CEO Stories: Nick Childs, DIRT
Nick Childs, co-founder of DIRT, which measures emotional response to content, talks about how using biometrics and neuroscience can help companies better connect with their targeted audiences, and the implications for both creators and consumers.
DIGGING IN THE DIRT
“DIRT” is an acronym for Discover and Illuminate Real Truth. But don’t let the tagline confuse you. The company’s goal is to bridge the gap between content and consumers by helping creators understand how people react to their content. In a “lab” – forget white coats and beakers, and think more of a screening room – audience members are hooked up to a watch-like device that measures galvanic skin response. Those tiny secretions of sweat, which is what is being measured, happen when there is a strong emotional response to what is portrayed on the screen.
While this approach doesn’t qualify the nature of the response – humorous, fearful, excited – it clarifies for creators when people are paying attention and when they are moved in some fashion. It contrast to research that relies on people’s interpretations of what they have seen or their subjective descriptions, the biometric result is precise and not subjective. The value lies in helping creators – whether of content or apps – understand when they have captured the consumer’s attention – and this allow them to focus on where they need to make changes to make products stickier, more useful, or more engaging.
The neuromarketing space is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 16 percent over the next five or six years. This type of research will become cheaper, more commonly utilized, and of course, more heavily scrutinized. According to Childs, privacy concerns are overblown, as audience members opt in and data is anonymized.
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This is Capitalism, Patricia O’Connell with Nick Childs, Dirt
POC: Welcome to CEO Stories for This is Capitalism. I’m your host, Patricia O’Connell. Today I’m talking with Nick Childs, who in addition to being the Co-Founder at DIRT – and we’ll get to what DIRT is in a little minute – is also a filmmaker, an award-winning producer, director, and writer of film and digital experiences. His work has premiered at Sundance, the Tribeca Film Festival, South-by-Southwest, and the New York Film Festival. And previously he was a creative leader at some of the largest global ad agencies.
At heart though, he says he’s driven by curiosity, excited by ignorance, and motivated by optimism.
Well, Nick, I hope we’re not going to excite you too much today with ignorance but we are excited to have you here. So, welcome and thank you for joining us today on This is Capitalism.
NC: It is such a pleasure to be here with you and it is my own ignorance. You will enlighten me with answers.
POC: Well, I will do my very, very best, Nick. I purposely left it mysterious about what DIRT is. So tell us about DIRT.
NC: Dirt is a company that we formed during the pandemic, a little over a year ago, with three co-founders. We have built a platform for neuroscientific research really for consumer insights but it touches across all sorts of verticals and all sorts of different ways. It is an acronym, and it stands for “Discover and Illuminate Real Truth.”
The idea behind even the word “dirt” is that we hope to be partners with our clients and to really dig in the sandbox and see what we can build together through better understanding of their audiences so that they can have deeper, more honest, open, human, emotional connections with people and primarily with anything they are trying to put in front of those audiences – be it content in the forms of video games, television shows, films, advertisements but all the way through to the user experience for applications they are building.
POC: That all sounds very scientific and next-gen, so let’s break it down and tell people how it works and what it really means.
NC: Yeah, I’d love to. Basically, put quickly we bring people into a location – we call that a lab, it’s not a deeply scientific, cleaned lab – and by putting four or five people through at a time, they just sit there and they see content on a screen or presented to them.
And we use neuroscientific device, a biometric device, which looks a little bit like an Apple watch that sits on your wrist and connects to a couple of little nodules that are attached with stickies to your fingers. Galvanic skin response is what we are measuring primarily in the research that we do. And we measure people’s emotional reactions through their infinitesimal changes of their sweat secretion. So basically it’s kind of an arousal trigger when they are paying more attention to the things that are put in front of them.
So, we bring them into the lab, we gather all of that data, and then we deliver reports and the research and the insights back to our client. They can see at all touchpoints of a journey how the work we do can come to help them shape what is causing a greater, stronger reaction with their audience and what is causing less of a reaction.
