The worldwide conference on qualitative research: May 2018, Valencia

#wwqual conference 2018.png

Being stereotypically English, I dislike hyperbole.

I bristle when I am told something is awesome. I have a deep suspicion of razzmatazz. 

Despite this I can say without hesitation last week’s #WWQual conference was the best research event I have ever been to. I have never got more value from a conference.

It was collegiate. The atmosphere was encouraging, open. There was no competition or one-upmanship. As joint chair Peter Totman said: “a rising tide lifts all boats”. The focus was on training and learning, community and fun.

It was highbrow. Practitioners shared analysis frameworks and techniques in a shared quest to understand people more fully.

It was inspiring. New possibilities fizz and bang in my head. I have several new methodologies prepared and ready to go. We had two packed days but the content was never repetitive. Reflecting on all the presentations & discussion is going to keep me busy for weeks (posts to follow).

It was paradoxical. Attendees were similar (quallie birds of a feather flocking together) and different (they came from 20+ nations and ranged from respected veterans to newbies).

It was more than the sum of its parts. Human understanding doesn’t come easy. It is fragile, ephemeral & dynamic. There is no ‘theory of everything’ which explains human behaviour: you have to give part of yourself to each project. It’s hard to convey, but the sessions built an emergent sense of wonder at what it means to spend your working life studying people and the catharsis of getting it right.

Conversations lingered long after the closing remarks: these were new perspectives, interesting people. Hearing what others had to say, I know it’s wasn’t just me who felt – to paraphrase Lydia Fuller – like they’d found their tribe.


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Event: The Weird and Wonderful World of Behavioural Economics, Anthony Tasgal

Anthony Tasgal.jpgWe all know behavioural economics is a big issue for our industry. What I know after attending Tuesday’s MRS event is that it is also far too complex a topic to cover in an hour’s session. You could have the oratory skills of Barack Obama, the wit of Oscar Wilde and have Kahneman there to field questions, and you’d still only be able to achieve so much.

As a task, it’s like teaching French in a lunchbreak. Not. Going. To. Happen.

Anthony Tasgal was aiming to do the impossible and summarise the lessons of behavioural economics, the industry’s reluctance to accept its lessons and how we can apply it in our daily practice in 60 minutes.  He spoke eloquently: the hour was full of interesting quotes and rhetorical flourishes. Here’s 5 takeaways:

1) The rational is the alibi of desire

Or if you prefer the original French quote from a client at Peugeot “Le rationnel est l’alibi du desir”.

BE has shown that the vast majority of decision making is done on autopilot.

But it doesn’t feel that way to me or you right now. Our lived experience is ours: by definition it is unique and valuable. When you’re taken through the bat and ball test (“A Simple Logic Question That Most Harvard Students Get Wrong”) or an optical illusion where you see what you expect to see or even the trolley cart problem for the first time – it’s jarring. You question yourself.

We don’t think the way we think we think.

The upshot? Absorb, recalibrate and move to solution mode. Don’t spend time re-learning BE’s lessons before every proposal.

2) The industry needs to get over its vested interests

Once you accept the majority of human decision making is autopilot driven you need to act.

Tasgal characterised the industry as suffering from confirmation bias. Change can mean admitting error. It’s easier to ignore. There are lots of vested interests in continuing existing branded methodologies and ask-answer research solutions.

The upshot? The industry is somewhere between stages 2 and 3 of of JS Haldane’s four stages of acceptance:

  1. This is worthless nonsense.
  2. This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view.
  3. This is true, but quite unimportant.
  4. I always said so.”

3) Emotion creates memory

Emotion creates memory. And therefore action.

Even disgust: take a look at this ad for Thai hand sanitizer brand Sanzer. Makes you think differently about touching a pubic telephone.

Ad_Thai hand sanitizer brand Sanzer.jpg

Forget messaging, rational persuasion and information. “What do you really touch?”

BE can liberate you creatively: embrace the instinctive, stop being hemmed in by rational strategies. Or as Tasgal put it “Massage don’t message.” It’s a busy, noisy world, and the noise to signal ratio is increasing daily. Our brains are “ignoring machines” so work with what is going to cut through.

The upshot? We can change behaviour without changing minds.

