Tweets, Viewers Predicted by Brain Studies


brain-activityA study with a rather opaque title, Audience preferences are predicted by temporal reliability of neural processing, has some interesting findings for the field of neuromarketing. Published in Nature, the paper found correlation between fMRI and EEG studies. And, the brain activity measurements correlated with real world viewership of TV programming and the number of tweets during the live broadcast.

The researchers, led by Jacek Dmochowski and Lucas Parra of the City College of New York, studied the reactions of “naive” viewers to the season premiere episode of The Walking Dead, a television series featuring menacing zombies. Other tests used that neuromarketing favorite, Super Bowl commercials. They recorded brain activity in subjects using EEG and, for some tests, fMRI.

The brain activity over time was then compared to viewership data from Nielsen (who is itself a provider of neuromarketing services via its consumer neuroscience unit, formerly NeuroFocus). The correlation between the brain activity of the subjects and the large-scale audience measurements was statistically significant.

A similar comparison to Twitter activity using the show’s hashtag found predictive value as well.

Predicting Ad Ratings

One of the interesting parts of the study showed subjects a random set of 10 Super Bowl ads while recording brain activity. Activity in specific regions showed significant correlation with large-scale audience measurements from Facebook-USA Today Ad Meter.

One quite surprising aspect was that the neural activity measurements were better predictors of the large audience response than in predicting the stated preferences of the experimental subjects themselves.

fMRI and EEG Comparison

Another clever experiment compared neural activity measured by fMRI to that of EEG. This phase also used Super Bowl commercials.

fMRI is the technique most often used by academic researchers, but its commercial use has been limited by the small number of available facilities and the high cost of using them. EEG is much less expensive and allows for larger sample sizes. They found covariance in some brain areas using the two techniques. Oddly, in that small test they found the fMRI not predictive of either the mass audience or experimental subject ratings of the commercials.

The scientists concluded with what sounds like an endorsement of the main principle of neuromarketing:

Our findings suggest that behavioural responses of large groups to natural stimuli may be robustly predicted from the reliability in corresponding neural responses of a small sample of individuals.

Commercial Conclusions

The good news is that brain wave measurements could predict the engagement level of the audience for the television content with some accuracy, as well as how well the mass audience would like advertisements. But, a bit of caution is in order for neuromarketers. Viewer engagement and likability are useful metrics and a great starting point, but they don’t tell a marketer whether content will create a brand preference or increase the intent to buy.

I also wonder about the choice of The Walking Dead as a test vehicle. This show has terrifying moments and gruesome imagery, and may not be representative of most entertainment content from a neural response standpoint.

Nevertheless, this study is good news for neuromarketing overall. Lead author Dmochowski is at Stanford now, a school that has already made significant contributions to the study of buyer behavior. (See, for example, The Pain of Buying.)

The conclusion that measuring neural responses from a small group of subjects can predict mass-market behavior may not be news to commercial neuromarketing firms, but is significant when published in a respected academic venue.

  1. Brain Molecule Marketing says

    The definition of truth and knowledge – and anything bloody useful – is statements that can predict something measurable in the future. For business people what is always measured ultimately is money gotten. The dependent variable is always, in the end, getting money. Period.

    N-marketing takes a “top down” approach of trying a bunch of techniques, gadgets and methods to predict some abstract idea or behavior supposedly related to buying stuff, e.g. engagement, attention, emotions, liking, etc.

    Brains science, in contrast to n-marketing, takes a bottom-up approach starting with the medical/physiological/biological mechanisms of the brain as they predict behavior. Very different.

    The n-marketing approach is what’s called a “clinical” one – focused on the immediate “symptoms” or outward manifestations of the brain processes. A brain research approach is a the application of bench science, medical findings to theories and models of behavior that need to be tested. This last approach is rare, currently as the immediate appeal of the clinical n-marketing/economics sells – now.

    Real science takes a looong time and there are literally years of hard, expensive work with no immediate pay-off.

    Typically, the brain research part of a neuro-approach is factually wrong and unscientific. However predictable statements and discoveries about people buying stuff may happen or may already have happened.

    For those of us (well maybe just me lol), interested in the application of brain research to business and policy, the dependent variables are the same – changing behavior. There is very little to sell right now, however, except some insights. But the insights are medical facts.

  2. Nancy says

    Good stuff. And agree with your observation re: program choice. Although given the response marketers sometimes get from their audiences, The Walking Dead might be an ideal show to test with!

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