winter / 2015

The magazine of branded content
Simon Says
Content creation isn’t brain surgery, but don’t tell that to cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Carmen Simon
Nov 25, 2015

With sites like Facebook, Buzzfeed and Upworthy dedicating resources to “engagement and share” algorithms, cognitive neuroscience is assuming a greater role in audience development and content creation.

That’s good news for Dr. Carmen Simon, co-founder of San Francisco-based marketing science firm Rexi Media. For nearly a decade, the Romanian-born Simon has been teaching brand managers, CMOs and creators how to attract attention with their content and make it memorable.

Content Magazine: When developing content appropriate for the decision stage in the buyer’s journey, why is social proof—testimonials and user reviews—so important to the human brain?
Dr. Carmen Simon: Social proof is a concept that has been studied for many decades. One of the reasons it works is because the brain is drawn to patterns. The reason we're drawn to patterns is because, if given the choice to think or not to think, we prefer not to think.

One of the reasons social proof works is because the brain is drawn to patterns.

That's because the brain, even though it's just a small organ, consumes a lot of our energy—about 20% of our body’s energy. If the brain detects an occasion to conserve energy, it will take it. So, if you have a lot of people around you performing actions that prove profitable for them, then it's a lot easier to mimic those actions than it is to think for yourself, which would consume energy.

But testimonials and reviews don’t always work in the decision phase.
Yes. If on the other hand some bigger things are at stake—for instance, if your boss says, "Be very careful what decision you make in terms of that marketing automation platform you're going to buy, we're going to spend $100,000 on implementation”—because your job depends on it, you will need more than social proof in order to make that decision.

In that case you’d engage in more strategic decision-making, which requires more thinking. You may use social proof as one of the points for decision-making, but it’s probably not the only one. This is where research comes in, when people look for the case studies and data, and sampling it on their own with a demo. That process is a lot more tiring, which is why social proof is preferred because somebody else is thinking for you.

With listicles, we're drawn to the idea of mastering a chaotic environment.

What is it about the listicle that our brains respond to so reflexively?
I don't think it's the numbers that we're drawn to, because the brain doesn’t register numbers very well. The brain is drawn to visuals, to patterns, and any number beyond three, the brain will question. The brain is not like a computer.

When it comes to “15 ways of doing this” or “seven habits of effective people,” what we're drawn to is the simplicity and the idea of mastering a chaotic environment. So the more complex something is, if somebody has the skills to simplify it down to “here are three ways to skin a cat,” then you'll very likely be drawn to that.

As more and more content is produced, what does that do to our brains? Do we process it differently than we did 50 years ago when there were fewer options?
The brain hasn't really changed much in the past 40,000 years. What has changed is our threshold for stimulation. If we were to be really honest with ourselves, when people say, "Oh we're so bombarded by content," is that really true? Because people enjoy going from BuzzFeed article to BuzzFeed article and from chocolate bites to chocolate bites. That's because we love that stimulation, and it’s reached an addictive level. That’s a reality, you can't really fight that. What we have to now answer is how do we get the brain to focus on what we want it to focus on in the midst of all of this content?

One of the reasons people forget your content is because they don't pay attention to it to begin with.

You talk to a lot of brand managers and CMOs. What’s their biggest challenge?
They want to change audience behavior in some way. I usually remind them that people act on what they remember, not on what they forget. So memory is one of the main pillars that I teach.

One of the reasons people forget your content is because they don't pay attention to it to begin with. So attention is another pillar. And why are we so intrigued by memory? People reach a decision based on what they remember. So decision making is the third pillar. Attention, memory and decision making are the foundation of this method that I’ve established—because people might pay attention to content, and they may remember it, but they still might not make a decision. Once the CMO or brand manager figure out that the brain has multiple ways in which to reach a decision, they can begin to create and craft content accordingly to make it easier for the brain to make a decision.