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Turning to the Human Brain for More Accurate Market Research

How Neuroscience is Affecting Marketing

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Neuromarketing is a fascinating area of marketing that we don’t discuss very often, but can provide some quite useful information to those willing to pay for the research. WebProNews recently talked with Roger Dooley, President of consultancy firm Dooley Direct and author of the Neuromarketing blog, about some of tactics used, the information they can provide to marketers, and some of the concerns about such practices. 
 
As Dooley points out, neuromarketing research is usually sought out more by larger companies who can afford the bills that come with it, but he does often offer tips to smaller marketers on his blog. 
 
"Neuromarketing is any use of brain science in marketing," explains Dooley. "There’s really two parts to that. There’s the really technical part of neuromarketing that involves brain scans, putting people in fMRI machines or attaching EEG caps to their heads – measuring what’s going on in their brain, and then interpreting that data to see how they respond to advertising and other marketing materials. For instance, you can watch a person’s reaction to a television commercial while monitoring their brain activity, and then conclude that the ad was effective because it seemed to engage their emotions or they tuned out."
 
"But to me, perhaps the more interesting side, at least from a practical application standpoint for small and medium business, is a behavioral science, and there’s a lot of work that’s ongoing in understanding why people do things that one wouldn’t predict that they would do, and how in fact it’s often irrational," he says. "It seems irrational, the decisions that people make…"
 
Will  Focus Group Become Obsolete?

"I think the focus group is going to be a thing of the past because of neuromarketing," Dooley tells us. "The problem is that a focus group is typically just asking people what they think about a product. Would they buy it? What do they like about it? And it’s not really getting into their subconscious at all, and the results may be misleading. Often times people can’t really describe why they do something, and they may not provide accurate information about what they would do in the future, such as purchase the product."

 
"I use the comparison to an iceberg, where about 88% of the iceberg’s mass is below the surface, and there are all kinds of estimates for how much of our decision making process is subconscious," he continues. "About the best one is sort of a middle-of-the-road guess at 95%. So basically, the vast majority of of mental processes and our decision-making are not part of our conscious awareness. That’s the area that neuromarketing hopes to tap into, and as a result, give better information than a focus group or questionnaire or an interview."
 
How it’s Done

"You have the brain scan approach, which is sort of bypassing even asking people anything and just seeing how they react," he adds. "There’s another technique, not widely used, but it’s interesting – called facial coding, and basically an expert in reading facial expressions monitors people’s reactions including a word called microexpressions – these are like fleeting little expression changes that a normal observer wouldn’t even notice, but a trained observer can see, and again, they use this to see if a person is watching a television commercial – how are they reacting emotionally. Maybe they’re showing a social smile – trying to be pleasant – but during one part of the commercial, there’s sort of a fleeting disgust reaction – that’s what they’re trying to see using that technique."

 
"In the whole field of behavioral research, scientists devise relatively simple experiments to see how people react," explains Dooley. "One very simple example is in a bar, a waiter was actually a grad student doing research, and he offered people free beer samples, and there were four beers, and what they found was that if the people at the table were each given all four choices on a slip of paper, where they could mark it, they would choose the one they wanted, but interestingly in almost every case if they simply went around the table asking, each person would choose a different beer, even the last person would choose the least desirable sounding beer. It’s a trivially simple experiment, but it teaches us something about how people make decisions."
 
Concerns
 
Of course anything that deals with marketing and looking at the human brain is bound to draw some concern from some people. 
 
"There are some concerns about privacy and whether this is somehow unethical, but in general, those concerns are misplaced or overblown because the folks who have those concerns don’t really understand the technology," says Dooley. "There is no real mind reading that goes on – not in the conventional sense that you could read somebody’s thoughts."
 
"And it’s not possible to develop ‘super ads’," he adds. "That’s one of the fears – that somehow using these technologies – that Madison Avenue will suddenly begin cranking out ads that turn consumers into buying drones, and that’s simply not going to happen. We’ve had superb advertising for many decades, and that hasn’t happened yet, even by accident, so it’s very unlikely that even with some better market research data from brain scans that there’s really going to be any more success in that. So ‘super ads’ aren’t a concern."
 
There are also concerns that marketers will abuse the technologies and even make people buy things they wouldn’t otherwise buy. "The other popular concept is that there is a buy button in the brain that somehow marketers can push, and again, the decision-making process is far more complex than that," says Dooley. "There is no single ‘buy button’. Every decision involves different areas of the brain that are being pulled in different directions by varying factors like cost, health concerns, and many other concerns in the consumer’s mind, so there really isn’t anything to fear."
 
He also says the neuromarketing companies out there don’t work with child subjects, which may alleviate other concerns. 
 
What are your thoughts on the practices of neuromarketing?
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  • Guest

    I think in the broadest sense, the concerns are real. But the science itself being unethical versus the person using the science being held responsible is where I can’t draw the distinction yet.

    Social science is interesting and the same time it seems to be so unheard of it will probably draw lots of criticism.

    a/b split tests are in a sense, social science, are they not?

  • Chris Crum

    I think when you’re actually looking at brain activity, it takes things up a notch.

    • http://forum.smobot.com smobot

      With decent measuring tools (an EEG cap), a nice computer, pattern recognition software, and simple feedback programming / calibration, you can decode most human senses – sight, sound, speech, touch, and possibly internal monologue. It isn’t as though you’re decoding the mind itself, but you can get a fuzzy picture of the raw senses; perhaps an emotion or two.

      Google “EEG keyboard.”

  • http://www.visualemotionllc.com Maggie

    The Facial Action Coding System is a great tool to assess emotional reactions to stimulus. Years of research on behavior and emotion processing has shown that the face is an extremely reliable resource to measure emotional engagement as well as attempts to hide emotions. For more information on FACS and how it can be applied to market research check out http://www.facscodinggroup.com/about/areas-of-application

  • http://forum.smobot.com smobot

    Very interesting, though this is still an iterative approach to optimization, like A|B testing; more useful in final validation of otherwise creative marketing processes.

    I suppose neuromarketing could aid in reshaping marketing metrics and targets though. If this technology proves that weird font result in better brand recall, that the word “trust” creates trust, or that certain colors or shapes put decision makers at ease, marketers should be able to get closer to the mark on their first iteration.

    However, without getting overly formulaic, I do think that basic human empathy and introspection work pretty well. Would I buy it? How does it make me feel? Is this yet another out-of-season Superbowl commercial?

  • Stacy Graiko

    The death of focus groups has been talked about for years and yet they’re still very much alive. Surely, neuromarketing is not going to make them obsolete. In fact, qualitative researchers (including focus group moderators) often work closely with neuroscientists and behavioral scientists to strengthen their work and vice versa. The researchers I work with have found value in each other’s methods – not one of them has ousted another – and as a result we are all able to offer more robust research design to our clients.

    One point of clarification on the article: focus groups are not about “asking questions.” I would challenge the author to sit in on a focus group to see how moderators are employing creative approaches to understand the consumer subconscious through the use of projective techniques like role-play, guided visualization and hypnosis.

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