The field of neuromarketing is something that many have either (a) never heard of (b) think it’s akin to astrology, or (c) understand what it is, but have no idea how to make it useful for their business or web design. And this is what intrigues me about the topic: It’s hard science research that can be infused into your site’s design to create a stellar UX design to benefit your customers and visitors—but there’s so much misinformation about its usefulness and so much uncertainty about how to make it work outside the lab. At the end of the day, neuromarketing and UX are the two different sides of the same coin. And by the end of this post, I’m certain you’ll agree.

From chatting with a celebrated neuromarketing author, to a highly regarded behavioral science researcher, to a savvy content marketer who employs these techniques with his clients—I learned a lot. What I think  you’ll find at the end of all this, are some thought-provoking ideas that can actually help you and your site, and, most importantly, your customers. Let’s be honest: there’s nothing like having a happy customer, and there’s nothing better than converting that delight into loyalty. So, without further adieu, let’s dive into the unknown: your brain. And let’s find out what’s going on upstairs that can benefit your bottom line.

Neuromarketing, Defined

First things first: What the heck is neuromarketing? Well, you should know, the field itself is still young. You only need to head back to 1990 when Harvard psychologists developed neuromarketing  based on the concept of “meme” created by a British evolutionary biologist. The guiding principles were the same as they are today though: Focus on using sensory marketing stimuli to awaken positive feelings about a product, brand or service.

The term 'meme' was coined in 1976 by a British evolutionary biologist.

As for the modern definition, in the words of Roger Dooley, laid out succinctly in his book, “Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing,” neuromarketing is, “[T]he way the brain responds to various cognitive and sensory marketing stimuli.” Neuroscientists then use this brain data to measure a buyer’s likes, dislikes and neutrality. Sound like something out of a scene from “Her?”  Interestingly, the best way to measure sensory marketing stimuli is via fMRI or functional magnetic resonance imaging. Basically it’s capable of showing if your brain lights up like Vegas, or not at all, when responding to specific stimuli.  Although there can be attempts made via A/B Testing to emulate the results of fMRI, these results won’t be as accurate because with fMRI, you can see what your users can’t tell you, Dooley explained. In addition, there’s a variety of researchers out there who are doing behavioral science research that’s being utilized by neurmarketers. (More on this later.) So, you might be thinking, “Ooookay, you want me to stick my customers in a MRI doohickey to figure out how they tick?” Nope, I don’t, nor does Dooley.

Dedicated researchers and scientists have already done the hard work for you. Just find a relevant study and see what you can use.

Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media is a neuromarketing adopter and uses neuromarketing research to drive his client’s content marketing work. During our connection on the topic, he said, “The key to great user experience is empathy. Everyone in your target audience has a brain and every brain has built-in predispositions. If you’re not using the basics of neuromarketing, you’re likely making decisions based on opinion, not evidence.”

Ah yes, the basics. Crestodina and Dooley both have a myriad of topics that can be covered under the neuromarketing “basics” umbrella. But I’d like to focus on some simple UX design changes that are driven by neuromarketing research results, versus diving into testimonials and social proof, which are topics that both researchers write extensively on. So, although useful, testimonials and social proof may not be the best place to start if you’re looking to understand the breadth of neuromarketing research usefulness.

Neuromarketing + Design: It Could Change the Way Your Users Think

Sometimes things are just black and white… and sometimes they’re not. You may have heard the power that color, font weight and typeface can have on readability and comprehension. But did you know it could actually alter the way users interact with your site? Sure, you might’ve heard of color psychology, but there’s actually a lot of neuromarketing research out there that can really improve the outcome of your site’s design by strategically applying color and font.

Perhaps one of his most interesting series of studies I found focuses on cognitive fluency: the ease in which people use their brains to comprehend something. Researcher Adam Alter of NYU and his team found that people prefer things that are easy to think about versus those that are mind boggling. This includes readability—simplistic serif fonts—which are fluent, versus script-y, fancy ones, considered disfluent, as well as text color, such as white on black (also considered disfluent) or black on white (feels fluent). Makes sense, right?

So, what happened? Well, in three tightly controlled lab settings—which then segued into a naturalistic study to validate the results of the prior studies—Alter and the other researchers worked hard to figure out if there’s a distinct connection between how you present content and how it engages or disengages users. In one study, they merely provided participants with a survey in which they rated how comfortable they would be discussing their views on 30 self-relevant issues. The questionnaire was presented either in a fluent font or a disfluent font. Oddly enough, people shared more, and in more detail, when they could easily read and understand the content and, conversely, subjects disclosed far less about these self-relevant issues when the font was difficult to read.

Although subtle, this simple UI background color change on the now-defunct Grouphug.com provided some amazing engagement results: Users suddenly provided more juicy confessionals on the white background.

Alter is a real go-getter: He just wasn’t satisfied with his repeated success in the lab. He and his team forged ahead and found a website that was about to make a simple UI change, which would bolster his research because it would be an organic, naturalistic setting for the study. The site was called Grouphug.com and the powers-that-be at Grouphug agreed to allow Alter to study their UI change, which was really quite small. All they were going to do was update their black background color to a white background color. And guess what? Confessors tended to disclose more embarrassing information on the white background than on the black, hard-to-see background.

