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.

This post was pre­vi­ously pub­lished to the Adobe Dig­i­tal Mar­ket­ing blog on Decem­ber 13, 2013.