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Innovations in Market Research

When you think of market research, you might picture wannabe-entrepreneurs from The Apprentice conducting their so-called “focus groups”; scrawling down notes about biscuit preferences from pre-school children and their parents. 

Typically, contestants skirt over any negative feedback and continue full steam ahead with their nonsense concepts. It makes for great entertainment (“what were they thinking?!”) but does little for the reputation of customer research.

Market research is defined as the action or activity of gathering information about consumers’ needs and preferences. Whilst it may sound simple enough, it’s a hugely complex field — a world away from the “soooo… what do you think?” line of questioning we’ve come to expect from Lord Sugar’s bungling protégés.

Cartoon framing of four grayscale photographs of tech items: an Xbox, an iPad, a smartwatch and a Nintendo Switch. Beneath each item is the word "Buy" and a mouse cursor.

A Marketing Week article from 2017 sets out some of the favoured techniques for market research, beginning with an introduction to “behavioural economics”:

“Researchers want to explore the cognitive theories that underpin how a brand’s target audience interprets the world around them and the marketing messages they are exposed to online and in-store.

“Behavioural economics technology can reveal, for instance, which marketing opportunities should be prioritised, whether more compelling incentives or offers are needed and what pain points that annoy consumers should be removed.

“Behavioural economics often brings together tried and tested methodologies and amalgamates different research processes. It is heavily reliant on data collection and observation, while the quality of any results can be dependent on the skills of the person interpreting the data.”

One company specialising in behavioural economics is Contentsquare (formerly Clicktale). They offer customer journey analysis, zone-based heatmaps, session replays and AI insights, amongst other services. Boasting clients including Adobe, Microsoft and BMW, Contentsquare aims to “empower brands to create better experiences”, as set out by their company mission:

“We’re on a mission to give every digital team the ability to measure how their actions affect the user experience on their website, mobile sites and apps. Not just the analysts. Not just some of the time. Not just some of the data.

“Our platform tracks trillions of digital interactions and turns these behaviors into intelligent recommendations everyone can use to improve digital experiences, grow revenue and fuel innovation.”

By tracking — and analysing — such a high volume of interactions across devices, companies can form a much clearer picture of who their customers are, and how best to engage them. In the world of online marketing, data is king.

Neuromarketing — otherwise known as “consumer neuroscience” — is another field that has piqued the curiosity of marketers. In January 2019, Eben Harrell wrote a fascinating piece for the Harvard Business Review explaining:

“‘Neuromarketing’ loosely refers to the measurement of physiological and neural signals to gain insight into customers’ motivations, preferences, and decisions, which can help inform creative advertising, product development, pricing, and other marketing areas. Brain scanning, which measures neural activity, and physiological tracking, which measures eye movement and other proxies for that activity, are the most common methods of measurement.”

It is, however, expensive, technically difficult to administer and plagued by vendors who oversell its capabilities. So, is it worth the investment?

Harrell writes:

“In 2017 the Advertising Research Foundation published a large-scale academic examination of whether neuroscientific tools were better at predicting market-level behavior than traditional techniques such as focus groups and implicit association measures: Scientists at Temple University and NYU tested traditional marketing studies against a variety of ‘neuro’ methods, including eye tracking, heart rate, skin conductance, electro-encephalogram (EEG), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

“Subsequent analysis showed that fMRI provided the most significant improvement in predictive power over traditional methods but that other methods were useful for improving ad creativity and effectiveness.”

But it’s not only predictive power that marketers are interested in. Researchers are also probing whether the brain can be used to influence purchases using neural manipulation. One such example is “sleep nudging”. Harrell explains:

“Neuroscientists have learned that we are susceptible to influence during windows in our sleep. A 2015 study found that exposing smokers to the smell of cigarettes mixed with rotten eggs during “phase 2” (when the body prepares for deep sleep) led to a reduction in smoking for several days. Since then similar work has shown the ability to increase preference for certain products or promote certain behaviors.”

It’s all a bit too Inception-esque for my liking, especially when you consider who can afford to tinker with such technology. Allowing Facebook, Google and Amazon free rein to manipulate our subconscious is more than a step too far. But that is something for “future me” to worry about.

A cartoon image of a person with a transmitter attached to their head. They are being controlled by another figure with a joystick. The other figure's cufflink is a dollar sign.

Today, the industry is more concerned with how to move on from the COVID-19 pandemic. GreenBook’s Insights Practice Edition 2020 provides a useful steer as to how the pandemic impacted the adoption of emerging market research methods.

The report states:

“Of the 19 emerging methods examined, mobile-first surveys lead in usage… Usage of mobile-first is up 8% from 56% in 2019, double its previous largest adoption rate. In addition, 13% say they are considering mobile-first surveys, bringing total interest to 76%. Considering the rapid shift to ‘everything digital’ in 2020, this growth is not a surprise. Indeed, it is a story that we see repeated throughout this wave of the report in various ways.”

In second place sat text analytics, followed by social media analytics, mobile qualitative and Big Data analytics. Places six to ten were filled by mobile ethnography, micro-surveys, causal analysis, eye tracking and behavioural economics respectively. But it is the emerging method in place 11 that stood out most: research gamification. With 58% of respondents indicating this method is under consideration, we may be seeing much more of it in the near-term. 

The report continues:

“…research gamification made big strides. After years as a ‘buzzy’ topic with only niche usage, perhaps 2020 was a tipping point for new thinking about the applicability of gamification approaches, just as it was for many other ‘consumer-centric’ methods.

“…gamification can create more engaging and rewarding user experiences during a time of emotional turmoil and distraction, but with a lower tech ante than VR. The challenges of the pandemic have spurred more empathetic creativity on behalf of researchers, and gamification was poised as a viable solution to help address that imperative.”

Rewarding users with incentives such as money-off vouchers or discount codes should be a win-win scenario for brands. Not only will they collect valuable insights, they can boost sales and consumer satisfaction in the process.

These techniques may seem like an awful lot of effort to go to, but not knowing your customer well enough can have expensive consequences — as illustrated by Campaign’s list of market research horror stories.

Of HSBC’s gaffe — my favourite on the list — Campaign wrote:

“Marketers are under constant pressure to come up with creative campaigns that drive customer engagement. That challenge is steep in any market, and it’s doubly difficult when you’re selling a product in multiple locations. But it’s essential to remember that what works in one country may not land in another.

“HSBC Bank learned this in 2009, when it carried its US tagline ‘Assume Nothing’ into international markets. The phrase translated to ‘Do Nothing’ in many countries — not exactly an inspiring motto from a global banking brand. HSBC spent $10 million as it scrambled to change the tagline to ‘The world’s private bank.’”

It makes you wonder how it got to that stage. As a global bank, you’d expect the issue with the tagline to have been picked up way before it was. It just goes to show that no company is safe from silly mistakes, but hopefully — with the help of the latest market research innovations — we’ll be seeing far less of them in the future.


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