The World's Biggest Brain Scan, four years on

It’s four years since the World’s Biggest Brain Scan, our first official public event.

Held from April 4-6, 2014 at the University of Toronto, our objective was to understand Millennials, and our ambition was huge – we would run the biggest-ever brain scan, recording the brain wave activity of 300 Millennials.

Three brands bought into this vision – Bell Media, Under Armour and Captain Morgan. These were our first three official sales. While each made modest investments by their standards, it meant that Brainsights was up and running. We had customers.

But that wasn’t the only thing we needed to sell. We’d promised 300 millennial brains, and we had to deliver that. But how?

We’d pay participants, of course - $30 for the hour to wear EEG headsets and watch TV.

But we were nobodies. “We’ll pay you $30 for your brain data” coming from complete strangers…

Would you?

I’d love to say that we had a fully fleshed out plan going in, striking with military precision and craft, but the truth is we didn’t really know what was going to work because how can you know if what you’re proposing to do has never been done?

What I did know was that we had a lot of enthusiasm, belief, and a great product. We’re also pretty clever marketers.
All that goes a long way.

Marketers remove barriers to products. We had enough obstacles to deal with, so our task was to remove as many of these barriers as we could.

We removed physical barriers to our product by locating our research venue in a theatre at the corner of St George and Bloor on U of T campus. This is at the intersection of two subway lines, making it accessible to virtually anyone in the city. It also meant that we could attract passersby, as it’s heavily trafficked by students in particular (part of our target demo).

We also removed/reduced the following four inter-connected cognitive barriers:

  1. Why should I trust this? We leveraged personal networks for ‘warm’ introductions. This is a common tactic in B2B sales, but we needed to work this angle with research participants to piggyback on the goodwill and trustworthiness of the people at Brainsights in absence of anyone having actually experienced one of our research events.

  2. Why should I care? We notified student groups at Toronto universities with common interests to ours – technology, neuroscience, psychology, cinema/media, and business/marketing. We figured that if anyone were going to be interested in this experience, it would be people who shared our common interests.

  3. How can I be sure? One of the quickest ways to ensure comfort and overcome the fear of the unknown is to do so with a friend. Make the experience into a story. We posted on social channels Facebook, Twitter and Reddit and in our communications emphasized the opportunity to bring a friend to spend that cash on something you wouldn’t otherwise.

  4. What’s it actually like? Few people could conceptualize what a mass brain scan would look and feel like. So we encouraged everyone to take a selfie and post it online, tagging #wbbs (this hashtag was also on our team shirts). It helped others understand that what we were doing wasn’t scary. (Google "EEG" and click on Images and you'll understand the barrier we faced!)

With the benefit of hindsight, and four years of brain scan events across the world involving tens of thousands of people, I can consolidate these into learnings for other startups, businesses and organizations to use.

We had our share of failures: The hashtag, unbeknownst to us, was to be claimed that weekend for the World’s Biggest Book Store’s closing down sale (for real); our logo design was by yours truly (obviously not a designer) from expert use of Microsoft Paint (not really, but my team is convinced that was my tool of choice, and still ribs me about it!). We didn’t look the most polished.

But those things didn’t matter. The World’s Biggest Brain Scan was a massive success. We scanned 302 millennials – capturing the required data for our clients - and many of these participants became Brainers, community members who continue to return to our research events. Furthermore, they’ve helped us grow both the Toronto community, and communities in Montreal, New York, London, Berlin and Munich.

Beyond removing the barriers listed above, I attribute this success to two key ingredients:

  1. The Team - Without the small army of enthusiastic people Brainsights assembled to execute the World’s Biggest Brain Scan, none of this would have worked. Nothing replaces the infectious energy of great people sharing a common goal and working towards that. Few things make people feel welcomed, comfortable and at ease like the warmth of good people. And when working people through new experiences, the impact of human-to-human contact cannot be underestimated.

  2. The ‘Love Letter’ – In the early days of Brainsights, it was important for us to share our vision and philosophy with everyone who would listen. So we’d slip this love letter (pictured below) into our incentive envelope. We wanted to leave everyone with the best possible impression, but also an unequivocal invitation to join us in a movement to bring to life the vision of Data Respect. While we no longer include the ‘love letter’ in our incentive envelope, the philosophy remains as strong as ever, and never more important than it is today. And the Brainers who continue to maintain and grow our community are testament to how strongly this philosophy is shared.