Use science to successfully launch your product: concept testing and message testing

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In 2006, Microsoft launched a competitor to Apple’s iPod called the Zune. If you don’t remember Microsoft Zune, I don’t blame you. The Zune acquired less than 10% of the MP3 player market share and Microsoft discontinued it in 2012.

Of course, product innovations do not always fail. But the success rates are terribly low. Only 60% of new consumer packaged goods survive two years on the shelf. Technological and medical innovations share a similar success rate.

What distinguishes a failed product from a success? Often the answer lies in market research. Concept testing and message testing can provide critical information before a product is launched. When done well, these research approaches can protect your business from product failures. The recipe for success ? It’s based on behavioral science.

Concept Testing and Message Testing: Planning a Successful Product Launch

A product launch cycle typically involves both product development and marketing (see Figure 1). Before each of these steps, carrying out a market study can provide an overview of the procedure to follow.

Prior to product development, concept testing validates whether a product’s benefits and features strike a chord with customers. Before a marketing campaign, message testing tells you which language resonates best with customers.

Figure 1. Example product launch cycle

The difference between concept testing and message testing

Understanding the difference between concepts and messages is essential for designing concept and message tests. Additionally, it is important to understand Why the difference matters.

A concept is more than an idea but not yet a final product. It describes the value proposition of a product. It outlines the main benefits of the product and how it will solve a specific customer problem. A concept appeals to customers’ rationality with a compelling proposition. The results of a concept test reveal which concept(s) best connect with your customer and why a concept is likely to succeed.

A message is the Language used to market your product, rather than a representation of the product itself. A message appeals to the customer’s intuition with just a few key words. The results of a message test help you choose a message that grabs customers’ attention.

How to perform concept and message testing

Concept and message testing may seem simple, but careful design is needed to achieve insightful results.

In an ideal world, we could test concepts and messages in a real environment. This would give us confidence in our results. Yet time, money, and ethics prevent us from studying people in natural environments. (I personally prefer scrolling through TikTok alone with my morning coffee, not in the presence of a market researcher.)

Instead, we do the next best thing. We design methods that approximate how people think and behave in a situation. If the test can capture real human judgments, we can draw real conclusions from the study. In behavioral science, a study that passes this test is considered ecologically sound.

Systems 1 and 2 thinking informs research design

How to ensure the ecological validity of concept and message tests? While pursuing my PhD, I studied how children and adults make sense of the world around them. The work of Daniel Kahneman was the basis of my research. In his bestseller think fast and slowKahneman describes two styles of cognitive processing: intuition (System 1) and reasoning (System 2).

System 1 thinking is fast, automatic, and emotional. System 2 triggers when we react to a Super Bowl ad or see an ad on TikTok. We form an impression within seconds of having the information presented. System 2 thinking is slow, deliberate, and rational. This comes into play when we make intentional decisions like buying stocks or choosing which college to attend.

We can design concept and message testing through the lens of Systems 1 and 2 processing. This allows us to understand how the human mind actually works.

Translating Cognitive Processing into Market Research

When evaluating a concept, a client thinks critically. The experience somewhat mirrors that of making a purchasing decision. The process consists of weighing the benefits of a product with its characteristics (“How good is this new anti-aging serum on the market?”) and whether they to believe they will obtain the promised benefits communicated in the concept (“Am I convinced by the clinical evidence of the efficacy of the serum?”). In this way, the evaluation of a concept is based on rational and deliberate thinking of System 2.

The experience of evaluating a marketing message (eg, a company’s email signature) is an example of system thinking 1. Messages hit the mark in seconds or they never do. In today’s media clutter, message impressions happen at the gut level and need to stand out to have an impact.

We translate these experiences into a survey, often conducted online. Simple design differences in a survey can trigger the processing of System 1 versus System 2.

A concept test begins with a highlighter task in which respondents highlight what they like and dislike about the concept. This exercise naturally induces deliberate thinking and streamlining, invoking System 2 processing. Once clients have had time to absorb the content, they rate the concept on business-specific performance indicators (eg. example, would you recommend this product?). At the end of the survey, respondents choose which of several concepts they would buy. The timing of the exercises is intentional. Respondents have time to rationalize, so they make intentional decisions based on reason. The survey will always be short, often no more than 15 minutes. But the order and nature of the questions encourage slow, critical thinking.

A message test should invoke system processing 1. Respondents are asked to choose between messages immediately after exposure. After the choice task, they write down what messages they remember. These exercises prompt respondents to indicate their visceral preferences. Thus, the tasks measure the intuitive appeal and mental availability of messages.

Quality market research today bases its methods on scientific findings, including behavioral economics. When applied to product launches, it can prevent you from making crucial decisions in a vacuum. It’s important to challenge internal assumptions and listen to your customers. What do they want? What language will resonate with them? Concept and message testing can answer these questions and ultimately prepare your product launch for success.


About Christina Tworek

Dr. Christina Tworek is the Director of Advanced Analytics at GLG, leading the team responsible for running quantitative methods. She holds a doctorate in psychology with expertise in research methods, survey design and statistics.

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