Understanding Audience Motivations

EPISODE 3 | Guest: Debbie DeWitt, marketing communications manager for Visix

What do audience motivations have to do with digital signage? Why can’t I just put a message up on the screen? Digital signs are a medium for communications, and good communications always start with understanding the target audience.

If you don’t understand what motivates your viewers, then you can’t know what’s going to attract and interest them. You have to start with what drives the individuals in your environment, whether it’s an office, a factory floor or a university. Every viewer is going to be different, but there are some universal human motivations you can connect with.

Our podcast gives you an overview of widely accepted theories on motivations – both external and internal – and ideas of how you can appeal to each with digital signage messaging.

  • Understand why motivation matters for audience engagement
  • Review self-determination theory, extrinsic and intrinsic motivations
  • Get practical examples of content that appeals to each motivation:
    • Extrinsic: physical, safety, love/belonging, esteem, self-actualization
    • Intrinsic: learning, connection, affinity, business, creative, expectation

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Learn more about this topic in our Masterclass Guide 2: Digital Signage Communications Planning


Derek DeWitt: You know, the times they are a-changing. Maybe in our grandparents’ day it was enough to just go out, you get married, you raise a family, you work for a company for 50 years, and then you get a gold watch or a pen or something. It’s just not the case anymore. The time is different. Motivations are different. And this is something we really need to think about – how things have changed in the 21st century. And it’s not just on the outside with tech and the way buildings look, and design – things like that – but it’s also the way that people think about things. So, today we’re here with Debbie Dewitt, marketing communications manager for Visix. Hi Debbie, how are you?

Debbie DeWitt: I’m good, thanks Derek.

Derek DeWitt: We’re going to talk about some of this stuff and what motivates people in the modern age to try and understand how we can tap into that through digital signage. I’d like to thank Debbie for joining us, and I’d like to thank everybody for listening.

Debbie DeWitt: Well thanks for having me. Understanding motivation – there are a lot of people that say, “Why can’t I just create a message and put it on a screen? Why do you need to talk about motivations?”

Derek DeWitt: “Who cares?”

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, it seems they are like, “This is kind of an out-there topic for a digital signage company, don’t you think?” But the fact is, this is where communication starts. If you don’t understand your audience, then you can’t possibly know what’s going to interest them, attract them, get them to look at your signs, and really get them to engage with your messaging and your communications.

So, you really have to start with what motivates an individual in this setting, in a corporate setting, in a government setting. I mean, every audience is going to be different, and you really need to delve into what those motivations are.

Derek DeWitt: I know one thing called self-determination theory that has been used in advertising quite a bit. It basically chops it up into three needs. People have three needs. They have competence, which is getting good at something; it’s a mastery, a certain mastery and control – being able to control the outcomes of events and situations. Relatedness, which is interacting with people, being a part of something. And then autonomy, which is being sort of the agent in your own life – having some degree of freedom and say in what happens to you. That’s a pretty broad and simplistic model.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And I mean, there’s a lot written about self-determination theory – but that hits on a lot of different factors that, believe it or not, would tie into your digital signage strategy. So, there are a lot of different models out there. We’ve looked at a lot of them, but they’re almost all divided into external or internal motivations that kind of affect people a little bit differently.

Derek DeWitt: I think they’re called extrinsic motivations and intrinsic, if you’re being all fancy. So, yeah. So let me see if I remember. Extrinsic – the physical, right, about the body? There’s safety/belonging, something like self-esteem. And then there’s self-actualization or something like that. So, how can digital signage help with these things? How can I help with the physical? It’s a sign. It’s a big electric screen.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, I know. And it sounds silly, and may sound tenuous, but you actually can appeal to physical needs and motivations because, the fact is, if you’re concerned about everything that your body needs, it’s as simple as putting up health tips. Nutrition. Exercise is a big thing in people’s lives right now, so people want to be healthy. You can encourage that on your signs. If you have a cafe, you can not only put up your menu, but put up nutritional information, put up exercise tips.

Derek DeWitt: Like menu boards? People can delve in and get really deep into it. “Oh, look at that!”

