How Neuroscience Could Transform the Effectiveness of Digital Ads

How Neuroscience Could Transform the Effectiveness of Digital Ads


Marketers have been pondering the mystery of what drives consumer behavior since the dawn of commerce. Which messages motivate purchasing? What makes people click the button?

Neuroscience may have the answers that split testing can’t provide. It’s the study of the precise neurological processes that cause advertising to inspire emotions and decisions.

Neuroscience introduces new research techniques into the study of advertising effectiveness. These new tools include biometric testing, which looks at physical responses in the human body such as heart rate and breathing, skin arousal, studies of facial expression, and brain activity imaging.

Changes to these physical responses allow researchers to study how viewers respond emotionally to advertising.

Neuroscience is a promising field for uncovering the motivations behind behavior and how to make advertising more effective. By understanding how consumers’ brains and bodies respond to marketing, it could offer insights that are far better indicators of purchase intent compared to present market research techniques.

Misleading responses

Biometrics is particularly valuable because people aren’t great at giving reliable answers about their purchase intent.

When they’re canvassed by surveys or interviewed by researchers about their purchase intent, the responses they give may be the complete opposite of how they’ll behave at the tills in real life. That’s a market research problem that’s misled many a brand in the past.

It’s a dilemma that Martin Lindstrom explored in this 2008 book, Buyology. As a brand guru, he performed several experiments into how consumers really responded to ads.

He found that many ads trying to get people to quit smoking actually encouraged the habit, by reminding nicotine smokers of their craving. He found that quite often, consumers don’t really know themselves and why they buy in the way they do.

How devices perform

One of the useful findings neuroscience has uncovered is how different devices can inspire an emotional response to an ad.

In the past, marketers might assume that the larger format of a TV screen would be most likely to inspire an emotional reaction from an audience viewing an ad. In reality, research by YuMe with Nielsen found that smartphones performed strongly in terms of inspiring emotion in viewers.

When audiences viewed the same ad in different device formats, those viewing on a laptop showed a lower emotional response compared to those viewing on either TV, smartphone or tablet.

On a 30 second ad, tablet outperformed smartphone in terms of emotional engagement. But 15-second ads were found to be particularly effective. Other less surprising findings from the same study found that using eye contact and facial close-ups in ads also inspired a good emotional response in the audience.

The next frontier of neuroscience is likely to be uncovering insights into our neurological response to mobile marketing. It’s already being used by games manufacturers keen to find out how to get the most from the player’s experience.

Rovio, which makes the popular Angry Birds game, looked at how players viewed in-game ads. They noticed that ads placed at the point of someone launching a bird (a critical part of the gameplay) was frustrating to players. If the ad was run just as they successfully completed a maneuver, it did not inspire the same frustration.

Perhaps these findings are unsurprising. But the evidence showed that the viewer would look at the ad three times longer and three times more often if deployed at a successful point in the game.

That’s conclusive data for deciding at which point to show an ad. If we can identify the emotion factors, we can become better advertisers not just in terms of content but also in terms of placement.

Neuroscience and branding

Some neuroscientific findings included some insights into the effectiveness of branding. One study found that when people viewed images associated with major brands, quite often this caused the same brain response as when they viewed religious images.

Lindstrom’s brain scanning studies found that brand-related elements such as color and atmosphere can be more effective in selling the product than the brand logo itself.

This has implications for brands such as Marlboro, by suggesting the brand could sell cigarettes as effectively using brand-related rugged Western scenery as using its logo.

It’s all very well and good knowing which neurons fire in the brain when a consumer watches an ad, but translating this into creating more effective ads may not be completely straightforward.

Even marketers who are trying to achieve a particular emotional response don’t always get it right – witness the disastrous misfire of the recent Pepsi commercial.

Cross-cultural marketers will face particular challenges with the analysis of facial patterns. It’s a study that’s still not fully developed – facial pattern study can usually detect a change of facial expression when viewing an ad, but it can’t necessarily decode what it means.

That gets harder when you’re working cross-culturally. Different cultures express facial emotions in different ways, so it’s going to be challenging making sense of the data and translating it into crafting better marketing.

Neuroscience may have a lot to offer marketing, but using neuroscience findings to improve performance is still going to be a major challenge for marketers.

It’s an exciting area of study and one that’s potentially very powerful. The challenge will be making sense of the additional data neuroscience affords, and using it to make effective campaign decisions.

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