Why Your Message Testing isn’t Working and How to Fix it.

Market research plays a vital role in maximizing the potential of brands.  At its best, it delivers the kind of information and insight that paves the way for teams to make smarter, more impactful and compelling decisions that drive growth in the marketplace.  A big part of that effort is helping teams shape marketing ideas. It’s no big surprise that it’s a hotly competitive world out there. Attention spans are shorter than ever. Which makes it critically important that all efforts inspire communications that deliver superior breakthrough and persuasion.

To that end, marketers invest a lot of energy to craft a winning message, THE one that is going to drive activations and inspire teams to create ideas that deliver on the breakthrough/persuasion priority.  The process is some variation of team brainstorming to get a list of alternatives, editing it down to a set of viable options, cross-referencing them against past research, then putting ideas through heavy vetting, revising, and re-revising. Those that come out the other end are now worthy to move on to message testing.

Now, it’s time to find “THE ONE” like Neo from “The Matrix.”  Which one will take us to the promised land? Which one will deliver on our goals and KPIs? Which one will be most well-liked, drive prescribing intent and convey all the attributes we desire? Of course, this diligence makes a lot of sense given the potential impact of the decision. After all, it’s only meant to guide millions of dollars of time and energy investment.

OK, so after all that then why do so few messages that make it through testing with flying colors translate to real-world success and strong ROI? You did all the right things; you went through the logical steps. The research should have given you the winner. So, where’s the disconnect?

Standard Approach to Message Testing

The fact is that communication testing bears little resemblance to what goes on in the real world. It lacks the context, challenges, unforeseen issues and hidden influences that ideas inevitably encounter. It’s like training a pilot on an Xbox flight simulator…no turbulence, wind shear, mechanical failure or birds flying into the engine. You think that person is prepared for what’s out there?

Better preparing messages for the real world starts by coming to grips with a simple truth. For all the logical approaches used to create a selling proposition, in the real-world, decisions are not entirely rational. This is something most of us intuitively know, and the truth is it’s not a new idea. But a lot of studies by a lot of super-smart people give us concrete ways and constructs for how our brains work to make decisions.

System 1 is the unconscious, effortless and automatic mode. It’s impulsive, quick on the draw. Then there’s System 2, the more conscious, deliberate and controlled approach that slows things down to examine facts and create rationales. Both are useful, but we’re in System 1 land 95 percent of the time. It’s what spurs choices. Sometimes they make sense, other times not, but that’s just how we roll. Yet, traditional research is so steeped in System 2 techniques and approaches. And you wonder why there is a “test-to-real-world” translation problem.

System 1 v. System 2 Thinking

One hallmark of System 1 is heuristics, a fancy word for biases. We’ve all got them, and we all use them. They are the unconscious means by which we make sense of things, cut down options, and make choosing easier. Of course, they are also largely emotional spurs, meaning they don’t always lead to actions that maximize our self-interest.

They are at play no matter who you are, from the average Joe/Jane to the business professional. Take, for instance, doctors. They’re all about practicing evidence-based medicine, live by clinical data and objective facts. While true, they’re also human, with biases borne out of events and experiences, peer pressure, attitudes towards treatment selection or goals, and even the nature of their patients. Without understanding what’s at play, you’ll be flying blind, creating “canned” messages that will face headwinds you never saw coming.

To illustrate, years ago we worked on A1 Steak Sauce. To combat volume losses among middle-aged brand lovers eating less steak at home, we deployed an extended meat-usage strategy; put it on burgers, chicken, etc. It’s meat’s best friend. It’s got spices that bring out the flavor of food. They love the brand so of course, they’ll do it? Well, not exactly. We needed to figure out why, so we went and did some research.

It turns out there was a hidden conflict. Many of those we talked to grew up in modest circumstances where the family could only afford lower quality steak, so A1’s job was to mask toughness and up the taste. Fast forward to them now…established, successful and able to afford better meat. Their friends, peers and others say, “Hey, good meat doesn’t need anything.” They say to themselves, “I’m living a certain life and damn right I know good meat.” Classic dissonance…I love your taste but not what it says to others about my taste. This nugget gave us a far better way to frame message.

So, if you want your next message test results to better translate to real-world success, ask yourself these five questions:

  1. Do I know the ‘filters’ people are using to process my message? Benefits and reasons to believe don’t mean a hill of beans if you don’t frame them in the context of people’s preconceptions and biases. Failure to account for those in the early stages means you’ll be at the whim of forces outside of your control.
  2. Am I getting reactions that reflect how people really work? In the research world, people will give you an hour and lots of reasons why they think they feel how they feel. In the real world, you’ve got about five seconds before they lean in or tune out. It defies reason that a System 2 evaluation will translate into a System 1 world.
  3. Am I asking people to make choices here the way that they make them out there? Here’s my message, now would you buy my brand? Well, that all depends. We buy brands of alcohol based on where or with whom we’re Doctors write prescriptions for certain patients with certain situations in different ways. We make dinner decisions based on circumstances. We make context-driven choices that most testing fails to account for.
  4. Am I accounting for what my competitors are doing? Your messages live amongst competitors. You need to know how they’ll stack up, but a lot of testing doesn’t take that directly into account. It’s like a coach who never watches competitor game film…Vegas is betting against them for sure.
  5. Am I focused on the right KPIs? We all love it when people fawn over our ideas but realize that isn’t always the job. People resist change so driving it means at times breeding discomfort, sowing discontent, staging interventions that jar them off their moorings. The focus should be on behavior change, which is the only metric that matters.

At Shapiro+Raj, we’ve incorporated this approach into a unique method we call Behavior Impact™. This behavioral economics-inspired method takes a holistic accounting of the conscious and unconscious drivers of choice. It applies real-world context to capture the impact, and can help you identify, leverage and assess the optimal ways to frame your ideas for maximum engagement, breakthrough, and persuasion. Contact us to learn more about Behavioral Impact™.