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The brains behind neuromarketing: Part 1

Canadian company Brainsights is using “brain persuasion” to make online ads more memorable.

Canadian company Brainsights is using “brain persuasion” to make online ads more memorable.

The brains behind neuromarketing

One of the most revolutionary figures in twentieth-century advertising wasn’t a salesman but a psychologist.

When a divorce scandal cost John B. Watson (1878-1958) his job as a psychology professor, he became an ad agency superstar. From 1920 until his retirement in 1945, he used his psychology training to create successful campaigns for Maxwell House, Johnson & Johnson and General Motors.

Watson argued the key to marketing lay in persuasion rather than product information. He urged advertisers to appeal to emotion instead of reason.

“Tell (a consumer) something that will tie him up with fear, something that will stir up a mild rage, that will call out an affectionate or love response, or strike at a deep psychological or habit [sic] need,” Watson advised.

Three-quarters of a century later, businesses are still turning to brain science to influence customers.

How has brain hacking changed in the twenty-first century? Cutting-edge neuroscience is being paired with digital technology — including mobile devices, wearable sensors and data analytics — to provide deeper, timelier insights into consumer psychology than Watson could have dreamed of.

We spoke with two Canadian companies using these techniques and technologies to help businesses shape client behaviour.

Making (brain) waves

By now, most businesses know how to measure the popularity and effectiveness of their online presence. Programs like Google Analytics can reveal how many people search for their company online, how many of them actually visit a website and how long people stay there. It’s quick and easy to measure views, clicks, exits and bounce rates.

Startup firm Brainsights peers way beyond website metrics to venture inside our brains.

“A lot of those (metrics) are based on the ‘what’ aspect of what happened. We’re providing insights into ‘why’ that happened,” says Kevin Keane, Co-founder and CEO of Brainsights.

The Toronto company analyzes people’s physical and neurological reactions to digital content (i.e. websites, ads, apps, movies and TV shows) across various devices like laptops, phones, tablets and TVs. It uses sensors, headsets and other tools to gauge heart rate, eye movement, pupil dilation, skin conductivity, perspiration and, as its own name implies, brain activity.

This includes traditional EEG (electroencephalography — that unsightly, sensor-laden skull cap from so many Hollywood movies) to track brain waves. Brainsights compliments that with newer fMRI (functional magnet resonance imaging), which shows the specific parts of someone’s brain that are activated when they consume digital content.

Facial coding, a type of biometric facial recognition, is also used to “discern from the person’s expression what emotion they’re feeling,” says Keane.

Brand new tech?

Many of the technologies employed by Brainsights have been around for decades. What’s new is the volume of neurological and physiological data the company is collecting, the powerful analytics software it uses to analyze the data, and how quickly it can extract business-related insights from the entire process.

Brainsights has developed proprietary hardware and software that, compared with conventional EEG headsets, can capture data from 30 times more people at once.

“It’s taking a reading of brain wave activity every two milliseconds and feeding that into a data capture box,” Keane explains. “It enables us to do 30 times as much (data) sampling.”

Since Brainsights was founded in 2013, it has collected data from 15,000 test subjects (or “brainers,” as Keane calls them) around the world. Much like traditional product testing, Brainsights pays its “brainers” to consume specific pieces of digital content while various readings are taken from their brains and bodies.

     Related: Want to gain valuable marketing knowledge without taking time out of your busy day?

How they read our minds

How can all this data help businesses?

“We can tell exactly why — and when —a piece of content encodes itself on someone’s brain,” says Keane.

According to Brainsights, it analyzes the data on a second-by-second basis to show precisely when someone was most engaged in a movie, TV show or YouTube ad, for example — and, conversely, the moment when they tuned right out.

To figure out the ‘why’ part, Brainsights charts how certain characteristics of the content (length, pacing, theme and even lighting, music and on-air talent) affect audience response. The company can analyze more than 100 such metadata variables. Analytics software quickly crunches all the numbers, creating a play-by-play of how each aspect of the content influenced audience reaction.

Making use of the data

Brainsights’ clients use the information to gauge how well their content or campaign will resonate with the consumers they want to reach most.

“Where is my target consumer at? Are they younger or older? Do they live on mobile (devices)? It helps brands understand what connects with those subjects. We’re looking to help them better talk to those target audiences,” says Keane.

Does any of this really work? How much does it cost? Can EEG actually drive business ROI? Find out in part two, coming soon.

You’ll also meet Brian Cugelman, who has schooled clients like Apple and the Pentagon in the powers of digital persuasion. He’ll explain, among other things, why Facebook deploys “breakup psychology” to retain users, and how Twitter data can help you target marketing to specific personality types.

Up Next: Part 2 on neuromarketing trends and the costs to make this brainy vision a reality in business.

Christine Wong

Christine Wong is a journalist based in Toronto who has covered a wide range of startups and technology issues. A former staff writer with, she has also worked as a reporter for the Canadian Economic Press and in broadcast roles at SliceTV and the CBC.

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