Creating communications that attract sustained attention

Research study 'How Superbrands Breed Superfans' showed that the most successful digital strategies "activate a community of sharers and advocates – fans that are so engaged with a brand that they spread the word about it to their networks, increasing its reach and multiplying engagement" [Wildfire, 2012]. This is a good example of why community engagement is so valued by organisations of all shapes and sizes.

Creative ways to achieve viewer engagement has been an on-going exploration for artists throughout the centuries. From a purely visual point of view, finding ways to draw the three-dimensional viewer into a flat object has been a fundamental theme in the history of art since the Renaissance.

The use of perspective enables artists to create a representative illusion of the real world and its discovery gave rise to a new way of thinking about the viewer. Painters began to set Biblical scenes on altarpieces in the courtyards of their local towns and often chose to include a human figure as an intermediary, positioned facing outwards, perhaps overstepping the boundary of the picture plane into the viewer's space, and often gesturing with an invitation into the scene.

Today, this representational technique translates into figurative viewer engagement, their gaze and appreciation is part of making a work what it is. For example, Tauba Auerbach's Fold paintings are canvases that have been stretched, twisted, and ironed into intriguingly subtle textural patterns which encourage close viewer-inspection and thought.

Bouncy Stonehenge Preston
© Jeremy Deller 2012

Many examples of recent artistic experimentation in the field of engagement extend beyond the gallery walls into literal exercises. British artist Jeremy Deller's bouncy castle version of Stonehenge, Sacrifice, was a big talking point during the Cultural Olympiad. Though characteristically tongue-in-cheek, his work succeeds in encouraging a sense of connection to the ancient site itself by requiring our participation in its fantastical recreation.

In quite the opposite way, Joanna Rajkowska's site-specific installation for Frieze Art Fair in 2012 plays with similar concerns. On the grass of Regent's Park, she installed a series of incense burners that emitted a powerful scent across the surrounding area. By engaging a sense not ordinarily appropriated by artists, Forcing A Miracle captivated unwitting viewers through multi-sensory surprise. With the smoke just visible enough to produce a calming haze, Rajkowska had created a paradoxical 'guerrilla' moment of calm and meditation.

If paintings work to incorporate the viewer, generating a more meaningful sense of connection and relationship between the two, why shouldn't web pages take this attitude too? Surely website visitors should have the same feeling of entering an inclusive space like a museum or participatory venue, when they enter a website?

And if Rajkowska's measure for successful interaction is, for example, a viewer stopping and closing their eyes, what can this teach us about setting the right engagement measures for a website?

Consider also the biology described by Simon Sinek in his book "Start with Why" published in 2011. Now more than ever, in order to engage attention organisations need to "win hearts as well as minds" [p.53-64]. And speaking to people's emotional, as well analytical brain is something art does well.

It is perhaps for this reason that academic research has, on occasion, been disseminated through the arts [LSE Podcast, Beyond The Book 2013]. The Arts offer a way to communicate complex ideas and concepts in an accessible way.

In the case of 'Our Age Our Stage' a research study by Professor Miriam Bernard into ageing, creativity and inter-generational relationships, the decision was made to communicate her findings through performance; a play created out of the research narrative with help from a local theatre and her research participants.

In the 'Beyond The Book' podcast Professor Miriam Bernard describes the play as sensory emotional, and participatory dissemination method which provoked immediate responses, discussion, and feedback.

In summary

Engagement strategies in contemporary art suggest new ways organisations can combine methods and media. Art speaks to people's emotions by creating emotional and sensory experiences, something that engages attention more easily than a purely rational argument. This is demonstrated where art has been used in research as a method for exploring and communicating ideas.