When Joel Goldhar worked in his father's neighborhood grocery
store during the 1950s, market research was done over the deli
"My father would say to the customers we knew best: 'I've got a
lot of baloney in the store this week. I can give you some a little
cheaper if you'd like,' " says Mr. Goldhar, who delivered food for
the Albany, N.Y. mom-and-pop business. "We learned what people
liked and also what they could afford just by getting to know each
A half century later, most large- and small-business owners don't
know individual customers by name, nor whether they prefer pastrami
In an increasingly impersonal age, they rely on a more distant
brand of research for answers.
But marketers may have found a way to regain that personal touch,
and from a highly impersonal source: technology.
From measuring brain waves to shaping psychological profiles of
online behavior, companies are using high-tech innovations to probe
deeper into consumers' lives and preferences than ever before.
"Marketing is getting to be so expensive, you cannot afford to
make a mistake," says David Hunter, president of Capita Research
Group. As a result, "more and more money will be spent on more
accurate measurement systems that use technology."
Results from focus groups and phone surveys - techniques used for
generations - are often imprecise. Despite $7 billion in annual
spending on market research, most new products fall flat as
corporate heads struggle to gauge the public's taste.
But Capita hopes to produce better results with its latest
research innovation: a high-tech headset volunteers wear while they
watch or listen to commercials produced by Capita clients. The
device measures a person's attention level, the company claims, and
can detect whether the ad makes an emotional connection with the
guinea-pig viewer. If it does, the ad will probably draw in
television viewers, too, Capita argues.
Sabrina Connoly of Blue Bell, Pa., recently strapped on the
headset for a TV/radio-ad survey. She says wearing the headset,
which resembles Walkman earphones, wasn't weird, but that some of
the results were surprising.
"There were parts when the diagram showed my interest had
dropped, but I thought I was still tuned in," Ms. Connoly says. "I
knew that I was focused at some points, though, especially when
they played the '80s music station, which probably took me back to
my college days.
"This would be a good way to measure whether your husband is
listening to you," she quips.
The prospect of having scientific data to make marketing
decisions has understandably piqued the interest of executives
looking to slash advertising costs. Mr. Hunter estimates companies
spend about $7 million to produce and air a single TV commercial
"The cost of getting someone's attention these days has
skyrocketed," he says. "If your commercial isn't effective at
gathering attention, you can waste millions."
Capita's pursuit of information will soon take it into the living
room. It's latest technology allows viewers at home to transmit the
headset data like an e-mail message to company analysts.
The consequence of this and other technologies is clear: volumes
more of more-accurate data. For many market-research veterans, the
field is finally living up to its potential as a true social
According to Boston University marketing professor Michael
Elasmar, competition in the New Economy has made the difference.
"As corporations grow bigger and bigger, and competition increases,
they're asking more for hard evidence that would justify doing [an
advertising] campaign one way or another," he says. …