One of my clients recently asked me a very interesting question. I share it here, as I am sure that you too have asked it yourself from time to time. It was this: “Should I test my advertising and if so, when and how?”

Depending upon whether you work on the client side, in a media agency or are a creative in an ad agency, you will certainly answer this in a different way. So let’s review all the pros and cons, and decide what is right – for you – in different circumstances.

Should you always test advertising?

If you work on the client side and ask your colleagues in an advertising agency, most of them would probably scream NO and that’s not surprising! Countless teams have suffered at the hands of market research and the over-testing of their creative.

In the past sixty years or so, there have been many different metrics invented, with the intention of evaluating which of a client’s communication concepts would best meet their objectives. And that for me is one of the biggest challenges to ad-testing. Should you test a campaign or each individual ad? Should you test an ad built to increase awareness, in the same way as one built for encouraging trial, purchase, repurchase, loyalty or advocacy? My answer would be a very Swiss “It depends!”

Firstly you have to be clear about why you are advertising in the first place, and what your campaign is trying to achieve. It still amazes me how many companies develop new campaigns simply because that’s what they do each year. Hopefully, each new campaign has a link to the preceding one, but even that is not always obvious. Therefore, start by being very clear with whom you want to communicate and why – and share that information with your ad agency.

When to test

A lot of companies have a standard process of testing ads before airing. Whilst this could be admired, it often results in multiple ad developments in order to get a better “score”. The feeling is that more is better. If you test two, three or more ads, you can then choose the “winner” to air. What’s wrong with that?

Well, in my opinion, quite a lot. You’ve just wasted a lot of time, money and energy in developing multiple ads, when you know you’ll most probably only use one. It’s time to think differently and spend your valuable resources more wisely. Once the ad agency has developed a number of campaign concepts or ideas that meet your carefully defined objectives, then that is a better time to test.

Don’t wait until you have gone further and produced animations, final prints or complete films before testing. If you wait until that late a stage in the development process, you are also more likely to designate a “winner” when in fact they could all be good – or bad! Working with concepts will help identify the real winning ideas you have, which can then be developed into a final version or two for copytesting – if you must, but more on that later. The earlier you test, the more resources your ad agency can concentrate on the most relevant concept(s), rather than diluting their efforts to give you the wide choice you usually demand. No wonder ad agencies don’t like copytesting!

The earlier you test, the more resources your ad agency can use on developing the most relevant concept(s), rather than diluting their efforts to give you the wide choice you usually demand. No wonder ad agencies don’t like copytesting!

new product concept testing

What to test

Another reason for testing concepts rather than finished ads is to ensure that they can be turned into a campaign. I have witnessed many terrific, so-called “big ideas” that were superb as they stood, but which it was impossible to visualise other than in the single form proposed. If you show your early work to consumers, they might even be inspired by the story of an idea and suggest other ways to show the concept you have developed and thus, you get an indication of the campaignability of the idea.

For regional and global campaigns, there is often the added complication of the translation of the idea into other languages. There are many concepts in English that don’t or only poorly translate into other languages. English is a wonderful language that is particularly appropriate for advertising, because of the ability to make wordplays or use idioms, acronyms, slang, compound words and other wonders of its grammar. In addition, the English language is known for its extensive vocabulary, which is especially useful in advertising copy-writing. Whereas in another language you might only have one or two words to express a particular meaning, English may have five or six, each with subtle differences.

If you’d like to see some great examples of advertising messages “lost in translation” check out this fun article from Business News Daily. Or for even more laughs, I would definitely recommend Matt Haig’s book, Brand Failures: The Truth About the 100 Biggest Branding Mistakes of All Time.

How to test

Depending upon their “standard” processes, most companies will tend to use the same methodology, with no regard for the reasons for doing so. Are you used to copytesting all your developments in order to pick the “winner”, or to get one approved by management for airing? Some clients I know must score in the “top quadrant” on the usual copytesting impact and persuasion metrics in order to use an ad, even though there are valid reasons to accept lower scores on one or other of these metrics, depending upon the campaign’s objectives.

Some of the best – and most useful – campaign testing I have ever been involved in was done qualitatively! But that alone won’t work unless you allow the creatives, market research and insight groups to discuss the results together – ALONE! It was exciting to share consumer opinions with the creatives and they found it equally stimulating to share their ideas and get feedback based on real consumer input. Whoever said that creatives don’t like testing are wrong; they just dislike judgemental, sometimes disrespectful and bland numerical “scoring” with little if any depth of analysis.

A powerful testing methodology I have had the privilege to work with is the unique one proposed by PhaseOne. Their scientifically based, proprietary technique, is based on over thirty years experience of academic work and real-world validation. Their knowledge base includes an extensive foundation including analytics in human behaviour, anthropology, culture traits, entertainment, education, communications, and marketing. This enables them to accurately explain how your target will react to your messages and even more importantly the reasons why,

PhaseOne can accurately explain how your target will react to your messages and even more importantly the reasons why, without actually speaking with consumers! This is extremely useful for ground-breaking competitive ideas you want to keep secret before their launch. In comparative testing versus standard copytesting, their technique has been shown to give similar outcomes, but with greater depth and understanding of the reasons why consumers react to an ad as they do and not just the what. If you’d like to hear more about this unique methodology, especially if you’re having trouble speaking with your own target customers due to legal or confidentiality issues, I’d be happy to share some case studies.

In summary, when it comes to testing your advertising:

  1. Advertising testingKnow with whom you want to communicate.
  2. Know what your target audience wants to hear.
  3. Know why you are communicating, what the message is that you want to send.
  4. Know which concept(s) have the most resonance with both your target audience and objectives, and why.
  5. Know how the concept(s) will develop into a campaign across media.
  6. Know how you are going to communicate, the most relevant medium and channels for your target audience.

Can you answer all six questions before pre-testing you own ads? If so, well done; if not, isn’t it time to review your own advertising and communications testing processes?

Where testing came from & where it’s going

In conclusion, a few words about the future of pre-testing. Although advertising testing supposedly started in the mid-1800’s, it was in the 1950’s that performance metrics became the holy grail of clients, ad agencies, and media sellers alike. From Day-After-Recall to persuasion, and brand linkage to moment-by-moment systems, it wasn’t until this decennial that the importance of emotional rather than rational responses to advertising gained support.

Today, emotional analysis has become widely available and customers’ reaction to the ads are measured, usually on the six universal emotions – happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, anger. Whilst it’s still early days in understanding the connection between emotional reactions and brand impact, things are moving fast.

Interestingly, when I was doing research for this post, almost all the more recent articles I found were about the testing of online advertising, comparing PPC and positioning of the usual paid, earned and owned media. While the internet is the fastest growing medium for advertising globally, it is only expected to surpass traditional television in 2020. In addition, according to Statista, consumers still trust traditional media more than new media, so it seemed appropriate for me to concentrate on the current leading media and leave online for a future post.

Also, I have covered only pre-testing here, yet I know many companies who are satisfied with running only post-tests. They admit that it is because they never have enough time to pre-test their ads which, at least to me, highlights a clear lack of concept testing in the first place. Hopefully, I have explained why I think it is important, no vital, for clients, media and ad agencies alike, to do more of it. At least, it will provide more material for those development discussions – before it’s too late!

Do you agree? Have I forgotten something? Let me know, I’d love to hear what you think.

The images used come from Denyse’s new book Winning Customer Centricity, on sale on Amazon, iBooks and in all good bookstores.

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