For you, time passes quickly as you glance at an advertisement, deciding if it’s worth further attention. You probably forget most of it.
For the company that paid for that ad, the time that consumers spend looking at their presentation is the gold standard of marketing. It’s the difference between a sale and no sale.
Millions of dollars can be at stake if only they could get inside your head and learn more about how consumers experience ads. Now they can and University of Akron researchers are working behind locked doors on the fifth floor of the Polsky Building to learn those secrets.
Marketing meets science as technicians study the eye movements, facial expressions and even brain waves of people experiencing advertising.
It’s called the Suarez Laboratories for Applied Marketing Research and comes as a result of a $1.9 million grant from Ben and Nancy Suarez. Ben Suarez is CEO of Suarez Industries of Stark County, makers of the Perfect Storm sweeper and the Joe Namath grill.
Business secrets are discovered and studied there, hence the tight security. Academic marketing research also happens as business school students and educators gather huge amounts of data regarding those precious seconds consumers spend gazing at ads and turn it into something marketers can use.
“What we are interested in is how do consumers behave and how do we accurately predict how they will behave and how they are going to respond to things,” said Kathleen Kennedy, research lab director.
Electrodes on head
On the cutting edge is the dense array electroencephalogram or EEG. You might call it a hair net with 256 electrodes connected to a computer.
A test volunteer, representing a consumer, sits at a computer with the net on his head. On the monitor he sees a series of images, including ads, flash by.
In some cases, he pushes a button representing his judgment, positive to negative, of the current image.
Other times, he just sits there as researchers monitor brain activity sensed by the electrodes.
Brain scientists have linked various thoughts with different parts of the brain. From that, the marketing students reach conclusions about how a consumer would respond to the ad shown on the screen.
Some of the pictures shown are in a set collection of images that researchers know will produce predictable reactions. How the consumer-test subject responds to those images tells the researchers what kind of consumer he would be.
“We can’t read minds,” Kennedy said. “We can’t tell whether people are telling the truth or not. It’s not a lie detector. What we can tell is where in your brain activity is happening and we know from research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology that there are certain parts of the brain that are associated with certain functions.”
The whole process has gained the term “neuromarketing.”
Not far away, a researcher sees the same pictures the test subject sees in addition to a visual representation of the brain waves moving across a monitor. A high-powered computer processes the enormous amount of data linking the brain’s reaction to the image shown on the screen.
For example, the consumer might be shown a selection of celebrities’ faces. The testing might give marketers some clues to which celebrity might best represent their products in ads.
Also at Suarez, research is done in what is casually called a usability lab.
The consumer sits in front of a monitor but there are no brain measurements.
Instead, as many as four cameras record eye movements and facial expressions.
Students can see what first captures the consumer’s attention and follow the eye as it glances over the ad. It also measures the time spent lingering on an element.
Even the slightest facial reaction, perhaps so slight a person might not notice it, is recorded, quantified and stored on the computer.
It gives the advertiser an idea about how the ad attracts attention and focuses positively on the product.
“Ad designers used to know through experience and trial and error many principles that are being affirmed by science,” Kennedy said. “But they are bringing insights beyond that now.”
At any given time, one or two lab projects are being done as basic academic research. Another project or two are done for private companies, including Suarez, for a fee, Kennedy said.
Before taking on private work, Kennedy said she evaluates three issues:
• It must provide an educational opportunity for marketing students.
• It must be in line with work the lab is doing.
• It must be fully funded by the company sanctioning it.
Kennedy said some companies have been turned down because they would not pay a fair price.
Kennedy said companies like the arrangement because they get sophisticated market research. The university benefits because core findings belong to the university and can be patented and sold. The students also get experience.
The Suarez Laboratories spent $262,706 in 2012. Sponsored studies for private companies produced $37,929 in revenue.
Meanwhile, Terry Daugherty, academic director of the labs, is doing basic research.
He has been looking at the effect of word-of-mouth comments about products on social media.
He used eye-tracking technology to study consumer reactions on Pinterest, a photo-sharing website.
He said social media are important because consumer comments about a product move at lightning speed and little is known about it.
“Here consumers can shape, they can participate, they can spread your message,” he said. “They can create their own messages about your product, they can go viral.”
He hopes to publish his findings in the Journal of Marketing Communications in a few months.
Advanced in field
Kennedy and Daugherty said they know of no other university doing marketing research like theirs.
“As much as I can determine, we have the most disciplined, largest neuromarketing project on a university campus right now in terms of a focused research and development project,” Kennedy said. “The people who are most advanced in this field are commercial firms and the largest of those is NeuroFocus, which is a division of Nielsen [the same company that rates television shows]. They are not very open about what they do. They are using different technology and they are building a proprietary process.”
Because commercial studies are closely kept secrets, Daugherty and Kennedy said it is up to universities to do the same research and prepare marketing students with the skills they will need to enter the industry.
Ben Suarez, the Stark County businessman, has been in the news for consumer protection and political contribution issues, but Daugherty said he is only vaguely aware of those stories and sees no effect on the labs.
“I’ve been at the University of Texas, Michigan State, Vanderbilt, a lot of top research colleges around the country, and none of them have the resources that Suarez has because of Ben Suarez. The opportunity here was too great to pass up.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.