Every time you visit a website, marketers adjust what you see in order to observe how their changes affect what you buy, according to Oleg Urminsky, professor of marketing. “The growth in the use of experimental methods in the past 10 years is one of the biggest changes in the marketing industry,” he said.
Urminsky brings these high-tech practices into the Booth classroom, showing students how to use experimental methods to answer real marketing questions that affect business decisions. He introduces students to studies that incorporate publicly available data, which they use as the basis for their own experiments. In his classes, students might design two options for a customer marketing email or run different versions of a Facebook ad, and then analyze how the changes affected consumers’ purchasing behavior.
This multidisciplinary approach to marketing is a striking evolution from Urminsky’s previous work in the advertising industry, at a time when choices often relied heavily on intuition. “Marketing is often thought of as an art and a science,” he said. “What I really like about the Chicago Approach to marketing is that we specialize a bit. We say that the science part of marketing is especially valuable, and it’s the part where the academic approach has the most to offer. Here at Booth, marketing is more quantitative than at some other schools—not just in how we teach it, but at a philosophical level as well.”
In his research, Urminsky applies this philosophy by using data to resolve longstanding questions or contradictions in marketing research. One of his current projects challenges a theory that people are more impatient for indulgences than necessities, implying they would be more willing to pay for expedited shipping for indulgent purchases than for necessities. His findings indicate that’s not the case. “We measure this theory in what we think is a fairer way, in practical settings,” he said. Urminsky hypothesizes that, in fact, people may be able to justify paying more for shipping when the product seems useful, but they may feel guilty spending extra when the purchase is solely for pleasure.
In another recent study, he experimented with signage outside cafés. One sign provided specific calorie information on menu items, while another generally reminded customers to consider their calorie intake. Simply reminding people to think about calories, he found, had a significant impact on their purchases. The field experiment supplemented previous lab-based studies on calorie reminders, offering a real-world application. By designing his research with analytical rigor, Urminsky hopes to give marketing practitioners and policymakers a foundation for more confident decision-making.
Urminsky said the James M. Kilts Center for Marketing has inspired his work by keeping him grounded in the practical questions that marketers hope to address. He became interested in studying calorie labeling, for example, because it’s an active policy question that many food marketers are considering. The Kilts Center also has helped Urminsky reach out to potential industry collaborators for field research and connect with alumni who are working on projects that relate to his interests—connections for which he is grateful.
Whether designing his own research or helping students conduct experiments, Urminsky is constantly incorporating scientific insights about how consumers interact with marketers. “The goal,” he said, “is to always get at least one step better than going with your gut."
—By Amy Merrick
August 7, 2019