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How Our Brains React To Re-Messaging


mattscharfupdatedData-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Matt Scharf, senior manager of display media operations and analytics at Adobe.

What’s the secret to more effective retargeting? You might say brilliant creative, predictive modeling or segmented data.

True, all three are important. But there’s something more powerful going on. Why does certain information stick in the minds of our customers? The short answer: It has to do with the brain. Understanding the neuroscience of customer behavior and how the brain remembers can transform the effectiveness of our retargeting.

For example, have you ever bought a new car and then suddenly noticed every time the same type of car passed you on the road or appeared on TV? Did a miraculous influx of that model car hit the market? Of course not.

So what caused the sudden awareness?

Our brains need help determining what’s important. And our brains have a clever system for letting us know what’s worth remembering. It’s called the Reticular Activation System (RAS), and we use it to filter everything, including white noise, smells, tastes and pictures.

Only the most relevant information makes it through the filter. As marketers, appealing to customers’ RAS is the secret to more effective retargeting – the difference between action and inaction.

Understanding Your Brain’s Data Processing Center

We tell our brains what’s important, whether we know we’re doing it or not. You can think of it like this: Our brains are like computers processing billions of bits of data every second. But just like computers, our brains can only process so much. We’re limited by our own RAM, so to speak. Just like a computer, we must help it deliver the type of information we want.

To do that, we consciously and unconsciously grant exceptions to the RAS filter. For example, when we encounter a snake, our RAS tells the brain, “This could be dangerous; pay attention.” It is an automatic, subconscious exemption. But we can also tell our RAS what matters to us. After purchasing that new car, an exception was entered and it suddenly became relevant.


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Your RAS told your brain: “Hey, make sure this makes it through the filter.” Then magically, you started noticing those vehicles.

RAS And Remarketing: ‘That Ad Follows Me Everywhere’

As consumers, we’re bombarded with messages, noises, images and calls to action. Well-crafted messaging cuts through the noise by appealing to our RAS. Subconsciously, we know that the message is worth noticing.

Have you ever shopped for shoes online and then thought, “That ad for those shoes follows me everywhere?”

We filter out display ads online all the time, yet dynamic ads like this are hard to miss because they appeal directly to the RAS.

So how can marketers ensure their retargeting gets past the RAS?

Be memorable: Marketers have a lot of data. But people don’t remember numbers – they remember stories. To tell a relevant story, marketers can use data to determine where customers are in the purchase funnel, what they’ve trialed, what they should try next or what promo offer they qualify for. By using stories to craft memorable customer interactions with the brand, marketers greatly increase the chance that their messages will make it through the RAS filter.

Be consistent: Using a data management platform to define audiences from a single, cohesive platform allows marketers to serve a consistent message to their customers across all channels. Similar to the car example, consistent cross-channel messaging is a great way to engage the RAS by ensuring customers’ experience is an intuitive one. They shouldn’t have to struggle with different messaging or irrelevant offers.

Be relevant: Retargeting is the kindling to fire up the RAS in customers’ minds. We have plenty of useful data to determine what a customer might be interested in. By reminding them of that interest (in the right way), we’re helping their RAS filter messages, products or offers to the top of their mind.

Be direct: The RAS recognizes things that the brain has processed before, so marketers should be as specific in their messaging as possible. Many marketers, particularly retailers, use dynamic ad units to populate specific SKUs that might be relevant based on a user’s previous purchasing history or browsing behavior. The most effective marketers provide clear offers and calls to action. Using this technology can help marketers keep their message direct.

Be responsible: The whole objective of marketing is to delight customers, ultimately leading to their taking a desired action, and not to annoy them with irrelevant persistence. Bombarding the RAS with unwanted or excessive messaging is detrimental. It encourages customers to tune out and move on. Retargeting must be consistent, but not unceasing. Marketers shouldn’t overload users with their messaging. Marketers should be strategic in how often, and in what context, they reach out to customers.

Successful retargeting is memorable; it cuts through the noise and speaks directly to a customer. “This is relevant to you,” we want our ads to say.

We can’t do this with data, creative and modeling alone. Those three must be used to appeal to the brain. If we can do that, we’ll reap the benefits.

It’s science. Who can argue with science?

Follow Matt Scharf (@Matt_Scharf), Adobe (@Adobe) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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