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Six ways to test your products on a shoestring budget

Stephen Phillips, chief happiness officer at market research agency Spring Research, reveals how you can test your products thoroughly without spending a fortune

Get some feedback from friends and family

But not your friends and family - get a friend to ask their friends and family for feedback. Don't ask the questions yourself. While it may seem easy to ask your own friends and family, it is not advisable. They will see the passion in your eyes and the danger is that they will be over-enthusiastic. They may also want to avoid hurting your feelings and feel reluctant to tell you the truth if they don't like your products. As a result, you'll get a heightened belief in your product and that could send you on the wrong track.

Approach people in your target market

If your product or service is very targeted - for example, if you are only aiming at young, wealthy women - then you need to tap into the right network. If you are going for a niche, it's good to get a friendship group together. Find someone who fits the profile of your ideal customer and ask them to bring along a group of like-minded friends.

The ideal group size is about five to eight people. You can ask about all aspects of your offering including the product itself, its positioning, distribution strategy, price, packaging and promotion and its strengths and weaknesses. Again, it helps if you don't ask the questions yourself but have someone else do it. In a group it's more important that people can express what they feel so you want a free-flowing conversation, not a rigid structure. It's worth doing two or more sessions to get a spread of opinion. You could offer the participants a few bottles of wine as a thank you.

Listen to those with strong views

Qualitative research such as focus groups is not always about finding common ground. If four people love your product and two hate it, that's much better than six people who like it a bit. Those four are much more likely to buy it. Listen to those that love the product and ask them why - you can use what they love to focus on in your promotion. Equally, honest feedback from people who don't like your product can help you refine and improve your offer. You need to listen to the disparate views and find out what's motivating them.

Do some quantitative research

While qualitative research, such as focus groups, can help you to fine-tune your product early on in the development process, towards the end of this stage you need to do some quantitative testing. So if you've got a new type of bicycle, for example, and you've had lots of feedback on the style and design and you're ready to go, you can then do the quantitative work to find out if there's a big enough market for it and who to target it at. If 27% love it, you need to find out who they are, work out their profile, find out where they are and target them. A simple survey can be done on the phone, on paper or on your website to give you these kind of numbers.

Ask a question in an omnibus survey

If your product or service can be summed up in a sentence then you can get cheap research if you buy a question in an omnibus survey by the likes of TNS or Ipsos Mori. These surveys typically ask 1,000 people that are a representative sample of UK consumers as a whole. This approach makes sense if you have a product that's aimed at a mass market. You can describe your product and ask how likely it is that the respondents would buy it on a scale of one to ten. One question like this will cost you about £300-£350. It's important to think long and hard about your question. If you get it wrong, you will have wasted time and money.

Build on-going relationships

What large companies like Procter and Gamble are now doing is creating communities of people from their target market and asking them to get involved by providing feedback on an on-going basis. You could tap into a group of people or an online community and create a dialogue with them. Ask them to help over a period of time so you can develop the product and your marketing strategy accordingly. The advantage of this approach is that these people often become advocates for your product as well.

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