In 1990, Coors Brewing introduced a revolutionary new product. It was going to change everything. It was going to be in high demand. It was going to be a very good year.
It was called Coors Water. And it totally belly flopped.
It’s not that there wasn’t a need. At the time, bottled water was the fastest growing beverage category in America. And it’s not that Coors water wasn’t any good. With a broadly known slogan, “Tapped From the Rockies,” one of Coors' biggest brand differentiations was the freshness of the water used in its beers' brewing process. So what went wrong? The answer could have been uncovered -- and avoided -- had Coors simply conducted more message testing prior to the product launch.
Message testing before a launch is a good way to make sure your marketing is on target and your launch is successful. Done well, it can save you from a misguided launch or, worse, an utter flop. Message testing can scale all the way from an individual conversation with a handful of different people in your target audience, to a large-scale research effort involving surveys, competitive analysis, and focus groups. The key to getting message testing right is asking the right questions and making sure your questions aren’t inadvertently shaping the answers. Below, I’ve provided a few categories of questions you can use to begin message testing for your own launches. For the purposes of this post, I’ll provide examples for interviewing someone about a B2B product, but they can easily be reshaped for B2C companies.
5 Questions to Ask During Message Testing
1) Is there a need for what you're proposing?
This question will typically be addressed in any user testing a company does in developing the product itself, but it’s also worth revisiting during message testing. Some of the most effective marketing is messaging that is based on a genuine customer need. Understanding what those needs are and positioning your product under a framework of those needs can help prospects easily see how your product can fit into their lives. Take a look at how the following Google ad positions Google's collection of apps for business:
Instead of using the ad to talk about the features in Google, it shows the features through the challenges and achievements of the user. (Incidentally, Wistia published a great blog post about how to do this simply in 90 seconds.)
So how do you uncover a prospect’s needs? The following questions have helped us product marketers at HubSpot in past message testing:
Tell me about your department goals.
What are you chiefly responsible for?
How do your measure your success?
What challenges stand in the way of getting your job done?
Do you ever feel limited in what you can do? What’s standing in the way?
What are your top three headaches right now?
Hearing about your audience's most acute needs will help you figure out what problems your product helps to solve, and enable you to make launch videos and other product marketing collateral centered on your prospects, not your company.
2) Is our messaging focused on the right things?
In most products, there are a number of different features or benefits to choose from when crafting your messaging. The more complex the product, the more options you have. So how do you know which features are going to be the most compelling when you hit the market? Earlier this year, Apple launched a marketing campaign for the release of the iPhone 5. Wired, The Atlantic, and other publications regarded the launch as effective but “boring.” Early campaigns for the iPhone 5 focused on the reduced weight, newly designed headphones, and other features. While some liked the features Apple chose to highlight, many were unimpressed.
Often, the "needs" questions we covered in the first section will help you zone in on the best features to push. Here are some ways you can test your starting line feature set:
Say to the participant you're interviewing, "I'm going to list a series of features for an imaginary product. At the end of the list, I want you to tell me which of the features stood out to you as something you might want to know more about. If nothing stands out, say 'none.'" Then list the features in an even tone. Change the order for different interviews.
As a second question, use the same structure as above, but instead list the benefit of that feature.
List each feature, and ask the interviewee if they consider it to be: "essential," "interesting," "uninteresting," or "other." If their response is "other," ask for more clarifying information. For example, did they find that particular feature confusing?
3) Does our product name resonate with people?
"Product names generally fall into one of four different categories: good, safe, meaningless, and bad," advises Engadget's Donald Melanson. And while it's not quite as extreme as naming your first born child, choosing a product name can come with a similar level of stress. Opinions will undoubtedly abound on the topic, particularly in a company that's passionate about the products it releases. It's a good idea to get a sense of how prospective customers would describe your product. For this series of questions, you have to be particularly careful not to bias the interview.
Start out by providing a scenario that explains what the product does. In describing it, don't use any of the words you're already thinking about using for the product name. When you've finished laying out the scenario, ask the interviewee to tell you what words he or she would use to describe that functionality. Record what they say.
List a collection of product names possibilities. At the conclusion of the list, ask the interviewee to tell you any names that stood out to them, and why. If none stood out, they should say "none."
Ask, "How would you describe this product to a boss or client?"
I wouldn't recommend allowing your customers to choose the product name outright, but getting some input from customers about the words they would use to describe or name it can help you separate the "good" from the "safe" from the "meaningless" from the "bad."
4) How will the message differentiate us from our competitors?
Market differentiation is partly product and partly message. Isolating what makes your product unique from others gives you the talking points you need to help a prospective customer decide between the two. It can also help group you more closely with your target audience. It may be crystal clear to you how your company is different, but message testing can help you find out if that difference translates to the larger market. Ask your interviewees:
What other types of [product category] have you tried?
What were the strengths of each?
What were the weaknesses?
If you were advising a friend or client, in what situations would you recommend one company's product over the other?
Understanding where you overlap with your competitors and how you differ will help you answer the all-important question of why a prospect would choose to purchase your product over the others.
5) Will the message be perceived as consistent with what people have come to expect from your company?
And now we return to our old friend Coors Water. You were probably wondering just why they flopped, weren't you? In all likelihood, Coors Water didn't fail because the product wasn't any good or because it didn't have enough differentiation. I'd guess that Coors Water failed because the new product was such a far cry from what the public had come to expect from Coors: beer. As a result, it felt odd and out of place.
However, an odd product is just one way to confuse your audience. This question also extends to the tone and words you use in your marketing. For example, HubSpot's tone as a company tends to be on the casual side. We aim to talk to marketers as we'd talk to our peers and coworkers (because well, we're all marketers here). That tone is evident in everything from this very blog to the instructional copy within the HubSpot software itself:
How weird would it be if we started talking to you about "deploying communication architecture for optimal outputs?" Sooo weird. This one can be harder to test, but it helps to listen for the words customers and outsiders use when talking about your company. Consider the following as you're message testing:
Do those words align well with how they describe the product you're introducing?
Are they fairly consistent with how media or local associations view you?
Ultimately, you're trying to determine if what you're about to do sounds like something you would do. To be clear, surprising your prospects isn't a bad thing. You just want to be sure that the result of that surprise is delight, not confusion.
Once you've completed message testing, compile all the data you've collected to determine how it should best shape your product positioning. Then look for trends in the feedback or comments that were repeated across multiple people. Try not to let a single interview or opinion sway you too significantly unless it lines up with feedback you've heard elsewhere. And wherever possible, match in-depth interviews with larger scale surveys. By aggregating voices that represent your target market, you can start to extract some core lessons for your marketing platform.
Have you done any message testing or customer interviews before? What questions have helped you uncover a new insight or counter a long-held assumption?
Originally published Dec 27, 2012 2:00:00 PM, updated July 28 2017