Over the past five years, there’s been an explosion in the availability and use of eye-tracking in consumer research, for applications ranging from packaging and copy testing to web usability. This is clearly a positive development, as more marketers, designers and agencies have come to recognize and benefit from its added-value. However, broader deployment has also inevitably led to misuse and misinterpretation of findings, in some cases, a “backlash” against eye-tracking.
Nearly 40 years ago, PRS pioneered the use of eye-tracking in marketing communications research. Today, we conduct over 800 studies annually utilizing this technology, primarily in the context of packaging and shopper studies. This article shares our perspective on the primary value of eye-tracking and offers several “best practices” for its effective use. In addition, we’ll briefly discuss new applications, which are allowing companies to leverage eye-tracking in different contexts.
To apply eye-tracking effectively, it’s best to start with a fundamental understanding of both its added-value - and its limitations. In other words: What exactly can tracking eye movement tell us? What questions can it help us answer? Across the media we’ve studied, PRS has found that the answer is three-fold, as eye-tracking can document:
These three dimensions provide important direction in terms of when eye-tracking is most likely to be valuable. Because eye-tracking measures visibility and engagement, it is typically most relevant in situations in which the marketer is buying “space” (such as an ad in a magazine – or a package on a shelf) and attempting to capture a viewer’s time and attention. In these media, the shopper or reader is in control:
Conversely, we’ve found that eye-tracking typically offers less added-value in broadcast media (such as television and some forms of digital marketing), which have a clearly defined time-frame and viewing sequence (for example, a 15-second TV spot, with a defined beginning, middle and end). In these contexts, eye-tracking may answer a specific question (i.e. Did viewers ever see the logo and read the tagline?), but this learning may offer limited insight (as communication can also happen verbally, via the voice-over).
Regardless of media or application, it’s also very important to understand the limitations of eye-tracking. As many have correctly pointed out, eye-tracking doesn’t tell us whether someone likes a package or wants to buy the product inside. A hypothetical example would be the proverbial “pink polka dotted” packaging: It would certainly stand out and get visual attention (within the toothpaste aisle, for example), but this increased visibility wouldn’t necessarily convert to more purchases. This reality – that the most visually impactful execution is not necessarily the most effective - is sometimes cited as an argument against using eye-tracking. However, it is more accurate as a reminder that:
In fact, we’ve repeatedly found that the primary value of eye-tracking lies in helping marketers uncover why efforts aren’t working:
A “breakdown” on any single dimension leads to failure, yet each has a very different implication and potential solution. When used properly, eye-tracking is more than an evaluative metric: It is a diagnostic tool, which uncovers limitations - and provides direction to marketers and creatives.
In addition to designing studies and interpreting findings correctly, researchers also need to ensure that they are gathering valid and meaningful data. In the context of studies including eye-tracking, this often involves focusing on what not to do or say:
Many clients have an incoming pre-disposition to show individuals many different versions of packs, ads or shelf sets, in order to see how changes in design will impact visibility and viewing patterns. However, we’ve found that when a person sees multiple variations of the same piece, it alters her behavior: Inevitably, she begins looking to see “what’s changed” – and this negatively impacts the underlying eye-tracking data. Thus, while showing materials within competitive “clutter” (a cluttered shelf, magazine, etc.) is a “best practice” for eye-tracking studies, each person should see only execution of the test brand (i.e. monadic study design).
It’s even more tempting to ask people directly why they looked at some things – and ignored others. And certainly, if consumers are asked these questions, they will provide answers and describe logical explanations for their viewing patterns and behavior.
Unfortunately, these well-intentioned “answers” are likely to be misleading, because we know from experience that visibility is primarily physiological, rather than rational. In other words, humans are “hard-wired” to see a huge green color block of Fructis shampoo - regardless of our perceptions of the brand - because the packaging creates strong contrast with its surroundings. Similarly, within advertisements, web screens or packages, readers’ viewing patterns are dictated by the treatment and layout of elements, rather than readers’ interest in them. Thus, while eye follow-up questioning (on messaging, branding, communication, persuasion, etc.) is a “best practice” for eye-tracking studies, direct questioning on viewing patterns is not recommended.
