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Sep 27, 2004
How To

How LeapFrog Uses Marketing Research to Launch New Products

SUMMARY: Craig Spitzer, LeapFrog's VP Marketing Research, has a tough job because the company's new product cycle is unusually swift. Every year the company introduces a new and tweaked line of toys and educational products. So, Spitzer's team has to keep their fingers on the pulse of kids and parents. Plus, they have to find ways to make older products seem fresh and exciting. Learn how in our exclusive interview:
"The toy industry is categorized by short product lifecycles," says Craig Spitzer, VP Marketing Research for LeapFrog. "It's not a company like Pepsi Cola where they've been selling the same product for 100 years."

So, LeapFrog requires a constant flow of new products every year. Spitzer says, "My job is to weave consumer feedback throughout every process I can in this organization."

Spitzer offered his tips on making market research work as hard as it can for his company, to develop new products and keep them fresh and appealing to consumers.

-> Tip #1. Slice and dice pre-existing study data

LeapFrog's market research begins with trend tracking. "There are a lot of good companies who keep their fingers on the pulse of [the industry]," Spitzer says. "I'm a firm believer that one shouldn't try to reinvent the wheel if there are good wheels out there, and there are a lot of good wheels."

Rather than spending vast amounts of money commissioning "those major guys" to create a study from scratch, Spitzer uses their existing studies. "But we slice and dice it differently," he says.

Spitzer makes sure to mix the actual numbers side of things with the intuitive descriptions of what's going on in the industry -- then he takes what he has learned and looks at how it will mesh with corporate's vision.

"Our vision is about [merging] the best in pedagogy, a high level of kid engagement, and technology," he says. "So we're not looking for the fad or the trend that is the quasi-learning thing, like somebody saying if you put headphones playing Mozart on your gestating belly your kid will get into Harvard. We're looking for whether moms are becoming more interested in their kids' educations. Then we go to our experts and find out what meets those needs."

For example, he explains, one question he researched was: how important is bilingual education? "Before you even have a product, you have to understand whether that's important."

On the other hand, some things don't require research. "For products built around letters and phonics, that's not a question. Parents want their kids to know those, so we get involved around the back end while the product is being created."

-> Tip #2. Keep market research involved on macro- and micro-level

Spitzer keeps his research team involved with the yearly long range planning process as well as with individual teams and individual products.

He presents his findings on trends during the long range planning process, then schedules meetings with the various individual teams (products for infants, preschoolers, and gradeschoolers) to help them understand how the trends apply to them.

While Spitzer doesn't have enough people in his department to keep someone on every team and attend every meeting, the research department is considered a part of every team, he says.

"It's our job to keep every team better informed about our consumers, and to keep every team salient. We have to pick and choose; we have to figure out when are the times and places when what we do is most relevant."

-> Tip #3. Stay involved throughout product development (not just at the beginning and end)

Once the creative people begin working on product designs, the research department stays involved.

They have a lab onsite where they bring moms and kids from the San Francisco Bay area to test preliminary versions of the products. "We do a lot of hands-on, informal qualitative work with kids," says Spitzer. "Can they do what they need to do to work the product? Do they go from step A to B to C, or do they go from A to C to B?"

When designing the LeapPad Learning System, for example, the prototype went through the lab "a dozen times or so," he says.

A key challenge for the research department is keeping and building the list of thousands of families who have agreed to be on call for testing. "We've done everything from recruiting on the Internet to putting out fliers in local schools, working through employees whose kids are in schools, and milking every connection we have," Spitzer says.

Kids who test products at the lab are compensated with a free, existing product rather than a promise of the product they're testing. "They're not going to come in on September 13, 2004, if I tell them I'm giving them something in 2005, so I give them current product," he explains.

-> Tip #4. Keep the level of research right for the product

Once Spitzer's team gets happy results from kids during the informal focus groups, particularly on low-cost/low-investment products, research might end there.

"If we're going to put it on TV, or if it's higher risk/higher return, we might do quantitative and qualitative research around the country," Spitzer says.

To conduct the research, Spitzer's team hires suppliers to collect and analyze the data, either nationally or internationally (generally in the UK, Australia, and Canada).

-> Tip #5. Continuing outreach

Spitzer's team conducts ongoing outreach, including surveys, to parents via email. "A lot of people registered on site are happy to share opinions and we're constantly asking them stuff," he says. "If you keep your questions brief, generally they're happy to answer your questions. You don't need to give them any incentives to respond."

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