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Can Neuroscience Save the Market Research Industry?

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By Allan Fromen 

The Market Research industry is approaching a frightening crossroads. On the one hand, DIY tools  like SurveyMonkey and Google Consumer Surveys have been the recipients of well deserved attention and kudos, with the former receiving a $1.4 Billion valuation last year, and the latter getting a boost from Nate Silver, who praised GCS as more accurate than many traditional polls in the last presidential election. Today, anyone – literally anyone – can easily create a free survey and even find sample for a modest sum. DIY is taking off, and research firms are left vying for more complex studies that require their expertise and scale. Client side researchers are equally challenged, as budgets dry up and internal clients expect insights that are faster, cheaper, and actionable.

There is also a growing consensus that consumers simply cannot tell us what we want to know, for example, why they selected a certain product or brand. With the explosion of behavioral economics, books like Predictably Irrational and Thinking, Fast and Slow have codified the fact that consumers are highly emotional and make decisions for reasons that are often not accessible to their consciousness, and by extension, not accessible via classic market research techniques. I recently heard a C-level executive talk about System 1, which demonstrates that what was once the domain of psychologists and academics – namely, that consumers are often driven by non-conscious triggers – has officially reached a tipping point and is now part of the mainstream business lexicon.

Amidst all this disruption, I recently attended the NIMF conference, a full day dedicated to neuroscience (I use the term neuroscience loosely here, to mean all techniques that seek to tap into non-rational, automated thinking). It was highly refreshing to witness innovative market research companies commercializing the exploration of the non-conscious as a means of delivering insights.

Here are some of my key takeaways:

There are many, many hammers: EEG, fMRI, metaphors, galvanic skin response, eye tracking, implicit measures, and more. While the sheer number of techniques is exciting, it still feels a little like the Wild West. We desperately need guidance as to which methods are most appropriate for specific research questions.

Validation has started…: Some truly fascinating case studies were presented. In one, Aaron Reid of Sentient Decision Science noted how implicit measures combined with a classic conjoint exercise yielded a .90 correlation with sales data. This synergistic effect of neuroscience and traditional research is very encouraging, and worthy of replication.

But more is needed…: Neuroscience is no panacea, nor is it the right tool for every research question. We are in the early stages and need to marry our excitement with methodological and academic rigor, to put our clients at ease and help inform the industry. The ARF has taken steps in this direction and noted that fMRI is the “gold standard” for advertising research. However, we need many more such validation studies, before neuroscience techniques can be a regular part of the research toolkit.

Heed the clarion call: No doubt, things are changing. We need to adapt and innovate in order to stay relevant in a commoditized market research industry. To that end, we should embrace the change, even if (or especially!) it is scary or uncomfortable. Will Leach said it best, when he challenged the room to stop delivering insights and start focusing on behavior change. This was a refreshing reminder that while insights have value, they are only a means to an end. If we can move up the stack and demonstrate how to change actual behavior, we will earn the proverbial seat at the table.

As a psychologist, I have long believed that humans are far from the rational agents we aspire to. After a day at NIMF, I believe we are on the cusp of finally cracking the unconscious, and accelerating the market research industry into a new dawn of innovation, creativity, and relevance.

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11 responses to “Can Neuroscience Save the Market Research Industry?

  1. This is really a great article…already the headline makes you thinking: Is neuroscience really about market research or about ‘individual’ consumer reactions? I heard an interesting definition of Neuroscience at a HCD webinar : Neuroscience is a ‘mechanisms behind behavior, which may include emotion but is not limited to it’. I do think that neuroscience leaves consumers in the ‘mute’ mode i.e. make them ‘speechless’. That is why additional multi sensorial research tools are needed to give consumers ‘A SAY’ . This is – at least – necessary for communication

  2. Thank you for this article and reflections. Consumers often make choices that are influenced by apparently small factors, but these factors are not, in fact, embedded in the deep unconsciousness of the brain. There is no falsifiable scientific, case-controlled blinded research of large (or small) samples I am aware of that suggests this. In fact, if you ask why a certain choice is made, you can easily get a fully rational conscious explanation from an alert person. Probing the brain with EEG, functional MRI scans, eye tracking, or Positron emission tomography do not reveal a single iota more than common sense. These methods, in 2014, offer no advanced inroad to the basis of choices made by any person. Moreover, functional MRI studies only light up the brain regions that have an excess of local blood flow, but in fact do not reflect activity of the neurons themselves, so that fMRI is not a valid reflection of “thinking”, but is only a hemo-dynamic reflection of a local metabolic action in the neural region that causes dilation of the blood vessels and more blood flow in that region. Some day in the future there may be a method that truly reflects thinking and decision-making, but we are not quite there yet. Important discussion. Neil Seeman.

