April 8, 2019

The 7 most common neuromarketing research techniques and tools

Neuromarketing is a new discipline that enhances market research through the use of scientific techniques, such as brain imaging (with EEG), implicit response tests, eye-tracking and facial coding. Do you know all the existing techniques, their advantages, and limitations?

Deep interviews, focus groups, and surveys are commonly utilised in traditional market research. These research techniques are based on studying the behaviour demonstrated or explicitly stated by the consumer. However, it is very probable that the answers given by the participant are biased or skewed, either consciously or unconsciously. This is often due to the influence of stereotypes, cognitive biases, emotions, an adherance to social and moral norms or simply because he or she is incapable of expressing their feelings and what motivates their purchasing decisions. 

In order to overcome this challenge, researchers and brands have started to direct their interest towards the study of nonconscious processes via the employment of implicit investigation techniques. These reveal the true, underlying motives of consumers- the essence of their decision making and motivation when making a purchase. Neuromarketing laboratories, and the various body monitoring technologies they have developed, enable the extraction of this quantitative data. This information is becoming increasingly important for brands when choosing a strategy.

Which neuroscience techniques are employed in neuromarketing?

Neuroscientific methods and procedures include a wide range of tools and techniques to measure and map neuronal activity and comprehend how our brain reacts to different somatosensory stimuli. Emotional, cognitive and behavioral information can be obtained with the following techniques. However, not all neuroscientific methods provide value to neuromarketing studies. 

Neuroscientific techniques applied to business and advertising research can be divided into three categories:

  1. Techniques that register brain physiological activity (of the central nervous system, CNS).

  2. Techniques that register other physiological activity (of the peripheral nervous system, PNS).

  3. Other techniques that register behavior and conduct.


Techniques that register the physiological activity of the brain (CNS)

  1. Electroencephalogram (EEG)

The electroencephalogram (EEG) is a very useful technique in neuromarketing. Besides providing valuable information about brain activity, it's also portable and relatively affordable. Using this technique, the brain’s electrical activity is analyzed and registered by a headband or helmet that has small sensors, which are placed on the scalp. This method detects changes in the electrical currents of brain waves.

EEGs are usually distinguished by their applications. There are versatile EEGs that can be employed in scientific research. These resemble a shower cap with numerous sensors around the head that can be repositioned. Alternatively, there are EEGs that are set up for a specific application.These have fewer sensors placed strategically on certain areas of the brain (minimalist EEG).

eeg as a neuromarketing techniques and tools

EEG offers a high temporal resolution for the detection of slight changes in brain activity at relatively low costs. Therefore, for neuromarketing investigation, EEG is very useful. It is able to evaluate the value of a marketing stimulus by obtaining a series of metrics such as attention, engagement, affective valence, and memorization.

Diadem from Bitbrain is one of the most utilized technologies in neuromarketing studies because it is reliable, comfortable for the user and so lightweight and unobtrusive that it is able to capture natural behavior. With this device, we can measure affective valence (if a stimulus is perceived as more positive or negative), the probability of memorization, the degree of attention, and engagement (personal relevance).

2.  Functional Magnetic Resonance (fRMI)

Functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) measures and maps brain activity through the detection of changes associated with blood flow. In this method, participants lie in a bed with their heads surrounded by a scanner that tracks the variations in blood oxygenation in the brain, which are correlated to neuronal activity (Bercea, 2012; Zurawicki, 2010).

A tridimensional view of the brain is also provided, which can distinguish each internal cortical structure and its activity. In other words, small and deep structures of the brain can be investigated. However, despite its high spatial resolution, it presents very low temporal resolution. Also, it is very expensive, restrictive, intrusive (the patient must lie down and be still inside a machine) and immobile. That's why fRMI in neuromarketing is not very common.

3. Magnetoencephalography (MEG in neuromarketing)

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) analyzes and registers magnetic activity in the brain with a helmet that contains 100-300 sensors. This is a method that detects changes in magnetic fields that have been induced by the electrical activity of the brain (Morin, 2011; Plassmann et al., 2007).

MEG offers a good temporal resolution to detect slight changes in brain activity  (Bercea, 2012; Morin, 2011) but installation costs are much higher than EEG and it isn´t portable. Therefore studies can only be carried out in laboratory settings.

4. Positron-emission tomography (PET in neuromarketing)

Positron-emission tomography (PET) is an invasive technique that measures the metabolic activity of the human body. It detects and analyzes the tridimensional distribution of an ultra-short life radiopharmaceutical injected intravenously in the body. Changes in chemical composition can be detected, as well as in the flow of fluid in small and deep structures of the brain. 

