Feature Stories

03.01.2018

Eye-Tracking Technology and Marketing

By Ralf van der Lans, Associate Professor, Department of Marketing, HKUST Business School

Visual attention is a scarce resource in a world where we are bombarded with commercials, websites banners, and ads on buses and in the MTR. It is also of critical importance for people trying to drive sales transactions.

To understand which “messages” attract attention or are ignored, marketers have long been interested in measuring the eye movements of consumers. For instance, even a century ago, researchers used photography or sometimes hid behind curtains to observe the eye movements of potential buyers browsing through magazines.

Obviously, such approaches were inefficient and inaccurate, leaving marketers to rely mostly on survey questions and people’s memory to infer visual attention. However, in the last two decades, rapid developments in eye-tracking technology have allowed for unobtrusive and accurate measures of how consumers gather visual information. Consequently, it is now common practice for companies to use this type of technology to visually optimize their websites, ads, packaging and product design.

It might be thought that our eyes smoothly scan what they see to extract information over a wide angle. In fact, the opposite is true. Research shows that our eyes “jump” rapidly from one spot to another every 200-300 milliseconds. During these jumps, more correctly called saccades, we are functionally blind. We only extract information during the short periods that our eyes are relatively stable, which are known as fixations.

Even then, our eyes extract detailed information from only a small area of about two degrees of visual angle - that’s about the size of your thumb when held at arm’s length. Therefore, the study of eye-tracking data involves analysis of fixation coordinates and durations. Given the many data points per minute for each individual, it is possible to generate rich datasets to help determine visual attention.

Interpreting this data lets us answer important questions of interest to manufacturers and retailers. They want to know, for example, which products attract attention at the point of purchase. The extent to which brands stand out from their competitors - brand salience - is a critical factor in generating sales, whether the product is displayed on supermarket shelves or shopping websites and when consumers make decisions in just a few seconds.

Research has shown that sales can double if items quickly grab the attention of consumers by, for instance, being placed on a shelf at eye level rather than near the floor. The use of eye-tracking data makes it easier to understand which products attract attention and why.

To investigate further, we collaborated with a marketing research firm who invited a representative sample of Dutch citizens to take part in lab-based eye-tracking experiments. The participants were asked to shop for specific products on computer-simulated shelves and, during this task, their eye movements were duly recorded.

The subsequent data gave some important insights into the search patterns of typical consumers. Firstly, our eyes often follow a systematic “reading” strategy. This implies that strategically locating products at eye level does attract attention, which confirms the concept of prime locations on shelves. Secondly, the shapes, colors and brightness of packaging designs do play a key role in building brand salience and attracting attention faster.

However, there are also strong differences between individual consumers because we are liable to direct our eyes to specific colors and shapes depending on goals and preferences. For instance, someone with a personal preference for Coke over Pepsi may look “automatically” for red cans or labels rather than for blue ones. Such factors also influence brand salience, meaning that no designs or packaging can always be guaranteed to attract attention.

Another important finding was that people can only actively direct their attention to a limited number of colors or shapes. So, to differentiate products on a shelf or website, brands should associate themselves with only one or a limited number of colors. Of course, it can be difficult to implement such a strategy because it is relatively easy for competitors or copycat designers to come up with something similar. That said, though, the brand salience of the copycat will generally be much weaker than that of a market leader.

What we now know about the eye movements of different individuals at the point of purchase illustrates the importance of advertising. When done well, it not only raises awareness by providing information about products and brands, but also helps to direct attention to a specific brand more effectively.

We illustrated this in another experiment in the behavioral laboratory at HKUST. Students were first shown a number of ads, after which they were asked to shop for certain types of product. The eye-tracking data revealed that products presented in ads attracted attention faster, even though the students didn’t necessarily remember seeing them in the ads. This shows that eye-tracking data is powerful in uncovering the unconscious effects of advertising in ways not possible with traditional survey methods. Moreover, it demonstrates the usefulness of this technology in optimizing advertising and packaging design and deciding how to integrate these elements in a coherent strategy.

Obviously, these findings have implications for marketing, as well as other areas where visual attention is critical. For instance, eye-tracking technology can also help us study how car drivers process traffic signs on busy roads, or how radiologists search for faint nodules in chest radiographs.

So far, eye-tracking data has mostly been collected in laboratories for projects where volunteers agree to take part in closely monitored experiments. However, as the technology becomes cheaper, we can expect it to be incorporated into consumer products like mobile phones, tablets and laptops. Furthermore, eye-tracking devices have recently been installed in advertising billboards to measure their effectiveness. Therefore, we expect increasing volumes of eye-tracking data to be collected in real time, which will also provide many new business opportunities.

References

van der Lans, Ralf, Rik Pieters, Michel Wedel (2008), “Competitive Brand Salience,” Marketing Science, 27 (5), p. 922-931.

van der Lans, Ralf and Michel Wedel (2017), “Eye Movements during Search and Choice,” in Handbook of Marketing Decision Models, 2nd edition, Springer, p. 331-359.