Takeaways:

What Alter learned from the Grouphug.com study confirmed the results of all the other studies; “people disclosed more revealing information about themselves on a confession-based website when the site was formatted fluently rather than disfluently. In three tightly controlled lab studies, disfluency led participants to hide their flaws and to think more readily about risk and concern,” his study concluded.

With this in mind:

TIP:  Crestodina notes that making your sign-up form large and highly visible on the page, utilizing contrasting colors, and also making sure it appears in several places could ramp up your leads exponentially.

“Not sure if something works for your audience? Test it. And if you keep testing, you’ll soon discover that the results have something in common: your audience has cognitive biases, which can be leveraged—or ignored—for marketing outcomes,” Crestodina explained. A good technique would be A/B Testing your users with varying versions of your site’s content and see what unfolds, suggested Dooley. The results might surprise you.

But Sometimes, Things Are Gray…

This wouldn’t be a balanced dose of work if I didn’t share another interesting study, which focused on the very same topic of cognitive fluency. In 2010, a group of researchers from Princeton sought to turn the tables on the concept of using design choices to encourage engagement, and instead used these design variables to sway the results the other way. These researchers, it should be noted, are not neuromarketers by trade, but many nueromarketers use this Princeton study to support their own research regarding user experience.

The Princeton behavioral scientists focused their research on showing how utilizing disfluent fonts encouraged recall and memorization quite effectively. Although these aliens are not the ones utilized in this study, we took a crack at it and had a little fun...

In their first study, participants in a lab setting were asked to learn about three species of aliens with seven features each, for a total of 21 features that needed to be memorized. In the disfluent condition, material was presented in 12-point Comic Sans MS 60% grayscale font or 12-point  Bondoni MT 60% grayscale. In the fluent condition, material was presented in 16-point Arial pure black font.

Get this: They discovered that information presented in hard-to-read fonts was more easily recalled than the easier-to-read information.

Takeaways

The key difference in this behavioral science study out of Princeton from Alter’s study is that their research has shown a major distinction:

Why? When one has to painstakingly read (disfluent) content, the upside is that their slowness translates to a much closer read of the content, hence, they recall it much more so than in the fluent context. To prove this further, in a follow-up study, the Princeton researchers performed a naturalistic experiment whereupon they went to a high school and gave Chemistry students two different textbooks. Half the class got the regular textbook in a standard, easy-to-read typeface, and the other half received a re-configured textbook that used a very script-y, hard-to-read typeface. You can probably guess by now what happened… Yep, the users of the hard-to-read textbook performed much better than the other ones.

Using this research is obviously difficult line to walk. I asked Alter directly, how do we negotiate this somewhat polarizing data and juxtapose it for a better user experience?

“You’ve nailed the trickiest aspect of fluency research,” Alter replied. “Many of the effects appear to contradict each other, or at least are difficult to tease apart. These two [studies] are a perfect example,” he explained. Alter noted that there’s no simple solution to teasing the subtleties apart. “If you’re going to apply these effects in a new context, I’d advise running pilot studies [we call this user testing] to make sure the intervention—such as introducing disfluent font—is having the effects you’d like to see, but not the effects you’re trying to avoid,” Alter noted.

Dooley’s advice was similar, “Find out what the needs of your visitors are, and focus on that—engage them. Remember, most of your site visitors may not really care about the services, they really want to know how the services make solutions for them!”

Bottom line, Alter explained, is to make sure you aren’t discouraging honest and open disclosure. But don’t forget to also make sure people are paying attention to the content of the site by running a quick memory check to see they’ve been reading your content. You can achieve this through surveys or questionnaires.

How You Can Apply These Neuro-Basics To Your Site

To help support these new learnings, let’s take a peek at a few examples that infuse neuromarketing basics into their UX so you can see the connection between using this research—in the right context.

Check it out, your Facebook status update form. Nothing disfluent here to see, right? Facebook’s status form UX showcases: Lucida Grande/Tahoma for desktop users and Helvetica/Roboto for its mobile users.

 

I have zero doubt in my mind that Facebook intentionally uses fluent fonts plus a simplistic (white) background color to encourage users to provide “juicy” status updates. One needs to only look here for some juiciness:

This Google employee had no idea that calling San Francisco's homeless hyenas and poking fun at the working class in front of some socially conscious folks would force him to do this via his Facebook page. Whoopsy-daisy.

Similarly, Twitter’s sign-up form is blatantly fluent as well. It follows all the basics of neuromarketing 101: White background—check. Simplistic, easy-to-read fonts—check. Bold headline that’s easy to understand and read—check.

What about the disfluent marketing campaigns? The ones that really want you to memorize, recall and retain the content. How about that “Always Coca-Cola” campaign?

