With all of the marketing campaigns out there, it’s hard to make one that doesn’t just stand out – it has to be one that people will want to remember.

In an era where data is always readily available, there’s a lot of information out there we’re expected to have on memory’s instant speed dial. But generally speaking, most of us have poor memories, and what we do recall often becomes jumbled over time.

Yet with the advent of smartphones and other mobile devices, we have the power to make a note of everything, right at our fingertips, says Nick Drew, head of research at Yahoo Canada. In October 2013, he and Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, started researching how technology impacts human memory. The question they wanted to answer is whether technology is making us dumber – or, in this context, if it is actually holding us back from remembering things on our own.

“As marketers and publishers, when we talk about memory, the fear of forgetting things is a very fundamental fear … This wanting to remember things and not forget the important things, this motivates a lot of behaviour,” said Drew, speaking from Advertising and Marketing Week at the Toronto International Film Festival Bell Lightbox on Friday.

“What we’re coming into is a world where it’s possible to capture and record every moment of our waking lives … So it actually raises a really interesting question – is capturing and recording our lives – is that the same as actually remembering?”

One of the key parts of Drew and Joordens’ research involved testing how people respond to memory tests while using their smartphones. They set up a study involving 60 people, showing them two different videos on travelling in Barcelona, Spain, as well as Sydney, Australia, and then giving them a memory test on the details of each video. Each study participant also wore a electroencephalography-enabled headset to measure their brain activity and emotional responses to the videos.

Thirty people had no access to their smartphones and had to rely on their own memories to answer the questions on the test. Fifteen were allowed to take photos of the videos with their smartphones and to use the photos for reference during the test, but another 15 were told they could use their smartphones to take photos, but then researchers took the phones away.

The results were interesting, Drew said. People who just watched the videos, without any interference from their smartphones, tended to get around 50 per cent of the questions right. Those who received prompting from their smartphones did a little better, but those who had counted on their smartphones to help them store away details for the test only scored a 43 per cent on average.

What was also intriguing is that most of the smartphone-less group was emotionally engaged with the content of the videos, preoccupied with reliving what they had seen and talking about it afterwards. The group that had its smartphones taken away did not enjoy the video at all, since they were too busy thinking they could have performed better on the test if they had been able to look at them.

But it was the people who had their smartphones the entire time who were the most interesting, Drew said. They had lost engagement with the videos’ content because they had left the task of memory to their mobile devices.

“When they told us about the video, they weren’t particularly enjoying it,” he added. “It’s almost as if the memory had lost some of its depth and some of its colour.”

In Drew’s mind, his research does not prove technology is robbing people of their memories or that it’s making us more stupid – it’s that we’re just “focusing on remembering different things.”

“Fifteen years ago, I could remember four or five phone numbers. Now I remember two – my own and my girlfriend’s. But every phone number I have, I know how to find it … what I put it in as [on my phone] and how to find it again. So we’re actually diverting or redirecting our memory to other things,” he said in an interview after his presentation.

With that in mind, today’s digital marketers need to ensure their businesses’ products tap into people’s ways of remembering, he said. For example, two weeks ago, Yahoo Canada launched a new homepage with “rediscoverability” features, optimized so people can find articles they’ve read before and track them down later.

Plus, there are plenty of technologies that marketers will need to harness to stand out in people’s recollections – for example, people love smartphones, so give them excellent mobile experiences, Drew added. The cloud will give people access to their files anywhere they go, at any time. Cameras and photo-sharing services will probably also become more organized and help people automatically categorize their images. And of course, always-on wearable technology will make memories even more instantly accessible.

But most importantly, marketers need to go back to the basics. They need to make their brand not just memorable, but also unforgettable, Drew added.

“Marketing is about ensuring consumers remember your brand, when they stand in front of the shelf and wonder, which one do I want?” he said. “Think about what you want people to remember … You have to encourage [people] to engage and pay attention.”

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  • Diana Lucaci

    Hi, it was in fact 60 people in total: 60 simply watched, 30 watched, took a picture & used it, and 30 watched, took a picture and did not use it. Thank you! For any questions, please contact @dianalucaci.

    • Candice So

      Hi Diana, thanks for reaching out with your comment. The article does indicate there were 60 people involved in the study, but if you’d like to clarify your comment and send me an email, I’m at cso@itwc.ca . Thanks.