And then they can align internally, they can work with their creative teams – all the way up to the C suite – to focus on where they need to make the changes and the next investments to make those products stickier, better, more attentive, and all of the good things that make audiences care.
POC: Do you have any subjective input from the audience? I would imagine that it is very individualized, the input that you’re getting from each person’s body responses. But is that augmented in any way by “I felt this” or “this is what I thought” or is it strictly the body response?
NC: It’s a great question. The space of research for those kinds of subjective responses has been around and is massive and is very valuable to clients – A/B testing, survey testing, focus groups, asking individuals their opinion of something once they have gone through an experience or looked at a product or heard a pitch or any of those things. It’s incredibly valuable, right? And clients are used to that kind of research more than they are I think into the growing space of neuroscience.
If you’re looking at a painting in a gallery, by coming up to you and asking you how you feel about that painting, not only am I forcing a response out of you, which is coloring your response, but it’s also going to be filtered through your reaction to me, your reaction to being in the situation, and it doesn’t mean that that’s not a valuable response, it’s just, again, filtered through a lot of different variables.
What we do is as if you put our device on somebody before they walked in the museum and as they walked around looking from painting to painting to painting, we could track their true emotional brain connection to those paintings and see which ones they reacted to more strongly. And in the minimum what we are doing is additive to the subjective stuff, right?
Ideally in some world we will be replacing that other side of it because the research we can deliver hopefully will be more powerful and more actionable and cause better responses down the line. Adding neuroscience into the mix is giving you another input that is incredibly powerful if not simply valid to place into the mix.
POC: OK. And when you’re adding that neuroscience though, how specific is it? Can the neuroscience indicate that I was scared, that I was excited, that I thought that this was exciting, that I thought this was erotic, that I thought this was intellectually stimulating, that I thought this was beautiful? Can it give you any insight like that?
NC: Specifically what we do, and we also use some eye tracking to correlate in addition to when we are using galvanic skin response, but specifically what we do is tracking your attention. We can extrapolate out certain emotional connections based upon the content itself.
If you take the filmmaker and producer Jordan Peele, who runs Monkey Paw Productions and did the great movie Get Out and other work, you know because of the kind of content that they are making and the audience that they are trying to attract we know that when audiences are reacting to certain moments in a trailer, that they are probably not reacting to the humor of the moment because the content itself is intended to be scary and not humorous.
What we are doing with the galvanic skin response trace, if you lay it over a timeline, we are seeing where the peaks and valleys of attention are happening so that as a maker, as a creator, as a client, as a business, you are seeing through any journey where your audience is more focused and less focused.
And look, from my perspective as a person who has been creative my whole life and making things, that is just incredibly valuable. We’re not coming in as the emperor doing a thumbs up and thumbs down of the gladiators in the arena and saying this is good or bad, we’re saying here is where attention was spiking and here is where it’s flagging.
And in any kind of a story, any kind of a journey you are not looking for a constant climb. You need these peaks and valleys. But you also want to know if two-thirds of it is below water or if two thirds of it is above water. And any infinitesimal, and I mean one percent growth, one percent better, one percent better, one percent better over time has major implications and incredible power to drive the bottom line and the growth for anyone.
POC: So let’s put in a really concrete example. So, for example, let’s say somebody came to you and wanted to test I’m just randomly saying sneakers, OK?
POC: Randomly saying sneakers, no brand here, and they wanted to measure the response of two different people in the ad. Would you be able then to say, “OK, the female athlete got response that was overall higher or it was higher in certain cases vs. the male athlete or…?
NC: Yes, yes. We can get that finite. I think it’s more powerful to think about it in aggregate of putting at least 50 to 100-plus people through this test and seeing where the audience overall – especially if it’s an audience we have hand-picked to be correlative to the kind of audience that you’re looking for – reacts to those kinds of changes.
In that instance, working for a sneaker company, potentially for a specific advertisement or piece of content that featured two different talents in it, we can get that minute and give you an answer on when you showed the female athlete, when you showed the male athlete, which tended to spike with the audience.
