Learn how to choose the right faces for your content marketing strategy
Creativity Creative Thinking

What the Neuroscience Behind Faces Means for Your Content Marketing Strategy

Ironically, in a world full of wires and screens, where the Internet connects 3.17 billion people worldwide, we’re a little panicked about being disconnected. We crave social, personal interactions so much that we invented Facebook, a company that’s only been around since 2004 but is now worth more than oil juggernaut ExxonMobil ($328 billion vs. $315 billion), which makes Mark Zuckerberg the sixth richest person in the world.

That this company—which started out as a kind of hot-or-not rating game with college students’ photos—could have come to dominate our world so much, might seem a bit shallow. But when we dig into the science, our obsession with faces is more than skin deep.

Why We’re Obsessed with Faces

Research shows that photos with faces are 38 percent more likely to receive Likes and 32 percent more likely to receive comments on Instagram than photos without faces. That’s a significant increase in engagement.

Faces are so important to us that we even have a region in the brain known as the fusiform face area (FFA), which appears to be largely dedicated to recognizing and processing faces. Both information about the features (eyes, nose, mouth) and the spatial relationship between these features are encoded in the FFA.

Computer-enhanced fMRI scan of a person who has been asked to look at faces. The image shows increased blood flow in the part of the brain that recognizes faces (FFA)

One study found that processing of the emotions in a face happens extremely fast, and automatically, before our conscious brain has time to react. Another study found that radiologists showed more empathy in diagnosis when presented with a photo of the face of the patient being diagnosed.

Taken together this research suggests that our brains have a very unique connection to faces. Our initial response to seeing a face may even have a strong appeal to emotion—strong enough to change our behavior—before we realize we’ve been affected.

Using faces to connect with an audience is nothing new in marketing, but neuroimaging studies reveal just how powerful this technique can be. However, because we are such experts at faces, we’re not easily fooled.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me...

A Face Is Not a Face Is Not a Face

Before you slap smiley faces all over your content marketing strategy and call it a day, pay attention to the specific findings of these studies. Using faces appropriately requires a bit more creative thinking:

1. Context Matters

One study found that spatial and textural information help us identify emotions in faces. For instance, we’re quicker to understand a happy face if it’s on a sunny beach than a happy face if it’s in a dark alleyway. The study also found that movement enhances our ability to identify emotions in faces when those emotions are subtle, and people judge emotions to be more authentic when expressions are longer lasting and more fluid in onset and offset.

Content marketing tip: Choose photos that depict faces in rich contextual environments. Avoid blank or ambiguous backgrounds and disembodied heads. Use video to convey more subtle and complex emotions. Make sure your faces appear authentic and real rather than exaggerated and staged. Authentic photos will appeal to emotion in your readers, inauthentic ones will push them away. Favor less polished visuals over generic stock, or hire a photographer or videographer to produce custom content for you, otherwise you run the risk of communicating this:

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How age affects perception of faces2. Age and Gender Affect Reaction Time and Memory

One study found we react faster to faces of infants than we do to faces of adults, which could be related to an automatic biological tendency toward affection and nurturing behavior. Another study found that women seem to remember more female than male faces, but men show no difference in memory for different genders.

Content marketing tip Choose your visuals according to your audience. If you’re trying to attract a female audience, choose photos of women and infants to get a stronger response and better memory for your content.

3. Race Affects Reaction Time and Where We Focus Our Attention

One study showed that we recognize faces of our own race faster than those of other races, and white people spend more time looking at eyes while black people spend more time looking at noses, regardless of the race of the face they are looking at.

Content marketing tip: Your audiences’ demographics matter. To best capture their attention, don’t choose gratuitously multiracial photos of people. Choose photos to match the racial demographics of your readers. If your audience is 100 percent Asian, they will respond better to photos of Asian faces than photos of any other race. Plus, establishing good eye contact between your photos and your readers may be more important for a white audience, as they tend to pay more attention to eyes than black people, who pay more attention to noses.

As scientists begin to apply new neuroimaging techniques to watch what’s happening in the brain when we view different types of images and video, we’re beginning to get a deeper understanding of how some uses of faces, with a bit of creative thinking, will work better than others.

When You Get Too Much of a Good Thing

Beware of a content marketing strategy that works too well. Using an appeal to emotion to establish too much of a personal connection to your customers can backfire when they’re reminded you’re a company, not a friend. Blurring the lines between an exchange relationship (where we trade for mutual benefit) and a communal relationship (based on mutual caring and support) can set your customers up for greater disappointment when you have to make a critical business decision that those customers don’t like.

Intrepid Travel is a great example of a company that uses stunning photography that is authentic, contextually rich, and dynamic. But not over-the-top on the “let’s be best friends” front.

The key to using faces in content marketing visuals effectively is to show you’re authentic and approachable, not to be your customer’s best friend. We don’t like faceless companies, but in a world where we spend over 40 minutes on Facebook every day, we don’t need another best friend. Faces are a powerful tool; use them wisely.

To find out more about how the complex inner workings of the brain affect how we process content, sign up for the Content Standard Newsletter.

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