Do Concept Heat Maps Help?

I can’t tell you how many vendors try to sell the new “best” way to test a concept.  It seems like everyone has a proprietary approach they often tout as the “next best thing since sliced bread.”  Regardless of your vendor, you likely want to know one or all of the following answers: relative appeal, perceived value/expensiveness, purchase intent, relevance, and uniqueness/differentiation.  Interestingly enough, many vendors like to sell their “heat map” tool as a way to understand what factors drive results. 

What does a typical heat map look like?  Generally, it takes a concept and uses color as a visual cue to show the “heat” of the shared words and images.  The thinking is that if an area of the map is “hotter,” that idea is a bigger driver in the overall concept.   The cold areas may be polarizing or less important to the overall idea.

So here’s a made-up example. 

Example of Concept Heat Map

Example of Concept Heat Map

From this concept, you can see many ideas are hot and many ideas that are cold.  The next question I have is, “what do I do with this information?”

As a refresher, a positioning concept is a cohesive statement where all elements tie together and flow naturally from and support the stated benefit.  In certain settings such as concept development in an online bulletin board, the heat map may help you parse ideas and create stronger, more single-minded concepts.  Unfortunately, this tool is often marketed as part of a quantitative study methodology.  A heat map used in this manner creates a few problems:

  • It isolates words and phrases, making it no longer a concept the reader of the concept must “cherry pick” the concept for things that he or she finds appealing, but it does not assess whether the concept works in its entirety.
  •  It may prioritize unrelated ideas – the client, or recipient of the research findings, may take the “winning” (or in this case the “red”) ideas and try to create a new concept.  Unfortunately, these ideas may not make any sense when they are cobbled together.  In addition, often these types of results may make a client want to put these key “hot” words in every concept he or she writes, which eliminates differentiation between concepts and destroys the single-mindedness of a concept.
  •  It basically confirms a “kitchen sink” concept  Even worse, if you have enough ideas in your concept to apply a heat map, you probably have created a “kitchen sink” concept, which includes “everything but the kitchen sink.”  Often a “kitchen sink” concept tests well, but it becomes impossible to execute because it has too many ideas.  As such, there is really no reason to put this type of concept into a concept test to begin with.
  • It likely provides an artificial score  Similar to #3 above.  Once you have a “kitchen sink” concept, you probably have received a false positive about the concept because there is something for everyone.  When you then take the key “hot” phrases and focus on them, you’ve likely lost 75% of the people who liked the concept for other reasons.

Next time you’re being sold the benefits of a heat map, make sure you know why you are doing it and whether it makes sense for the step you are in for your concept development project.  If you do this correctly, maybe your product or service sales will get hot once you launch!

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