Virtual worlds are the reality
A talking sofa that whispers questions in your ear and then unseats you once its curiosity is satisfied sounds like the stuff of nightmares. But it could be the future of market research. That at least is the thinking behind a technology, demonstrated at this year's Market Research Society conference by DervalResearch and software specialists GMI, in which roving avatars recruit Second Life residents for cosy chats about brands.
On first acquaintance, co-opting Second Life as a research forum smacks more of a gimmick than an innovation with staying power. But who, ten years ago, would have predicted the birth of online social networks as a mechanism for making and sustaining friendships, the popularity of citizen journalism or, for that matter, the mass adoption of text messaging?
David Penn, managing director of Conquest Research, says: "If research were to be invented today, we wouldn't be doing it the way that we do. We still have a pen and paper mindset that reflects the technologies that were available 50 years ago, when even telephone penetration was low. To this day, a lot of market research is still done according to that paradigm. But, for consumers there's nothing uplifting about being asked to answer 50 questions."
So, if the question and answer conventions of market research are mere accidents of history rather than rules governed by human nature, might the capabilities of the latest Web-based technologies provide marketers with better ways of understanding consumers?An eruption of research approaches unique to the internet suggests it may. For almost a decade, market researchers have treated the internet as a high-speed channel for running surveys at low cost. Now the Web is attracting attention in its own right, as a social phenomenon comprising communities of people, each of whom, potentially, has something to tell advertisers about their brands and about the people who buy them.
Ray Poynter, director of Virtual Surveys, identifies an "active" and a "passive" strand in the evolution of Web-based research. Blog-mining, which eavesdrops on thousands of Web-based conversations to give marketers a fly-on-the wall glimpse into the consumer's inner world, is a classic example of a passive approach.
Keeping tabs on what people are saying can alert a brand to public grievances, which, if left to rumble on, could spiral into orchestrated consumer protests or be picked up by the mass media. But like its offline equivalent, digital ethnography can be a thankless task. Poynter says: "If something is happening in the consumer's world you can pick up on it and follow the conversation.
"But if you've got a specific question, particularly if it's a new idea [that you hope to validate] blogs rarely contain anything that's really relevant."
For brand owners to make consumers their partners in creating products there has to be a meeting place where both brands and consumers are present. In the real world this usually takes the form of a workshop convened by a market research agency. With the arrival of Web 2.0 technologies, brands can now meet consumers in virtual spaces such as Facebook or set up communities of their own into which consumers are invited.
Georges Berzgal, senior vice-president Europe of MarketTools, which runs online networks for well-known brands, claims that Web-based communities are "democratising innovation". In the offline world, argues Berzgal, ideas for new products originate in R&D departments or with marketers, proceeding by stages to concept development and consumer tests. Through online communities, brands can now solicit ideas from consumers anywhere in the world and gather feedback on potential products at an earlier point in the development pipeline.
Berzgal says: "We are seeing the emergence of an alternative model for new product development; one which extends the principle of open source innovation [whereby users combine with corporations to co-create new products] from the technology sector to mainstream consumer brands."
In their more expansive moments, advocates of co-creation liken online communities - such as I Love My Dog, a dog lovers community created by MarketTools for Del Monte Foods' pet products division - to "outsourced R&D teams". This is wishful thinking.
An examination of what online communities have achieved - Snausages Breakfast Bites, a canine breakfast food dreamed up by I Love My Dog being a representative example - confirms that consumer networks can add an imaginative twist to an established product. But novel adaptations, though commercially worth having, fall short of fundamental innovation. Poynter says: "Most of the stuff tends to be alternative designs. It's ordinary research done more cost effectively and made faster and more accessible."
To make a contribution of any kind, communities have to attract consumers willing to work with brands. This does not mean inviting in only those people who might be described as the brand's friends. Far from it, says Matt Rhodes head of insight for FreshNetworks - a subsidiary of market research consultancy FreshMinds. "For the best results innovation networks should comprise between 200 and 500 consumers, with a roughly even split between brand critics and enthusiasts," he suggests.
Another tricky balance to strike is how much control a brand owner should exert over a community that it hosts. Allow people to chat about whatever they please and all you have is a general talking shop, paid for by the brand.
Go to the other extreme of shackling the discussion to a strictly commercial agenda and all that remains is a glorified focus group.
FreshNetworks recommends agreeing some basic ground rules covering the broad subject matter that the community will cover. Then, it is over to the participants.
Rhodes says: "Traditional research assumes the brand already knows what it needs to find out." In online communities, by contrast, the participants start discussion topics on their own terms.
For brands the simple act of listening can be highly educational, providing a "reality check" on how customers as opposed to industry professionals conceptualise products. By way of illustration, Rhodes cites telecoms firms that litter their advertising with jargon such as "enterprise mobility", while their customers speak of "remote working".
As a tool for ethnographic exploration, online research uses the Web-based culture of photo swaps, video posts and blogs to open a window on daily life. "One of the biggest advantages of digital media is its ability to make the consumer real for the client," says Added Value director Peter Drinkwater. The flipside is that Web-based technologies can bring intangible concepts alive for consumers by allowing ideas for new products and advertising campaigns to be mocked up and manipulated on screen.
Widespread adoption of 3D virtual reality promises to make research a lot more fun in the future. Possibilities suggested by Poynter range from testing consumer goods in simulated supermarkets, to experimenting with retail interiors and using avatars to demonstrate different styles of employee greetings.
But the forum in which immersive research is conducted may not be the virtual worlds, such as Second Life, best known today. "Virtual reality is quite problematic for researchers because it's all about identity changes," says Drinkwater. "The ideal would be to take the technology of Second Life, but have people feed back in their own personas".
Better graphic user interfaces are already perking up survey design by allowing pictorial representation of data. A good example is a device developed by Conquest, which does away with conventional scoring systems in favour of avatars that consumers manipulate to express feelings such as happiness (jumping in the air) and emotional closeness (cuddling up on a sofa or maintaining maximum distance).
By adopting a fun-based approach, researchers hope to persuade a greater number of consumers to take part in surveys, thereby solving the industry-wide bugbear of falling response rates.
But there is also a more fundamental reason to exploit the graphic capabilities of Web-based technologies, says Penn. In conventional research, consumers use words and numbers to express their reactions to brands and advertising. Yet, all we know about emotion suggests that the more we reflect, the more we struggle to pin down what we feel. This may explain why, in pre-tests, cult advertisements often fail to reveal their star potential.
Through the body language and gestures of its avatars, Conquest claims to have created a non-verbal medium that captures people's gut reactions more faithfully than the spoken word.
To demonstrate the claimed effect, the agency took 18 TV advertisements and tested each of them, once with conventional ad-tests and again with avatars. Among the 18 selections was the popular Cadbury gorilla commercial. In the conventional tests, the gorilla did well, but not exceptionally well. In the avatar-based tests it romped ahead of its competitors.
Penn says: "The problem with really great ads is that people can't put into words what they feel. By taking words out of the equation, you make it easier for people to express extremes of emotion spontaneously."
Technology for technology's sake is deeply alienating, but technology that wears a human face might yet, it seems, reveal our inner ape.