Posts Tagged ‘Photo-Elicitation’

We can think of visual images in different forms. Pictorial images like a painting, a photograph or a drawing often depict a congruous scene of figures, objects and background, telling a story, enclosed in a frame. An image in a marketing context may represent product objects, people (e.g., customers, sellers, models, endorsers), a view of the scene of a retail store, etc.. But we may also refer to the visual image of a print advertisement as a visual scene that displays a complex layout of pictorial images, brand logo, text and additional graphic elements of decoration. Rather frequently the ad would show portions of pictorial images (like ‘clip-arts’) embedded in the whole scene, and the spatial arrangement of its objects or elements appears as discontinuous. Visual images may further be related with product packages, website pages on the Internet, video, or the view of a store’s front window and its interior space when one is present on premises of the physical site. Viewing a visual image  is an experience that may be, for example, enjoyable, challenging, annoying or disturbing. If the image leaves us indifferent, however, we would not spend enough time to figure out what we experience.

Lindt ChocolateWhen the object of a researcher’s study is a visual marketing material like an ad or product packaging it is most sensible to show the actual material or a pictorial image of it to consumers participating in the study. It is essentially more reliable for measuring affective and cognitive responses going beyond elementary memory-based measures of awareness. As we try to measure consumers’ recall of detail in an ad’s scene, its accuracy tends to decrease sharply and therefore any further references to content asked from respondents are likely to be of low reliability. The same is true when studying response to a retail scene — we should bring the research participants to the brick-and-mortar site itself, show them photographic images of its scene (i.e., layout, design, merchandise display) or computer-simulated images for a store in planning. Presenting an image of the material or retail scene is likely to enable researchers to capture emotion-laden responses more varied in type and intensity, and reach greater depth in the thoughts and feelings evoked in consumers-viewers vis-a-vis reliance on memory or mental images re-constructed by participants in their minds.

Pictorial images may be used productively, nonetheless, also if they do not appear related to a focal product, brand or company. A visual image can be utilised as an implicit bridge that helps to connect consumers’ mindsets with a brand of interest and to open-up the respondents to engage in a dialogue with an interviewer about personal or more private aspects of their lives (e.g., how a brand may function in the relations between a parent and his or her children). Relevant pictures with respect to the topic of research may be introduced by the interviewer or the interviewee. Professor of marketing Gerald Zaltman (Harvard Business School / Olson Zaltman Associates consulting firm) advises that pictorial images can help consumers to reveal and reflect attributes of a focal brand or company even though on surface the image shows no relation to that brand; the image serves as a metaphor whereby figures or objects in the image substitute for the brand (e.g., a gorilla has been shown by purchasing agents to suggest that managers from the vendor company have been stiff and stubborn in negotiations with them or  have demonstrated insensitivity to their needs). In Zaltman’s technique of metaphor elicitation (ZMET) the consumers bring pictorial images of their choice to their interviews through which they may describe the brand or tell a story about the role it plays in their lives (1).

Advertisements compete eagerly for grabbing the attention of consumers against editorial content as well as other ads in their own product category or in any other domain. It is a tough and demanding competition. The methodology of eye tracking, enhanced by advanced technology for taking different measures of eye movement and fixations, is especially suited for studying what captures attention to the ad and how information is attended to and could be utilised within the ad scene. It is generally assumed that the longer the latency of fixation on an object or element, the more thought a viewer dedicates to it, though the technique cannot directly reveal much more about the nature of affective reactions or cognitive processes.

