Editor's note: Kieron Mathews is CEO of research firm Kadence International, Boston. Currently president of Boston-based start-up Revvo, Siva Raj was formerly the global insight director at Bausch & Lomb, Rochester, N.Y.

Bausch & Lomb, a Rochester, N.Y., eye care company, had high expectations based on earlier research for a brand new contact lens that was set to launch. To meet these high expectations the firm needed to optimize the detail aids – the brochure-like materials used by sales reps to explain features and benefits to health care professionals (HCPs) – for the new product. However, traditional methods had consistently led to bloated materials in which the most motivating elements of the pitch were lost.

Sometimes called visual aids or sales aids, detail aids are a key tool used by the health care industry to generate product awareness and sales. Detail aid-testing has been a staple of health care market research for years. Typically detail aids are tested through routine IDIs between a researcher and a HCP. The researcher takes the HCP through the sales aid, page by page, for an hour. The researcher and HCP discuss layout, clarity, understanding and other key performance indicators to rate the quality of the brochure being tested.

But many health care companies have begun to recognize that this approach suffers from a number of issues:

• The Q&A format puts the HCP in the role of expert instead of a prospective buyer. HCPs by training are rational animals and therefore tend to overthink and provide much feedback from their cognitive brain. You get fewer insights about the impact the detail aid is having on their buying decision at an emotional level.

• HCPs are very uncomfortable talking about money or admitting knowledge gaps and they strive to maintain professional pride. In a Q&A format they often hide things (like real motivations driving choice or the impact of cost on decision-making) behind a poker face, making it hard to find out what they really think.

• The Q&A format fails to adequately represent the interactive nature of a sales pitch. As such, you test the detail aid in a way that is not replicated in the field and you end up with an aid that may “tell” but not necessarily “sell.”

As a result of these issues, the end product is often a 20-30-page detail aid that has too much explanatory copy, lacks visual impact and fails to tell a compelling story. So when Bausch & Lomb came to Kadence International seeking a novel solution that utilized neuroscience to address these issues we saw an opportunity to build a methodology that harnesses the best of both worlds: the most appropriate/insightful neuroscience technique and innovative Q&A-based research that enabled us to capture the right insights.

Seen an explosion

The desire to incorporate neuroscience with marketing research is certainly not new. The last few years have seen an explosion in the use of neuroscience techniques (see sidebar) – from scanning people’s brains through an fMRI machine while they view TV commercials to attaching electrical sensors to their heads (EEGs), as well as capturing every twitch of their faces via videocameras to recognize emotional change (facial coding).

There are two major forces at work here: the rapidly declining cost and complexity of many of the core technologies involved and a growing recognition that people are often unable to fully verbalize their motivation when reacting to a product or communication. As a result, the number of companies offering neuroscience technology has grown rapidly. And in tandem there has been a growth in claims made for neuroscience technology, without much in the way of real validation or support from the underlying science. This has now led to somewhat of a critical backlash and to questions being raised about the validity and value of these methods in marketing research.

However, the appeal of neuroscience is undoubtedly high.

• It promises to provide much-needed clarity in the often contentious and subjective world of understanding human emotions and motivations.

• It ostensibly allows you to break through the cognitive bias that exists in traditional market research.

• It enables you to quantify elements that have been qualitative thus far.

• It even gets the C-suite interested. In fact, never have we seen as much interest in market research debriefs as when we are presenting results of neuroscience studies.

While some neuroscience technologies are easier to implement than before, they still require (by the standards of traditional market research) special equipment, facilities and trained manpower. So how do you separate fact from fiction when it comes to neuroscience without having to become a neuroscientist yourself? The accompanying chart is a simple guide to neuroscience techniques based on two comprehensive reviews of the approaches and the supporting evidence. The first review was conducted by the Advertising Research Foundation and resulted in a white paper that was published in 2011. The second is a comprehensive review of methods used to measure emotions by two leading psychologists.1

The ability to integrate neuroscience techniques in marketing research programs is highly dependent on ease of implementation. A technique like fMRI, which provides a rich view of the brain, loses out since it requires the respondent to recline on a flatbed scanner while watching commercials and try hard not to pay attention to the noise and inner workings of the fMRI machine. And while dry EEG sensors are widely available today, wet sensors have a much higher signal-noise ratio but are much messier to use (imagine all your respondents leaving with gel in their hair). GSR and heart rate are less intrusive techniques – though GSR is subject to movement artifacts during measurement. Facial coding is a popular technique and while the core idea has been validated, in reality, camera angle, lighting, resolution, facial hair and ethnicity can play major roles in the capturing of accurate data.

Thus, despite the claims made by competing technologies, it was clear to us that no one method actually addresses the full range of factors measured in a typical research study. And further, the notion that, in a world of neuroscience, we no longer need to talk to respondents is ill-informed. The Q&A (either via classic qual or quant) is not dead by any means – it is still an important tool if you wish to understand what a respondent is thinking and feeling.

Innovate in three areas

So while neurometric methods are not the silver bullet to answer all marketing research questions just yet, ignoring the emerging neuroscience movement is not the answer either. To address Bausch & Lomb’s request to meld research with neuroscience, we felt the need to innovate in three areas:

1. Find a way to test the detail aid in its natural habitat.
2. Get the sales team involved in the process so we can build an aid that they will actually use.
3. Utilize neuroscience to break through the HCPs’ tendency to rationalize.

