For Carmen Simon, executive coach at Rexi Media, a company that brings brain science into presentation training, the focus is on the 10 per cent that people can actually remember. For Jennifer Town, VP of marketing at AOL, it’s about looking at the “triggers” and the data that drives decisions in order to be more predictive and guide customer toward a “desired action”.
The problem facing marketers is a product of evolution known as habituation—the naturally occurring tendency for humans to block out unnecessary stimuli. “In fact people would go insane without habituation—imagine if you noticed absolutely everything all the time and didn’t have an off switch,” said Simon. “But that’s also what kills marketing.”
To put it in perspective, Simon referenced a study that where people were shown a 20-page slide presentation and then two days later asked what they could recall.
“Some people could remember about four slides, most didn't remember anything and a few asked ‘what presentation slide?” said Simon. “In another case all people remembered from a presentation was that it’s ok have sex and text.”
The message for marketers is that “stimuli lose power very quickly”. In other words ads are often highly forgettable unless you find a way to stay with “consumers attention” and tap into their “selective memory”.
“Just think about how quickly you block out noises like the sound of an air-conditioner at your office,” Simon added.
While Simon believes it starts with breaking down a complex message to a “10 per cent level” and bandwidth that is easily remembered and repeatable, Town thinks that everyone’s so called 10 per cent is different.
“When you're studying your customers you might need to generate a thousand ‘10 per cent’ type messages,” said Town, marrying data-driven marketing with neuroscience. “You need to test these and find the look-alikes or customer archetypes and apply those to particular sets of customers at any given time rather than try to go for a one-size fits all approach.”
However, the bottom-line is that habituation can work for you or against you. Two key factors influencing habituation are “stimulus internal variation” and "subjective arousal".
“At a simple level an example is the difference between looking at a fan and a television," said Simon. "The latter is more likely to stimulate your subjective arousal because it’s more sensorial.”
With the increase in media noise, the threshold for stimulation has also changed. A look at the speed and length of movie scenes is a testament to this idea: in the 1930s and '40s scenes lasted 10 seconds while after 2000 it’s not uncommon for a scene to last just four seconds.
“Customers are modern hunter and gathers,” said Town. “Changing things can raise uncertainty or get their engagement and improves viewer response.”
“Marketers need to get past the ‘attentional filters’—just think about trying to get a dog’s attention when they’re sniffing—it’s impossible,” said Simon. “On the other hand the brain is an excellent change detector and if you want to get attention the easiest way is to make a change.”
Town used the popular podcast Serial as an example to further this point: the accused murderer was unable to remember anything from the day of the crime but instead could recall details from a day when a snowstorm occurred.
“Aside from whether or not he did commit the crime, it takes something like a snowstorm for people to remember something,” said Town. “This is where I think retargeting can be used in creative ways.”
According to Simon, “pattern plus change” is optimal for sustaining attention. “This makes it harder and harder to look away,” said Simon. “The other factor is emotional and chemical. Dopamine has been studied so much that it's been called the Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters, which I think is unfair to dopamine.”
Often it’s the anticipation of pleasure that is most powerful. For example, in a study a rat that was primed to press down on a lever in anticipation of pleasure did so until it died of exhaustion.
“Purchasers who research a product for seven months before going into the store represent a huge opportunity because they’re charged with anticipation,” said Town. “There are a lot of special things you can do to build that whether it’s an online or offline experience. But it goes back to understanding motivation.”
Beyond marketing, neuroscience says something greater about our lives. “Imagine you lived to be 100 years old and looked back,” said Simon. “The people around you would only remember 10 per cent of your life—they’d be the key moments like when you got married or did something outstanding.”