market research: What's on Your Mind?

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A new technology reads consumers' thought patterns. But is the industry ready for it?

Getting into the mind of the consumer is every marketer's dream. Now, it may be a reality. After completing a research and testing phase in October, Capita Research Group, based in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, has finally begun marketing what it believes is the "silver bullet" of copy testing and media research: a high-tech headset that allows advertisers, television programmers, and Web site designers to literally read consumers' brain-wave activity to see which messages are actually sinking in.

"I've commissioned $30 million in research tests throughout my career and every one of them was subjective," says Jeff Josephson, head of marketing for Capita. For years, he says, researchers have had to rely on what he considers to be flawed and biased participant recall and persuasion tests. "For the past 40 years, we've had to use what people say to predict things. You do the best you can to get out bias and drift, but it's still there. But now we have a truly practical, objective, physiological measure of if people are paying attention."

Advertisers and content developers in all media spend big bucks trying to figure out if audiences are digesting their carefully conceived messages. In 1997, the top 47 U.S.-based research firms saw approximately $1.1 billion in revenues from audience research, attitude studies, focus groups, advertising pre-testing, ad tracking, and opinion research, according to the American Marketing Association.

But the problem with those methods, says David Hunter, president and CEO of Capita, is that people aren't always conscious of what turns them on. "In traditional custom research, too many things limit what you're going to learn. We're not limited by the questionnaires, because we actually collect all the information from [respondents'] heads and then find out what it's telling us."

The electroencephalogram-based (EEG) technology used by Capita was originally developed by NASA to monitor astronauts' alertness levels. In 1997, Capita acquired an exclusive license to apply the technology to commercial research, and since then, Hunter has been readying it for the market. Let the brain-picking begin.

The result: a headset that reads electrical signals coming from a subject's scalp five times per second, as the person interacts with media such as a television program, a commercial, a Web page, or a banner ad. Those brain waves are converted into a scrolling graph synchronized with the visual stimuli on the screen, giving the marketer a play-by-play view of which segments of their content excite the viewer and which ones bomb.

Michael von Gonten, an independent ad research consultant who is helping Capita interpret the data, agrees that traditional test methods are flawed. "Natural exposure" tests - during which subjects watch commercials within thecontext of a program line up - are hard to control, he says, because factors such as the time of day a commercial airs or the presence of other people in the room can alter the results. And "forced exposure" tests, during which subjects watch specific content or ads outside their natural setting, eliminate context and can skew the results. "Capita is an inexpensive way to determine if people are paying attention without the problems of forced exposure and the uncontrollability of natural exposure," says von Gonten.

For advertising creatives, notoriously disenchanted with copy testing in general, Capita may be a helpful tool for pinpointing problems in prototypes. So far, Web designers and banner-ad creators seem to be the most interested. With banner click-through rates at an all-time low - even the top-performing banners are hit by less than 0.4 percent of the users who see them, according to Nielsen/NetRatings - Internet advertisers are desperately looking for ways to measure viewers' interest and attention spans.

In October, Capita, with the help of U.S. Interactive, an Internet services company that helps companies track Web ads, tested the system's reliability. U.S. Interactive provided four banner ads with strong click-through rates and four ads with low rates. Capita wired headgears to 48 respondents and monitored their brain waves. In three of four tests, Capita's measure correctly identified the "strong" banners.

David Charmatz, vice president of MTV Networks Online research and planning, was one of the first clients to test the system on television content. "You get a much cleaner read on the consumer because, as long as the equipment is attached, it's reading your mind," he says. "It's harder for someone to mask their basic emotions." Charmatz used the Capita system to test the engagement level that target audiences - mostly heavy-media-using baby boomers - had with MTV's TV Land/Nick at Night programming. Capita found that participants' "Engagement Index" for TV Land shows, like I Love Lucy and The Flip Wilson Show, was higher than other shows, such as NYPD Blue and a wrap-up on Sportcenter.

But to Charmatz's surprise, a lecture on C-Span received an engagement reading as high as the TV Land fare. "I think [Capita] needs to get better benchmarks on what the readings really mean," he says. "If a talking head making a speech and the funniest segment ever created can get the same high rating, what does that really tell you?"

The ability to accurately translate the data is what troubles one cable-network executive, who asked not to be identified. "An ad might get someone to perspire or their eyes to dilate or their brain waves to peak, but the resounding issue is, what does that really tell you?" he says. "Just because the needles are moving does not mean that it will effect their behavior, get them to purchase something, or improve their brand awareness."

The executive says Capita's system could be most useful in conjunction with, not instead of, focus groups. If people saw their own brain-wave activity and could explain what piqued their attention at certain times, that information could shed light on the wave patterns, he says.

But how welcoming will the media research world be toward this new technology? Capita's Josephsen claims that, since January, they've peddled their wares to more than 200 consumer product companies and the "reception has been extraordinary." But, he admits, most New York advertising and media agencies are skeptical. "They've got norms and they want you, as a client, to mesh with their norms," he says.

Horst Stipp, director of social and development research at NBC, says that while Capita has a "fascinating methodology and approach," he is not yet convinced of its television content research applicability. "It's used in a lab situation, it's very controlled, it doesn't allow for a typical viewing environment, and you can't do it with a large group of people," he says.

Artie Bulgrin, vice president of research and sales for ESPN, says he thinks Capita has potential, but is wary of nonresponse bias. "The general population is more inclined to tell us what they think than to be hooked up to a machine," he says. "I fear that there is a smaller population who will be willing to participate. So while it will tell us a lot about this specific group, it won't really tell us anything about the general population. We can't base marketing decisions on that."

MTV's Charmatz also sees a stigma that may impede Capita's use with some demographics. He fears that parents won't go for "wiring up" their babies. "It would be a PR nightmare," he says. "It's too Big Brother."

Charmatz isn't sure if the industry is ready for Capita yet but, deep down, he hopes it will catch on. "We've all been behind mirrors watching people eat M&Ms long enough. It's time for something different."

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