Neuroscience shows news sites outperform social media

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A new study by the UK's Newsworks and Association for Online Publishing indicates that the part of the brain that processes words and detail registers ads on premium news sites 42 per cent more than if they were on social media.

The research shows left brain memory encoding is 42 per cent stronger, and while right brain memory encoding - dealing with more emotional and global aspects of processing - is strong for both, ads on premium sites generate a nine per cent stronger response.

The research, conducted by neuroscience experts Neuro-Insight, set out to explore why the quality context that editorial media provide works - focussing on the physiological effects that environments have on brain responses to advertising.

Newsworks says the research measured participants' brain responses to identical ads in different contexts, analysing a number of sites in the brain in order to identify key research metrics:

Long-term memory encoding - Memory encoding is key because it correlates with decision-making and purchase intent. It is measured for both left brain (detail and language) and right brain (more global aspects of processing)

Engagement - Engagement is an indicator of how involved people are, and is generally triggered by material that is of personal relevance

Emotional intensity ­- Emotional intensity relates to the strength of emotion being experienced

Results show that ads seen in a premium context are viewed for longer (+17 per cent), create 29 per cent higher engagement (personal relevance) and generate greater levels of left brain (+42 per cent) and right brain (+9 per cent) memory encoding than ads on social media (Facebook and YouTube). Ads seen within a premium context also elicit stronger, more positive emotional responses.

Social media is associated with high levels of immediate attention, however the study suggests that this is not creating engagement (personal relevance), or being converted into long-term brand memories to the same extent as on premium sites.

Both premium and social media environments outperform the average of ads encountered during free browsing, implying that targeting ads simply by audience is not optimising ad performance online. Environment is critical and the combination of premium editorial sites and social media offers complementary strengths. Social media provide a holistic, visual, overall brand impression, while premium contexts create detailed associations and personal relevance, leading to better memory encoding.

Commenting on the research, Newsworks' chief executive Vanessa Clifford said:

"We already knew that context was important for digital ad performance - now we know that it is because the brain processes ads differently depending on where they are encountered.

"It's not enough to find the right audience, people need to see ads in an environment that is conducive to memory encoding if we are to build brands longer term and maximise effectiveness. Premium editorial sites provide that highly valuable context."

Anthony Jones, head of insight at AOP said a number of recent studies had shown that premium publisher environments outperform other digital environments on a number of key business and brand measures.

"This study helps us better understand why these differences exist, and provides practical guidance about the respective roles premium editorial and social media environments play in helping achieve communications success."

How they did it:

Newsworks says the impact of different media contexts is hard to assess using traditional approaches, as people simply aren't aware of the way in which context impacts their perceptions and therefore find it hard to articulate.

This study used Steady State Topography (SST), which measures second by second electrical activity in the brain in order to report on various cognitive functions proven to relate to advertising impact.

139 participants took part, aged 18-60 years and recruited to reflect a range of online media usage.

A three stage approach was used: Free browsing - Participants freely browsed different websites via either desktop or mobile and naturally encountered various different brand communications.

Exposure to ads in different contexts - Each respondent saw the same test ads in two different environments; a premium editorial context and a social media context. Respondents were not forced to go to any particular site - they were given sites to choose from that they would normally read. Device usage was designed to be reflective of how respondents normally consume content.

Filmed online journey - Participants viewed a film of someone navigating an online journey through both a premium site and a social media site.

Throughout the experiment, participants' brain responses were individually measured and behaviour recorded using a video camera, enabling Neuro-Insight to determine brain response at any one point in time. Analysis involved looking at average levels of response to each ad in its different context.

Newsworks is the UK marketing body for national newspapers "in all their forms" with stakeholders dmg media, ESI Media, Guardian News & Media, Johnston Press, News UK, Telegraph Media Group and Trinity Mirror. AOP is an industry body representing digital publishing companies that create original, branded, quality content.

For more information contact Newsworks head of communications Liz Jaques, email:

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