Whoa, they’re just tossing around disfluent fonts like a busted piñata tossing its candy. They’re imprinting the song lyrics in your head pretty effectively (well, they’re stuck in my head…) so I assume you’ll be humming this ditty all day, too. You’re welcome. Now, Coca-Cola has used a savvy strategy of embedding their catchy song over the visuals, but as you can see, the strategy is symbiotic. The song is catchy because they’re showing the lyrics, and the lyrics are memorable because they’re in a bevy of different fonts, sizes, etc. that are hard-to-read. Voilà! Music to your ears, eyes and brain.

OK, let’s have some fun! Do you think it was intentional that our founding fathers opted for that hard-to-read script for the final draft of the U.S. Constitution, or was it purely coincidental?

I guess the only way to really know is if we look at other documents from this time—are they just as difficult to read? Guess what: The U.S. Constitution of 1787 is indeed written in disfluent script. I am honestly struggling to read it right now. As for its predecessor, by a mere 11  years, looky here to your right…

Although the original Declaration was sent to the King of England as a handwritten document, the typed copy, which was disseminated to the masses of would-be Americans, was crafted utilizing the printing press, and is shown here.

The Declaration of Independence, circa 1776, is in a totally easy-to-read typeface. A stunning, patriotic reminder: memorize your rights and let freedom ring. Perhaps our founding fathers are even smarter than we ever imagined.

No matter which way you slice it, one thing’s for certain: Neuromarketing research came before UX design and UX designers are using its basics to their users’ benefit. In the digital realm, we use interaction to insert or remove friction, to make it fluent or disfluent, and therein lies the truth of the matter—whether you’re a believer or not.

Do you have a neuromarketing technique that you’ve implemented on your site or blog that’s really changing the way your users engage? Hit me up in the comments section. I’m always excited to learn more about the science behind design!

Comments
  • Ian Tremblay

    The British evolutionary biologist, whose name is bizarrely omitted in the article, is Richard Dawkins.

    • Lauren Ventura

      Hi, Ian. I appreciate your input. Yes, I didn’t add that in, good catch. It was intentional since I didn’t want to add too many names to an already rather bloated text, but you’re right, I should have done it. Thanks!

  • Jacques Botha

    Loved your Article and it’s spot on. With few of my latest projects I’ve played around with different typography and color settings to try and convince the User to participate, however this is definitely a different view on the matter thanks

    • Lauren Ventura

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Jacques. I am happy to hear the article was helpful. I’m considering writing a Part II, so stay tuned!

  • Jesse Wood

    If I remember correctly Daniel Kahneman did some similar studies involving the size of text (smaller being more disfluent) and they found similar results. Although I don’t recall them speculating on a cause for the effect, I personally think that it’s slightly more than just a result of reading more slowly. I think that being in a situation where you have to decipher a text willfully engages a different part of your thinking than the part you use when you’re somewhat on auto-pilot (like driving your car on a well-known route). Just like I think asking yourself or someone else a question, resonates more than merely being presented with an answer off the bat.

    Well written Lauren 🙂

    • Lauren Ventura

      Jesse, I totally agree with your point here. I think when folks are forced to really try to decipher something, they must indeed engage a different part of their brain. As I’ve noted to the others, I’m already outlining a Part II to talk more deeply about neuromarketing specific studies that have used fMRI. Stay Tuned! And thank you for the kind words, I’m so happy you enjoyed the article.

  • EdwardStull

    Your summation of the Princeton study is insightful — fascinating, well-written article, as well.

    • Lauren Ventura

      Thank you so much, Edward! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I’ll be doing a Part II in August so stay tuned:)

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  • Aditi

    Best thing I have read in a long time. Brilliant conclusions and examples.. Highly useful! All social & digital marketing and UX professionals should be doing this. This is like the science behind your digital marketing KPIs. Thank you.

    • Lauren Ventura

      Thank you so much, Aditi! You have no idea how much that means to me. I truly hope this article helps you and your team as much as it enlightened us here, too. I love your parallel with KPIs, too! That’s a topic ripe for discussion, as well…

  • Lauren Ventura

    Thank you so much for your kind words, Acceler8! I hope you keep me posted on whether this helps you, versus thwarting you;) I’m posting a different one on brain science and design in September, so keep your eyes peeled:) You can follow me on Twitter, too, @DoItWriteNow

  • Very Creative article read long time and very different from other great article thanks.

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  • We can certainly refer it to neuroscience. It can help us to think the way our users would think. If we apply technicality with a kind of experimental psychology, it will simply be fun to achieve our users. Great article. Appreciate!

  • Pratik Gami

    Another example, similar to coca-cola ad, that comes to my mind is the new Appy fizz branding by Stefan Sagmeister.
    The new visuals, just like coca-cola fonts, are very disfluent and aggressive, which helps users remember the brand.
    Am I making any sense here?

    • Totally! Yes, Stefan Sagemeister has definitely mastered the art of breaking patterns expected by the audience, and leveraging it to command attention, and engagement. Can’t ever forget the time he sliced the text of an event poster into his own torso! (I’d share a link, but it’s not for the squeamish…)