Unlocking value with the laddering method

May 31, 2023

Do you ever wish you could just ask people why they choose to buy from a particular provider? The answer often feels just out of reach, doesn’t it? 

You want to get beyond benefits and features to understand the emotional motivations behind purchase decisions. Sometimes the problem is that market research participants can’t identify their reasoning themselves, usually because they haven’t explicitly thought about it before. The laddering method is how you scaffold these discoveries. 

Laddering in marketing is part of a qualitative research toolbox that helps people find the underlying emotional motivation behind their purchase decisions and tells you what they value in relation to your product or service. 

Using the laddering method of questioning during 1:1 in-depth interviews helps participants climb towards their real, hard-to-reach motivations. This unlocks competitive intelligence that’s immediately applicable to your future marketing strategy.



What is the laddering method


The laddering method, a powerful qualitative research technique, is used to uncover the underlying motivations and values that drive consumers’ purchasing decisions. By delving deep into consumers’ thoughts and feelings, researchers can identify the emotional connections and associations with a brand, product, or service. The laddering method involves a series of probing questions that encourage respondents to explore their thoughts and emotions related to a particular product or brand. As participants answer each question, they “ladder up” from concrete product attributes to more abstract values and beliefs, providing valuable insights into their decision-making processes. The laddering method is particularly useful in understanding consumer behavior, brand loyalty, and product positioning, enabling businesses to craft effective marketing strategies and resonate with their target audience on a deeper level.



What are the benefits of the laddering method


The laddering method presents significant advantages for market research endeavors. One of its key benefits is the ability to uncover the deeper layers of consumer thinking and emotions, enabling researchers to identify the reasons behind consumer preferences and choices. This understanding empowers businesses to create targeted marketing campaigns that speak directly to their target audience’s desires and values. Secondly, the laddering method enables researchers to identify unique selling propositions (USPs) that resonate with consumers on a personal level. This knowledge can be leveraged to differentiate a brand from its competitors and strengthen its market position.

Additionally, the laddering method allows researchers to explore brand loyalty and customer retention by uncovering the emotional connections consumers have with a particular brand. Armed with these insights, businesses can develop customer-centric strategies that foster long-term relationships and loyalty. Lastly, the laddering method is a versatile approach that can be adapted for various industries and product categories, making it a valuable tool for businesses seeking to stay ahead in the competitive market landscape.



When to use the laddering method


Researchers should consider employing the laddering method when they want to delve beyond surface-level responses and understand the deeper emotional connections that consumers have with a product or brand. This method is ideal for exploratory research, especially when aiming to identify the reasons behind consumer choices and their perceptions of a particular product or service. Use the laddering method to gain a comprehensive understanding of the underlying motivations and values that drive purchasing decisions. It is well-suited for research involving complex or high-involvement products, where consumer emotions play a significant role in the decision-making process. By utilizing the laddering method, businesses can gain deeper insights into their target audience and develop marketing strategies that resonate on an emotional level.



How is the laddering method performed


Performing the laddering method involves a systematic and in-depth approach to data collection and analysis. To begin, researchers identify a specific target audience and develop a set of research objectives to guide the study. Participants are selected based on their relevance to the research goals and recruited for in-depth interviews. The interviews are conducted by skilled researchers who use open-ended and probing questions to explore participants’ perceptions and experiences related to the product, brand, or service in question.

The laddering process involves delving into the “why” behind participants’ responses, seeking to understand the underlying values and emotions that drive their decisions. The interviews are audio or video recorded to ensure accuracy during the data analysis phase. After transcribing the interviews, researchers use qualitative analysis techniques to identify key themes and insights. The results are then interpreted to create a comprehensive picture of the target audience’s attitudes and motivations.


Constructing your ladder


The foundational laddering technique is 3, seemingly simple, questions:

  • What’s your favorite feature of this service/product?
  • What’s the benefit of that feature?
  • How does that benefit make you feel?


It’s not necessarily a straightforward 1,2,3 and we’re there. The idea is that each question is based on the answer to the previous question, until the emotional reasoning is uncovered. 