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And really, when you’re talking about the physical, you can also talk about helping people move through a space. You could use wayfinding, you can use just an info board. Touchscreens are great for this kind of thing. Like I said, physical is probably the least of the categories that digital signs are going to help a lot. You’re not going to really be able to help them with water, but you know what I mean? You can reinforce…

Derek DeWitt: You can show them where the water is.

Debbie DeWitt: Exactly! And you can still, the thing is, what you’re trying to do to say, “If they’re thinking about this, how can I tap into that thinking?” And so, reinforcing that motivation is what you’re trying to do.

Derek DeWitt: Use the digital signage to give them something that they already need, so that the rest – they sort of trust the system that way. So that when you put up other information that maybe is new, and you’re trying to get them to change their behavior or sign up for something or attended an event or whatever, maybe in their heads they think, “Oh yeah, maybe I need that too. I did need lunch. It told me where to get lunch, and now maybe I’ll sign up for that 401(k) plan.”

Debbie DeWitt: Right, right. Hopefully, that’s how it works.

Derek DeWitt: So, like safety. I mean the first thing that comes to mind is alerts.

Debbie DeWitt: That’s really – you’re talking about safety. There’s the very, you know, the imminent, like the weather warning. You know, as basic as “Thunderstorms are coming”, a tornado watch. Certainly, most software vendors offer some sort of an alerting system, most certainly on college campuses. You already have an alert system. Sometimes it’s even tied into phones. There are sirens. There should be multiple levels.

But if you have screens in the hallways, they need to be a part of it because it’s an easy way to not only put up an alert, but also instructions. It’s as simple as we’ve all seen the placards in our hotel room that say if there’s a fire, this is how you need to get out. It seems obvious – go to the nearest exit. But in an emergency situation, use those screens to help with that.

Also, you can help with the recovery, giving information about, if something did happen as far as the alert goes, you can help rebuild that community, that sense of safety. And then – it’s a very old thing in advertising – this sort of fear factor. It can appeal to safety by… Life insurance is one of those things that goes, “don’t be unprepared.” And so you can kind of look at that kind of messaging if you’re appealing to, you want to feel safe, you want to feel secure, and you want them to feel taken care of. Let your screens tell them “We’re taking care of you. We’ve got your back. “

Derek DeWitt: So, it creates a sense of, “Wow! These guys really thought this out. These people have got my back.”

Debbie DeWitt: Much like what you just said, it’s building trust. It’s very much building trust.

Derek DeWitt: Right. We move on to belonging. We’re herd animals in a certain aspect. Right? We’re very social creatures.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. When you talk about belonging, I kind of feel like that’s the number one thing that digital signage can help with. It’s not just pushing out information. It is to try and create a sense of community.

Every organization, whether you’re a hospital or a school or a company or even a government office, you’ve got a culture already in that office, and you can use your screens to reinforce your culture, try to shift your culture. So, really you can show social media, we’re all part of cultural communities on that

Derek DeWitt: Right. That’s your primary 21st century belonging module.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And if you’ve already got a culture in social media, you can show that social media on screens, but you can also get your other messages to reinforce that. I mean, it’s really about just making people feel like they’re part of something larger, something that’s theirs, but that they have an effect on.

Derek DeWitt: How about self-esteem?

Debbie DeWitt: Well, we talk a lot – and I’m sure in this podcast series we do, we do in all of our blogs – about recognition and kudos. As you said at the beginning, people don’t just walk away with a paycheck and go, “Well, that’s my reward.” People really want to know that you’re not only seeing what they’re doing, you care about it, and you’re recognizing what they’re doing.

You can reinforce esteem by simply putting up kudos if someone meets a goal, if someone won an award. Even just saying happy anniversary or happy birthday means “We see you, we know you’re here and we thank you for that.” And it doesn’t always have to be top down. Again, I always reference social media because digital signage, they cross over a bit in communications, because it doesn’t always have to be the CEO or the direct manager. Peer review is huge now.

And so, a very basic example is, at Visix we have screens all over, and on our intranet we put a simple three-field form: to, from and message. We call them shout-outs. So it can be, “Derek is giving a shout out to Debbie.”

Derek DeWitt: For being awesome!

Debbie DeWitt:  “Thank you so much for your help with this content kit you helped implement.”

Derek DeWitt: Helping me tie my shoes.

