Warc's first conference of 2013 is almost here. On January 17th, Next Generation Research will bring researchers together to discuss new MR trends and techniques. Over the last few weeks, I've been speaking to some of the conference's presenters, including BrainJuicer's John Kearon and EMI's Peter Roxburgh. Together, these two researchers highlighted a classic difference between agencies and clients: Kearon's belief in the disruptive potential of new MR thinking contrasted with Roxburgh's emphasis on the need for research to be cost-effective and scalable.
My third interviewee, decode marketing's Phil Barden, sees both sides of this issue, as he's a former client who switched sides and now offers a variety of "implicit research" services to companies. Echoing Kearon, he sees a kind of "Copernican revolution" occurring in MR over recent years, with researchers now able to access "implicit" consumer needs and desires that are "below the radar of consciousness". But Barden also agreed with Roxburgh that such techniques must be made palatable to clients if they are to be widely adopted.
Barden terms these MR techniques, including neuroscience, cognitive psychology and behavioural economics, the "neuro area". He emphasised exciting findings from several recent research projects in the neuro area, for example Brian Knutson's work at Stanford University, which has deep implications for the way companies can price their products and even accurately measure that great intangible: brand equity. Such work, Barden added, "suggests that the greatest success that a brand can achieve is to be chosen without conscious thought. That flies in the face of many of the old models."
But that's not to suggest that Barden is an evangelist for neuroscience – perhaps the highest-profile neuro area technique. In fact, he's critical of the huge costs of one-off projects using fMRI scans that can yield little more for the client than a portfolio of attractive images of various parts of the brain lighting up when exposed to external stimuli. More broadly, he concedes that there's a great deal of "nonsense and hype" that has damaged the discipline of neuroscience in the eyes of clients and the broader public – witness recent takedowns in the mainstream media from "neuro-sceptics" Evgeny Morozov and Stephen Poole.
Instead, Barden advocates eschewing expensive brain scanners – some clients, he said, have been quoted six-figure sums for one-off projects – for simpler "implicit testing" projects that look into unconscious motivations for a much lower cost: the price of a couple of focus groups, in fact. "Respondents look at an image and a word on a screen, and they have to respond to it as quickly and as spontaneously as they can by pressing a key on their keyboard to show whether the image and the word fit together – or not," Barden explained. "This technique has been around in cognitive psychology for 50 years. It gets spontaneous, automatic responses – and it's cost-effective."
In other words, researchers should make the revolution in MR techniques work for all clients – even those keeping their purse strings tight in tough economic times, and those still attached to their brand trackers and other traditional measures and metrics. "Speaking as an ex-client, I would want proof that this stuff works before I depart from my tried-and-tested model," Barden added. "We stick with what we know – unless someone can really prove that an alternative is better. And, from a client perspective, it needs to be at the same cost."
This issue, along with many others facing the MR industry, will be discussed by presenters at Next Generation Research. You can browse the full agenda and book your place at the conference in the Warc Store.