Loneliness is one of those subjects that has been difficult to study by psychologists. After all, you can’t easily find lonley people in the traditional places you might find volunteers for studies – bars, malls, college halls. After all, lonely people don’t often go to such places. So, it is remarkable that for the first time neuroscientists have been able to come up with data on how the brains of lonely people might work.

In research outlined at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting this weekend, researchers from the University of Chicago revealed the findings of the brain scanning studies on loneliness. And the findings tell Internet marketers – indeed anyone running an online business – some useful facts.

For instance, lonely people have much less activity in certain parts of their brain when shown pictures of people in positive situations. Sociable people have much higher levels of activity in these brain cells. So far, so obvious. Lonely people, by their very nature are not sociable, so it is hardly surprising that the “sociable” part of their brain gets less stimulation from sociable pictures.

But, lonely people also had less brain activity in another part of the brain which deals with rewards. What this suggests to the researchers is that lonely people are not turned on by social rewards, whereas sociable people are. Conversely, sociable people are much more likely to be affected if the reward is social, rather than material.

So, as someone running an online business, what might this mean? It suggests you need different imagery and rewards (such as bonuses) for different kinds of customers. The customers who are heavy users of social networks are much more likely to be affected if your product bonus, for instance, is social. Whereas the lonely customers – those people who sit all day online without ever venturing near a social network – are much more likely to be turned off by a social reward.

So you can use this to your advantage. Products you offer via social networks should have social bonuses – such as free meetings, a free teleconference or some other kind of social reward for purchase. Whereas the same product on offer outside social networks to a more lonely bunch of people would sell better if the rewards were not social. Your lonely web shopper is not going to be made more likely to buy if the bonuses are social, whereas a social web users will be.

It’s just another piece of evidence showing the need to target your customers ever more carefully online. Even knowing whether potential customers are lonely or not could put you in a better sales position by providing the right kind of reward for purchase. Provide a social bonus to a lonely person and you’ve probably lost the sale.

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