Debbie DeWitt:  It can be anything, yeah.

Derek DeWitt: And then there’s self-actualization, which is what? It’s kind of like becoming your best self?

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. It’s very groovy. It’s very “now and wow”. It’s realizing your potential, but it’s very much kind of an idea, in the writings that I’ve read, is very much about, again, connecting to the others and the world around us, and becoming your best self in affecting that world around you.

Derek DeWitt: But it’s interesting because that’s considered an extrinsic motivation. So that means, that something from the outside – I guess in this case, the organization and its communications proxy, the digital signage – is doing something to assist you in this quest you have to become the superhero you’ve always known you are.

Debbie DeWitt: Assisting you to get there, but also recognizing any progress you’ve made. But also, like I said, if you’re talking about the world around you – simply acknowledge there’s a world around you. It’s not just that building you go to everyday. It’s not just that department.

If you’re part of an organization that spans the globe, then talk about those other offices and what’s happening there. It can be as simple as news, just breaking headlines. We all are used to seeing screens everywhere with a ticker and a news feed. We all want to know what’s happening.

You can talk about your community. There’s no reason that if you’re sitting in Norcross, Georgia, that you can’t talk about the upcoming festival or even the local sports teams, you know? So it’s really just this kind of talking about the world, the organization’s place in it, and that we know that you’re interested in that and you’re also a part of this community, this world. As large of a circle as you want to make it, really.

Derek DeWitt: Right. There’s an element of having a certain amount of control over your life and it’s outcomes. I immediately think of interactive digital signage, interactive screens. Because, yeah, there might be a content zone that’s showing push messages, but a lot of the information is just there. It’s nested. People can decide how to access that information.

Debbie DeWitt: Basically, what you’re doing is letting somebody explore in their own way, in their own time, taking the paths they want to take. Something that simple – we’re all human beings and we all have these motivations – that something that simple actually makes people feel like they have this little sense of discovery. “I’m discovering things on my own.”

It actually happens even with websites that when you navigate, you navigate like no one else does and it’s your own path. You’re doing it for yourself, and there’s just this tiny little seed of self-esteem that comes from that or actualization – whatever you want to call it that – that you have found what you want. These are very tiny little chemical reactions, but they do happen.

Derek DeWitt: And the last thing I think of is ADA compliance and things like this. Like, “Hey look, we took the time to make sure that it was the right height for people in wheelchairs. We’ve got a headphone jack and an audio version for people who are blind or visually impaired.” Maybe “we’ve got it in different languages.” This is another way I think to help people find their own path through the information that you’re offering.

Debbie DeWitt: I think what that does. And also, I’d say another thing that kind of falls into this is having multiple languages on a screen. And this is especially true in a public forum. It’s rare that you’re going to have a touchscreen for employees. If you’re a hundred people in one building, they kind of know how to get around.

But if you’ve got a lot of visitors to a place, that says, “We’ve thought about all of you. We’ve got language options. We’ve got ADA options. We’ve got a headphone jack. We’ve got some… We’re getting into voice-activated, using voice user interfaces, so you can just talk to a screen for sight impaired.” What it says is, “We’ve thought about all of you and all are welcome.” It’s very inclusive.

Derek DeWitt: These external to the individual – this is where I think a lot of organizations kind of just stop. Because that’s a lot to cover, by the way. That’s a lot of stuff to think about. But I think we find more and more with research that it’s the internal, the intrinsic motivations, that are actually much stronger.

Debbie DeWitt: They are. Actually, basically, it’s kind of a cliché, but you want to motivate people to motivate themselves. If it’s only outside motivations coming in, you require a stimulus every time for that motivation versus if you teach someone to motivate themselves. It’s a subtle difference. But as I said, not having to have that external prompt by understanding what makes someone motivate themselves.

If you can understand that and you talk to that in your communications, then they’re going to engage much more because, again, it feels more intimate, more personal, more individual and more internal. So, it’s coming from them as opposed to stimulus-response. It’s more likely to be ongoing.

Derek DeWitt: So, I have here a list of basically the top six intrinsic motivations. We love them. Learning is the first one – being [that] people like to learn.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. I mean this is a little bit of a no-brainer on digital signs. I think everyone’s doing it. The biggest thing is, it doesn’t have to be educational per se, what you put up there. As long as it’s new, you’re learning something new.

