Monday, May 21, 2007

Watch, Don't Listen

I used to work for a company that gave its executives free access to all of the health care resources of the Mayo Clinic executive program. It was a great benefit. They would test you for all sorts of potential medical problems with a very thorough examination (maybe a little too thorough in some areas, if you know what I mean). Then the doctors would take the time to explain all the results to you in great detail.

One time, the doctors were concerned that I was starting to put on a bit too much weight, so they wanted me to spend time talking to one of their nutritionists/dieticians. This dietician started talking to me about all sorts of subjects, like exercise, food choices, meal portions and the like, but I could hardly hear a word she was saying. I was too fixated on noticing the fact that this woman was significantly more overweight than I was. I had difficulty taking her words seriously, when the results of her own behavior were staring me in the face.

In the story above, it was hard for me to take the advice of this dietician seriously, because it was apparent by looking at her that she was failing in heeding her own advice. I figured that this type of thing is what she did for a living, so she would be more motivated than anyone else to follow through. Being more aware of the health risks, she should have more motivation to lose weight. Being an advocate for slimness, you would think that she should be more motivated to be slim than most people. Being smarter about the topic, you would think she would be more successful at finding what works.

Yet she was fatter than I was. And I’m not all that motivated to be slim. So if she couldn’t follow her own advice with her added motivation, what chance did I have? I couldn’t hear her words, because her actions were speaking too loudly.

In our last blog (see “Stop Listening to Me”), we talked about the dangers inherent in listening to our customers too much. What they say can be too limiting and not take into account everything necessary to create great strategy. Worse yet, customers may not be telling us what they truly believe, based on a desire to please or a bias caused by the interview itself.

If there are problems in asking and listening to our customers, then how can we get their input? As in the story of the dietician, we can learn a lot by observing behavior. It’s much harder for our everyday actions to lie. The cumulative impact of everyday behavioral decisions by the dietician were plain to see.

The principle here is to learn through observation rather then intervention. It is less about surveys and more about anthropology. We are to be more like Dian Fossey and her study of the Gorillas in the Mist or Jane Goodall and her study of the Apes. They learned by observing their objects in their natural environment.

There are two worlds where you can observe your consumer, the physical world and the internet world. We will look at each of them.

1) Observations in the Internet World
Rather than using the internet to directly connect to the consumer, you can use the internet to observe what people are saying in general to each other. There are enough people saying enough things online that you can find out what people are thinking on a wide variety of topics.

Now you still have to be a little bit wary of biases out there, particularly if you are pulling data from advertising-supported sites or blogs with a very strong bias in a particular direction. To please their advertisers or fellow extremists, these sites could mis-represent general sentiments. However, a lot of what is out there is just regular people saying what is on their mind. Tapping into this can be a relatively inexpensive way to learn what people truly think—about your company and about how they live their lives.

There are a number of companies out there who can help in this task. A partial listing would include BuzzMetrics, owned by AC Nielsen, Cymfony, owned by TNS, and Dow Jones’ Factiva. They can help you pick up on trends very quickly by aggregating all of the noise on the internet and distill what the key trends are.

The beauty of these types of observations is that you get results relatively quickly and they tend to have fewer biases than traditional consumer research. The problem is that the web chatter tends not to be equally distributed amongst all demographic groups. If your particular target is not well represented in chatter, this is more limited in scope.

2) Observations in the Real World
Sometimes, the best information can come from just watching people live their ordinary lives. For example, if you are marketing to teens, you can learn a lot by just observing teens doing what they do in the places they congregate, such as shopping malls or basketball courts.

Often times, if your observations take place in locations which tend to catch onto trends more quickly (or tend to be places where trends originate), you can learn about trends in their infancy and take advantage of them before the competition. This is particularly useful in categories where there is a strong fashion element, although useful in many other areas as well. The practitioners give it the fancy name of being “Cool Hunters.”

Back when I lived in Minneapolis, I would sometimes go to the Mall of America (one of the largest malls in the world) and just watch the people—what they were wearing and which store bags they were carrying. I would make a note of which store shopping bags I was seeing more of and which I was seeing less of. Then, later, when the monthly retail sales reports came out from all the retailers, I would compare national sales results to my mall observations. Normally, the more bags I saw in the mall, the better the official sale results.

Retailers have been known to follow people around in the store, to see what path they used to get through the store, where they stopped to look at something and so on.
Consumer product companies are famous for observing people over long periods of time to see how they actually interact with their products. They take photos of the inside of the refrigerator, or ask customers to take photos periodically of what they are doing or a whole host of other things. The idea is that once people get over the initial thought of being observed, they will eventually go back to their normal routines. Seeing this “real” behavior gives great insights into what can make or break your success. The practitioners like to give this the fancy name of “Ethnography.”

The real significance can be making observations related to problem solving. Through observations, one can see the types of problems people have, the innovative ways they try to solve them, and the level of success they have had in solving them. I have talked to many executives in the consumer products industry who have told me of all sorts of ways in which their products are used that are not at all as the company intended them to be used. When you see problems where customers are having difficulties, this could lead to the development of new solutions.

Although strategies should never be totally developed based solely on consumer insight, it is an important element. And often, the best way to get that insight is not by asking the consumer directly, but by observing them in their natural course of activity, be that activity on the internet or activity in the physical world. Good strategists are often pretty good anthropologists.

There’s an old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Well, in my case, I would rather pay more attention to the “do” than to the “say.”

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