How Inbound Marketers Can Harness the Power of Neuromarketing

8 Minute Read | Inbound Marketing

With the online landscape saturated with content, inbound marketers must look to produce content that stands apart from the crowd and taps into the readers’ primal instincts. We must look to the theory behind the practice of neuromarketing to better understand our readers, and produce content that communicates in a way that transcends their conscious awareness. As Dr. Peter Steidl states:

“Billions of sensory signals reach our brain every day, and the non-conscious mind decides which of these to put into memory. We are not consciously aware of the vast majority of signals our mind receives. Our fast and powerful non-conscious mind sorts these inputs out. With this insight, it should not come as a surprise to you that more than 95% of our thinking happens non-consciously – outside of our awareness.”

NeuromarketingImage Credit: Pepijn Barnard

What is Neuromarketing?

Emerging in the early 2000’s, Neuromarketing is the bridge between marketing and neuroscience.

A controversial field now prevalent across the globe, Neuromarketing provides corporations with unprecedented insights into how consumers form brand memories, and preference certain products over others.

To garner such insights practitioners use a range of biomedical tools to map our brain patterns, as we engage with branded stimuli. The neuromarketers tricks of the trade include:

Brain Computer InterfaceImage Credit: SensoMotoric Instruments

So while this may all seem a little A Clockwork Orange for comfort, Neuromarketing techniques are influencing all forms of off and online marketing, branding and advertising.

Neuromarketing & Online Content

While it no doubt pays to be sceptical when it comes to neuromarketing, and its use of EEG and fMRI to track our subconscious reactions to branded stimuli, this increasingly popular marketing trend offers plenty of take-aways for all the inbound marketers out there.

However, as Lyndon Antcliff said at the Link Love 2013 conference in London, the key to producing successful online content lies in producing content that appeals to the readers’ non-conscious mind, or reptilian brain; a concept at the heart of neuromarketing.

“Content can call to the primal brain and without you knowing it you’re excited, you’re scared, you’re turned on… And the primal brain loves a headline. It loves a great headline, For instance, “13 year old boy steals credit card to buy hookers.” It loves headlines like that because it’s about something that’s fundamental to us as human beings.”

Donkey Robs Bank - Sunday Sport, The Guardian

System 1 & System 2

The rise of neuromarketing has largely come about due to the failings of traditional marketing.

Historically, market researchers have collected data on consumer habits and preferences via surveys, focus groups and ethnographies. However, these methods only provide insight into our conscious behaviours as consumers, those driven by System 2 of the human brain.

The notion of the two systems pre-dates psychology, and can be linked to Plato’s ‘Chariot Allegory, Phaedrus 245c-249d’. The chariot-drawn-by-two-horses (see below) uses one horse to symbolise human emotion (System 1) and the other to represent human reasoning (System 2). And according to Harvard Professor, Gerald Zaltman, up to 95 per cent of our purchasing decisions are made by System 1 – our non-conscious or implicit system.

Plato’s Chariot Allegory, Phaedrus 245c-249d

Acknowledging the power of System 1 is the key, not only to understanding impulse buying, but to understanding why up to 95 per cent of new products fail. As Peter Steidl comments, most of these failed products were researched in group discussions and surveys and launched on the basis of consumer comments and stated purchase intentions. There are plenty of case studies that illustrate the failings of these methods, as cited by Peter Steidl in his essay, “Neuromarketing: Marketing Fad or Marketing’s Future?

  • More than 80 per cent of Australians said they would never use an ATM when research was conducted before their launch in the 1970’s.
  • The Aero chair was rejected in every market research study before it was launched – and now it is most popular office chair in the world.
  • Baily’s Irish Cream was rejected by numerous market research groups before its release in 1974, but has since developed into a huge success.

For more real world examples of the failings of traditional market research see Neuromarketing Strategist, Katharina Kuehn’s article, “Problems With Focus Groups & Market Research: Some Real World Examples”.

The Conflict Between the ‘New Brain’ [System 2] & the ‘Reptilian’ Brain [System 1]

The below image perfect highlights the conflict between the two systems. Try to say the colour of the word.

Brain Left Right Conflict

Confusion occurs due to the fact that while both sides operate simultaneously, they are incapable of communication, and operate completely independent of one another.

