Context matters A brain science study revealing why ads in quality editorial environments are more effective

Newsworks and the Association for Online Publishing (AOP) partnered with Neuro-Insight to investigate the effect of context on brain responses to identical ads.

As digital spending continues to escalate and while the industry is asking questions about brand safety and return on investment, it is becoming increasingly important to understand the impact of where brands advertise. Is an audience-first approach the best way to optimise ad performance? It’s pretty obvious that we behave very differently on different sites, we approach them with different purposes, expectations and moods – is it really possible that we consume ads in the same way, irrespective of where we encounter them?

Multiple studies have previously demonstrated how ads appearing on premium publisher sites have a positive impact on brand and business metrics. Newsworks and Magnetic’s white paper ‘The power of context’ summarises several of these recent projects.

We wanted to understand more about why ads performed better on premium editorial sites. What’s happening in the brain when consumers are exposed to ads in different online environments?

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. Neuroscience allows us to measure changes in brain responses that people simply aren’t aware of.

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

The results indicate that context and environment have a significant impact on how ads are processed and acted upon. It’s not just that people spend more time processing ads on premium editorial sites, but the same person seeing an identical ad in different digital environments will produce very different patterns of brain response.

The good news for advertisers is that premium editorial sites and social media sites elicit complementary response patterns – social media provide a holistic, visual, overall brand impression; while premium stimulates high levels of left brain memory encoding (words and detail) and engagement (personal relevance). Even better news, both premium sites and social media outperform general free browsing. So, it’s worth paying attention to where ads appear, as well as the audience brands want to target.

Key findings

  • Left brain long-term memory encoding is 21% stronger on premium sites than during general free browsing and 42% stronger than on social media
  • Right brain long-term memory encoding is 13% stronger on premium sites than during general free browsing and 9% stronger than on social media
  • Engagement (personal relevance) is 50% higher on premium sites than during general free browsing and 29% higher than on social media
  • Emotional intensity is 25% higher on premium sites than during general free browsing
  • Ads on social media elicite stronger levels of brain response than ads encountered during general free browsing – except for left brain memory encoding (for words and detail)
  • Ads in premium environments elicit stronger levels of response than ads encountered during general free browsing and outperfor social on all metrics except attention