Wouldn’t it be great if we could know, intuitively, what was going to be a successful content marketing idea before we spent the entire budget on a room full of cute bunnies with no guarantees it would pay off? (Actually, that’s not a bad idea . . . )
One of the hardest realities in the marketing world is the risk we take every time we come up with a new idea. Sure, we can conduct some focus groups and get input from a diverse cross-section of our own teams (seriously, who doesn’t love bunnies?), but we never really know what will stick. Then there’s the challenge, given a lack of concrete evidence, of convincing management to allocate the budget we need to produce our work.
Image attribution: Simona Robová
On average, marketing budgets are a fairly significant chunk of a company’s revenue. Companies spend about 10-13% of their revenues on marketing, and the numbers have been rising year over year. Advertising expenditure in the US alone was well on its way to $200 billion in 2015 and is expected to top $240 billion by 2020. And yet 40% of marketers say that one of their top marketing challenges is proving the ROI of marketing activities. It just seems too difficult to know what’s going to work, and even whether a campaign has worked after the fact.
But recent studies of brain activity seem to indicate that our brains can spot a winning idea better than we can. Wait . . . what?
A recent study out of Stanford University scanned peoples’ brains as they viewed projects on Kickstarter and decided whether or not they would fund the campaigns—all proposals for documentaries. Interestingly, no matter what people said about whether or not they would fund a campaign, a region in the brain called the nucleus accumbens showed different neural activity for projects that later went on to receive funding. This difference in activity better predicted funding success than participants’ conscious decisions about whether or not they would fund the project.
The researchers were so shocked with the findings that they repeated the entire experiment with new campaigns and new participants and found the same thing. Stefan Bode, an academic in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Melbourne says: “I feel like one is left with a rather strong paradox: how can the brain ‘know’ what will be successful but the person doesn’t?”
Image attribution: Ashley Batz
The nucleus accumbens is a region in the brain that’s associated with expecting a reward, but we may not actually be consciously aware of the response of our nucleus accumbens. In factoring in many different considerations that our brains conduct in making a decision, we may occasionally override the information coming from the nucleus accumbens.
However, brain activity studies have found that in general we do make decisions that align with our nucleus accumbens. Researchers explain that means that monitoring the activity in this region of the brain in a small sample of people could be a good predictor of the general behavior of larger populations.
Lead researcher Brian Knutson calls the potential new tool “neuroforecasting,” which could be used to improve voting polls, for instance, and get more accurate results from focus groups. Furthermore, when patterns throughout the whole brain were analyzed—not just in the nucleus accumbens—the accuracy with which these patterns could predict the future, so to speak, was even higher. Other studies have revealed the power of looking at patterns across the whole brain to better understand how we process complex information, like narrative storytelling.Using brain scanning techniques in focus groups and panels, companies could eventually potentially determine how many and what color bunnies they need to fill a room with to achieve the best ROI on their campaigns. Marketers could present more detailed and accurate findings to management about the viability of their campaigns. We could also leverage more financial resources to pursue bigger and bolder ideas that may be getting rejected in the absence of better evidence of their eventual return on investment (more bunnies? multiple rooms of bunnies?). We could even observe the extent to which a particular campaign is likely to resonate with different audiences, and the extent to which minor tweaks could change the outcome.
Trying to predict the success of a marketing campaign can often be akin to investing in the stock market—we have a general idea of what’s likely to do well and some concrete information here and there to back that up, but at the end of the day we’re gambling, and there’s real money at stake. Neuroforecasting is a long way from becoming a viable marketing tool, but one day it might take some of the risk out of backing new and untested ideas.
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Featured image attribution: Anthony Ginsbrook