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Engage Before Enaging

Get Them Ready To Engage Using The Audience Priming Effect™

By: Ben Moorsom

Whether it’s playing with your pet or discreetly trying to multitask, most of us have experienced the feeling of being driven to distraction during a virtual meeting.

All that’s virtual is not gold

While I am a huge advocate of virtual events, I do think it’s important to acknowledge the glaring tradeoff between convenience and control. When engaging with an online audience, we have far less control over the environment than we do at in-person events. The virtual environment presents an infinite number of possible distractions, most of which we can do very little about. While strategies like gamification and polling can help boost engagement during virtual events, these external solutions do not tap into a viewer’s intrinsic motivation to engage.


My team at Debut and I have developed a way to tackle this problem head-on.

Audience Priming Effect™: Overcoming the challenges of virtual engagement

Rather than focusing solely on ways to create engagement during the virtual event, we like to establish a state of engagement before the event even begins using Debut’s Audience Priming Effect™.  By playing a strategically crafted audio-video sequence played before the main event, we can empower viewers to optimize their own virtual event experience.Like an in-flight safety video that plays before takeoff, this audio-video sequence equips remote audiences with concrete steps for enhancing the viewing experience while creating a sense of internal responsibility over their own engagement.

By cueing good viewing habits in remote audiences before the main event, the Audience Priming Effect™ both reduces distraction for enhanced engagement during the main event and increases the chance of behavior change after the main event.

The psychology behind the Audience Priming Effect™ 

One of the things I love about working with my team at Debut is that when there’s a problem to solve, no page goes unturned as we look for solutions. In developing The Audience Priming Effect™, we used research on the psychology of human motivation and attention to guide us.


The research told us that engagement should come from within; we want to motivate engagement intrinsically, rather than extrinsically3. According to self-determination theory, intrinsic motivation is based on three core psychological needs4. The Audience Priming Effect™ was specifically designed to satisfy each of them.


Core Psychological Need #1: Autonomy

Humans want to feel as if they’re acting of their own volition. The Audience Priming Effect™ taps into this sense of independence by transferring the responsibility of engagement to the viewer, while giving them free choice about how to best engage.


Core Psychological Need#2: Competence

The list of concrete and specific actions given through the Audience Priming Effect™educates and equips the audience to engage with forthcoming content.


Core Psychological Need #3: Belongingness

The Audience Priming Effect™ uses language that highlights social norms to remind viewers that they are part of a larger group savoring the same experience, despite the solitary nature of virtual events.

The proof is in the priming

To test the effectiveness of The Audience Priming Effect™, we subjected it to a randomized control trial – the same type of rigorous study used to measure the effectiveness of new drugs. We  compared it to a control condition representative of typical pre-event experiences: a pre-show countdown. The numbers speak for themselves.

Audience priming boosts cognitive resonance

At Debut, we measure audience engagement through tracking “Cognitive Resonance,” a combined metric of attention, mood, and value internalization. In our study, audience priming before the main video boosted cognitive resonance by about 25% compared to control conditions. This means that priming your audience can increase viewer focus, enjoyment, and the extent to which they buy into your key message.

Audience priming enhances memory

Objective memory scores for facts learned during the main video were also significantly improved by audience priming. This means that priming your audience makes your message more memorable, which is not surprising given the positive effect on attention described above.

Audience priming causes desired behavior change

As a final objective measure of behavior change, we gave audiences the chance to sign a petition for change that aligned with the core message of the main video. Almost 70% of viewers that were primed before viewing the message signed the petition compared to only 41% of those that were not primed.

Don’t let engagement go unprimed

The next time you are preparing for a virtual experience, whether it’s a short meeting, a webinar, or a multi-day event, I encourage you to set yourself up for engagement success by using the Audience Priming Effect™. It’s never too early to start engaging your audience—even before take-off.


Interested in learning more about incorporating research-based strategies like the Audience Priming Effect™ into your next online meeting or event? Let’s chat.




  3. Huang, Y. C., Backman, S. J., Backman, K. F., McGuire, F. A., & Moore, D. (2019). An investigation of motivation and experience in virtual learning environments: A self-determination theory. Education and Information Technologies, 24(1), 591-611.

  4. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Self-determination theory.

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