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Millennial Brain Responds Differently to Digital Media

  |  December 11, 2012   |  Comments

Millennials, the first generation to grow up with a screen-in-hand may have had more than their zeitgeist shaped by digital media; their brains may actually function differently.

Millennials, the first generation to grow up with a screen-in-hand may have had more than their zeitgeist shaped by digital media; their brains may actually function differently.

Nielsen NeuroFocus, the Nielsen subsidiary that combines EEG readings of brain activity with insights from other branches of the audience measurement giant, said yesterday that it had identified important differences in this cohort's engagement and retention of marketing messages, compared to older consumers.

Nielsen NeuroFocus tested the response to online advertising with electroencephalography, or EEG, which measures fluctuations in the electrical current in the brain. When the company put these younger consumers into its EEG monitors, it found that Millennials responded more strongly to dynamic ads than to static ads, compared with the Baby Boomer age group.

"Millennials can engage better with more information, movement, chaos or clutter," said Caroline Winnett, CMO of Nielsen NeuroFocus. "It's very well understood that Millennials are much more digitally connected than other age groups. We're all exploring, what is the impact of growing up with screens on the brain?"

In fact, research studies and NeuroFocus' own studies show that these younger brains have the ability to switch tasks and integrate information much more quickly than earlier generations. (No one's brain can actually multi-task; task-switching is the term brain scientists use for moving between brain activities.)

According to Nielsen’s State of the Media Report released in Spring 2012, Millennials were more likely than the general population to watch TV while checking sports scores, looking up a deal seen on TV, looking up product information seen on TV, or visiting a social network. This could be the result, the company said, of the ability to switch tasks rapidly.

At the same time, younger brains are better at suppressing distractions or ignoring information that doesn't seem relevant.

"They choose what they want to pay attention to," Winnett said. This is a double-edged sword for marketers,” she added. While it can be harder to get their attention, if you do, "You have less of a risk of overwhelming them and just losing them."

Nielsen NeuroFocus also pointed to other sociological factors that marketers should be aware of. For example, like all young people, Millennials rely more heavily on each other for validation of their brand and product choices. It found that 68 percent won’t make a major decision without running it through their network first, and 85 percent said that user-generated content had some influence on what they purchased, especially larger purchases.

Although it has not yet done a study to back this up, there's another intriguing pattern that Nielsen NeuroFocus is keeping its eye on: The report noted that Millennial brains are developing new forms of condensed speech and they expect rapid-fire responses. Winnett said: "Whenever we try to process semantic information, we do it in chunks. What Millennials are doing is taking advantage of their brains' ability to quickly fill in the blanks to an extreme."

When marketing to this cohort, Winnett advised, "In general, the younger brain wants more action, more activity, more fun going on."


Susan Kuchinskas

Susan Kuchinskas has covered interactive advertising since its invention. The former staff writer for Adweek, Business 2.0, and M-Business covers technology, business and culture from Berkeley, CA.

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