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The definitive guide to concept testing

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Every marketer knows the stat: 80% of new products fail. Or 90%. Or 95%. The precise number differs, but the story is always the same. 

By anyone’s standards, those are daunting odds for businesses that want to innovate and stay ahead of the curve. How can companies buck the trend and increase their success rate? How can you make sure your product is part of the 20% (or 10% or 5%?)

Clearly, it’s vital that any new product or service has to be just right. The question is, what does just right look like? And unfortunately, the answer to that question is not up to you. 

It’s up to your customers.

That means it’s important to find out at an early stage whether or not your concept is going to attract customers to buy or not, and if so, how you can make the most of it.

This is where concept testing comes in.

What is concept testing?

Concept testing is how businesses evaluate and optimize ideas before taking them to market.

The concept in question can be a lot of different things. It might be a totally new breed of product that no one has ever seen before. Or it might be a redesign or rebrand. 

Business questions that concept testing can address include:

  • Does the concept meet customers’ needs? Do they ‘get’ it? Do they find it appealing? Does it give them something they want?
  • Is the price right? What are consumers willing to pay? Is the product commercially viable?
  • How should it be positioned? Where does your idea fit in relation to competitors? Does it suit your brand? What’s your natural place in the market?
  • What details need to be tweaked? How can your concept get better? Is everything working right? Are any features missing?

Concept testing is not a single one-size-fits-all technique, but a whole range of methods that can be combined and tailored to fit the demands of each individual project. 

Why concept testing matters

There’s no avoiding it: conducting proper concept testing requires an investment of time and money. But that’s nothing compared to the potential cost of not testing concepts early on in the development process.

Failed products or services cost businesses not just in terms of wasted investment, but in the opportunity cost of what could have been achieved instead. The same goes for a bad ad or a bad logo design.

In fact, in the worst cases, businesses can suffer reputational damage or harm to the value of their brands by launching a product concept that wasn’t right for the market. Marketing history is littered with examples of products and ads that were wide of the mark. 

In 1985 Coca-Cola famously introduced New Coke – its answer to blind taste tests where rival Pepsi came out top. But the success of brands and products is about more than blind tests, and New Coke flopped. Decades later, it’s still remembered as a major marketing misstep.

Remember Juicero? No? Not many people do. Investors pumped $120 million into the $400 Wi-Fi-connected juice maker in 2016 – even though users could get the same effect by just squeezing the juice pouches by hand. Consumers saw through it, and within two years Juicero had been scrapped.

In 2005 ESPN launched an innovative mobile phone service that incorporated its exclusive sports content. But the price was all wrong, and the lack of handset choices also put people off.

Concept testing reduces the risk of costly failures like these, and increases the chances of hitting on a runaway success.

Ultimately, it’s about proceeding with confidence.

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9 Use cases for concept testing

1. Check whether your ideas will really fly 

Just because an idea feels right to you (or your boss, or your friends, or your mum) doesn’t mean it’s commercially viable. Rigorous concept testing research shows you whether you’re really on to something or not, so you can put a rocket under the ideas that have potential, and not waste time on the ones that don’t.

2. Settle arguments and objectively evaluate ideas

Everyone’s got an opinion, right? Great concept testing can cut through corporate politics, putting everyone’s ideas on a level playing field. It busts groupthink and unites teams behind ideas that have a real chance.

3. Compare rival concepts

Pit your ideas against each other and find out what consumers prefer. Once you’ve narrowed down your choice, you can focus on the ones that performed well.

4. Define your list of features and benefits

Particular capabilities and attributes can have a make-or-break effect on the success of a product. Find out which things consumers really care about (and which ones they can do without)

5. Figure out how to make it profitable

Knowing how to manage your costs and prioritize the investments consumers care about is crucial to success.

6. Improve concepts iteratively

Hone and tweak your concept in response to consumer feedback, then test again. Research might even throw up brand new ideas which you can develop and test.

7. Determine who to target

Concept testing can give you clear pointers as to which demographic groups, geographies or market segments will get as excited about your idea as you are.

8. Decide your communication approach

Setting the right tone and getting the key points across is not something that should be based on guesswork. Try your ideas out in the wild and get valuable feedback.

9. Refine after launch

To hone your offering, and keep it ahead of the competition, testing can continue post-launch. 

Does concept testing really work?

