From Fitbits to the Apple Watch to eyeglasses to clothes and even smart jewelry, smart wearable devices are poised to transform the way research is done, giving retailers and brands access to point-in-time consumer data that they'd otherwise be unable to collect (at least without error and intrusion).

This new wave of smart wearable devices is going to allow companies to deliver a previously unseen customer experience.

Here are three ways wearables are transforming market research and what you should keep in mind as this space continues to expand.

1. Jumpstart the journey

The most popular wearables on the market are geared to provide an intense amount of unsolicited quantitative data. Your team can start its research journey much further on in the process, giving you time to focus on the whys behind the behaviors instead of the whats.

For example, smart fitness devices can provide data on daily activities, heart rates, and sleep patterns. Smart watches can report on locational and Web browsing data, and potentially even TV viewing habits.

Collecting this data in a passive manner pays off in a few different ways for both parties.

For the respondent, the experience is seamless and unobtrusive. There are no long surveys to take, no fatigue, and no chance of having a fuzzy memory and incorrectly reporting or misrepresenting their actions.

For the marketer, wearables provide research without "doing" research, which allows you to layer on other enlightening methodologies, including qualitative questions, without it being too much. Beyond that, you can get a total picture of the customer journey that's clear and concise. You can discover where someone was before and after he or sh visited your store or restaurant, as well as how much time was spent in each place. Perhaps even how his or her heart rate changed as the person moved from location to location.

As you start to incorporate wearables into your program, you may want to think about retooling to decrease the emphasis and spend on gathering hard data and focus more on adding qualitative components to the data you already have in hand. You'll be able to get to the "why" faster and cheaper.

2. Fitting wearables into your marketing program

If you're implementing an entirely new strategy based on an entirely new type of data collection tool, practicality must take center stage.

Where do wearables fit into the research portion of your marketing program and how can you get started with them, even if it's a slow roll? There are probably more answers to this question than you can track on a pedometer.

My advice here is to home in on one or two devices by determining exactly what new knowledge you want to gain from your audience, and then matching it with the wearable that provides the best doorway to that information. If you're the Big Thirst sports drink company, you may want to focus on the Fitbit because it can tell you how active the users are and what time of the day they exercise the most. If you're Items Plus retailer, a device with GPS capabilities or that interacts with iBeacons can reveal shopping habits and even allow you to serve up coupons to customers' wrists in real time.

Consider also the demographic for each device type. The NPD Group reports that 36% of fitness tracker owners are 35-54 years old, the slight majority are women and 41% earn more than $100,000 a year. In contrast, 69% of smartwatch owners are 18-34 years old, 71% are men and 48% have incomes below $45,000 a year.

Naturally, the privacy concerns surrounding this type of passive data collection are immense, but many consumers are growing more comfortable with the idea of granting access to some of their data in exchange for a benefit. In this case, the obvious is a free wearable device.

As with other consumer research, a best-practice to allay concerns is to emphasize in the agreement that the data is not personally identifiable, will be used for research only and won't be provided to third parties.

3. The ABCs of getting to the why

Once you've mastered a system to effectively gather the obvious data-points about consumers' actions, think about how to augment that information to get to the underlying reasons why they do what they do.

You can then combine what you know about the customer with what you know about the journey, and feed that back into your marketing program to move confidently on certain service tweaks, ad campaigns, merchandising decisions, product launches, and promotions.

Say you're a local coffee shop that learns through wearable data that your targets get less sleep on Sunday nights due to workweek anxiety, you could capitalize on that by offering a Monday morning special of a discounted espresso and pastry bundle. Or maybe you're a mattress store that knows people sleep poorly in January; you can plan targeted ads and sales around that time.

One of the simplest ways to add a qualitative initiative to a wearables marketing program is to ask the consumer pertinent questions at the end of each day or week, depending on your timeframe. These questions could be asked through any form of SMS, text, or email, per the participant's preference.

Another option is to request stimuli that provide a deeper look into consumers' experiences. This could take the form of anything from a video diary upload to photos posted to an online bulletin board. The optimal approach is to query participants in real time, as that will provide you with top-of-mind feedback. As a researcher, you just have to let the audience and objectives dictate whether real time is necessary and can be done practically and without being a pest. If not, then end-of-day or intermittent Q&As are the way to go.

A Word of Caution

With Apple Watch leading the way as a "hero" device, wearables will see enormous growth this year and have a profound impact on the way marketers conduct research. That said, don't expect them to replace the methodologies in practice today and cure all of your research ills. It should instead be looked at as a means to enhance existing tools and gather much more information about your consumers than you can now.

Also, the odds of misreading data from wearables are high, which is why it's wise to layer the output on top of other data and evaluate it over time. Looking at things such as heart rate and making the leap that participants felt a certain way about something requires expert analysis and an abundance of data-points. Did their heart rate spike when they entered your tire store because of your array of shiny rims or because they were elated to find you had a powerful air conditioner on a scorching day?

You'll only know by asking why.

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Wearables Are a Game-Changer in Market Research

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image of Adam Rossow

Adam Rossow is a partner and head of marketing at iModerate, a consumer insights firm.

LinkedIn: Adam Rossow 

Twitter: @adamrossow