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Are You Disruptive, Evolutionary, or Revolutionary? If So, Should You Survey Potential Customers?

How much you need to dig and how much you should rely on your customer research depends on the level of innovation your product offers. I have seen campaign results where people didn’t respond the same way they said they would when they were surveyed.

If you have a disruptive product or service (not just evolutionary) – asking for feedback can lead you astray simply because people aren’t familiar enough with your product to have formed opinions about it yet, at least not opinions that are necessarily lasting ones.

This is part of “the innovators dilemma:” If research suggests that people won’t like a new product offering you have -- should you still go ahead and launch a test into the marketplace?

In the book The Innovators Dilemma, Clayton Christensen describes the following types of innovation.

Sustaining: An innovation that does not affect existing markets.

  • Evolutionary -- An innovation that improves a product in an existing market in ways that customers are expecting (e.g. fuel injection).

  • Revolutionary (discontinuous, radical) -- An innovation that is unexpected, but nevertheless does not affect existing markets (e.g. the automobile).

Disruptive: An innovation that creates a new market by applying a different set of values which ultimately (and unexpectedly) overtakes an existing market (e.g. the lower-priced Ford Model T, or maybe Tesla today).

Why is the automobile revolutionary but not disruptive? Because when the automobile was first introduced, it was so expensive that people did not stop buying horse-drawn carriages. But when the Model T came out, it dropped the price low enough to steal sales from the existing buggy market. One can say that Roxio and other MP3 players were revolutionary new ways to own and listen to music, but it took the design of the iPod and the accessibility of iTunes to actually slow the sales of CDs, making them not just revolutionary but disruptive.

If you have a product that is evolving within an existing market, then research can be telling. But if it’s revolutionary or disruptive, be very careful with research. The reason again is clear: people aren’t familiar enough with it to comment intelligently, and if they do comment, you really can’t put much credence into what they say.

I learned this the hard way. It was 1997 and my boss was about to launch a company that would automatically back up your data over the Internet. (Similar to Carbonite or Dropbox.) Our target audience was the SOHO market (Small Office, Home Office), and since the investment arm of American Express was interested in putting a few million dollars into the business, they paid handsomely for a sophisticated focus group. The outcome? All eight focus groups suggested that it was a brilliant idea. Each and every person said that they would use the service. Many or most of them said they would pay as much as $500 a month! The good news is that American Express gave us their investment money and took a board seat. They loved what the focus group had to say. The bad news? After raising over $60 million, we couldn’t get a significant number of people to buy the product. (In the beginning, we even had a hard time giving it away.) What the group didn’t tell us is that they would only use it if their connection speed was faster and cheaper. It just so happens that 12 years later, digital photos, MP3s and other cloud computing, combined with faster connections, made online backups big business. A focus group just couldn’t predict this.

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