I love big ideas. TED is the conference I most want to attend. I love talking about big ideas. In fact, as you read this, I’ll have the privilege of being one of the Canadians to be featured in Yahoo’s Big Idea Chair campaign (although the spending 30 minutes in make up, or “grooming” as it’s euphemistically called, isn’t really thrilling me). But every so often, you get blindsided by one. Or, perhaps more correctly, something externally creates a connection with an internal seed that’s been lying dormant. That’s what happened this week. Mitch Joel, a fellow Big Idea Chair honoree, calls them “brain melters”.
First, I had a impromptu conversation with Jess Gao, who’s a PhD candidate in cognitive psychology who’d doing her internship with us. We were discussing the results of a couple of recent eye tracking studies. Then, I got an email follow up to the last Just Behave column from Nico Brooks at Atlas. Nico has the disconcerting habit of blithely lobbing elephant sized ideas in your lap and expecting you to gracefully catch them.
Are our brains being rewired?
Let’s start with Nico’s email:
“I have wondered in the past if computers are having an impact on how human memory works – for example I don’t even bother trying to remember how words are spelled any more. In general, rote memorization seems to be headed for obsolescence. Given that our brain chemistry actually changes as a result of what we learn and how we think, it seems possible that computers are altering how our brains function. You statement begs some very big questions: is the search engine becoming a cybernetic extension to our mind that was predicted (and feared) back in the early days of computing?* Is survey knowledge a by-product of cognition and not a necessary component of how we perceive the world? We are forced to understand information space in terms of landmark and route alone, which could ultimately liberate us from the limitations of survey knowledge.”
Whew! See what I mean?
Now, let’s go to my conversation with Jess. We recently did an eye tracking study that explored effectiveness of different ad formats on a B to B portal. We tried video, display ads, text ads and an advertorial sidebar feature. We tested for physical engagement, measured through fixations and gaze time, and advertising effectiveness through brand and message recall as well as likelihood to consider the vendor in a purchase consideration set. It became very clear that there was a significant difference, in fact, an inverse correlation, between advertising engagement and advertising effectiveness. Jess and I argued this one back and forth a little, and came up with some rather intriguing hypotheses. Never get a cognitive psychologist and a marketer in the same room!
What you see isn’t always what you get
Very quickly, we found the highest degree of physical engagement with video, followed by display, advertorial and then text. But in terms of ad effectiveness, actually capturing the interest of the prospect, text moved up to the top spot and video moved to the bottom. Now, as Jess was quick to point out, we couldn’t control for all variables, including ad creative, but this was replicated across 3 different scenarios, so the consistency leads me to believe that something is definitely going on here.
We’ll be working on a white paper further exploring the results in a bit, but today I wanted to focus on the common thread running through both of these: are our brains being rewired by the Internet?
Jess and I batted about the process we use to assimilate new information. There’s stimulation, registration, organization and interpretation. How we perceive information happens at the beginning and end of the four phases. First, we have to perceive that something is there. We have to, in a few milliseconds, realize it’s there. Then, we’re stimulated by it. By this strict definition, the more intrusive the ad, the better. Video scored highly here. It captured our attention.
But it’s as we move on to registration, organization and interpretation that the effectiveness of the ad began to fall apart. After we perceive something is there, at a subconscious level, we decide whether to put up a barrier to it, relegating it to filtered background noise, or allow it to enter our consciousness for the subsequent stages of registration, organization and interpretation. In most cases, user’s registered the ad. In fact, it seems that the richer ads, video and display, registered more successfully than the text ad. It was yelling louder for us to pay attention to is. Text ads are more subtle, and blend in a little more with the back ground. But as we move from registration to organization and interpretation, the display ads and video ads began to fall victim to twin fates.
First of all, we may choose not to let the ads pass the registration process. We recognize it’s an ad, at either a conscious or sub conscious level, so it has registered, but we purposely ignore it because ads aren’t what we’re looking for. This is classic banner blindness. In this case, the more instrusive the ad is, the easier we can perceive it and register it as an ad, thereby successfully avoiding it through the rest of our interaction.
But even if we don’t selectively decide to ignore the ad, in order for it to be effective, it has to pass through the two other levels of cognition: organization and interpretation. Organization is where we take the external message, the text, the images, the sounds (in the case of video), and try to fit it into an pre-existing mental framework. We try to find the right mental filing cabinet to put these new data in. And we tend to grab this content in chunks, as it’s easier for us to handle new information in this way.
Ads of a feather…
Here is where a second interesting finding came to light. Ads that are relevant to the context they appear within are more easily organized (put into the right filing cabinet) than others. The fact that we’re engaging with content about the same subject as the ad makes it a good bet that we have that existing mental framework (called a schema) or the right drawer in our filing cabinets. We are more likely to connect the external messaging with existing internal beliefs. It’s called priming. Past research has shown that non relevant ads get noticed more. We found this as well. There’s a dissonance that creates a subconscious surprise. The ad is incongruous and causes us to switch gears for a moment. But relevant ads work better. It’s easier to organize them.
