Neuroscience Secrets That Can Supercharge Your Marketing

Marketers and business owners who understand human behavior and motivation have an unfair advantage over their competitors.

As we wrote in How to Use Science To Improve Your Marketing:

Smart businesses apply science to marketing. Relying on psychological research, these businesses adapt marketing strategies to maximize revenues and profits. When companies unlock the innermost secrets of how and why people buy things, interesting patterns begin to emerge.

For example, there’s good empirical data showing the best times and days to send marketing emails to maximize opens and click-through rates. However, as people have grown to more heavily use mobile devices, the science of email is gradually evolving. New research suggests, contrary to conventional wisdom, that many brands can benefit from sending email campaigns at night.

The reality is that few small businesses today study the human decision-making process in an effort to enhance their marketing.

Neuroscience is left largely to big, powerful Brands that invest millions of dollars into demographic and psychographic research and on quantitative and qualitative studies.

But although neuroscience sounds complicated, the fundamentals of neuroscience draw on human motivations and behavior.

This is something nearly everyone can understand.

Neuroscience won’t help you predict which ads or marketing messages will lead to more sales.

While that’s the holy grail of neuroscience and neuromarketing, it’s simply not possible to make such predictions.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling snake oil

But, neuroscience can help you to make better marketing decisions and can help you to improve your marketing strategy.

As we wrote in 7 Marketing Psychology Tips to Improve Your Business Marketing:

When we understand that emotions inform our decisions through their linked associations, it becomes easier to see how you can use this information when planning your marketing strategy. While every consumer is unique and each has a unique set of emotional associations, we can nonetheless make certain generalizations.

For example, most people like to feel positive emotions like happiness, connection, and pride. Most people dislike sadness, loss, fear or regret. So, linking your product with positive feelings or showing how it can eliminate negative emotions is a compelling sales tool.

One good example is when companies use taglines or slogans. Positive taglines tend to perform better than negative ones.

The good news is that you don’t have to have a PhD in neuroscience, or a staff of 50 marketers, to apply the fundamentals of neuroscience to your own marketing efforts.

Here’s how you can use marketing psychology to supercharge your own marketing efforts.

Create Loyal Customers By Building Trust

Let’s start with trust – one of the pillars of human motivation and behavior.

Trust is complicated.

Without trust, people don’t buy products and services and don’t recommend companies to their friends and family.

It’s like trusting a person – if you don’t believe them, you want nothing to do with them.

This is why trust is imperative for any business.

But many businesses forget that trust is so vital to their success.

They focus on the product or service – whether working on developing something groundbreaking or spending a lot of time and money promoting it.

While product features can help reinforce trust, they don’t build trust.

We’ve talked about this before:

One of the most valuable rules consumer behavior has taught us is that people respond better to emotional appeals than intellectual ones. Roger Dooley’s article “Emotional Ads Work Better” reveals that emotional ad campaigns perform nearly twice as well as ads with a rational focus.

Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, hints at this in his Ted Talk on inspiring leadership.

In his talk, Sinek explains that the best leaders and companies focus on “why” they do what they do before they focus on the “what” or the “how”.

According to Sinek, everyone else does the opposite.

To illustrate this idea, Sinek draws a clear comparison between Apple and Dell.

Sinek explains that while both are computer companies, only one (Apple) has focused on building up user trust so much that we are comfortable buying nearly every product they make.

In the case of Apple, social proof helps to create stronger trust. As we wrote previously:

In 1951 Solomon Asch, a social psychologist, designed a study testing whether a lone subject would, when questioned, give the obviously correct answer if they were surrounded by subjects giving an obviously wrong answer. The study revealed that 37 of 50 subjects conformed to the larger group and gave the obviously incorrect answer. Asch later reflected,

The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black.

This concept is called Social Proof. In essence, it means that people look for reassurance and behavioral cues from those around them. The logic goes something like this, “If everyone else likes it, maybe I’ll like it, too.”

It’s well known that such behavior is common among people. In fact, T.H. Morgan and K. Laland’s study “The Biological Bases of Conformity” suggests that conformist behavior in humans has its basis in our biology. They report that:

Humans are characterized by an extreme dependence on culturally transmitted information and recent formal theory predicts that natural selection should favor adaptive learning strategies that facilitate effective copying and decision making….early findings imply that humans may possess specific cognitive adaptations for effective social learning.

As Asch, Morgan and Laland point out, conformity is a powerful motivator. Since this drive to conform has been shown to be so deeply pervasive, it stands to reason that it can be a reliable tool for persuading consumers. As a marketer, you can use consumers’ desire to be included to affect their decision-making process.

