The growing percentage of the adult population having on-line access in western countries, coupled with the unlimited capacity of the Internet to influence lifestyles, has turned the Web into a tool for understanding and anticipating consumer needs and to gauge consumer thinking and behavior .
As electronic commerce is slowly but surely taking off, on-line testing happens to be a useful alternative or add-on to traditional market research methods. And package-goods companies are taking advantage of what the Web has to offer—from speedier results to global reach—so they can race to market and gain competitive advantage.
Indeed the Internet does offer some advantage but it has a few drawbacks too. Some of the drawbacks pose substantial risk to companies that naturally want to keep innovative ideas private at least until launch time.
The main benefit is timesavings. On-line concept testing can cut testing time from 4 weeks to 7 days or even less. It is also generally less expensive, especially when sample sizes are large. For example, a typical on-line focus group can run from $4,000 to $10,000, with the high end including written reports and analyses. Its off-line equivalent costs more or less the same, but travel budget for the marketing staff can add thousands of dollars to the original cost. Another beauty of on-line testing is its versatility: It can be limited to a few Internet users or reach a global audience. It also enables marketers to reach their target audiences quickly or to survey consumers from wider cross sections of the public. This provides companies with clearer pictures of buyers' likes and aversions, allowing them to cut prelaunch preparation time, while supplying precious feedback that once took months to gather.
Quick results are a prime benefit but longer test periods are possible with on-line testing, too since questionnaires can be posted on the Web for indefinite periods while results can be reported on a daily basis.
Another benefit of on-line testing is that participants usually become more engaged than in other test methods, though they are not truly representative of the off-line consumer. Typically, the elderly and uneducated people are underrepresented among on-line consumers. This means that on-line test results may be skewed for low-tech concepts. On the contrary, the Web is the perfect place to run a concept test, a qualitative, or a quantitative study for high-tech products, since the Internet is a secure environment for innovators and forerunners. Companies like Microsoft, Konami, Activision, Disney Interactive, Universal Interactive, and Logitech are heavy users of Web market research.
Nevertheless the disadvantages of on-line testing are many. First, you face hackers, who can create chaos if they gain access to ideas for new concepts or product blueprints, or are able to tinker with test results. Another issue is the difference of results for off-line and on-line tests, because research shows that consumers grade concepts differently off-line than they do on-line. Occasionally, results for purchase interest, uniqueness or believ-ability may be lower on-line.
Another hindrance is that developing test materials can eat most of the time savings in the administration process. Indeed Web questionnaires must be constructed to ensure reliable results, which sometimes require the survey company to invest a lot of effort in test preparation. Furthermore, a short time frame for testing can prevent connecting with light browsers who could be heavy category users. An additional problem is data manipulation, since it is often difficult to know exactly who the respondents are or whether the competition is manipulating the test.
Finally, when testing brand-new-product concepts, there are always the risks of leaks on a global scale by anyone who can access private product images on the Internet. Clearly, untimely disclosure can damage or destroy a product's chances even before it is launched, but the majority of those cons is not unique to the Internet and can be experienced off-line as well.
On-line testing is far from perfect, but overall the pros outweigh the cons. The Internet offers significant ways to interact with consumers. Furthermore, though on-line test results can differ slightly from off-line test results, in the long run, concept validations show that marketing decisions remain unchanged despite the differences.
As for quantitative and qualitative market research applications (e.g., focus groups, on-line interviewing via chat rooms, Web surveys), one can use on-line likewise off-line-generated data and just keep in mind the potential differences related to the medium and the sample. Ultimately, as the number of Internet users increases, the differences between on-line and off-line test results will diminish .
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