In touch with consumers

Online technological advances are being used by marketers to conduct an ever-increasing amount of research. Alicia Clegg discovers whether the internet can replace traditional focus groups

The word “revolution” conjures up an image of sudden and overwhelming change. Yet, most revolutions – in business as well as politics – have humble beginnings. Such a revolution may be brewing in market research. After a decade playing second fiddle to traditional methods, online research is shedding its budget image. More than that, it has begun to demonstrate a talent for creative research that Web enthusiasts predict will turn the industry upside down.

MSTS, a market research agency that recruits consumers to try out products and product concepts for well-known brands in supervised hall tests, is a convert to online methods. In January the agency installed touchscreen computers with hand recognition software at two of its busiest centres, allowing participants to record their reactions to new products by touching or writing answers on a screen instead of ticking boxes or completing paper questionnaires.

The agency’s adoption of online methods is significant because of its client base – not leading edge innovators, but everyday packaged goods brands bought by some of the most traditional-minded consumers in the market. It was partly for this reason, as well as for practical considerations – ketchup and soup spilt over keyboards spell death for computers – that MSTS chose a touchscreen system.

“Many of these products are bought by older customers,” says MSTS business development director Yvonne Taylor. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable with a mouse and a keyboard.”

Operationally, MSTS claims to have benefited hugely from its investment. “The new technology cuts out a lot of mistakes and reduces the research cycle by three to four days. In the past someone had to input the data manually. Now the responses are captured as a screen file that can be sent to India to be coded and returned overnight in a format that’s ready for the client,” says Taylor.

Speed and accuracy
The attraction of online methods isn’t only speed and accuracy, however. With advances in computer graphics agencies now have the ability to put flesh on the bones of sketchy concepts, showing three-dimensional mock-ups of how products, which exist only in the mind’s eye of the inventor, might appear in real life.

But can online methods stretch participants to answer as fully, and with as much thought, as a skilled interviewer or a moderator who is physically present in the room?

Paul Dixon, managing director of iCD Research, believes the Web can deliver everything that offline techniques are capable of, and more. Using chatroom-style software, iCD holds focus groups in which the participants are represented visually as icons and share ideas with each other and the moderator by typing in a text box or drawing on an interactive whiteboard.

Far from getting in the way of effective communication, Dixon claims that online technology actually improves the dynamics of a focus group. “If someone says something interesting you can get them to elaborate without cutting across the flow of the discussion. Alternatively, if someone has been silent for a while, you can bring them back in.”

One area where online focus groups undoubtedly have the edge is in their ability to pull in consumers from any locality or country. This has two benefits. First, it removes the problem of research agencies talking repeatedly to the public in a handful of metropolitan centres – typically London, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham – while ignoring everyone in rural and provincial town locations. Second, from a research perspective a better mix of people makes for a more vigorous and, ultimately, a more creative exchange of thinking.

This ability to generate lots of ideas, from many different viewpoints, is especially valuable in so-called “co-creation” projects in which companies seek to involve their customers in the development of new products.

MetrixLab, an international online market research company headquartered in The Netherlands, is a specialist in this field and offers a collaborative product development process, typically involving between 100 and 200 consumers, that is entirely Web-based.

In the first phase of the project, participants sitting at home PCs, and working individually, limber up with creativity assignments. A typical exercise might be to consider two well-known brands and describe what sort of children the couple might produce.

Invent ideas
Once they have warmed up, the participants start to invent ideas for new products in accordance with the client’s brief. Jaap Vessies, managing innovation consultant at MetrixLab, says: “Most people manage to come up with about 20 ideas from which we ask them to pick their personal favourites to take forward.”

After several rounds of idea swapping, discussion and evaluation involving both consumers and members of the client’s team, the process yields a shortlist of ideas with enough substance to be developed into full product concepts.

As an example of a product developed by online co-creation, Vessies cites Megafit, a premium lower fat meat product enriched with Omega 3, marketed by packaged goods brand Sara Lee. “The brief was simply to come up with ideas for a new meat product,” says Vessies. “What the idea generation revealed was an unmet need centred on people’s feelings of guilt over eating fatty meats. Out of that insight the groups developed the idea of a healthy premium meat.”

One factor that has often told against online research is its failure to pick up consumers who do not use the internet. With the growth in broadband take-up, however, Web enthusiasts claim that on most matters the opinions of online consumers broadly match the views of the general public.

TNS global interactive managing director Arno Hummerston says: “Even with an older audience it’s now possible to get people online.”

But has use of the internet really reached the point where online respondents can genuinely be said to represent society as a whole?

Not everyone is convinced. “A 70-year-old who is comfortable online is more likely to be aware of and positive towards contemporary brands, such as Virgin or easyJet, than older consumers who do not use the internet,” cautions James Myring, associate director at Continental Research and a spokesman for the Market Research Society.

And what of younger consumers who use the internet from necessity not choice?

Jessica Bower, associate director at Added Value, makes the point that while some people treat the Web as a social space for self-expression and making friends, many others choose to shop in the virtual world but live in the real world. “It’s important to consider what sort of Web literacy people have. Someone who orders their groceries online won’t necessarily feel comfortable talking about their emotions in an online focus group.”

Added to which are the sensory elements of branding that can’t be conjured up electronically, such as savouring taste and fragrance or feeling texture. Bower says: “Online gives you a really interesting half of the story. But it’s a complement, not a replacement, for other research.

“While overdosing on the Web may be a risk for some agencies, most face the more pressing problem of how to build up enough know-how to exploit the opportunities that the medium has to offer.

Top of the agenda is learning how to integrate the internet’s capacity for delivering numbers with the interviewer’s ability to probe for depth.

One line of attack is to make online questionnaires more “playful”. “Showing images and allowing people to drag and drop brands on visual maps, instead of presenting batteries of statements to agree or disagree with, makes questionnaires more interesting and produces greater insight,” says Myring. Using slider scales and pictorial devices, such a smiling or bored faces, allows researchers to “tease out responses and emotion, where previous approaches would have struggled,” adds HPI Research partner Alan Cooper. But is it enough?

A risk with playful approaches is that they assume a willingness on the part of users to play. Great if you enjoy funky websites, but less attractive for those who view technology as strictly a means to an end. So could online research be made, if not playful, at least more human?

One company grappling with this challenge is TNS, which recently launched a research product in which a presenter, viewed on screen, conducts a live interview with a dispersed group of several hundred consumers who respond by typing in a chatbox.

Face-to-face discussion
Conceived as a way of harnessing the spontaneity of face-to-face discussion to the statistical rigour of quantitative surveys, the new technique opens up the possibility of brokering a conversation between the brand-owner and what is, in effect, a super-sized focus group. Hummerston says: “Potentially, we could have the creative team producing alternative versions of a commercial, or a product concept, in response to live feedback.”

Expecting market researchers to turn themselves into TV-style anchors is asking a lot of a profession respected more for its technical expertise than its ability to inspire an audience. Rather than force square pegs into round holes, it might be better to hire born communicators, such as actors, to do the presenting. “There’s no point in putting up someone in a suit,” observes Hummerston. “You need someone who can hold people’s attention, someone capable of making research entertaining, even fun.”

With take-up of the internet becoming the rule, not the exception, marketers have a golden opportunity to make consumer research more inclusive. But in developing online strategies that will engage a representative mix of the public from Web-heads to reluctant adopters, market researchers need to look first to the human ingredients of good communication, and only secondly at what the technology can do.

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