Internet Research: Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

22 January 2007

LONDON: Popularly attributed to Confucius, the old adage that "a single picture is worth a thousand words" is one of the best known phrases on planet Earth. Yet graphics play a relatively minor role in market and opinion research - a situation that recent UK startup Imagini Holdings is aiming to reverse.

Launched eighteen months ago by ex-Conran Group marketing executive Alex Willcock, Imagini focusses on internet research - its aim being to help online advertisers pinpoint their specific audience.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Imagini eschews standard questionnaires. Instead it has developed an electronic variant of the Rorschach 'inkblot' test. This presents research participants with a range of pictures, asking which one best describes phrases such as "My idea of a good time is ..." or "Happiness to me is ...".

Imagini's software then analyzes each individual's choices to produce what the firm calls 'visual DNA': a profile of each subject's tastes, attitudes toward work, family, leisure and other characteristics.

The technique seems to appeal to surfers. In a pre-Christmas gift-finding project on its own website, Imagini claims that around 12,000 people took the test within twelve hours of it being uploaded.

This approach contrasts sharply with standard online behavioural targeting, which instead track the websites people visit and when and what they buy online. Site owners such as Yahoo use this 'clickstream' information to tailor ads for targeted groups of customers.

Although the Imagini approach is gaining credence, there are skeptics among the 'traditional clickstream' fraternity. One such doubter is Bill Gossman, ceo of New York-based Revenue Science, who charges that the approach is potentially flawed. "I'm telling the [Imagini] service about myself instead of the system learning about me," he says.

Imagini founder Gossman predictably disagrees. The use of images, instead of words, he argues, "allows you to understand consumers on a deeper and more subtle level", enabling marketers to gain insight into their motivations and what they might do in the future.

Imagini remains a niche application, as yet, but has started to attract attention from such big names as BT, Vodafone and the UK's largest customer-loyalty program Nectar.

The latter found the Imagini method generated 3.5 times the response to its research compared with a control test using a standard questionnaire.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online. additional content by WARC staff