The recession is having an impact on budgets for product testing and research and development, with many large consumer brands being forced to slash up to 20% off this year’s research budgets to satisfy the demands of their board members.
As a result, marketers are looking at new and innovative ways of covering as much ground as possible in a cost-effective manner. Online research is one way of filling this requirement and pollsters are now being challenged by clients to find ways of producing quantitative and qualitative research that provides even better insights than traditional face-to-face methods.
Paul Edwards, chairman of TNS-RI, says that with the recession putting greater pressures on travel budgets and more marketers being asked to think “green”, online research makes perfect sense.
“We did a project with the NSPCC where we could target hard-to-reach audiences and identify its projects much faster than phone calls and street surveys would, for example. By using online tools, we also reduced our carbon footprint,” he comments.
Kate Leto, head of product at online printing brand Moo, agrees that as a company with “limitations on budget”, online research appeals. But beyond its cost saving potential, she is excited by the possibility that online research can get under consumers’ skins in a more effective way than its offline equivalent.
“Online methods provide a way to capture user behaviours in more of a real-time, real-world experience – in their home or at their office desk, instead of the more formal and structured traditional approach,” she suggests.
While there are elements of research where online cannot compete with its offline counterpart – it is impossible to physically test real-life products such as food or drink online – even these areas are being affected by the reach of the internet.
The fieldwork behind new product launches, for example, can be carried out online to poll a far greater number of participants than would be possible offline. Brands can invite participants from across the world to take part in mass focus groups where they offer opinions on areas ranging from product design to logos and offer their opinions on the type of scent or taste that developers should aim to achieve.
Online specialist Cint runs a number of panels on behalf of brands and advertisers, tracking the attitudes of sample online users as they visit different publishing sites. Richard Thornton, managing director of Cint UK, says “By tracking their projects and identifying how they should sample any studies, brands can ensure they always get the required number of completed responses within a given period of time.”
He argues that online research technology allows companies to split even complex data in whatever way they see fit, adding that any statistics can be correlated to understand such elements as brand type, purchase decision, advertising medium and so on.
He continues: “Tools like this can cut production costs by up to 70% and move away from the traditional, manual way of handling brand or ad-tracking fieldwork.”
Even generating an emotional bond to those people taking the survey and picking up how people feel about brands is no longer beyond the reach of online researchers. Although perceived wisdom suggests that people are more likely to open up to fellow human beings, some online researchers suggest this is not the case.
Consultancy BrainJuicer works with companies including Unilever, Philips, Kraft and Nestlé; to help them test out product concepts and brand redesigns. It doesn’t just crunch the numbers but tries to evaluate how people feel about what they see, hear or discover during research in a way that goes beyond offline measures.
John Kearon, chief executive of BrainJuicer, explains that the company uses multiple tools to monitor consumer feelings about concepts being tested. These include emoticons to judge how someone feels about a concept and video diary-style product testing through webcams to record real-time viewpoints of products.
Kearon explains: “It is important to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for the consumer, ensuring they give honest opinions, but at the same time do not tire of all the information the brand desires.
“Innovation is essential for coming up with ideas for any re-invention, and there have been occasions when advertisers have taken the data and gone back to the drawing board because it wasn’t quite what they thought it was.”
BrainJuicer has also launched a controversial model of measuring responses, which it calls Predictive Market. This involves survey respondents playing a game with brand concepts, by deciding what they would do if they had a stake in the proposal. This technique has been useful for many large companies in using research to co-create new variants.
“It breaks the golden rules of quantitative concept testing and challenges scientific facts. Essentially, 500 users test 15 concepts at a time, by owning shares in the concepts and deciding what to do with them – invest or sell.
“We then ask if they would be prepared to double their stocks, or if they would sell all of their stocks. It’s controversial, but it really does give an idea of the thoughts behind a concept – it helped to inspire deodorant brand Lynx/Axe’s Bullet spray, for example,” says Kearon.
