A mind’s eye view reveals bigger picture

New research techniques can give brands deeper levels of consumer insight – but the 21st century tools must be used in conjunction with tried and tested methods.


Neuroscience and mobile research are still relatively new tools in the market researcher’s armoury, competing against tried and tested methodologies such as surveys, focus groups and telephone interviews. However, they promise brands deeper insights than they might be able to get through the old methods. So are these new methods ready to become fully-fledged parts of the market research portfolio?

Brands such as New Scientist magazine and Royal Mail have taken a leap of faith with neuroscience, and both agree it has strengthened their understanding of their customers and, as a result, the proposition they offer. Meanwhile, Cadbury, Best Buy and the London School of Economics have all been experimenting with mobile research, through SMS surveys, apps and mobile diaries.

New Scientist turned to neuroscience specialist NeuroFocus with the age-old magazine conundrum – how to create a cover that will persuade casual buyers to purchase. Earlier this year, New Scientist produced three covers that were put to the test by NeuroFocus’s EEG technology, which records electrical activity in the brain via multiple electrodes placed on the scalp.

New Scientist deputy editor Graham Lawton explains that he wanted to establish what cover image made the magazine fly off the shelves. He says: “We put in a huge amount of work every week on our cover, but sales fluctuate and we correlate that with how good the cover was. It struck me that we had an opportunity to learn more about how to create good covers using neuroscience.”

The three different covers that were tested featured varied images, words, colours and placement of coverlines, and were put in front of 19 men who were occasional buyers of New Scientist. Lawton says: “These are the people that make the difference between us selling loads of magazines or not many.”

The cover that registered the highest positive emotional response was selected. Interestingly, although it was not the cover the New Scientist team had chosen through an internal straw poll, it resulted in a 12% sales increase from the same period last year.

Lawson notes: “It came down to the main coverline being strong and simple, so you aren’t asking people to work hard to understand it. The words work well together and there is an emotional impact, which was something we hadn’t really cottoned on to before.”

He adds: “We used a red masthead that registers emotional impact, and the ’End of spacetime’ coverline was very emotive. One of the other covers we tested was emotional in the other direction – it recorded feelings akin to disgust, which you definitely don’t want.”

Other brands have also adopted neurological best practices. Royal Mail released the results of its in-depth fMRI study last summer, which measured brain activity to highlight the level of engagement consumers experience with direct mail. Royal Mail market development manager Mike West says the study aimed to dispel industry perceptions that DM is less engaging than other forms of advertising such as online or television (see viewpoint, above).

The study did succeed in registering high positive emotional responses among participants when they looked at direct marketing material, allowing Royal Mail to be more aggressive when positioning its DM platform to advertisers. Royal Mail has also since moved into carrying out eyetracking tests to investigate how people take in visual information.

West says the brand had originally looked into eyetracking – following the direction of participants’ eyes as they view a piece of work – for that first project. While this technique is less costly than fMRI, West concluded it was not as relevant as fMRI for the study’s original purpose.
For marketers who face a similar decision process, West advises not to choose the cheaper option just to satisfy budget requirements. He suggests: “You may not end up with the right result. But on the other hand, don’t get distracted by technology for technology’s sake. You need to ask: Is it the best way to deliver on your objectives?”

Royal Mail’s study was conducted by research agency Millward Brown’s neuroscience division, which opened this year. The division’s executive vice-president Graham Page agrees with West’s advice.

Costs are something marketers must continually grapple with, but Page argues it should not be a choice between one method or another because brands can’t rely on the insight gained purely from one methodology. He claims: “In isolation, neuroscience will only get you so far, and you do need to talk to people – there isn’t a substitute for that.”

If the price of applying neuroscience techniques is prohibitive for your brand, mobile research is a less costly option for gathering in-depth insights in real time.

US retail giant Best Buy (see Q&A, above) has begun gathering customer feedback via SMS – using market research software from Confirmit – and has put posters in stores that ask customers to text comments about their in-store experience to a designated number.
Best Buy senior manager for global measurement and insight Jared Anderson explains that mobile-based market research has improved how the electrical retailer gathers insight. “We have found that we don’t need to ask many questions to gain rich insight. Through the use of text analytics we are able to collect short surveys of two questions, and still provide supporting insight as to why a customer gave an overall rating.

Additionally, by reaching out to the customer to solicit feedback we increased our overall base of customers that respond to our surveys,” he says.

Don’t get distracted by technology for technology’s sake. Is it the best way to deliver on your objectives?
Mike West, Royal Mail

SMS feedback has also been used by confectionery brand Cadbury. Tom Woodnutt, director of innovation for Hall & Partners – the agency that carried out the research on behalf of the brand – explains that Cadbury wanted to understand how different brand touchpoints were contributing to people’s relationship with the company. He says: “We recruited a group of people to do a mobile survey every time they saw a different brand touchpoint, so we got a sense of what they were thinking there and then. We also got a sense of the different roles different touchpoints were playing in adding to people’s engagement with the brand.”

