Posted on Friday 10 May 2013 by Ulster Business
The answers given by those focus groups, while undoubtedly useful, are guaranteed to be subjective and open to influences that may not give an accurate reflection of the person's true responses and reactions.
But that old model could be about to change if technology developed by an innovative Belfast company continues to gain traction among those at the forefront of the branding and advertising industries.
Sensum is a mobile cloud-based emotional response platform designed to improve media effectiveness by capturing small changes in physiological information and transmitting that information to an app that displays on an interactive dashboard.
It is, at a simple level, a form of lie detector test that uses sensors fixed to an audience member's finger and wrist to measure their galvanic response – the changes in the ability of the skin to conduct electricity caused by emotional stimulus.
Measuring these minute fluctuations in sweat levels at a micro voltage level, the Sensum platform wirelessly uploads the readings and lets users see the response to key moments, such as a controversial scene in a film or a product placement, on the cloud based dashboard. Combing the leading-edge emotional response technology and proven research tools, it aims to give clients a deeper engagement with their audiences.
The platform can be used by those looking to ensure their brand resonates with customers; to enhance market research by reporting on the physiology and demographics of user data for focused audience tests; to gain true feedback for TV pilots that help identify a target demographic and programming slot; or even to test various cuts of films before general release to gauge audience reaction.
Sensum is the brainchild of Gawain Morrison and Shane McCourt, co-owners of interactive cross-platform media production company Filmtrip. It was developed from an interactive short film called Unsound that was screened at the SouthbySouthWest festival in Austin, Texas in 2011. While making the horror film – which used the responses of members of the audience wearing sensors to alter elements of the film – they decided there was huge potential to apply the audience testing technology elsewhere.
"The way I look at it is that we are all moving to the age of physiology with more and more applications of mobile and wearable technology and feedback tools," says Gawain, speaking at the company's office in Blick Studios on the Malone Road.
"There's no-one we've shown this to who hasn't got it. People are just not sure yet how to apply it and that's what we're working on. People are only now getting a handle on twitter and integrating it into their strategy, so to see where we're taking audience insight kind of freaks a lot of people out."
Filmtrip has long history of innovation that is ahead of the curve – sometimes too far ahead of the curve for the Northern Ireland market. It was working on QR codes as far back as 2007 and couldn't get the idea to catch on and was also one of first in Northern Ireland to do cultural tourism apps before funding was really being channelled in that direction.
"We've learned from that and gone straight to source this time around. We also have the contacts to do something about it this time, which we maybe didn't when we were a younger company," explains Gawain.
"We realised that only companies that have audience insight teams or use audience insight data would come to the table early for this. We could take Sensum in any number of directions, it could be applied everywhere, but the first users will be that top 10% of media market research companies."
The biggest interest in Sensum to date has been in the market research and broadcast space and Gawain is currently talking to several globally known leaders in the sector.
Part of the attraction is that Sensum's platform can look at advertising and get an audience reaction at the storyboard or concept level of a campaign, which may tell the client it only needs one campaign rather than five to get the desired reaction.
"We're bringing core science to something that has had no matrix," says Gawain. "That is both of huge interest to advertising and marketing agencies, and a threat to the model they have been offering of 'trust us we know what we're talking about'. Clients are asking for it and customers are aware of it, so at some point the agencies might get side-stepped if they don't buy into it."
While the main advertising agencies in the domestic market aren't on to Sensum yet, the company has received strong local support. Backing from the Arts Council's Creative Industries Innovation Fund, Belfast City Council and Invest NI's innovation vouchers helped the firm develop a prototype which it launched earlier this year.
It was shortlisted for the Smart UK Project and recognised as one of the 20 most innovative mobile products in the UK and the product was presented at the Back to the Future 2023 event at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
That created a huge amount of media buzz, gaining the company's technology coverage in New Scientist, Channel 4 and the BBC, among others, and gave Morrison and his team a platform to get a foot in the door of some big players in the advertising space.
Adding credence to its technology is a partnership with Irish firm Shimmer Research, which has given Sensum exclusive use of its real-time Galvanic Skin Response skin sensors – medical grade hardware – in the entertainment space.
"They took a punt on us that they didn't need to, but they realised that if it works for us it would be a win for them too," says Gawain.
He acknowledges there are challenges in bringing something which is disruptive to the status quo into the market, not least the ethical issues around the data that is collected.
A large section of the public was outraged when they realised the pioneering companies in the social media space could offer their services for free because they sold your data.
Gawain elaborates: "With physiological data you have questions around whether it becomes our responsibility to tell someone, for example, that they have an arrhythmia. But at the same time the data is anonymous so you can see the demographic response but can't work out who it is from, not from our system.
"Also UK data protection laws relating to physiology are different in the EU, the US, China. So there are some potential complicated legal and technological clashes, particularly as it is available in the cloud. If you are running a test in one location, you have to meet the data protection laws there."
To limit that exposure Sensum is focusing on the business-to-business market so that a lot is locked down in terms of who has access to data and what they can do with it.
It is currently undertaking beta trials with major clients to see where they want to take it, which Gawain estimates will probably last three to six months. The aim is to establish a pricing model that would not make the cost prohibitive and allow high volume of use, while at the same time maintaining strong turnover. That's important because the cost of the cloud side of the business could be "mammoth" because of the high volume of data usage, he says. But that same cloud technology means Sensum can run anywhere on the planet and be monitored on the app.
"The audience insight guys are already using statistical data from twitter etc and are now looking for those small efficiencies. They are all looking for something mobile because all current testing is being done in the lab, which isn't really replicating how people consume media. We're bringing the lab to the home, the cinema, the bus, wherever the media is being watched," says Gawain.
Two potential competitors to Sensum have emerged from top US university MIT who have ideas to take their companies in the same direction, but who, according to Morrison, don't have the technology yet.
Sensum has raised a first round of finance and is in the process of raising second round from both venture capitalist and government backed funding.
"We've been knocking on a lot of doors over the last 18 months, but momentum is starting to pick up," says Gawain.
"We've got to move fast if we don't want to be overtaken."