4) We don’t retrieve, we reweave

Memory is fallible. Remembering is to some extent an act of imagination.

Driving home after the event, I happened upon Professor Coral Dando describing new research showing that social pressures within interviews impact on our ability to recall events in the past. An interviewer’s nod or raised eyebrow can lead to interviewee confabulation.

Add to this our self-esteem: the role of the self is to “integrate stories about ourselves into a coherent narrative”. Facts are less important than how we feel.

A great question Tasgal asked was: Do we need others to see us for ourselves?”

The upshot? For me this is about moving beyond ask-answer research: use intelligent triangulation and measure behaviour. Ethnography. Observation. Biometrics. EEG.

5) GUTs and TOEs are inappropriate

Grand unified theories and theories of everything are a Sisyphean waste of time. The world is too complex.

The upshot? Test, learn and iterate.

Thanks to Anthony for the talk, John at the MRS for organising & Quentin at Joint the Dots for hosting.



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Disclosing a conflict of interest can have strange unintended consequences

Picture the scene. You go to a financial advisor, seeking a mortgage. He tells you he is being paid commission for the product he recommends. What effect would this have on your decision?

New research shows that disclosing a conflict of interest can have counter-intuitive effects. In some cases knowing your advisor is self interested can make people more likely to buy inferior quality products.

What’s going on here?

The study mentions two interpersonal effects which are new to me. It’s to do with interpersonal dynamics:  

“The first mechanism behind such increased compliance is what we call insinuation anxiety; advice recipients experience greater discomfort turning down advisors’ recommendations when a conflict has been disclosed because they fear the rejection will signal the belief that the conflict of interest has corrupted the advisor. We call the second mechanism the panhandler effect… advice recipients may feel increased pressure to help an advisor satisfy his or her personal interests once these interests become common knowledge.”

Other research cited by Dilip Soman in his book The Last Mile shows conflict of interest disclosures can enhance trust and signal the advisor’s credibility.

Again, counter intuitive.

It’s to do with anticipated regret affecting a decision where people have limited knowledge. People want to trust their advisor when they are out of their depth.

It’s to do with how we make decisions. We assume the more information the better when it comes to decision making. Soman concludes this is wrong. People have poor judgement when it comes to deciding what information is relevant, incorporating as much they can into their decision making. Complexity can have opposite intended effect.

The upshot of the research was that “disclosure does not live up to protective promise”. In practice “clients tend to use the information inappropriately and in counter intuitive ways”.

A red flag for mandatory disclosure rules

If acts of disclosure can reduce consumer welfare, then governments have to be careful about legislating to force it to happen.

If you’re interested in unintended consequences, look no further than California.

Proposition 65 warnings in California

Proposition 65 warning signs in California: Starbucks & The Disneyland Resort.

Proposition 65 legislation means organisations must put warning signs on any product which may contain chemicals which are linked to cancer or birth defects. You may have seen news reports this month revealing that coffee contains acrylamide, a possible carcinogen. Drinking coffee may add just 0.001% to your lifetime risk of cancer, but the state decree means the public should be informed using warning signs. In this and other cases, organisations post warning signs as a precaution to protect themselves from being sued. There are no penalties for posting unnecessary signs.

Unintended consequences abound

The signs act like a hall of mirrors, making it impossible to discriminate signal from noise. The result: inertia.

If coffee causes cancer, if Disneyland causes cancer, then everything causes cancer and nothing causes cancer.

Soman’s learnings:

  • Pay attention to the overall ecosystem. Your nudge – added to those of others – may end up more like a shove. If you’re not careful it may leave a bruise.
  • Focus on simplicity! Strike a balance between:
    • Information load;
    • Comprehensibility of formatting;
    • Familiarity with concepts and ideas.


The Last Mile, Dilip Soman

The Limits of Transparency: Pitfalls and Potential of Disclosing Conflicts of Interest -by George Loewenstein, Daylian M. Cain, and Sunita Sah. American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings 2011, 101:3, 423–428




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Book review: The Last Mile by Dilip Soman

Ever had two behavioural science books on the go at the same time? I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s like listening to two CDs simultaneously. Guaranteed to twist your melon.

