opposed to afternoons or evenings. That’s when you should schedule your most important content to drop.

So don’t waste your time creating content that won’t move your audience. Tap into the minds of customers and prospects with something that’s engaging, helpful, heartwarming and even, sometimes, scary.



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