Last week, I had the opportunity to speak at a General Assembly event in Chicago focused on predictions for 2017 in Digital Marketing. Based on the title, it seemed rather narrow and somewhat tactical, but nonetheless important; there are many shiny things that catch our attention these days. But what struck me was the opportunity to step back and focus on strategy, rather than the latest social platform we all “need” to be on. After all, if your target audience isn’t there, why are you?
Employing the Scientific Method to drive marketing success
Close your eyes for a moment and transport yourself back to your grade or middle school class where you were first introduced to the scientific method. I’ll wait….
As I remember it, Mrs. Cain taught us about making observations, hypotheses, dependent and independent variables, putting together a lab plan, observing what happened, taking copious notes and then drawing conclusions relative to what our hypotheses were. Were we correct? Incorrect? If incorrect, why? How can we reconstruct the experiment in a different way to test our hypothesis further? If correct, what are the proof points? What data do we have to support our conclusions?
This is the framework that we should all embrace as marketing leaders, but too often, we get caught up with the shiny pennies and funny names — growth hacking, content marketing, inbound marketing, social marketing, influencer marketing — that we don’t stop to think about actually developing a strategy and testing it. These channels and tactics are NOT a marketing strategy. They’re ways in which you execute and test a hypothesis based on careful understanding of your target market, pain points and the product or services you’re trying to sell.
The Marketing Scientific Method
“You never know a man until you’ve walked around in his skin”
Ideally, before you build ANYTHING, you have already identified a group of people who share a problem. Perhaps this arose from a very personal issue you experienced and haven’t been able to find a solution. Once you started talking to others like you — maybe other moms, students, engineers, marketers, whatever the segment — you realize that you all share this problem and collectively haven’t found a solution. Aha! Invention, or perhaps just innovation on an existing tool or service that isn’t cutting it, begins!
“Get Curious. Talk to People…”
Your observations continue now at scale. How many other people have the same problem I do?
Note: they may not look, talk or live like you do (this is the issue with relying too much on demographics to segment a market), but they must have the same problem you do without a viable solution.
When you find people with the same problem, talk to them, ask questions that will draw out why they have this problem, what they’ve tried in the past to solve it and why it’s not working. Take notes. Tons of notes. Code them in some way where you can start to identify patterns that will inform a more quantitative way of surveying a larger group in the near future.
Note: I’m not suggesting you have to hire a big fancy research firm to do this; indeed, this isn’t in the budget for most startups. Generally, this is where that network you’ve been building your entire life comes in and where social media is particularly helpful. Crowdsource with friends and family. Walk the streets in your neighborhood. Eschew that advice to never talk to strangers. I’m particularly a fan of talking to @lyft drivers, but that’s another story for another time.
When you think you have enough qualitative information to begin crafting your hypothesis at statistically significant scale, start codifying and prioritizing your questions. Then sign up for free or free-ish tools like Google Surveys, Survey Monkey, etc. Be respectful of your audience’s time, however, and think about small rewards that you can provide them in exchange. Yes, here’s where money can come into play, but you’d be surprised at how responsive people are when you offer them a free cup of coffee. You don’t necessarily need to give them $100 in exchange for 30 min of their time.
2) Develop your Hypothesis
For marketers, developing a hypothesis rooted in audience observation, should include the following:
- Audience definition (aka “persona” development; for B2B marketers, you may also include definitions of target organizations/companies) — For me, this needs to be human and comprehensive. Stating “males 25–35 years old who live in San Francisco” is insufficient. I need to know everything about this guy — his name is George; he grew up in Portland going to the Oregon coast with his family every summer. He’s 32 and is a civil engineer working for the San Francisco city government building and repairing bridges. In his spare time, he enjoys extreme sports and hiking with his girlfriend of two years. He just rescued a greyhound. He volunteers at a soup kitchen once a month and his favorite place to visit is Paris at Christmas-time. That level of detail. I want this person to come to life because then I can find this person and others that look/act/think like him and that most likely have the same problems for which I have a solution.
- Product and Service definition — what is it that I’m attempting to sell to this audience and how will I support him/her as a customer? This is not just about the product. This is inherently about the experience — all along the buyers journey and throughout his or her time with you as a customer. I’m talking EVERY touch point. Map out what the ideal experience will look like across all those interaction points and see where you can improve.
- A compelling reason to buy (aka why are my product/service AND company uniquely qualified to solve his/her problem?) — If you listened carefully and crafted the right questions in your observation phase, this should be a summary of what you heard coupled with why you believe you’re special. Yes, we’re all special snowflakes, but you need to make a compelling argument here. This is the crux of the hypothesis you’re going to test. It’s your positioning….which should NOT change over the course of this experiment. Your messaging for this audience may change, but the fundamental value you’re providing should not change until you have data that lead you to conclude your hypothesis was incorrect….enter testing mode.
