One of the more interesting marketing books in recent years is The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson. The concept is deceptively simple – historically, most efforts have been focused on the relatively small number of very popular products. New technologies and methods of distribution allow merchants like Amazon, Netflix, iTunes, and many others to offer vast numbers of products with very little incremental cost; under these conditions, the aggregate sales of low volume products may become a significant percentage of total revenue. In contrast, conventionally defined neuromarketing has been all about picking hits – the most effective print ad, the best Super Bowl commercial, and so on. To some degree, this is a limitation of technologies used in neuromarketing and neuroeconomics studies – notably fMRI. Brain scan studies tend to be time consuming and expensive, which limits the number of subjects that can be used. Often, fMRI marketing studies use fewer than ten or twenty subjects – hardly the material for long-tail research.
The cost of brain scan studies will come down, though, and their effectiveness will improve. As the quantity and quality of data starts to improve, I think marketers will be able to get beyond picking a single winner. Certainly, choosing one or two really effective ads will continue to be a major use of scans, along with trying to optimize some particular characteristing of an ad (the sexiest, the most heartwarming, etc.) We’re also believers in using neuro-studies much earlier in the process: designing the product and choosing between alternative features, configurations, designs, etc. It is in this process where marketers and product designers eventually should be looking beyond the most popular choice. Some configurations may not seem to “turn on” large numbers of subjects, but will produce a strong positive reaction from a few subjects, or even just one. These positive reactions may indicate a long tail marketing opportunity (or even a major secondary one).
Long tail marketing is all about offering vast choice as well as an effective way to sort through all of the options. Effective long tail marketers like Netflix and Amazon use collaborative filtering, recommendation engines, user reviews, and similar techniques to help identify a few appropriate items for a particular user. This certainly seems antithetical to neuromarketing, which seems to be all about optimizing one choice for mass consumption. An interesting area of study, though, would be to learn more about the altruistic impulses which drive users to take their time to enhance the experience of others by rating movies, writing book reviews, commenting on hotels, and so on. There has been a bit of work on altruism (see Altruism Research), but not much that would help long tail marketers build stronger communities. Of course, it’s entirely possible that altruism doesn’t much enter into some of this user effort – perhaps lengthy book reviews, for example, are driven more by the user’s ego rather than a desire to help others choose the right book.
In short, at the moment, neuromarketing doesn’t seem to have much light to shed on long tail efforts, though both are important concepts… it seems like any useful meeting of these areas will be in the future. Do you agree?