POC: Right. So I’m thinking for example, not being particularly interested in sneaker brands and not necessarily following a lot of professional athletes very closely, I would probably not be the ideal audience person to sit there and get a response from. So, it is also important then, the audience that you choose to do the testing with?
NC: Yes, it is. And it can be incredibly important and it also can be incredibly important just to get an audience of people who come in, as you just said wonderfully, Patricia, which is I have no vested interest in sneakers or sports or whatever. You are still going to have a reaction to the content.
So, even in that situation there is validity to you seeing the product, athlete, the sport, and understanding – especially if we’re on the earlier side of it when those decisions haven’t been made yet for a specific kind of edit but are in the process of being made – where we can help clients have a bigger impact on a broader audience, or just a better connection with more authenticity.
I think what’s really fun about what we’re building at DIRT is almost every single client we talk to starts with the obvious question of like, “OK, you’ve done this in, for instance, in mobile gaming. I see how that works. But how would that come to bear in finance?”
And having the conversation about yes, in finance, especially if you have an app, you have an audience you need to better connect with: What would we build as a study for you that could truly help you understand that audience better and in a better way for you?
Trying to reach an audience that is fascinated by and amazingly connected to a beauty brand like Glossier is a different kind of attention because there’s a fandom there than its going to be for somebody using an app for a large financial company. But it still has great value for all of those applications. So, being able to port over how the work gets done in one space but how it can work most powerfully for a client in their discreet delivery and system – that is the real fun about what we’re doing.
POC: Do you think this is the future of how decisions get made about content and about influencing people?
NC: It’s certainly a growing piece of it. I think there’s a lot of things we could talk about there. I think there’s privacy issues, I think there’s issues where people immediately think “I’m scraping your brain” and it becomes challenging. But there was a study that just came out this week that suggested that the neuromarketing market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 16 percent over the next 5 or 6 years. Those are big numbers.
I think there is a new area of focus – instead of just SAS-based software as a subscription; NAS neuroscience as a subscription. These are growing areas. There is a lot of innovation coming. And the more we have a lot of different things – the power to gather a lot of data, the movement into machine leaning and artificial intelligence – the more we’re going to see the ability for people to tap into resources like neuroscience that had been overly expensive and used primarily in the medical and healthcare space for large studies.
The movement is going to be through things like we’re doing at DIRT. How do we make the turnaround faster, how do we make the price point more palatable for clients so that we can bring the power of what it has been – but it’s been very discreet and focused for various reasons – to a much bigger audience to solve a lot of challenges that people have when they’re trying to connect with their consumers?
POC: So let’s talk a little bit about some of the concerns that might be coming up – and I don’t know if they’re concerns that you think are happening on the client side, on the company side, or more on the personal side. For example, privacy. How is privacy a concern here? Do people have this fear of “OK, there’s some way that without my knowledge, without my will, without my consent, people are scraping my brain – and worse than scraping my brain is scraping my emotions?”
NC: Yeah. [Laughs.] It’s a great question. I love how you just put that. Sure. When we put a device on anybody’s wrist and tell them to sit down and don’t do anything, just watch a screen and we’ll get everything we need out of mapping your brain in this way through galvanic skin response, that does start to sound Minority Report or Altered Carbon or sci-fi and it does raise issues of “wait, what else are you gathering?” We are very careful and have been purposefully built our company to not need the kind of data that I think people are expecting us to potentially gather and use in nefarious ways.
We will ask at some point for people to opt in with certain kind of data if they are willing to – probably age; potentially race, income, whatever those demographics are that are valuable but aren’t going to be abrasive to people to share with us. But truth be told, we don’t need any of that. It can be completely anonymous.
And truth be told, we are inviting people in and compensating them for that time, so people are opting into this experience. We are not interested in and we are guaranteeing that we are not taking further information from them. So, in the larger picture, I think, the conversation of privacy is going to continue to be one of being honest, completely truthful, and clear with…the audience we are working with and saying “here is what we’re gathering and here is what we’re getting and here is what we’re not getting.”
