Transcript: That Neuromarketing Episode

Katie Hart, psychology lecturer and founder of neuromarketing consultancy Rhetonic, leads us into her fascinating world to understand how different messages set off responses in the brain, and why marketers need to pay attention.

Listen to the full conversation here.

 So neuromarketing is one of those things that is starting to get a bit more pickup, but it is still a bit of a niche field. Can you do us a brief introduction to how it works and how you got into the field? 

Yeah, of course! Neuromarketing really brings together knowledge that we are gaining about our brains and how our brains work, and how we see the world and in particular, some of the cognitive elements. So how we, how we create memories, how our perception works, how we pay attention to some things and not other. And it brings all of this into the world of marketing. So it’s obviously really powerful information that we can learn. I first became interested in it because I studied psychology, I have a passion for understanding people and why we do the things we do, why we behave the way we do, really, why some of us when given the same opportunities, or the same stimulus, don’t actually all choose to behave in the same way. So it’s looking into what makes us different.  

And so really, that’s where I started was loving psychology, I did a couple of summer jobs in the field of marketing, which I also enjoyed. And when I left university, I started my career in marketing. And I’m afraid to say at that point psychology was, it was something I taught in the evenings to mature students. And I had never really seen the opportunity to put the two together, which is quite shameful now. But yes, there was then a moment where I was being jobs. And I went and reflected back on what my skills were and what my interests my passions were. And at that moment, I was almost literally sitting down, thinking, “Am I going to go back to psychology and studying all of that, that I love so much? Or am I going to go back to marketing and all of that, that I love so much?” And thankfully, there was a wonderful moment where the two worlds merged, and I realized I didn’t have to choose one or the other. And actually, I could explore a career which incorporated both. And that was 12 years ago. So as you say, there was very little known about it at that time, I did a bit of research, a bit of googling, and absolutely loved what I read and what I saw, but at the same time had this tremendous sense of potential and how this was only emerging at that stage and how it was something that I really felt I could be part of. 


Is it possible to not use psychology in your marketing? Is it the case that everything has an influence, whether we accept it or not? And we’re now just beginning to understand how we can wield that? 

Yes, as I say, it’s quite embarrassing to me now that I spent so long studying psychology and enjoying a career in marketing and never put the two worlds together because psychology is defined as the science of mind and behaviour. And as marketers, we often want to be able to influence the way people behave, understand what’s going on inside their minds or their brains as they’re making decisions. Yes, it feels now perfectly natural. I think you’re right, whatever we do, as marketers is going to have an impact. So whether we do that intentionally or not, doesn’t really make a difference, it is still going to be fed through the same processes in the brain. And sometimes we might hit on something which works really well. Other times we might pull together a campaign we’ve got lots of confidence in or we might launch a product we’ve done lots of research into and it isn’t successful. So we will still be at the hands of psychology, even if we don’t understand those processes behind it. But what we can do through neuromarketing is bring the neuroscience learning so that we no longer do that by accident. So we can actually choose what effect we want to bring about in the brains of our customers if we can actually help them to make those decision-making processes more effectively and more easily.  


I suppose, the other side of intentionality, if we can call it that is, since the field has obviously developed a lot in the time that you’ve been doing it, maybe consumers are now more aware of the elements of psychology that go into marketing. Do you think we see a reduction in the impact as people are aware of it? Or is it deep enough that knowing that these psychological tactics are being used doesn’t actually influence whether they work or not? 

I think most of it, yes. These are quite deep, almost evolutionary, physiological responses that we’re talking about. So they aren’t things that we can choose to switch on or switch off. So very often they can be used in a way that we won’t even know we are having a process done to us. And so this isn’t something that we would seek to, to move away from, or we would feel that we are getting sort of initiation saturation, we would say, so we are getting fed up with or bored by. When somebody hits on something which works, you do find quite a lot of organizations then adopt that particular process and roll it out. So we can see that it’s used in a lot of different ways. But that won’t reduce the impact it has within the brain for people.  

I don’t know if you’ve seen it or not, there’s a documentary on Netflix called The Social Dilemma, which talks about the impact and the psychological impact of social media. And it was really interesting to hear their people who were responsible for developing things like Pinterest, or Instagram, who were saying that although in their day job, they were using this knowledge to encourage people to stay on social media and use it more, they couldn’t themselves stop that behaviour working on themselves. So they would get home from the office in the evening, and would then spend three-quarters of an hour on Pinterest knowing that they were being manipulated or influenced to stay on there longer. So even when you do really know these processes, the knowledge that I have, I still get suckered into exactly the same practices that other people would. 


