Painted door test: How to find your next big business idea

Painted door tests are used to validate an idea using simple measures such as conversion metrics or take-up rates.

What makes an idea truly great and the right one to pursue over many others? A simple marketing strategy may hold the answer.

At a glance

  • Testing a new business idea in the marketplace can be an expensive and challenging exercise for start-ups and small businesses.
  • A painted door test can ascertain conversion metrics or take-up rates and is often in the form of a clickable link, advertisement or call to action on a website.
  • Painted door tests are also useful when consulting on ideas for revenue diversification and can be used to gather data points relating to potential demand.

By Ronelle Richards

The best way to know if your new business idea is objectively great is to test it in the marketplace. However, this is an expensive exercise, making many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) baulk at the very thought. Painted door test to the rescue.

Painted door tests are used to validate an idea using simple measures such as conversion metrics or take-up rates. A test may take the form of a clickable link, an ad or a website call to action button.

This technique is also known as the fake door test, offering a hint to the name’s origin. Some think it was borrowed from architecture, where fake windows and doors are sometimes painted on buildings to give them gravitas on the cheap.

Some others believe the term is metaphorical – would a customer, driven by need, try to open a “painted” door that isn’t real? Others think this is a simple A/B test – if you “paint” one door in a certain way, are customers more attracted to it than another door “painted” differently?

Fail - or win - fast, cheaply

The painted door test offers small business owners a way to run a new feature, product or even an entire business concept through its paces in the real world without fully committing to it, potentially saving them from spending big on an idea that is a non-starter.

Giovanna Lever, managing director at Sparrowly Group, a boutique firm that specialises in strategy and mentoring, regularly applies the painted door test when consulting on revenue diversification.

“It’s a good process to use to gather data points surrounding demand and fine-tuning prior to going to market,” Lever says.

"It does require the SME to be a little brave. The service product might be completely rejected, but we position it as, it's better to know early and rework rather than feel disillusioned." Giovanna Lever, Sparrowly Group

“Often, SMEs will go to market too early, without or with little testing. This is a perfect way to test in a low-risk and low-cost way.”

The test can help SMEs identify mistakes, such as an incorrect audience segment, early in the process, enabling them to fine-tune business planning and budgets.

For finance and accounting firms, a well-designed painted door test offers a chance to gauge interest in products and services, such as planning meetings or educational content, that could help add value to existing clients and attract new ones.

“It does require the SME to be a little brave,” says Lever. “The service product might be completely rejected, but we position it as, it’s better to know early and rework rather than feel disillusioned.”

Part of a wider toolkit

The test generates narrow quantitative data, which means it should never be used in isolation.

Brenton Cannizzaro, digital business director at Avenue, a specialist web design and development company, says that once you have used the test to define your target audience, you should talk to customers directly for a more nuanced overview of any issues that the test may reveal.

Regular pulse checks through surveys or a short and interactive poll on your website are gold for customer insights, as is having correctly set up Google Analytics and heat map tracking.

Nailing your pricing strategy is also key, adds Lever. Do your market research and position yourself correctly, typically away from the extremes of the cheapest and most expensive offerings.

Finally, an SME should be using social media as an inexpensive way to stay on top of industry and product trends. This includes monitoring what your competitors are doing and tracking local, national and global events that might affect your current and potential clients.

Accounting firms could set up search engine alerts for keywords such as “small business finance”, “SME” or their geographic location, as well as for terms SMEs might be searching for, such as “JobKeeper for small business” or “JobKeeper tips”.

CPA Library resource: Marketing plans for services: a complete guide. Read now.

Start with a button

While the ideas evaluated using a painted door test could be quite complex, the test itself is simple.

“In its purest sense, it’s a ‘fake’ functional aspect on a site,” Cannizzaro says, which “needs to look as real as possible” from a user point of view.

Start by clearly defining a problem you want to solve – for example, should your firm start a monthly e-newsletter for clients or create a members-only portal?

Next, set up a button on your website encouraging users to sign up for access, at which point a pop-up window should launch, explaining that this is a test. The explanation is key to avoid putting customers offside, Cannizzaro says, so be sure to explain your objectives, for example improving user experience, and “put a positive spin on it”.

The last thing you want is for your customers and stakeholders to feel conned by the test, so being transparent and earnest in your request for feedback is important, as is adding a benefit for providing their feedback, such as a free downloadable resource, an event invitation or a voucher for a service.

Other ways of setting up a painted door test could be by using a link, a search field or a button with a strong call to action, such as “Buy Now” or “Learn More”.

While undoubtedly cost-effective and useful, painted door tests should be used sparingly and only ever one at a time. An A/B test is still considered the gold standard for testing two variables against each other but, for gauging customer interest, a painted door test can provide a good option – if an SME is prepared to effectively mitigate a potential negative reaction from some customers.


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