remote eye tracking suburb scene

Overcome the WEIRD bias in eye tracking studies

How to take research out of the WEIRD and into the (real) world


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Marketers are virtually drowning in data – website analytics, social stats, sales figures, survey results, footfall data, customer feedback, competitive analysis, third party data, predictive analysis, the list goes on. So how do we find value in the avalanche of information at our disposal? And what data really matters?

The insight economy is booming, and marketers need to make it work for them.

Knowledge is power – even in the laundry liquid aisle.

Big name FMCGs have been aware of the power of understanding what makes their consumers tick for decades; they have huge purpose-built labs to study it, and it’s paying off! But as the old saying goes “We don’t know what we don’t know” and this is the reason many still question the need for, or the amount of expenditure on, behavioral science within the marketing sphere.

There’s already a large collection of research on consumer behavior circulating which has delivered marketers insights such as the value of placing images to the left of text because this is the natural way we read in the West, or that the brain automatically connects like colors so having a color connection between your visuals and copy can make people more inclined to read it. Despite this, industry experts argue it’s often overlooked and that a large number of marketing decisions are made based on opinion not fact. Tony Durham, a consultant on the application of shopper psychology to the retail environment, has been helping major FMCGs shore up their position for more than 30 years and says realizing a 10% increase in sales “isn’t unreasonable” after implementing simple changes in response to the results of behavioral research.

When you put point of sale material into a store, probably only about 12% of that material is seen by anybody; now do you know if your point of sale material is being seen?” he says.  If the material isn’t being noticed the content is irrelevant and the time and money spent on it is wasted.  Once you’ve determined if your product or material is noticed, you can then start working on optimizing its effectiveness with the right research “You do that testing through a range of different tools, of which eye tracking is a key one”, says Mr Durham. “One supermarket study revealed that in a grocery store, on average, only 8% of products are noticed and only 3% considered”. Knowing if your products are among the 97% that don’t stand a chance, lets you take steps to change this. “From all the research I’ve done, I’ve found eye tracking to be the most useful because eye tracking tells the truth”, he says.


Investment in researchers – the rise of the data scientist.

Anyone who’s not mathematically minded will appreciate the difficulty of extracting useful information from a mountain of raw data which is why experts in this area are seeing an occupational boom. The recent Insight Economy report in The Times, states the number of data scientist positions have grown by 505% over the past five years.

Many companies are now making these roles internal rather than outsourcing them as their business becomes increasingly reliant on this skillset. But there is still a huge need for marketers to dig deeper and find out what is motivating consumers on a cognitive level behind all this data.

For example, data might show a decline in footfall in certain stores or a drop in purchases of a product by a particular demographic; surveys might reveal the superficial answer of basic disinterest in the product, but without solid behavioral insight, you won’t understand the real motivation behind this behavior – perhaps it’s perceived as environmentally reckless to buy the product, or perhaps people fear peer judgment for buying the product. Similarly, you might assume customers are satisfied due to high purchase completion rates, but perhaps the unboxing or setup instructions were frustrating and unclear. It’s hard to get the full picture simply by looking at the numbers.

cornell lab eye tracking

A similar approach was taken by associate professor of psychology Dr. Tanya Broesch who took eye trackers to Vanuatu to study and compare the ways babies and caregivers communicate in this community. A large portion of her research is dedicated to examining theories relating to psychology, anthropology, and education to determine whether they’re Western-biased or if they can be applied to other contexts. Of the participants in her study, nearly half had rejected colonization on their island which delivered a useful forum for looking at socialization goals and developmental outcomes in people from contrasting contexts. For obvious reasons this type of research would not be possible in a lab on a foreign continent.

Dr Tanya Broesch eye tracking in Vanuatu

A meeting of the minds – behavioral science and its rise in market research.

Behavioral science mightn’t be as black and white as its numerical cousin, but it’s the key to understanding why those numbers exist. Most marketers will agree that understanding your customer, including their desires and what motivates them, is the key to influencing their decisions. Behavioral science helps you do this. Eye tracking is a unique and valuable item in the behavioral researcher’s toolbox. Observation, ‘shop-alongs’, surveys, and focus groups only get you so far, and it’s widely accepted that not only do people find it hard to explain or remember their thoughts and motivations, a lot of the time they themselves aren’t even consciously aware of what drives their decisions.

Ninety-five percent of purchase decision-making comes from the subconscious mind and eye tracking gives you a direct path to it. There’s a strong correlation between what we are thinking about and where we look, so tapping into visual attention gives an accurate indication of cognitive processes and behavioral patterns. As outlined in the Insight Economy report, eye tracking research from Emotional Logic shows that consumers spend more time engaging with poorly stocked and messy shelves despite believing they prefer them organized. Another benefit of eye tracking is the access it provides to authentic behavior. Consumer research methods are often inherently contrived and thus solicit unnatural behavior. Having a shopper wear discreet eye tracking glasses and browse a real store allows you to collect more authentic behavioral data, and with the added ability to record their gaze and the session, you can play this back to them later and ask them to explain their thought processes in the moment. It’s amazing how often participants are surprised by their own behavior and give information on their buying behavior that would otherwise never have come to light.

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