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Eye Tracking in Market Research

Eye tracking allows the market researcher to identify which items capture someone's interest and attention, understand how customers perceive the environment surrounding an ad or product, and discern what drives their decision to buy or take action. 

It is not a panacea. Attempting to use eye tracking in ways for which it is not well suited is an easy way to get poor results. At the same time, the versatility of the technique has lead to an explosion in eye-tracking research for everything from copy testing to packaging and usability on the web. Let's consider how and where it works -- and where it doesn't.

Where it works best

The researchers at Play MR have found two primary methodologies that produce the best results: in-store eye tracking and on-screen eye tracking.

The former is the most effective overall. It is widely useful for evaluating store navigation, product packaging, and signage, and tests can be done either in a real store or in a packaging lab's realistic shelf set up. The approach itself is simple enough: customers walk around the store (or mock store) wearing lightweight eye-tracking glasses that capture which things draw their attention -- and which things are glossed over.

On-screen eye tracking uses a "virtual" version of the product packaging and shows it on screen, or on a projector screen. It is more flexible -- testers can easily evaluate many different shelves -- and offers lower cost with improved control. Unfortunately, it is still never quite as realistic as a real store, so where possible in-store approaches should be used.

What eye tracking can tell us

As a rule, eye tracking answers three primary questions, relating to visibility, engagement, and viewing patterns.

First, eye tracking makes it possible to tell whether customers even notice a package on a cluttered store shelf, a product display in a large store, or a given link on a cluttered website screen.

Second, market researchers can use eye tracking to discern whether these marketing efforts actually hold customers' attention, or whether they are quickly bypassed as the customer goes to look somewhere else.

Finally, eye tracking can elucidate which elements or marketing messages actually draw the customer's focus, getting seen and read -- versus which messages are usually overlooked.

Ultimately, eye tracking is a way to measure engagement and visibility both on the large scale (whether a package is seen in a store) and on the small scale (whether a message on a package is read). As such, it's most relevant for situations where the marketer is working in terms of space, as with packages on the shelf or ads in a magazine.

In these situations the reader or shopper is in control of the situation. They can spend as much time as they like (or as little) browsing, and can go to check out any time. They can start anywhere they please and view products in whichever order strikes their fancy. Finally, they can (and often do) focus their attention on compelling visuals, without ever noticing branding or engaging with product claims.

Eye tracking misconceptions

In general, eye tracking is less useful in evaluating broadcast media, where the viewing sequence and time frame are clearly defined. For these contexts, eye tracking may be used to answer very specific questions (such as whether viewers noticed a given tagline or logo) but the insight is limited -- communication may also happen via non-visual means, such as the voice-over.

Similarly, the technique should not be expected to tell marketers whether clients like a given packaging design or want to buy the product it contains. The execution which provides the greatest visual impact is not necessarily the execution which generates the most sales at the end of the day.

As such eye tracking should not be used in isolation. It is best combined with other techniques, and in fact one of the most effective ways to use it is for trouble-shooting why a given effort isn't working. Is a given design getting lost in the clutter? Are messages being seen but failing to persuade?

Used in this manner, eye tracking becomes a diagnostic tool -- a way to uncover limitations that are holding your efforts back, and helps provide direction on where to solve them.

Image Source: Flickr