  3. Neuroscience is the end of a development to come ‘closer’ to consumer understanding : deeper we cannot ‘penetrate’ consumers. This will open up new market research needs and opportunities for the further development and refinement of adequate marketing mix elements . We see the need for consumer ‘language’ generation of a sensorial stimulus or a concept’s imaginary sensorial design by deep diving into emotions, associations (visuals, sounds, etc.) , childhood memories for cultural content. This ‘language’ will be needed for executional guidance. Everything cannot be done with Neuroscience there are limitations where market researchers can jump in with adapted methodologies.

  4. Thank you for this. Consumers often make choices that are influenced by apparently small factors, but these factors are not embedded in the deep unconsciousness of the brain. In fact, if you ask why a certain choice is made, you can easily get a fully rational conscious explanation from an alert person. Probing the brain with EEG, functional MRI scans, eye tracking, or Positron emission tomography do not reveal a single iota more than common sense. The aforementioned methods offer no advanced inroad to the basis of choices made by any person. Moreover, functional MRI studies only light up the brain regions that have an excess of *local blood flow*, but in fact do not reflect activity of the neurons themselves, so that fMRI is not a valid reflection of “thinking”, but is only a hemo-dynamic reflection of a local metabolic action in the neural region that causes dilation of the blood vessels and more blood flow in that region. Some day in the future there may be a method that truly reflects thinking and decision-making, but we are not there yet. Important discussion. Very hard. Neuro-psycho pharmacologists have been working on this issue since 1974 (dopamine response/ release), and they are still struggling to understand it. Once we figure it out, I thank these tireless researchers for the millions of people affected by mental illness who will benefit.

  5. I am not a marketing professional and just happened across this via a link someone posted on FB. I just have one simple comment to make, really — you may be overlooking an important factor and that is that people may not *want* their unconscious probed. As a human being, I don’t appreciate being manipulated by marketing techniques based on how my mind or body reacts to certain things. In fact, I kind of consider it an invasion of my privacy. As a student of Psychology and Sociology myself, I do want to always understand more about the human mind and interactions between people. But when that research is undertaken as a means to cause me to change my behavior without my conscious assent — no. Especially when there is, to my knowledge, no rules or guidelines on how that information will be used. Will it be used only to get me to buy something? Or get me to “buy in” to something? Like a political candidate or proposal, for example.

  6. It is all to easy to get carried away by the promises of the technology, even in the absence of vendor hype, so thanks for your balanced comments. I’ll remain optimistic about neuroscience but whenever I can, I’ll focus my efforts on good experimental design and, as you say, the measurement of behavior.

  7. Neuroscience is a wonderful contribution to the marketing research firmament specifically because it has a place within the legacy of pursuing that which participants can’t directly speak to – not because it establishes that legacy. That research participants are poor witnesses to their own experiences and decisions is only a revelation to those who have been spending time (and perhaps $) taking “what people say” (or post) only at face value. The strongest qualitative researchers have long known that what people say/ post/ choose to share or reveal is just one factor to be considered. Neuroscience, like facial coding technology, etc. further an important, long understood principle, they don’t introduce it.

  8. It depends how you arrive at the ‘SAY’: If you ASK consumers you only access the cognitive level . In this case I do completely agree with what Judy said . But their are interesting techniques, which ‘detour’ the cognitive, rational side and put consumers on a different level of awareness . Those techniques are capturing – a sub conscious level – via imaginary and real sensoriality emotions, feelings, visuals, diverse associations and situations…etc. which are of paramount importance for the creation process. This is to consider as a completely new consumers ‘SAY’ i.e. letting consumers ‘actively’ participate in the creation process and/or co creation, while Neuroscience let consumers passively ‘speak ‘ by their bodily reactions. I do think both approaches must be combined as they complement each other and give enough inspiration for the development teams.

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