We’re living in an advanced age. Marketing and conversion optimization have evolved to the point where we can analyze a person’s eye path on a web page, the effect of colors upon their psyche, and how much time they spend reading a blog post.
Are we at the point where we can predict exactly what users will click on and buy?
Let me introduce you to a field of science called neuromarketing. It’s fascinating, a bit scary, and completely in line with your goals and mine: conversions.
First, I want to sketch out an introduction to neuromarketing, so we can at least understand what it is. Then, I’ll tease out a few of the things that neuromarketing can tell us, and a few things it can’t.
The question I want to answer is this: Can neuromarketing predict what users will click on and buy? Is it the secret weapon to infinite conversion success?
What is neuromarketing?
Neuromarketing is the science of determining how a person will respond mentally and physically to various factors in marketing.
That’s a really short definition, and it demands some unpacking.
Roger Dooley, who's known as the founding father of nueromarketing, wrote a book called Brainfluence.
Brainfluence talks about how to practically apply neuroscience and behavior to market to consumers better by understanding their decision patterns. Patterns are a great way to illustrate how we can take nueromarketing research and apply it to our everyday marketing endeavors. By the way, this is a fantastic book full of fascinating research and discovery. Check it out here: Brainfluence on Amazon (no affiliation).
Neuromarketing has to do with more than nerves.
The prefix neuro means “nerves.”
Nerves, of course, are part of the network of mental and chemical responses that run throughout our entire body. It is the nervous system.
The science of neuromarketing looks at our nervous system using scientific tools such as fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging), EEGs (electroencephalography), SST (steady state topography), GSR (galvanic skin response) and heart rate, to find out how a person’s body and mind are responding to marketing stimuli they’re presented with.
Neuromarketing arose as a concept in the 1990s. At the time, Harvard researchers were making strides in neuroscience. Their breadth of testing and discovery led them to experiments in the marketing world.
Neuroscience determined that a person’s thinking is like an iceberg. The thoughts that we’re aware of are only a small part of the brain’s activity. Our activity and awareness only registers as about 10% of what’s really going on deeper in the mind.
The bigger component of thinking — the 90% that lurks beneath the level of consciousness — can only be measured through brain scans and other technologically advanced tools.
It’s called the “subconscious.” A Slate article carried the headline, “Can neuromarketers really peer into your subconscious? They say they can.”
It’s that subconscious data that neuromarketing attempts to discover. But beyond just discovery, neuromarketing wants to actually influence the subconscious to compel customers in the ways that marketers want. That’s the marketing part of neuromarketing.
Here’s the process that neuromarketing follows:
- Person interacts with marketing stuff — watches a TV ad, looks at packaging, hears a jingle, reads a slogan, whatever.
- Person responds with changes in the mind, firing of neurons in the brain, electrical conductance of the skin, increased heart rate, etc.
- Scientific tools measure these responses.
- Smart people analyze the responses, and come up with techniques that will ensure the responses they want, which advances their marketing goals.
The end game of neuromarketing is improving marketing by undertanding hw we react at a subconscious level. The process requires looking at our neural systems. That’s the simple premise.
Neuromarketing is built on research.
Neuromarketing is basically glorified marketing research. There are all kinds of marketing research that we can do:
- Ad tracking
- Brand attributing
- Eye tracking
- Copy testing
- Mystery shopping
- Sales forecasting
- Price testing and elasticity.
Marketing research is huge. In the marketing research taxonomy, neuromarketing is a subset of consumer decision-making.
The research that goes into neuromarketing is complex. I don’t know how to run an MRI machine. I can only accept what a scientist tells me about “activation in the left anterior cingulate, the left orbitofrontal, and bilateral prefrontal cortex.”
The research into neuromarketing often appears in publications like this, from MIT:
Neuromarketing is conducted according to scientific parameters and careful research. This isn’t a marketing brainstorming meeting where people sit around coming up with slogans or ad copy. These are scientists with sophisticated equipment doing complicated things.
How does a consumer make a decision? That’s what neuromarketing wants to discover. How does neuromarketing discover it? By looking directly at a subject’s mind, body and cognitive response.
Neuromarketing is about marketing.
As I mentioned above, neuromarketing isn’t only about academic journals, brain scans, and white lab coats. Neuromarketing is science with application.
Those applications are quite practical — How much sugar Pepsi decides to put in their recipe, the number of words to use in a slogan for an ad campaign, and how many pixels wide a lightbox popup should be on a landing page.
Neuromarketing gives us the information to make the best decisions for more conversions.
Now, we need to ask the question ...
What can neuromarketing tell us?
There are two extremes to the new science of neuromarketing.
One extreme: OMG! I love love love. Ima running a new nrmktng test! Nrmktng + me = BFF
Other extreme: Neuromarketing is BS.
(Or something like that.)
Google “neuromarketing,” and you’ll see results like this:
And you’ll see other articles singing the praises of this new science.
I don’t subscribe to either of those extremes. I do, however, recognize what neuromarketing can tell us.
Let’s take two examples:
- Neuromarketing can show us what stimulates the brain’s pleasure center. One article from Forbes stated that “neuromarketing ... gives researchers a view into the aforementioned pleasure center.” As the researcher explained, “The more desirable something is, the more significant the changes in blood flow in that part of the brain.” When you do tests like that, you’re going to get some clever marketing insights.
- Neuromarketing can indicate what areas of the brain are stimulated by images, words, organization, etc. In a Telegraph article, researchers determined that visual clutter frustrates the brain and complicates decision-making. The study also determined that simplicity — in everything from a simple slogan to an organized shopping aisle — could improve the buyer’s ability to make a satisfying purchase decision.
Neuromarketing can tell us how the brain responds. It gives us some smart statistics and clever insights. But neuroscience still has a long way to go.
