Kill the Focus Group: Is Neuromarketing The Future of Design?

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 02/26/2020 | 5 Minute Read

The focus group has long been a brand’s essential tool to dig up what consumers do (and don’t) enjoy about the product or service they’re working on. Participants from disparate backgrounds gather around a table as someone leads the discussion, nodding along patiently and taking notes on everyone’s responses. 

What’s your experience using this product? What do you like best about it? How much would you pay for something like this? 

But what if these participants didn’t have to answer questions at all for you to get the information you need? What you might be looking for is neuromarketing.

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“We use neuroscience techniques to test emotional reactions to stimuli that we show to potential target market consumers,” Chief Creative and Neuromarketing Officer at MOD Nina Stanley explained. Neuromarketing is one of the tools they use with their clients to ensure they’re on the right track with what they design. “It gives us a peek inside the subconscious decision-making process.”

A traditional focus group is inherently flawed, Nina said. People go into an unfamiliar space with a bunch of strangers, so naturally, their responses won’t reflect their true feelings. Why? There’s no trust built up between anyone there. In a sterile environment, someone asks a question, the participant responds, and everyone believes that is really, truly what they're thinking.

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Editorial photograph

“Humans are social creatures,” Nina added. “We want to be liked by other people in the group. We want to be seen as a good addition, so we're very influenced by social biases. If I come into this focus group and I get the feeling that everybody else likes this thing, then I'm going to default to, ‘Yeah, I like it too,’ even if I don't.”

Neuromarketing, on the other hand, cannot lie. Forget the awkward chit chat of a focus group and, instead, expect things like EEG sensors or fMRI machines to measure brain activity or tools to identify pupil dilation. By tracking the body’s natural response to something and examining everything from an increased heartbeat to sweaty palms, you can more truthfully discover what excites consumers. This data comes together, and MOD sends it off to a group of neuroscientists who analyze it— combined with MOD’s other work on the project, they can determine the honest, raw emotions a product creates.

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Editorial photograph

“It’s about making an emotional connection with your target human,” Nina said, adding that she dislikes the tone of “target market” and opts for something more personal instead. “You want to make an emotional connection, and that’s nothing new. People have been saying that for ages. But how do you know if you’re really making an emotional connection with them? And is the emotional connection you’re making with them a good one?” 

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As people become more and more overwhelmed by endless choice, these punch-you-in-the-feels, almost inexplicable reactions are what will draw consumers to what they ultimately choose to buy. How that happens is the job of the designer.

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With one of their clients, a startup fashion fitness brand, MOD needed to improve their Instagram marketing. They examined the best and worst-performing posts, examining neurological insights like eye tracking to see where participants looked first in the images and what held their attention. After examining the photos, the studio noticed certain elements—interior versus exterior shots or the angle of the image—could help them refine this brand’s social media strategy.

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But couldn’t you just do that by looking at the photos? Sure, you could eyeball it and find visual consistencies, but what none of that would tell you is what people perceive. “What emotions did they feel?” Nina emphasized, “Because otherwise, I don't know why people liked this one over this one.” By incorporating neuromarketing, they could harness something more profound with the consumers and have it manifest in other ways through Instagram photos.

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Editorial photograph

Neuromarketing may sound incredibly sci-fi, and Nina admitted it’s not widely used now. Some agencies have caught on and thrown the word “neuromarketing” into their skillset, but without a neuroscience lab involved, the data won’t mean much. “We’ve partnered with Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, and all of our testing is done through them and analyzed by their PhDs,” said Nina. “If you’re just doing eye tracking, anybody can do that. But if you’re doing true emotional data collection and you want to read that data, you need actual neuroscientists involved.” 

Because neuromarketing is still in its infancy, she explained there is no official database—meaning each test provides something new, but they also don’t have much previous data to pull from. So anytime they need information, they have to run a study.

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But it also means they’re exploring things that haven’t been examined in this way before. “The majority of studies done so far are purely academic, and nobody has parlayed that into a business use case," she said.

"We’re answering questions that haven’t been answered yet because it’s such a new field, which is really exciting," she added.

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