I first picked up The Last Mile to prepare for a workshop. I wanted practical advice on behavioural intervention designs to look clever in front of my peers. I managed the first third before the event. The book bridges a gap between the academic and the applied worlds. The author is a Professor at the University of Toronto’s Management School, and the content feels like a polished version of his lecture notes. You know what? It’s pretty dry in parts, and on occasion repetitive.

But when I found out I was speaking at an event with the author of The Choice Factory, I read the book as a priority. It is fantastic: Shotton has done the hard thinking, and makes the implications of behavioural science crystal clear for practitioners.

Side by side, the two books feel very different. To give you a crap analogy, Shotton’s book is like Nirvana’s Nevermind: catchy tunes, beautifully produced and full of cross-over hits. Anyone can get into it. Soman’s is more like Nirvana’s Incesticide: pure, rewarding after repeat exposure but one for committed fans only.

What is the last mile?

Soman defines the last mile as the point consumers make a choice. It is a book about tactics, not strategy:

“Most organizations spend much of their effort on the start of the value creation process: namely, creating a strategy, developing new products or services, and analysing the market. They pay a lot less attention to the end: the crucial “last mile” where consumers come to their website, store, or sales representatives and make a choice”

He is concerned with the messy part of enacting strategy, checking it works, making remedies when theory doesn’t translate to practice:

“Everything matters at the last mile. When people make a choice, they are influenced not only by in the information you provide, the merits of your product, the demerits of your competitors product, but also by the context and their emotional state at the time… how your products are displayed, the manner in which information is presented… a multiplicity of things”

Designing & evaluating behavioural interventions 

His typology for experimental design (p131) is worth the cover price alone. He describes a trade-off between the amount of control you have in an experiment and its realism. Thinking about where your previous projects fit on the scale is a useful exercise.


He also offers us a great framework for designing and analysing nudge interventions using mindful vs. mindless and boosting self-control vs. activating a desired behaviour as the axes. A ‘taxonomy of nudges’ – lovely stuff:

IMG_7252.JPGThis academic perspective is useful. He contrasts the pure sciences (‘deterministic’, able to make predictions with certainty) with the behavioural sciences (‘stochastic’ – probabilistic, able to make general predictions about what a large group of people will do over time).

“Even the hard sciences such as physics have failed to articulate a theory of everything… Given the inherent stochasticity of human behaviour, a comprehensive theory of decision making seems… impossible… When you’re in a store, absolutely everything around you could influence what you buy: the display, the price presentation… the presence of crowds… What’s more, these factors could interact with each other… Theory can show us the way but without testing… we risk failure because of something in the background context that trips up the effectiveness of our intervention.”  

He concludes by proposing a new mindset for companies, that of an “experimental organisation.” Their goal should be to undertake controlled trials to develop and optimise behavioural interventions. Or “a culture of empiricism” if you prefer his wording.

What else? Concepts like consumption vocabularies, transaction decoupling and distributed decisions are all invaluable. His material on the unintended consequences of disclosures deserves a post of its own.

But that’s for later. I’m off to dig out my old Nirvana albums.

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WARC Event – Behavioural Economics: Research, Purchase Journeys, Shopper Marketing and Choice


I was honoured to take part in WARC’s Behavioural Economics symposium on Wednesday. I presented The shopper moment of truth – Trinity McQueen’s MRS Award winning paper with our client Steve Lomax from Weetabix.

The connecting theme for the talks was applying the learnings from behavioural economics to real life practice. It’s all very well to have read Nudge and Predictably Irrational… the hard bit is figuring out what to do next. This is what drew the 200 attendees to a standing room only event at Deloitte’s London HQ.

Dr Ali Goode (Cognitive Scientist, Gorilla In The Room) explored the how virtual reality can be applied to large scale quantitative research applications, recreating immersive reality at scale. His background as a cognitive scientist offered an authoritative anchor to proceedings. Key quote: “The brain exists to predict what happens next”

Richard Bradford (Journey Design Partner, Wavemaker) focussed on the power of defaults. He described the strategy behind Stoptober: leveraging immediacy and social proof to get people to stop smoking together is more effective than educating them about health dangers. He also offered fresh perspective on the default option being perhaps the most powerful commercial lever: Duracell AA batteries (97 years of brand heritage) are no longer market leaders – Amazon basics batteries are now the default choice. Once you control the pathway you control what is bought. Subscription services like dollar shave club are leveraging what he called “system zero” – the “no choice” choice. Key quote: “What’s the least amount of thought required to buy this?”

