Increasingly, the marketer’s job is more challenging, from marketplace uncertainty, tight budgets, and less staff, to a continued shift in control from the marketer to consumers and retailers. Advertising research is needed more than ever to help win this battle, but only if it can be delivered with the speed needed to influence the decisions to be made.

A general trying to see through the fog of battle will perceive imperfect information that arrives quickly, in time to influence a command decision, to be of much higher value than information that arrives after the battle is over. Looked at from the top down, the quality of information should be defined in terms of its value to decision-making.

These days the CEO of any Silicon-valley start-up will understand the need for “rapid pivoting,” based on customer response, for the growth of a successful new technology company. Recently, one young, action-oriented CEO I know commented in a meeting, “We’re not making mistakes fast enough!” Translation: the organization is not learning anything if they’re not testing limits and trying anything new and different.

But testing limits and trying things that are new and different is only helpful if you get rapid feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and why. The key is how we define “rapid.”

Management Points-of-View

For marketers involved in developing advertising creative, the reason for the importance of rapid research is different depending on your point of view.

The brand manager’s time is constantly getting squeezed between the creative team’s demand for more time to perfect a big idea that will break through the resistance of the marketplace, and senior management’s requirements for research data that supports their budget allocations and fits their schedule of decision deadlines; time is a commodity.

The creative director’s time is squeezed between the need to manage the open-ended processes of creative exploration, and the need for a reality check on concept ideas in order to avoid wasting time by going down blind alleys. The important thing from the creative director’s standpoint is that audience feedback be provided while an idea is “hot”. While the creative team’s juices are flowing, their intuitive sensors are briefly open to new inputs, even rsearch.

The research director’s time is squeezed in accordance with the aphorism that “the perfect is the enemy of good.” A researcher’s natural desire to study a problem thoroughly from every angle and to prove findings conclusively must be balanced against the decision-maker’s need for simplicity, insights, and action-ability.

Above all, an effective research director desires that the research will actually get used in a constructive way—that brand managers and creative directors will engage with the research information and internalize the meaning of it so that it actually affects the decisions that are made. That’s research that makes a difference.

Speeding Up Timelines

In an ideal world, research would have the immediacy and emotional drama and conclusiveness of votes being tallied by television networks reporting live on election night for an American presidential race. But in practice, much of what happens with ad research—both pretesting and tracking—is anti-climactic, like waiting for the votes of the Electoral College, delivered weeks after the real decision has been reached.

The old school model of ad pre-testing is that the research agency would present their findings three to four weeks after the receipt of the ad being tested. And advertising and brand tracking studies might report the in-market results on the launch of a new campaign six to nine months after first airing. Neither of these time frames can be considered “fast.”

Speed_exhibit1

But changes in technology, research methods and best practices are beginning to speed up. Many ad pre-test scores can be delivered within 24 to 72 hours. In-market advertising impact, particularly for TV, can be read after a category purchase cycle, typically two weeks to one month after launch. Of course, depending on issues like sample incidence or the need to probe customized issues, the research can take longer, as shown in Exhibit 1.

Driving Quality Speed

Six key factors appear to be driving not only the speed-up, but also the quality of this advertising research:

1. The rise of mobile as a research platform,

2. Mobile-camera, picture-based evidence of consumer behavior,

3. Non-verbal online diagnostic techniques,

4. Standardized interviews,

5. Simplified ad models shaping research storytelling,

6. Online portal reporting (See Exhibit 2)

Speed_exhibit2

The first factor is the rise of mobile devices such as smart-phones and tablets, as platforms for research data collection. This expands the range of opportunities and physical context for intercepting consumer respondents in their real, day-to-day lives. For example, a TV commercial can now be tested (or tracked in-market) with the “second-screen” mobile device sitting on the lap of your audience while they are in the real-world setting of their living room watching their big screen TV set. This is an improvement over the current online practice of interviewing them when they are watching the test ad on their computer in their home office or at even their workplace.

Second, the fact that every mobile device these days comes equipped with a camera is a potential “game-changer” for advertising researchers. The use of self-reported behavior—either claimed brand purchases in a tracking study or intended future purchases, the basis of pre-test measures of persuasion—is the weak link connecting psychological measures of advertising engagement with behavioral measures of brand purchases. Now it is possible to fundamentally improve the quality of advertising research by including in the mobile interview evidence of actual consumer behavior. You can now, for example, photograph the rapidly changing levels of home inventory of a brand associated with exposure to a TV commercial, either in a test or real-world situation or gather purchase/usage behavior on-the-go, with camera scanning technology.

Third, a variety of non-verbal methods now available can be deployed at high speed for improving the quality of the diagnostic insights you obtain from ad research. Whether it is our own mobile-friendly, highly-validated picture sorting diagnostics (Flow of Attention, Flow of Emotion, Flow of Meaning) or the newer online biometric methods of facial response measurement or eye tracking, backroom systems have been automated for turning this kind of non-verbal data around in one or two days. While the latter two biometric methods, facial response recognition and eye tracking, are not yet available on mobile research platforms, for other kinds of ad research applications these new methods certainly add a new quality dimension to ad measurement.

Next, one “side-effect” of the use of mobile devices for ad research is that it forces researchers to design shorter, more focused interviews. Interviews that are designed for brevity and simplicity will not only drive standardization and automation in the interview process itself, but also places a demand on researchers to have a validated model of how advertising works as a solid foundation for the handful of norm-based measures they can collect.

Finally, speeding up ad research to make it more useful requires changes in how that research gets reported. The current process of turning research into Power Point presentations adds days to the research process. This is particularly frustrating since we know that as information flows up the chain of command, fewer and fewer slides are culled from these lengthy presentations for senior management’s attention. But in this WordPress age of well-designed web pages, the smaller, faster-moving research companies are increasingly turning to user-friendly portals, instead of paper, for speeding up the reporting time for research. A well-designed portal can not only lead a viewer through complex information in a more focused, connect-the-dots kind of way, leading to a good research story, but because of the ability to interact with the data, play video or pull up relevant data from the ad research historical database, a portal can be a much more lively way of presenting the research than a static Power Point slide.

Barriers to Change

In our experience, as much as half the time involved in conducting advertising research gets consumed by client-side processes and delays, and therefore are not under the control of the research agency. These include design conference calls, questionnaire reviews and customization, management approvals and sign-offs, topline reporting, rough draft reviews and rehearsals, and delays caused by agencies failing to deliver stimulus materials on schedule. So, if management is really interested in getting ad (or any) research results faster, they must also be committed to changing processes at their end.

It can be done. Some changes are fairly easy. For example, for “rapid response testing” management might pre-approve or sign-off on the research design, questionnaires, pricing, etc. in advance, say once a year. In that way, rather than treating each ad test as a “project”, management simply has to “pull the trigger” to get quick results on new advertising work.

Other process changes require more of a paradigm-shift in philosophy. High-speed ad research fundamentally changes the role of the researcher. The best historical analogy would be what happened to computer operators and programmers in the Seventies and Eighties when power shifted away from main frame computers in centralized computer centers to distributed computing on desktops and laptops where, for many purposes, users became their own “operators” and “programmers.” This transformation called for the disintermediation of the programmer-as-priest, i.e. the one who controlled access to the power of computers. It’s what truly created the digital world we live in today.

By analogy, the challenge for researchers, both on the client and on the research agency side, is to accept the risk of re-defining their role in the advertising decision-making process away from being the “objective research expert” to joining the creative team, as a facilitator and interpreter of the research data flow.

So, just as the paradigms around media channels have rapidly evolved, so too must our approaches to research. Business today needs effective insights more than ever to aid decision-making, but it must be fast.