How are we measuring the immeasurable? (Impact Magazine)

When so much of a consumer’s digital behaviour is subconscious and rapidly forgotten, you can’t rely on surveys alone to understand what people do online. Marketing Sciences Unlimited and ICM Unlimited have created an alternative


Digital devices are ingrained in the very fabric of our daily lives.  We’ve all read the headlines about how completely we rely on our devices these days, with those terrifying statistics on how many of us sleep with our phones or check Facebook whilst on the toilet.  In theory, there is a whole wealth of digital information there for the market researcher’s taking, information that would be invaluable to brands.  It’s accessing that data which is the tricky part.

Electronic devices

With behaviour that has become so habitual, pure recall through an online survey cannot give us the full picture.  There is also the problem of accidental misreporting for those groups of the population who aren’t so comfortable with technology.  We even have the thorny issue of whether we want to tell anybody – even an anonymous online survey – about some of our more awkward or embarrassing online activity.  We do still need traditional surveys to understand why people did things and how it made them feel.  But where the usefulness of this technique ends is where the benefits of passive measurement begin.

Don’t just ask, measure


Reflected Life, the new insight tool from ICM Unlimited and Marketing Sciences Unlimited, uses passive metering technology in the form of an app to continually monitor digital activity on a range of devices across a panel of 2,000 UK consumers.  Reflected Life can also be deployed alongside a range other research methods, including bespoke samples.

The app is loaded onto any devices a panel member owns, including PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones, and then runs unobtrusively in the background.  The tool then monitors all activities on those devices – websites visited, apps used, device features utilised – and collates the information to give a complete picture of an individual’s life online.  We then combine this with personal background information and survey results to help brands understand exactly how their customers make decisions online.

Blog, Header, Thumb,reflected life

Social media addicts?


When we compared traditional survey data with data collected through Reflected Life, we found that consumers are pretty good at recalling what websites and apps they have used.  Where the average person falls down is remembering how they used them.

Despite the slightly guilty expression with which most people discuss their social media usage, we actually found that most were over-estimating the length of time spent on these apps.  The reality is that people use social media in much shorter bursts than they claim to, dipping in and out throughout the day rather than staying in one app for a long period of time.

For example, the regular UK Facebook user thinks their average session length is about 17 minutes.  The truth is that it’s closer to three minutes long – we forget about all those furtive checks under the restaurant table or the irresistible glance at every notification that bleeps in.  And despite the strong conviction of the UK public that we use our smartphones primarily during the day and early evening, Reflected Life shows that 14% of YouTube app use happens between midnight and 5am.  That’s a lot of humorous cat clips whilst our partner sleeps!  The stark differences between actual and claimed behaviour clearly have huge implications for how brands market their products online.


Brand case study: A leading high street bank



In order to ensure its digital services were optimised for its target audience, a leading retail bank wanted to better understand each customer’s online journey when taking out a loan.

We combined qualitative interviews with passive measurement techniques to work out which search terms, websites and apps consumers were using to identify the right product for them, and in what order.  By looking at individual loan journeys we were able to see how varying online sources were used together at different stages of the process, and how this varied from person to person.  We discovered that most people start with a basic Google search, followed by checking a credible information source, such as  So far, so predictable.

However, we found that the journey from that point to the lenders’ own site varied depending on the level of previous loan experience, complexity of the application (i.e. credit rating) and the urgency of the loan.  We also worked out that the majority of these journeys took place either very early in the morning or late at night when people were at home and able to sit at their device alone.

What we found is enabling the bank to position itself correctly within the digital world and ensure that its media investment is geared for maximum impact, unhindered by the disparity between actual and claimed behaviour that has dogged market research for so long.

Tesco Bank

Ian Ralph is board director at Marketing Sciences and a pioneer of our newest tool, Reflected Life. This article originally featured in Impact Magazine January 2016 

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Ian Ralph
01962 842211
Article date - 13/01/2016
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