Richard Shotton (Deputy Head of Evidence, Manning Gottlieb OMD) introduced us to some of the themes in his book The Choice Factory. It’s a fantastic read: Shotton has done the hard thinking, and makes the implications of behavioural science crystal clear for practitioners. I’ll write a more extensive post to explore his book in detail. Suffice it to say I wish it I had it to hand 5 years ago. If anything, I took most inspiration from his initiative. Unsure if a heuristic applies to your client category or if a nudge could be applied? Arrange a simple controlled test. His book has at least 5 practical methods all researchers can apply at virtually zero marginal cost. Key quote: “Behavioural Economics is a catalogue of persuasive communication. If you’re not applying it as an agency you’re not doing your job properly.”

That just left Steve Lomax (Shopper Insight Manager, Weetabix) and myself to make the case for market research, specifically how creative research design can expose the system one drivers of behaviour. In our case, applying BE theory to the cereal aisle led to real commercial outcomes: record market share for the Weetabix brand. The full case study can be found here.

Thanks to Imaad and the team at WARC for organising such a well run event.


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Mindjam: a creative sprint for the British Red Cross

Last Friday a disparate team of researchers, behavioural science practitioners, psychologists and design thinkers came together in a creative sprint to help the charity improve the performance of its crisis response campaigns. As organiser Luke Battye put it, the day was intended to: “Fill a room with brilliant minds, give them a fast, one-day problem solving process and try to make a dent on a high impact issue for a charity.”

My motivation to attend was twofold: as well as wanting to help with a worthy cause, I was curious to see how the event would work. Co-creation even with a small group can feel like herding cats: bringing 40 wildly different people together to attack such a big goal was going to take something special.

The team composition was vital: there were 8 teams of 5, each working on a related problem. Each had a couple of UX/design thinking people and a couple of BE/psychology people. They were led by a representative from the charity who steered things towards realistic solutions – in case of deadlock they were the nominated ‘decider’.

Mindjam pic courtesy of Luke Battye & Laura Boardman - day flowed: we had clear tasks, strict timing and strong moderation. It’s a hard balance to get right but Luke kept things focussed and welcoming. Let’s face it, the whole thing could easily have wilted and not reached any conclusions. But the day generated 200 solutions which were then whittled down to 8 thought-through prototypes (see below).

#Mindjam pic courtesy of Luke Battye & Laura Boardman -

Solutions covered real world and online interventions, all of which leveraged behavioural insight. The visual summary gives you an idea: each took 10 minutes to present, so there was a lot more detail included.

Feedback from the client team at British Red Cross was great. As well as workable prototypes there was a sense of re-found perspective. The “curse of knowledge” – being so close to an issue – was lifted and the team were left enthused, ready to re-evaluate intractable problems.

Luke has produced a great write up of the event here. Kudos to him for organising.

Mindjam pic courtesy of Luke Battye

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The top 10 podcasts for researchers

The top 10 podcasts for researchersPodcasts are great.

They give me in-depth exposure to topics I wouldn’t ordinarily come into contact with, and help me to empathise with people I’d not otherwise meet. They push me out of my comfort zone.

On the commute they help me decompress a little before I get home. Audio is a medium which invites you in. In comparison TV is, well, a bit shouty.

I was prompted by a new starter to compile my top 10 podcasts for researchers. I’ve put them into 5 categories: behavioural science, business & advertising; interviews and analysis; inspiration; MR & media.

Behavioural science

Freakonomics. OK, it’s meant to be about economics, but in reality this is a hugely varied programme which starts with some data and a counter-intuitive question. The way they frame a problem and isolate the true drivers of behaviour is great food for thought for a researcher. It is not willfully contrarian but their findings are often counter intuitive. My favourites covered the gender pay gap and how medicine has developed from eminence to evidence. Indeed the latter on has some wicked experimental designs including sham procedures to isolate placebo effects.

O Behave. Ogilvy Change interview experts and authors around behaviour change. The audio quality is often poor (invest in some mics guys) but the content is pretty good. Episode 9 (Matt Watkinson talking about his new book) and 11 (Rory Sutherland Interviewing himself instead of Author Richard Shotton) were memorable.

