In the digital era, finding data about consumer behavior is as easy as picking up a stone from the ground. Our first instinct is to build a mountain of the stuff: We want a better view of our customer's preferences, behaviors, and experiences, so we dedicate ourselves to piling our data troves ever higher.

We circulate surveys, map workflows, note behavior patterns, and track customer activity across every storefront, call center, e-commerce site, and social media platform. Then, standing atop our hoard, we can even apply AI and deep-learning technologies to micro-segment our customers, predict trends, and ensure that our campaign efforts keep up with ever-changing consumer interests.

That sky-high view empowers us to see a larger informational landscape, but it leaves us blind to the tectonic force that shapes it: consumer feelings.

Brand interactions aren't exactly known for having a reputation as emotional powerhouses; after all, it's not all that often you see someone tearing up over a toothpaste logo or laughing out loud over a TV ad. However, years of research into behavioral economics have demonstrated that although the feelings that drive customer choices are often overlooked, they are always present.

As consumer behavior researchers Alan Zorfas and Daniel Leemon point out in an article for the Harvard Business Review, "The most effective way to maximize customer value is to move beyond mere customer satisfaction and connect with customers at an emotional level—tapping into their fundamental motivations and fulfilling their deep, often unspoken emotional needs."

With the right research, a marketer can—and, according to Zorfas and Leemon, should—understand what customers want to feel, then create a message that helps foster that feeling. Doing so will empower marketers to orient brands in a way that will appeal not only to a consumer's practical needs but also to their "emotional motivators."

These motivators can take a variety of forms: One might be a wish to stand out from the crowd, while others could be to gain greater confidence or protect the environment. Once a company understands these motivating feelings, they can then orient their brand messaging in a way that helps consumers achieve their emotional wants by engaging with a given brand.

Turning a greater focus on building more emotional connections through marketing can be lucrative, as well. According to Zorfas and Leemon, one major retailer who adopted the strategy saw considerable gains, including a 15% increase in active customers and an over 50% hike in the rate of same-store sales growth.

However, leveraging this approach to grow brands hinges on whether marketers can adequately gauge their target audience's emotional engagement.

Assessing Emotional Engagement: Challenges and Strategies

Unfortunately, marketers' insights into the emotional forces that drive a consumer's decision to buy are often hazy and incomplete. To quote business researchers Emma Macdonald and Hugh Wilson, "Marketers have long sought a research method that can capture customer reactions immediately, does not intrude into those reactions, minimizes bias, and can affordably be applied to customers in relatively large numbers." Usually, however, analysts never achieve all four goals with any given strategy.

Alternatively, analysts could rely on data from costly ethnographic studies, wherein researchers gather reactions in real-time by shadowing consumers as they shop or go about their day. That approach also has flaws: It's expensive, and consumers may be unconsciously driven to provide biased results to please a shadowing researcher.

It's undeniably difficult to accurately and cost-effectively measure consumers' real-time reactions—but it is possible. In recent years, marketers have begun to apply real-time experience tracking (RET) to their research efforts.

The RET approach uses technology to meld the real-time value of ethnographic studies with the larger reach of quantitative surveys. With RET, marketers effectively ask participants to take a micro-survey on their mobile phones every time they encounter a set of brands, such as airlines or retail banks, throughout a week. These interactions can take a variety of forms: seeing an advertisement, for example, making a purchase, or even talking about the brand with another person.

After an encounter, the participant immediately updates his or her "experience diary" either via SMS or through a link, to tell researchers about the interaction. This approach captures key details, including the brand and the touchpoint, as well as how the experience made them feel and how persuasive it was. The diary also captures follow-up details and qualitative pieces of information, even pictures, allowing for a more granular look at touchpoints. For example, a RET study might break down social media experiences into individual platforms as well as the category of interaction, differentiating a friend's post from a news story or brand-centered ad, and so on.

The emotional element of RET empowers marketers to develop a greater understanding both of the context consumers are receiving brand messages within and of the ways companies can better align their marketing efforts to appeal to customers' needs and interests. A nuanced understanding benefits everyone.

RET provides a sustainable and balanced research ecosystem: Marketers can more effectively communicate how a brand's products can support consumers in the way they desire, thereby maximizing the impact of their marketing dollars and turbocharging campaigns; consumers, meanwhile, can help shape marketing outreach in a way that allows for more positive consumer-brand engagements.

A Case Study

In late 2011, my employer deployed a RET campaign with a view to optimize Gatorade's marketing campaigns in Mexico. The research project was designed specifically to determine whether the brand's decision to reposition a new line of Gatorade products within more experiential, sports-centered touchpoints (i.e, in gyms or sponsorship at arenas) was effective. These touchpoints were especially tricky to pick up via traditional research, which is why they used RET.

The results revealed that they were effective: RET showed that when people encountered sports sponsorship or activity in-situ at gyms, their brand experiences were much more emotionally engaging than more traditional touchpoints. These touchpoints drove associations of the product with Gatorade's new focus on sports, nutrition, and superior athletic achievement. As a result, people were more likely to consider the product during their own workouts and feel a sense of athletic success or belonging. This knowledge empowered Gatorade to transfer more of its media spend from TV ads to experiential touchpoints—ahead of the strong, current experiential curve that many others have since followed!

By using a RET approach and capturing consumers' emotional responses, Gatorade was able to better understand not only how customers were engaging with their product but also which of these experiences were most powerful. The brand connected with its customer base on a deeper, more human level with the consumers' experiences at the heart of it—and was thus better able to engage them with future activity and make the most of its marketing spend.

* * *

Emotion is the secret sauce that can add a deeper dimension to the mountains of data that we collect. With this valuable, human-centric element, marketers can make confident, strategic decisions on how they can spend their money to see profound results.

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Consumer Feelings: The Next Frontier in Market Research

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image of Catherine Rickwood

Catherine Rickwood is North American VP of MESH Experience, a marketing consulting firm that specializes in helping brands understand how consumer experiences can inform and improve their marketing strategies.

LinkedIn: Catherine Rickwood