The solution was to bring HCPs to a central-location viewing facility for 45-minute sessions. Each session started with a sales rep pitching a product, using a version of the detail aid, for 15 minutes while being observed by the market research team. Then things switched and the rep observed a 30-minute Q&A debrief of the pitch, conducted by a moderator. All the while, heart rate monitoring and facial coding techniques were used to overlay the observations and Q&A with neuoroscience.
Testing the detail aid in its natural habitat. The detail aid was presented by a real Bausch & Lomb sales rep (not a market researcher), who pitched the product as he/she would normally for 15 minutes. The 15-minute pitching slot was no accident; it is the maximum time a pharmaceutical sales rep has whenever they call on a HCP for a visit. The research technique therefore acknowledges that a detail aid should not be tested under a microscope in isolation but in an environment where it is an extension of a natural HCP-rep interaction.

Sales team involvement. The sales rep used in the research was real, selected from the sales team to help develop the aid. After their 15-minute pitch they were then invited to observe the follow-up Q&A session conducted by a researcher. They got a firsthand view of how their sales pitch was received and then could debate adaptations to the pitch in terms of words, phrases or the overall flow that could then be used in the next interview.

Using neuroscience techniques. Attempting to cut through the poker-face atmosphere that occurs in any seller-buyer exchange, the goal is to measure the reaction of the HCP in real time while they listen and interact with the rep. Real-time measurement allows the backroom staff to identify areas of high emotional impact that can then be focused on in the Q&A debrief session.

Choose the right neuroscience technique

Prior to the study, we realized we had to choose the right neuroscience technique. Because the testing procedure meant the HCP was likely to talk/interact with the sales rep (as would naturally happen) this excluded EEG, fMRI and even galvanic skin response as suitable techniques, as these suffer from movement artifacts which cloud the data whenever the subject speaks or moves.

Heart rate monitoring, on the other hand, was a perfect fit. It was non-invasive, a validated measure of emotional reaction and could be collected and viewed in real time – allowing the moderator to identify emotional moments and probe during the debrief session. Backing this up with facial coding – via a small, table-mounted camcorder – allowed us to cross-reference heart rate with facial expression to validate the direction of emotion (positive or negative) picked up by heart rate monitoring.

Using this method, on arrival at the facility each respondent is fitted with a Bluetooth-enabled heart-rate wrist monitor and taken to the interview room where research assistant sets up a small HD camcorder and syncs this with facial-coding software. The session is observed from behind a one-way mirror and heart rate data is transmitted to an iPad in the viewing room and captured by an app developed by Kadence that allows the backroom audience to view real-time emotional peaks and troughs triggered by the sales pitch.

Kadence’s proprietary algorithms allow the app to pick out emotional highs that are normalized to that respondent’s unique heart rate signature. Over the course of the 15-minute sales pitch a number of peaks can be identified and the time stamp of these peaks is cross-referenced with the facial-coding video feed to identify the specific triggers/content.

Figure 1 shows a comparison of the reaction captured by two prospects – the first person has very low emotional response to the sales pitch, the second person has much higher response. This gives us an emotional map of each sales pitch, quantifying the overall impact of the pitch itself and measuring the number of emotional moments experienced, and identifying the message and visuals that generated each emotional event. Through successive respondent interviews we can identify how to increase the impact of the pitch/detail aid.

What did we learn?

So what did we learn from using neuroscience in this methodology that we wouldn’t have learned from traditional market research? In summary:

Keep it short. The single most consistent finding is that everyone’s engagement declines during the course of a sales call. And by the end of a 15-minute pitch, emotional engagement levels could be up to 20 percent lower than at the start. So if you haven’t got their attention upfront, it’s all downhill from there.

Ask, don’t tell. When do you think people are more engaged – when THEY are talking or when YOU are talking? It’s remarkable how much engagement increases when the salesperson is having a conversation and how much it falls when their presentation turns into a monologue. Thus, you need to equip salespeople with questions they can ask, at every step.

Don’t rely on body language. While research suggests that 80 percent of communication is from body language, our study showed that body language could be misleading. We learned that body language is reflective of personality type – so an extrovert is likely to appear interested in your product and an introvert could appear disinterested whereas their emotional engagement could be exactly the opposite. As a result, you need to set up tangible follow-on actions to assess if your sales call went well.

Assess, modify and develop

The information gleaned from our research allowed Bausch & Lomb to quickly assess, modify and develop a detail aid that not only did justice to the range of products that were being launched but also communicated to the HCP how it would make their lives better. The result was a product launch that was amongst the most successful ever for Bausch & Lomb – a year after launch, demand for the new lens has continued to exceed expectations.

In addition:

• While normal detail aid-development takes a long time, this shortened the process considerably yet allowed a strong detail aid to be built.

• The quantified and objective nature of the feedback gave the team much greater confidence in the chosen path and allowed it to move ahead quickly.

• The approach was highly cost-effective. It was not much more than a standard qual study and is designed to be easy to use in any qualitative setting without the need for extra equipment or adaptation.

• It secured buy-in from sales reps and helped develop a rep-friendly aid that is really easy to train on.

Neuroscience can help

Our experiences are proof that neuroscience can help the marketing research process. Beyond the hype, there are very practical and unique benefits to the technology that can yield deep insight into a person’s motivations. And in the hands of the right practitioner, that could translate into more effective product design and communication and a more efficient sales and marketing process.

There are now a range of methods available but it’s important to pick the right method and to look for approaches that have been scientifically validated, are appropriate for the question at hand and are easy to incorporate into a market research study. In fact, neuroscience actually works best when combined with traditional Q&A techniques. The neuroscience data allows us to accurately uncover moments of deep motivation/emotional impact that can be further probed via Q&A to help interpret the neuroscience results.

Ultimately, blending the new approaches and possibilities of neuroscience with classical and well-executed market research interviewing techniques certainly seems to be the way forward . . .  for now.

1 “Measures of emotion: a review.” Mauss and Robinson. Cognition & Emotion. 2009 February 1; 23(2): 209–237.).