Scientists have long tracked eye movement to help us understand how we read and how we perceive and interpret images, as well as the complex relationship between seeing and cognition more generally.

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More recently, sophisticated eye tracking technology has helped us understand how humans interact with intensely visual media like the Web, as I learned some years back when I read this article by Jakob Nielsen in which he describes the well-known "F-shaped" pattern of Web reading (whereby one starts in the upper right-hand corner of a page and then scans across and down, roughly sketching out an "F" with our gaze).

Since that article was written, however, things have changed in the world of eye tracking. Whereas traditional eye tracking machines can cost tens of thousands of dollars, in 2010 a Swedish company called Tobii, which recently made waves by creating a computer interface you can control with your eyes, spun off a company called EyeTrackShop that allows researchers to conduct distributed eye tracking studies using webcams at a fraction of the original cost.

To better understand how this changes the eye tracking research game, I invited Jeff Bander, EyeTrackShop's President—North America, to Marketing Smarts

The War for Attention

Marketers are right to want to measure the impact of the material—ads, websites, landing pages, packaging, etc.—that they put out there. However, they tend to measure what happens at the end of the process. Did the customer click-through? Did they fill out the form and download the white paper? Did they buy?

Before any of those activities can produce a measurable result, though, someone has to actually notice the activity in the first place. Measuring that is where eye tracking can help. 

"In the world we live in today," Jeff told me, "there is a battle going on for attention. Everyone is trying to get your attention. We're being overloaded with information and the first step in attention is, 'Did you see it?'"

By helping marketers "see" what consumers or customers are seeing when reading the email they sent out or the video they posted or the banner ad they paid to place on the page, eye tracking can help marketers measure activity at the beginning of the process. 

Studying the outcome tells you what happened after you got someone's attention. Studying what that someone actually saw or noticed in the first place tells you how many potential outcomes you may have missed and how many more people you could be moving through your visual funnel.

Caveat Tracker

When you first see a heat map (the most common eye tracking study deliverable), it can be very impressive. It's easy to look at one and say, "Wow, so THAT's what people are looking at?!" Jumping to such a conclusion would be a mistake.

A heat map, or it's counterpart the opacity map (which shows what people didn't directly look at), do indeed show you something, but they don't give you the whole picture. In order to interpret a heat map, you have to understand the context in which the eye tracking study was conducted. Were they looking at the page at home or in a lab? Were pages shown in isolation or as part of a comparative series? And, most important, what tasks were the subjects given when shown the page that produced the heat map?

For example, asking someone to find all the words on a page that start with the letter "A" will produce a heat map that is very different from one produced by asking the subject to find all the advertisements or pictures or numbers.

This is one reason that Jeff stressed that eye tracking technology is best used as part of a structured research process ("You have to have a goal," he said) and in conjunction with complementary research methods (Google, for instance, combines eye tracking with "interviews, field studies, and live experiments"). 

A Powerful Tool

When used with the proper methodological rigor, eye tracking can be a powerful analytical tool with many applications, from refining email layout to improving package design and optimizing in-store shelf placement. The potential of this technology really lies in the hands (and imagination) of the person conducting the research.

"We have clients that have done things that we've never thought of," Jeff told me, going on to explain how one client used the technology to improve internal PowerPoint decks, for instance. 

But even beyond the breadth of potential applications, given EyeTrackShop's platform and research model, eye tracking is quickly becoming an affordable option for marketers everywhere.

And as its adoption grows, who knows what eye tracking will allow marketers, designers, and researchers to see?

If you would like to hear my entire conversation with Jeff Bander of EyeTrackShop, you may listen above or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. You can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!