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Eye Tracking Shows the Ugly Truth

On Tuesday I wrote about my trip to the WPP Digital Stream conference in early October. One of the most interesting discussions came from an agency and client that will remain nameless. The subject of their discussion was eye tracking software, and how it showed them exactly how little their target consumers looked at the special offers that were presented on the home page of the site. It’s a great reminder of just how difficult it is to get meaningful marketing right.

For those who have not been exposed to the technology, eye tracking is a system that allows you to track what people look at when they come to a website. A special monitor tracks the movement of the research subject’s pupil, and software records the results. Two of the most popular outcomes are a “heat map” style report, like that shown above, and an “order of viewing” report that shows where people looked from first to last. The machines are expensive, but are coming down in price and rising in importance.

The subject of the discussion at Stream was that of a financial services company that had trouble getting its online customers to click on offers for additional services. The agency had just refreshed the home page by making the ad/offer space more prominent. And it created a system that would serve relevant ads to individual customers. For example, a person with a high credit card balance would see an offer for an outstanding interest rate.

Seems smart, right? Even meaningful, perhaps? Unfortunately, the results were horrible. It seemed like customers were not even seeing the great offer staring them in the face in the center of the page. Well, they were right. By using the eye tracking system, they found that people were completely ignoring the offer on the page. Ironically, the screen shot they shared was similar to the above screen shot for Virgin stores, which I found at the SEOmoz blog.

In our discussion, we worked to unearth the problem. As we saw it, the issues were twofold: First, people have learned to simply ignore online advertising. There is so much of it that we have trained ourselves to block it out completely. Second, when people are online, they are often on a mission. At a financial services site, they want to log into their account and get down to business. So no matter how well targeted the ad is, it’s only really relevant if the person is actively looking for a new credit card at the time. This is the reason why Facebook ads don’t work, but Google has created a multibillion-dollar AdWords product.

The solution is tougher to come by. In this case, I think the main answer is for the company to work harder to build a great “shopping center” for credit cards and other financial services. The magic really lies in getting someone who is ready to buy, and offering a brilliant experience. Another solution could be for the company to create a special “smart offer” section on the customer’s home page. Better wording and an explicit comment that the offer is “just for you” or “based on your account history” might have a chance of cutting through people’s expectation that anything in a box is an irrelvant ad.

Nothing is easy in the move from interruption to meaning, and from traditional to digital. But information like eye tracking results helps us get down to the real results, and helps us try the 100th option, which might actually work.

UPDATE: I should have linked to Jakob Nielsen’s post on banner blindness.  It’s super.

7 Responses to “Eye Tracking Shows the Ugly Truth”

  1. Craig Jolley says:

    I had an opportunity to experience this tangentially first hand. Until very recently I was the Web Marketing Manager for National City Mortgage. As part of my three year web development strategy after directing an initial redesign for 2007, I had planned to implement web analytics supported by eye tracking visuals to build the case for a complete web overhaul in 2009.

    Not too surprising, given the mortgage industry meltdown, my budget for these initiatives was cut and I was directed to cancel the contract for HBX almost as soon as we had it up an running. However, using Google Analytics “Site Overlay” feature I was nonetheless able to manually track click density activity on our site.

    While not as graphically powerful as a heat map, I was able to start building a fact based case to support my argument. Among other things this information showed that the HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) demanded elements in the ’07 home page design were drawing statistically zero attention.

    Furthermore, it showed that our objective of creating a site to attract new prospects was under performing, with a majority of traffic presumably being that of current customers. Additional click density analysis also showed a marked difference in behavior among the prospects we did attract between those that reached us through search vs. those directly linking; with search oriented prospects more readily connecting to our Loan Originator locate tool.

    Unfortunately, recent events being what the were/are, I was unable to test the value of making these arguments to senior management, although I think the direct data would have been powerful in helping me make my points.


  2. Chad Seibert says:

    Dear Mr. Gilbreath,

    Great post about eye tracking software and one of the most prominent applications of this technology: evaluating web usability and online advertising. As this type of software becomes more affordable, it will continue to be used more and more to help a company dissect which elements are working and which are failing when it comes to advertising offers.

    It will be fascinating to see those companies that take the technology and run with it to engage the customer, rather than interrupt them. Ideas such as creating separate studies to discern how prospective customers view offers versus current clients will become more prevalent and help determine the most effective ways to reach each segment. This will naturally lead to the creation of multiple overlapping studies that help to give a company the best overall picture of how to start and build meaningful relationships with customers.

    How do you see this technology shaping the future of digital marketing?

    Have a great week!

    Chad Seibert

  3. Craig Jolley says:

    Your “shopping center” idea is a good one, especially if it can remain focused on a particular offering (i.e., credit cards, CDs, home loans, etc.) and is easy and fun to use. I also believe a “smart offer” solution is the way to go (in fact National City Bank has been working on just this type of service) but it doesn’t effectively address web visitors who aren’t current customers.

    I’m intrigued by your comment regarding a “customer’s home page.” Do you envision a dynamically created, personalized home page delivered to each customer upon authentication tied to their specific account profile in the bank’s customer database? Granted, this could be an extremely powerful solution but as you noted very difficult (and expensive) to pull off.

    I also wonder if the trend toward greater consolidation in the banking/financial sector will diminish incentives – due to decreasing competition – to make these type of investments. And of course there is still the challenge of how to serve up targeted online ads to non-customers effectively.

    What do you think?

  4. This study along with other results from the folks at marketing experiments convinced many a client that landing pages are an absolute requirement for campaigns, direct or otherwise, and the old DM principle of offer, offer, offer drives design. Backed by a database and the use of personalized URLs, our landing pages have almost a 100% conversion rate (that is to say having gone to the landing page, the prospect actually takes advantage of the offer) compared to 50% or less with “dumb” and poorly designed landing environments. If you are counting a marketing “win” to be when the prospect is qualified and initiates a relationship with you by taking advantage of your offer, then it is time to pay more attention to what is usually considered the “back end.”

  5. Bob says:

    Wow, so many comments! Thanks!

    Ruth, I totally agree on smarter offers and personalized URLs and landing pages. But why aren’t more companies doing this?

    Chad, I can see a day in the next 5 years where the eye-tracking systems become embedded into at least 100,000 homes – allowing for a Nielsen-like system that shows which adds and other content people look at.

    Craig, thanks for your insider story. To answer your question, I don’t think the investment is that huge. From my understanding of banks (former banker, have banking clients) the information is out there, the capability is often there, but few companies are making the people/time investments to pull it off. If Coke Rewards can do it, why not banks? Check out this killer case study from MarketingSherpa:

  6. Why aren’t more companies using landing pages to focus their audience on offer, offer, offer? Companies have wedged Web 2.0 into Marcom 1.0. Marketing pros eschew marketing automation software, especially lead gen in B2B, and this is where landing pages are automated and made easy. Marketing pros need to retool.
    Recent Forrester study reports 60% of B2B companies have not gone beyond enewletters and webinars and, unlike B2C clients, are only slowly beginning to understand the usefulness of social networks in a relationship marketing model.

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