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How to Conduct Stealth Audience Research

We think and talk a lot about understanding your audience around here. Sadly, part of the reason we do is that it’s all too obvious that a lot of organizations still aren’t conducting audience research. Are you focusing on customer understanding before you create a strategy?

Now, I’m not casting blame. I know why you’re not. Here are some issues I’ve heard in the past few years related to audience research challenges:

If you’re faced with one of these challenges, I know it’s not that you don’t know you need to hear from and understand your audience. It’s just that there’s a challenge you have to deal with first. Let’s bust up some of those audience research barriers!

Finding More Time for Audience Research

No one has enough time today. It’s the overdone complaint of our age. This is a barrier you may be able to overcome alone, or it may require buy-in from others. Start by remembering this: In most cases in the world of marketing and product development, people only care what you do — and they aren’t as interested in how you do it. So if your project process doesn’t allow time at the beginning to talk to customers, all you have to do is rebuild the process! (Ha, I know, that may not be as easy as it sounds. Don’t leave yet.)

First, make sure that everyone on the team is aligned on the goal. (And remember, your goal is not: Update the website. Produce the annual catalog. Create an app. Those are simply tactics you might use to achieve your goal, which should look more like: Increase sales by 5% over last year. Grow our active prospect list by 12 clients this month. Provide a platform for customers to purchase 24/7. Help 25,000 people achieve and maintain a healthy weight.) Once you know the goal, then think about how you’d like to achieve it. That has to include understanding what the audience wants or needs. Often, getting org-wide agreement on the goal makes a lot of other objections go away.

If your team is truly under-resourced, spend a little bit of your time figuring out how to automate everything you can. Are you using automatically generated surveys with every customer event? Do you use pop-up surveys on your website or app? Do you have comment and feedback forms on your help pages? When someone calls the 800-number, do they get a survey about effectiveness there? Once these kinds of ideas are implemented, all you have to do is make time to look at the data that comes back. Look for trends — over time, has customer satisfaction with your 800-number declined? How did the reviews of this year’s speakers compare to last year’s? This kind of data helps you keep your finger on the pulse of your customer.

Working Without New Resources

Ah, the best things in life are free. (Fine, it’s a cliché, but you know I’m right.) Lots and lots and lots of audience understanding work can be done “free.” You can implement a lot of the suggestions I just shared for the busy people for free or low cost.

The cost of calling up 5 good customers is negligible. Make a point to do that each month. Ask them how their experience has been with your organization, what they wish you did better, and how you could help them solve any related problems.

If you’re wondering about the effectiveness of a particular part of your website or app, install an intercept survey at that point and ask customers if they’d be willing to talk to you to help you make their experience better. Contact a few of the names you get. They’ll give you solid gold ideas.

Sure, it’s nice if you have the money to do a nationwide market research assessment with a full understanding of all your competitors and your own products. But most people are operating without that kind of data. You can win without it. You cannot win without talking to your customers, though.

Talking to the Customer

And that brings me to the last objection: We’re not allowed to talk to the customer. I still remember how shocked I was the first time I heard this. I grew up working in my dad’s grocery store, and in that kind of retail environment, everyone talks to the customer — even the people you wish wouldn’t do so. You can get a sense of how well a store is doing and sense changes in sales patterns without ever seeing a spreadsheet — just stand on the retail floor day after day.

Many of us now use technology to mediate our relationships with our customer, though, and so we’re several steps removed from their experience with our product or service. In that case, we have to seek them out. Doing automated surveys really does help, but I will also argue strongly that there’s no substitute for in-person interaction with customers and prospects, even if that’s not how your product or service is delivered. Second best is a phone call or other synchronous communication.

I have seen companies limit this for a variety of reasons. Some organizations are worried about bothering their customers, and they have official policies about who and how you can talk to customers. I’ve found that most people are glad you asked for their feedback and they’re glad to take a few minutes to talk to you about their customer experience. (It’s far more likely the sales rep bugs your customer than the person who just wants to know how to make the product better. But be careful when you say that.) Don’t go to the same customer every time, and make sure you’re respectful of their time, of course.

More often, I’ve found there’s simply a culture of not contacting customers. Account managers feel responsible for their clients, and they are reluctant to bring you into the conversation. We’ve always done it without talking to customers, so we just don’t happen to do that. There are plenty of ways to change this culture. First, figure out where your customers are.

Listening to the Customer

This one is critical and totally free (though you can certain pay for tools to make this easier and faster). Follow customers, prospects, competitors, and people related to your industry on social media. Follow the hashtags they’re using. Definitely follow any mentions of your own organization, but also just listen to whatever they talk about, even when they’re not discussing you.

Are people using your product in unexpected ways? You might find that out on Pinterest or YouTube. Are people frustrated with their last experience shopping with you? They probably complained about it on Twitter or Facebook. Once you find people whose opinions you value, pay attention to the signals they may be sending about related problems, or subtle issues with your product or service. You may be able to make their life better without them even thinking to ask you to do so.

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