What is Neuromarketing and how does it relate to SEO?

Why did you choose to come to this page?

Short answer is I don’t know, and you’d probably have a hard time explaining it too. I could probably make educated assumptions, but like many of you, I like to see solid proof of concept - less talk, more action.

Hopefully I’ve got your attention for the next 10 minutes, so grab a coffee or tea and let me introduce you to the brilliance of neuromarketing and how it’s going to change everything and how it relates to the future of SEO.

I made the transition from traditional marketing where most reporting and research was inherently flawed and it always felt like I was guessing...to online marketing where most business decisions can be backed up by cold hard numbers.

However, all the metrics (clicks, bounce rate, etc..) still don’t tell me why.

For years the only way marketers could gain this kind of intelligence was by asking the consumers directly (focus groups, surveys), but there’s one fatal flaw with this type of information. The flaw is so big that it causes hundreds of new product failures per year and leaves husbands across the world to sleep on the sofa because they didn’t understand why “nothing’s wrong”.

Under stress (or even when life is going along pretty well), people tend to say one thing while their behaviour suggests something entirely different. Needless to say, this spells disaster for the field of market research, which relies on consumers being accurate and honest.

That’s a quote from Martin Lindstrom, from his amazing book Buyology that inspired me to write this post.

What is Neuromarketing?

My definition: Where science and marketing combine to specifically and accurately determine what our brains want.

Wikipedia definitionNeuromarketing is a new field of marketing that studies consumers’ sensorimotorcognitive, and affective response to marketing stimuli.

What is Buyology?

“Subconcious thoughts, feelings, and desires that drive purchasing decisions we make” Source: http://www.slideshare.net/doctorious/buyology-notes-and-quotes

Martin Lindstrom conducted the world’s largest neuromarketing study (spending 7 million USD, 2,081 volunteers) in order to uncover the thoughts, emotions, needs, and wants of consumers in a scientific method. By using an fMRI (functional magnetics resonance imaging) machine, he and his team were able to accurately detect what part of the human brain was being fed oxygen, up to one millimetre. When the human brain is working, it needs more oxygen; therefore he could detect what part of the brain would essentially “light up” when it was being used.

Without spoiling the book, I wanted to share some of his results with you - to inspire you, as it has done for me:

On the TV show American Idol, Coke, Cingular and Ford were the three main advertising sponsors - they all had 30 second commercial spots, but:

  • Coca Cola also had the judges (Simon Cowell) always drinking from a red Coca Cola cup
  • Cingular had control of the text message voting during the show.
  • Ford only had the thirty second ads spots
The test:

There were a total of 400 subjects who were shown 20 logos - some of them were from the show, including Coke, Cingular and Ford and these are going to be referred to as product placement branded logos. The other logos had nothing to do with the show, like Ebay, Fanta etc.. these are referred to as non branded logos. They then showed the subjects a special 20 minute version of American Idol as well as an episode of a different show.**

**I’ve cut quite a bit of detail out from the book, I guess you’ll just have to read it!

The results:

After viewing the shows, the product placement branded logos actually inhibited the recall of the unbranded logos. So the subjects memory of say Coke was increased while their memory for unbranded logos (ex. Ebay) was actually weakened.

Coke was more memorable than Cingular, and much more memorable than Ford. In fact, the subjects actually remembered less about the Ford commercials then they had before entering the study! Ford spent 26 million USD only to lose market share! Incredible.


Coke played an integral part in the show, through clever product placement and integration they were able to form a strong bond between the drink and the emotions provoked in the show. Remember that each judge had a Coke glass to drink from throughout the entire show - so every happy, inspirational, heart-wrenching, joyful moment in the show had at least a flash of the judge’s desk with the Coke glass front and center.

Here’s a quick clip, just watch 20 seconds of this to understand where Coke fit in:

 Great, so what does this have to do with SEO?

The science of why we buy is more closely tied to conversion rate optimisation (CRO), and CRO is becoming and essential part of SEO. Sure, we can get traffic to our site using SEO, but in order to achieve maximum results (the results that CEOs and clients pay us for) we need to make sure that those visitors convert into sales.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any online focused neuromarketing studies available, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t apply some of the lessons learned from Martin’s book to our current marketing efforts. In a nut shell, he proves the following in the book:

Smiling: Has a very big impact on memory recall - Think of the images you use to display your brand

Mirror Neurons: When people see an action being done, they have a tendency to repeat it

Rituals: Very powerful emotional anchors. Think of “Magners on Ice” or “Dipping Oreos in Milk”

Tribalism: Ability to find community through commerce. Think of the Mac VS PC commercials

Sex: Doesn’t sell anything but itself!

