HONG KONG—Brands looking to drive engagement with customers and other stakeholders need to remember that engagement is a finite resource, that people are more engaged by things they want than things they merely like, and that negative emotions are more powerful than positive emotions, according to Weber Shandwick’s Asia-Pacific digital practice leader Jon Wade.

Wade was kicking off The Holmes Report’s second ThinkTank Live Asia seminar in Hong Kong, held in conjunction with our Asia-Pacific SABRE Awards dinner and focused on “The Age of Engagement.”

Based on interviews with academic experts from the fields of psychology, behavioral economics and anthropology, Weber Shandwick defines engagement as “the intensity of an individual’s connection or participation with a brand or organization.”

“We have moved from one-to-many communications to many-to-many communications, from a world where news was broken by reporters to a world where news can be broken by anyone with a mobile phone, from brand controlled communications to consumer controlled communications,” said Wade. “In this kind of environment, engaging with your consumers and stakeholders is a must.”

At the same time, engagement remains elusive. Many Internet users are more engaged with images of cats than they are with world events.

So Weber Shandwick has developed research into the “Science of Engagement,” establishing 10 principles of engagement and 19 “elements” through which true engagement can be achieved.

One important principle is that engagement is a finite resource, which means that people have a limited ability to engage with different topics or brands. In the US, a Weber Shandwick campaign for KFC asked people to tweet an explanation of why they should win a $20,000 college scholarship. The campaign drove more than 3,000 applications and increased the Twitter following by 20 percent.

Engagement is about what we want or what we like—and the “want” system is much more powerful than the “like” system, which means that companies should focus on providing rewards that people want. Another campaign, for Holiday Inn in Australia, provided people with the opportunity to win a trip the AFL Grand Final, one of the biggest sporting events in Australia—but also provides smaller “spot prizes,” ultimately increasing online engagement by 300 percent.

Another principle is that negative emotions carry twice the weight of positive emotions, which means that during times of crisis, minimizing the negative is much more important than maximizing the positive. So when McDonald’s in China was subject of a news report on alleged hygiene problems, Weber Shandwick sought to respond using social media, demonstrating transparency and a willingness to cooperate with inspections. The result was an increase in sales of 5 percent at the restaurant in question in the month after the report.

Elements of engagement include aesthetics (people engage visually more than they do with words alone); associations (people categorize information based on what they already know, forming connections with memories); desire (the human brain seeks and anticipated rewards); and empathy (the ability to relate to another person’s situation of experience).

Says Wade of the latter, “This is why other people’s stories, customer testimonials and reviews, really work.”

To put the research findings into practice, Wade says, Weber Shandwick has created a diagnostic tool that helps the firm understand a brand’s “engagement footprint,” examining a series of attributes from “is part of popular culture” to “has a clear mission” to “surprising and intriguing” to “really understands you.” The footprint feeds into a planning process that helps a company address areas in which it falls short and accentuate its positive attributes.