When designing and executing market research, sometimes people feel that the latest fad might be no more than that. Phrases such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence are buzzwords in popular media, but some people have doubts about whether these approaches can deliver cost-effective, actionable market insights today.

In this article, we will provide an overview of virtual reality and its role in consumer and marketing research. You will see that virtual reality is already a well-established and proven methodology. Many respected marketers rely on it today and find that it offers deep insights at a cost-effective price. We’ll show you some examples of how you can use virtual reality in your own consumer and marketing research.


Virtual Reality enables real-world insights faster and cheaper

Virtual reality is exactly as it sounds. It is a way of replicating to a near extent and immersing someone in a realistic environment.

Many of us are used to the technology from its prevalence in science fiction films. However, in fact, it offers concrete benefits in the real world to marketers and other business professionals interested in marketing research. That is because it allows you to simulate a lot of the environments in which you would want to conduct research, without needing to use those environments for real. This offers multiple benefits:

  • Virtual reality allows you to simulate formats such as stores, user experiences, retail pop-ups, bank branches, car dealerships and retail decision points without having to build them. This can be an enormous cost savings since there is no need to physically build out different environments considered for testing.
  • Virtual reality research also has the benefit of speed as you can switch between the simulated realities more or less with the flick of a switch . You can gauge end-user engagement with, and reaction to what you are testing almost as soon as you have come up with it, rather than having to wait while a physical mock-up is built.
  • Since the process is so quick, it is easier to iterate what you share with respondents on the fly. When building physical assets, if you want to reorder the assortment in a shelf mock-up based on respondents’ reaction in early testing, it could take hours or more to make these changes. With virtual reality simulation, you can change as you go. That means that with the less time, you can move further ahead in your research and learning objectives. It helps you to reach for possible solutions during the marketing research, rather than focusing primarily on merely understanding the current blocks to the desired behavior.
  • During consumer research, you can test multiple environments or formats, without incurring the time and cost of moving your team and consumer respondents between various locations in the physical world.
  • Virtual reality research can be conducted in the convenience and relative comfort of a centrally located research facility. This can save time versus moving between disparate research locations, especially if they are in different marketplaces. Using a centrally located research facility cuts time and travel costs, but also makes it more convenient for senior decision-makers to participate in some of the research without having to commit days of their schedule.

Virtual Reality is a proven technology already in mainstream use

So far so good, you may be thinking. These benefits are clear and will be fairly compelling to many potential users who are challenged by the cost and speed of existing market research methods.

However, if you are going to adopt a methodology and champion its use internally, you want to be sure that it is as effective as it claims to be. One recurring doubt many people have about using virtual reality is that it is too futuristic a technology. While it may sound good on paper, there is uncertainty over whether it can deliver those promised benefits today.

Thanks to life-size VR using the latest technology, those concerns are no longer valid. Virtual reality in consumer and marketing research is a mature technology. It has been in development for decades and has been commonly used by many large, marketing savvy firms for a decade or more. Over ten years ago paper manufacturer Kimberly-Clark and Walmart built their own studios specifically to conduct virtual reality marketing research. In the period since then, the technology has seen widespread use from a host of other companies with deep marketing research expertise.

man holding a virtual reality headset up to his face

The tools for Virtual Reality research are not overly technical

Virtual research relies on technology, but that does not mean that it is an overly technical approach. Part of its appeal is that once you set it up, it is intuitive and straightforward.

The essential tools are something through which reality can be simulated for respondents, and their reaction tracked. It typically involves a headset with a screen onto which the virtual environment is projected. It often also includes one or two gloves to capture the respondent’s hand movements. Sometimes a wider bodysuit will also be used, to measure all sorts of motion, for example when the respondent crouches down to examine something in a virtual store environment.

You do not need to invest in this equipment yourself. A fully equipped research facility will have them on hand for you to use only as and when you need them.


Virtual Reality excels in understanding consumer reaction to physical environments

Virtual reality could theoretically be used to test all manner of real-world interactions. However, in practice, it makes more sense for some than it does for others.