Neuromarketing is still in its infancy much like SEO, but I do expect the two disciplines to collide in the near future. We’re starting to talk about it, slowly - but I hope that this encourages more of us to explore this exciting new field. It’s a bit invasive, I know, but I honestly believe that we can achieve much more creativity than what I see lying around today.

The fundamental principles that I’ve learned from reading about neuromarketing easily apply to SEO & online marketing, as they do to any other form of marketing. Here’s one last clip of Martin on the Today show talking about some clever marketing tactics:

Your actions

  1. Buy the book, read it, then come back here and leave a comment.
  2. Experiment - I would start with title tags in SERPs, then move onto “optimizing” images on my site and experimenting with copy. On a bigger scale, I would carefully select my link targets and concentrate on integration rather than just obtaining a contextual link.
  3. Convince a multi-national corporation do spend 100k on an SEO - Neuromarketing study, then release the results :)
I hope I’ve inspired you, mainly because I want to see a better internet with less crappy articles, spammy keywords and unoriginal content. I truly believe if marketers actually understand what I want, they (you) will satisfy my search query or buying needs with precision and make the internet a better place.

Thanks for reading :)

UPDATE - Josh Braaten left some great book suggestions for anyone who’s interested in taking this further. He’s even got an internet marketing book review page, awesome!

The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely

Neuro Web Design by Susan Weinschenk

Influence: Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini

Neuromarketing by Renvoise & Morin

Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill - Thanks to Eric for this one.

Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom - This is going to be my next one!

Dave Sottimano

Dave Sottimano

David Sottimano comes from a varied background in Corporate Marketing and Professional Sales. His love affair between the internet and marketing has finally found the perfect balance at Distilled, and continues to flourish each day. He graduated...   read more

Get blog posts via email


  1. Interesting stuff David. It's all part of this growing realisation that our subconscious mind plays a much larger role in our decision-making processes than we'd previously assumed, and that it's pretty easy to effect a short-term influence on the subconscious mind (e.g. priming).

    There are some ethical quandaries that will need to be resolved, however, when this sort of marketing starts to become pervasive. In effect what it does is bypass the conscious decision-making process and influences people's behaviour in ways that, by its very definition, they are unaware of. In effect, neuromarketing is a form of (temporary) brainwashing.

    Also, as our understanding of neuroscience increases, one could argue - successfully - that much of traditional marketing does this already. This puts the entire discipline on somewhat shaky grounds, imho...

    reply >
  2. Great post. Anytime I hear the word "Tribalism" I think Seth Godin. If you havent read its a must :-)

    reply >
  3. Great stuff, David. I LOVE watching the growing field of neuromarketing, and really enjoyed Lindstrom's Buyology. If you or any Distilled blog readers want more suggestions for books in this area, here's a brief list:
    - Neuro Web Design by Susan Weinschenk
    - Influence: Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini (not technically neuromarketing, but delves into many of the psychological triggers behind neuromarketing)
    - Neuromarketing by Renvoise & Morin
    - Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
    - The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely
    - Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom

    Thanks for sharing this amazing field with the Distilled readers!

    reply >
    • Ian Williams

      Great call on Predictably Irrational - finished it on the train this morning.

      Another similar book I enjoyed was Risk by Dan Gardiner. I'll add Buyology to the (ever-growing) wishlist today.

  4. Yasir

    I read a great article about neuromarketing back in Auguste on http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/158/neuromarketing-intel-paypal.

    It is a very detail article with examples from Intel, Paypal, Pepsi, Google, HP and other big companies' usage of neuromarketing and various tests that were conducted.

    I really liked this statement from Paul B. Farrell, a columnist for Dow Jones and author of The Millionaire Code, quoted in that article

    "Your brain's "true decision-making processor," a "weapon of mass delusion." You end up like a computer "without virus protection" and "exposed to every Wall Street banker, politician, and corporate CEO with gobs of cash and a desire to manipulate your brain."

    reply >
  5. David Sottimano

    Hi Barry, you raise a very good point about ethics. This type of brain scanning research had been done about 20 years ago by Tobacco companies who thoroughly used their findings to brainwash millions of us.

    I guess we can say something similar about SEO, and those who use it in an unethical manner. Either way, very valid point and maybe if we're well informed then we can fight against the brainwashing.

