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3 Cold Hard Facts on the Neuroscience Behind In-Feed Native Ads

Oct 22, 2015 / by Stefanie Neyland

William Bernbach—an American advertising creative director and one of the founders of Doyle Dane and Bernbach (DDB)—famously said, “Advertising is fundamentally persuasion, and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

Bernbach is right about one thing: there is an irrefutable art to good advertising. But we beg to differ when it comes to his stance on the science of persuasion.


Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought—one that believes the key to advertising success is meticulous research and data analysis, and one that believes that the best ads are conceived from a sudden “eureka” moment during a brainstorming session.

In recent years, the case for advertising as a science has gained traction. There have been countless research studies on the psychological effect advertisements have on consumers, but the new kid on the block—native advertising—is a less explored avenue.


That is until recently, when Sharethrough joined forces with Nielsen to discover how consumers visually process mobile ads.

The methodology

Unlike survey-based mobile measurement, which evaluates a consumer's conscious reactions to ads, neuroscience taps into the brain’s subconscious reactions as well. The study applied eye tracking and neuroscience—the study of subconscious reactions in the brain—to mobile advertising.

Why? Because the subconscious is the motivating force behind many of our actions—including which brands we choose to purchase from. So in order to truly understand the effectiveness of mobile advertising, the study compared both in-feed native ads and in-feed banners.

Nielsen worked with five premium advertisers, including Boeing, and created mock ads from similar creative elements that were optimized for each format. Study participants were then shown a video simulating the experience of scrolling through an editorial feed. The feed was then paused, and the participants were shown either an in-feed native ad or an in-feed banner.

Using a combination of EEG data (measurements of neural activity in the brain) and eye tracking, Nielsen was able to determine where and how the participants' focus was being directed.

Here’s what they found:

1. Native ads capture two times more visual attention than banners

(Source: Sharethrough & Column Five)

We’re all well-versed on the ubiquitous theory of “banner blindness”, and this study not only confirms that the principle is indeed correct, but that it also holds true for mobile devices.


The study concluded that native ads appearing on mobile websites appear to receive two times more visual focus than banners on mobile devices—again, even though both formats were displayed in-feed.


The research demonstrated that participants' eye gaze appeared to be consistently more concentrated on native ads, even though both native units and banners were placed in-feed. This aligns with previous studies that have assessed the impact of native advertising on desktop, where in-feed native ads receive as much as 52% more visual focus than banners.

2. Native ads stimulate both sides of the brain

The true value of native lies in its ability to tap into a user’s subconscious. By infiltrating the subconscious mind, native ads can reach both hemispheres of the brain. In turn, this increases the focus of readers and, in theory, leads them to spend more time absorbing your brand’s message on a conscious level. This often results in higher levels of engagement, influence and brand recall.

In fact, the actual act of reading a native ad triggers neural pathways in the brain and “unravels a tapestry of associations in the mind," according to the study. The research also showed that in-feed native ads have the power to neurologically change the brain by creating associations, and these subconscious associations are able to ultimately influence a consumer’s perception of an advertiser's message.

(Source: Sharethrough & Column Five)

3. Headlines garner the most attention when it comes to native ads

When shown in-feed native ads, the majority of viewers explicit visual focus was on the ad’s text rather than the accompanying thumbnail image. On the contrary, banners are processed in the peripheral field of vision, and processing in this area happens much faster than textual processing.

But surely if consumers are processing your message faster that's a good thing, right? Wrong. Rapid processing hinders the reading of taglines, which is why banner ads receive little to no visual focus on the text. In fact, the study showed that in-feed native ad headlines yield over 300 times more consumer attention than banner ads. 


(Source: Sharethrough & Column Five)

So why is this beneficial to advertisers? Well, because there’s a science behind subconscious decision-making. Humans are biologically wired to make instant, subconscious decisions in under two seconds—conveniently, about the same amount of time as it takes to read a native ad.

In essence, this means that a mere two seconds spent reading a headline is all it takes to influence a consumer’s future behaviour and shape their long-term perception of a brand.


As the rate of mobile adoption continues to grow, consumer attention will become increasingly elusive. Thankfully, this research confirms that there is a solution: native advertising.

Neuroscience proves that native ads command the attention and focus of mobile users—and that’s what should make them the advertiser’s weapon of choice for the future.


(Note: The findings in this post have been extracted from a joint research study by Sharethrough and Neilsen. To view the results in full, click here.)

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