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Conjoint Analysis: 3 Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Posted by Liz White on Thu, Jan 08, 2015

conjoint analysis, cmbIf you work in marketing or market research, chances are you’re becoming more and more familiar with conjoint analysis: a powerful research technique used to predict customer decision-making relative to a product or service. We love conjoint analysis at CMB, and it’s easy to see why. When conducted well, a conjoint study provides results that make researchers, marketers, and executives happy. These results:

  • Are statistically robust
  • Are flexible and realistic
  • Describe complex decision-making
  • Are easy to explain and understand

If you need a quick introduction or a refresher on conjoint analysis, I recommend Sawtooth Software’s excellent video, which can be found here.For these reasons conjoint analysis is one of the premiere tools in our analytical toolkit. However, as with any analytical approach, conjoint analysis should be applied thoughtfully to realize maximum benefits. Below, I describe three of the most common pitfalls related to conjoint analysis and tips on how to avoid them.

Pitfall #1: Rushing the Design

This is the most common pitfall, but it’s also be the easiest one to avoid. As anyone who has conducted a conjoint study knows, coming up with the right design takes time. When planning the schedule for a conjoint analysis study, make sure to leave time for the following steps:

  • Identify your business objective, and work to identify the research questions (and conjoint design) that will best address that objective.
  • Brainstorm a full list of product features that you’d like to test. Collaborate with coworkers from various areas of your organization—including marketing, sales, pricing, and engineering as well as the final decision-makers—to make sure your list is comprehensive and up-to-date.
    • You may also want to plan for qualitative research (e.g., focus groups) at this stage, particularly if you’re looking to test new products or product features. Qualitative research can prioritize what features to test and help to translate “product-speak” into language that customers find clear and meaningful.
    • If you’re looking to model customer choices among a set of competitive products, collect information about your competitors’ products and pricing.
    • Once all the information above is collected, budget time to translate your list of product features into a conjoint design. While conjoint analysis can handle complex product configurations, there’s often work to be done to ensure the final design (a) captures the features you want to measure, (b) will return statistically meaningful results, and (c) won’t be overly long or confusing for respondents.
    • Finally, budget time to review the final design. Have you captured everything you needed to capture?  Will this make sense to your customers and/or prospective customers? If not, you may need to go back and update the design. Make sure you’ve budgeted for this as well.

Pitfall #2: Overusing Prohibitions

Most conjoint studies typically involve a conversation about prohibitions—rules about what features can be shown under certain circumstances. For example:

Say Brand X’s products currently come in red, blue, and black colors while Brand Y’s products are only available in blue and black. When creating a conjoint design around these products, you might create a rule that if the brand is X, the product could be any of the three colors, but if the brand is Y, the product cannot be red.

While it’s tempting to add prohibitions to your design to make the options shown to respondents more closely resemble the options available in the market, overusing prohibitions can have two big negative effects:

  1. Loss of precision when estimating the value of different features for respondents.
  2. Loss of flexibility for market simulations.

The first of these effects can typically be identified in the design phase and fixed by reducing the number of prohibitions included in a model. The second is potentially more damaging as it usually becomes an issue after the research has already been conducted. For example:

We’ve conducted the research above for Brand Y, including the prohibition that if the brand is Y, the product cannot be red. Looking at the results, it becomes clear that Brand X’s red product is much preferred over their blue and black products. The VP of Brand Y would like to know what the impact of offering a Brand Y product in red would be.  Unfortunately, because we did not test a red Brand Y product, we are unable to use our conjoint data to answer the VP’s question.

In general, it is best to be extremely conservative about using prohibitions—use them sparingly and avoid them where possible. 

Pitfall #3: Not Taking Advantage of the Simulator

While the first two pitfalls are focused on conjoint design, the final pitfall is about the application of conjoint results. Once the data from the conjoint analysis has been analyzed, it can be used to stimulate virtually any combination of the features tested and predict the impact that different combinations will have on customer decision-making. . .which is just one of the reasons conjoint analysis is such a valuable tool. All of that predictive power can be distilled into a conjoint simulator that anyone—from researchers to marketers to C-suite executives—can use and interpret.

At CMB, the clients I’ve seen benefit most from conjoint analysis are the clients that take full advantage of the simulators we deliver, rather than simply relying on the scenarios created for reporting. Once you receive a conjoint simulator, I recommend the following:

  1. Distribute copies of the simulator to all key stakeholders.
  2. Have the simulator available when presenting the results of your study, and budget time in the meeting to run “what-if” scenarios then and there. This can allow you to leverage the knowledge in the room in real time, potentially leading to practical and informed conclusions.
  3. Continue to use your simulator to support decision-making even after the study is complete, using new information to inform the simulations you run. A well-designed conjoint study will continue to have value long after your project closes.

Liz is a member of the Analytics Team at CMB, and she can’t wait to hear your research questions!

Topics: advanced analytics, research design