    I'm hoping that marketers will use Neuromarketing to benefit people, but hey maybe I'm just a dreamer.

    reply >
  6. Thanks for writing this up David. I read Buyology last year and thought it was great. I'm sure it won't be long before we start seeing neuromarketing tests related to user experience on the web, and it will definitely be a game changer. Why We Buy by Paco Underhill (which Lindstrom references) is also another good book about the psychology of marketing.

    reply >
    • Thanks Eric for th recommendation for the Underhill book. Some dodgy looking reviews for the Buyology book on Amazon UK, lots of negative ones too, so went with your recommendation.

  7. Thanks for this article David. I hate American Idol and have only watched a few times. As you pointed out, I remembered Coke's branding despite me rarely ever watching the show. Very interesting thoughts here!

    reply >
  8. I have been researching neuromarketing for the last 18 months, while working on my psych degree, and aggravating my profs with plenty of questions about this topic.

    Better research into what REALLY motivates people to do things/make decisions by better understanding them at the brain level is good -- but from an SEO standpoint, that may only mean a shift in targeted keywords or better writing, word choice. We already have a lot of tools available to us know that can do the same things, and SEO done correctly, would already incorporate (hopefully) the emotional triggers with well written tags, etc. Personally, I'm not saying it couldn't help... BUT I don't see neuromarketing having any where near the impact on SEO as it could from say, a branding or creative perspective.

    Also, without getting to whether the book is good or bad, one thing to keep in mind as you read buyology is that the author has been criticized by peers for the lack of insight into his methodology, the gathering of the research. Just one example: http://brainethics.org/?p=903. Be sure to keep your critical thinking hats on ;)

    reply >
  9. Bought the book; shall report back in a week or so!

    reply >
  10. David Sottimano

    @Melanie Thanks for such an insightful comment. Hope you don't mind but I've got some questions for you ;)

    "but from an SEO standpoint, that may only mean a shift in targeted keywords or better writing, word choice"

    1) A shift in targeted keywords is a very significant change for an SEO strategy, especially if you're competing in a hyper-competitive vertical and spending considerable amounts of money.

    What if we realized that targeting "car insurance" as our primary focus keyword wasn't actually the best way to attract our target market?

    What if we studied our target market (most likely high income, over 40, professionals in London) and realized that SEO wasn't even the right way of attracting them?

    Keep in mind, I'm making assumptions here. I would love to understand intent at all phases of the online purchasing process so I could tailor my keywords and landing page to mirror the intent accurately.

    "We already have a lot of tools available to us know that can do the same things, and SEO done correctly, would already incorporate (hopefully) the emotional triggers with well written tags, etc"

    2) To my knowledge there isn't a tool out there that can determine intent. Yes, there are keyword tools that associate relationships between keywords, show us search volume, season fluctuation, and even try to predict search trends.

    What tool(s) are you specifically talking about?

    I think the leaked copy of the Google quality rater guidelines is as close as we can get to understanding keywords on an intent level (mainly because Google holds all of the data). Google uses Do - Know - Go, if you haven't seen this check this out and see if you can get a copy http://searchengineland.com/download-the-latest-google-search-quality-rating-guidelines-97391

    "BUT I don’t see neuromarketing having any where near the impact on SEO as it could from say, a branding or creative perspective"

    3) SEO is constantly changing and it's not just about optimizing keywords anymore. I expect my job title to change this year to incorporate CRO, copy writing, social media etc..

    I'm assuming that you're thinking about SEO in the traditional sense of technical audits, keywords, on page optimization...

    I'm an SEO in 2012 and I am becoming an essential part of any organization's marketing mix. I'm involved in PR, Advertising, TV, offline marketing, search, PPC, Copy writing and in the near future...neuromarketing.

    Wouldn't you agree that Neuromarketing will become an essential element of the marketing mix?

    If so, if SEO is already an essential part of the marketing mix, won't SEO and Neuromarketing have a direct impact on each other?

    **BTW - checked out your site and looks great. If it sounds like I'm attacking you, my apologies. I'm questioning you as you've done with your profs :)

    reply >
  11. I absolutely love all this neuromarketing stuff, I remember investigating EEG machines about 10 years ago, I wanted to control midi with them and hook them up to audio visual systems. Problem was, simple eeg machines cost around 8000$. I have seem some on the market now for a few hundred.
    I would love to set a system up with eye-tracking and eeg detection to test landing pages, usability, design and different ad images, imagine the possibilities!

    reply >
  12. I'm definitely getting this for my Kindle and having a read. As a marketer I am constantly looking for validation of my methods along with developing new methods to give both myself and my clients the edge. I'm still not sure why I'm here but a little bit happier for it;)

    reply >
  13. How does neuromarketing help me get better XML Sitemaps?

    reply >

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>