Let’s be clear about something up front: I am not a market research professional. Do I conduct research? Sure. Have I written a thesis before? Yep. Do I manage relationships with market researchers at AKHIA? Indeed. Do I have the years of analytical training necessary to expertly understand the nuances of consumer segmentation and buying behavior? I surely don’t. But I recently spent a full day with 90 market research professionals from across the country at the 2015 Cleveland AMA Market Research Conference, and it was awesome.

I left the conference feeling invigorated and excited about how advancements in the market research field are changing the way everyday marketers can and will approach marketing challenges. I am already seeing perceptions of the value of research changing firsthand—we are receiving more formal research requests from clients than ever before at AKHIA, and as we see how helpful the outputs tend to be, we are increasingly including research in our recommendations. There’s simply no better way to find answers than to directly and scientifically investigate questions and assumptions.

So, what did I learn, exactly? While a full day is a lot to cover in a blog post, here are my top five takeaways, and why they matter.

#1: “Consumer neuroscience” is a thing. The first speaker at the conference was from University of Akron’s applied research laboratories, where she studied consumer neuroscience and neuromarketing. Having studied psychophysiology and (to a lesser extent) physiological psychology in college, I was pretty geeked. Essentially, academic brain lab science and the consumer marketplace are now intersecting, and researchers are looking at brain function as it relate to marketing stimuli. 

There are a lot of challenges—fMRI costs, overall complexity, lack of expertise and precision, and a need to combat some previously touted bad science—but there’s also a lot of promise. In tests, researchers have been able to find what images in an advertisement drew a negative association, remove them, and see significantly boosted sales as a result.

 #2: We need more informed persona development. While many organizations have started embracing target audience personas, they’re often more complex than we may think. Quantitative segmentation studies and qualitative laddering to understand decision making/what is important to audience members holds great promise for deeper understanding, however. 

Sometimes, brands realize that what they sell isn’t what buyers buy… at least perceptually.  Nike sells shoes and apparel; people look to buy improved performance. Buyers make decisions not only based on actual needs, but aspirations, as well. The more we study consumer behavior and perceived benefits, the better we’ll be able to tailor our offerings. Targeted research can help. 

#3: Questionnaires aren’t nearly as simple as we think. While they aren’t really a great exchange for in-person conversation, questionnaires can be a powerful tool for information gathering… when they are written effectively. We have all taken a questionnaire before, and we have all written something before. This does not make us questionnaire writing experts, however. We may think the surveys we write are simple and clear, but there is tons of room for misunderstanding. 

Consider: “How many cars do you own?” Seems intuitive enough, right? Probably not. What does “own” mean? If you still make payments to the bank, do you own it? What does “you” mean? If your spouse drives it usually, does that count? And what do we mean by “car”? If I drive a pickup truck, does that count? What about an SUV? We don’t always treat questionnaire writing as a professional discipline… but we really should.

#4: The aftershocks of the Great Recession are fading. Research has pointed to women having been especially blindsided by the economic downturn, feeling a loss of power and trust toward companies and brands. These decreases in trust were reflected in decreased loyalty, expressions of “frugality fatigue” and a hunger (and expectation) for deals. Surveys are now showing that these negative effects are fading compared to a few years ago, however, and women are progressively looking to purge the old and connect again with brands. The lasting effects? Women are now taking longer to make purchase decisions, see themselves as more creative with their money management, and perceive companies as better understanding their needs now as they re-form brand attachments.

#5: Virtual reality is no longer just for entertainment. Virtual reality (VR) stimulates emotional and subconscious responses, creating “presence”—basically a feeling of being in a projected scenario even though you know better—within users. While we’ve mostly viewed VR as a form of entertainment, it is being shown as a powerful tool for changing behavior and perception now. Burn patients feel decreased pain in virtual “snowy” environments. Young bank customers become more financially responsible when they see virtual projections of their aged selves. People exposed to scenarios showing coal consumption based on time spent in a hot shower decreased water usage. People cast as superheroes became more helpful in real life. PTSD patients led through recreated traumatic situations learned to deal with their stress successfully.

What does it mean for marketers? There are new possibilities to measure authentic responses when customers make decisions in virtual environments (versus self-reporting what they think they would do) which has repercussions for customer experience modeling, shopper marketing, menu/pricing optimization and even prototyping. The coolest part? The fellow who gave the presentation (a MENSA member, actually) noted that virtual reality gear is now affordable for consumers, and he predicted drastic household adoption increases by next year, if not the end of this year. This increased accessibility means far more research can be conducted affordably, and we will likely see much larger sample sizes and perhaps even vetted consumer panels comprised of people with their own VR equipment.

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I walked away impressed by how much I actually learned from a conference that could have been over my head, and I’m excited by the prospects of what I heard. Besides looking forward to pursuing more market research endeavors here at AKHIA, I’m looking forward to seeing how a lot of these trends pan out in the coming months and years. If you have any insights on these trends, I’d love to discuss!

Lukas Treu is Content Architect at AKHIA. Follow him on Twitter at @LTreu.