Market Research is a slow moving industry. Every now and then there is a big breakthrough that changes the face of the industry but even those revolutionary changes are minor when you consider the shifts experienced in other professions. Case in point: the biggest thing to happen to research in the past 20-25 years is that surveys are now online as opposed to on paper. Granted, the shift in medium has created an exponentially increasing number of twists on respondent interactions but the basic ideas remain the same.
However, slowly but surely researchers have started to embrace different forms of biometric measurement that may truly revolutionize our industry. It started with some crude eye-tracking studies done as much for the pretty pictures as for the insight; but ever since Paco Underhill detailed his use of Neuroscience in mapping consumer shopping habits, Researchers have started to wander into what is truly a new world of consumer insight.
On the surface, it looks like the absolute magic bullet of research. We spend countless hours honing our methodologies to find ways of uncovering the ‘real’ answers from respondents. All of a sudden we are presented with a tool that no longer requires all that effort; we’ll simply read their minds!
Miss Cleo is Unavailable
Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system’s response to different stimuli; which due to its intimidating nature, is poorly understood as a market research methodology. Part of the issue is that it is still very expensive so most experiences with these studies are from third hand accounts which in some cases are as much myth as fact. All the same, it is a very cool method to see leveraged but like all other research tools, it has its limitations.
My intent is to profile some of the different Neuroscience methodologies so that some of the mystery can be cleared away. The end goal is to help remind everybody that like all other tools, they only work when applied correctly. Neuroscience is definitely one of the most intimidating set of tools we have but when fit with the right methodology, it can get you insights easily overlooked by other research.
Neuroscience in the Ivory Tower
If budget and respondent experience were non-issues, Neuroscience in the context of market research would utilize the very same tools that are used in hospitals. For the few where budget really is a non-issue, fMRI’s and MEG’s are the considered to be the best “mind readers” available. Below I have given a very brief description of the tools that inspire what is more commonly available within the reach of market research:
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is a large magnet that takes static pictures of the brain. Essentially a magnetic field is ‘pulsed’ which ‘resonates’ water molecules; think of it as strumming a guitar. Overall, it’s not terribly useful for market research but useful in understanding the fMRI.
fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) is very similar to an MRI except that it can be used to image blood flow. This is a key difference because it allows you to see where the brain is active over a 3-5 second interval. That may sound fast but count out 5 seconds and imagine how many split second thoughts, emotions, or reactions can occur over that time.
MEG (magneto encephalography) is the most similar to what is commonly used in the field. This is a device that measures the electrical activity of the brain at over 1000 times per second. A key difference from the fMRI is that the MEG does not necessarily show exact brain function but that the brain is active. Sample output below:
Neuroscience in the Field
EEG (electroencephalography) is similar to the MEG in that it also measures electrical activity in the brain. However, it is not nearly as sensitive and has significantly fewer receptors to sense any activity. That being said, it is portable which the MEG certainly is not.
The respondent experience is still a little rough but there have been ongoing improvements that can make it less intimidating. Pictured below is an example of what the sensor looks like and why respondent experience is such an issue with this methodology:
NOTE: Some companies have developed proprietary alternatives that are supposedly less intrusive though it is best to speak with them directly about any impact to the results
How it’s Used
Since the EEG is measuring electrical activity in the brain, determining what “active” vs. “non-active” looks like requires a baseline to be established. That is important because it means that the measurements only mean something when considered over a period of time, that is to say that “active” is relative and is not based on an absolute scale.
Remember to keep this in mind because it impacts the types of stimuli you are able to test; something like a commercial which is experienced by a respondent over 30 seconds, is more interpretable than a print ad that is experienced all at once.
While Neuroscience is clearly different than our more standard qualitative or quantitative methods, it has helped me to position it more closely to qualitative when developing project plans. These studies are typically less about confirmation or definition (goals more typical of quant studies) and more about clarification and deeper understanding (goals more typical of qual studies).
That being said, just because something has been “typically” used for one purpose, does not mean it cannot be leveraged for something else. It is certainly possible to use Neuroscience methods in a quantitative study; though it will likely be extremely expensive. If you are still interested, make sure to be very clear as to why you want a larger sample size. Remember that by itself, this method tells you a respondent brain is active or it’s not when responding to your test; understanding the whys still requires the tried and true respondent Q&A.
In the End
Neuroscience is still a very new approach within market research and creative methodologies and new approaches can turn any limitation into a strength. My intention has been for this to help clear away the mystery and make it easier to have discussions if/when Neuroscience becomes an option for you and your brand.
If this is a type of study that you are currently interested in pursuing, I currently do not provide Neuroscience services but would be very happy to direct you to a couple of firms that are experts in this space.
Tags: Neuroscience, Qualitative Research