It is an exciting time for marketing, with emerging technologies like virtual reality (VR) bringing new opportunities to create more playful, engaging and immersive experiences.
We have started to see an increasing number of brands adopt VR technology as part of their marketing strategies, albeit often offering limited ‘on the rail’ experiences via 360 videos, which allow participants to look around an all-encompassing environment themselves, but not necessarily choose their narrative or even direction of travel. While these marketing campaigns certainly help to engage with consumers in new and interesting ways, the use of VR in the marketing world shouldn’t stop there.
A turning point for market research
The benefits VR could offer marketers can begin long before customers are engaged with the brand. This is because it facilitates fully immersive research that can be controlled in a way that is impossible to achieve in the real world. So, when combined with measurements such as eye-tracking, for example, those looking to gain a deeper insight into consumer behaviour can immediately see how customers react to brands, packaging, messaging, and signage throughout the shopper journey. This process can take place before a design is even put into production, let alone placed in a store ready to buy, meaning brands can avoid making misinformed and costly bad decisions.
The foundations for applying scientific methods like eye-tracking to brand and package development have already been laid by the burgeoning field of neuro-marketing, which investigates unconscious responses in consumers to understand what makes people buy.
But neuromarketing research is often associated with time-intensive and budget-breaking analysis, which is only the domain of a privileged few brands and totally inaccessible to many smaller retailers.
Historically, most research activities in retail have relied on participants’ self-reported responses – such as focus groups. Or on in-store observation, with researchers standing in supermarket aisles with clipboards for hours on end, attempting to track how shoppers navigate a store and make their purchase decisions. The difficulties with these methods are two-fold. Firstly, when asked, people don’t always know exactly why they’ve selected to buy a particular product. The decision is often made unconsciously, so the market researcher ends up with inaccurate information about the purchase decision. This is where eye-tracking can be valuable as it allows researchers to understand the unconscious decision-making process. Secondly, if market research is taking place after a product has been developed and placed on the shop shelves, findings – accurate or otherwise – would mean costly redevelopment.
Empowering marketers with data
With VR technology, the need for expensive research space all but disappears because once inside the VR headset shoppers are oblivious to real-world around them.
This is a process that can, and should, take place throughout a product’s development to optimise the design, so expensive branding mistakes can be corrected before they make it out to the market place. And, because all of this can be measured in a virtual world before any physical elements are produced, it is quicker and cheaper.
Testing the product in an entirely virtual retail environment minimises the risk of going too far down the launch process with a design that won’t work. It is possible to track what draws the eye and what doesn’t, based on the eye movements of shoppers wearing VR headsets. The product design can then be tweaked accordingly before it even hits the shelves.
Advancing the industry
Much of the VR being currently used for market research is either displayed on a screen or, if it immersive, relies on restricting the shoppers’ journey by using pre-recorded 360-degree videos. The latest VR technology allows the shopper to go ‘off the rails’ encouraging them to behave naturally by taking their own route through the store and freely interacting with products, all the while tracking their eye-movements which identify what captures their attention and when.
This new method is much more effective from a market research perspective simply because it’s reflective of real-life shopper behaviour and because there is no constraint on the journey, everything is so much more life-like.
But what about my job?
While marketers might easily feel empowered by the prospect of these advancements in VR, agencies, designers and creatives might also be quivering in their boots at the prospect of a technology that can essentially work out whether their ‘eye-catching’ designs really going to perform in the context of a real store. After all, they have built entire careers on their creativity and ability to create products or adverts with emotionally engaging designs.
But this isn’t just another instance of machines taking people’s jobs away. The ability to combine virtual reality with eye-tracking is, in fact, a giant leap forward for marketing, placing research at the heart of product development, and allowing creatives to shine and brands to truly optimise their designs before they hit the shelves.
Dr Tim Holmes, director of research and development at Acuity Intelligence and honorary research associate at Royal Holloway, University of London