The neuroscience of mobile advertising

Mobile is a personal experience. We have our smartphones within arm’s reach throughout the day — at our desks, in our cars and even in bed. When we use them, we hold them in our hands and close to our faces. And on them, we see pictures and messages from our family and friends. It’s understandable that people want to be in control of the content they see on their mobile devices. They don’t want to be interrupted by irrelevant content during such a personal experience.

It’s no wonder that ad blockers are on the rise, with 400 million mobile ad blockers currently in use — a growth of 90 percent, according to Manuel Garcia-Garcia, senior vice president of research and innovation at The Advertising Research Foundation.

This week at Advertising Week, Mr. Garcia-Garcia opened a panel on how neuroscience leads to great creative in mobile. He outlined why ad blockers are one of the key issues facing the C-suite today. The related challenges include how to get your ads noticed when users have such control and how to master creative for mobile to keep users engaged.

The quest for the perfect creative is a key reason why we test and optimize our advertising, and neuroscience is one of the many tools in the research tool box that helps drive the most effective mobile ads possible.

Why use neuroscience in advertising testing and measurement?

Traditionally, the way we test ads and their impact on a viewer’s decision to buy hasn’t been precise. In short, it’s relied heavily on the viewer’s ability and willingness to express their feelings after viewing an ad. Pranav Yadav, CEO of Neuron-Insights US Inc., explained that people are often unable to express their emotions, even when they want to. Human emotion is complicated, so explaining the intricacies of our feelings and reactions to an ad can be difficult.

Furthermore, Mr. Yadav said that most decision-making happens in the subconscious before we consciously make a decision. In fact, Harvard Business professor Gerald Zaltman (not on the panel) supports this, stating that 95 percent of all cognition occurs in the subconscious mind.

Another reason neuroscience is more effective for mobile ads in particular is due to mobile’s smaller screens. Eye tracking is a common tactic for testing content and ads. However, the smaller the screen, the more difficult it is to get precise results.

Neuroscience studies the brain. It can more effectively capture feelings and reactions without the messy step of asking individuals to interpret and explain their feelings. It gets to the heart, or rather the brain, of how they really think and feel.

What did the neuroscience research show?

The Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) shared two key findings of its neuroscience mobile ad testing:

1) Advertising across platforms is better than one single platform. Mr. Garcia-Garcia said research found that when an ad was exposed once on television and once on mobile versus twice on one platform, it experienced a 30 percent lift in recall.

2) Messaging across platforms must be unified. Content must be optimized for each format, accounting for the smaller screen on mobile. But one must optimize the ad without changing the message between channels. Furthermore, unified messaging does not necessarily mean the same. Television ads have a detail bias; they are better suited for more information. Mobile ads have an emotional bias; the personal experience when using a mobile device makes viewers more receptive to emotional advertising.

What’s the future of using neuroscience to drive great mobile ads?

Right now, neuroscience is used to test the effectiveness of ad creative and content. But first, the ad must exist in order to be tested. From there, the ad can be revised and continually optimized. Admittedly, it’s a reactive approach, and it remains to be seen if neuroscience can drive improved mobile content and creative from the beginning.

Put another way, our brains can give feedback on an ad, but can they tell us what the ad should look like in the first place? We’re still learning what our brains have to share with us, but the possibilities are tantalizing.

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