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Your Brain on Digital Content: A Neuroscience Study Explains the Impact of Marketing & PR

By Spencer Gerrol, CEO and Founder, SPARK Neuro

The Problem: Traditional Measurement in a Modern World

When working to optimize marketing and public relations, brands have long struggled to understand the true impact of different types of media. Print, online publications, social media, television, and digital ads, to name a few, all form part of an overarching marketing strategy. However, the details of how each form of content affects consumers is somewhat of an enigma.

Traditional research can give us conflicting information. People say one thing in focus groups, have a different response in surveys, post another opinion on social media, and click something else altogether. The most reliable metric would be actual purchases; however, linking a transaction to a single source of influence proves difficult.

The biases of traditional research are partly to blame. Imagine a focus group, for example, in which eight people sit in a room and are presented with a new marketing campaign. A charismatic person with strong leadership skills (and stronger opinions) is quickly deemed popular; he sways the crowd (i.e. group think). Another person disagrees with the group but doesn’t say so for fear of being judged (i.e. social desirability bias). A third person with high emotional intelligence picks up on the undisclosed opinion of the moderator and aims to please (i.e. experimenter bias). Meanwhile, the researcher has a preconceived notion and inadvertently hears just what they want to (confirmation bias). Because of these biases, the data does not truly measure the effectiveness of the campaign nor reliably guide it.

Surveys often benefit from larger sample sizes but have a different set of biases. Case in point, this past year the presidential polls (one of the biggest, most tightly controlled, and most expensive set of surveys) were dead wrong. Enough said.

The Holy Grail: Attention and Emotion

A tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it. Did it make a sound?

The age-old adage teaches us an important lesson about marketing:

Your content is presented, but people tune it out. Did your content exist? Yes, it did, but without attracting attention its impact certainly wasn’t felt.

Here’s another riddle for you.

What do you always have, only sometimes notice, and have a hard time conveying? Answer: Emotion. Emotion by nature is part of a subconscious process that is constantly pushing and pulling us despite the fact that we aren’t always aware of it and often struggle to articulate it.

Attention and emotion are the Holy Grail in marketing. If people are not tuned in to your message, they won’t be affected by it and are unlikely to remember it; and if your content doesn’t make people feel something, it will have a limited effect.

However, attention and emotion are among the hardest things to measure.

Attention is often measured by clicks, impressions, page-views, and television ratings; but these methods have their weaknesses. Just because an ad displayed or aired does not mean people noticed it; and even if they did see it, that does not mean they paid attention to the message.

Emotion is measured even more subjectively. Most commonly, surveys, focus groups and other “self-report” research methods are employed to understand feelings, beliefs, and attitudes. But despite the fact that emotions affect everything we do, people simply aren’t continuously aware of their emotions. Introspection is hard, even harder to articulate, and surveys aren’t conducive to getting deep nor specific enough answers.

The Solution: Neuroscience Meets Marketing

Neuroscience involves studying the brain and nervous system and holds the key to more accurately measuring attention and emotion.

SPARK Neuro exists to create practical applications out of the scientific methods that are otherwise stuck in the “ivory tower”. Our team of neuroscientists read brain activity and other neurological responses to quantify to what degree people are engaged in content, their emotional experience, and how that translates into decisions.

Our data, which is processed through complex algorithms that makes sense of thousands of data points per second, has been shown to predict marketing effectiveness. Higher scores using our metrics correlate with more sharing and liking in social media, improved brand affinity, and increased purchase intent. In other words, when people’s attention is captivated and when their emotions are effectively stirred, they like brands more and are more likely to buy.

The Study: Read, Watch… Buy?

MSL sponsored an experiment to learn how the brain engages with and reacts to different forms of content.

In April 2017, 50 millennial women were recruited to browse a controlled set of online content while hooked up to various biometric devices.

What content?

Experiment participants independently browsed Refinery29 as well as a competitor site. During the research sessions, the women were exposed to digital banner ads, earned articles, and brand videos. The videos were largely professionally produced instructional videos that featured specific products.

In addition to these content forms, we also put a new type of content to the test. MSL, as part of its Conversation2Commerce (C2C) initiative, developed a hybrid between digital advertising and earned content, known as earned content units (ECUs). While occupying the same space as banner ads, ECUs are styled differently and feature earned content instead of regular product ads.

All content fit into the health and beauty category and all participants were recruited for an interest in beauty content. Participants were not aware of what was being studied so as not to bias their interactions.
While the site content was naturalistically presented and subjects decided what to spend time on, content was also tightly controlled to ensure a repeatable experimental design. Select ads and content were presented in random order to washout the biases of order effects.

What biometrics?

We used Electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity, Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) to measure skin conductance, Eye Tracking to quantify visual attention, as well as computerized micro-Facial Expression Encoding to capture every smile and smirk. This combination of biometric signals gives us deep insights into the Holy Grail—is content captivating people? How much? And exactly when (down to the second)?

What other metrics?

In order to further understand the impact of these various forms of content, we also measured for the effects on branding and buying through pre- and post-exposure surveys. Unlike traditional surveys, however, our unique method looks into the subconscious decision making process, like measuring changes to reaction times as well as minor movements of the mouse trajectory.

The Results: How Content Performs

This study shed light on the details of how people consume different types of content, including how it engaged their attention and emotions and how this translated into real-world purchasing decisions.

Digital banner ads set the baseline at 13% for purchase intent. Brand videos doubled the purchase intent compared to digital ads, achieving 26%. Meanwhile earned articles increased purchase intent to 45% or 3.5 X more than digital ads.

Eye tracking results demonstrated that participants also looked at MSL’s and Publicis Media’s new form of hybrid digital advertising, “earned content units” (ECUs), for twice as long as traditional banner ads (.8 seconds vs. .4 seconds). This was particularly interesting given the units are the same size, but are purposely less designed than traditional digital brand ads.

Metrics for brand lift showed a different trend than purchase intent. Digital ads only contributed a 1.4% brand lift. Unlike for purchase intent, earned articles did not majorly affect perceptions of a brand, only increasing affinity to 1.6%, which although slight was still a statistically significant difference compared to digital ads. Brand videos did an even better job of reinforcing brand love, promoting a 3.6% brand lift.

This finding revealed a subtle but important distinction. Videos generated stronger emotions in connection with brands and effectively influenced perceptions of the products being featured. Meanwhile, articles were considered more credible, ultimately contributing to more purchasing.

Even though articles were better for purchase intent, however, videos showed an interesting persuasion dynamic. For participants that already showed strong preference for a particular product, the video did a more effective job of pushing them over the edge to buy. Emotions are a key part of decision-making and sometimes the greater emotional boost of a video is all it takes to officially convert.

This article is a part of “PR 2020 The Dawn of the Augmented Influence” published by MSL’s People’s Insights team that covers the latest trends in engagement on both the consumer and corporate side.

Spencer Gerrol is the Founder & CEO of SPARK Neuro

About The Author

MSL is a global public relations and integrated communications partner that provides strategic counsel and creative thinking. We champion our clients’ interests through fearless and insightful campaigns that engage multiple perspectives and holistic thinking to build influence and deliver impact.

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