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Affect matters! 3 tools for measuring emotional reactions to websites

Author's avatar By Mark D. Hall 07 Nov, 2019
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For digital marketers, it’s the actions (or lack thereof) that our customers take that speak the loudest.

The latest neuroscience research is crystal clear: it’s our emotions, not our intellect, that drives our decisions. As Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel’s Kahneman’s characterized in his book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow,’ the intuitive parts of our brains work super fast, like on ‘autopilot’, while our reflective frontal lobes plod along methodically, like a ‘pilot’. 

For digital marketers, of course, it’s the actions (or lack thereof) that our customers take that speak the loudest. So we need ‘full spectrum’ tools — ones that capture, analyze and report on everything from affect to action. 

The good news is, with the latest tech, we can now scientifically measure whether or not our ‘stimuli’ (our marketing creative, user experience designs, etc.) are generating both the intended effect and affect. 

Measuring emotions

Galvanic skin response (GSR) 

Beauty isn’t the only thing that’s skin deep. Emotions can be, too. 

Galvanic Skin Response, or GSR, is a form of biofeedback that measures changes in the electrical resistance of the skin. The process of measuring GSR involves introducing external items such as images, sounds, questions, foods, or products and then observing how skin resistance changes in comparison to some ‘baseline’ reading. 

Ever stood on the top of a tall building or bluff, and felt that ‘sweaty feeling’ in your palms? That’s the skin response I’m talking about here. 

Marketing creative usually isn’t intended to scare you, but sometimes it does invoke your fear response (just like for politics, savvy marketers know that fear often motivates better than just showing positive benefits).  

Let’s say you sell home security systems and use a headline like this on your landing page: ‘Is your family is safe and sound while you’re away?’ This triggers the ‘fear center’ of the brain. But what does it make you feel? Hook up a GSR device to a few target customers to find out. 

Or maybe you’re a concert promoter and you want to sell tickets to an upcoming show. You post a few videos to YouTube that show ‘the concert-going experience.’ Does watching it get viewers excited, at least at the skin level? Attach a GSR device and see what it says. 

GSR vendor specifics 

GSR devices start at under $100. The one from Neulog is $99 and available at Walmart. 

True, you’ll have to pay considerably more for more capable (and accurate) GSR devices. But my philosophy is, getting ‘rough data’ is better than getting no data at all (as long as that rough data is valid). 

These GSR devices will give you the answer to this bottom-line question: ‘Does my marketing creative evoke an emotional and  physiological response, or not?’ If it does, you’re good to go. But if it doesn’t, you know you need to revamp your creative in some way, whether it’s the visual design, layout or copy. 

Eye tracking


Eye-tracking technology, which has been around for over 20 years, uses sensors to eye gaze fixations and paths as users scan any kind of stimulus, like a user experience design, or any kind of marketing creative. What the eyes see is obviously what the mind pays attention to. This attention translates into thoughts, judgments, and decisions.  

It’s an existential dilemma: if you created a beautiful design, but prospects don’t see what you want them to see, and thus don’t get on that ‘conversion happy path,’ you’ve wasted your time. It’s obviously best to learn this sooner than later. 

In the past, these eye-tracking systems required pricey hardware and software (typically in the $10,000 to $20,000 USD range), not to mention considerable setup time. But not anymore. 

ET vendor specifics 

I recently used a webcam-based eye-tracking tool from RealEye. The app costs only $200/month (standard plan) for a large number of user sessions. The data collection process was simple: send your participants a link, have them complete a two-minute calibration process, then show them some screenshots of your designs. After recording each user’s gaze patterns for about ten seconds, the app then generates both a ‘heatmap’ and ‘scan path.’  

Those are some great, fast and cheap insights. Directly measured, so they’re hard to debate. 

Facial coding

Facial Coding (FC) 

Facial Coding (FC) systems measure and register the voluntary and involuntary movements of facial muscles. Since they don’t use sensors, FC is an indirect measurement technology. 

Sensors don’t need to be placed on the face because a camera is responsible for recording the movements of the facial muscles as the participant views a piece of marketing creative. 

By measuring the ‘microexpressions’ the face makes when exposed to a stimulus, and associating these with known emotional and cognitive states, the FC technique indicates whether or not the creative produced the desired response (for example, an expression indicating trust or excitement). 

A big advantage of FC is that it’s inexpensive and portable since its measurement only requires a webcam and facial recognition software. 

Facial Coding specifics 

An example of facial coding software is the one offered by Noldus. The company's FaceReader (™) software automatically analyzes facial expressions, and its ObserverXT (™) behavioral coding software presents the findings in a clean user experience. 

The Noldus website shows a wide variety of research areas where these tools can be applied. 

If you want to amuse yourself in five minutes or less, download and try the Free FC app ‘AffDexMe’, by Affectiva, available on Google Play 

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Go deeper with affect analytics 

If you have more time and budget, opt for a ‘behavioral analytics’ solution like that offered by SparkNeuro.com. In addition to using GSR, they measure brain activity, do eye-tracking and track facial expressions. By doing so you can collect several complete ‘emotional panels’ (I’m using a blood tests analogy here) by which to gauge the ‘emotional health’ of your creative work. 

For a list of other neuroscience-based tools you can use to inform your digital marketing, check out this recent Smart Insights post.

Affect is where it’s at 

Most of us digital marketers and leaders were trained to be logical thinkers, and that’s great. But we need to be careful not to expect our customers to think and behave in the same way. Because they usually won’t. While they may look like they’re carefully digesting the designs and content you put forth, at some point they’ll probably take a shortcut, and run their perceptions past their emotional brain. And your messaging will either connect or it won’t. 

To find out if it does, you can’t just ask, unless you want to hear some off-base rationalizations. No, you’ve got to plug in tech that can directly see how your prospects and customers really feel, which is a pretty good indication of how they’ll ultimately act. 

Author's avatar

By Mark D. Hall

Seasoned Voice of Customer (VOC) Insights, Customer Experience (CX) and Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) professional. Mark raises the revenues and customer loyalty of E-Commerce and SAAS-based brands by finding and fixing the ‘holes’ in their customer experience. For over 20 years Mark has worked with a wide range of clients, including AT&T, AutoZone, American Express, Delta Dental, Kaiser Permanente, Denon, Edmunds, eDriving, SpyTec and The California Lottery. Mark holds a B.S. in Engineering from the University of Washington, and an M.B.A. from the University of Colorado. When not working, Mark enjoys playing tenor saxophone, mountain biking, reading and watching soccer. Read his blog, connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter

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