If these effects are so powerful that you can’t even consciously opt out of them, how do marketers start approaching this from an ethical angle? That certainly seems to be the hot topic around, like you said, the larger social media platforms and how they’re using this power? How does that trickle down to two hours or more or more sort of SME B2B audience, do you think? 

 It is a big areaI’m not proud to say that I don’t feel it’s one that we have really grasped yet. There is so much potential in all of this. And that potential has been used in clinical environments, therapeutic environments, all sorts of environments where it has been incredibly effective. And it’s really the transition of that out of the academic world into the commercial environment, which starts to raise lots of questions. At the moment, there are very few laws or authorities who are policing what is going on. There are some, but sadly, as you say, they don’t really impact most of us at the SME level. At our stage, what most of us do is we have our own codes of conduct or our own standards that we adhere to. So it is dependent a lot on an individual practitioner. And I know some of my colleagues who won’t work with anybody in the tobacco industry, for instance, because they don’t want to take this knowledge and apply it to those products. That said, people like the gaming industry seem perfectly happy to carry on applying this without any real conscience about the effect it may be having on their consumers. So sadly, at the moment, it is very much down to individual interpretations. Although I do believe that the British Psychological Society and the Market Research Society are actually looking into this. 


Okay, two good sources there for people that are thinking about how to actively apply that. That’s have you found so far, that different techniques are better suited to different media, for example, something that works very well in a Facebook post won’t perform over email, or is the distinction not quite there yet? 

Yeah, absolutely. So there are some which have quite a large appeal across the spectrum, but most of them will vary according to individual platforms. And a lot of that is about understanding the environment the consumer is in at the time that they are accessing them. So things like social media feeds; if you look at the amount of time somebody spends in a social media feed, as they’re scrolling through, you have split seconds to capture their attention. Whereas generally with emails, you’ve got more time. And then you have more of an opportunity to create an impact that you want to have within their minds. So even at that, you know, at that small level, there are things that we would seek do differently. And then if you escalate that up to having large scale posters or billboards on the Underground in London or something like that, there is a lot more you can do, because you’ve got people who will be captive in that environment for a period of time and that the format itself lends itself to more of a visual impact as well. So it’s really about balancing all of those and understanding how your particular target audience group is going to utilize, or be exposed to, any of those methods. 


With that in mind, what are some straightforward ways that marketers can start applying this neuromarketing science? Particularly to email campaigns, I think that’s going to be the focus for the majority of our audience listening to thisBearing in mind what you’ve said about the different states or contexts people find themselves in. 

I would think the easiest way to start is, firstly, get out there and find out what has already been discovered. So there are some great books on this. There are several authors who have been around for a long time who have written books that are still held in high regard. There are people who are writing blogs, who are much more sort of up to date in terms of their content, but less proven in terms of validity in some instances. But the first thing I would suggest is just immersing yourself in the options and the choices that you have available to you. The second thing is I would absolutely advocate that you do some split tests, try doing things differently, see what works best for your audience, it’s unlikely that you’re going to find a piece of neuromarketing research, which is specifically prescribed for your target audience. So, some of that you may need to tailor or adapt or tweak to suit your audience. And I think the best way to do that is split test and see how the results actually manifest. 


And actually, I’m going to do a little bit of a plug and talk about the research that you helped us with, with some internal Spotler people and with a range of our customers, to whom we are incredibly grateful. It was a unique piece of research, looking at split testing different landing pages, different email formats, and assessing what’s going on in the brain, beyond just the click results that you see in a normal split test. Can you tell us a bit about how that was set up from a psychology point of view? 

Yeah, of course, be delighted to. So, the research that we carried out, as you say, was looking into what actually is going on inside the brains of people who are on the receiving end of emails that come into our inbox. So, the sort of marketing emails that any of us may send out on a regular basis. And also looking at what goes on in people’s brains as they visit web pages, typically, yes, landing pages on websites.  

So, we developed the research looking predominantly at marketing professionals, and trying to identify what it was that they really, their brains, in particular, really engaged with, what they found most interesting, what they found really accessibleSo, what’s easy for us to communicate messages through to them? And also, what, what excited them, you know, what were they engaged with? What were they interested or fascinated by? So, we looked at 19 different web layouts, and 9 different email layouts. And across each of those 28 different presentations, we wanted to make sure that the content stayed exactly the same so that we were measuring people’s response to the layout and not their response to the actual content. So, as you say, very indebted to your customers who allowed us to present 28 different lots of the same information on GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) to them, which is the topic. And we got some lovely results actually looking at what’s going on inside people’s brains as they were exposed these different variations. So, we use something called electroencephalography, or EEG, which is wearing a headset which measures the electrical impulses that are going on in the brain. And through these, we can start to tell what people are interested in, whether they’re viewing it positively or not, whether they’re engaged, whether they’re having to apply a lot of brain resource, or whether they’re having to work hard to understand what they see. Whether their attention is held by it or whether it’s diverted in lots of different directions. All of this information we were able to monitor and analyze.  

