University of South Florida


USF researchers use neuromarketing tools to assist Baycare Health System, national public health agencies to assess the impact of COVID-19 messaging

An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of South Florida has pooled its expertise and resources in order to help influence the effectiveness of public health messaging related to COVID-19.

Researchers are collaborating with public health agencies and businesses to combine neuromarketing and biometric tools from the Muma College of Business Center for Marketing and Sales Innovation neuromarketing lab with expertise in social marketing and health communications from the College of Public Health and Zimmerman School of Advertising. Funded by a $25,000 USF COVID-19 Rapid Response grant, the neuro-social marketing research team is analyzing local print ads, television commercials and other marketing materials published online. The goal is to improve the effectiveness of messages crafted to motivate patients to resume routine appointments and seek emergency care during the pandemic. The research entails combining eye tracking, facial expression analysis and survey data to provide new insights on how people react to public health messages.

“This research is both impactful and groundbreaking,” said Rob Hammond, instructor and director of the Center for Marketing and Sales Innovation. “By adding objective biometric data to opinion surveys, we can improve message assessments based on opinion surveys to produce more effective public health messages that can in turn save lives.”

“It is important, especially for populations with pre-existing medical conditions, to return for routine health care services to maintain their health, yet, there is fear about doing so,” said principal investigator Kim Walker, associate professor of mass communications. “We have learned that people do not always report their feelings accurately on pen and paper and incorporating a neuromarketing approach can validate subjective measures to inform emotive health care advertising.”

USF researchers meet to discuss the data collected during neuromarketing study

Baycare Health System has been a key partner, providing unaired video and print materials, as well as inviting some of its patient populations to participate in the study. 

“BayCare is excited to collaborate with USF to help understand the effectiveness of public health messaging in the midst of a pandemic,” said Ed Rafalski, senior vice president and chief strategy and marketing officer for BayCare. “Through this research collaboration, our goal is to get better insight into consumers in the Tampa Bay area and how the ongoing pandemic affects their overall health care decisions.”

This project is one of several important public health research collaborations. Earlier this year, the team was awarded a three-year cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health to address the impact of COVID-19 among racial and ethnic populations. Through the National COVID-19 Resiliency Network, USF faculty and students are working with the Morehouse School of Medicine and organizations across the nation to develop and test culturally and linguistically appropriate information on resources for COVID-19 testing, health care, social services and vaccines.

“Our COVID communications begin with community input, which will make them more authentic and tailored than if we start with generic materials,” said principal investigator Claudia Parvanta, professor of social marketing and director of the Florida Prevention Research Center. “The ability to then use distance-based neuromarketing tools to see if the intended audiences respond as we hope is completely new in the social marketing and health communications field.”

The first organization to recognize the potential of USF’s neuro-social marketing research team was the Florida Department of Health Bureau of Tobacco Free Florida. It awarded the group $250,000 in early March 2020 to create a protocol for testing anti-smoking advertisements. The researchers studied how participants reacted to tobacco public service announcements and the association of these responses to intentions to quit smoking, desire to share particular videos on social media or visit the Tobacco Free Florida website to assess smoking cessation resources.

The researchers had originally planned to conduct the study in the Center for Marketing and Sales Innovation lab, which in addition to eye tracking and facial expression analysis, offers electroencephalograms (EEGs), used to study brain activity, and sensors that measure galvanic skin response, which reflects the intensity of emotion. But like many aspects of research, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the USF team to pivot its approach to evaluating the impact of these public health messages. They expedited the project by working with the lab’s technology partner, iMotions, to develop computer software that allowed researchers to continue the study remotely, using participants’ web cameras. While inconsistent lighting and positioning added complications, researchers say the process better predicted how individuals were impacted by the public service announcements rather than relying strictly on opinion scores. The team is now working to publish its findings in academic journals.

In addition to health-based projects, the Center for Marketing and Sales Innovation has partnerships with several businesses and organizations. It signed its first corporate research agreement in 2019 with Revenue Management Solutions, an international company that provides data-driven solutions and services to the restaurant industry, such as providing recommendations on menu design and navigation. The center has also conducted research that gauged public perception of political figures, such as candidate performance during the February 2020 Democratic Presidential Debate.

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