Business & advertising

Ogilvy On. It’s new, and is wide in scope. The last one I listened to was on the future of work – covering social capital, automation (“4th industrial revolution”) how we’ll spend our time if a Universal Basic Income is introduced. Polymath brainstretcher Yuval Noah Hariri is interviewed in episode 11.

The Bottom Line. More than once I’ve been scratching my head on a brief, and Evan Davis has come to the rescue with an intelligent overview in his programme archive. The breadth is admirable: negotiation, the future of the car, casual dining restaurants, the business models of department stores, pricing even.

Interviews & analysis

Farnam Street’s Podcast: The Knowledge Project. Founded by Shane Parish, Farnam St’s goal is “master the best of what other people have already figured out.” In other words Shane will read a book, reflect, contextualise and summarise. I enjoy the blog, the podcast is more mixed. The production quality left a lot to be desired at the start. That said, the calibre of interviewees is great – try his interview with self-made billionaire Ray Dalio covering his shall we say idiosyncratic working style; or most recently tips on negotiation with Chris Voss, former FBI kidnapping negotiator entertained and informed.

Talking Politics. Right, this one is tangential, but indulge me. Anyone on a mission to explore, analyse, understand and explain the world can all learn from it. Boil it down and you have intellectual figureheads tasked with explaining the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times we are living in. I feel their pain. Models and past experience seem to count for less than an understanding of the lived experience of the non-metropolitan majority. The nuance of the arguments David Runciman and his contributors convey is masterful. I also love the way they contextualise contemporary political dilemmas, drawing historical parallels and international equivalencies. But if you’re not interested in the subject matter you’ll probably be left cold.


Future proofing. Leo Johnson and Timandra Harkness examine possible futures, holding up a mirror to the here-and-now. Cities, wealth, intimacy – their scope is broad. It’s reflective and story-led, paradoxically this makes it relaxing and thought-provoking.

A point of view.  It’s a cultural primer, a weekly reflection on a topical issue. John Grey’s astonishing the revolution of capitalism is a great place to start: “For increasing numbers of people, he says, a middle class existence is no longer even an aspiration.”

MR & media

Newsworks – the industry body who promote newspaper advertsing – have done a recent series on renowned media thinker / provocateur / irritant Marshal McLuhan. It is enjoyably ‘out there’.

Perspectives. Tech vendor VoxPopMe have curated this series with some heavyweight contributors from across MR. My first stop was Siamack Salari from EthOS on the risks and rewards of adopting tech in research.





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Researching UX: User Research – book review written for the AQR’s In Brief magazine, January 2018

Researching UX_User Research

This book is a pick-me-up: fresh, engaging and helpful. I opened it up after a long day in the office and found myself immediately taking notes, making myself late for dinner in the process.

Its aim is to demystify design research, signposting the reader step by step through project design, setup, fieldwork, analysis and impact. With 30 years combined experience Lang and Howell are well placed to write the book on UX.  As you’d expect from authors who spend much of their time advocating on behalf of the user the prose is scannable, with subheadings and diagrams to help you along the way. Yet nothing feels dumbed down, just concise, considered.

Lang and Howell are encouraging too: the tone is collaborative. Research for them is about making the world better. The authors acknowledge upfront that if “you are unsure – read on” and that “research is a team sport”. Other credos like “successful research is about driving design decisions through engagement, not delivering documents” and “analysis starts at the beginning” are good practice for us all. In fact I found little to disagree with, other than their unbounded zeal for the transformative power of the post-it note in the analysis process (flipcharts rule, OK?).

Having commissioned UX as a client and undertaken it as an agent, I wasn’t expecting to learn so much or find so many useful tools, models and techniques I can add to my daily practice. The sections on validity and sample design in chapter 2 are elegantly worded and useful reminder for your next proposal; you can use the exercise in chapter 8 to break your analysis deadlocks; you could even use the reporting templates in chapter 9 in the deck you are writing this moment.

Indeed, whilst young researchers at the outset of their career or those who haven’t been anywhere near UX before undoubtedly have the most to gain, the learnings are so valuable that every quallie would benefit from reading it. If anything the title undersells the book.