Important and useful insights have been gained through eye tracking research. An extensive research by Pieters and Wedel (2) shows, for example, that the power of text to capture attention is sensitive to the surface size of its text-body but a picture can capture attention fast almost regardless of its size. Hence it is unnecessary for advertisers to fill an ad copy with larger pictures in expectation that it would increase the chances of capturing attention to the picture and to the ad as a whole. For text, however, surface size, determined by amount of text or font size, is significant (e.g., consider magazine ads that combine a colourful and vivid picture on top and a body of text of some explanation beneath it for achieving maximum effect). Regarding brand logos, it is found that the surface size of the logo is likely to distract viewers from reading text. However, greater interest in a brand logo for any other quality (e.g., the brand itself) can increase interest in reading the text, and secondarily, watching the pictures in the print ad. Text is attended by viewers of print ads particularly more elaborately when viewers have a declared goal of buying a product of the type advertised (Rayner and Castelhano, 3); this is compared with a task when viewers are asked just to rate an ad — then pictures get to play a greater role in viewer attention (i.e., number of fixations and time spent observing and processing). Consumers are more interested in text portions of a print ad that provide information on a focal product relative to pictures when a purchase of product of that type is seen expected.

In order to characterise more concretely the processing of visual information and better understand the valence and content of feelings and thoughts, the investigation process of research has to continue with other methods (e.g., experiments, interviews with probing). The approach I put forward aims to provide such expansion of insights: the technique allows to attach additional information reported by viewers to objects or elements they choose and relate to in the visual material (e.g., a print ad, a photograph). Its starting point is based on visual thinking rather than verbal explications, therefore I named it Visual Impression Metrics. The following chart of a framework model of communication depicts plausible factors that may trigger the processing of ‘objects’ in a visual marketing material from the consumers’ point-of-view:

Two notes to the chart: (1) The combination of verbal and visual elements that correspond with each other is fundamental to encoding; (2) From an information processing perspective, consumers may go back and forth between attention to and processing of various elements or objects in the whole image.

A pivotal strength of eye tracking is the ability to trace when attention is awarded unconsciously to objects in the ad in addition to conscious attention — viewers transit between these processes as they move from bottom-up to top-down (and vice versa) processing of the information found in the visual material. A consequence of this, however, is that respondents are not likely to be able to comment on objects they attended to unconsciously. An approach as described above, while more reliant on conscious processes, may be used in conjunction with eye tracking so as to shed more light on how consumers-viewers utilise information from objects in the visual scene, their meanings or implications for them.

In the other realm of research using visual images, a pictorial image is utilised as an aid to enquiring on a topic or concept rather than being the subject of research. An interviewer may show the respondent a picture selected by the research team and invite him or her to discuss it (e.g., what they see in the picture, what it reminds them of, what associations it brings up about a product/brand). When showing the same picture to a group or sample of respondents, it is possible to compare and aggregate how various consumers relate and react to the same image. On the other hand, a picture retrieved and brought by each consumer-respondent is much more capable to entail an idea associated with a brand that is meaningful and relevant to that individual. Gerald Zaltman’s method for eliciting metaphors by visual images is most appropriate to that end — it is free of the assumptions or expectations of the marketers or researchers. But on looking at the interviewing process, it is apparent that separating the thoughts of the interviewer from those of the interviewee is not obvious. A main theme of the instructions of Zaltman to interviewers for probing, as demonstrated in his book “How Customers Think” (Chapter 4 Appendix), is to avoid offering an interviewee their own explanations or interpretations of a reply just given by him or her nor implying their own understanding of the picture. An effective probing approach is to follow-up on a last reply of the interviewee using his or her own words (4). The line between desired and flawed probing in examples given, however, is not always sharp and clear — one needs to carefully make the vital distinction between guiding the interviewee (right) and leading the interviewee (wrong).

Selecting a pictorial image as a stimulus to trigger an “enquiry” in a survey (i.e., quantitative research) needs to be done by careful screening and examination, guided by pre-tests and/or qualitative research techniques, in order to present a picture that conveys the target concepts one wishes to study or test. Vice versa, key constructs (e.g., emotions, thoughts or associations) revealed in a qualitative study by using visual images should be substantiated through quantitative methods for the relevant target population of consumers. Thus, researchers would choose for a survey a pictorial image they appraise, according to findings of the qualitative study, as the best representative or conveyor of the concept of interest shared by the consumers. The method of Visual Impression Metrics, for instance, is suitable for certifying whether focal figures or objects as portrayed in the image scene carry the expected meaning.

