Partnering biometrics and conventional research can increase our understanding of what makes powerful creative work, writes Keith Glasspoole in Brand Republic.
When it comes to assessing and predicting the effectiveness of advertising, market researchers are used to feeling like something of a punchbag for the ad industry. At conference after conference we are told that we belong in the last century. In a world where so much can be learned about advertising by what people do with it – for example, the extent to which it is shared online – what value can there be in asking people questions about it?
The answer to this, of course, is that the value of asking questions will vary, depending on whether you are asking the right things to the right people, and assessing results in the right way.
It is, for example, essential to have a mutually understood idea, going into the research process, of what you think “good” is going to look like – i.e. what difference we are expecting it to make for the brand.
Whilst it is undoubtedly true that the way in which advertising works may have evolved and become more complex, one thing has not changed – advertising still needs to make a difference to the brand.
So the challenge for research is to
- Assess whether it makes a difference to the brand
- Understand why it does so … (or does not)
Whilst both elements are crucial, it is in the second of them where much recent R&D effort has taken place. We have known for some time that it is dangerous to rely wholly on what people can, through their conscious mind, tell us about what they think about advertising. Instead, we need to observe the difference that the advertising makes – and when we do this, it’s clear that what matters is less and less what people think, but what they feel.
Our emotions direct us to engage with or to ignore advertising, thereby directing our attention, enhancing our memory and influencing our behaviour. To take levels of sharing as an easily-measured example of behaviour – movie trailers or ads for video games tend to be shared more than other ads. This is not surprising, when we think that both movies and games excel at delivering relevant, entertaining stories. In effect, people are already engaged by the content being advertised, so the ad itself does not have to work so hard to engage.
It is clear that, when it comes to achieving high levels of “virality”, content is king. When, as is the case for most advertisers, the subject matter is less intrinsically engaging, creativity must make up the shortfall.
As a result, ad researchers seek to understand – and demonstrate that they understand – that the creative generates the feelings that will generate behaviour. The challenge is to understand how this occurs, and how it can most effectively be translated into a business impact for the brand.
Much pre-testing research, apparently “conventional” being based on surveys or groups, in fact incorporates a range of recently-derived techniques to understand emotional response – whether this is for an ad overall, or the variation as the ad progresses. These techniques, properly applied in the context of an individual ad’s objectives, can discriminate well in terms of identifying effective ads, and explaining their effect. However, technology now gives us the opportunity to take our understanding a step further, by harnessing the power of neuroscience.
Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system – hence, not just the brain itself, but the reactions that it triggers elsewhere in the body, through a network of neurons. Since they are triggered from deep within the brain, we measure these reactions not via monitoring of the brain itself, but through a range of more accessible physical responses, such as heart rate and respiration.
This kind of measurement – biometrics – allows us directly to assess activity in the emotional centres of the brain. Crucially, it allows us to do so unobtrusively, via chest belts and finger senses rather than skull caps and electrodes.
Enough information has been collected in pilot tests for us to have developed a strong understanding of what biometrics can tell us about how advertising works. We know, for example, that there is a minimum threshold for active emotional engagement – below which an ad is simply being ignored. Our eyes may be looking at such ads, but our bodies are not feeling them, and without that kind of engagement the ad is unlikely to be remembered, shared, or acted upon.
We know that a strong and sustained emotional response, measured via biometrics, correlates with “viralability”. Similarly, we can relate biometric reactions to different elements of an ad to help understand the difference it makes to the brand. An ad can generate active emotional engagement, but if it does not do so when the brand is present, it is less likely to make a difference to the brand.
Biometric measurement cannot and should not wholly take the place of more conventional research methods. Whilst it can demonstrate beyond doubt that emotional engagement occurs, we still need to observe reactions and ask questions in order to understand why it does so and what difference it makes. Hence, the combination of biometrics with more “normal” research is compelling.
The combination will, for example, help us to identify the kind of ad that works adequately by reinforcing our existing feelings about a brand. Assuming those feelings are the ones the advertiser wishes to retain, such ads can be useful enough, and pre-testing will identify and predict this in a way that biometrics may not. However, the addition of biometric read will show us that they are unlikely to have the strength to build new and compelling brand stories.
As with so much in market research, different methods are appropriate for different objectives, and may vary in terms of the elements they pick up of the stories we seek to tell. However, all methods ultimately point to the same thing – that creative power is central to advertising success.
Hence, it is essential to understand what makes that power. When partnered by conventional research, biometrics offers a powerful new means of gaining that understanding.
Keith Glasspoole is deputy managing director of Ipsos ASI and wrote this article for Brand Republic.