While Sinek’s Ted Talk is technically about leadership, he makes an interesting biological connection between focusing on the “why”, trust, and customers:

None of what I’m telling you is my opinion. It’s all grounded in the tenets of biology. Not psychology, biology. If you look at a cross-section of the human brain, from the top down, the human brain is actually broken into three major components that correlate perfectly with the golden circle. Our newest brain, our Homo sapien brain, our neocortex, corresponds with the “what” level. The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought and language. The middle two sections make up our limbic brains, and our limbic brains are responsible for all of our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It’s also responsible for all human behavior, all decision-making, and it has no capacity for language.

Our limbic brains help us decide whether or not we buy from a certain company, and whether we trust them to provide us with good products or services.

When companies can successfully tap into that part of the brain, they can almost guarantee that a person is more likely to buy.

It always boils down to building more trust.

Paul Zak, a neuroscience researcher, linked trust and economic performance by studying the varying levels of each in various countries.

According to Zak, the limbic system isn’t the only part of our brains that affects trust.

In a study examining the reason behind trust, Zak found that oxytocin, a powerful neurotransmitter and hormone, plays a huge role.

Oxytocin was already known to affect social interaction and was loosely connected to trust, but it was mostly studied as a chemical that promoted bonding.

Zak found that higher levels of oxytocin actually lead to a higher threshold for accepting risk in social situations.

In the study, Zak and his fellow researchers increased oxytocin levels in certain participants and asked them to role play as investors and trustees, tracking the monetary transactions between the parties.

The study closely mirrors the way businesses and customers work, with money being handed over in exchange for something.

In the study, just like in real life, there is a chance that one party will not follow through and not share their profits or deliver on their promise.

This potential risk caused some investors to give less money to their trustees.

However, with higher levels of oxytocin, the potential risk seemed less scary:

The ubiquity of trusting behavior is perhaps one of the distinguishing features of the human species. An element of trust characterizes almost all human social interactions. Here we have sought to examine the effect of oxytocin on trust in humans. Research in non-human mammals suggests that oxytocin has a key role in social attachment and affiliation. We find that intranasal administration of oxytocin causes a substantial increase in trusting behavior. Subjects given oxytocin seem better able to overcome trust obstacles such as betrayal aversion.

We’re not suggesting you inject your customers and prospects with oxytocin.

So what can you do instead?

Conduct Marketing Experiments To Measure Trust

You should develop a hypothesis and conduct experiments to see how you can build trust.

This is analogous to testing different marketing campaigns using A/B testing.

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In an earlier article, we offered some thoughts on setting up controlled experiments:

Do you remember having to write a hypothesis for your science experiment in school? If you have school-age kids, you’re probably helping them do this now.

The goal of a hypothesis is to help explain the focus or direction of the experiment. A hypothesis is a prediction.

An experiment is structured as follows:

  1. Formulate a hypothesis
  2. Design and execute an experiment to prove/disprove the hypothesis
  3. Analyze the results
  4. Accept, reject or refine the hypothesis

Experiments can help you apply lean marketing principles to conduct quick, low cost tests to develop and scale your marketing strategies.

Let’s walk through an example. A few years ago, our friends at Basecamp wanted to test various design concepts for one of their software products, Highrise. Here’s what they wrote:

We have assumptions about why some designs perform better than others. However we don’t know exactly why. Is it the color of the background? Is it the headline? We hope more iterative testing of the winners will help us get that information. If you have any theories please add them in the comments.

The team created a variation on their original design and A/B tested that variation. They found that the newly designed long form had a 37.5% increase in net signups compared to the original form. That’s a terrific improvement in conversions.

One very useful place to run experiments, if you run an online e-commerce business, is your pricing page. People have long assumed that customers want more choice. It turns out that for most customers, that assumption is wrong. People are more likely to purchase when their choices are limited.

Small things can significantly influence a customer’s mood and impact their buying decisions, and you rarely know what marketing message will be most effective for every customer.

For example, banner ads have a terrible track record, but small tweaks can make them more effective.

… the inclusion of human faces with averted gaze in banner advertisements provides a promising means for marketers to increase the attention paid to such adverts, thereby enhancing memory for advertising information.

Your experiments can start with creating customer personas.

What does your typical customer “look” like?

If you have different groups of customers, you should identify different personas representing each group.

How do they think? How do they feel? How do they perceive your products and services? What’s important to them? What will it take to get them to trust you?