As PET is an invasive method that employs radioactive agents and exposes subjects to radiation, its application to healthy subjects in non-clinical studies (such as neuromarketing studies) is restricted. Also, it is expensive and presents a very poor temporal resolution.

5. Steady State Topography (SST)

This technique measures the variation in visually-evoked potential SSVEP  measured in the EEG activity of the subject when exposed to visual stimuli (in this case, marketing stimuli). Good temporal resolution is achieved through the continuous monitoring of these changes in brain activity with high tolerance to noise during long periods of time. However, these devices can only be utilized with visual stimuli and are, to a certain extent, intrusive to the participant  (Silberstein, 1992, 1995).

Techniques that register the physiological activity of the brain (SNC)

6. Electrocardiogram (ECG)

The electrocardiogram (ECG) measures and registers the electrical activity of the heart by placing sensors on the skin. In neuromarketing, the ECG is frequently employed because it enables information to be collected in real time on the emotional state of participants when exposed to marketing stimuli. Furthermore, this technique is low-cost, comfortable and not particularly intrusive.

7. Galvanic Skin Response (GSR)

The galvanometer is a piece of technology that evaluates the galvanic response (GSR), or subtle changes in skin perspiration- skin becomes a better electrical conductor when there is an increase in the activity of the endocrine glands (sweat). This can be brought on by exposure to a marketing stimulus that was physiologically exciting (Ohme et al., 2011; Venkatraman et al. 2015).

Bitbrain’s Ring is one of the most popular technologies used in neuromarketing studies as it includes both sensors: a galvanometer or GSR and an ECG. Also, participants present high acceptance of this technology. With the ring, we can measure the emotional activation produced in a time interval that oscillates between a calmness state and an excitation state (emotional activation) and the instantaneous increase of emotional activation produced by a specific stimulus (emotional impact).


participante en estudio de neuromarketing que lleva puesto un gsr y ecg para evaluar y medir las emociones del consumidor en un supermercado

  1. Eye-tracking 


Eye tracking (ET) is a technique that measures and registers eye movements to identify the position of the pupil by utilizing infrared light (which is completely unobtrusive). It follows eye movements and registers gaze patterns of the participants. Eye-trackers identify and register gaze patterns to explain the visual path as a response to a specific stimulus and therefore obtain information on visual attention. We can distinguish between several types of eye-tracker: 

  • Stationary eye-tracker: Placed on the lower part of a screen and is employed in controlled or laboratory settings. 

  • Eye-tracker glasses: These register the gaze pattern in real surroundings thanks to glasses that incorporate an infrared camera.

  • Eye-trackers in virtual reality glasses: A novel technique that brings real-life situations to the lab by immersing the participant in virtual surroundings.

  • Eye-tracking through webcams: This type of eye-tracking employs a webcam, which is an inexpensive and non-intrusive device. However, in comparison with light-based eye-trackers, they are less precise and do not work well if the person is not in a well-lit room (something difficult to control in online market studies, which are the main application). Resolution and sensitivity to movement are low, requiring the participant to maintain an unnatural posture. 

Eye-tracking provides information on temporal processes, with high resolution, at a reasonable cost. There is high acceptance from participants, and it is portable. Therefore, unsurprisingly, eye-trackers are one of the most employed techniques in neuromarketing.

The following video is an example of a study that employed a stationary eye-tracker, along with an EEG, GSR, and ECG:

  1. Electromyogram (EMG)

Facial electromyography (fEMG) is a method that measures and registers the voluntary and involuntary movements of facial muscles to comprehend the emotions correlated with certain facial expressions. That is to say, fEMG uses facial sensors to register the electrical response produced by muscle contractions. It is therefore an intrusive and unecological method. Its application is very obstructive to the normal movements of the participant and can alter facial expressions. Moreover, the amount of muscles that can be measured is limited by the number of sensors that can be placed on the face.

  1. Facial Coding

Facial coding (FC), similarly to the electromyogram, measures and registers the voluntary and involuntary movements of facial muscles, but does not employ sensors. This is an indirect measurement technology, and cannot measure the electrical response produced by muscle contraction. The main difference is that it is not necessary to place sensors on the face of participants because a camera is responsible for recording the facial microexpressions (voluntary and involuntary), associated with specific emotional and cognitive states, while participants are exposed to investigation stimuli.

The greatest advantage of FC is that it is an inexpensive and portable technology, given that it can be implemented with a webcam. Nevertheless, facial coding loses precision to measure micromovements in comparison with EMG. FC is less intrusive but also less precise.

 However, we must keep in mind that the reliability of these neuroscientific techniques depends on different factors:

  1. Quality of the technologies: reliability and precision to measure the specific physiological activity.

  2. Data processing: algorithms translate physiological changes into cognitive or emotional information. Also, they must be able to remove artifacts.

