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How marketers can use behavioural insights to cut through background noise

Wednesday 9th November

It’s the same line we read almost daily in the trades: We’re permanently switched on, multi-screening and multi-tasking. The logical follow up question to this would be, if we’re consuming more, we must be paying more attention? But surprisingly, the answer appears to be a resounding no, and the reasons why are age old.

A study carried out at Oxford University determined that we are not, as I’m sure we all believe, busier than ever. However, as the perception of being busy now delivers us status, our focus on filling all of our time is putting our brain under pressure.


Cognitive Load
We may be consuming more information than ever before, but our ability to process it (cognitive bandwidth) has not increased. Whilst every action varies in how much energy it requires from the brain (lying for instance requires a considerable amount!) activities we perceive as leisure time still take their toll e.g. using Facebook or watching television still need to be processed by our working memory. As we increase the cognitive load (total amount of mental effort being used by our working memory) we strongly impact our ability to make decisions.

The Effect on Challenger and Leader Brands
When under cognitive load, our decisions are less effective and even impaired; some studies have shown that adults under cognitive load make decisions at the equivalent level of an 8 year old. Our brains are not able to evaluate the best solution or consider alternatives. This may potentially impact challenger brands more negatively as consumer take less time to consider alternative purchases to the norm. However, if you are a leader brand, and are already a natural choice for the consumer e.g. Heinz Ketchup then a high cognitive load may have beneficial effect as the consumer will revert to their norm when unable to process additional information.

Default Mode
Our tendency to fill every waking hour with activity has also reduced the time our brain spends in the default network, when we let our minds wander. As Maria Popova puts it, even watching a sunset now involves taking a photo, editing it and uploading it on social media. As we build productivity into what was previously leisure time, or periods of boredom, we are limiting the time the brain has in the default network, reducing the time that it has to reflect, process information and form opinions.

Our access to information and activities are not going to diminish so how can marketers prosper in this environment when in terms of processing information, we have our limits: So how do marketers tackle the challenge of ensuring their messages are memorable and cut through the background noise? It’s all about context: delivering the right message, in the right environment, at the right time.


Right Message
We work collaboratively with agency partners to align creative and media: there is a huge amount of power when these two disciplines work seamlessly and by sharing knowledge from both sides we are able to improve our overall impact.  By sharing the reasoning behind media formats we are able to add to the overall creative brief as partner agencies get a feel for what the creative needs to deliver. We are also able to work with partners to test creative either prior to going live – so we can use the top performers to focus the message – or we can test and optimise as the campaign progresses to gather learnings as to what our audience responds to best.

Environment & Timing
Using a huge array of research, data and industry tools we are able to identify the best environments for our audience. When it doesn’t make sense to focus on appointment to view media e.g. a particular TV show, newsletter, website. We are able to use data to target users based on behavioural cues, specific day, time of day or sequential, contextual cues (amongst many others).

By being more conscious of the limits of our brain and building this consideration into our media strategies we will increase our opportunity to make a lasting memory.

Article Written by

Erin Dunsford

International Strategist, Total Media

In her 4 years working at the agency, Erin has worked across a number of accounts, including Lenovo, focusing on strategy and client servicing.

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