A piece of their mind

Agencies used to rely on focus groups to gain client insight but now their attention is turning to online-based innovative and cost-effective consumer research tools. Gary Eastwood reports

brainA new generation of innovative and cost-effective consumer research tools is helping agencies and clients get inside the minds of the consumer with the ultimate aim of creating that memorable promotion.

Anna Sampson, head of insight at communications strategy agency Rise Communications, says: "There are now lots of tools out there, such as in-situ observation of consumers, online panels, vox pops or video recordings of consumers discussing a new idea, that can provide consumer insight, and inspire new ideas."

David Atkinson, managing partner at sales promotion specialist Space, describes a recent sales promotion for Nivea Visage Young aimed at 13to 19-year-old girls. The agency created a panel of target consumers to provide e-mail feedback on their thoughts about the product and brand. The language they used influenced the style and tone of the promotion.

In addition, a small group of target consumers were given £50 to spend as they wished in Boots and their shopping baskets analysed. "It provided some real insights," says Atkinson.

In-situ or behavioural research is increasingly being adopted for sales promotions research as it provides an insight into the target consumer in the environment in which they would buy products.

There is also a growing trend towards using vox pops and video diaries to help agencies and their clients get "inside the heads" of the target market.

"Good qualitative research should provide a visual appreciation of the consumer. Asking consumers to do interviews on camera can provide real understanding about what might grab their attention," believes Dave Lawrence, director at marketing agency The Promotions Practice (TPP).

He continues: "All too often research comprises a focus group scrabbled together to support the brief. Generally, good ideas need a wide range of quantitative and qualitative research, which can bring the audience to life in the eyes of the marketing creatives."

Many also believe that in-depth research should be performed at an early stage, in which case there should be no need for pre-launch focus groups.

John Kearon, "head juicer" at new-wave promotions agency Brainjuicer, has pioneered a technique called predictive markets, which is being used to whittle down up to 20 concepts to a single promotions idea.

Each concept is shown to a diverse group of up to 500 people (not just target consumers), who are asked to treat each one as they would shares in a company. They are then asked which "shares" they don’t want to keep and which they want to buy.

"The method really punishes the weaker ideas, and picks apart the candidate ideas. It’s a very cost-effective way of road-testing up to 20 new ideas," he says.

Agencies and clients are also turning to online panels, whereby virtual groups of consumers take part in discussion forums or provide e-mail feedback. The advantages are that response is often within 24 hours and feedback tends to be more "honest". This method can also provide a larger sample group without additional cost.

Stephen Mellor, senior planner at marketing agency Logistix, says: "We’ve set up a panel of online users dedicated to testing concepts for a single brand. Over a period of months, they become attuned to that brand and its message, so we’re using them in the same manner as a brand consultant."

The agency is also part of a growing band that rely on continuous consumer research to supplement campaign-specific data.

TPP’s Lawrence is another believer in continual research. "There’s no such thing as a mainstream audience now, so it’s vital to have your finger on the pulse. There’s also rarely time to perform in-depth research in response to a client brief, so you need to understand the consumer on an ongoing basis."

Increasingly, marketing directors are also demanding post-campaign analysis. "We evaluate the whole package of a campaign at the post-evaluation stage. For example, did sales increase purely because of the promotion, or because of supplementary sales and marketing, TV advertising or a change in packaging? It depends on the objectives," says Rise’s Sampson.

Ultimately, there is a growing range of cost-effective research tools that are closing the divide between marketing creatives and the consumer. The trick is knowing which one.

As Nick Deyong, managing director at promotions management specialists NDL Group, says: "Too much research and analysis has probably killed off promotion ideas that could have been big hits. This is a shame, as short-term, tactical ideas can be very engaging and catch a mood if executed quickly and effectively. A lengthy research process would not be viable or, worse, get in the way. Conversely, many other ideas would benefit from a level of research to improve performance."

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