Typically, good advertising has to come in “under the radar” – that is, be persuasive in ways that are subtle – appealing to emotions and deep-rooted psychological motivations. One type of research that attempts to measure these reactions is the communication check.
Communication check research typically takes place when advertisers have reached a fairly specific vision about an upcoming ad campaign. The “check” is used to gain a preliminary look at how the ad will “work” – what messages it will convey and how those messages will be received.
However, respondents are often unable to give accurate reports about their reactions to advertising since the important communications usually take place below the conscious intellectual level, and the kinds of impact good advertising can create are precisely those that respondents don’t want to acknowledge. Given these constraints, how should researchers proceed? Following the 6 steps in the communication check process can help to accurately measure reactions and optimize the campaign.
Step 1: Use Developed Stimuli
Stimuli for advertising communication research should be as fully developed as possible. Although showing the ad at any stage (sketch, storyboard, etc.) works, well-developed executions will deliver the underlying strategy in a way that can come in “under the radar,” just like a real ad.
The more stimuli look and feel like finished advertising, the greater validity in the findings.
Step 2: Design a Method for Deeper Thoughts
In-depth interviews (IDIs) have been the traditional approach since they allow researchers to explore the full sequence of one’s individual thoughts and feelings, without distraction or “contamination” from others. Recently, however, Forbes has employed a rapid exposure image-driven exercise (MindSight®) in a focus group setting to circumvent rational thought and get to deeper motivational content – the “paydirt” of successful advertising communication.
Step 3: Expose Stimuli Just Once
The consumer who is exposed to an ad once will process it in a way that reflects the impact of all elements of the advertising – imagery, tonality, and text that mimics what would exist in a real-world viewing. In contrast, repeat exposure creates a different balance of impact between these elements and changes the path of mental processing.
Step 4: Listen First
It is essential to learn precisely what the mental state of the respondent is after exposure to the advertising. Specific questions from the researcher too soon can be distracting – taking the respondent’s mind off the track it was on after viewing the ad. The best approach is to simply let the respondent start talking. The respondent may talk about the advertising message right away, about a salient image, or something else entirely…but whatever the content, this is the first impact the stimulus had. Step 5: Probe on Perception, Cognition and Emotion
Once an interview moves from unaided to aided probing, it is important to help the respondent accurately reconstruct spontaneous lines of thought. Probes of unaided material should be constructed to “fill out” the three areas where psychology tells us that valid content exists. These areas are:
• Perception – what was seen or heard
• Cognition – ideas triggered by the perception
• Emotion – feeling states triggered by the cognition
Step 6: Round Out the Discussion
It is almost always necessary to conclude an advertising communication check with direct, aided probes in areas where no spontaneous feedback occurred. The recommended approach is to follow the natural processing sequence (perception, cognition, and then emotion) to reconstruct real reactions.
WHEN IN THE REAL WORLD
Although these steps maximize the validity of learnings in a communication check, the real world always comes into play where schedules and budgets act as constraints. Despite this, preserving the essence of the steps (summarized below) is critical to understanding the full impact of an ad campaign.
• Minimize respondent “imagination” work
• Gather unaided responses wherever possible
• Make deeper levels of reaction the primary focus