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A neuroscience study that suggests we aren’t building digital content right - what Simon says

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher July 27, 2021
The output from a recent webinar prompts some interesting thinking...


A webinar popped up on the Slack feed I subscribe to for the Product Marketing Institute called “The neuroscience of digital content: how buyers make decisions (or not),” and I was intrigued. We create so much content to build awareness and drive people through the purchase journey, and we have these ideas (some tested, others guesses) of how to create that content in a way that engages people and makes them remember you. What if we put those ideas to the test?

That’s what Dr. Carmen Simon, Cognitive Neuroscientist, B2B DecisionLabs did, and she shared her findings in the webinar. Simon said that there are three phases involved in forming memories: encoding, maintenance, and retrieval.

From the e-book on the same study:

Before your buyer can remember your content, they must first encode it, which means registering information through their senses. If they maintain focus on the content, a memory gets stored in their mind. And when the memory is stored, they can retrieve it—accessing that information when they need it later on.

The hard part, she said, is the maintenance part, which she also called the short-term, or working memory. Everything you ask your customers to do requires working memory - thinking, planning, solving problems, making decisions, etc. If they can’t retain information in their working memory, the chances of retrieving that information later are very small.

Simon said people don’t have an attention span problem (what most marketers talk about); they have a working memory span problem. She said the working memory has capacity limitations. And therein lies the challenge for marketing and sales - does the content you provide through presentations, ebooks, interactive tools, and so on activate working memory enough to reach the retrieval phase?

To find out how different types of content activate working memory, Simon conducted research on three content types: a Zoom presentation, an ebook, and an interactive tool. Using neuroscience tools such as facial coding, eye tracking, brain waves, and heart rate, Simon’s study looked at a number of variables, including what attracts a viewer’s attention, what’s pleasant to view, what promotes fatigue, what keeps the brain alert, and what happens with working memory.

Zoom presentations need animation

The Zoom study looked at the use of animation and annotation in a nine-minute highly technical presentation. The speaker was heard but not seen (Simon said it would have influenced the results to show the speaker). There were three groups - one viewed the slides with no animation or annotations, the second saw slides with animation, and the third watched a presentation with both animation and annotations.

The study results showed that animation and annotation helped both experts and non-experts know where to look. This is because it directed their focus and made it easy for their eyes to see the information through motion. Simon said that it’s easy to miss things in our environment even when we are looking, so providing guidance through these tactics helps people focus. Without animation and annotation, non-experts eyes were scattered, but even experts benefit from the tighter focus these tactics provide.

How much animation and annotation is necessary? Simon said the third group had four times the amount to keep the brain stimulated. Also of interest was that the annotations helped build trust and credibility.

Imagery in an e-book

The e-book test focused on the use of images. Simon said that imagery in ebooks should help readers understand the information better by easing their cognitive workload. For the test, group one read a 19-page ebook that included generic stock images. Group 2 read the same e-book with no images, and the third group had the stock-like images replaced with more concrete ones (functional, rooted in reality, layers of depth, connected to the text).

This test proved something many marketers already believed to be true - stock imagery or predictable images are distracting and detrimental to the content. Functional and specific images, Simon said, drew more attention to the text for both experts and non-experts.

The questions you need to ask yourself when deciding on the type and placement of imagery are “where do I want my audiences’ eyes to go first?” and “what image can make the text more interesting?”

Simon said you don’t have to do away with the predictable stock images completely. Instead, have about 10-20% like that (or 1-2), and the rest should be concrete images.

Interactive content v. passive PDF

The final test involved an interactive assessment tool. One group was given a passive PDF document, and the second was given the assessment tool. Both included the same information; you just had to move through the assessment to get it.

The result was that the attention, motivation, and working memory were higher for the interactive assessment. But equally interesting, the assessment generated more fatigue and lower valence, which meant the people didn’t enjoy the experience. Simon said they looked at EEG signals and found that these people had an ‘Aha!’ moment or a moment of learning:

Sometimes a moment of learning comes with some tension. Participants were not only learning something new—they may have realized that their current way of doing things might not be the best way. As a result, they experienced an adverse reaction, at least initially.

Her guidance was to provide more interactive tools - well-constructed ones - that include visuals, intuitive navigation, and clear instruction.

But is it that simple? Do interactive assessments really win us business? The answer seems straightforward, but it’s not. At least not according to another study by B2BDecision Labs. This new study looked at how effective the assessment was at booking meetings versus the ebook. And guess what? The ebook was more effective.

According to that study, 77% more people who responded to the ebook were open to booking a meeting compared to those that took the assessment. Of those that booked a meeting, 100% took the meeting. The ebook also resulted in significantly higher Sales Accepted Leads (SALs) and sales qualified leads (SQLs).

So what does that mean? Interactive content is great for marketing, but it doesn’t work so well when using it in a sales cadence. The report suggests the assessment requires effort. When a person chooses to do it by going to the website, finding it on social media, or in an email, they actively decide to make the effort. But when forced to do it through a sales cadence to get insights, they aren’t as inclined:

Prospects might have felt a level of resistance to engage in something that seems invasive. They might have been skeptical about how we planned to use their information. Or perhaps they felt like they had already experienced sales discovery in the form of a self-administered assessment. What additional value would they get from a sales conversation?

My take

For me, the webinar proved some of the things I already believed. I dislike stock photos in ebooks and always try to think of imagery that is more meaningful to the content. I love the idea of interactive assessments because they personalizes the results of the content to the person taking them. But I was surprised when I started digging deeper and found the second study.


Did I think an assessment wouldn’t work in a sales cadence? No, but upon reflection, I’m not surprised. It’s tough to get a prospect’s attention using any tactic. The more complex we make the interaction, the worse it gets. Give them the information they need to help them make decisions and be there when they are ready. Of course, I’m not a salesperson.

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