Derek DeWitt: That is learning.

Debbie DeWitt: That appeals to learning. So, something new and current. Obviously, educational or training information, infotainment of all sorts – there are lots of things out there with fun facts, inspirational quotes, basic trivia, all the fun holidays. Anytime someone discovers something new, they’re learning.

And I would also like to take this to another level, which is, if you’re open to it, if your organization is willing to allow others to contribute content directly to the screens, you can either do it through letting them participate in your social media and just showing that feed. But you can actually set up different levels of approval, and you can actually say, “You create something for the screen.” And then you know, as long…

Derek DeWitt: Teach each other.

Debbie DeWitt: So, you’re learning that, learn the software. And go ahead and contribute a nice message. We’ll give you a template you can use, but you get to fill in the image and the wording. And as long as it meets your guidelines – you can have an approval process where someone has to say yes, they didn’t do something silly or inappropriate – and put it up on screens.

Derek DeWitt: “You cannot call your manager that.”

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, and that’s instant gratification. “I did that. I learned how to do that.” And quite frankly, if your software is any good, they can learn how to fill in a template in about five minutes, and they can go, “Look what I just did.” And it’s right there on the screen.

Derek DeWitt: Connection is the next item on the intrinsic list.

Debbie DeWitt: We kind of covered this when we talked about community building and people want to connect to each other. So, the kudos, the recognition and things like that. I think community events. I was going to say that some of the things that we encourage are definitely employee highlights, employee spotlights or profiles or even let people take selfies of themselves. Have selfie spots. If you’re a campus, have selfie spots. And let them go up on social media, have that feed right to the screen. Because again, it’s connecting. Look, we’ve connected with these people and with this place. So, anything you can do to again, that’s reinforcing whatever culture you’re trying to build. And whatever connections and networking you’re trying to allow

Derek DeWitt: Affinity.

Debbie DeWitt: This is very much getting into events. So event schedules are the number one thing that people show on digital signs. It is across the board the most popular thing. It always has been, because every organization has a lot of events going on.

Whether it’s meeting schedules or it’s a theater event at a high school, you want to put up an event schedule. You can advertise things like clubs, especially for schools like we were talking about. Again, networking opportunities. It’s really – affinity is with other people, and it is anybody coming together for a common purpose.

Derek DeWitt: It’s us, not me and you.

Debbie DeWitt: Exactly. So you’ve already hit connection, which is where I’m connecting to the community. I’m connected to the campus, I’m doing this. This is really about people to people. Affinity is “we are coming together to do something,” and your signs can say, “Here’s an opportunity to come together. Here’s what we’re working on. Here’s what we did.”

Derek DeWitt: Business is what’s next on there. I assume by that it means creating something, making something, presenting it to the world out there, getting some kind of a reward, a profit, something like that.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, in terms of a motivation, business is basically – if you have a job or if you’re running your own business, everybody’s got the daily business going on. And what you need to do to motivate there is, people have to know their role in that business.

Everyone needs to know – what is our mission, what are we trying to do, how do I directly affect that? How do I… Whether it’s a short-term goal or overall customer satisfaction rates, up to “We’re trying to grow by 10% over the next 10 years.” It’s basically what do I do for that? It’s about transparency. Transparency is huge right now. And we’ll talk a little bit about that further in here. But, people want to know what’s the business doing? What are other teams doing? How are we all in this together?

And so, we talk a lot about KPIs, which are key performance indicators, which is basically, you want to visualize, “We’re 50% to our goal”, “This team met this much of their quota”, “Customer satisfaction rates are currently at 96%”, which is our support rating, thank you very much. You want to show that kind of thing.

And business also has a lot of just internal things like training sessions or professional development opportunities. So, it’s all that daily business. But just tweaking it a little bit instead of going, “I am telling you this thing I want you to know,” it’s going, “Hmm, how does this matter? Why should you care?” It’s all about why you should care? Which is kind of the holy grail of all digital signage content. Always think about, “Why would they care about this?”

Derek DeWitt: Okay, creative. The creative impulses that are inside of all of us. Even those who say they’re not creative.