  3. Context of use: not all technologies can be applied to all contexts. It is important to verify whether technologies are mobile, comfortable, etc.

  4. Experimental protocol: an inadequate procedure in neuroscience can give place to random results or even the opposite of reality.

Techniques that register behavior and conduct

Besides the tools that measure physiological activity related (or not) to the brain, neuromarketing also frequently employs other techniques and tools that register behavior and conduct.

10. Implicit Response Test (IRT)

The Implicit Response Tests (IRT) are another type of tools that provide nonconscious information on attitudes or assets of the participants when exposed to stimuli. These tests are employed with the purpose of capturing the implicit attitudes of people when exposed to, for example, two brands or two characters that are compared. These tests have been widely employed for the last 40 years by psychologists in scientific research and in clinical practice, and endorsed by Washington, Virginia, Harvard and Yale universities.

Contrary to other neuromarketing techniques, the participant does not have to be connected or wear any technology or device. With these type of techniques, what we actually measure is the reaction time: the time elapsed for the participants to classify concepts using the keyboard or screen of their device. Among these tests, we highlight the Implicit Association Tests (IAT), the Semantic Priming and Visual Priming.

The breakthrough of this type of tests is that they can be carried out online, enabling to enlarge considerably the sample of participants and execute several tests simultaneously around the world. The participant does not have to go to a specific location or place any sensors. The only requirements are a connection to the internet, a device (computer, tablet or smartphone), and approximately 10 minutes of concentration to accomplish the task.

11. Indoor positioning techniques

Indoor positioning techniques complement other neuromarketing tools in studies where the participant has the freedom to move, such as in a store or market. These techniques register the location of the subject to provide sense to the remaining metrics recorded and identify what causes a reaction in the 

  • Beacons 

Devices are installed in walls (beacons), which are capable of detecting the Bluetooth of mobile phones. Nevertheless, these devices present low precision (average errors of 2 meters) and therefore focus on detecting the presence of people, not on identifying their exact location. An application example is when the beacon connects with the Bluetooth of a mobile phone, and the beacon sends an offer from the store to the phone. 

  • Video (Camera location)

The use of cameras in stores in very frequent because they are required for security reasons. For this reason, many stores use the recordings to analyze the zones most visited by users. In these cases, computer-based vision algorithms are employed to identify the zones. There are also cameras that carry out qualitative analysis. In other words, the counting of people that visit a specific zone can be more or less precise, according to the effort invested in the counting. Clearly, this method of obtaining information presents low efficiency. If higher efficiency and precision is required, there are also laser cameras, which are more expensive and employ people-following algorithms. However, it is not cost-effective as a neuromarketing research tool. 

  • Indoor Positioning System

InTrack is an Indoor Positioning System technology based on Ultra Wide Band (UWB). This is an indoor positioning system based on a radiofrequency technology, called UWB, consisting of receivers that are located on the walls, covering the entire environment to be analyzed, and of a tracking device that participants place autonomously. The largest advantage of this device, in comparison with beacons, is its lower sensitivity to the presence of obstacles and non-interference with other devices, as occurs with beacons and cell phones. Its high precision enables the location of participants, individually, with average precision lower than 30 cm, which is very important in many applications, including neuromarketing. 

An advantage of this technology is that, when combined with other neuromarketing techniques, enables registration of emotions felt by participants throughout the entire route and identify what are the triggers. It is frequent in points of sale and customer experience, and in other environments. 

The following video shows the trajectory obtained with this technology, as well as the impact, emotional activation, and visual attention of a participant in a real, point of sale study. 

The following video shows the heat map of the grouped results from the same neuromarketing study.

These techniques provide the required tools so that market investigation can document, quantitatively, aspects produced at nonconscious levels related to consumer emotion, cognition, and conduct. Put differently, these techniques help complement declarative techniques employed for years in traditional market investigation and conduct observation tools (such as big data or field observation). Valuable information is provided on the nonconscious of consumers, and there is a better understanding of how purchase processes occur from a holistic perspective. Although we have seen that some technologies are not habitual in the practice of companies and agencies dedicated to neuromarketing due to high costs, reliability or acceptance by participants, other technologies are essential to provide this information that would not be obtained otherwise. 

From this perspective, neuromarketing constitutes an important advance in the analysis and comprehension of consumer behavior through the rigorous application of neuroscience knowledge and techniques, and reveals itself as a new fundamental tool, in the present and future, to complement market investigation.

If you are interested in obtaining more information on neuromarketing techniques, there is considerable information available in news and blogs, talks and videos, courses and masters and related scientific studies.

You might be interested in: