Measure once, then again and again

Why on-going research matters and the rise of the moving target.

In the past, many companies believed your customer was your customer. Consistent and predictable. Companies employed advertising tactics aimed at reaching the masses with little thought of segmentation. Some of this marketing was based on basic research data but most on generalizations and assumptions. The truth is, today’s consumers have changed. With the advent of the Internet and the informed consumer, this approach to marketing and research couldn’t be further from the truth.

In college, a favorite Sociology professor once taught me the valuable distinction between the social sciences and the hard sciences (Chemistry, Physics, Biology, etc.). In Geology, a rock is a rock is a rock. You can study it. You can take its measurements and observe as it just sits there and takes it. With the social sciences you can do this as well. There is however one major difference.

At any moment, that rock can choose to get up and walk away with all of your preconceived notions and theories. In marketing we must approach the consumer in this light, as a moving target.

For many, the idea of a moving target can be frustrating and unnerving. I have found a strange kind of peace amidst the chaos. It causes marketers and researchers to constantly be on their game and challenging assumptions. It means treating consumer data as more than simply pieces of statistical relevance to be manipulated to your liking. It takes digger a little deeper and getting to the human element. Getting to the truth. Understanding your consumer isn’t a one-time event that can be completed through a single online survey. It’s a continual, iterative process that shouldn’t stop as long as you are in business.

Now hold up just a minute. You may be buying into all of this theoretical rhetoric or maybe you’re thinking, “Isn’t there a Steve Jobs quote that disproves all of this?” Well, I don’t know if it it disproves anything but what you’re most likely remembering goes like this,

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

So how does this fit in with the whole ongoing research bit? Do customers really know what they want? Henry Ford didn’t seem to think so, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Mario D’Amico, Senior VP of marketing for Cirque du Soleil put it well when he said, “Any innovative company struggles with how much to listen to customers. Most realize that you cannot trust them to tell you what your next new product will be.” The truth of the matter is every business is unique and can benefit from research in one way or another. It just may be that what works for Apple may not work for your company. Innovators, visionaries and researchers can all learn something from each other and all bring unique value to a team.

For companies that really want to get the inside scoop on the inner workings of their consumers, you have to get dirty. You can’t sit back in an office and learn everything you need to know about your consumers. You need to be on the ground, talking directly to the consumers and asking the hard questions. The questions you don’t always want to know the answers to. This is when you start to understand who your consumer is. And just when you think you’ve got a handle on everything.

Everything will change.

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