Marketers Need to Be Customers
It helps to understand the experience
It’s imperative we get closer to it all: the customer, the product, and the client.
As a copywriter, I’ve been hired on several occasions over the years to write about cruise lines. But until recently, I’d never actually taken a cruise.
It was eye-opening — both as a customer and as a marketer.
Spending eight days at sea allowed me to see the good and the bad. People so excited about their dream cruise they wore special commemorative t-shirts and decorated their cabin doors. The lone electric outlet in each cabin that feels woefully inadequate in today’s plugged-in world. The unfailingly polite staff who were everywhere.
Simply put, all the reference materials I’ve used in my previous writing were a poor substitute for experiencing a brand first-hand. No amount of Googling could properly capture the sounds, sights, smells, and details I noticed. But all too often, agencies operate on the assumption that if they need to research a brand, most of the team should just go search the web and track down the information.
Should the new focus on the “customer experience” mean we marketers should think like customers as well? Can ad agencies service an account and do great work without deep, first-hand knowledge of a client’s product or service? What does it take to truly understand a product and its users?
This lack of first-hand experience is all around us. If you’ve never had to shop for, or worry about, health insurance, you don’t know how complicated it can be. If you’ve never owned a small business with no cash on hand to meet the next payroll, you don’t know how terrifying it can be. The reality is, many people in advertising — sometimes deftly, sometimes not — work on brand categories they’ve rarely experienced for themselves.
If you want to talk with any clarity about “customer experience” then it’s time to experience it like a customer. This doesn’t mean you have to be a woman to write for female-specific products, or be a hardcore athlete to write for sports brands. But it sure helps. You don’t have to be an enthusiast about your client or it’s product, you just need to viscerally understand why someone would be enthusiastic about them.
The reasoning for doing this lies in finding the unexpected and glorious thinking a creative brief or focus group report can’t show. Experiencing the client’s product or service the way an ordinary customer would can help you highlight the small but glaring flaws that could lead to a great business-building idea. Or it could help highlight the minute but awesome feature or benefit that leads to a great ad campaign.
Tech firms have a buzzword for doing this internally: “Dogfooding.” I hadn’t heard that one until recently. But yes, it comes from the notion you should test and try your own dog food. And although it’s harder for an outside agency to test and try something a marketer does before it goes public, it’s never too late to get a more up-close perspective.
Being exposed to a client’s business from every angle is simply necessary these days for any agency to stay relevant. Because here’s the real reason agencies are starting to quake about consulting firms taking their business: The consulting firms are there. In the boardroom. On the factory floor. In the warehouse, IT, and accounting departments. And up and down the shopping aisles. They’re participating, witnessing, observing, and making recommendations the entire time. We should be too.
Primary research isn’t just a job for agency management or the account and strategy folks. People making the end product — the advertising and marketing “deliverables” — should be the ones taking the tour. I once worked at an agency where all the account people visited the HQ of a new client. Even the new business director went after the business was landed. As a writer on the account, all I got was for background information was a handful of handwritten scribbles from other folks. Yet my job was to write new brand positioning statements, manifestos, and other materials to set the tone going forward. I was at a clear disadvantage even as I did good work, not having actually laid my eyes on what I was writing about.
Today, there’s little room for error in the agency business. If clients believe they can get more passion, lower costs, or better service elsewhere, they’ll go elsewhere. So it’s incumbent upon all the people working on an account to know as much about the business as possible. And in an industry increasingly dependent on freelancers and short-term projects, knowledge is needed more than ever.
However, that knowledge should be used as grist to create great work, not as gospel to regurgitate. As I like to say, it’s OK take the factory tour — just don’t drink the Kool-Aid when you’re there. Our job is to remain skeptical and look for things than can improve a customer experience. Clients love to believe their product or service is the best available, and if only consumers heard that they’d buy in. It doesn’t work that way.
So it’s time to set aside some time. To get out of the office and observe. To talk to a brand’s customers. To experience a product.
Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves experiencing something else — less demand for the product we sell. Which, after all, is us.