The possibilities for research with visual images are numerous; they offer some intriguing opportunities for enriching our consumer insights. Visual images evoke more quickly intuitive and emotional responses, they often succeed in encouraging people to share their thoughts and feelings, and may engage forms of visual thinking that differ from verbal thinking. Depending on context and purpose, visual images can be used in marketing research to enhance the quality, reliability and validity of our findings, and thereby improve the knowledge of marketers about their consumers.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)



(1) “How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market”, Gerald Zaltman, 2003, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

(2) “Attention Capture and Transfer in Advertising: Brand, Pictorial and Text-Size Effects”, Rik Pieters and Michel Wedel, 2004, Journal of Marketing, 68 (Apr.), pp. 36-50.

(3) “Eye Movements During Reading, Scene Perception, Visual Search, and While Looking at Print Advertisements”, Keith Rayner and Monica S. Castelhano, 2008; In Visual Marketing: From Attention to Action, Michel Wedel and Rik Pieters (eds.)[pp. 9-42], London, New-York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

(4) Ibid. 1.

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Before embarking on the redesign or remodelling of an existing store, it should prove very helpful to  study in a methodic way shoppers’ perceptions, attitudes and behaviour in-store with respect to the store in its current state. It is vital for store owners or managers who do not perform such research on a regular basis, particularly in small chains and medium-size independent stores.

There can be different reasons for initiating a store redesign: to refresh, revitalize or modernize the look of a store that has become too old and tired; original ideas of the owners for a new concept they would like to apply to the store; and there may also be some comments from shoppers that have accumulated over time on things that need fixing or improving in the store. Plans for the redesign may get inspired from experiences and healthy insights of the staff working in the store, and then be devised with clever and creative advice of professionals like architects and internal designers or brand consultants. However, any plan should take into consideration the perspective of shoppers and their shopping experiences in the existing store before deciding how it should be changed. Furthermore, information should be measured, collected, and analysed in a consistent and robust manner using established research methods. Thereby, comments of customers made from time to time may provide initial guidance when triggering the process of redesigning a store, but the comments may be too sporadic and not reliable enough to base a plan on them. That is, such feedback can be used in forming “design hypotheses” that need to be corroborated through research.

Even if redesign entails a whole new concept that would change the store’s appearance and organization dramatically, there is still much that can be learned from how customers have conceived the existing store for good and bad — things worth preserving and things to be avoided in the newly designed store. Creating a new theme for the store does not require dumping or ignoring everything belonging to the old store, especially if the store owner wishes to retain his old-time customers. On the one hand, it would clearly be a shame if after investing in a whole new design problematic aspects to the shoppers  had not been corrected (e.g., pathways, the location and structure of fixtures for given types of merchandise, decoration, colours, lighting). On the other hand, some aspects that were convenient or appealing in the old store and helped to attract customers may well be replanted in the new design — for veteran customers it may be particularly comforting to find familiar and favourable spots from the store they have known before the redesign.

In order to properly understand and assess the impact that a store scene has on consumers-shoppers, the best way is to base the study on their first-hand impressions and experiences in the store in relation to its visual design, layout and organisation. A complementary study may be carried out off-site but it is still essential to show the consumers-respondents photographic images of the scene to which they can relate and respond. The three methodological approaches I propose below consider aspects associated with the visual appearance of the scene and shopping behaviour in practice.

