Above: Zizzi has introduced a new drinks menu and refurbished restaurants using insights from a real-time feedback program

When the Duchess of Cambridge left hospital wearing a blue polka dot dress after giving birth to Prince George last July, eBay recorded a 22 per cent jump in searches for polka dot dresses on its site the same evening. Similarly, when a cold snap took hold in the UK in early October, searches for coats on the auction website rose by nearly 50 per cent on the previous week.

The new figures from eBay highlight the potential opportunities for brands that can harness real-time trends. But marketers face a challenge in both identifying these fleeting insights and combining them with the right marketing activity.

In the case of the Duchess’s dress, eBay reported that after a three-day peak, search volumes for the item dropped off dramatically. This meant that fashion brands had to react quickly if they wanted to capitalise on the sudden craze. “Despite the opportunities, many brands aren’t leveraging instant insights, or building in the necessary flexibility for campaigns to use them as much as they could,” says UK head of eBay Advertising Phuong Nguyen.

Real-time insights

Real-time insights can also help brands to identify new segments of consumers, the figures suggest. Following the launch of this year’s Great British Bake Off series, there was a notable rise in male baking enthusiasts on eBay, with men accounting for over 380,000 searches for cake tins in August and September. “Targeting based on real-time behaviour means that brands can be quick to capitalise whenever new pockets of consumers emerge,” argues Nguyen. 

In addition to leveraging insights from online publishers, brands are using data from their own websites to respond to consumer behaviours at high speed. This includes using visitor analytics and A/B testing services to tailor their website experiences to different users in real time.

Targeting based on real-time behaviour means brands can be quick to capitalise when new pockets of consumers emerge

Fashion retailer Wallis, for example, ran a test on its website in September in which it sought to prevent visitors from abandoning their purchases at the checkout stage. Working with website optimisation firm Qubit, Wallis identified a segment of users who had been engaged with the brand for a significant period but had not yet purchased. To increase conversion rates, this group of users was served a message containing a special offer at the moment when they attempted to click away from the checkout page. This real-time intervention led to an increase in conversion rates of 9.1 per cent, according to Qubit.

Customer opinions

Brands are also using real-time insights to gain a more accurate picture of consumer opinions and make speedy adjustments to their products and services. Italian restaurant chain Zizzi uses a solution by customer experience management firm Empathica that enables businesses to analyse ‘unstructured text feedback’ – such as online reviews and social network comments – alongside formal survey feedback. The tool then delivers insights directly to individual restaurants in real time via an online portal.

Zizzi’s head of operations in the North Will Bird says the company previously used visits from mystery diners to analyse the quality of individual restaurants but switched to Empathica’s program to gain more immediate insights. “Mystery diner visits only give you one point in time to get some feedback and that isn’t really enough because everyone can have a good or bad day,” he says.

“If I’m a general manager of a restaurant and I can pull up my page in real time to see exactly what everyone is saying about me, I start to get a real snapshot of how the restaurant is doing and I can act on that.”

Online insights

In addition to trawling online review sites like TripAdvisor and social networks like Facebook, the tool draws together call centre transcriptions, emails and open-ended survey comments to provide restaurants with real-time insights from a range of sources. These are combined with more formal survey responses to give an aggregate view of different trends and insights.

Iceland applies real-time insights to refine its loyalty scheme

Zizzi has used the insights to implement operational changes such as the introduction of a new drinks menu and the refurbishment of specific restaurants. At a local level meanwhile, managers can use the online tool to respond quickly to complaints or reward staff who are praised by customers online. “It’s a ‘bottom-up’ approach that ensures the restaurants have something specific for their needs,” says Bird.

Record label Sony Music has also used social media to gain more immediate feedback from consumers. The company works with self-serve market research tool TolunaQuick to create its own surveys and gain fast insights into people’s changing tastes. For example, on the same day that it received a brief to promote a new merchandising line for one of its artists, the marketing team at Sony created a survey to gauge which products would be popular and at what prices. The label tapped into the artist’s fanbase using an email database and by putting a survey link on his branded Facebook page.

Research and the music industry

Sony says the research yielded a number of valuable insights, including the fact that most fans were more likely to buy merchandise at a gig or festival than online. Insight director Daniel Hall suggests that running quick surveys on an ad hoc basis can help music brands to stay in touch with the latest trends and decide whether larger research investigations are needed.

“As the music industry moves at such a rapid rate, it is important for marketing and insight teams to keep abreast of current social and consumer trends when planning product launches,” he says. “Being able to test the water in terms of potential interest in a new product, artist or service prior to implementing the promotional campaign is crucial to any record label.”

The ability to gain instant feedback from online surveys is also resulting in an increased role for neuroscience techniques within market research. This involves analysing people’s emotional responses to brands at a deeper level than is available with traditional survey questioning (see box, below). 