In terms of email formats, the one which the brain was most comfortable with, most engaged with, happiest to see, was a standard Outlook format. Now we tried a number of different ones which included graphics, which had lots of text, short amounts of text, all sorts of different ones. personalized headings to the email, all sorts of different permutations. It was a standard Outlook one which the brain responded most positively to. But not everybody. Because what we did was, we actually split the participants into different categories and although at the senior levels within organizations, the brain responded very positively to the Outlook format, the more junior ones in particular, the interns that we researched, were not so favourable towards it. They perhaps weren’t so familiar with that format yet, because I appreciate it something that most of us in the business world tend to communicate through. But perhaps not something that students or people who are new into the business environment would be so familiar with.

In terms of landing pages, we tried, again, lots of different formats, and we got some great results. One of the most interesting results was that we had the most positive results across the board, and the least positive results achieved across the board, from almost exactly the same design, just with one change to that landing page layout. And that was the positioning of the call-to-action button. So, in one instance, it was viewed incredibly positively. And just making that one change of putting the call-to-action button on the opposite side of the screen, suddenly made it a very negative response within the brain. So, it does go to show that some of these little changes that we may fall on by accident, or that we may implement without that intentionality behind it, can have a really drastic effect on the results that we achieve. 

I think the other thing that’s worth talking about is we had a couple of images, which had people on them on the landing page. So, when you arrive on the landing page, there was either an image of a female, an image of a male, or one of those group images that you often find that has a mixture of ages, genders, races, all sorts, a group of five or six individuals. And what we found were that actually, the response to the male image was far more interested. People are interested in him, whereas actually, the female image people were stressed by: that scored really high on the stress metric. And when they viewed the same content, remember the same text but alongside an image which had the group, this gave us the lowest score in terms of focus. Now we know that the brain, there’s a special part of the brain called the fusiform area, which is all about recognizing faces, and being able to identify people. And I think what happened in that particular image, or that particular layout, where we have the group image is that the attention was detracted from the actual content and the text on the webpage, because there was so much resource went into identifying these faces, recognizing that they are faces and almost being drawn into that image at the expense of understanding the content, or, indeed reading the message that accompanied it. So yeah, there was some fantastic insights that we picked up. And the report does go into lots of detail about what marketing professionals liked and didn’t like, and what male participants preferred and female preferred. And again, that seniority that I’ve already spoken about. So it’s not a one size fits all. But there is lots that we learned just as a result of doing that experiment with you. 


Absolutely, as you say that is on our website, if you go to, you can search ‘the experiment’. Wherever you’re listening to this, I’ll make sure that link is available in the show notes and on the webpage that we publish. So you can have a full read of that and start applying it. It leads back quite nicely to a lot of things we’ve been saying for a while about segmenting your audience and personalizing them, because there really is a demonstrable difference in how different kinds of people react to different kinds of images. 

This is an emerging science, there is a lot of knowledge that we are gaining the academic institutions are researching and producing reports, articles, journals on this all the time. So it’s very much in the early stages. But it’s incredibly exciting. And it does have a lot of potential. So I would always say to people, try it, try some of these techniques, try them small scale, see what works best for you. And slowly over time, you’ll build a picture of what’s actually going to deliver you the best results. 


Are you able to share with us any particular campaigns for people you’ve worked with that you’ve seen it applied really effectively that we might have come across, out in the world? 

The sad thing is I’m not allowed to name names around some of the work that I’ve been doing most recently. There have been there was a campaign with somebody who was in the oil industry who was wanting to do some work looking at the people that they recruited into their organization. So I’ve worked with them to really focus on the impact of their recruitment processes and their recruitment campaigns and the recruitment adverts even that went out, but they could have a very different response from a different section of their target audience, which has been exciting.  At a completely different end, I did some research into food and food tasting and in particular, the apple industry, looking at people’s responses inside the brain as they taste different apples and seeing what resonates most strongly with them in terms of creating new varieties of apples as well for the UK market, 


That is two very, very different ends of the scale! That goes to show that anyone can start applying this stuff and start learning from it. I think that’s a very good point to end on. But it’s out there and forwardthinking organizations are using it. So take the plunge and get involved. Katie, once again, thank you very much for spending some time on the podcast with us. 

You’re welcome. Thanks for talking to me. 

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