Visual Appraisal In-Store — From the moment a shopper steps into a store he captures an overall view of the scene and chooses an initial destination. Why or how he chose that first destination? And where does he proceed from there? Not always consumers can reasonably explain these choices because many of them have been made unconsciously. When a visitor stands in a particular spot in the store, her visual attention may note another object or display in peripheral view, and unconsciously her eyes may fixate on that new target. Yet, if the target makes an impression strong enough (e.g., interesting, appealing) she may consciously elect to move in that direction. The first method proposed is to let a shopper freely take a tour of the store, simply “follow his eyes.”  Provided with a drawing of the store, the participant would be instructed to walk through the store and mark positions visited that visually appealed to him or disturbed him, adding graphic or verbal annotations as appropriate. This approach allows intuition and affective reaction to precede more elaborate thinking. A summary of visual appraisals made by a sample of 30 to 50 shoppers can help to quickly map out visually strong and weak spots in the existing store before its redesign. This input may be used for setting priorities or giving directions for planning the renovated store design.

The Shopping Trip In-Store — The second approach proposed is to observe a shopper while actually making his or her shopping trip and buying items in the store.  The aim of observing shopping trips is to identify mainly what areas in the store are visited more frequently, which products are noticed and which are picked up, and what are the routes taken through the store. The visual appraisal tour has a different purpose, it does not require any explicit shopping goals, and it is less concerned with the route between “stations” visited. Observation and/or video recording of shopping trips are utilized more frequently in large chain-stores (e.g., supermarkets, pharma stores, DIY stores) in planning layout of displays and counters, selecting product categories to offer, and devising or updating a planogram of their display locations. I believe that redesigning a store is an excellent opportunity for conducting this type of study. In this context, research should tell store owners and managers how shoppers pass through the store, the frequency and order at which areas and displays are visited and purchased from, and indicate any issues concerning visibility and ease of access. In some cases it may also provide information on interactions made with staff for service. An appropriate technique would be to escort a shopper during a visit (“shop-along”), allowing in certain instances where necessary to probe the shopper to describe his or her decision-making process (a trip may additionally be video-recorded by the observer or by the shopper using a small head-mounted video camera).

Visual Impressions Using Photos and other Photo-Elicitation Applications — Rather than asking a visitor-shopper to make an appraisal tour of the store, we may conduct an interview with him or her with the aid of photographs. The respondent would be asked to name or point at different objects or areas of his or her choice, evaluate them or comment on them.  For a quantitative study, it is suggested to use photographs taken in advance at the store to ensure all respondents see and refer to the same stimuli, showing the same view-angles and objects in the store. Although the interview uses photographs it is still advantageous to conduct the interview on-site, placing the respondent in the actual scene rather than detached from it at home or at another unrelated location. In a qualitative type of study, a photograph of the store may serve as a starting point to a more free discussion on the experience of shopping at the store, occasions of shopping, how products purchased are used, etc.. This may help for example to understand how the store participates and fits in the lifestyles of customers, and possibly guide how those lifestyles may find better expression in the redesigned store (participants may be given the option to take their own photos as they desire). A photo may also assist in eliciting associations with the retail brand where applicable as input for designing visual elements that enforce the brand in the remodelled store. At a more advanced stage of a redesign process, an extension of the third methodological approach may include the presentation of virtual graphic models for candidate future designs.

Any of the methods described above for visual-oriented and behavioural research, or a combination of them, may be chosen in regard to the extent of planned remodelling and budget. It can provide information of great assistance in resolving dilemmas during the redesign process in anticipation of customer reaction to the new design, and giving direction towards a design that improves on the previous one from a customer perspective.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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Visual stimuli have been ubiquitous in marketing and retail for many decades.  They may be represented in the form of printed materials (photos, drawings, and other graphic elements), video clips, physical scenes in shops and malls, and naturally in the design of products. However, the area concerning the design, implementation and evaluation of visual stimuli has lacked in sound theoretical grounding, until recently. This situation is changing in the past 10-15 years with a stream of research signalling the emergence of a field of visual marketing (Wedel and Pieters 2008). Although the body of knowledge backing this field  is still limited and scattered, Wedel and Pieters admit, groups of researchers in marketing and consumer behaviour are working towards establishing this new field.  They offer this definition of visual marketing:

“The strategic utilisation by firms of commercial and non-commercial visual signs and symbols to deliver desirable and/or useful messages and experiences to consumers”

Research in this area may address how consumers perceive, interpret and react to visual materials or scenes. One topic of special interest, for example, deals with the allocation of attention to various visual elements that appear in a scene (e.g., frequency, scan paths, and latency). The scene may be a single print ad, a page in a magazine that contains an ad, a web page, or the image of a retail space. But questions also may arise with regard to the effects of visual elements, and compositions of them, on consumers’ thoughts and feelings, and how they influence attitudes.  

