10 behavioral science principles for great digital creative

What can behavioral science teach marketers about digital advertising? Contributor Peter Minnium dives into key learnings from behavioral scientists to help you know how to engage your prospects.

Dr. Herbert Simon, the Nobel prize-winning psychologist, coined the phrase “poverty of attention” back in 1971, at the dawn of the information age.

“In an information-rich world,” he said, “the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes [and what information consumes is pretty obvious] — the attention of its recipients.”


Simon wrote this prior to computers becoming commonplace — and, of course, before smartphones were ubiquitous.

In the subsequent years, the tension between information and attention has gotten even more extreme.

As advertising creativity also grows in complexity to acclimate to new environments, how do you make effective digital creative in a “MAdTech” world?

It turns out that behavioral scientists have been wrestling with how people make decisions in an attention economy for some time. We can learn a thing or two — or 10 — from their treasure trove of learning.

Herewith are my top 10 behavioral science drivers of effective digital creative.


1. Keep it simple

The first is, well, simple. Keep it simple.

I took the above photo outside a highway liquor store in Bayonne, New Jersey, and I think that this urban poet got things about right.

That’s because the human mind has limited thinking capacity. Research shows that the amount of information we can attend to — the number of things we can hold in working memory — is four, plus or minus one.

It does not matter how much information you put on the screen; humans can notice only about four pieces of it.

So, keep it simple.


2. Make a strong first impression

Research shows that people rely on unconscious processing and first impressions.

More important — these first impressions last. In one study, respondents were shown a website for 1/10, 1/2 and 4 seconds and questioned about its “visual appeal.” Surprisingly (to me, anyway), respondents tended to rate the site the same no matter the length of exposure.

Our conscious assessment of information matters less than we think. Many of our decisions are the result of processing that takes place before we are even aware of what we are looking at.


3. Make it beautiful

Following up on point #2, behavioral science research shows that our first impressions are based on aesthetics — which stands to reason, because if you are judging something based on a 1/10- or 1/2-second view, it cannot be the result of careful analysis of the content.

Computer scientists call this form of aesthetics “visceral beauty,” which is a wonderful term, and this has been shown to drive decision-making.

We react to how the look of something makes us feel.

Research also shows that visual appeal strongly influences perceptions of value, usability and trust. Seems to me that this is something Steve Jobs understood inherently.


4. Compress your story

The human mind can only process about four pieces of information at a time, but we also have a clever trick for expanding our attentional bandwidth.

Behavioral scientists call it “chunking” — or binding together individual pieces of information into a meaningful whole. A chunk is defined as a “familiar collection of more elementary units that have been inter-associated and stored in memory repeatedly and act as a coherent, integrated group when retrieved.”

Great communication helps our brains to chunk information — and can therefore communicate more with less attention.

Think the Geico Gecko.

Storytelling also does this. Here is one master’s take on the shortest story of all time.


Talk about effective chunking!

On a more mundane level, Ipsos Connect (my employer) has found that the consistent use of brand elements can be effective chunks. For example, the use of brand cues like logos, taglines and colors has a significant impact on branded recall and can also strengthen ad breakthrough.


5. Aim for the bull’s-eye

This is really straightforward.

Research shows that human beings have a bias for the middle of the screen. Key placement of information in this area has a larger impact on our perception of the whole.

In 2013, this bias was confirmed through a fun piece of research from the Harvard Medical School.

Twenty-four trained radiologists were asked to examine a group of CT scans and look for lung nodules — an early indicator of lung cancer. What they did not know is that a gorilla 48 times larger than a nodule had been placed in the top right corner of one of the scans.

Eighty-three percent of the radiologists failed to notice it!

Less dramatically, we see this in digital advertising as well — ads placing brand assets more toward the screen center achieve higher lift in branded recall.


6. Slow it down

It turns out that we may have made the processing of digital information too easy.

When information is too easy to process, humans are less likely to remember it and more likely to skim and forget the content.

Research shows that making material harder to process — what the researchers call increasing disfluency — can improve long-term retention.

In one fascinating study at Princeton, two groups read the same story in two different fonts, Arial and Comic Sans, and then took the same test. Those who read in the eye-pleasing Arial recalled an average of 73 percent of the facts, while those who read in the more visually challenging Comic Sans came in at 87 percent!

Disfluency causes people to process information at a deeper level — so do not make your digital creative too easy to consume.


7. Personalize your creative

Behavioral science research shows that, in a world awash with generic content, personalization makes us pay attention more to advertising messages that change behavior.

We know this to be true of personalized advertising as well. Data from the latest Jivox Benchmark report shows that interaction increases significantly with the simple addition of geographic and time cues.


8. Account for attention context

When designing ads, it’s too often assumed that the viewer is only looking at our creative. As noted earlier, we think the viewer will be able to use their allotted four bits of information in working memory to attend to our ad.

In digital, this is rarely the case, and consumers are much more likely to be doing other things as well, such as walking down the street or listening to music or fielding text messages.

Behavioral scientists know that this can easily lead to inattention blindness, which occurs whenever the amount of information coming into the brain is greater than our processing ability.

Digital creative must be even simpler and more focused than analog advertising due to the information-rich environment it’s viewed within.


9. Trigger a feeling

Behavioral scientists have consistently proven communications that trigger feelings are more effective.

The behavioral scientist Paul Slovic coined the now well-known term Affect Heuristic in explaining that the brain is drawn to any information that comes attached with emotion, regardless if the emotion is good or bad. We pay attention to things that make us feel something.

As Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman further showed in their 2012 study, online content that evokes high-arousal emotions is more viral.


10. Test, test and test

Digital advertising has not only increased the stakes, but also raised the bar of what consumers expect from brands. Getting over the bar to engage, delight and motivate prospects has never been harder.

At the same time, digital provides an incredibly rich set of data and an accompanying laboratory for experimentation. Smart marketers, publishers and their agencies are taking advantage of this historic opportunity and learning through multiple lenses — including behavioral science.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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