As an example of this, in one scenario we showed ads for laptops from a well known manufacturer. The article they appeared beside also was about laptops. In another scenario, we showed ads for a online meeting service from a company better known for other products. The ads appeared beside an article that was not about online meetings at all. In ad effectiveness, both in terms of message recall and vendor selection, all laptop ads significantly outperformed all online networking ads. More of our subjects had filing cabinets with information about laptops.
Pictures are worth a thousand words, but can you understand them all?
And this brings us to the last point, interpretation. As we move through perception, we move from basing our impression on the external information and more to how this resonates with our existing attitudes and beliefs. It depends on how successfully we interpret the information presented to us. And here, there’s a significant difference between text, images and video.
Jakob Nielsen has said that images are “grokked” faster. And that’s true, in one sense. But images can also be much more difficult to understand than plain text. If you’re talking about a product, say a laptop, and you show a picture of a laptop, we can identify that it’s a laptop faster than we can read a title that says “laptop”. Images have a faster neural path, at an emotional perceptual level, into our brains. It helps reinforce information scent.
But ads aim much higher than just providing information scent. They try to persuade us, and in that case, they present complex concepts that often portrayed through a combination of images, text and, in the case of video, sound. And at that level, these richer ads can be significantly more difficult to cognitively assimilate than simple text. As we’ve seen in eye tracking study after study, with text listings we tend to scan and pick up chunks of information that we’ve been primed for. We look for words in the listing that match our existing mental framework: brands, features, vendors, words like “comparison” and “review”. And we do this with remarkable efficiency, picking up enough to make a positive match, organizing and interpreting very quickly.
With many image and video ads, the message is ambiguous and nuanced. We have to try to combine images and text to solve a riddle poised to us by the advertiser. In many cases, message simplicity is obscured for supposed creativity. Video ads are particularly guilty of this. If an ad is asking us to interrupt the task at hand to try to puzzle out the meaning of the ad, in most cases, they’re asking too much.
Who’s driving this ad?
Finally, there’s the question, “who’s in charge?”. My personal belief is that the richer the ad format, the more we perceive the advertiser to be in control. If it’s a video ad that’s begging for us to notice it, we tend to push back harder. Even if the message passes all the check points: stimulation, registration, organization and interpretation, it may do it in such a heavy handed manner that we resent the manipulation. You got the message across, but you ticked me off in doing it.
Text ads are subtle and generally more factual than persuasive. To me, they give the feeling that I’m still in control and I can choose to click the link or not.
All of this runs counter to much of conventional wisdom when it comes to advertising. Increasingly, advertisers are looking for more and more persuasive means when it comes to advertising. We immediately think more intrusive ads should do a better job of battering down our defenses. And they do, to a point. But as the results from our study show, there’s a lot more to being understood and persuaded than just being heard. Perception is a four step process. I somehow believe the ARF definition of engagement, “turning on a prospect to a brand message enhanced by the surrounding context” is ambiguous enough that it might end with the first one or two steps. When it comes to advertisers, especially those painfully trying to transition from traditional channels, I suspect “engagement” is in the eye of the marketer. Ironically, the site I found this definition on tried to take over my screen with a video ad. I perceived, filtered and clicked away.
Even Google is making noises about allowing non-text ads on the results page. I wouldn’t want to make any broad sweeping statements without further testing, but based on the results of this, I’m not so sure that’s the answer. When it comes to online behavior, it appears that subtlety and the surrender of control to the consumer, or at least, the perceived surrender of control, might make for more effective advertising.
So, on to Nico’s points. What if our synapses are being rewired through online interaction? We’ve certainly seen a more schizophrenic scanning pattern, with broad, sweeping saccades (very quick eye movements) extending from corner to corner to corner of the screen. And I suspect Nico is right. Survey knowledge could very well be a learned, not an innate behavior. As we spend more time in an “n” dimensional landscape, will we cease to need to memorize the previous guides we’ve depended on in the past? I already find myself, severed from my laptop, seemingly at a loss to complete a thought. Very often, I stop mid-stream to launch a search for a factoid or further clarity on a concept. It’s almost as if the internet has become an extension of our reasoning center.
People of my generation were forbidden to take calculators to school. You had to learn your times tables by rote, so you could function at a base mathematical level. I always found this a little silly. If I have access to a calculator, why did I need to learn the times table? It’s not like I was learning some higher mathematical truth. I just drilled it into my head that 8 times 7 equals 56. What if the internet becomes the portable calculator of the next generation? What if we stop worrying about the skills we required to navigate our world and turn ourselves over to the power of search (and even, in the physical world, the power of GPS)? And how might this change the reasoning process in my children, or my grandchildren?
Some big ideas for a Friday afternoon. Catch!
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.