Not to be mistaken, this is not just the object and matter of academic research. It is eventually the concern of marketing practitioners using visual stimuli. In an interview for an article on “Advertising as Science” in Monitor on Psychology , Prof. Curtis P. Haugtvedt  laments that creative professionals in advertising are reluctant to rely on research to assess the appeal and persuasiveness of their artwork aimed at consumers. He criticizes them for overly relying on their personal taste and judgement  Yet, Haugtvedt asserts, people in the field need to understand that there is a scientific way of making better ads (Clay 2002).  This may be applicable to additional contexts beyond advertising (e.g., product development, web design, store design and product display).

Furthermore, visual images can be used in marketing and consumer research as stimuli that facilitate or trigger thoughts and feelings of respondents on variety of subjects (e.g., consumer-brand relationships, lifestyles, shopping behaviour). The images do not have to be directly associated with materials or scenes controlled by marketers. Showing a visual image such as a drawing, a painting or a photograph can help to lift barriers in interaction between an interviewer and a respondent, imposing a more relaxed and story-telling atmosphere in which respondents feel more free and comfortable to talk about their feelings, thoughts and experiences (Belk 2007).

Photographs are a very popular means for sharing impressions and memoirs between people. Photographs can also serve as memory aids to ourselves. Taking photographs has also become easier and more accessible with the help of the “digital revolution”. Almost anyone can choose the type of camera that is most suitable to him or her given their areas of interest, level of expertise in photography, and objectives for producing photographs. There can be beautiful and impressive photographs taken meticulously with much thought and planning vis-a-vis photographs that were shot in a rush, almost automatically, during a trip, just to remind ourselves “hey, we’ve been there together”.  People communicate a lot with photographs: they send them, show them and talk about them in face-to-face meetings, via e-mail and Internet websites, and even during a conversation on a mobile phone.

Connecting with people, objects and places as displayed in a photograph is easier compared with  a verbal description of them (e.g., consider a marvelous landscape in a vacation resort or an emotional family event). A visual image can fulfill several functions. The appearance of a dear person in a visual image can stimulate emotions. The image of a product in a picture may function as a cue that quickly links with another remembered image of that product (e.g., a photo of a product in an ad calls an image of the same product as seen previously at a store or at a friend’s home). A photograph in particular has a documentary power, that is, providing evidence or proof that something really happened (leaving aside photo manipulation practices for a moment). Objects in a photo seem more tangible, the details in them are usually sharper and clearer (than drawings or mental images constructed from memory in one’s head), and they appear more vivid  (Messaris 1997).   A visual that is perceived more real can help to induce feelings and memories faster and easier. These are properties that can benefit research.

Methods of photo-elicitation in research may take two main routes: eliciting responses to photographs chosen or prepared in advance by the researcher or eliciting responses to photographs taken by the participants themselves (i.e., prior to an interview a respondent is allowed a period to take photographs according to some general instructions). The second form of research can be extended to use home videos (Belk and Kozinets 2005). In the remaining of the post I will elaborate on two contexts wherein research may be enriched by the employment of photographs.

Retail — Stores are primary venues for encounter between consumers and goods, whether on a main shopping street, in a shopping centre or a mall. Access to the goods is direct and often in a hand’s reach. But when standing at the store’s front or facing the front window, what kind of first impression do you get? What feeling do you get from the atmospherics surrounding you (e.g., light, colours, wood or metallic)? What objects first attract your attention, and where do you go next to check merchandise with greater scrutiny? Photographs can help a store owner or manager detect what places, fixtures and product displays attract the shoppers more, and which stimulate a stronger reaction. The emphasis is on things such as indoor design, furnitures and fixtures (i.e., the store and its content without people present.) Findings may direct the store manager/owner in making improvements to store’s layout and design, assessing a new or renovated design from a customer perspective, and for choosing angles of view most attractive to customers for photographs to be placed in ads or on a website.  

