Neuroscience Makes Strong Case for Engagement, Personalization in Marketing


Recently, Facebook sponsored a study run by NeuroFocus -- found via Search Engine Land-- intended to quantitatively determine how people respond to websites and website ads. The results had some interesting findings for marketers who are wondering how their site structure and ad campaigns affect how users react to their website. Let's just dive right in to those results and see what marketers can learn from their experiments.

What the Study Looked At

NeuroFocus used devices to measure the brainwaves of searchers when visiting websites, and looked to see if any patterns emerged. The test subjects were 50% men, 50% women, aged 21-54, and with a minimum annual household income of $30,000. The researchers tested the subjects' reactions to the Yahoo! homepage, The New York Times homepage, and their personal Facebook news feeds. These are the reactions they measured:

  • Attention: The test subjects had clear instances of sustained focus, and shifted focus -- meaning it was easy to measure when they were very interested by what they were looking at, and when their attention got diverted by something else.
  • Emotional Engagement: There was a clear delineation between positive and negative emotional response to certain page elements. For the purposes of this study, a positive emotional response is called "approach motivation," which means the test subject felt motivated to do something, while a negative emotional response is called "avoidance motivation," which means the test subject felt compelled to avoid a certain action.
  • Memory Retention: Researchers could clearly detect when something on the page was interesting enough to be stored in the test subjects' memories.

The researchers were able to combine scores given for each of these responses into something called Overall Neurological Effectiveness, a composite measure of the efficiency of a test subject's cognitive processing.

Interesting Findings From the Study

To see how each website fared individually, you can read the whitepaper in its entirety. Here are some of the most interesting findings that emerged from the study.

1.) Overall: The New York Times had higher levels of attention and memory than the other two pages, but less emotional engagement. The Yahoo! homepage had higher levels of emotional engagement than The New York Times homepage, but less than the Facebook page. And Yahoo! had the least amount of memory activation out of all three pages.

People viewing their own news feed on Facebook, however, had high levels of activation on all three metrics -- attention, emotional engagement, and memory. The Facebook page had statistically higher levels of emotional engagement than The New York Times and Yahoo!

2.) Effect of Ads on Attention: The mere presence of ads had neither a positive nor negative effect on subjects' attention levels.

3.) Different Types of Ads: There's higher attention and emotional engagement with social media ads than with TV ads or ads on a corporate web page. But ultimately, subjects' memories weren't activated enough in any context. Take a look at the results of an experiment NeuroFocus ran with a Visa ad on television, on a corporate web page, and on a social media site.

response to 30 second ad

People paid more attention to the ad in the two online contexts, the ad had the most emotional engagement in the social context, but it had low memory levels in all contexts. NeuroFocus reported that memory scores at these levels usually indicate an ad has weak persuasive capability and that viewers discount it in their memory. 

4.) Effect of Stimuli on Memory: Memory scores tend to be higher when stimuli are personally meaningful and provide learning opportunities.

5.) Post-Facebook Activity: After subjects view their Facebook pages, the next site they visit makes subjects feel more connected -- more users associated their experience with the word "connecting" than they had before.

6.) Engagement vs. Attention: Overall, emotional engagement scores are lower than attention scores. This makes sense, since online content demands more attention than passive media like television; there are simply more elements competing for a user's attention, and consequently the study found that emotional engagement shows a slightly negative correlation with attention. The results indicate that high attention levels have a diminishing impact on emotional engagement.

7.) Effect of Prior Expectations: All of the consumers' responses to the websites were found to be impacted by the expectations of the site that they carried with them before visiting.

What Marketers Can Do With This Information

If nothing else, it's encouraging to know marketers are on the right track when we strive for a more and more personalized experiences in our marketing -- even beyond our website. Along with great nurturing and segmentation, allowing people to interact with your brand in a social way is key to achieving this personalized experience. This study has shown that marketing is about more than just information consumption and cognition. Facebook is so successful because it provides new information that is both emotionally driven and highly personal. That means the information delivered is relevant to the user, and it makes it far more likely they will remember what they see on that site.

In the age of information overload, it's remarkable content that can actually embed its way into someone's memory. That is only achieved when you really know your target audience, what they want to hear, and you present it in a way that resonates with them. It's just as much about the topics you select as your presentation of it -- something that A/B testing can help you refine.

And as if you didn't already know it, your reputation matters. Every time people come to your website, they are building up a pre-conceived notion they will carry with them on every subsequent site visit. So be purposeful with what you put out there and the brand image you build for yourself. Selectivity is a good thing; what you don't publish is just as important as what you do publish. Use your website and company social media accounts to build the emotional experience you want people to have when they interact with your brand.

Finally, it appears that site with social elements are particularly attractive for advertising because they have both the high emotional engagement of TV (without the high costs) and the active cognitive engagement characteristic of the online experience. So, if you're going to run an it online!

Have you run any tests on your website to see how users engage with your content? Share your findings in the comments!

Image credit: digitalbob8