Some people describe it as the repetition of one question – ‘Why?’ There’s strong ‘inquisitive toddler’ energy if you stick to just ‘Why?’ The idea is that asking why after every answer eventually guides the interviewee up the ladder to their true emotional motivation. 

There would be justification for a toddler tantrum if this comprised the entire interview. That’s why it’s worth putting some thought into differently worded questions, as you construct your ladder. They’re all asking ‘but why?’, without the potential annoyance or boredom factor. It’s a good idea to briefly explain the reasoning behind the laddering method to your interviewees before you start. That way, they’re prepared for the rather unnatural structure of your dialogue and begin to understand why it’s useful as they unearth their answers. 

It’s also important to decide how you’re going to record such a high volume of questions before you start. For this data to be useful, it will need to be analyzed once it’s been collected. So think through the practicalities of your data collection process during ladder construction.



Laddering method as the benefit or feature?


How many times have you heard ‘Sell the benefit, not the feature?’ Laddering in marketing requires you to clarify both, as individual rungs. Each step of the ladder leads up to the emotional motivation behind a purchase – the real gold dust for marketers.

To confidently walk your interviewees up the ladder you need to be clear on the definition of all 3:

  1. Feature: a characteristic of a service or product. First question you ask: ‘What’s your favorite feature of…?’
  2. Benefit: what the client gets out of that feature. Second question: ‘What’s the benefit of that feature?’
  3. Emotional motivation behind the purchase: Last question: ‘How does that benefit make you feel?’


Benefits can be functional and/or emotional – this sometimes causes people to get stuck just before the top rung of the ladder. That’s where the laddering technique really helps to keep climbing beyond an emotional benefit and see any deeper motivation beyond. 

Emotional benefits are the strongest weapons you have against the competition. All efforts to gain a deeper understanding of your clients’ motivations will only help you capitalize on this advantage. So even from a strong starting position, insights from the laddering method will help refine your marketing strategy. 


Example of the laddering method 

  1. What’s your favorite feature of the data you get from NewtonX? Answer: How samples are 100% verified..
  2. What’s the benefit of that feature to you? Answer: I don’t waste any time or money – or risk my professional reputation – on unreliable research that’s based on fraudulent data that I can’t use.
  3. How does that benefit make you feel? Answer: This makes me feel:
    1. Relieved that I can trust the research. 
    2. Confident in the decisions I take.
    3. Excited to tell more confident stories to my product and marketing stakeholders.



Limitations of laddering technique 


In real life only

The laddering method is only for examining real actions and experiences that have already happened. It’s not an appropriate questioning technique for discussions of hypothetical decisions in imagined scenarios. 


Tricky to harness

As the researcher, the practicalities of recording answers can be quite complex and needs thorough preparation at the planning stage. 


Too many ‘whys’

For participants, the laddering method of questioning can seem like an incessant stream of whys – even with varied wording. As you can imagine, this can feel either boring or downright annoying. Monitoring the mood of participants is a key part of the interviewer’s role. 


Stay compassionate

Even though we’re in the B2B space and not delving into any personal issues at any stage, some participants may find the process difficult. It’s important to remember that levels of emotional intelligence and language vary. As we climb higher up the ladder we demand greater self-reflection to identify and express emotions. 

It won’t always be productive to ask the next ‘whys’. Not everyone climbs to the top of the ladder every time, and that’s OK. It definitely doesn’t render the interview, or the data set, useless. It’s of ultimate importance that we don’t push any participant beyond their own boundaries of comfort during the dialogue. 



It’s not just what you ask and how you ask it, it’s who you ask


It’s imperative that you ask the right professionals, with the knowledge and expertise you need for useful research insights. 

As Jason Talwar, previously of Salesforce Market Strategy, said: “Data is only an asset when you can tie it to positive outcomes…Investing in 100% verified samples and Custom Recruiting ensures our research yields positive business impact.” 

NewtonX finds exactly the right professionals to answer your questions, from a network of 1.1 billion individuals working in 140 industries. The laddering method is just one of the many qualitative and quantitative research methodologies used to get your custom findings. The combination used is designed to meet your business needs. 

All NewtonX research is 100% verified and fraud free. As an end-to-end service partner, we provide completely analyzed data, with actionable insights you can use to make business critical decisions.

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