Are You Marketing to All 3 Parts of Your Users' Brains?

By Shirin Oreizy

Unless you're selling to robots, your marketing strategy has to take human emotions into account. In fact, to be effective on any scale, you'll have to target all three of the brain's areas: the primitive, limbic and neocortex. While neuroscientists rightly point out that the brain is more complex than a diagram's simplification, this three-layered conceptualization helps us understand basic higher functioning and reminds us that the brain is comprised of multiple systems.

In my design and marketing firm, we look to the latest research in behavioral science -- the study of how people really make decisions -- to help companies connect with and motivate their users. In every project, whether it's a website redesign or an email campaign, we're sure to include elements that "speak" to each of the brain's systems.  You can, too.

Starting With the Basics: The Primal Brain

The brainstem controls vital functions like breathing, heart rate and the fight-or-flight mechanism. Your primal brain will register that there is a wooly mammoth in the distance before other areas of your brain can even process it. This allows you to have a life-saving, split-second reaction. The primal brain is still in charge of basic survival.

The "language" of the primal brain is visual. When targeting the primal system, it's better to spare the speeches and relate with visuals. Experiment with physical and concrete imagery, from food and attractive people to the physical dangers involved with the staying with the status quo.

The Limbic System's Role in Creating "Hunches"

People who follow their hunches usually don't regret it. The famous Iowa Gambling Task shows how the amygdala assesses a situation faster than logic. Participants playing a computer card game were told that each time they choose a card they will win some game money. Some of the four decks of cards were "bad decks," and other decks were "good decks." After about 40 or 50 selections, most participants figured out which was which.

But it turns out that the body knows the score well before the mind. After only 10 cards, participants' palms start sweating when they hover over the bad decks. (By contrast, patients with damage to the amygdala don't notice a difference and continue to draw equally from the bad decks.)

The limbic system takes in information faster than your neocortex can process and explain it. If you want people to develop a healthy hunch about your business, target their limbic system. Have him or her feel empathy. People are wired to care about individual humans, not numbers.

Whenever possible, showcase the individual over the group. Get people to identify and empathize with the "identifiable victim." Waking up people's empathy connects you to their emotions and faster decision making.

Finishing With the Facts: Don't Neglect the Neocortex

Now that you've gotten past the gatekeepers, it's time to take out your numbers and statistics. The neocortex is the hub of the rational brain, responsible for executive functioning like abstract thought, solving complex problems, long-term planning and organizing information.

But this rational part of the brain doesn't operate in a silo.  The neocortex integrates information from the other regions in the brain. When you're targeting this area, supply the type of information that helps users justify the decision they've already made.

When you're creating an intellectually compelling argument, make it easy for users to compare your solution against the competition. A comparison chart can visually and succinctly create a full overview of the benefits and features of your solution that are important to the user. More critically, it lets users gauge for themselves why your solution outpaces the competition.

If you want to convince anyone of anything, you need to target all three systems in the brain. From arousing the primal brain to connecting emotionally and rationally, your marketing should resonate on every level.

Shirin Oreizy is the founder of Next Step, a design firm that uses the latest research in behavioral science to create websites, user interfaces, brand identities and campaigns that drive user behavior.

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