Where you want to test a small amount of detailed information, such as ad copy or elements of specific packaging design, virtual reality can give you some data about consumer interaction with the item, but it may not be the most effective way to test it.

Where it’s most useful is in testing out how consumers interact with a physical environment, especially a sizeable one. Examples include:

  • How shoppers navigate a particular category in store. For example, where do they dwell, what products do they spend time looking at, which do they pick up and how many do they look at before putting one in their trolley?
  • How consumers interpret the layout of a particular fixture, such as a makeup counter or in-store pop-up. Virtual reality research in this situation can help you understand their navigation path, their reaction to the overall display look and feel, and how long they spend in different versions.
  • How consumers move through a customer journey, such as a banking center with different product areas and advisers, or an online shopping platform.
  • The role of color, size, positioning, and language in influencing consumer and shopper reaction to specific products or packaging.

Virtual reality offers a wide range of uses when it comes to building environments, without having to go to the effort of creating them in the real world.

Virtual Reality provides helpful data points to aid your creative process

At this point, it will be clear that virtual reality in consumer and marketing research can provide vast amounts of data about how respondents interact with the stimulus with which you present them. Not only are a multitude of data points produced, but they come linked to specific times in the research. So, you can see reactions differing even down to milliseconds in some cases.

However, data will only take you so far. Virtual reality can be a helpful tool for the market research expert, but it is not a replacement. Instead, the data needs to be interpreted. It can point towards possible conclusions about things like packaging design and positioning in-store, but it does not provide definitive answers.

Just as with traditional accompanied shopper methodology, virtual research can be followed by an interview where you ask the respondent to discuss points of interest which have arisen from the data generated by their interaction. So, for example, you can ask them why they picked up a product before placing it down on the shelf again. When they turned right, was that because something caught their eye or an involuntary reflex to a phone message vibrating on the right part of their clothing? Did they stare at a shelf hanger because it interested them or because they could not understand what it said?

One of the advantages of employing virtual reality in consumer and marketing research is how easy and fast it is to iterate changes based on what you observe. So you can use different versions of what you are testing, or change them immediately based on what you learn in a respondent debrief, then get reaction to the evolved version almost immediately.


Virtual Reality research is largely location independent

We saw above that a common approach to running virtual reality research is to host the testing in a suitably equipped research facility.

This has advantages usually, but it is not the only option. As the methodology is technological, the research can often be done online, either via local facilities or in some cases by supplying respondents with plug-in equipment they can use with their computer for the study.

This has several potential applications. First, if your user base is geographically remote and you worry that those who live close to a research facility may not be representative of the user base overall, it allows you to tap into that part of the user base as well. Secondly, you can use this approach when you want to engage respondents who value their time highly or are tied to their office, regardless of how close they may be to a research facility. For example, if you are seeking to get a reaction from highly paid medical professionals who rarely leave their working place, it will be easier and cheaper to engage them if you can cut out a time-consuming journey to and from a research facility. This can also allow your team members the ancillary benefit in some cases of seeing the respondents in their working environment, which can provide additional color to your understanding over what might be available in a sterile research facility.

man wearing a VR headset looking at a grocery shelf showing heat mapping spots

Virtual Reality can be used for a wide range of respondents

Virtual reality can help when you want to expose one respondent to some stimulus. However, it is not limited to a single respondent scenario.

The technology can also be used for virtual focus groups. Linking together multiple respondents each wearing the appropriate virtual reality headsets, gloves and sometimes costumes, you can easily have a focus group, with the standard benefits of interaction and group discussion which go with that methodology. Additionally, whereas a real-life focus group relies on respondents gathering in a single physical location, virtual reality enables a focus group where respondents are in multiple locations. You can also use a virtual moderator or a real one, depending on your preference.

Virtual Reality: Fast, cost-effective insights today

Virtual reality has moved from the pages of science fiction books to the methodological toolkit of the modern consumer and marketing research professional. It offers advantages including speed, cost-effectiveness, and flexibility both in setup and what is presented to respondents. Major consumer good manufacturers, retailers, and other large companies are embracing it as a critical tool already. How could it help your upcoming research agenda?

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