Neuromarketing – Add it to the Marketing Toolbox
by Jennifer Williams
Visibility Magazine – Summer 2010
(original article reprinted below)

Pick a discipline of study and slap “neuro” on the front end of it. Chances are the new name you’ve created is an actual discipline being studied somewhere. Go ahead; try this one — tack “neuro” onto the front end of “marketing”. As you may have guessed by now, neuromarketing is an actual discipline and it is in practice all over the world right now. It’s not new, but it is gaining attention as the proprietary data piles up, the tools get better, the discipline is fine-tuned, and the ROI results roll in.

But what is neuromarketing, and why should you care?

Neuromarketing is a private endeavor more than an academic discipline, so a clear definition is difficult to come by. Generally speaking neuromarketing is the practice of measuring nervous system response to marketing messages. Tools range from high-end Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans to lower-end measures of heart rate, breathing rate, and “galvanic skin response”. More specifically, neuromarketing seeks to measure brain activity to determine which marketing is most effective.

Some people expand the definition to include the use of neuroscience and other behavioral study findings to improve marketing strategies.

The bottom line is that these marketers, and the companies who employ them, believe that better understanding of the brain can lead to more effective marketing strategies.

Why would clients pay for such high-end market research? Over the last decade, several of the findings of various social science disciplines – particularly Behavioral Economics — have discovered some key things.

Decision-making is a largely irrational act.
People are shockingly bad at predicting their own behavior.
Emotions play a key role in decision-making.

These findings led researchers to begin questioning and testing how people made decisions. One startling and particularly relevant discovery was that even when people wanted to be honest in predicting their behavior they were often wrong, thus shedding doubt on the efficacy of consumer surveys or interviews alone.

Advances in neuroscience, behavioral economics, and neuroeconomics have provided insights into why such discrepancies happen, and neuromarketing has emerged as a field to “see past” the conscious into the unconscious mechanisms that drive consumer decisions.

Predicting Buying Behavior

Savvy businesses and marketers have known for a long time that consumers rarely convert or remember a brand because it’s rational to do so. They convert, they remember, they buy because it makes them feel better in some way.

Despite this knowledge, marketing campaigns fail all the time, and these failures can come from the same team that had a win yesterday. Marketing is too often a hit or miss proposition that requires costly experimentation to “get it right”.

Even the combination of rigorous market research combined with a savvy marketing team can still produce hit or miss results.

Much of this comes down to what Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely refers to as our “cognitive limitations”. We humans are much less rational than we like to believe, and even when marketers and businesses “get” that the way to reach people is to hook their emotions, their own cognitive limitations can get in the way of nailing down the most effective strategy.

Neuromarketers, on the other hand, don’t need to intuit anything. They can see past their own cognitive limitations, and the cognitive limitations of others, by looking directly at the brain’s response.

How They Do It

Most of the top neuromarketing firms that have made their techniques known to the public use a combination of electroencephalography (EEG) and eye tracking. Common across the bigger firms are the measurements of three key markers:


As a test subject views a commercial or an ad, eye tracking follows where the subject is looking, and EEG gives a simultaneous “view” of brain activity in various regions by measuring brain wave activity across the scalp.

This gives the neuromarketer a view of what is going on in the brain as a subject views an ad and what parts of an ad garner the highest overall engagement. When brain activity is simultaneously high in regions of attention, memory, and positive emotion, this is considered to be a positive highly engaged response. It means their interest is peaked, they are paying attention, they are emotionally engaged, and they are committing what they are seeing to memory so they can recall it later. This is the gold marketers are looking for.

Why Should Web Marketers Care?

Neuromarketing is the latest marketing rock-star on the scene. It’s interesting, it’s effective, it’s controversial, and according to its proponents the ROI results are positive. Interest in the techniques is growing rapidly. CEOs are calling in neuromarketing experts to their business conventions. Nobel prize winning neuroscientists are joining neuromarketing firm advisory boards. Speakers on the topic are being called to present to standing room only audiences.

This doesn’t mean that every web marketer, or business owner, need return to college to get a neuroscience degree, but it does mean that one should at minimum be aware of the practice in order to interpret findings or to be prepared to work with a neuromarketing firm formally. Understanding what’s behind the wires and lab coats will make it much easier for you to assimilate findings into your own marketing strategies.

At present, cost barriers will keep most businesses from access to neuromarketing tools and qualified experts. Accessibility will no doubt open to a wider audience as tools become more readily available, training more widespread, and the technology advances. In the meantime, businesses and web marketers can still learn from the findings of various brain study disciplines.

Here are some tips derived from neuromarketing to get you started.

Usability – Usability has already been aided by eye tracking studies for years. Eye tracking data triangulated with brain experience can offer even stronger data about how users are engaging with a site to improve website usability and user experience.

A study published in Feb 2010 by Foviance looked at “web stress” and found that subjects were likely to feel the most stress during the ‘search’ and ‘checkout’ stages. Poor usability in these areas increased user stress significantly. This may seem like a “no-brainer” to experienced web marketers, but such formal studies can facilitate creative-to-client communication and decision-making about where to focus usability improvements.

Design Elements – Optimization of website design elements such as logos, or off-site banner ads can be facilitated by neuromarketing research. Optimization through collecting brain response data to specific design elements reduces reliance on subjective opinion and can make the decision of where to place a logo, or which version of a logo to use, or even the size of a logo on a web page, more precise.

Marketers or business owners without access to neuromarketing tools can still use collected public propriety data to enhance design elements. According to various data, throw out dark backgrounds and smiling faces. Lighter backgrounds and enigmatic facial expressions capture attention better.

Copy – Copy matters! From font to message, various studies show that copy that is you-centric, emotionally engaging, visually easy to read, and cognitively easy to think about will be most effective. Copywriters should become familiar with theories like “cognitive fluency”, and business owners should become familiar with exceptional copywriters!

Your Users Prefer Now – Both behavioral and brain studies have shown that most people will choose to have something now rather than wait, even if the reward is larger if they wait. Whatever you’re marketing online, be sure to streamline the conversion process to make it easier for your users to be rewarded sooner rather than later.

Just Another Tool in the Box

Neuromarketing is not a discipline that can stand alone to craft a winning marketing strategy any more than design can stand without SEO, or content can stand without usability. It’s another tool in the box.

The same holds true for each “finding” from neuromarketing, or any other behavioral study. Even if all the data says one thing, context matters. There are times when what works flies in the face of data, or maybe it works because it flies in the face of data.

It’s important to note that neuromarketing may have a leg up by way of direct insight into brain response, but without a brand or design or ad or commercial to start with there is nothing to measure. Creative minds will still provide the ideas and the deliverables to be measured and improved upon.

Neuromarketing, along with all the other behavioral study disciplines, can help businesses and marketers glean more insight into their consumers’ wants and needs. These are tools every savvy professional would do well to add to their toolbox.