What are the limitations of neuromarketing?
In spite of the promise and progress of neuromarketing, it hasn’t quite reached silver bullet status. The power of neuromarketing is in the fundamental depth of its findings. We’re talking about the deep physiological responses in the brain itself. But such findings don’t easily translate into marketing moves.
There are a few things that limit my breaking into a happy dance over neuromarketing.
Neuromarketing can’t tell us exactly what to do.
Neuromarketing can’t tell us what slogan to use, how big to make our call-to-action button, or what exact color we need to use for the border on our marketing email. Those are applications, but they are far removed from the actual neuromarketing study.
Neuromarketing can tell us — quite simply — what stimulates which part of the brain. But such neuroscientific tests require comparison, and don’t provide straight up information on marketing technique.
This science of neuromarketing only takes us part of the way.
Neuromarketing is not predictive. It is, instead, suggestive.
Neuromarketing suggests that in some cases, according to some research, in some people, in some conditions, this was the best choice. Why was that the best choice? Neuromarketing can’t tell you that. Neuromarketing can simply tell you what happened in the subject’s mind.
Some neuromarketers think that there is no such thing as compulsion or spontaneity. They claim that every human action has a predictable path that can be seen, analyzed, and even altered once we discover the key.
But is that really true? Does neuromarketing truly show us what everyone will do? Is there really such a key?
Such optimism needs the counterbalance of skepticism. We must admit that the field is nascent, the research is preliminary, and the conclusions are still coming. At its best, neuroscience can suggest things, but it’s not yet able to predict things.
At the convergence of marketing prowess and neuroscientific potential lies a field of excitement and promise. But it’s a small field. And blending that science and marketing into a treasure trove of information is a big challenge.
Neuromarketing is expensive.
Neuromarketing studies are few and far between. Companies like Google, Pepsi, and Frito-Lay can afford them.
I don’t know what your marketing budget is like, but I’m not sure that you’ll be able to afford to sponsor a study outright. For example, an fMRI scan costs about $1k per hour, and a suitable study requires a couple dozen subjects, each subject spending an hour or two in the scanner.
Thankfully, academic institutions are performing a lot of the research, and they have some grant money to work with. However, fMRI training is not yet a standard part of Marketing 101, and most marketing departments lack electrode caps and scanners. The EEG caps that are designed for consumers lack the quantity of sensors required for sufficient findings.
Don’t expect to be able to be able to do neuromarketing study on a whim.
Neuromarketing largely reinforces common sense.
The findings that I’ve researched on neuromarketing aren’t what I would call “breakthrough.” For example, some of the “findings” passed off as neuromarketing are things like:
- Stories are persuasive. (Okay, I'll bite.) (link)
- Verbs are more powerful than adjectives. (Yeah, that's probably true!) (link)
- We look at things we want to buy. (Really?! I would have never guessed.) (link)
- Eyes tend to move with the moving objects on a screen. (Wow. I’m shocked. I was wondering about that, actually.) (link)
By the way, I may have gone a little overboard there and tilted the sarcasm needle a bit. Some of these articles provide some good research behind these claims.
Also, I’m down with common sense. I love common sense. But truly valuable marketing information should go beyond common sense.
Perhaps the reason such findings are just common sense is because they are derived from specific neuromarketing research that is focused on specific marketing efforts.
For example, Frito-Lay commisioned some neuromarketing research in 2009. It was a famous study, and it churned up a lot of information. But the information was specific to Frito-Lay, even more specific to Cheetos, and even more specific to the messiness of Cheetos on a subject’s fingers.
I’m not sure what kind of killer e-commerce insights you’re going to get from that.
It’s hard to draw across-the-board neuromarketing applications from a single study like the Cheetos one. Unless, of course, the conclusions are broad enough and basic enough to qualify as common sense.
Human response is not always an accurate gauge of future marketing success.
I’m impressed with some of the things that neuromarketing can help us with. But I’m also aware that neuromarketing isn’t the end-all, be-all. Why? Because humans are really complicated. For example, take into consideration these aspects of human behavior:
- Humans are irrational. Although humans may pride themselves on consistent rational behavior, it’s simply not true that we always act in rational ways. Often, our actions defy logical explanation.
- Humans are unpredictable. There are things that humans do, say, and think that no amount of testing or analysis could predict. Research can tell us what happened. It can also suggest what might happen again, but it can’t accurately forecast everything that will surely happen. Humans are one of the most wildly unpredictable entities. We’re even more unpredictable than the weather. Our hope for the predictive power of neuromarketing is doomed from the start.
- Humans are wildly varied. Imagine the difference between an infant and a geriatric. Or, think about the differences between a female adolescent raised on a farm in Kansas, and a 34-year-old male Chinese immigrant living in Brooklyn. Humans have an unending level of variety. One of the perennial marketing challenges is demographic segmentation, and it even messes with the promises of neuromarketing. In spite of how neuromarketing can perform primal-level research, the amount of variation between different people will probably skew results.
- Humans are extraordinarily complex. Admittedly, neuromarketing has some pretty cool toys at its disposal. The flicker of one’s eyes and the electrical conduction of one’s skin are things that are remarkably detailed. But there are aspects of human behavior and decision-making that we still don’t know how to measure in a scanner or explain in an academic journal.
I’m watching neuromarketing, because I’m inveterately curious and insatiably committed to finding the best information available. But I’m also cautious, because I know that the name “neuromarketing” can be used as a cover to push erroneous information.
Here’s what I can say with confidence: Do your own research, A/B test like crazy, and find out everything you possibly can.
And maybe you should do a Google search for “neuromarketing” from time to time. If nothing else, make sure you follow Roger’s blog as he continues to put out great content regarding neuromarketing.