How do we keep buying more and more?
..ad tech will keep evolving to help us figure it out
Last year, U.S. ad spend topped $280 billion and is projected to exceed $300 billion for the first time ever this year; global ad spend surpassed $700 billion in 2021 and is projected to easily cross $750 billion in 2022. Marketing mixes continue to expand and while we still see billboards on the highway, how those ads are designed and launched has changed significantly since we were kids.
Whether or not any of us have participated in a focus group, we are all familiar with the general concept - a group of individuals behind plexiglass being monitored by straight-laced researchers in suits on the other side of the one-way mirror carefully cataloguing all participant responses to pre-approved questions. I’ve never been in a focus group myself so I’m actually just describing a scene from Mad Men. The issue ad firms have with this and other similar marketing research techniques (think online surveys), is they do not correlate with purchase behavior. Cognitively we speak and respond to questions differently than how we actually purchase and choose to remain loyal to specific brands.
In a 2020 study of negative political ads in the 2018 mid-term elections, participants were shown ads and then asked to report how they felt. Sounds very similar to a focus group? The difference in this study is all participants’ facial expressions were also recorded and analyzed by modern facial technology. The study showed that self-reporting does not have a high correlation with the emotions expressed via facial reactions. And more importantly, facial software generates “better predictions for the three dependent variables examined: changes in political interest, changes in people’s confidence in elected officials, and people’s assessment of the tone of the senate campaign.” How individuals self-report is affected by how they believe they should respond whereas facial expressions often occur without our even realizing what our faces are doing.
Specifically, facial expressions are scientifically proven to better capture unconscious processes (including emotions) that explain “consumer preferences, motivations and expectations, predicting their behavior, and explaining successes or failures of advertising messages.” In a study published by Frontiers in Psychology, emotions are “strongly correlated with attention, decision-making, and memory” and “have also been shown to impact highly on an individual’s response to receiving a message.” If the audience feels something during an advertisement, the study shows that viewers will be more attentive and better able to recall the brand vs. if an ad is targeting the “thinking” part of their brain.
Not all emotions are captured or treated equally however. Seven emotions are measured via facial reactions - joy, surprise, anger, contempt, disgust, fear and sadness. When participants’ reactions are measured, researchers observe their attention based on their head position, engagement via their facial expression and valence which corresponds to whether the reaction was positive (joy or surprise) vs. negative (the other 5 emotions).
The gamechanger in the past decade was reflected in a BBC article I came across this week which discussed why some ads are more accurately predicted to work vs. others.
As long as advertising has existed, the question advertisers and whoever approves their budgets ask - how do we prove this advertisement drove sales? If you ever saw Mad Men, multiple episodes revealed what was true in 50s/60s advertising - if sales increased in markets exposed to specific advertising, it was assumed that advertising campaign should be credited with the sales increase. Prior to digital marketing campaigns, how else would you measure ad success? Yes focus groups and surveys helped determine whether or not an ad would ever grace a magazine or appear on TV, but once an ad was seen, companies didn’t have other reliable data to prove how an ad campaign ultimately increased sales (or by how much). Beyond external factors, it’s not easy or always possible to isolate ads from other marketing techniques such as pricing, packaging or place.
Since the advent of digital marketing, budgets have grown significantly and are often spread across multiple channels. A (still) popular term in marketing parlance is the customer journey. Many types of buyers will buy your product/service and it is the marketing team’s responsibility to define market segments which will shape ad campaigns. What is possible now, and which may have seen utterly ridiculous in a prior era, is how detailed audience data has become. Take Google for example which is used by nearly 9 out of 10 Americans - advertisers can choose, in addition to the obvious location and language options, to only show their ads to individuals who have been to their site, to show different ads after an individual has seen a prior ad, to time an ad creative based on X days passing since you last purchased a product, to send you the same email with a different subject line until their software records you opened and/or clicked on the email, to send you information based on what you clicked on their website or even to show you a different site experience based on your specific customer profile.
(FYI - all modern marketing campaigns are pulling your demographic data from Google, Facebook and whatever information you voluntarily provide on any form on their site PLUS tracking all of your user behavior from the first moment you visit their site as an anonymous user to what you clicked on next, how you interacted with every email they send you, how much you read on any given page, what ads you interacted with prior to every single purchase and what brought you back to them if you left.)
And even with this disturbing amount of information collected, marketers still don’t know entirely why you bought their product/service. Digital marketing campaigns are excellent for running ‘cheap’ market tests - much smaller budgets are needed to collect actionable data from a Google search ad campaign than a direct mail campaign. Google ads will tell you exactly how often your ad was seen, where on a search result page it was seen, how many clicked, which creative was clicked, which clicks factored into a purchase decision and how much you spent on those ads relative to specific product sales (i.e. ROI). Direct mail, to put it simply, is a crapshoot in comparison.
The issue for marketers remains though - why do customers click and buy from certain ads over others. Ad campaigns are designed to reflect multiple types of customer journeys but even in known market segments, it’s not clear why some purchases occurred after 3 ad interactions vs. 15 ad interactions for other purchases. Though marketers may be aware emotions play a significant role in purchasing decisions and designed ads with that knowledge, they were still left to guess if their ads actually elicited those emotions in their audience.
The gamechanger is the growth of companies using facial software to determine in real-time how their ads are received so they can more intelligently design and determine their marketing mix.
Ever watch a credit card commercial and wonder why the human stories presented don’t illustrate the specific financial benefits of the card? Because, unfortunately, we as consumers make credit card decisions more with our heart than our minds. For capitalism, this is great! Need alone need not determine if you will buy. On an individual level, our actions are continuously influenced in ways we are not even aware of and given how many ads we see on an hourly basis, let alone daily, it’s near impossible to isolate specific stimuli. Maybe it was always difficult to parse external stimuli, but in theory we wielded more agency on how we felt before..
..if you want to learn more about Emotions in Advertising: