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Neuroscience in the marketers’ toolkit – when and why?

By / / In Insight /
It’s a complex and ever-changing world and marketers need to navigate it carefully to stay abreast of methods and technology – so try adding neuroscience to your research mix to benefit from the alternative view and depth of insight that it delivers.
Neuro-science article

Insight is the beating heart that marketers crave, aiming to leverage it to drive ever more successful campaigns. Heather Andrew and Craig Hanna show how it works and when to use it – and how to harness neuroscience.

With increasing scrutiny and responsibility for the business’s bottom line, marketers are searching out new methods of quantifying and optimising the real world impact of brand communication. In this context, an increasing number of marketers are turning to neuroscience as a means of delivering objective and instructive insights that can boost the effectiveness of their work.

The approach to neuroscience

Neuroscience is no longer a left-field alternative to conventional methodologies. Various neuro approaches have become well-integrated into many businesses’ marketing strategies, informing decisions around media choice and creative development. Within neuroscience, there are numerous ways to gather and analyse brain data. Most approaches have been in existence for more than 10 years, but started life as tools for academic and medical research. In the last decade, marketers have adopted these as research tools. Here are some of the most well-known methodologies:

  • FMRI measures blood flow in the brain. When a part of the brain is more active, it uses more energy and more blood flows to that place in order to supply the energy. fMRI is excellent at measuring what happens where in the deeper parts of the brain, but because it measures a delayed response (blood flow) it is less good at measuring second-by-second changes. It also requires a large scanner – great in hospitals, not so good for large panel studies due to its expense.
  • EEG measures electrical response in the brain and is good at giving a view of second-by-second activity. However, it is subject to a high level of interference or ‘noise’ and so studies have to be carried out in special rooms. In addition, multiple readings are needed from people who take part in studies to get reliable results.
  • SST provides second-by-second readings, as with EEG, but has a much higher signal-to-noise ratio. Therefore, researchers can carry out studies in normal rooms and require only a single reading from each person who takes part in studies. Moreover, SST measures specific wave patterns in the brain that have been associated with top-down processes.
  • Biometric methods are also common. These measure secondary responses – that is, responses that occur as a result of brain activity. For instance, a feeling of anxiety or fear may produce sweaty palms – that response is what’s measured. Eye tracking tools and heartrate sensors are other examples of biometric research methods.
  • Implicit research is often used, but is technically a more psychological method. It measures certain word associations and opinions that you may have about a brand that standard techniques can’t get access to (eg. Cadbury’s gorilla playing the drums is rationally ‘daft’, but may change your implicit brand beliefs after seeing the ad).

Overall, brain imaging methodologies (such as the top three above) get to the core of your brain activity – the ‘first line of response’ which can provide marketers with more direct insights than alternative methods. However, it should be noted that all of the methods mentioned above have their place in market research and can achieve maximal results if used carefully.

Neuroscience isn’t a silver bullet and there are many things that marketers don’t need to probe people’s brains about. However, marketers who have identified the value of neuroscience as part of the research mix have benefited from the alternative view and depth of insight that it delivers.

Specifically, neuroscience has two unique strengths vis a vis other methodologies:

  • It removes the need for conscious responses, articulated using words
  • It helps probe media and context effects that people may well be unaware of at a conscious level.

Removing the need for conscious response

A natural limitation of a survey or interview-led approach to market research is that, as people, we do not always communicate our thoughts and feelings precisely as they are felt.

For instance: it’s easy to say whether you bought a new flavour of cereal this morning, but it might prove harder to correctly identify the drivers behind the purchase and harder still to say whether advertising played a key role in the buying decision.

The reason for this is that decisions involve complex processes occurring in different parts of the brain, involving both left-brain response (providing detail and rational processing) and right-brain response (which provides us the overall ‘feel’ of something, with more emotional information).

This split becomes an issue when you understand that only the left brain has speech capability. Words-based research, like an interview or a survey, requires a words-based response which has to be dealt with by the left brain. In expressing the reason why we do something, decisions that might well have a strong right-brain component are often expressed by the left brain in a way that puts a more rational spin on things, potentially missing useful details.

And looking beyond the linguistic challenges we face in expressing our feelings and motivations, our decisions are also very complex, with subtle factors sometimes having a strong impact on us. We might not be aware of these, but with neuroscience research marketers can look in detail at people’s second-by-second responses to a piece of communication and see exactly which scenes, images and claims are eliciting strong responses, either positive or negative.

Probing media and context effects

With increasingly complex media usage patterns, understanding the effects of context is crucial for effective media campaigns. The time, place, platform and device by which we receive content can all impact the way that we respond to it.

For example, work from Neuro-Insight and DTS HeadphoneX in the US showed that people’s enjoyment of video content was impacted more by variations in sound quality than picture quality – and it was a huge impact: positive response was 42% higher among those who had high quality sound versus those with low quality sound.

Other studies also bear out the impact of context: Twitter has shown that people’s responses when encountering news on their own timeline are, on average, 51% higher than for more general internet browsing; Ocean Outdoor found that brain response to high quality digital outdoor sites was on average 48% higher than response to traditional paper and paste.

But these kinds of insight are hard to quantify by traditional means, simply because people are largely unaware of them. Asking people directly about the impact of media context would never yield these results, yet neuroscience allows marketers to track and quantify powerful subconscious reactions that impact communication effectiveness.

Navigating a complex media landscape

As a final thought; the fast-changing nature of the media world doesn’t pose a problem to us as human beings; the problem rather is one faced by marketers, in that measurement techniques haven’t kept up with the pace of change. Despite the growing complexity of media environments, our brains are actually very good at keeping up with change. They can take novelty and complexity in their stride, but traditional ways of measuring things adapt less easily.

In this context, neuroscience isn’t the only way to get to grips with new ways of doing things, but it is uniquely well-placed to deal with some of them and thus has a valuable role for marketers to understand, and take advantage of, an increasingly complex world.

Neuro-Insight is providing one of the speakers at the forthcoming MINT Global in Amsterdam (April 3-4, 2017): a conference that is unlike any other; offering delegates an unforgettable experience as well as top-level insight into the very latest marketing expertise. Places are limited, so book your seat now at this unique event and don’t miss the boat (which is a hefty clue about that ‘unforgettable experience’)!

Author: Heather Andrew
UK CEO at Neuro-Insight |

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