While some consumers are happy to provide feedback on brands and products, some consumers demand anonymity before they feel comfortable about being honest with brands, which is why Harris Interactive says online research helps offer people the chance to submit their thoughts without consequences.
Kathy Dykeman, a product research specialist at Harris, says: “Quite understandably, many people find it difficult to honestly disclose how hard these economic times are affecting their lives. When able to disclose their personal circumstances anonymously online, the shame associated with losing retirement funds or not being able to support their families is removed and people are more candid about their spending.”
This is an area that Yahoo! is keen to capitalise on. The online business wants to break into the research area to help provide advertisers with insights on what will target users of the Yahoo! Publisher Network.
Laura Chaibi, head of the company’s EU research, says: “Researching what audiences want from brands is crucial, more so now than ever before. It can help advertisers ensure they are conveying the right messages to their audiences, and measure brand awareness.”
She says it is the ability of Yahoo! to offer results “instantaneously” to brands about how their campaigns have fared that makes a difference to how they are able to innovate with the marketing in future.
Agencies are also tapping into this area, monitoring consumer sentiments to develop campaigns. Word-of-mouth agency 1000heads has launched an online concept called the Emotional Spectra, which monitors consumers’ feelings towards products or a brand on a personal level, looking at the emotions of consumers in general and the reasons behind them.
Mike Rowe, managing director at the agency, says: “This real-time information is critical to brands preparing to activate a campaign reliant on word-of-mouth. We can track sentiments in real time and determine the mood of the moment and what should be done to play on this. There’s less paperwork, no call centres and less expense, so innovation like this is essential for driving ideas forward instantaneously.”
Digital agency Pod1 also uses surveys to monitor customer satisfaction for big-name e-commerce clients including Reiss, Jigsaw, Links Of London and Uniqlo (see case study).
Over in the US, the same trends can be seen as companies take advantage of consumers using real-time microblogging services such as Twitter to broadcast their every thought to anyone interested. Ipsos ASI is using a new tool called Next*Adlab to provide marketers with real-time qualitative insights and quantitative data to develop new campaigns.
The potential for online research seems unrestricted by the recession. In offering brands cost efficiencies and “extra value” services going further than offline competitors, the industry has the opportunity to benefit where many others are failing. No doubt some smart agency is already running the numbers to find out the precise financial figures on offer.
Fashion brands and online research
Fashion retailers need to understand the differences between their off- and online customers. Do the same people visit a store and then buy online? Or do they research their purchases on the website to decide what to buy and then pop into a shop to spend their cash?
Agency Pod1 works with a broad range of fashion retailers, including Reiss, Jigsaw, Anna Scholz and Uniqlo, to help the companies identify different consumer behaviour and how this relates to the companies’ online or offline operations. To do this, Pod1 uses software called 4Q that allows it to survey shoppers without disrupting their retail experience.
David Hefendhel, e-commerce manager at Pod 1, explains that the agency isn’t checking any demographics so it is “reducing users’ inconvenience when they fill in a survey”. The questions ask for the purpose of the visit, rather than passive actions. Consumers are also asked to choose whether the experience has been positive or negative.
“This is where the gold dust blows in strong currents around you. Users are incredibly chatty and tell you everything,” he reveals. “From promotional codes that aren’t working – we had that twice and could rectify this within minutes – to how instore staff are treating them.”
The agency is then able to give feedback to its clients, including the lessons they need to take into account and implement. Some of the broadest ones that are applicable to all online retailers include:
- Have your entire stock online.
- If you have delivery windows, make sure you rotate stock regularly. Customers who already know they want to buy are easier to convert than the ones who just wander in.
- Train your customer service staff to be as reactive and as helpful as possible.
- If you run offline advertising campaigns featuring products, ensure you have these available to purchase online and make it as easy as possible for visitors to find them.
- Merchandise your “sticky” content. Nothing is more frustrating than a “press cuttings section” where you can’t click on the products displayed there.