Some in the business world feel that intuition and inspiration ought to be enough to develop great products. True innovation, they claim, comes from maverick geniuses like Henry Ford, who supposedly said that if he’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said “faster horses”.

The thing is, Ford was right. And that’s why at Kadence International, concept testing is about much, much more than just asking people what they want. 

Good concept testing doesn’t have to mean missing out on ground-breaking innovation or settling for mediocre ideas. It means getting under the skin of your customer and letting their feelings and needs inspire solutions with the most potential.

Sure, asking people what they want or what concept they prefer is part of the story – but only part of it. You also need to tap into the psychology and emotions that drive real world consumer behavior, and put it all in the context of the trade-offs that consumers make regarding prices, benefits, and competitive offerings.

Concept testing the Kadence way

Concept testing is one of Kadence International’s many market research specialisms. We’ve got many years’ experience of testing concepts in numerous categories, and driving the creation of successful products and services.

Toiletries

What fragrances of shower gel would appeal to young teenagers, and what kind of imagery and language could bring them to life in a way that feels fresh and different?

We conducted research in two iterative stages. First, we ran an online survey among the target demographic to screen a set of early-stage concepts and identify the ones with the greatest appeal. The winning concepts were then explored and further refined in face-to-face focus groups, with an element of co-creation, providing the client with a robust set of high-quality concepts to develop.

Takeaway coffee

A major food and drink brand wanted to know what kinds of iced drinks could prove a hit with customers over the summer.

We ran a creative workshop with the client’s product development and research teams, to develop a series of new concepts and then visualize these with the help of our design team.  We then screened these in an online quantitative test. This allowed us to isolate the most popular concepts and acceptable price ranges. We followed up with focus groups to refine and enhance the most appealing concepts, giving the client a set of strong, worked up concepts to take into development.

Travel advertising

What kinds of imagery, messaging and language would be most effective in ads aimed at grabbing the attention of high-value travelers and attracting them to a holiday destination?

We ran an online quantitative test to evaluate a series of creative routes, looking at a number of different metrics. We began by measuring a baseline level of interest in visiting the destination, so we could identify the option that gave the greatest uplift in interest. The client was then able to create an ad campaign with the confidence that it would have the impact they wanted.

Food

A major food manufacturer wanted to gauge interest among its B2B customers in purchasing via a direct-to-customer (D2C) model, instead of through wholesalers.

We conducted a series of qualitative depth interviews looking at a set of concepts for potential D2C models. This helped the client establish which options resonated, and how they could be further enhanced.

Research methods for concept testing

At Kadence we employ a wide range of concept testing methods, including qualitative, quantitative, and combinations of both. Every project is different, and we always work with the client to come up with the right blend of techniques. 

We always begin by carefully considering what the client really needs. What do they already know, and what stage are their concepts at right now? Do they require high-level responses to a selection of concepts, or detailed feedback on one in particular? Do we need qualitative inspiration or quantitative rankings? It’s questions like these that guide our choice of methods.

Surveys

Online concept test surveys are a powerful tool. They can reach thousands of carefully targeted and engaged consumers, providing rich data that can be statistically analyzed, ranked and compared. Online surveys can present choices in a way that mimics real purchase decisions, and use statistical techniques to unpick the relative effect of different attributes such as features and price. Our market research experts design the structure, hone the questions, identify the right respondents and analyze the results to pull out the key insights.

Focus groups

Focus groups – are a tried and tested way of getting rich qualitative input. We bring a small group of consumers together – face-to-face or online – and conduct a carefully guided discussion, often with prototypes or other stimuli to spark conversation. Our skilled researchers know the questions to ask that get to the nub of the issue, how to read between the lines of people’s responses, and how to understand the group dynamic.

Depth interviews

For more detailed investigation, we conduct depth interviews with individual respondents, to explore themes and topics in a way that isn’t possible through other methods. It’s a great way to dig into what really drives people’s decisions and behavior.

Ethnography

Ethnographic research is the market research equivalent of going on safari. It’s about observing consumers in their natural habitat. We ask consumers to share pictures, make videos and keep diaries, or we simply spend some time with them one-to-one to get a window on their real lives.

Online communities

Online communities are a great way to get wide-ranging feedback from consumers. We run dedicated short-term communities specifically for your research project, where participants can explore concepts, discuss them, and contribute in text, image or video form, just like in any online community environment. We can put them in groups, set them tasks, and ask them questions. The responses we get are rich and immediate. And because communities run over a period of days or weeks rather than hours or minutes, they allow concepts to be iterated as the research progresses.

