Concept Testing: The Most Important Step for Social Marketing Research

The biggest change in formative research that social marketers are still learning how to do well is concept testing. As I described it in my book, concept testing is the phase of research “in which options for the target behavior and its associated value or benefits are validated among members of the priority group” (p. 185). It is VERY different from pretesting draft messages (in all their formats) and prototypes of products and services before putting them into final form. If I can do only one type of formative research, I always choose concept testing. Why?

Concept testing pits the ‘expert-driven’ decisions of what behavior people ‘should’ engage in and the theoretical hypotheses of ‘why’ they are (or are not) motivated to do so against the realities of the priority group we seek to serve. Concept testing focuses social marketers on being close to people, audience-driven versus maintaining an expert role in which decisions are made and carried out without considering the POV and voice of people. Decisions about what people are expected to be able to do, versus what their capabilities, resources and circumstances allow them to do are rarely examined by these experts. What motivates people to do what they do, or decide to engage in a new behavior, are presumed to be ‘determinants’ of behavior – not the actual thoughts, emotions and experiences people have when confronted by our messages, products and services. If our assumptions about what’s feasible and desirable for people to do are not challenged with concept testing, our messages, materials, products and services are doomed. Too many ‘pretests’ are in reality ‘disaster checks,’ and while the participants in these tests are often kind to us in their responses, lukewarm receptions do not bode well for effective behavioral, organizational or social change. And receiving negative feedback on our work often comes too late in the planning and budgeting of projects to allow for much else than cosmetic changes. The fundamental flaws in the strategy are beyond repair.

Concepts are the ‘big ideas’ for your campaign or program. They bring your positioning statement to life (and if you aren’t crafting a positioning statement before starting down the implementation path, that’s another challenge you can read more about here). For example, the VERBTM campaign to increase physical activity among preteens had the positioning statement: “We want tweens to see regular physical activity as something that is cool and fun and better than just sitting around and watching TV or playing video games all the time.”

The first key issue that the ‘big idea’ or concept needs to grapple with are what are these ‘regular physical activity’ behaviors – walking, team sports, bicycling, swimming, etc…? Experts will decide which ones to focus on by, as more common than you think, what they see their kids doing, or their kids’ classmates, or what a recent survey has found as the most popular ones. They’ll then go on to create materials and programs that feature these activities – or just a single one – and then pretest them.

The second question a concept needs to address is: How do we make these physical activity behaviors more compelling, relevant and valuable (beneficial) to tweens than the alternatives (TV and video games)? Yes, our research may tell us that ‘cool & fun’ are the answer, but what exactly is cool & fun to tweens – and more importantly, how do we present cool & fun to tweens in a credible way and not come across as saying ‘this is what we think you think cool & fun are.’ The big idea, or concept, isn’t usually one answer to these two questions, it may be several creative ideas that we then have to choose from. And this is where people get tripped up – trying to create one concept for everybody. If you aren’t focusing on a well-defined segment, or priority group, creating concepts is nearly impossible as you try and become all things to all people. The options you create will be all over the place rather than focused and tailored to specific needs, problems, aspirations, values, lifestyles and circumstances of a priority group (formerly known as a target audience).

So what is concept testing?

Concept testing is getting the priority group’s input into the decision of which big idea to go with in designing your program. Concepts are often presented on simple display boards with a top line (header) that specifies the behavior we think fits our priority group (is potentially do-able by them in their circumstances) and a bottom line (footer) of what the motivation or value is in doing it from what we think is their POV. I deliberately used ‘think’ twice in the last sentence to highlight that concept testing is hypothesis testing; we experts are trying to find out if we have guessed, deduced, or intuited the correct answers to our two questions of behavior and motivation/value. In many practices of concept testing, a simple header and footer is the first step – one set for each concept. Wordiness is not a virtue for a concept. If you can’t express a header and footer in a few words, your priority group probably won’t pay attention to, understand or act on your eventual message or product. Inserting a stock photo, or drawing, between the header and footer to capture the tone, personality or brand attributes you want each concept to convey is the last step in creating a concept board. Don’t get too fixated on the image or design at this point, save the expense and labor for great graphic design after you get the right approach identified. Concept testing is not a design critique session.

I like presenting at least 2-3 (no more than 5) concept boards in focus groups because what we want is for people to be talking with each other about the ideas (and not responding to a list of questions from a moderator). It is not an ‘up or down’ vote on each concept board or idea and choosing the winner. I’ve had focus groups where people preferred that the behavior (header) on one board people be matched up with the value/benefit (footer) on another board. They might even suggest to lead with the value (make it the header and focus the big idea around the value or benefit) and put the behavior in the footer. In at least one case, the behavior that emerged from the concept testing sessions was not the one we originally had on a concept board. In another case, the PSA script that was eventually developed consisted entirely of verbatim excerpts from the transcripts of the concept testing sessions.

What we’re interested in learning in concept testing are the answers to these questions:

  • Does the behavior make sense to them – is it something they can see themselves doing?
  • Is the value or benefit of doing that behavior realistic in their lives – could they see that happening to themselves?
  • Are there other behaviors that make more sense to them than what we present?
  • Is there a better reason for engaging in the proposed behavior that we didn’t mention?
  • What do they think the image says about the behavior and the expected value/benefit?
  • How does each concept board make them feel? Inspired to change? Bored?
  • What elements do they especially like – what are their favorite header, footer and image and why?
  • Which ones seem to go best together for them (it may a total concept board, or they may rearrange them)?
  • How would they explain each concept board to a friend? What is it saying (this is why you don’t want too many words explaining the concept yet)?

As the last question hints at, the other value of concept testing is that we get the opportunity to listen to how the priority group talks about the problem, potential solutions (behaviors) and the compelling motivation to do something different as they discuss the concepts. This content is the goldmine of concept testing, not just emerging with a sense of which big idea around which to design a campaign or program. Copywriters, art directors and other creative staff can find a lot of inspiration, if not the exact words and images to use, by reviewing transcripts or recordings of concept testing sessions.

Concept testing is the closest formative research method to having participants co-create content with you and not just pass judgment on your work. While actively engaging members of the priority group in on-going campaign and prototype development is a goal for some organizations, in other settings it may not be practical or feasible. Before you jump into action as the expert after doing a few exploratory focus groups or a literature review, think about what you are missing by not listening to the ideas of your priority group. Concept testing will get your closer to the goal of being audience-centered and responsive to their needs, problems and aspirations. As I tell my students and workshop participants, if I have time and a budget for only one set of formative research activities, I will always choose concept testing.

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