As part of its ongoing quest to demonstrate HP ink’s quality and reliability versus third party consumables, ink guru, Thom Brown, wanted to find out what real consumers’ experiences, thoughts, and opinions were. Like most things Thom does, there was to be a creative yet methodical process to approach this question. And so the HP Ink Challenge was born. While a typical survey / focus group may have worked, HP wanted something more unique. What HP was trying to do was remove all barriers and filters and allow for the participants to voice their true opinions. What better platform for this type of open-speech than social networking. HP found about 100 people that are highly involved in social networking including bloggers, tweeters, and Facebook loyalists, to participate in its Ink Challenge. Each participant was sent two HP Photosmart printers and asked to use original HP ink in one of them and third party refills in the other. Thom Brown provided weekly assignments for five weeks to help compare how each printer performed.

Some people have great experiences with third party inks and swear that there is no difference compared to the real thing. And, on the flip side, there are those that have had a single terrible experience and will pay full price for name brand ink any day of the week. Not surprisingly, this experiment showed the same results; some found that the third party inks worked, while others never had a good experience with them.

The six assignments included:
Assignment 1:
Time for a Refill (Participants visited a local refill ink retailer to prepare their refill cartridges)

Assignment 2:
Last Chance for Summer – (Participants compared the quality of color photos side-by-side)

Assignment 3:
Splish Splash – (Participants assessed the water durability of the ink by wiping spilled water off of the prints and dunking the prints into water)

Assignment 4:
Summer Memories – (Participants compared the quality of large-size color photos side-by-side)

Assignment 5:
The Work/School Grind – (Participants judged the quality of text documents with side-by-side comparisons)

Assignment 6:
Fear of Fading – (Participants evaluated the fade damage of two photos that had been exposed to direct sunlight over the five weeks)

The final results indicated that participants felt that HP delivered better looking colors than refills, with 9 out of 10 respondents  saying they preferred HP ink to refill for color, black and white photos, as well as documents. Most participants also found that Original HP ink demonstrated greater quality and consistency week after week.

One participant, Ian Harley, commented: “Basic findings? HP Inks overall performing better, with no banding and truer colors. My second set of refill ink is continuing [to have] reddish tint to pictures and add[ing] banding to their ‘features.’”

Also, after browsing through the comments and notes of participants, it looks like a major issue found with third party inks was reliability. Participant Brian Mellott had this to say: “HP ink wins!  Refill ink is crying “Uncle!”  The presentation printed on the Refill printer was terrible!  I’ve tried everything to get this new [refill] ink cartridge to work (the cleaning function, the hot water in a bowl trick) and it just won’t come to life.  If nothing else, I’m willing to pay more for the HP ink just to save myself the headache.”

HP aimed to understand the true customer experience from the purchase experience to the printing experience. Most participants were instructed to go to their store of choice and buy a refilled ink cartridge. This resulted in long commutes for some and multiple tries for others who found the first cartridge that they purchased did not work properly, with one out of four surveyed participants saying they experienced a dead-on-arrival refill cartridge. Some participants experienced no problem obtaining the cartridges, once again touching on the lack of consistency when it comes to third party ink supplies.

Another trend that can be applied to many things in everyday life is the money vs. time argument. Which is more valuable? For some, they do things the cheaper way because they don’t have money, but may have time…others pay for a reliable service or product because they have money and not necessarily time. So is the case with third party ink supplies. Many consumers don’t have the budget to spend $30 plus on ink supplies, but they have time to research which third party products they want to try. Some of this is based on the cost of those refilled supplies, which carry an average discount of about 49 percent compared to genuine cartridges. And if the refill inks fail, on occasion, they may still have time to drive back to the store and exchange it for another one.

On the flip side, consumers that have the funds to purchase genuine ink supplies from the get-go appreciate the reliability of the products. They are willing to spend the extra money for that comfort and for the time saving element. Some third party cartridge users will eventually find that their time becomes more valuable and after several experiences with sub-par third party products may make the switch. Others will never have a bad experience and find that the time spent and the money saved are very worth it.

Participants were not left on their own during the HP Ink Challenge process. Thom Brown, heading the project, responded as often as possible to questions and comments. The social networking aspect of the project helped create a community for the 100 or so participants and gave them an outlet to speak about their experiences. They posted their prints, shared their experiences on each of the six assignments, and were able to see what others participating in the project were experiencing.

According to participants’ survey responses, there was a definite decrease in their purchase intent for refill ink. Prior to the Ink Challenge, 47 percent said that they had bought a refill ink during the past year. Following the experiment, only 12 percent indicated that they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to purchase refills again. Additionally, 34 percent indicated that they would never purchase a refill again.

What HP pushes in its messaging is that its inks are reliable and produce high quality prints every time, and consumers appear to agree, with 100 percent of surveyed participants describing HP cartridges as “more reliable” than refill cartridges. The third party inks are simply not that reliable. Ultimately, HP took a huge risk in opening the doors to people to write and talk about their printing experiences without any censorship.