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David Bauer

Activation Partner

The Future is Virtually Here: The potential of VR in market research

The researchers marketers rightly rely on spend much of their time exploring the future in collaboration with consumers and idea creators. From product concepts to environmental experiences to communication ideas, we work to understand how people react to these new creations and how to improve upon them. 

With the advent of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), we now have the ability to send people into worlds where they can experience these new ideas in settings more realistic than ever before. Consumers can then more authentically interact with these ideas, modify them, and explore how they would use them in their own lives.

These technologies will likely have a powerful influence on many aspects of the research field. As a result, marketers and their research teams will be able to share experiences with consumers across time and distance. Consumers will be able to manipulate and build concepts in collaboration with researchers and design teams, ultimately allowing marketers to be more engaged as they observe and interact with their consumers in these virtual experiences.

To understand where these technologies are headed, I interviewed researchers on the client and agency side, held some brainstorming sessions, and looked into VR developments in research and other fields to capture an overview of the potential impact these technologies will have on market research broadly. 

VR will allow participants to experience concepts more viscerally, so they can react and respond in a more authentic way. Consumer research participants could use VR to better explore conceptual locations such as hotels, restaurants, cruise ships, airports or other places to evaluate design, signage, navigation, overall appeal, or other aspects. AR can be used for consumers to virtually “try on” different clothing items before they purchase them. AR apps (now available from IKEA and Amazon) allow shoppers to “see” what a variety of products would look like in their homes. Researchers could use these AR tools today to have consumers better react to products and talk about how they would use them in their homes.  

A few companies have started conducting research studies in VR. System1 Research (formerly known as Brainjuicer) recently conducted a virtual shopping study for Hershey’s. John Kearon, their Founder and CEO explained the project’s effectiveness: “VR captures, with a very high degree of predictability, the likely sales impact of any piece of shopper marketing, including packaging changes. The reasons why something works, or why it decreases sales, is always supposition because we generally shop on auto-pilot and if we're asked to explain our purchasing, we're really just making up a plausible story.” 

I spoke with a number of research experts to explore how they see VR/AR being utilized in research in the coming years. Their ideas cover the areas of concept exploration, ad testing, co-creation, building client empathy, and enhanced presentations.

Some of the researchers I spoke with suggested a variety of creative future applications for VR. Imagine setting up a participant to take a virtual drive through their city, with the instructions to find the best route to their main library. The participant thinks this is a navigation test, but in reality, many other elements could be tested. It could be an advertising study to learn about the effectiveness of virtual billboard or radio advertising. It could evaluate the usefulness of safety signage. It could test the usability of a new car cabin design. It could be used to explore the design of a new library and its parking signage. The options for virtual experiences are only limited by the imagination of the researchers and programmers creating the study.    

Another potential for VR is to take more complex concepts or service experiences that last months and transform them into virtual experiences that can be more easily digested and evaluated. Brett Ross from T-Mobile said, “VR might allow us to take what is typically—in the real world—a two-month research, shopping and onboarding experience and turn that into a virtual experience that can be tested in an hour or two.”

Arun Rajan from John B. Sanfilippo & Son (maker of brands including Fisher Nuts) said, “In the future we might be able to use VR to present our product and sales ideas to retailers and better help them envision it in their stores. This could be much more efficient than building actual test shelf-sets and might better help us to sell our ideas up the management chain.” 

While these changes may seem overwhelming, qualitative researchers already have most of the fundamental skills needed to run VR studies. At the start of an interview, good researchers set the ground rules and help the participant to relax and feel comfortable sharing their stories. VR studies would still require researchers to help guide the experience, fill-in the white space where a virtual concept may not be one-hundred percent clear or complete, and of course, ask all the questions that quallies are already good at asking. 

Amira Youssef of Microsoft sums up the impact of impending changes well: “Some wonder if marketing research could become obsolete. They question the similarity between the research setting and real life. With VR, we are much closer to simulating real life and getting as close as possible to actual behavior.” 

Shaili Bhatt of C+R Research believes that this will also allow for more compelling experiences for marketing clients engaging research firms. She says, “Clients want to be in the moment with participants without interrupting the natural process. VR experiences will allow that to happen.” 

Rather than waiting for VR to come to market research, innovative qualitative researchers, and consumer-driven marketers alike, should be eager to embrace these technologies and how they can be used to conduct more engaging and realistic research.

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