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The Science of Interest: What Makes Us Care

by Anna McGeady

marketing public relations

As PR professionals, we work tirelessly to craft stories reporters care about, attending to both the reporter’s personal interests, as well as the collective interests of their audience. But what is it that makes one reporter bite on a pitch while another decides to pass it up? What makes one reader rave about an article while another dismisses it as underwhelming? Let’s explore the science of interest to figure out exactly what it is that makes us care.

The Perception of Prestige:

In 2007, a world renowned violinists laid out his case in a Washington D.C. metro station and played to the throngs of commuters. Hardly anyone stopped to listen, and in the 45 minutes he played, the critically acclaimed Joshua Bell collected only $32 (a few days earlier he had performed to a huge audience at Boston Symphony Hall).

Bell played with the same artistry and finesse as when he performs in front of paying audiences, so why didn’t people care about this impromptu show?

The reason is that there was no perception of prestige. He was playing in a subway station, dressed in simple clothes; people weren’t prompted to interpret his performance as an exceptional display of talent. Instead, they wrote him off as just another subway performer.

As PR professionals, this phenomenon is crucial to keep in mind. To prevent your pitches from going as unnoticed as Josh Bell in the subway, you should try to convey an element of prestige. No matter what your content is, this will make it resonate more intensely with your reader. (Check out this example about wine tasters who preferred the wine they were told was more expensive — whether it really was or not).

The Extent of Familiarity:

Tom Vanderbilt, author of You May Also Like, points out that “we always lean toward familiarity.” The more exposure we’ve had to something in the past, the more likely we are to find related ideas interesting in the future. For example, if you don’t know much about wine, you probably won’t find talk of tannins and legs all that thought-provoking. But if you’re a real connoisseur, those kinds of conversations become much more intriguing to you.

Interest correlates with our ability to unpack and digest information, which itself is contingent on our prior knowledge and familiarity with a particular concept. Typically, we are drawn to the familiar because it is more efficient; we are able to quickly understand and process information we’re already acquainted with, thus enhancing our own intellectual capacity. Vanderbilt points out that the more you understand something, the more pleasurable and interesting it is.

The question then becomes, how can PR professionals make their content relatable while still emphasizing its newsworthiness and novelty?

One approach might be to explain an idea in the context of something your reader is likely already familiar with. You might consider establishing a point of commonality and then drawing their attention to the ways in which your product or idea differs from the familiar. That way, you’re putting your message in a relatable context, allowing your reader to more efficiently engage with it, while still maintaining its novelty.

The Acknowledgment of Authority:

People have a strong desire to better themselves; we buy books (even if we don’t end up reading them) and subscribe to podcasts (even if we don’t end up listening to them). That intention is important to note, though, as it reveals our commitment to and interest in improvement.

It is this commitment that makes us respond so positively to people who are experts or leaders in their fields. We want insight into what the experts know and are impressed by their extensive knowledge. It can even make people more likely to heed your advice; studies have shown that physiotherapists are more likely to convince their patients to comply with their recommendations if they display their medical diplomas in their consulting rooms. Other studies have found that realtors are able to secure more property appraisals if they are first introduced by a colleague who speaks to their credentials.

This is valuable information for PR professionals to note, as we can function as those third party advocates for our clients. In your pitches, see if you can find a way to emphasize your client’s particular niche of expertise or speak to their extensive knowledge in a field. For example, when the BIGfish team is working on a story for Ring, we emphasize Jamie Siminoff’s expertise in security and tech innovation; when we’re working on a story for Nightingale, we talk about Christopher Calisi’s extensive experience in sound masking technologies, and so on. You’d be surprised how far a little humble bragging can go.

Want to learn more about the science behind interest? Check out some of the books explored in this article for a more in depth look:

Tom Vanderbilt, You May Also Like

Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works

And to stay up to date on the most interesting PR news, follow us on twitter @BIGfishPR!

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BIGfish is an unconventional PR agency that helps its clients redefine their industries through thoughtful storytelling and strategic PR campaigns. By integrating traditional PR with social media and marketing support, BIGfish generates awareness and motivates consumer behavior.

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