What is laddering in market research?

Laddering exercises use structured questioning to help respondents to organize and examine their own experiences and feelings.

People are generally quite good at telling you what happened, or what they liked about something, but are often much less able to tell you why and in some cases may not even notice on a conscious level what their underlying motivations and reactions are. Laddering attempts to tease out these sorts of details by asking a series of questions designed to dig deeper into these underlying motivations and emotional reactions than conventional questioning can reach.


The Means End Chain and customer decisions

The classical example of laddering in market research is as a way of exploring the Means End Chain with respect to purchasing decision and reactions to marketing materials. Means End Chain Theory looks at the attributes of a product/marketing material, the consequences these attributes have for the customer and how they relate to the underlying values (the key motivations) of the customer.

Appealing directly to the values that underpin client/customer decision making processes can boost the effectiveness of marketing efforts but finding out what these values are can be difficult.

Identifying the attributes is fairly straightforward, but under conventional questioning, respondents often fail to give a complete list of consequences and rarely give any indication of the underlying values that the product or marketing material is appealing to.

Components of a buying decision

Components buying decision

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How laddering can help

Laddering uses a simple series of questions to help obtain these hard-to-reach answers:

  • “Why did you choose this product/service?”– to establish the attributes which matter
  • “Why is it good/bad that…?”– to map out the consequences each attribute has for the respondent
  • “Why is this important to you/your business?”or “How does this relate to your core business values?” – to identify the underlying values which are affected

By breaking the product or marketing stimulus down into these attributes and focusing on each one to fully explore the consequences and values related to them, we are able to gain a much more detailed picture of how to motivate purchasing, by developing products and messaging that address these underlying needs.


Understanding how service interactions affect client perceptions

The technique is not limited to use in product development and marketing. One application which is of particular value to B2B businesses is in customer experience research.

Business relations and brand perception can be even more essential in a B2B relationship than in a consumer setting. Businesses often work in close partnership with a supplier and each point of interaction has the potential to influence this perception.

Laddering techniques can be adapted to better understand what happened, how it affected the respondent/their business, and ultimately how that has impacted the relationship they have with the supplier.

When using laddering to explore the impact of an interaction with a client, the interviewer begins by asking the respondent to think back to what happened and walk them through it step by step. Each of these different steps is noted down and takes the place of the attributes in our exercise.


The interviewer then goes over each step and asks:

  1. “How did this affect you and your organization?” – This establishes the consequences
  2. “And how did that make you feel about [brand]? – This establishes how the interaction has shaped client/customer opinions of the brand and takes the place of values in this exercise

An example of how this works is laid out below:
Example laddering exercise

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Limitations of laddering

This is a proven technique, but it is important to bear in mind a number of potential problems which you can encounter:

  • The number of questions which it generates can be large, and the process of repeatedly asking someone why can seem childish and boring. With this in mind it is essential that you explain the theory behind the technique to the respondent before beginning the questioning.
  • Answering the later questions can be difficult. Not everyone will be able to do so and attempting to force an answer is counterproductive. When talking about past experiences, it is helpful to frame the questions by reminding the respondent of what they said happened as if it was still occurring:
    • g. “Ok so, you’ve just had an update that forced your computers to run slow and you are getting a lot of complaints from your co-workers who can’t get things done. How does this affect your opinion of [Brand]?”
  • Recording responses can be complicated, so care should be taken in preparing for and conducting the questioning.
  • The technique is designed to help people examine their actions and experiences. It is not suitable for investigating hypothetical decisions; people will often find it difficult to answer and answers will be less reliable.
  • A skilled and experienced interviewer is essential for this process to be successful.

Why bother then?

It is clear that conducting a successful laddering interview is time consuming and difficult, so why bother?

The example on the right shows one respondent’s answers to a single laddering exercise from a study we conducted. The answers they gave are written in red and you can immediately see that the amount of information collected is much larger than we would expect to be able to collect using conventional questioning.

Example answers of a laddering exercise

Is laddering right for my project?

If you are conducting some research and want to know if laddering might be a good fit for your study, you can start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is it a qualitative study?

The technique is only usable in qualitative studies conducted live or over the telephone (including video calls etc.).

  • Do you have one key question you want answered in as much detail as possible?

As laddering exercises are quite time consuming, it is important to choose carefully where you use it.

  • Are you looking to identify and explore consequences, values and/or emotional reactions?

This is where laddering displays its worth, helping respondents to organize and examine their own experiences and feelings.

  • Does the question relate to current or past experiences?

Remember, laddering is not well suited to handling hypothetical situations, so it should mostly be used to explore reactions as they happen or to reflect on past experiences.

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then laddering could add significant value to your research project.

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