5 Things About How a Person Experiences Your Message

I n Experiential Marketing, author Bernd Schmitt articulates a typology to replace the “features and benefits” approach to advertising, which has dominated marketing theory for generations. His typology is applicable not only to the design of marketing for digital culture, but also to the design of worship for digital culture. Of course, worship is meant to be a much more ultimate experience than viewing a TV ad, and its purpose is to create disciples not consumers (which are very different objectives!). Yet the church would be remiss to ignore the opportunity to redeem the effectiveness of experiential persuasion for a higher purpose. The author defines five experiential components, or what he calls “strategic experiential modules (SEMs).” These SEMs are sense, feel, think, act, and relate. As I put these SEMs in the context of worship, think about your responses, and share them with your worship colleagues at the next design session.



Sense strategies engage the five human senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. The objective of sensory strategies, according to Schmitt, is to “provide aesthetic pleasure, excitement, beauty and satisfaction through sensory stimulation.” Sensory experiences have high impression value. They often include fast pace and movement pieces, and are designed to motivate us and to demonstrate superior value. A classic sense example is the thrill of Mountain Dew ads. I particularly like the one where the biker chases down the cheetah that had swallowed his can of Dew.

If you didn’t get it, the ad wasn’t designed for you, which begs the question that different sensory experiences appeal to different groups. Often, we attempt to appeal to many groups at once, and miss them all.

The best sense experiences are integrated — that is, they appeal to more than one sense at the same time. They also have what Schmitt calls “cognitive consistency” because they follow a stylistic and thematic order, so that our brains process similarities between the various stimuli. Otherwise, a bombardment on our senses quickly disintegrates into clutter (which aptly describes some attempts at “contemporary” worship). Of course, the “Information Age” is founded on sensory overload. We have new drugs created now especially for children who become over-stimulated. So part of sense is salience; that is, high contrast to its received surroundings. The first Christmas TV spot I ever created as a creative director was salient, with no voiceover or score for an audio track, but only sound effects. The purpose was to catch TV audience attention. In an age of over stimulation, sense may mean silence, especially the kind of sudden silence where you can hear the air rush in your ears.

Consider parallels between the sense SEM and the worship traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, which attempt to capture the mystery of God through the use of such sensory artifacts as incense, cathedrals, and the Eucharist. The phrase “multisensory” captures this mystery by focusing on high sensory experience, which is one way to interact with digital culture.  This parallel between ancient and future sensory experiences may help to explain reports that large numbers of young adults have returned to liturgical churches.

When analyzing worship according to sensory stimulation, sensory experiences must be judged as a whole and not individually. Nicholas Negroponte describes an early HDTV experiment that had two focus groups watch the same movie on the same television set, one with a high-quality surround sound stereo system and the other with a low-quality mono sound system. All other factors being equal, the former group perceived they were watching a higher resolution television. Changing the sound changed the perceived visual experience. The study proved that people judge their experiences as a sensory whole and not by individual elements of sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell.



Feel strategies appeal to our feelings and are designed to affect, to create specific emotional responses. Schmitt points out that proper use of feel in advertising targets the emotional state of someone during “consumption.” While that word may cause negative affect in you the reader, the lesson is worth learning. It is in the act of feeling things, not thinking about them, that we have our strongest emotional states. Feel strategies relate to emotions as we are experiencing them.

How do we deal with feel? The answer comes through openness to affective response in a simple telling of our message, rather than the temptation to fall back on rational explanations and responses.



Think strategies appeal to our intellect. They are cognitive experiences, which provide opportunities to address major issues, both personal and societal. They have components of surprise, intrigue, and provocation. My favorite think ad is Accenture’s “Now things get interesting.” One ad in their campaign said, “Chinese will become the number one web language by 2007. Now things get interesting.” Another famous think ad is Microsoft’s “Where do you want go today?”

How does think fit into the digital age? Doesn’t it lend itself to modern, abstract critical analysis such as we recall in the liberal Protestant tradition? According to Schmitt, think is not analytical reasoning, which can destroy experiences (paralysis by analysis), but a divergent thinking that is more free form and creative in nature. It is like brainstorming. It invites people to deviate into entirely new realms of thought around a particular subject. For example, as an imitation of Accenture’s campaign, I might say, “There are 350,000 churches in the United States. There are 3000 musicians studying organ in universities. [Change-Oriented Church Slogan Here.]”

Think tactics may work best in two aspects of a traditional worship structure: the call to worship and the sermon. A call to worship or sermon opener may act as an attention-getter, engaging the congregation to evaluate their lives or the world. By creating a state of openness, they are able to freely brainstorm how a relationship with Jesus and a community of believers might change their lives. [Update: It’s amazing that in 2011 I continue to hear the phrase “dumb down” for new and visual expressions in worship. These critics have yet to understand the power of intrigue as a creative form of thinking.]



Act strategies attempt to respond to desire by invoking changes in our behavior and lifestyle. Schmitt points out that the classic act campaign is Nike’s “Just Do It,” which transformed viewer’s perceptions of exercise. Act, of course, is the goal of most sermons: to invite changed lives, accept Christ, serve in some capacity, cease sin, develop a positive self-perception in Christ, and so forth. Effective action in worship invites the congregation to experience the lifestyle change of being a follower of Christ. Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, which is often quoted in sermons about cheap grace, is a classic example of guiding believers to act.



Relate strategies draw from the other four modules but expand beyond individual experience, creating social systems based on relationships with other people or cultures. Relate strategies draw upon our innate search for belonging and meaning. In this case, parallels are obvious within Christianity, which is essentially a relational religion.  When we are called to follow Christ, we are called to engage those around us with love. Worship can accomplish that through simple acts of “passing the peace” or greeting your neighbor, or through more complex presentations of missions or acts of mercy.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).