- Quantitative and qualitative goals to measure success — here’s where I’ve seen many marketers fall down. They don’t begin this process with a quantitative and qualitative benchmark in mind. If you’re starting from scratch, I believe the most logical place to focus is on quantity and quality of leads. For example, if I have 1 sales person on staff, I know he can process say 50 leads a week. I’m thus going to set my target for week 1 at driving 50 leads. At the end of the week (or maybe even daily), I will sit with this sales person to assess the quality of each of these leads — did we hit the right target based on the characteristics we laid out? were they qualified? were they in the right spot in their buyer’s journey? What questions or objections did you hear on your calls?
3) Experiment and Collect Data
This is your marketing execution plan. Ideally, it contains the following:
- Messaging Map — A set of statements/messages that are tailored to the needs/wants/desires/perspectives of each of the personae you identified above. In this testing phase, you’ll want to develop a few sets of variants for each of these messages, maybe changing a few words or how you contextualize things across different channels.
- Prioritized channels and spend — based on your understanding of the audience, where do they hangout and would be most receptive to your messaging? For example, if you’re offering a consumer product or service, is it more appropriate to reach them on Facebook? If you’re offering a business product, should you reach them in trade journals or at events? The good thing about channels like social and paid search is that you can test your messaging across audience segments and messaging variants for relatively low spend (I’m talking hundreds of dollars or even less depending on your target audience). Armed with a few weeks of data from these tests, then you can look to scale or increase spend on the channels and with the messaging you have proven to work.
- Partnership with sales — the sales team needs to be your best friend. They hold the golden nuggets of information because they’re talking to your audience daily. As I mentioned above, I’d recommend at least a weekly session with your entire marketing and key sales teammates to review analytics and qualitative insights from sales calls. Now, no one wants another meeting on the books. This needs to be a session where everyone brings their recommendations based on what they’ve observed and where you take action for the following week. In effect, this is sprint planning (see more on Agile methodology here).
- Monitor the market — we marketers can’t operate in a vacuum. It’s important to keep tabs on your competitors — what they’re saying, doing and maybe not saying to the market. Are they changing pricing? Have they announced partnerships with others? Are they acquiring other customers? Whom are they hiring? To me, this is one person’s (or at least someone’s half-time) job depending on how competitive and established your market is. If you’re creating a new category or market, good for you for getting your first-mover advantage on, but beware of new entrants. Don’t get complacent.
- Pricing and Packaging — these topics can be separate experiments unto themselves, but should always be included in your overall plan. Pricing and packaging can severely affect — in good and bad ways — your success. There’s a lot on the interwebs and in thousands of books about pricing and packaging, so I won’t attempt to summarize it all here. However, note that while all of your other variables — messaging, channels, sales execution, etc — may be spot on, the reason why you’re not seeing traction may ultimately be due to a disconnect between pricing, packaging and the target customer’s perceived value of your offering. Please take heed and pay attention to this piece. If you need help, seek assistance from the smart people in your finance team wherein they can help you put together scenarios based on costs, margins that need to be preserved, audience willingness to pay and competition.
4) Making Conclusions and Taking Action
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” — a lot of people ask me how long is the ideal length of a marketing campaign or plan and therein lies the problem. Many marketers see “campaigns” as a finite activity with a binary outcome, much like political campaigns — there’s a prescribed length of time and at the end you have a winner and loser. Becoming marketing scientists forces us to think differently — our work is never complete as it can always improve.
As outlined above, I like to work in weekly sprints with a defined goal, hypothesis, execution plan, data collection with a defined infrastructure and time set aside to assess the success or failure of the experiment. You might say, ok, then the campaign is a week. Not really, as there are an infinite number of variables I could test, most of which don’t have a binary outcome. Breaking up the experiments into smaller plans helps us to quickly test and learn; however, we need to always root these weekly tests in our overall strategy. I’m NOT advocating for Willy-Nilly throwing money at different channels. Follow your plan and make tweaks to the entire offering and experience — product, service, marketing messaging, pricing, packaging, etc — not just to your spend on social media.
I believe that marketing is business building. If you believe that your business has the capacity for infinite growth, provided you’re willing to explore new markets and new products based on your unique competence, data and experience with your customers, then a campaign structure will never be appropriate.
Let’s change our mindsets to be marketing scientists. Embrace the power of experimentation, data and action to build better businesses and drive growth in our global economy.