Use Science to Make Your Product Launch Successful: Concept Testing and Message Testing
Read time: 5 minutes
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.
Surely, product innovations don’t always fail. But success rates are distressingly low. Only 60% of new consumer packaged goods survive two years on the shelf. Technology and healthcare innovations share a similar success rate.
What distinguishes a product miss from a hit? Often, the answer lies in market research. Concept testing and message testing can provide vital insight ahead of a product launch. When executed well, these research approaches can protect your business from product failure. The recipe for success? It’s grounded in behavioral science.
Concept Testing and Message Testing: Planning a Successful Product Launch
A product launch cycle generally involves both product development and marketing (see Figure 1). Before each of these steps, conducting market research can provide insight into how to proceed.
Ahead of product development, concept testing validates if a product’s benefits and features strike a chord with customers. Before a marketing campaign, message testing tells you what language best resonates with customers.
Figure 1. Example of Product Launch Cycle
The Difference Between Concept Testing and Message Testing
Understanding the difference between concepts and messages is key to designing concept and message tests. Moreover, it’s important to understand why the difference matters.
A concept is more than an idea but not yet a final product. It describes a product’s value proposition. It introduces the product’s key benefits and how it will solve a specific customer problem. A concept appeals to customers’ rationality with a persuasive proposition. The results of a concept test reveal which concept(s) best connect with your customer and why a concept is likely to be successful.
A message is the language used to market your product, rather than a representation of the product itself. A message appeals to customers’ intuition with a few spot-on key words. The results of a message test help you choose a message that grabs customers’ attention.
How to Conduct Concept and Message Testing
Concept and message testing may seem simple, but a careful design is necessary for insightful results.
In an ideal world, we could test concepts and messages in a real-world setting. Doing so would give us confidence in our results. Yet, time, money, and ethics keep us from studying people in natural environments. (Personally, I prefer to scroll TikTok alone with my morning coffee, and 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 make real conclusions from the study. In behavioral science, a study that passes this test is considered ecologically valid.
System 1 and System 2 Thinking Inform Research Design
How do we ensure ecological validity in concept and message testing? While pursuing my doctorate, I studied how children and adults make sense of the world around them. The work of Daniel Kahneman was foundational to my research. In his bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes two styles of cognitive processing: intuition (System 1) and reasoning (System 2).
System 1 thinking is fast, automatic, and emotional. System 2 kicks in when we react to a Super Bowl commercial or see an advertisement on TikTok. We form an impression within seconds of having the information presented. System 2 thinking is slow, deliberate, and rational. It kicks in when we make intentional decisions like buying stock or choosing which college to attend.
We can design concept and message testing through the lens of System 1 and System 2 processing. Doing so allows us to capture how the human mind really works.
Translating Cognitive Processing to Market Research
When evaluating a concept, a customer thinks critically. The experience somewhat mirrors that of making any purchasing decision. The process involves weighing the benefits of a product with its features (“What is the quality-to-value ratio of this new anti-aging serum on the market?”) and whether they believe they will get the promised benefits communicated in the concept (“Am I convinced by the clinical evidence of the serum’s effectiveness?”). In this way, evaluating a concept relies on rational, deliberate System 2 thinking.
The experience of evaluating a marketing message (e.g., a company’s email signature) is an example of System 1 thinking. Messages either hit the mark within seconds or they never do. In today’s media clutter, message impressions happen at a gut level and need to stand out to have an impact.
We translate these experiences to a survey, often conducted online. Simple design differences in a survey can elicit System 1 over System 2 processing.
A concept test starts with a highlighter task in which respondents highlight what they like and dislike about the concept. This exercise naturally induces deliberate thought and rationalization, invoking System 2 processing. After customers have had time to absorb the content, they rate the concept on business-specific performance indicators (e.g., 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 still be short, often not more than 15 minutes. But the order and nature of questions encourage slow, critical thinking.
A message test should invoke System 1 processing. Respondents are asked to choose between messages immediately upon exposure. Following the choice task, they write what they recall from the messages. These exercises prompt respondents to provide their gut preferences. As such, the tasks measure the intuitive appeal and mental availability of the messages.
High-quality market research today bases its methods on scientific findings, particularly 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 set your product launch up for success.
About Christina Tworek
Dr. Christina Tworek is Director of Advanced Analytics at GLG, leading the team responsible for executing quantitative methods. She holds a PhD in psychology with expertise in research methods, survey design, and statistics.