Innovation Perspectives – Follow Their Hearts

by Mark Prus

This is the third of several ‘Innovation Perspectives‘ articles we will publish this week from multiple authors to get different perspectives on ‘How should firms identify innovation opportunities and predict market potential at very early stages and in new areas (“green fields”) and ambiguous environments?’. Here is the next perspective in the series:

Where the Heart Leads, the Head (and the Wallet!) Will Follow

by Mark Prus

Innovation Perspectives - Follow Their HeartsIdentifying and evaluating market potential of very early stage innovation opportunities is definitely more art than science. As such, it is difficult to have an algorithm that says “input A leads to result B if conditions C are present.” However, an assessment of whether an idea has a “heartbeat” can often lead to opportunities that can be successfully developed.

A well-known sales principle is that people buy on emotion and then justify the purchase with logic. In my experience, the same holds true with early stage innovation. If you can identify an innovation idea that delivers an emotional response from a consumer, then you have identified a “consumer heartbeat,” and ideas that have a heartbeat at a very early stage are usually ideas that can be developed with a high degree of confidence of consumer interest in the final product.

One caveat though is that consumers are not always good at identifying or relating to ideas that are “far out.” Often it is helpful to work with “thought leaders” who can see how your innovation can fit into the future world. If an idea gets bogged down with consumers, but the “thought leaders” think it is a winner, then maybe you need to better dimensionalize it for consumers.

I’ve tested a lot of early stage innovation ideas, and I’ve had some success at identifying a few that generated a real ‘heartbeat” among our target consumers. I usually exposed up to 50 ideas in small-scale focus groups. I believe there are two keys to success in this endeavor:

  1. Properly expose the idea to your target consumer
  2. Develop an ability to judge when people are truly interested in the idea

When I say “properly expose the idea to your target consumer,” I don’t mean tell your neighbor about it and expect her to jump for joy. Don’t waste time talking to biased people who are not your target market who may tell you what you want to hear. At the very early stage of innovation, you need a quick go/no go decision, and keeping an idea on the list means spending time and money developing it…and by default that means not spending time and money on another idea. So make sure you talk to unbiased target market members who don’t care about your feelings and are willing to tell you when you have a dumb idea!

“Properly expose” is pretty easy as well–you need to find a way to bring your idea to life so that people can understand what you are talking about. Sometimes the best you can do is to write a sentence or two on a 3” X 5” card (a “White Card Concept”), which is not always the best way to go because you are counting on the ability of the person to take the words and formulate a proper vision of your idea. Remember, just because the words on the page speak to you, that does not mean they will speak to everyone! People who work in innovation are usually highly visual and creative types who have no problem

conceptualizing, but most people aren’t as gifted. If you can do better than “words on a page,” then your odds of success will go up.

For example, some people will do a quick video to show the idea in action, or maybe they will whip up a prototype that people can touch and feel. Sometimes you can use a similar product from another category to demonstrate the idea. Most of the testing services I have used say that the closer you can get to reality for the consumer, the better the result. Do what you can to show a consumer your idea in the best way possible.

Now for the hard part: determining whether people are truly interested in the idea. Experience helps you make this judgment. Research training can help too. And we all wish we were as skilled at “reading people” as the star of the Fox TV show “Lie to Me*,” who can tell with nearly 100% accuracy if people are lying or telling the truth.

But if you don’t have the experience or training or special powers of perception, how do you figure out if people really spark to an idea or if they are just saying what they think you want them to say? Without going into any psychologist mumbo jumbo, I’ll give you my “Top 10” ways to figure out if a consumer likes the idea enough to warrant further pursuit:

10. Rank and Report. Yes, I know all my research friends will throw rocks at me, but in a world of limited budgets, you need to rank the ideas and figure out which ones are worthy of investment. Have consumers pick their top 3 or 5 ideas, and then listen to their justifications. Just make sure you are not getting “the best of the worst” ideas. If all of your ideas stink, it is better to start over than work on the “best of the worst.”

9. The consumer asks a lot of questions. Questions are usually a good sign of deep interest.

8. The consumer is quiet but is actively and intently listening to others discussing the idea. Yogi Berra said, “You can see a lot just by observing,” and in this case it is true.

7. There is an immediate and emotional response to the idea. Sometimes you get a wide-eyed “Wow” or a “Now that’s a great idea.”

6. People play with the prototypes or product samples, or read the idea description over and over again. Watch their body language as they do this…sometimes you will catch a smile or a puzzled look that shows you what they are thinking.

5. People have side conversations with each other about what a great idea this is. If you listen carefully you might discover additional benefits you may not have considered!

4. If you ask someone to describe the idea to a friend and they not only get it right but also put a personal spin on it, that usually means they are interested in it. For example, if they say they would carry this in their purse, they have already placed it in their personal space.

3. Listen to your experts. If doing a focus group, your moderator and research team are probably better trained than you are to understand whether people are really passionate about an idea.

2. People seriously want to know where they can buy it or when it is coming out. This is early stage purchase interest and it usually means the idea is a good one.

1. People try to steal your product from the focus group. I’ve had several instances where people “accidentally” pocketed early stage products or prototypes that cost me $500 to produce. But that is the ultimate demonstration that someone likes the idea, isn’t it?

In the end, you need to have a great ideation process that feeds your innovation pipeline. But predicting market potential of very early stage ideas relies on the softer skills rather than the quantitative volumetric analyses that some conduct for late stage opportunities. You want to “fail often” in early stage opportunities, and therefore it is important to throw out a lot of ideas and also reject a lot of those ideas. But keep the ideas that demonstrate a consumer heartbeat, because those gems can be the future winners of your innovation pipeline!

* LIE TO ME is a drama series inspired by the scientific discoveries of a real-life psychologist who can read clues embedded in the human face, body and voice to expose the truth and lies in criminal investigations.

July Sponsor - PlanviewYou can check out all of the ‘Innovation Perspectives‘ articles from the different contributing authors on ‘How should firms identify innovation opportunities and predict market potential at very early stages and in new areas (“green fields”) and ambiguous environments?’ by clicking the link in this sentence.


Mark PrusMark Prus is a marketing consultant who offers a name development service called NameFlashSM.

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