In recent years the drive for innovation has led many companies to seek a broader understanding of how consumers view different products, categories and brands as they progress through the shopping process. In addition to primary research designed to better understand market structure and category landscape, companies have increasingly turned to virtual testing solutions to assist in identifying how consumers shop specific categories so they can optimize marketing, product and package variables to better position products in the decision hierarchy. When done correctly, virtual testing can provide critical insights for marketers and category managers on the ’path of the consumer’, and provide a framework for engaging consumers with products, planograms and communications strategies that best meet their needs. It also can help to engage retailers to make proactive decisions on merchandizing and assortment strategies that can lead to improved sales in critical product categories.
Vision Critical has been a pioneer in the development and application of a wide variety of virtual testing technology and applications over the past ten years. But the practice of employing life-like, simulated testing environments for research purposes predates our company’s founding by nearly twenty years, and this discipline will certainly continue to evolve and change in the years to come. The past decade alone has seen significant advancements in visualization technology, user interfaces and, perhaps most importantly, the applications for which virtual technology are employed. From fully immersive virtual shopping environments to recent trends in gamification, researchers are rapidly attempting to make their surveys as visual as possible to enable a more realistic research environment that promises to both engage consumers and provide better quality data.
Despite the increasingly vast array of virtual reality-based research that is occurring, there is surprisingly little existing research on the effectiveness of various virtual testing techniques. Clients routinely ask about the impact of varying virtual testing technology and research methods, and for many research suppliers who offer virtual testing services, the answers to these questions are often-times predictably biased to support the type of virtual testing services they offer. This is precisely why Vision Critical recently conducted comprehensive ’research on research’ that explores a wide array of virtual shopping technologies and research methods. Not to better position our own services for client consideration (Vision Critical regularly utilizes all of the various technology and methods included in the research), but rather to seek empirical evidence on which types of virtual testing techniques are best for specific business issues and research objectives. Quite simply, we wanted to definitively answer many of these same questions ourselves, so that we can be stronger partners with our clients and at the same time contribute to the advancement of this exciting and evolving discipline.
Over the next several months, this blog will trace the evolution of virtual testing and explore both current technology usage and research applications across a wide variety of industry verticals. In addition, we will examine current industry best practices for how virtual technology tools can be leveraged to address market research questions, and identify those methods which generate actionable insights most efficiently. Finally, we will also explore emerging mobile technologies such as augmented reality and discuss ways in which this technology could be integrated with virtual reality to create powerful and targeted research applications.
There is no doubt that virtual technologies will become more and more common in the years to come, with advances making the experience even more immersive with applications to a wider range of situations. But as technology evolves so too must our research skills, and the role of researcher as an arbitrator of this technology in knowing how best to apply it when addressing key business issues. As we will see, the objective of the research should determine the scale of virtual complexity used, and good research doesn’t necessarily need all the bells-and-whistles. In fact, sometimes more basic versions of the same virtual environment can deliver comparable results with less time and financial outlay. In the end, virtual testing is another tool in the insight-gathering toolkit, and its benefits and limitations must be fully understood for effective real-world application. This will be particularly true in the coming years as both visual and virtual engagement with consumers continues to expand in both research applications and industry utilization.