The other day, I was on the phone with an innovation veteran with decades of experience in front-end innovation and R&D. Traditionally on the hook for developing new product technologies, his latest challenge surprised me: how to drive traffic to a landing page. This is emblematic of a shift I’ve observed in many innovators: in addition to working upstream, they are increasingly swimming downstream, responsible for building, vetting and piloting their ideas in the wild (real people in real selling conditions) to ensure their in-market viability.
So, how did we get to the point where material engineers and product designers are finding themselves in the world of go-to-market strategies and conversion funnels? And, perhaps more importantly, how can you prove market demand (or lack thereof) earlier on, leaving more time and money for refinement prior to launch?
The answer to the first question is simple. The traditional, long-used validation methods have proven to be poor indicators of success. At LPK, methods such as BASES tests and focus groups are being scrutinized by clients not just for their long timelines and big budgets, but also because they aren’t proving to be reliable predictors of in-market success. Time and time again, concepts (be they written concepts or sketches on paper) that test well with consumers still fail to meet their desired results in the real world.
This is because the responses these consumers give are out of context. With traditional methods, concepts are tested in an imaginary world where consumers over-idealize their wants and needs, and often respond with an aim to please the funders of the research project. When consumers respond in a focus group, they aren’t grounded in the real context and considerations that actually affect a purchase decision—whether budget constraints, comparison shopping or even basic desire for the offering. The issue of no market need is a top reason for innovation failure (42%), and has resulted in more pressure on innovators to prove consumer demand—and fast.
I recently read a review of a well-funded, heavily marketed startup that was ruthlessly described as “an idea born in an LA conference room that will probably die in the real world.” If this company does fail to reach its projections, it won’t be for lack of optimism, funding, endorsements or top-notch creative execution. Rather, it will be the same painful story that every innovator knows too well: it couldn’t survive the harsh habitat of the real world, where consumers are discerning and unforgiving.
The discriminating nature of the real world is why innovators, like the one mentioned at the outset, are stretching themselves from upstream R&D to using traditional downstream methods and strategies for building and testing with consumers. Adopting these methods ensures innovators are building solutions that can survive in real commercial conditions.
While the specific methods and tactics are varied and nuanced, the essence of this approach is to measure what people do, not what they say. If prototyping is widely used to test feasibility and functionality, Proto-Selling is specifically designed to test consumer demand and viability. And just like prototyping, it should be done early and often.
At LPK, we have run Proto-Selling experiments for a wide variety of businesses, brands, products and services, testing everything from new brand propositions to claims messaging; product concepts to innovative consumer services. While each is uniquely designed to solve specific business objectives, assumptions and learning goals, every Proto-Selling initiative shares the same five core elements, created to keep the validation as real as possible.
1. Real Consumers
One of the most important elements of conducting a Proto-Selling experiment is to get real consumers. Real consumers, or actual prospects, are central to the entire process. It is easy to fall into the trap of over-idealizing fictional personas and IDTs (inspirational design targets) at the cost of engaging with real consumers. Defining, targeting and attracting real people to engage with your new product, service or brand requires understanding and articulating your consumers’ wants and needs in a very nuanced way. This process will quickly identify what you do and do not know about what they want, and how they ultimately behave.
2. Real Stores & Sites
When testing in the wild, context is key. Recruiting consumers for an out-of-context survey likely means they aren’t your real consumers. It also means they aren’t in their real contexts. The evaluation and consideration criteria when completing a survey is very different than when buying a product. That’s why it’s so important to show up, largely unannounced, in real contexts. By showing up in people’s everyday feeds, searches or stores, we can find your actual consumers and measure their real consideration and purchase behavior on real sites and stores.
3. Real Purchase Behavior
If the goal of these tests is to measure what they do, then tracking real behavior really matters. Real behavior falls on a spectrum of interest to intent. Engagements on social media are important, but ultimately only show behavioral interest. However, actions like initiating checkouts, adding items to carts, or taking pre-orders are far greater indicators of real purchase behavior. The results are much more reliable when real consumers vote with their real-time information or even money.
4. Real (Prototype) Propositions
Depending on where you are in the development process, your product or service can be at a variety of stages of “real.” In some cases, it is simply just an idea. You have a functional prototype or a “Wizard of Oz service,” where the appearance of machine-driven functionality is actually human-controlled. Or, perhaps you have short-run manufacturing or beta programs in place. While the level of development will ultimately inform how you direct, engage and manage these users, one thing must remain constant: it needs to seem real. Unlike a concept test or a wireframe mock-up, the offering needs to look and feel real to test in the wild. This definitely doesn’t mean you over-promise and under-deliver, but it does mean cementing your product vision, then bringing it to life through an iterative MVP (minimum viable product) development process.
5. Real Brands
The question of brand is often overlooked when testing in the real world. In-the-wild tests don’t live in a vacuum, and no product lives in isolation. Therefore, the brand matters. In many cases we are using this method to build new brands, testing the entire proposition and building an audience from scratch. However, for corporate innovators we start by first identifying the role of the brand. Is the master brand association of this new product or brand critical to our learning objectives and long-term success? If so, it’s critical to test our ideas in relation to their brand.
Additionally, some innovators don’t have permission to test with their master brand. In these instances, we turn to our Guide to Minimum Viable Brands to build brands that are right-sized in the short-term and well-positioned in the long run.
While mantras like “fake it ‘til you make it” are becoming ubiquitous, especially in startup and DTC (direct-to-consumer) culture, true validation should focus on being real—how closely we can mimic reality. It’s important to ask ourselves simple questions like, how do we envision this looking at scale? Then, be creative about how we can quickly and inexpensively create or leverage as many of those elements as possible early and often in our development processes.
When done properly, this shouldn’t feel like a smoke-and-mirror show. Instead, it’s opening up your ideas and concepts to the world, living out a mindset that prioritizes “going live” over arduous, expensive launches and focuses on consumer engagement to direct how the idea is built and refined over time.
Steve Blank, the godfather of the startup movement, has famously said, “No business plan survives its first contact with customers.” It is this very reason that innovators are turning their once-private, stage-gated processes into externally facing, iterative experiments. Testing early and often with Proto-Selling allows innovators to build, test and learn what it will take to ensure their latest venture can not only survive in the wild, but thrive.