How Marketers See You ; They Go High Tech to Get Inside Your Head

Article excerpt

When Joel Goldhar worked in his father's neighborhood grocery store during the 1950s, market research was done over the deli counter.

"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 customer."

A half century later, most large- and small-business owners don't know individual customers by name, nor whether they prefer pastrami to prosciutto.

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 nationwide.

"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 science.

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. …

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