Consensus across market research experts is that mobile research is limited because it is unsuitable for conducting long, in-depth surveys. But where mobile research comes into its own is through the continuous engagement enabled by a new breed of research apps, coupled with the growing use of mobile video.

Companies such as PepsiCo are using mobile diary studies to better understand how people consume their products, and to develop new products accordingly. Guy Rolfe, mobile knowledge leader for Kantar Operations, which works with PepsiCo, explains: “We are asking consumers to keep track of products they have purchased. Because people always carry a phone around and do many things with that handset, we can build a bigger picture of consumer behaviour – you can know where they are, what the weather was like, what social media they use, how many friends they have in their phonebook, and get an idea of what kind of consumer they are.”

It is widely predicted that fishing for insights through the distribution of a mobile app will be the “next big thing” for mobile research, but this won’t fully take off until smartphones such as the iPhone or BlackBerry become more widespread.

However, some businesses are already ahead of the curve, actively engaging with consumers using innovative mobile apps.

The LSE’s “Mappiness” app has been downloaded by about 28,000 people, who are all asked regular questions such as how they are feeling, where they are, what they are doing and to take a photo if they are outdoors.

The LSE comments on its website: “We’re particularly interested in how people’s happiness is affected by their local environment – air pollution, noise, green spaces, and so on – which the data from Mappiness will be great for investigating. We hope to have results published in academic journals.”

However, many brands feel that mobile has yet to earn its place in their research roster. Royal Mail’s West says: “We have done some mobile work, but it’s early days. You have to be aware of what’s going on and not be afraid to try it, but don’t try something for trying’s sake.”

Mobile doesn’t yet completely meet Royal Mail’s current research objectives, West argues, but it doesn’t mean this will always be the case, and brands should continue to stay abreast of technology developments.

IPC Media insight director Amanda Wigginton says she is keenly watching mobile before deciding what research need she can apply to it. “This is an area we are staying close to because it’s particularly key in regards to researching young men and women – as they are inseparable from their mobile and don’t always respond to traditional methods of research.”

The new methods of market research can certainly hold their own against the more established ways, but will be most effective when used in partnership with them to enhance the way marketers glean insights that, when put into practice, will genuinely improve business.

view point

client view

Mike West,
Market development manager,
Royal Mail

We are responsible for promoting direct mail as an advertising medium. We produce lots of research for direct mail and [market research] is usually very traditional, in terms of asking people outright/ “What did you think of the item you received in the post?”

We believe that DM is engaging because you do spend a lot of time reading it. But we didn’t have the same engagement metrics that other media are able to use. We wanted to know if DM was leaving a footprint on the brain.

In the project we did with Millward Brown, we looked at print versus screen-based communication. We put people in fMRI scanners at Bangor University to look at how physical media had an impact on your awareness of and engagement with that brand compared with digital media.

We were trying to understand that process and dispel some myths about advertising, such as the only way to create engagement is to go on TV with a big budget.

Our research showed that paper-based communications do light up another part of the brain, staying in the subconscious and [memory is] triggered at a later date. Physical engagement stimulates all five senses rather than just two to four, so we launched our “Sensational Mail” service, which uses audio and visual triggers in direct mail, on the back of that.

This research has helped us in how we have developed and positioned our media, and has helped in product development and market messaging.

It was expensive but we feel we have received a good return. However, we wouldn’t do it again any time soon to this extent because we have done it thoroughly.

Some neuroscience is more interesting from a scientific perspective, so you have to ask yourself that while it might be interesting academically, has it ceased to have commercial value? The key is to find the balance.

Tips for marketers embarking on new research technologies

  • Research your options well and be openminded about what new research techniques could be employed.
  • Thoroughly check out the agency and the staff who will be running your research, in terms of their academic credentials in the field, as well as their portfolio of work.
  • Be clear in terms of what you are looking to achieve. Review your existing use of quantitative and qualitative methods and ask whether you have further insight needs that these cannot meet.
  • Think about the demographic you are researching. Mobile research may be more suitable for a younger audience who spend lots of time on their phone.
  • Don’t always choose the cheapest option. Investing more upfront can lead to insights that will boost the bottom line.


best buy


MW: Why did you decide to turn to mobile research?
In an effort to provide our customers with every possible chance to give feedback on their experience of the Best Buy brand, we have realised that multiple modes of data collection are needed. SMS allows us to offer customers the chance to provide rapid feedback that can supplement existing webbased research.

Additionally, the need for extremely short studies via SMS makes the online reporting of the results very easy to use and not overly complex.

Best Buy’s overall goal regarding customer feedback and customer satisfaction surveying is to allow customers to provide feedback whenever, wherever, and through whichever platform they choose.

MW: What insights did it offer you that you could not get from traditional research?
A principle insight came in the manner in which we analyse the results. We found that we didn’t need to ask many questions to still gain rich insight.

MW: Can you give an indication of a future project you might use it for?
We are investigating additional venues to use SMS-based surveying. Our goal is to continue to provide multichannel capabilities that enable customers to voice their opinions of our services and products as easily as possible. This will help us celebrate success stories internally and externally, take immediate action on areas of opportunity, and ultimately advance the level of service we provide to our customers.


    Leave a comment