The role of design 

At Kadence we always approach concept testing with creativity, drawing on our in-house design skills..

Often the early-stage concepts we are asked to test are only roughly sketched out – it might be a selection of words on a Post-It note, or a collage of images found online. No problem. Our in-house designers and creatives flesh out the concept into something that consumers can get to grips with.

It might be a mock-up of an ad, a visual piece of stimulus to represent a new service, a model or prototype of a product, or a piece of test copy for an ad or website. We’re even piloting an augmented reality (AR) tool that will allow us to create digital 3D prototypes, so research participants can use their smartphones to see how a product would look in real life, in their own home, or wherever they happen to be. Compared to a static image, this immersive new method will take things to the next level, and we expect it to be a highly cost-effective way to deliver richer, higher quality insights.

As well as bringing design skills to our concept testing research, our approach is guided by the principles of design thinking.

The five stages of design thinking are:

  • Empathize: Start by seeing the world through your consumers’ eyes.
  • Define: Set out in clear, simple terms the challenge that you’re trying to address.
  • Ideate: Generate ideas based on what you’ve learned. (This is often the point our clients have reached when they get in touch with us – but that doesn’t mean we won’t return again to the first three stages later, to generate new ideas based on the results of testing.)
  • Prototype: This is where it gets real. Create a version of your product, service, ad or design that consumers can see, feel and provide feedback on. 
  • Test: Here’s where concept testing gets going in earnest. When it’s done, you can revisit the earlier steps and come back with something even better.

We believe this approach is a key part of what makes Kadence different.

10 Top tips for successful concept testing

1. Set clear objectives

It’s important to be as specific as possible about what your aims are. What exactly do you need to find out and what is it going to help you do or decide?

2. Don’t fall too in love with your ideas

The whole point of concept testing is to see which ideas are going to work and which aren’t. If you’re too wedded to a particular idea – or too set against another– then you risk heading down the wrong path. Let the consumer voice guide you, and have the courage to let a great idea go. It’s not the last great idea you’re going to have. 

3. Find the right people

It’s important to test concepts on a relevant group of people – those who represent the potential target audience. Kadence International has been running this kind of research for many years, and we’re experts at finding and recruiting participants – even the most  hard-to-reach audiences. Whether you’re looking for a cross-section of your potential audience, a specific subgroup or a handful of super-engaged brand advocates, we can help.

4. Bring it to life

Create stimuli that bring the concept to life in a way that feels tangible and engaging for your consumers.

5. Iterate, iterate, iterate

It can take a few tries to get a concept right, but it’s worth it (remember those stats on how many new products fail?) At Kadence, we have an in-house design team at hand who can bring ideas to life, and then iterate new designs and prototypes at speed, so we can rapidly respond to feedback, make adjustments and test again.

6. Be agile

Concept testing is different for every project, and doesn’t have to follow a rigid path. Expect to revisit and repeat the various steps until you’ve got your concept right. You never know what new ideas, issues and inspiration will come up when you put your ideas in front of consumers. Go with it.

7. Read between the lines

What consumers say out loud is the tip of the iceberg. We also need to think about how they say it, why they say it and what they don’t say. Professional market researchers are trained to see through to what consumers really think and feel – and what that means for what they will buy.

8. See the big picture

Concept testing isn’t just about scores and rankings for metrics like appeal or consideration. Look at concepts in context – think about the emotional response they elicit, what they mean for the direction you’re taking your brand, or how they might overlap with other offerings you already have on the market.

9. Work with a partner with the right processes in place to protect your early stage ideas

One of the most nerve-wracking things about concept testing is putting raw, untested early-stage designs and ideas in front of consumers. What if details end up in the wrong hands? Be sure to work only with trusted partners that have secure procedures and technologies for both online and in-person research. We’ve been doing concept testing research for years at Kadence, so we have stringent processes in place, and our research platforms include built-in security features that allow images to be watermarked, and videos to self-destruct after viewing. In over a decade, we’ve never seen a leak.

10. It's never over

Once your product is launched and out there for real, you’re bound to learn new things, or want to make changes to adapt to fast-moving markets. Be ready to test out new ideas and keep iterating, so your product can keep getting better and better. 

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