I had a revelation on a recent trip to the movies: I’m not so different from Pavlov’s dogs.  This revelation didn’t happen while I was watching an insightful, human moment on screen. It happened before I even got to my seat. While passing the concession stand, I glimpsed a bright pink and yellow banner advertising sour gummy candies and instantly started salivating. I couldn’t see or smell the candy, or even hear someone opening the wrapper. Just a quick flash of the brand’s familiar colors and logo triggered a hunger reflex I learned as a kid with a sweet (or should I say sour?) tooth.

Later, while thinking about how Pavlov’s theories relate to digital marketing, I had a second revelation: I’m not a dog, I’m a human. Okay, so maybe that’s not a revelation. The point is that just because I started salivating doesn’t mean I bought the overpriced treat. I didn’t. I snacked instead on organic dried fruit and nuts.

Stage One: Get Attention, Get Reaction

Our in-the-moment responses to visual stimuli are powerful. Images can produce physical and emotional sensations, like the conditioned reflex of salivation, a pang of longing, a burst of laughter, or a sudden intense desire.

Pavlov was studying canine digestion when he noticed that his dogs would start drooling at the sight of a white lab coat. They had come to associate the coats with mealtime. Similarly, conversion optimizers note responses to particular text and graphics. Marketers introduce stimuli and see what makes visitors drool (i.e., click through, subscribe, share, enroll, and purchase).

This stage of digital engagement is basic, but an important first step toward deeper personalization. Marketers use A/B testing to test isolated changes in page design and see which performs best. These tests are carefully controlled experiments that yield concrete evidence of visitor preferences.

Reflexive marketing seeks to answer the question, do more people respond to graphic A or graphic B? A data-backed answer empowers us to engage first-time visitors and would-be customers, capturing interest before their few seconds of attention run out.

Stage Two: Be Useful

You can’t survive in the A/B testing phase of engagement alone. If you don’t start to deliver value, your customers won’t stick around. If Pavlov’s assistants didn’t regularly feed them, the dogs wouldn’t have become conditioned to drool at the sight of white lab coats (and later the sound of a metronome).

Visitors will return to your site again and again as long as they’re getting something out of it. That something might be dazzling design and stimuli for a little while, but eventually your flashy site will go the way of all Internet memes and vapid teen heart throbs. You’ll be replaced by the next hot thing and promptly forgotten. To deepen customer engagement, you need to serve a purpose, meet a need, or solve a problem for your audience. Apply the data and insights you’ve gathered in stage one to develop content that is uniquely useful to visitors.

Imagine you own an extreme sports gear Web store. You’ve gathered data from a visitor’s first interaction with the site. You know the visitor primarily clicked on images of motorcycle-related products: a street helmet, protective clothing, bike luggage, and a special radio. Maybe he or she left and returned to the site several times, comparing products from various outlets. How do you get this visitor to the checkout page and become the visitor’s exclusive provider?

You can offer targeted content on balancing the crankshaft and boosting horsepower or packing and prepping for an interstate bike trip, or you can describe trends in custom bike detailing. This kind of personalized experience will position you as both an authority on street bikes and a source of information that enhances the visitor’s life. This information, in addition to detailed and clear product information—all for free. That’s a lot of value.

This second stage of engagement is about appealing to our human desire for knowledge and convenience. Combining useful content with the shopping experience makes you a one-stop source for everything the individual is seeking online.

Stage Three: Unifying Identities

Some brands engage their customers on an emotional level that goes beyond stimulus or usefulness to the core of their identity. Remember your extreme sports gear Web store? Some people will be forever loyal to Harley Davidson, no matter how much practical content you offer. You can show them how your featured street bike outperforms a hog, and at half the price, but it won’t make a difference. They are after a specific identity and lifestyle that only Harley can offer.

Harley created the Harley Owners Group (HOG) some 30 years ago to capitalize on the brand’s group identity. Members have an emotional attachment to both the brand and the community around it. That sense of identity and belonging inspires them to buy all kinds of vanity merchandise, creating more revenue streams for the brand.

This third stage is not rational. It involves more variables than an A/B test and bypasses practicality for deepest desire. Most luxury brands operate in this stage of engagement. By associating a desirable identity and aspirational lifestyle with your brand, your products become more than the sum of their parts. Chanel will never go out of style because no other brand can claim Coco as its founder. If you want cult-like obsession from your customers, you need to engage them with an exceptional and unmatched story, like Chanel’s invention of the “little black dress.”

Which Stage Is Right for Your Brand?

The three stages are not a linear progression. We all cycle through them, returning to testing to improve content personalization, and ideally appealing to customers on multiple levels at once.

The identity phase is perfect for Harley and Chanel, but it’s not the best strategy for everyone. If you’re marketing minivans, you might do better emphasizing safety, durability, and high gas mileage than claiming to be a speedy babe magnet.

Before you choose where to focus your energy, you need to understand your target market. What delights and captivates them? What do they value? What are their interests and desires? And what identity and lifestyle do they aspire to? Armed with the answers to these questions, you can start to powerfully engage your customers and cultivate their lasting loyalty.