The Reptilian Brain

There are actually 3 parts that make up the human brain:

  • The “New” brain: The most highly evolved brain, also known as the cortex. This brain is responsible for logic, learning, language & conscious thought.
  • The “Middle brain”, also known as the limbic system. This brain is responsible for our emotions, moods & memory.
  • The “Reptilian” brain, also known as the R Complex. This brain controls our survival functions, is unconscious, and is compulsive.

However, as controversial market researcher, Clotaire Rapaille, said on the PBS program “The Persuaders”, the three parts are by no means equal:

“I don’t care what you tell me intellectually… The reptilian always wins. To strengthen your brand, loyalty and sales, you must understand your customers’ “reptilian hot buttons.” A “cortex” message – such as “Buy my product because it is 20% cheaper” – doesn’t buy customer loyalty.”

The Six Stimuli for the Reptilian Brain

The reptilian overrides both our new brain and middle brain and drives our buying decisions for reasons beyond our conscious awareness. To appeal to the primal brain, content must speak in a “language” it can understand.

These are the 6 stimuli that best communicate to our reptilian brain, according to Patrick Renvoise and Christophe Morin:

  1. Tangibility
  2. Emotion
  3. Contrast
  4. Self centred
  5. Beginning & End
  6. Visual

6 Stimuli that Best Communicate to our Reptilian Brain (according to Patrick Renvoise & Christophe Morin)

Speaking to the Reptilian Brain

As Lyndon Antcliff noted earlier, if we want to be commercially successful content creators we’ve got to appeal to our readers’ reptilian nature. In order to do this, our content must communicate using a language it understands.

1. Make It Tangible: The reptilian brain is simple, and in no way concerned with the abstract. It is only concerned with what it can see. Be specific with your content and provide examples of how what you’re talking about can be applied to real world scenarios.

2. Appeal to the Reader’s Emotions: If your content focuses on facts and figures, you’re communicating to the wrong side of the brain, according to inbound marketing specialist Luke Summerfield. Using humour and emotion is a proven way of boosting your readership.

In April of this year BuzzSumo analyzed the social share counts of over 100 million articles, and according to its findings the three most popular emotions invoked by the most shareable content were: awe, laughter and amusement. As you can see from the graph below, content that evokes positive emotions [such as joy and laughter] is far more shareable.

Popular Emotions

3. Use Contrast: Our ‘old’ brain is trained to notice contrast. If you’re content is unique it will stand out from the crowd. Make your content unusual, and people will share it.

4. It’s All About Me: Our reptilian brain is highly egotistical, as it’s the part of our brain linked to survival. As a result, this part our brain is highly stimulated by content that pertains directly to us. Does your content help someone fix a problem? Assist their survival by giving them information that will help them in their job? We love content that rewards our ego.

5. Open and Close with a Bang: We are highly influenced by the beginning and end of an experience; and not that fussed with what’s in the middle. The beginning and end of an event, movie, book, or article alters our perception of the whole. This too is heavily influenced by our ‘old brain’.

6. Include Images and Multimedia: If you want your content to be shared, included images. According to BuzzSumo, when it comes to content going viral, a picture is worth 200 plus per cent more social shares.

Putting It Into Practice

For me, the letter below by Martin Conroy from the The Wall Street Journal, is the best example of branded content fluently speaking the language of the reptilian brain.

This two page direct mail letter is one of most successful pieces of copywriting ever produced, and was a cornerstone of The Wall Street Journal’s sales outreach for 28 years. It is estimated to have generated over $2 billion in revenue.

Wall Street Journal Sales Letter - page 1

Wall Street Journal Sales Letter - page 2

By creating a narrative context around The Wall Street Journal’s commercial intent, Martin Conroy managed to produce a piece of content that appealed to his readers’ emotions, made perfect use of contrast, appealed to the survival instinct, and was distinctly tangible.


Established in the early 2000’s, neuromarketing has grown exponentially over the past decade. And while many neuroscientists see the practice as highly flawed, the theory behind the science presents inbound marketers with a host of tools that can assist us to produce more compelling, effective and shareable content.

By tailoring content to appeal to your readers’ primal nature – and speaking to their reptilian brain in a language it can understand – you will increase the likelihood of your content being consumed. After all… What’s the point of producing brilliant content, if in the end, nobody is compelled to read it.

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