Mystery diner visits only give you one point in time to get some feedback and that isn’t really enough

Although neuroscience covers a wide range of measures including brain scans and heart monitors, there are other, less invasive ways to gauge consumers’ emotional reactions. Using webcams alongside online surveys, for example, can enable brands to identify subtle changes in people’s facial expressions that reveal their unconscious reactions to ads. These insights can help brands to adjust their creative output with greater speed and flexibility.

Neuroscience techniques

Similarly, some brands are using implicit reaction time testing within their online surveys to measure not just what people say but how quickly they say it. This reveals the level of confidence that people have in their responses and provides a more detailed picture of the different motivations driving consumers who may have expressed the same view in a survey.

“It’s not replacing traditional research but is providing an extra layer of understanding in things you couldn’t measure before,” says Keith Glasspoole, deputy managing director of market research group Ipsos ASI. 

He admits, however, that neuroscience is still a “relatively niche” research tool, partly due to a lack of understanding and the belief among some brands that it exclusively involves the use of expensive equipment. Other marketers, meanwhile, doubt the value of subconscious insights and prefer to put more faith in their creative instincts.

Glasspoole suggests, though, that as neuroscience become more integrated with traditional market research methods, the practice will continue to grow. “We find that the best results come from doing both – asking questions that are properly designed but at the same time getting insights that people don’t even know they are giving you.”

Three BIG Challenges

1. Making insight pay

Marketers seeking to leverage real-time insights must ensure they add value to the overall business. Supermarket chain Iceland, for example, applies real-time insights to improve its Bonus Card loyalty scheme. The retailer reports that by using software from customer engagement firm Omnico, it can collect and analyse data with great speed and efficiency in order to produce coupons and reward schemes targeted at individual customers. Iceland says that customer satisfaction levels have risen by 20 percentage points as a result of using the software.

2. Maintaining the bigger picture

Brands must be careful not to lose sight of their wider strategic aims when capturing real-time insights. Neil Mortensen, research and planning director at TV marketing body Thinkbox, says: “I think a lot of people are worried that the industry is going down a route of short-termism based on digital targeting and immediate response stuff. Looking at things such as subconscious processing and decision-making can remind marketers that a lot of the power in their communications comes from branding and emotion.”

3. Crunching the data

Real-time tracking requires the right technology and internal expertise if brands are to do it effectively. Marketers must carefully define the parameters of what they are tracking and ensure the process is aligned with the wider marketing aims of the brand.

Restaurant chain Zizzi uses a real-time feedback tool by Empathica to break down insights on customer experience for different management levels, including head office and specific restaurants. Tailored insights are accessible via an online portal.

Neuroscience and marketing

Although it is still on the fringes of conventional market research, neuroscience is becoming more significant as brands seek to gain 

deeper insights into consumer responses. By measuring facial expressions and reaction times, brands can develop a detailed picture of the impact of their advertising on viewers in real time.

“You can see whether people are engaged at the key moments, such as when your brand appears on screen or when your celebrity ambassador appears,” says Keith Glasspoole, deputy managing director of market research group Ipsos ASI. 

“And you can see if it is the right kind of engagement.”

Mobile network brand EE has used neuroscience services from Ipsos as part of the market research behind its launch ads featuring actor Kevin Bacon. The brand has analysed the emotional responses of test audiences and used the findings to adjust the creative campaign at different stages.

Using real-time tactics, Wallis was able to cut the number of abandoned shopping baskets on its ecommerce site

“Some brands have set a lot of store by [market research] models that have been proven to work over a number of years,” notes Glasspoole. 

“So it’s really a question of demonstrating how, by integrating different neuroscience techniques, you can make those even better than they were before and gain a whole new layer of understanding.”

Audience insight firm Sensum combines people’s conscious and unconscious responses by using both survey questioning and biometric testing. The latter involves using a wireless finger sensor that identifies tiny changes in sweat levels and transmits the data to an online dashboard for analysis. This data is used to show the participant’s changing engagement levels as they watch a piece of media.

Sensum used both these conscious and unconscious measures when testing the impact of the classic Coca-Cola Christmas ad on a sample of 51 people. 

It found that at a conscious level, the ad was successful in generating a feel-good factor, with people answering that they felt happier after watching the spot. 

However, the biometric test revealed that while people’s engagement level started high, it tailed off continuously for a significant part of the advert.

“While the traditional survey showed a uniformly positive audience response, the physiological response showed that the audience subconsciously disengaged after 28 seconds, suggesting the ad could be cut in half and still achieve the desired response,” Sensum concluded.

Neil Mortensen, research and planning director at TV marketing body Thinkbox, agrees that neuroscience techniques are useful for brands that spend large amounts on advertising. “If you’re producing volumes of creative then I would introduce it as an extra sense check.”