And we are guaranteeing you we’re not getting things. The good news is from our side we don’t need those things that a lot of people would be, as I said, abrasive to giving.
POC: Also think about how much privacy is already given up with things like SAS – or a subscription to…or here’s…you want a 10 percent-off coupon when you buy something online.
NC: Yeah, yeah, you are opting in.
POC: So, for ten percent I’m not reading the security, the privacy information carefully enough and before I know it, I’m getting emails from places that make no sense for me to be getting emails from.
NC: Yes, exactly.
POC: So I think it also does raise perhaps a tangential issue but that there is a lot more personal responsibility levied on individuals to protect their privacy.
NC: Yes, yeah, for sure. And I think again the clarity of saying “here is what we’re gathering, here is what we’re not gathering, here is what this does,” and honestly, forming the company with an intent to be hyper-aware and built around those issues of privacy and not wanting to go there is critically important to us. We are not interested in the space of gathering information from the people we are testing and using it in ways that they don’t expect.
POC: What are some of the other concerns? You raised privacy. Is it that this kind of research could be used for nefarious reasons?
NC: I’m sure, yeah, of course. There’s always those concerns. And if you think about biometric neuroscience that’s happening in the space of FMRI – functional MRI, or EEG mapping, putting something on someone’s head and mapping what they are going through – there are ways to think about if you had a skull cap or a baseball hat and you put it on people and you monitored them day to day, there are ways to start using that feedback when it works and if it works to potentially benefit people nefariously.
We are not overly concerned about it in our space at all because we are fundamentally coming in and saying first off, it’s anonymized data but secondly, generally speaking, we are looking at audiences that opt in to giving us the experience that they’re going through and doing the research and being part of the study or even our fans of like the clients that we would put them in front of.
What we are steering for is a better connection with that audience, that you are delivering products that they like more, that they stay in more as an app for hopefully very good reasons or want to watch the show that you’re making or like your advertisement. Those kind of tangential ideas, that’s what we’re driven to help build with clients. And I think as long as we’re allegiant to truly delivering that we’re in an okay space.
POC: So, this then trends back to something else that I wanted to get to. How does somebody who was a creative guy like you who made award-winning films and content get hooked up with biometric, neuroscience research?
NC: I’m lucky.
POC: Would you have loved to have had access to this when you were making content?
NC: Yeah, I would. I love how you just put that. I am somebody who aspires to be and loves to be a maker. Everything from being a filmmaker to a producer to a director to a writer. I have always been fascinated by understanding the strategy of who we are trying to reach so I can make a better message connect more, to do as architects put it, the form and the function, to not just make something artistic for art’s sake because it’s not the space I’ve lived in.
I’ve been in marketing and I’ve been in filmmaking where I want those films to hit audiences. And I don’t want 98 percent of the audience to walk away and say it’s the best thing ever. I think there is a really valid space for having a big portion of the audience not like it and a portion that loves it because then that gives something that seems more artistic.
But anything I could use as a tool to help what I wanted to deliver connect deeper has been intriguing to me forever. One way I put it in my head as a director is we use music to bridge edits in filmmaking all the time. That’s a trick. The same way I see using research from neuroscience not as a duplicitous trick but as a trick of the insight that you’re gathering to create something that will deliver what you intentfully want to deliver better. So yeah, every time I’m making something I want it to connect.
POC: When they talk about B-schools they talk about poets and quants. The poets are of course obviously the English majors and people like that. The quants are the hardcore data people and the quantitative folks. And I wonder if this kind of research bridges those two worlds, if it allows the quantitative group to look at things with some idea of the emotion attached to it and if it allows the poets, the ones who are always thinking from that loftier perspective, if you will, to understand if what they are doing matters?
NC: Yeah. That’s great. The business agenda side of me says one of the most fascinating and fun parts about building DIRT so far has been seeing a kind of concern on the client side like “the creatives aren’t going to listen to this or the quants will get it but the poets won’t,” to your point. And that hasn’t happened in any situation we’ve gone into.
