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Can Neuromarketing Help You Know Customers’ Interest Before They Do?

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Matt Wujciak


Making a product or service “sticky”

In the year 2000, #1 bestselling author and renowned sociologist, Malcolm Gladwell coined “The Stickiness Factor” in his debut book, The Tipping Point. In the book, Gladwell explains how "ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do.” You may not know it, but you see this idea every day. 

Take for example that catchy Taylor Swift song that has been stuck in your head all day, that strange piece of art you had to buy, or an ad or article that just made you click on it. You rarely (if ever) consciously think about the lyrics or beat of the song you personally identify with, the emotion provoked by the colors of the painting, or the article’s title that lured you in. 

By provoking the right emotions, a painter, song writer, or marketer made their idea more attractive to a target audience, advertently nudging consumers in that audience to spread their thoughts to other consumers in other audiences, similarly to the way a contagious disease spreads. 

But what if we could all find a way to know which ideas, products, or services are sticky to consumers, before we invest in their development?

Marketing analysts at Fortune 500s with large budgets are beginning to use neuromarketing to better measure a consumer’s preference, as the verbal response given to surveys and traditional questions, such as, “Do you like this product?” may not always result in actionable data. As a customer, we really only know if we desire a given product or service after we have tasted the experience (i.e. heard the Taylor Swift song, saw the painting, or read the title of an article). 

In essence, neuromarketing is a strategy that uses scientific measurements of a person’s brain activity and nervous system to figure out what they really find interesting - by simulating these experiences. Neuromarketers then use this info to tailor their advertising to deliver what their customers want, and trigger desirable responses.

What neuromarketing looks like

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is used to study the brain’s responses to marketing stimuli. Researchers use the fMRI to measure changes in activity in parts of the brain and to learn why consumers make the decisions they do, what part of the brain is telling them to do it, and then of course, target that area of the brain.

As opposed to traditional market research and consumer surveys, neuromarketing uses their reactions of content or experiences that are measured via eye movements, the speed of their heart rates, how quickly they're breathing, and analysis of their brain activity via fMRI and EEG (an electroencephalogram test used to evaluate the electrical activity in the brain testing).

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As the field develops further, brands can target both niche and wide audiences, and advertise more interactively - as marketers learn what consumers want on a cellular level. As you’ll see in a minute, neuromarketing, in theory, can someday replace traditional marketing surveys.  

It's hard to know what consumers want, when they themselves oftentimes don’t. Through neuromarketing, it’s now possible for marketers to figure out what customers want before they do. 

In 2012, researchers at Emory found that activity in a specific brain area, measured by fMRI while people were listening to music, significantly correlated with a song’s future sales data and revenue three years later, predicting more accurate results than simply asking consumers how much they liked the song.

This isn’t surprising when you think about the conformity of modern consumer behavior, especially with younger millennials and Gen Z. If your friends or family like a given song (or clothing brand, whine, food, or any product or service), you may subconsciously think you want to purchase that product too. However, that doesn’t always mean you actually have the same intentions of buying it, even if you genuinely think you might. 

That’s the common problem in traditional marketing surveys. What your customers say they will do, like, or want, is not always accurate. The data isn’t always actionable, or useful. For example, an avid smoker may tell a pharmaceutical marketer on a survey or email blast that there’s a 70% chance that they plan to, or even will quit smoking in the next 5 years. [Hypothetically] 5 years later, more than 30% of avid smoker respondents who are supposed to have quit, are still smoking. 

In fact, studies have found that brain scans taken while participants watched antismoking advertisements predicted the call volume to smoking-cessation hotlines more accurately then traditional surveys of ad effectiveness. 

A team at Stanford University also used fMRI to predict the success of microloan and crowdfunding appeals on the internet better than traditional surveys could. A team led by Moran Cerf, a neuroscience and business professor at Northwestern, predicted the success of movies with more than 20% greater accuracy than traditional survey methods did by using the synchronicity of EEG readings of audience members as they watched movie trailers (or experienced the product). 

Understanding consumer intent

Should companies invest in neuromarketing or brain scanning technology? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. 

Some already have: NBC and TimeWarner have operated neuromarketing capabilities for years; tech companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Facebook recently have too. 

But unless you control the marketing budget at Google or Microsoft, this may not be a viable option. However, that doesn’t mean the same concepts of neuromarketing can’t apply to the marketing or customer service tools you do have access to. During digitally shifting consumer behavior trends, marketers, customer experience analysts, and customer service departments can and should be more creative with their consumer data. 

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This can mean leveraging new click-through-rate or PPC tools to find which content is visually appealing, measuring the average duration of time consumers visit a page or ad, or even using cloud-based CRM systems to predict consumer inquiries based on previous purchasing history before they voice an inquiry (i.e. a customer service agent seeing a customer purchased a product a year ago and may be eligible for an upgrade). The idea is to use any technology that can help us understand consumer intent through actionable data, like neuromarketing for example. Only then can we adjust our marketing and customer service plans accordingly to deliver competitive customer experiences.