Debbie DeWitt: I talked about letting people create, and obviously the people who are tasked with creating your content need to feel that it’s creative. So that’s certainly a motivator for them. But the fact is, creativity is also on the receiving end.

Derek DeWitt: It’s inspirational.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And we all know if it’s boring, I’m not going to look at it. I’m not going to look at a white – you put up a white background with some black text on it and that’s it, it’s just not creative. It’s not appealing. Basically, obviously your designs need to be beautiful. Your screens need to look good. They need to be beautiful. Use some really eye-catching imagery, use motion, all the things we talk about.

Derek DeWitt: You want that kind of “Aha!” Like, “whoa”, whether it’s the information or the way you interact with it or whatever.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, it can be in a single communication you put up. But also, I always like to stress that you can be creative in terms of, why not tell a story? We are the Netflix generation, so everybody’s watching media all the time. We love stories. We love podcasts. We love movies. We love TV shows. We love net or web series. So, it doesn’t have to be a 24 episode video series, like a TV show. But why not have six messages that tell a story over time and that’s creative, and that engages.

Derek DeWitt: Or, you might have a cute mascot, maybe.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Basically it’s being creative and, if I need to tell you that benefits enrollment is this Thursday, do I just put that on the screen, or is there a creative way I can do that?

Derek DeWitt: Or do you have Benny the Benefits Bear tell you all the reasons that you should sign up?

Debbie DeWitt: Exactly. I mean, it can be that simple.

Derek DeWitt: And at the end, it’s a big pot of honey.

Debbie DeWitt: Exactly. We’re all after the pot of honey. I don’t mean to sound flippant, but be creative. It’s that [simple].

Derek DeWitt: Don’t be boring, people.

Debbie DeWitt: Think it through. Have some fun. There’s a lot of inspiration in the world. Just google some imagery about what you’re talking about.

Derek DeWitt: All right. The last of the intrinsic internal motivations is expectation. I don’t really know what that means. Does that mean, “I know what’s expected of me?” Does it mean things, or things are going to happen the way I think that they mean? What do you think?

And in both regards, is digital signage somehow applicable? So let’s look at, first off you said something about people should know their role and what their department does, and what their job does and this. So, “Am I meeting expectations?”

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And that wraps back into what we’ve been talking about. Not only their place in the organization, but yeah, that whole progress to goals or the charity drive we’re having. You want to show [something] like, where are we in that goal?

Derek DeWitt: Using live data feeds and visualized.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. That’s sort of a combination of recognition of what we’ve done so far. But it’s also, this is what we’re expecting. This is what we expect from you.

Derek DeWitt: This is what we’ve done so far, but we’re not done.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. But in terms of an internal motivation, it’s more about tapping into what do people expect. What do people expect you to give them or from the world around them? So, I know that can depend on the audience. But one of the main things is that we’ve found, again, social media is a very similar sort of communication style to digital signs if you think about it, because it’s so much about community. And through social media, people have basically begun to expect not only recognition like a like or a share, but at least a reaction. It doesn’t matter if it’s positive or negative, but I want to know you’ve seen it. I want short and almost immediate feedback.

Derek DeWitt: I want those views on YouTube!

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Comments – are they good or bad? Doesn’t matter. People are listening to me because they’re commenting, and by reacting to it, I know that my voice is being heard. So, you can tap into that a little bit. One of the things we talk about a lot is gamification. It kind of wraps all of this, what we’ve been talking about, into it.

Derek DeWitt: Especially creative, I think.

Debbie DeWitt: We expect this. So we want the first 10 people to sign up for our new newsletter or whatever it is. So that’s our [expectation]. You know now what we expect of you. And then when you do it, we show progress, and we recognize or react to the fact that you have done something. And gamification takes that a step further and goes “…and we give you a reward.” And “Here you go. Thank you.” You’re recognizing our efforts, we’re recognizing your efforts and it’s a big love fest.

Derek DeWitt: It’s a win-win.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, and it can be simple. It can be a contest with a prize or a coupon to use at the bookstore. But it can also be… Hotels are great with loyalty programs, you know, “Sign up for our loyalty program and you automatically get 100 points. “

Derek DeWitt: So, I’d like to thank you, Debbie, for talking to me today. Thank you everybody out there for listening.