One way to conduct a phot0-assisted study is to invite a group of consumers (15-30) to the store and let them stroll around with a camera, taking pictures of certain things that had some impact on them (got interest, raised curiosity, aesthetically liked or rather upset and turned off). Later a researcher conducts a personal interview with each respondent accompanied by his photographs. Another way is for the researcher to select in advance a set of photographs from the store, present the selected photographs subsequently to a sample of consumers and measure their responses in a face-to-face or internet survey (i.e., a quantitative research). The methods can be joined as a two-stage research programme.  

Other types of outlets where people remain to receive service such as bank branches and restaurants are also appropriate targets. For example, in a study conducted in a hotel (150 rooms full service in the US), guests were asked to take photos of things that impressed them in any area of the hotel, whether in their guest rooms, transit areas or in public halls such as lobby and restaurant . The photographs were used in a later interview to help guests-respondents to relate to aspects of design that were important to them. The researchers (Robson and Pullman 2005) found that guests prefer to focus on places that imbued them with a more domestic feeling as opposed to the feeling of a commercial or institutional setting. Guests also mentioned things that emphasised in their view the consideration of their personal convenience or wellbeing by the hotel. Robson and Pullman reported that they were surprised by some of the details guests bothered to photograph, for instance a tangle of cables leading from electric equipment to a socket in their room. 

Experiences — In marketing-related and sponsored events such as presentations and shows, art performances, exhibits, festivals, parties and competitions of various sorts, we may observe people involved in dynamic experiences. A photograph can capture special moments, the dynamics in interaction between people, and also a sight of the scene where an event takes place.  These kinds of photos can help participants to reflect on and express their experiences.  A study may include both consumers who attended an event, and share their experiences, and others who did not attend but are asked about their impressions and expectations based on experiences communicated by the former. A study as such can guide preparations for an improved new event given lessons from a previous one. This type of research may also be effective  in some retail venues that encourage interactive shopping experiences and entertain visitors. 

As suggested above, still photographs may be replaced by video films that provide audio-visual (motion) information. A representative for a family may be instructed for instance to record their preparations for a holiday trip (e.g., how they dressed and what equipment they took along), where they have visited, dined, lodged etc.. This video can later be watched and discussed with a skilled interviewer. The high availability of video cameras at households these days facilitates the participation of more consumers in videographic studies (Belk and Kozinets 2005).

I perceive great potential for interesting and practical insights from research with photographs, particularly in those two areas exemplified above. And although this sort of study may entail a diversion from common and routine research practices, there is much room here for demonstrating beneficial creativity and innovativenss.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


Introduction to Visual Marketing, Michel Wedel and Rik Pieters, 2008, in Visual Marketing: From Attention to Action, M. Wedel and R. Pieters (eds.)(pp. 1-8), London; New-York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Advertising as Science, Rebecca A. Clay, 2002, Monitor on Psychology, Vol. 33(9), American Psychology Association.  [A recommended reading] 

You Ought to Be in Pictures: Envisioning Marketing Research, Russell W. Belk, 2007, in Review of Marketing Research, N. Malhotra (ed.)(pp. 193-205), M.E. Sharpe

Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images in Advertising, Paul Messaris, 1997, Sage Publications. 

Videography in Marketing and Consumer Research, Russell W. Belk and Robert V. Kozinets, 2005, Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, 8 (2), pp. 128-141.

Hotels: Differentiation with Design, Stephanie Robson and Madeleine Pullman, 2005, Implications Newsletter, Vol. 3, Issue 6, University of Minnesota.

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