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The Uselessness of “Purchase Intent”


In spite of being notoriously unreliable, asking whether your target customer intends to purchase your new-to-world product is fairly standard in research to support product development decisions.  And, it can be completely useless information.

Purchase intent has some value in fast-moving consumer goods where the metric is captured during concept testing, and then married with eventual sales.  After numerous product launches, these ratios can help winnow down concepts that are more likely to do better in the marketplace.  However, if you have a new-to-world concept, are a B2B marketer, or in a niche space, there are few (if any) comparisons.  Knowing that 40% of those surveyed are “likely to purchase” something never seen before is, well, academic.

Think of it this way:  as human beings, many of us tend not to recognize problems that have no immediate solutions.  A review of past “new-to-world” product launches explains the conundrum.  When the cellular telephone was introduced, the intent-to-purchase numbers were very low—people simply could not imagine why they would need to be in touch 24/7.  The microwave oven was another example that would never have been launched if marketers had relied on intent-to-purchase numbers.

So, what should you do?

Learn to rely more on the voice of the customer, and not be bogged down by making a go/no-go decision only on quantitative metrics like purchase intent.  Throughout your innovation process, incorporate these proven techniques:

  • Learn the secret of insight-based innovation.  Research indicates that many successful product launches are based on meeting an unarticulated need.  That is, designing solutions based on a deep understanding or belief of the target customer.  It’s not easy, and this is never accomplished via a survey.
  • Tap into people’s imagination.  When getting feedback on new-to-world concepts, you often have to ask participants to imagine how they might use the product, or to describe a person who would benefit from the idea.  This relies on sophisticated projective techniques.  Done properly, it can shed tremendous insight on the concept’s value proposition.
  • Ask the right people for feedback.  Not all of us have the innate ability and imagination to project how we might use a new concept.  Studies estimate that the proportion of these highly-intuitive types is less than 20% of the population.  You may need to conduct additional screening to find those that can give you feedback beyond the here-and-now, but it’s worth the effort.
  • Listen for the intensity of feedback.  In every new product launch, there will be early adopters.  While they may be small in number, it is their intensity that matters.  Find those people who raise their hand and say, “I’ve got to have this, right now.”  Understand the reasons for their enthusiasm, and use your intuition to determine if these reasons can eventually apply to the masses.
  • Follow Your Gut. The role of vision and courage in new product development cannot be underestimated. While marketing research has an important role in all of the phases of bringing new products and services to market, at the end of the day, you may just have to take that leap. However, by developing a deep understanding of consumers’ needs, and the problem you are solving for them, you can increase your chances of a safe landing.


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