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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  ‘MicroStimuli’ may be the next big turn for advertising

‘MicroStimuli’ may be the next big turn for advertising

These stimuli can work better for persuasion via smartphone where the attention spans are very short.

‘MicroStimuli’ may be the next big turn for advertisingPremium
‘MicroStimuli’ may be the next big turn for advertising

How much time does an animal take to decide between a mate and a foe? How much time does a cricket batsman have to decide which shot to play? Their answers can impact a key question many business leaders and communication professionals have. What should be the ideal duration of an audio-video persuasion stimuli? 30 seconds, 15 seconds or 6 seconds?

When television began as an advertising medium, the standard commercial length was 60 seconds. Then as the cost of advertising spots increased, brands moved towards 30-second duration advertisements. This length of the persuasion stimuli was justified on the reasoning that it was enough to tell the whole brand story. There is another reason that has helped the cause of longer duration commercials. The returns of the advertising agencies and media houses were directly proportional to the length of the advertisements. The longer the duration of the commercials, the higher was the income of the advertising agencies and media houses. So, there was no incentive to question the 30-second persuasion stimuli.

With the global smartphone penetration rate rising to 68% in 2022, smartphone is now clearly the lead medium of communication. This always-on, always-with-you medium has already led to new strategic initiatives like hyper-personalisation and search engine optimisation. But one thing has remained the same: the length of the persuasion stimuli. The belief is that 30 seconds is the ideal duration of a persuasion stimuli in the smartphone medium too.

Recently, my team did a research to understand the interaction between a smartphone and its users. It was done among students and working professionals in the age group of 20-30 years across India. The research showed that the average user spends 3 hours and 36 minutes per day with their smartphone. The time spent by the user on various apps was also measured. But what is unique about this research is that the number of times a person touched the smartphone screen (exclusive of keyboard typing) was also captured. It was found that the screen is touched, on average, 4,513 times each day. For heavy users, the number of touches is as high as 15,040 in a day.

The touch is an important matrix to evaluate the interaction between a smartphone and its user. It is much like touching the remote control button of a television. With each touch, the channels and the editorial context of the television changes. Similarly, on smartphones, with every touch, the editorial context changes, especially on social media apps. For instance, with each touch, an article about politics is followed by a makeup tutorial, followed by an ad for laptop bags. So the time between two consecutive touches is an important parameter for evaluating the context duration, the time for which a particular editorial content is in front of the smartphone user. Studies show that context duration in the case of television medium is 5 to 21 minutes ( 90-95% of the viewing sessions). In contrast, the context duration, the time between two touches on smartphones, was found to be less than 5 seconds for 90% of the interactions and less than 10 seconds for 95% of the interactions.

Does this means smartphone users do not spend time on long duration content on the smartphone? They do view long duration content. On an average viewers spend 40 minutes a day viewing content longer than 31 seconds. But this long duration constitutes only the last percentile of smartphone activities. So the fact remains that the vast majority of the interactions on the smartphone happen in a matter of a few seconds.

Ideally, the ratio of the duration of the persuasion stimuli to the duration of the editorial context should be kept to the minimum, so that the persuasion stimuli is considered less of an intrusion. Given the 5-21 minute context duration of the television medium, a 30-second commercial fits well within it. But given the mere 5-10 second context duration on a smartphone, there is surely an urgent need to redesign the persuasion stimuli to fit well into its much shorter context duration. This calls for the conception of MicroStimuli: persuasion stimuli with a duration of only a few milliseconds.

The concept of MicroStimuli is actually the norm of Nature. Niko Tinbergen, the Nobel prize-winning Dutch biologist, was one of the first to observe exaggerated forms of natural stimuli that elicit fixed action patterns of responses in mere milliseconds, in several animal species. He called this phenomenon Supernormal Stimuli. Neuroscientists have been studying decision-making processes in sports like tennis, baseball, cricket or soccer. They have found that whether it is the cricket batsman who is about to play a shot or a soccer goal-keeper about to save a penalty kick, the time available to take the appropriate decision is less than 0.5 seconds.

In nature and in most human activities like sports, decisions are made in milliseconds. A deep knowledge of the millisecond decision-making processes of the brain has been used to devise efficient game strategies (like the slow ball, in cricket). But why then is it that marketers and communication professionals continue to depend on 30 second-long persuasion stimuli to influence even routine human decisions?

It is high time persuasion professionals start to dive deep into the brain processes to develop the MicroStimuli: persuasion stimuli that is milliseconds in duration.

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Updated: 31 May 2023, 11:22 PM IST
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