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Science & Technology Series: Research Spotlight

Hacking the human brain with social marketing

Brain scans reveal the best way to engage consumers is through storytelling.

by Kyla Jardine (Senior Communications Officer)

Marketers have always spent time and money trying to pinpoint their ideal consumer market, but in the age of viral video, what makes that audience engage with an advert? New research looking at how the human brain responds to social marketing videos using encephalography (EEG) reveals that storytelling is the best way to engage consumers.

People need to lose themselves in the story they’re seeing in order for their attitudes and intentions to change to reflect that story.

Dr Tom van Laer

Narrative Transportation

The research team concluded that in order for campaigns to have a lasting influence on consumers, marketers need to create content that:

  • Gains their audience’s attention, working memory and invokes an emotional response
  • Reflects a typical story structure with a beginning, middle and end
  • Enables the consumer to identify with the subject
  • Provokes the consumer to care about the subject

Dr Tom van Laer, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Cass Business School and part of the research team, said:

“Our research shows that you have to use narrative transportation if you want to positively influence your audience’s behaviour. People need to lose themselves in the story they’re seeing in order for their attitudes and intentions to change to reflect that story.”

The research team used EEG to investigate consumer responses to social marketing videos. Their paper, published in the European Journal of Marketing, found that decision-making behaviours are generally associated with activation of the frontal brain systems.

They uncovered the importance of storytelling in consumer engagement by assessing brain activity related to attention, working memory, emotion and imagination in the role of narrative transportation.

Taking a different approach

But will this affect how marketers create content today? Dr Van Laer believes that traditional marketing data is still crucial in identifying target audiences, but when it comes to engaging with those people, marketers need to take a different approach entirely.

“The application of cognitive neuroscience in the marketing space, or ‘neuromarketing’ is a useful tool for marketers who want to increase engagement and influence.”

He added, “The problem we see with a lot of advertising today is that the creators and marketers are identifying with their peers and not their audience. They’re creating content in a bubble, thinking about what they want to see and not what stories their ideal customers want to engage with. We’ve seen this happen when ads go viral for the wrong reason.”

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