This is more than just research and data. It means attaching emotions and building up enough information so that you essentially have a complete profile.

If you can understand your customers, you can understand how to get them to trust you more.

And while we wrote earlier that neuroscience can’t predict outcomes, some promising research suggests that this can happen.

Some years ago, researchers Berns and Moore wanted to predict the popularity of certain songs. They concluded that the response of the brain’s reward system to new songs predicted the future success of those songs:

We use neuroimaging to predict cultural popularity — something that is popular in the broadest sense and appeals to a large number of individuals. Neuroeconomic research suggests that activity in reward-related regions of the brain, notably the orbitofrontal cortex and ventral striatum, is predictive of future purchasing decisions, but it is unknown whether the neural signals of a small group of individuals are predictive of the purchasing decisions of the population at large. For neuroimaging to be useful as a measure of widespread popularity, these neural responses would have to generalize to a much larger population that is not the direct subject of the brain imaging itself. Here, we test the possibility of using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to predict the relative popularity of a common good: music. We used fMRI to measure the brain responses of a relatively small group of adolescents while listening to songs of largely unknown artists. As a measure of popularity, the sales of these songs were totaled for the three years following scanning, and brain responses were then correlated with these “future” earnings. Although subjective likability of the songs was not predictive of sales, activity within the ventral striatum was significantly correlated with the number of units sold. These results suggest that the neural responses to goods are not only predictive of purchase decisions for those individuals actually scanned, but such responses generalize to the population at large and may be used to predict cultural popularity.

When you conduct your own experiments, keep several important things in mind.

For example, most people can only remember five to seven items at any one time. This is a natural limitation of our working memory.

If you create complex designs and barrage people with lots of content, you’ll lose their trust.

Also consider how people interpret color, depth, and movement. Shadows, layers, and colors can influence the visual cortex to perceive hierarchies in the information you present to prospective customers, purposefully drawing people’s eyes to the most relevant information.

Don’t forget to ask the right questions by framing. As we explained:

.. framing is the act of manipulating context to make consumers more receptive to your product or service. Our brains take in all outside information and then filter to determine which bits are important. This means that context is just as important to the decision-making process as your product or service itself.

The framing phenomenon was studied in the early 1980’s by Dr. Amos Tversky and Dr. Daniel Kahneman. Their studies showed that “…seemingly inconsequential changes in the formulation of choice problems [framing] caused significant shifts of preference.” They found this to be particularly true of decisions involving money.

What framing teaches us is that how you ask a question can determine how people will answer it. Tversky and Kahneman’s research revealed that 72% of people chose a positively framed option over 22% choosing the same option framed negatively. The research suggests that positively framed offers can increase sales.

Demonstrate Vulnerability To Increase Trust

You can also tap into customer emotions and increase trust by showing that you are vulnerable.

In an article about designing high-trust products, product designer Yusuf Hassan explains that being more vulnerable can increase oxytocin levels.

Can you or as an extension of you - your product- be human? Will you show to customers that you do not know it all?

Another example from the employee-centric research is that: “Leaders in high-trust workplaces ask for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things…research team has found that this stimulates oxytocin production in others, increasing their trust and cooperation.”

You can build your product credibility by being open and show to your customers that you are open to suggestion and that you are not a “know-it-all”.

In the same article, Hassan dives into Airbnb as a company that has designed their product with trust.

While Hassan’s analysis focuses on the user interface, research also shows that your overall design (logo design, business name, website, etc.) can also affect trust.

Brands have a high impact on people’s economic decisions. People may prefer products of brands even among almost identical products. Brands can be defined as cultural-based symbols, which promise certain advantages of a product. Recent studies suggest that the prefrontal cortex may be crucial for the processing of brand knowledge. The aim of this study was to examine the neural correlates of culturally based brands. We confronted subjects with logos of car manufactures during an fMRI session and instructed them to imagine and use a car of these companies. As a control condition, we used graphically comparable logos of car manufacturers that were unfamiliar to the culture of the subjects participating in this study. If they did not know the logo of the brand, they were told to imagine and use a generic car. Results showed activation of a single region in the medial prefrontal cortex related to the logos of the culturally familiar brands. We discuss the results as self-relevant processing induced by the imagined use of cars of familiar brands and suggest that the prefrontal cortex plays a crucial role for processing culturally based brands.

The majority of businesses have yet to explore the practical applications of neuroscience research. This is your chance to leapfrog your competitors and supercharge your marketing by tapping into consumer behavior.

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