Concept Testing: How to test a concept without killing it

How do you test the probable success of a product, service or concept?

Very carefully, or you will kill it.

Concept testing

Concept testing is the attempt to predict the success of a new product idea before putting it on the market. It usually involves getting people’s reactions to a statement describing the basic idea of the product. It is usually conducted as a pass/fail, go/no go test. As I will explain later, this is usually an effective way to kill good ideas. It is detested by creative people everywhere, with good reason.

Concept Development

A much more fruitful approach is Concept development: the gradual refinement of new ideas into a form that is most likely to be accepted in the marketplace. It not only gives promising ideas a fighting chance, it provides guidance for the communication of benefits, uses, packaging, advertising, sales approaches, product information, distribution, and pricing.

A risky undertaking

This is a risky undertaking for several reasons:

People cannot know how they will behave in the future, especially in hypothetical situations where the product isn’t even developed.

People are often skeptical of new ideas, and occasionally hostile to them. Radically new products shake up people’s established way of doing things, requiring them to learn new skills. This can make them feel uncertain, incompetent and harried, as they have to relearn what used to be familiar. So, new ideas are unsettling at best and a threat at worst. People often do not have the imagination to see how the new product would benefit them.

In this overloaded world, people are too busy to take the time to relearn how they do things for what they see as a small improvement.

These people are not likely to receive a new product with open arms. So, even “obviously” good ideas which were ultimate successes, like automated teller machines, extended battery-life pacemakers, VCR’s, and many once-a-day medications had major problems when they were first described to people in the concept testing stage of development. New product ideas presented in the form of a half-page concept statement run a terrible risk of being killed prematurely.

Concept testing can be done right

Concept testing is sometimes practiced rather naïvely. All too often, a couple of focus groups are assembled, read a simple description of the concept and people are then asked for their reactions. This approach is not only naïve, it is dangerous. How many wonderful, underdeveloped, defenseless concepts were killed when a few groups of people brutally mugged them in the dark alley of concept testing?

How to do Concept Testing right

Concept development is a very powerful tool when done right. It has saved hundreds of millions of dollars. It will let you avoid false starts, wrong positionings, poor strategy and selling to the wrong people. It is not only vital insurance, but more importantly, it guides you throughout the entire development process—from initial concept to successful launch.

Secret #1: An idea is not a product.

All too often, people forget that the idea is not the product. This seems obvious, but believe me it’s not easy to keep this in mind, especially for people who are intimately involved with the product. You can’t just present a description (the idea) of a product and expect people to react realistically. Especially if the description is presented without its associated persuasion elements. It is disastrous to believe that a new, superlative product will sell itself. You have to see your product from the point of view of your customers. A new product is unsettling to most people. It usually requires a new way of doing things. More about this later.

Secret #2: Superiority isn’t enough

People only change to new products when they perceive that there is a significant gain. In my experience, this is usually more than 30-50%. That’s huge. People have to believe it is more valuable than the money, time and comfort that they will have to give up in order to adopt it. You have to convince people that: it will ultimately be a huge improvement over what they have now, it is worth changing from what they already have, there is a relatively simple way to verify its superiority, that it will live up to its promises, plus a whole host of other issues. Marginal improvements rarely succeed in displacing a market leader.

Update: That’s why the iPhone was able to enter the established smartphone market and compete. It was a dramatic improvement in its user interface, making phones actually cool and fun to use. But the iPhone had restrictions that spawned the Jailbreaking movement. That’s why the Android phones were able to compete with the iPhone: a gigantic difference, not in user interface, but in non-AT&T availability, wider phone choice and price points, open-source apps, able to use Flash, etc. It was a significant, meaningful alternative. Other platforms are unlikely to compete.

It’s more important to be different than better, as long as the differences are meaningful. Better has to be 30% or more in order to be even noticed, more to be appreciated. A difference is 100%. Differences are noticed. Concept development refines your descriptions to make it appreciated.

Secret #3: It is not what you know your product is, but what others think it is, that determines product acceptance.

Even the most straightforward product will be perceived differently by different people. It can be seen from various perspectives, used for a variety of purposes, in different contexts, with different expectations. So, you can’t develop a product only on paper. For most products you must develop a prototype, to work out the inevitable bugs, because a product exists in the real world , not just in theory. In addition, your product must survive not only in the real world, but in psychological realty , i.e. the world as perceived by people, as filtered through their beliefs and emotions. You must be people driven, not product driven.

Secret #4: To develop your product in the psychological world, you need a psychological marketing laboratory.

A laboratory is a safe place in which to try new things. There has been no better laboratory invented for new products than focus groups. Because people are motivated to communicate in focus groups, an experienced moderator can infer what is going on in their heads and hearts. What they say is important, but how they say it, what is behind what they say and what is not said is also just as important. Surveys of people voting on whether or not they would use the product are usually very misleading.

Secret #5: Concept “testing” is not a pass/fail test.

A test is something that passes or fails, or that gets a score. As I have already mentioned, you can’t take a fragile new idea and bounce it off a bunch of people. It will usually shatter. Concepts must be developed and nurtured. Concept development is a more accurate name for the process than concept testing.


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