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This Road is Paved with Good Intentions

We all know the famous aphorism… “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  For over 60 years, there has been hellish debate about the predictive power of purchase intent when gauging the potential of new products and services.  In short, there is a correlation between purchase intent and future behavior, but the strength of the relationship varies widely based on the type and novelty of the product.

The first reminder is that correlation measures a relationship, not causation.  As such, purchase intent is a signal and imperfect predictor.

Research has shown that the correlation between purchase intent and future behavior is stronger for durable goods vs. non-durable goods.  Durable goods are intended to be kept or consumed over a longer period.  In general, they require more resources (time, money, cognitive power, switching costs, etc.) to acquire. Thus, intention is a proxy for commitment.  There is far less “risk” in acquiring non-durable goods so the relationship between intent and behavior is weaker.

Also, the relationship between purchase intent and future behavior is much, much lower for new-to-world products versus something that is incremental and familiar.  As such, we often advocate for methods other than surveys when gauging the potential of cutting-edge ideas.

There are also considerable weaknesses in the questions asked to measure purchase intent.  Recent research proves that we need new parameters around the strength of the intention or the degree of certainty with which the intention is held.  Purchase intent is also heavily influenced by what is referred to as “implementation intentions.”  That is, understanding the prospective buyers’ plans for exactly how, when, and where an intention will be fulfilled.

So, what are we to do?

  1. Be selective on using purchase intent. It works best with close-in or familiar innovations.
  2. For very new products, gauge the potential of the idea on the degree to which it solves the known need or problem, not whether someone would buy it. This is particularly important in B2B where the user and buyer have different needs and motivations.
  3. Marry purchase intent with qualitative research that explores topics around barriers to implementation.
  4. When forecasting, factor in purchase intent, the prevalence of non-intenders, strength of intention, and perceived difficulty of implementation.
  5. Measure engagement with an idea. Oftentimes, interest is a strong predictor of purchase and is better measured qualitatively and with other emerging tools.

It is easy for managers to discount “purchase intent” as it is perceived as a “squishy” metric.  It is, but it is only one tool in the toolbox.  Metrics matter, but let’s make sure you are heading down the right road and not the one paved with good intentions.

Thanks to the following resource: “Consumers’ Purchase Intentions and Their Behavior” by Vicki Morwitz.  Foundations and Trends in Marketing, 2014.

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