Pete Markey, CMO at the Post Office
Pete Markey, CMO at the Post Office
A view from Pete Markey

How emotion tracking and machine-learning makes the Post Office less stressful

Pete Markey, outgoing CMO at the Post Office, who is moving to Aviva as UK director of brand comms and marketing, discusses how marketers use science and art.

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Anyone interested in the future of design should have a look at the new Batmobile.

I was lucky enough to be photographed alongside it at the London Film and Comic Convention earlier this year, and my inner geek was impressed. Built like a tank and armour-plated, with twin machine guns mounted on a bat-black body, it’s a seriously cool-looking piece of kit.

But looks can be deceptive. The Batmobile certainly looked rough and tough, but it was roped off from the crowds so no one could get too close. Were the Bat-guys worried that some comic-book fans would accidentally snap off a wing mirror? Was it really the effective, indestructible machine it appeared to be?

I’ll admit, it’s a long way from the mean streets of Gotham City to the marketing team at the Post Office, but one thing remains true. For any design, from a supercar to a marketing campaign, looking cool is never enough – effectiveness is the only thing that matters. So, for me as a marketer, one of the most exciting trends in design today isn’t Batman’s new ride, it’s the way we measure effectiveness – and the science and technology we’re using to do it.

Getting to the truth

Looking cool is never enough – effectiveness is the only thing that matters

Of course, as a marketing industry, we’ve produced a variety of ways to evaluate design across the years, from focus groups to mystery shoppers. However, the more we learn about human psychology and the workings of the brain, the more we’re realising that asking for feedback doesn’t always give the most accurate answers.

It’s not that people actively lie in focus groups or questionnaires, but they’re easily swayed by the dynamics of the group or the wording of the survey. The growing trend toward neuroscience and biometrics helps us bypass their biases and measure the body’s automatic response instead.

It’s an approach that I’ve already used successfully at the Post Office. We want to make it easy for our customers to get the important things in life done, and design marketing activity to support that goal. Recently, we’ve been using biometric technology to measure our customers’ unconscious responses to ‘shopping’ in one of our branches.

Finger on the pulse

It’s the same technology used by the producers of The Revenant, the film that recently won Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar. Previously, Hollywood studios would hand out questionnaires at preview screenings to gauge an audience’s reaction. Today, they measure their heart rates, skin moisture and electrodermal activity to map their emotional journey step-by-step through the narrative.

Hopefully, a trip to the local Post Office branch is a lot less stressful than DiCaprio’s ordeal. But our emotion-tracking work has helped us discover where the pressure points in our customers’ journeys are, where their bodies show stress and where they’re most receptive to hear about Post Office services and products that might be useful to them. That insight is helping us shape the design of our branches and the role that marketing plays.

Neuroscience and biometrics help us bypass people's biases and measure the body’s automatic response instead.

The results have been impressive. In our pilot branches, as we’ve rolled out work based on these findings, we’ve found that recall of our campaigns has significantly improved. Sales have risen, too.

Now we’re using another new tech trend to influence the design of our information leaflets.

Machine learning lets us research a vast range of variables – colours, sizes, typestyles, headlines – to discover which formats customers will prefer. The technique, based on Nobel Prize-winning economic research, is being developed for us by Linney Group and in partnership with statisticians at the University of Sheffield.

Digital focus group

Instead of asking a focus group to chat for half an hour about a selection of design options, we ask thousands of online respondents to each consider a series of different, simple choices. They are not asked to consider their selection too deeply, just to give their first impressions – which do they prefer? By surveying a variety of combinations, we’re able to find out not just, for example, which colour is more effective in gaining attention, but also whether colour is more important than copy, and by how much. It’s a technique that focuses on what’s important to the customer, and I believe it can help guide our talented designers to create something special.

New technology will never replace creativity. We will always need to come up with strong ideas to test and engaging designs to turn our customers’ heads. But the combination of science and art can help us make sure that we always put effectiveness first.