Three steps for safe neuromarketing research during COVID

Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy

September 14, 2020

The new challenges for neuromarketing

In-person research is being challenged by the COVID 19 pandemic and crisis. After all, when social distancing is key, there are true challenges to just how much in-person research one can do. As Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience scales down their neuro business, one might wonder: how can consumer neuroscience and neuromarketing research continue in the age of COVID? One thing that is important to note here is that some models in neuromarketing may have been particularly fragile to the kinds of challenges that COVID poses. In many traditional neuromarketing lab setups, often in rooms with multiple people tested in close proximity. Obviously, this solution is not doable under the current conditions.

Room with many people on computers.
Some neuromarketing solutions rely on testing of people in the same room. Here's an example from Time Warner Medialab.

Still, neuromarketing and consumer neuroscience are a lot more than the solutions that these in-lab testing solutions. Since our very inception, we at Neurons have worked hard on producing solutions that allow people to be tested in natural situations. Our primary focus was that this would also let consumers behave more normally. Besides this, we also see that neuromarketing offers new solutions that do not even require in-person testing. Let's dive into three main solutions that Neurons are now offering.

Solution 1: safe in-person studies

A large portion of market research is devoted to in-person meetings. Focus groups, interviews, neuromarketing testing typically involves people being in close proximity for some time. In today's situation, that's a big no-no. But under certain conditions, in-person is doable. Some of these precautions include:

  • testing in countries/regions where the transmission rate is low, and it is legal to do this type of research and meetings (under strict rules)
  • researchers traveling to and from the test location are always wearing masks and display the appropriate hygiene
  • researchers must show no negative (i.e., good) test results and be asymptomatic prior to, and during, travel and fieldwork
  • recruitment and testing is performed under strict and medical-levels of security
  • additional questions related to COVID are employed during recruitment and arrival
  • upon arrival, a remote temperature test is taken
  • each participant is tested in a separate ventilated room, and there is no point where participants are gathered in the same room
  • use of protective equipment such as masks, gloves, and sanitizer are mandatory at all times during fieldwork -- participants are also encouraged to use face masks and sanitizer
  • use of infrared forehead temperature scanners on participants prior to testing -- any signs of fever will exclude the participant from the study
  • the setup of equipment is done with a minimum contact principle, and with the researcher standing behind the participant while mounting and unmounting the equipment
  • between each participant, the room is ventilated, all equipment is wiped and/or replaced

In addition to this, participants are also asked to respond to questions about their level of awareness and emotions relative to the current crisis. Here, we are looking at whether people who score high on negative emotions are also responding differently during the test. While this may be grounds for exclusion, we more often include this to understand how consumers are responding during the current world situation.

A woman with EEG equipment working on a computer.
In-person research can be done safely with the right and strict protocols and precautions, though only in regions where this is allowed and the transmission risk is well below recommended levels. This picture is from our recent fieldwork.

With these and many more precautions it is possible to conduct neuromarketing fieldwork. As noted earlier, such amendments are only doable if the technology and protocols allow more flexible and mobile testing. This allows us to still do neuromarketing studies without the need for a fixed central location lab solution.

Solution 2: doing neuro with online panels

In case you have missed it, Neurons have launched an online neuropanel solutions called NeuroOnline (renamed to Explore in 2021). With this solution, we have created and validated tools that can be used to measure unconscious and conscious consumer responses, feelings, and thoughts through an online test. This is not yet another online panel tool: it is using the latest possible browser technologies to ensure that we can understand how consumers respond to different brand touchpoints.

The NeuroOnline solution provides several innovative tools for measuring and understanding consumers' conscious and unconscious responses. Since it works online, it can be tested globally.

Implicit responses graphs.
The NeuroOnline battery includes tests such as Implicit Association Test, Fast Response Test, consumer sentiment analyses, granular memory tests, and consumer profiling (psychographics).

You can see a capabilities document of NeuroOnline here (PDF).

Solution 3: doing neuroscience with AI

A third option is to use so-called predictive methods to understand and predict what customers will do. Here, we offer NeuroVision (renamed to Predict in 2021), which is an online tool that analyzes images and videos and then accurately predicts what customers are likely to see and miss. The NeuroVision tool is based on thousands of participants' eye-tracking data -- the Neurons eye-tracking database that has been built over a decade. Recently, we have used the latest models in machine learning to train on this dataset. The result was a staggering increase in precision. Now, NeuroVision predicts more than 90% of eye-tracking results! That's just as good as comparing two large groups on their eye-tracking results.

NeuroVision heatmaps on images.
NeuroVision is using the latest AI technology to predict visual attention. The results are stunningly accurate, as shown in this figure.

Besides this market-leading precision, NeuroVision also is the market-leading video analysis tool. This allows you both to note what people will see, but also what the expected levels of cognitive demand can be, and how clear the actual visual is in grabbing attention.

The NeuroVision video analysis shows both what people see and what they miss. In addition, you can track how the cognitive demand changes over time, and how this can affect consumer memory, preference, and more.

You can read more about NeuroVision here (PDF). A technical report can be found here (PDF).

Innovation for the new normal

If anything, the COVID crisis has shown just how important it is to never stop thinking about improving and expanding what neuromarketing and consumer neuroscience is. If you think that neuromarketing is best done with fixed lab settings and an fMRI scanning session, think again! Neuromarketing and consumer neuroscience is all about understanding, measuring, and affecting consumers' unconscious and conscious responses. When an online panel measure can be built from neuroscience measures and metrics, then it can also be used for this purpose. If an AI tool can be built that accurately predicts certain aspects of consumer behaviors, then it should be used -- it even expands how, when, and where we can use neuroscience solutions.

Taken together, at Neurons, we believe that the current crisis is an important time to not forget how to understand one's customers. Resorting to traditional methods will not provide the insights that one needs in this time of crisis. If anything, now is the time to understand customer emotions, thoughts, and sentiments. Using neuroscience and neuroscience-based method is by far the best approach to do this.

Three steps for safe neuromarketing research during COVID