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Marketers explain: The secret to understanding consumers

Marketers explain: The secret to understanding consumers Chloe Della Costa

All the strategies and tactics in the world won't do a bit of good if marketers don't understand the end-consumer. These are the real people out there with the pocket books -- the ones with the power to make or break sales. And it's all about their needs, dreams, and desires. The problem is, those things aren't always so easy to identify. That's why we reached out to top marketers and asked them to dish. The following are the experts' secrets to truly understanding what customers want.

Recognize how much you don't know

Jay Friedman, COO, Goodway Group

We are in the Lewis and Clark days of understanding how consumers think. Behavioral economics and neuroscience are relatively new fields compared to advertising and marketing overall. Read Zaltman's "How Customers Think" and "Advertising and the Mind of the Consumer" by Sutherland. These quickly showed me how rare it is that marketers apply the best thinking to creating messaging and media plans that will truly impact customers. The next time you hear someone in a meeting telling you about their personal media consumption behavior and extrapolating that to an entire consumer population, you'll know you're 180 degrees from true consumer understanding.

Observe consumers in the real world

Reid Carr, president and CEO, Red Door Interactive

There is no replacement for getting out and observing consumers in the wild. See them experience your product, handle your product, choose other options, and/or struggle through the process. If you can interact and engage with them after they've immediately had this experience, you can get an unbridled review of what they came away with and where their expectations were either met or not met.

Too often executives live behind presentations and spreadsheets as a review of what is happening in and around their business. Perhaps they feel like they are above getting in the field or believe they are too busy to take the time. However, if you see for yourself and experience it firsthand, you have a much better sense about how consumers are evolving every day.

Put yourself in their shoes

Jim Nichols, VP marketing, Apsalar

You need to imagine what it's like to live their lives. Demographic data can only take you so far. Early in my career, I spent a number of years working on food products whose target markets were low- to moderate-income families. Knowing that the average income was $40K, for example, was useful info, but to really understand the implications I needed to go deeper. My way of gaining a richer understanding was to create a budget for a four-person household with a $40K gross income. I remember all of this vividly because the household manager had about $5 to spend on a dinner for four. So I had to figure out how to do protein, starch, and vegetables for that figure. That kind of exercise really brings to light how our lives can be very different from those we target. And how the lower-income mom, who had this sort of budget responsibility in over 90 percent of cases in our target audience, was an everyday hero.

Spy on your target audience

Adam Kleinberg, CEO, Traction

The best way to really understand people is to observe them in the wild. Get ethnographic. Troll forums. Tag along. When we launched the Livescribe smart pen, a device that recorded and synced audio with a user's written notes, our team actually sat in on college classes to observe how students took notes. We saw this moment of panic when the professor said, "this will be on the test" and all the students started scribbling furiously to capture everything he said. This fear was a hidden truth -- hidden right out in the open -- that we were able to see, but our target would be far more unlikely to articulate. It led directly to a core selling benefit: With the Livescribe smart pen, you'll never miss a word again. They sold over 100,000 pens that holiday season at nearly $150 a pop.

Build long-lasting relationships

Jane Turkewitz, president and chief talent officer, .comRecruiting

I think the key to successful marketing is to develop long term relationships with clients, versus trying to make a quick sell. If you can continuously provide value -- whether it's through information or services -- then the customer will see you as a partner, versus someone they have to allocate a budget line for.

It's all about being thoughtful in your approach and coming from a client-centric place, versus the simple amplification of your logo or brand name. For example, the company who spends money just to have an ad pop up on Facebook creates awareness, but not value. The company who can start a dialogue on Facebook and get people talking about a hot button -- creating value -- will not only drive awareness, but also loyalty. Think about it. When you get an ad popping up over and over again on Facebook, it clutters your feed and begins to even potentially annoy you. That's not a good thing. But, when you get a tip or piece of advice that makes you think? Well, that could make you want to know more about the company who put that forth. That could even make you want to follow that company's social media channel. That could even make you want to call that company and utilize its services. That could be the start of a long-lasting relationship, and that is what good marketing is all about!

Don't de-humanize people

Eric Berry, CEO and co-founder, TripleLift

The most important thing to understand about consumers is that they are real people. In our industry, we put the label of consumers on people as if they behave differently -- at some level, dehumanizing them -- implying their primary behavior is to purchase goods and services. But really, if we think of them as people with feelings, as ourselves and our families and friends, the entire question changes. So we start by asking questions like, does this ad evoke an emotional reaction in me? Would anyone notice this ad, and what would they think when they did? I think you'll find that many marketing decisions are justified through market data, but may fall short of the "does-this-ad-work-on-me-in-the-right-way" test. Among the most significant outcomes that may result from this exercise is that as an industry, we love to serve consumers large, in-your-face ads that may be hard to ignore. But as a person, we rarely appreciate being served these types of ads -- and instead we prefer the substance and form of messages that really embrace and enhance the digital experience. That lesson shows how valuable it can be to think of consumers as people.

Data, insights, and engagement

Kent Lewis, president and founder, Anvil Media

Combine all three of these strategies to unveil secrets to understanding your consumers:

  • Analyze available data: Utilize the insights you have available via your existing data platforms, including Google (website) Analytics, email and social media platform analytics, internal CRM platforms, and qualitative feedback from customers (comments on social, email feedback, online reviews and ratings, etc.). Beyond demographic data, most analytics platforms provide unprecedented behavioral insights in terms of what your customers like. Also harvest secondary research by industry-specific or business publications, research organizations, or trade associations.
  • Create new insights: Design and implement customer surveys, including quarterly and bi-annually Net Promoter Score assessments. Send an email to your customers asking about their interests, motivations, values, etc. and post an "Nth" visitor popup survey on your website to broaden the audience to include prospects and others. Host a focus group of representative customers and generate qualitative insights. The benefit of primary research is the ability to focus on gaining specific insights into opinions and interests specific to your business.
  • Engage and foster relationships online: Utilize the world's largest focus group: social media. Once you capture your customers' attention via social platforms, engage them regularly via interesting posts. Continue conversations by asking questions, setting up contests, and requesting content or feedback.

Make it data-driven

Tom Edwards, chief digital officer, agency, Epsilon

My approach to understanding consumers begins with understanding their behaviors across channels and devices. I look to leverage our rich data sets tied to attitudinal, behavioral, and transactional data. This is then combined with machine learning that analyzes specific consumer domains. Through this process, I have been able to uncover key insights and behaviors that sometimes go against a more traditional hypothesis or assumption of consumer behavior.

It is also important to not default to generational personas as we have found data-informed life stage insights are more accurate when it comes to delivering personalized messaging at scale. The key to understanding the consumer ultimately should always start with the consumer and their behaviors and affinities. Consumer-centric data enables a better view of the consumer -- it enables more precise targeting and leads to better experiences, across all channels and in real-time.

Culture, culture, culture

Jeff Rosenblum, co-founder/partner, Questus

I just deleted a paragraph I wrote that tried to make me sound really smart. I wrote about the usage of everything from social listening to site analytics and how critical it is to develop actionable insights. But what I realized while writing is that leveraging huge data sets is just table stakes. The real key is to have a team that is relentlessly focused on the consumer journey. It is imperative to build a culture that motivates everyone to swim in the data, immerse themselves in the category, and absolutely refuse to have departmental silos. After all, 99.8 percent of the world's data has been produced in the past two years. Only incredible culture will enable a brand to benefit from it.



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