The poets have understood the value of what we are bringing because it’s not judging their poetry, to extend the metaphor here. And the quants get it because they are the data side. But it satisfies bridging that gap and delivering, I think, to all of the stakeholders who are involved in understanding where the research can drive them a focus of where they should go next instead of a focus on “did we make something good or bad?”
POC: Someone hires you and says, “OK, we found what people responded to, what interested them, what excited them, what really made an impact on them.” Do you think that they can extrapolate any of that information and use it going forward with a different piece of content or do you think every piece of content is its own thing and you go back to the drawing board every single time?
NC: Yes, you can. We have to be purposeful in that and talk about what the research needs to be to get there. But some of the work we’re doing that is the most fun and fascinating for me now is how do we start to build not rulebooks that force you to align a certain way but simply insights that allow you to understand why things you create in a certain to create better attention.
POC: And Nick, you said that this is an area that’s growing really pretty fast. Do you think that ultimately all content is going to be subjected to this kind of testing?
NC: That’s what we’re building to in some shape or form is ways for not only a massive client on a $100 million bet – be that a game, be that a product, be that a tentpole feature film or TV series that they’re going to make money for four or five years – can bring to bear because it’s costly and takes time but to create new ways based upon…. I will tip my hat a little bit here, the platform we’re building and where it’s going is how to put this in the hands of more people.
And by more people I don’t mean just you or I when we’re sitting down and we’ve got something creative and we want to throw it on a SAS-based platform for a few bucks and test something. Maybe someday. I’m talking about the major silos that people are looking at and are deeply, deeply invested in from a finance, VC, a private equity standpoint of the two big economies that are happening now –the attention economy, check, we’re working in that economy, and the creator economy.
And building tools that serve the creator economy, meaning building tools that can be helpful to whatever the number is now, 100 million, 200 million people that are creating content for new platforms, be it TikTok or Instagram or Snap or any of these places where that new influencer/creator class and economy is coming to bear, of course YouTube, if you are able to, as we purposely build our platform, to be able to deliver to those people so that they can use it occasionally or daily to see and help how their work can get more attention, that is the name of the game of where things are moving, certainly.
POC: And what about that other economy? You said there was the creator economy and the…?
NC: Attention economy. So the big thing we talk about now is whether you want somebody to watch the rest of the movie, whether you want them to see a trailer on your steaming media platform, whether you want to steer them into the next show by showing them a clip or a teaser so they don’t leave your service and go to another one on their TV, whether you listen to the next song by somebody – any of those ways that we want, meaning the client, the creator – that anyone wants to gather that attention so that you stay focused on that creator’s work, we are coming to bear there too. That’s what’s really, really fun.
We want to play with amazing creators and platforms like so that we can truly see how we can come to bear and help that connection that is a new kind of connection, that’s a better connection for the audiences, that delivers the things they want, really come to fruition.
POC: Well, let’s see what grows out of this dirt then. Since DIRT is a pretty heavily searched term, where can people find out more about DIRT, your agency?
NC: Wearedirt.com is where you can find us online. And anybody can find me sadly pretty much any time on Twitter at @nickchilds.
POC: Okay. So, wearedirt.com for the business and @nickchilds on Twitter. Thanks so much for joining us, Nick, and good luck. We look forward to talking to you again when the next iteration comes around.
NC: Fantastic, I’ll put it on the calendar.
About the Series: Featured stories from the intersection of the free market and entrepreneurial success. Here we speak with leading CEOs, academics, philanthropists and up and comers on their contributions and perspectives on the American economy.
About Patricia O’Connell: Patricia O’Connell is one of the original contributors to “This Is Capitalism”, a content site sponsored by Stephens Inc. and is host of the site’s podcast, CEO Stories. Patricia, a former editor at BusinessWeek and a best-selling author, blends her experience as a journalist with her passion for storytelling to her role as editor of “This Is Capitalism”.