When Big Data meets Little Data – An Introduction to Neuromarketing


Editor: The following is a guest post from Alister Frost, Ex-Head of Digital for Microsoft and current freelance digital consultant through his own company Wild Orange Media. Alister is a friend of mine, a great public speaker and a very smart digital marketer. Enjoy his post….

Everybody seems to be talking about ‘Big Data’ these days, the vast information stores that businesses and governments are collecting from the evidence trail left in the wake of our digital lives. When we use any online service, especially social networking sites, we routinely expose vast amounts of information about ourselves, including everything from our name, location, hobbies, friends and opinions to our thoughts, hopes, dreams and fears. It’s all there for the taking but Big Data’s greatest flaw is that it’s big, really big, which makes it unwieldy and difficult to analyse. And because of this, few organisations have truly mastered the skills needed to extract deeply perceptive insights into consumer behaviour that lead to breakthrough thinking and inventions promised by the Big Data revolution.

But there’s another type of data that I believe deserves at least as much attention from the marketing community. Advances in neuroscience are teaching us how the human brain works, allowing us to glimpse deep inside our skulls to examine how advertising and marketing messages affect our brains. I call this ‘Little Data’ because it exposes many of the little things that happen in our minds, usually unconsciously, that may make or break the success of any marketing campaign.

The phrase ‘neuromarketing’ is just ten years old. The term was coined to recognise the value we can derive from fusing scientific analysis of the brain through EEG sensors and fMRI scans with the more artistic endeavour of developing creative advertising messages. Deep analysis of brain activity remains an expensive and time-consuming pursuit so we have only limited studies to draw upon and, with our digital world changing so rapidly, few insights into how this month’s consumers are behaving online. But, there’s no doubt now that different parts of our brains play crucial roles in decoding brand messages and, crucially, deciding what to do about them.

Take our old, reptilian brain for example. This is the part of the brain that evolved earliest in our gradual evolution into modern human beings and is also the first part of the brain to grow in the foetus. This small, primal part of our brain is concerned with our survival, triggering the well-documented ‘fight or flight’ response and regulating our body so we can stay alive for as long as possible.

As you’re reading this your brain is processing around 11 million bits of data every second but 99.999% of this activity takes place unconsciously, controlling activities like breathing, posture, digestion and a host of other life-sustaining services that we are largely unaware of. In fact, our conscious brains can only handle around 40 bits of data every second, and right now that’s mostly the rational, logical process happening between your eyes seeing these letters on the screen and your cerebral cortex making sense of them.

So if less than 0.001% of brain activity takes place consciously, is our marketing obsession with promoting the logic-based features and benefits of our products and services justified? Well, yes, of course, we need rational justifications to help us make purchase decisions. However, to work exclusively at this cogent level risks ignoring the huge untapped potential of our unconscious brain processing; and to do this we need to understand neuromarketing and the ‘little data’ it provides.

Here’s a simple example of this in action. Take a look at the familiar logo below:

If you shop online, you’ve probably seen the Amazon brand dozens of times. But have you ever looked at the logo more closely? After a brief inspection, you may spot the cheeky smile formed by the orange line. And then you may spot that it’s an arrow that goes from A to Z. And then the penny drops. Amazon sells every product from A to Z!

At this “Aha, I get it!” moment of discovery, many parts of your brain are actively engaged. You’ve not only completed the cognitive processing needed to solve the visual puzzle but, if you’re a healthy human being, the reward circuits in your brain have also lit up giving you a feeling of pride. This feeling is normally fuelled by a small, potent dose of dopamine that rewards your persistence and motivates you to repeat this type of worthwhile cognitive activity in the future.

Amazon understands this neural activity well and exploits your whole brain brilliantly in nearly every interaction with its service. Take its Daily Deals page for instance:

Amazon Lightning Deals

Here we have some discounted prices for products that Amazon thinks I might like to buy, based on my previous buying behaviour. The discounts are large, over a 30% price reduction, so already our brains are making a rational judgement that this looks like a good thing. But if we look further, other parts of our brain quickly start to get engaged. We can see that each offer starts on the hour, 9.00AM, then 10.00AM and so on. So we may feel lucky that we’ve spotted these offers in time. At the bottom, there’s a digital clock counting down and we realise we have only a limited time to grab a bargain. We can also see that 10% of the chairs have already been “claimed,” not bought, but claimed, like we’re entitled to get a bargain today. Crikey, we’d better move fast so we don’t miss out! And we’re reaching for our credit card before we know why.

In its Lightning Deals, Amazon exploits the scarcity principle brilliant. Because the items appear to be in short supply, we want them even more. And because our whole brain is activated and fully engaged, we’re much more likely to part with our cash than if Amazon had simply presented the rational, fact-based reasons why we might like to buy an office swivel chair.

We’re approaching an exciting future for marketing. Armed with ‘Big Data’ about almost every aspect of our consumers’ daily lives and the ability to mine this for real-time insights we’ll have powerful new ways to help our customers get the most out of their lives. But couple this with the ‘Little Data’ that helps us see how an individual’s brain may respond to different types of stimulus and we’ll have extraordinary new opportunities to hit the sweet spot more often, reducing the need for advertising clutter and costly ‘trial and error’ marketing campaigns.

It’s an exciting new dawn for marketing. There’s still much to be done-perhaps centuries of scientific exploration-before we truly understand the human brain, but today’s savvy marketer is already educating themselves and exploring how their business can bring together Big Data and Little Data for a richer, more insightful, more successful future.

Allister Frost is Managing Director of Wild Orange Media and specialises in helping people make their organisations more socially-connected in a digital world. He regularly posts to his own blog at http://allisterfrost.com.


get your free membership now - absolutely no credit card required

  • The Digital Marketing Toolkit
  • Exclusive live video learning sessions
  • Complete library of The Digital Marketing Podcast
  • The digital skills benchmarking tools
  • Free online training courses

Interested in Digital Marketing Elearning - Start Free 14 Day Trial >