I’m fascinated with all the new information being published about the brain and how it is converging with the efforts of marketers to more effectively communicate with consumers. I’ve heard neuroscientists say that more has been learned about the brain in the past decade than in all of human history combined.

Ponder this fact for a moment: the human brain hasn’t changed for more than 100,000 years. Yet its exposure to information — especially screen-based communication — is growing at an unprecedented rate. Researchers at Nielsen NeuroFocus have been using brainwave measurements to actually quantify how all this multi-platform messaging is affecting subconscious responses. One of their observations is the effect on “filtering.”

Through filtering, the prefrontal cortex of the brain continuously coordinates and prioritizes incoming stimuli, deciding what is essential and what can be ignored or “filed away” for later. More stimuli requires more filtering. Our multi-device world has caused the brain to kick into overdrive, making prioritization more important than ever.

How on earth can marketers get through this “filtering” when the brain is screening megabytes of data every milliseconds? These neurological best practices may help you grab the attention of your online audiences’ collective subconscious quickly.

Use Action Words

The brain’s filtering process seems to afford greater significance to action-oriented words. Passive words are ignorable, but action words convey emotion and appeal to the reader’s senses. Words like discover, explore, download, find, and compare are all going to be more effective than milder words like submit or read. But don’t limit yourself to just verbs; words like free, easiest, and you can also be very powerful attention-grabbers.

Stimulate with Puzzles

The brain is attracted to solving visual puzzles. There is actually a feedback mechanism in the brain that rewards the acquisition of knowledge, which essentially makes us humans addicted to gaining new knowledge.

If you’ve ever stopped to solve an anagram or other puzzle that appeared on your Facebook newsfeed, you probably recognize that little burst of excitement you get by quickly solving a brain teaser. If it makes sense for your brand, incorporating simple puzzles into your online messaging can be a great way to quickly grab attention.

Recognize Gender Differences

The brains of men and women are 99 percent the same, but that last 1 percent is critical for marketers.

  • The frontal lobe, which is responsible for problem solving, is bigger in women than in men. If you are marketing to women, leverage this insight by posing a question in your advertising message — something that will interest your female through mystery, intrigue or fascination. Even questions with a yes/no answer can capture the attention of a female audience, but should quickly be followed up with an answer that compels them to read further, such as “Find out why” or “Get the facts.”

  • The amygdala, which regulates the “fight or flight” response, is larger in men than in women. If you’re marketing to men, use urgency and be direct. Statements like “This deal ends Friday at midnight,” or “Buy your new bed today and sleep better tonight,” will help grab attention and motivate a response.


When it comes to online marketing, and especially social media marketing, more is definitely not better. Your message needs to be simple so that it is easy for the brain to receive and ignore. I don’t know if this ad for usba.com was effective, but my guess is that it is way too complicated (and uninteresting) for most people to stop and read.

Attract with Novelty

The brain is hardwired to appreciate and seek out novelty. In fact, there’s an entire region of the midbrain that responds to novel stimuli. Novelty influences interest, surprise, attraction and even motivation. Adapting your messaging with unexpected colors, unusual words or unique images can work to draw attention. But use this tool wisely, as the brain also seeks familiarity.

If you use a wacky photo in your Facebook ad to grab attention, but it is inconsistent with what customers might expect from your brand — or what they see on the page that the ad links to — attention may quickly turn to confusion, complicating your messaging and turning visitors away. (See “Simplicity” above.)

The new information coming out of neuroscience, coupled with the rapidly evolving ways people are consuming information, is giving marketers a lot to think about. The human brain may not have changed much in 100,000 years, but the world it functions in has. Evolve your message and strategy; adapt it to its environment to avoid extinction.


This article originally appeared in Tim’s ClickZ column November 26, 2013

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