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Market Research Is Not Customer Research...and Why It Must Be

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Averages are horrible things. They smooth out both the highs and lows, make everything look like the middle, and tend to make it all seem homogeneous. That’s never the case. And it’s especially not the case when doing marketing.

Who’s Really Who
Today, one among many hot things is personas – biographies of people who don’t really exist.

  • The stay-at-home mom who has two kids involved in afterschool activities and spends her days doing yoga and laundry while managing the housekeeper, gardener, and volunteering as a docent at the local museum.
  • The middle manager who’s recently married and wants to find more effective ways to handle his work tasks in order to get home and spend time with his new bride, do his assignments for his online MBA, ride his ATV on weekends, and watch football on his 55” 4G TV.

market-research-big-dataIf only. That’s the kind of picture that emerges from market research. Taken to extremes, those imaginary portraits might also tap into aspirations, political leanings, risk tolerance, and multiple other criteria that, really...mean nothing (or close to it).

The other latest-best-shiniest-thing is Big Data which, for reasons unknown, is always capitalized. But searching through an infinite number of variables to find patterns one wants to find is very (very) different than applying fuzzy logic to discover relationships you never considered. Yet whether that’s useful in marketing, rather than in fraud detection or medical research or cybersecurity, is uncertain.

What Actually Matters
That’s not because those relationships might not be revelations for marketing purposes. It’s because they might be accepted as indicative of something that critical analysis would conclude is wholly meaningless – color, for example, might be considered essential on the buttons that control a manufacturing machine; yet, if button size wasn’t one of the criteria, color by itself might be meaningless. Or the height of the step on an SUV might be useful for designing a vehicle that’s optimized for average height women, but it’s useless if the terrain where those women live – paved streets versus off-road versus off-road-with-gullies-and-boulders – is not factored in.

Then there’s one-to-one marketing. It’s eminently possible to achieve in a world where data analysts can slice and dice an individual buyer’s particular purchase trends and general preferences. But it’s nothing new.

Before the rise (and subsequent fall) of mass marketing, almost all business was essentially one-to-one. That’s simply because it was local, merchants knew their customers (and their tastes) personally, and merchandise was stocked on the basis of those customers’ actual purchases and explicitly stated plans for future purchases.

Specific Needs of Specific Individuals
In the B2B arenas where I’ve tended to play, market research is only useful to determine that companies in a particular industry and of a particular size are likely to be interested in a specific product or service. It will not, as a general rule, be used to figure out who in those companies is involved in the purchasing decision and what the specific concerns of those people is likely to be. That takes customer research – speaking to a cross-section of existing, former, and prospective customers to understand what matters to them most.

The folks in finance have different questions than the people in maintenance or the ones who actually operate the machine. In B2C, the wife persona and the husband persona may be completely out of sync when it comes to making plans for retirement or deciding which car to buy. But it’s vital to understand those person-by-person diversions from “average.”

Real-World Identities
With that knowledge, website landing pages can be created to address truly homogeneous customers’/prospects’ concerns. Offers can be made through email that accurately reflect a buyer’s preferences – both actual and predicted. Follow-ups can be determined by the action that was taken at the previous stage in the purchasing cycle.

The database and analytic tools are there to make this viable at even such a granular level. It involves more effort than generalized market research, but it allows both marketers and salespeople to address the needs of an actual person...not a persona...and get results that are better than average.

About the author

Peter Altschuler's picture

BlueSteps Executive Guest Writer

Peter Altschuler has been making products and services irresistible for more than a generation in a career that extends from high technology to television production.

He’s currently the chief marketing and creative strategist at Wordsworth & Company and has served as a Group Creative Director at San Francisco ad agency Anderson & Lembke, run the in-house agency at Candle Corp (now part of IBM) and, earlier, worked in television, producing for ABC News, Sesame Workshop, The Food Network, and PBS.
   
In his spare time, he brings books to life — most recently narrating Getting Religion by former Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward and Creativity, Inc. by Pixar founder Ed Catmull — and performs in everything from Shakespeare to commercials.

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