My overriding impression is a deep sense of shared expertise. Lang and Howell have contributed to the river of qualitative knowledge in a meaningful way. I can think of no higher compliment.


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Technology, trust and market research: opinion piece written for IMPACT magazine, January 2018


Taken from “Trust in us: can relationships between businesses and individuals be improved by new technology?” – a special report in the January 2018 edition of IMPACT magazine.


Predicting the future is a fool’s errand. More fail than succeed.

The trap we fall into is extrapolating present trends, meaning we are blindsided by the revolutionary. As Mark Earls said at conference this year “There is a natural human tendency to ‘impose linearity’ when thinking about cause and effect – A leads to B.” The reality is more complex.

Think about it. The app industry is less than 10 years old. In 2017 it is an industry worth $77 billion servicing a market of 2.3 billion smartphone users, employing over 12 million people.

No-one would have been able to predict this in 2007, and for good reason. The metaphors and analogies at our disposal at the time were blunt tools, unable to carve out a vision of this future.

Or to put it another way, you can’t paint the future with the colours of the past.

So, if you are asked in 2017 to make predictions for 2027 you would be wise to explore a range of imagined futures.

  • As an industry, the landmarks by which we get our bearings are changing. AI, machine learning & big data will push us professionally. But the brain is the best algorithm. It will be for years to come.


  • The great Bitcoin experiment may fail, but that’s beside the point. The proof of concept for blockchain technologies is a pull-and-push on the status quo. Its emergence could involve many unintended consequences. As Adam Greenfield points out in his book Radical Technologies such technologies of distributed consensus may eliminate the need for an intermediary in transactions of value; smart contracts may eliminate the need for authorities to enforce agreements; and the reduced cost of enacting binding agreements mean they can be deployed in new contexts. We may soon be living in a world where your car key stops working if don’t keep up your repayments.


  • And we forget the human in this equation – with all of our limitations, fickleness and fallibility – at our peril. Look backwards again. In 2007 Bebo was the teen’s social network of choice; in 2017 the teens I researched only talked about Instagram. Facebook occupied the middle years. You’d be brave to bet against them but our platform monopolists may ebb as well as flow. Envisage a world where Facebook’s growth ambitions are limited not by a data breach or scandal, but by the fact that teens see it as something “for old people – like mum or dad…”


New technologies will challenge our ethical boundaries. Whether we’re clients, agencies or consultants our perspective needs to be clear. Ultimately this is not about individual technologies, platforms or daily commentary of whom and what.

This is about our values. What do our organisations stand for? What principles do we abide by? How do we want to be treated as individuals? How does that carry over to our participants, customers and partners? The only prediction I make is that our integrity will be challenged on a regular basis on the road to 2027. To stand a chance of making the right decisions each and every time, our people need to know what our values are – and what they are empowered to do.  

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Neuroscience and market research: which methods are best?

In the most recent IMJR Jane Leighton from Neilsen describes a 2016 study which for the first time evaluates the respective merits of neuro tools.

imjr_which-neuroscience-methods-are-best-for-market-research.pngIn a sentence:

  • EEG has the best predictive validity;
  • Facial coding isn’t worth bothering with;
  • Like traditional methods, triangulation increases explanatory power.

For anyone who has used Eyetracking, GSR, EEG or Facial Coding this is intuitive.

EEG tends to be applied by trained specialists in a lab setting and a controlled environment. The data tends not to be interpreted by non-specialists.

Facial coding – even if you accept the “science” of micro expressions (I do not) – is often applied via webcam in home. The ultimate uncontrolled setting. The data is often interpreted by generalists.

The 2016 study is a comprehensive controlled test, testing 60 ads in 20 product categories, with over 900+ neuro participants and 22,000+ survey respondents. Their dependent variable – sales outcome – is not fully elucidated. I’m assuming this relates to an uplift in purchase intent following exposure.

My view? Adding neuro methods is about intelligent triangulation:

  • In advertising pre-testing EEG has predictive validity. Long-term memory encoding is the most effective dependent variable;
  • In retail, applied in a ‘blind’ shopping trip eyetracking adds most value in understanding real shopping behaviour and evaluating the impact of instore influences;
  • I wouldn’t bother with any of the other methods.


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