Any marketing communication study is only as “valid” as the quality of what’s shown to consumers. With eye-tracking studies, having the right stimuli is particularly critical, because a primary objective is often to gauge visibility within a cluttered store, magazine or roadside. Yet many eye-tracking units are designed to track eye movement as people view computer monitors. This makes sense for web-based marketing efforts, since the materials may ultimately be viewed on a monitor. However, it becomes problematic (and misleading) when attempting to gauge the in-store visibility of a packaging or merchandising system – and an 8-foot wide product category or 40-foot aisle is shown on a 20-inch monitor. In fact, our research-on-research suggests that a “best practice” is to show items at 80% or more of life size, in order to accurately document visibility and viewing patterns.
As eye-tracking becomes a core component of validation studies (a set of visibility/attention measures against which new systems will be judged), there’s an understandable desire to gather these metrics earlier in the development process. Marketers and designers now want to incorporate eye-tracking in the screening process, to identify new options that will break through clutter – and gather insights and diagnostics (to guide refinements) prior to quantitative testing.
This is the right thought process, but its’ also important to be aware of the limitations of qualitative base sizes. In our experience, we’ve found that 20-30 eye-tracking interviews can provide insight regarding primary viewing patterns (i.e. readers’ start point and typical path through an advertisement or package) and identify possible concerns (i.e. “Is a key claim getting “lost” in this design?”). However, a study of this small scope is not valid to gauge overall visibility (i.e. What % of people even saw our brand?), which requires quantitative sampling and benefits from comparisons to Normati data? (i.e. What visibility level should we expect in this situation?)
Finally, it is important to distinguish between actual eye-tracking (which records viewing patterns) and other methods (which ask people to click on parts of packs or ads that they claim to have noticed or found compelling). Simply put, the latter approach is not an accurate measurement of visibility, but rather of claimed interest. In addition, because the eye is much faster than the hand and mouse, it does not consistently correlate with actual viewing behavior.
In addition to wider use, the recent revolution has also brought eye-tracking technology into new applications and contexts. Two of the more exciting directions involve the retail environment:
By linking eye-tracking technology with sophisticated virtual store environments, researchers can now leverage eye-tracking while pre-testing new approaches to in-store signage, displays, aisle configuration, category management and product assortment. They can simulate new retail scenarios, show them to shoppers at nearly life-size – without actually producing and placing materials in stores - and document their impact on visibility and purchase: Does a new approach increase a brand’s retail visibility? Are in-aisle displays or signage getting attention? If so, do they convert to additional purchases?
Via a pair of eye-tracking glasses, it’s now possible to create a videotape of each person’s exact viewing patterns in any context. Mobile Eye-Tracking is being used most frequently in store environments, to track shopping patterns and document engagement with displays, signage and packaging. We’ve also found it quite valuable in helping marketers understand what influences the shopper’s in-store journey - and to improve point-of-sale marketing - across different retail environments, such as club stores, convenience and kiosks.
While eye-tracking is not actually a new research tool, its use is growing significantly, as marketers’ recognize the value of seeing the world through consumers’ eyes. However, it measures only a piece of the marketing puzzle – and should be viewed as a “single measure” of success. In fact, eye-tracking’s greatest source of value lies in its diagnostic insights, as a tool for understanding why and guiding enhancements to marketing efforts.
More importantly, as with any research tool, eye-tracking’s validity and value are dependent on how well it is used, in terms of applications, study design, stimuli and analysis. Thus, while researchers should aggressively leverage eye-tracking, they also need to adhere to fundamental principles to ensure meaningful data and insights. By doing so, they will help create more effective marketing efforts that “break through clutter” and help their companies “win” in an increasingly cluttered and competitive world, where consumers’ attention can’t be taken for granted.
Scott Young is the President of Perception Research Services International (www.prsresearch.com), a company that conducts more than 800 packaging and shopper research studies annually to help marketers “win at retail.” Scott can be reached at email@example.com or 201-720-2701.