In many industries, there’s a tendency to think of marketing as a niche part of a business. Sales, finance, and operations are often characterized as core to a business' success, while marketing is thought of as secondary and supplementary.
The truth of the matter is that, often, this is the marketers’ own fault. Too often, the approach of marketing departments is to focus in on the tactics of our work—design, content, style, analytics, etc. By our nature, marketers are creative, detail-oriented people who revel in the promotional art we work to create. It’s no wonder, then, that senior marketing leaders forget that they must translate the results of marketing into relevant information for others in the company.
Marketers should think like CEOs
In a corporate setting, the best marketing leaders realize they have far more to do with the CEO and sales directors of a company than they do with their own creative staff. The questions that should keep marketing directors up at night are the same quandaries that most CEOs deal with on a daily basis. And they all center on positioning.
When CEOs ask themselves, “Is my company positioned for growth?” marketers should be asking, “How does my company’s position generate better leads and drive more sales?” These are questions that require strategizing, knowledge of one’s customers, and a deep understanding of the company’s underlying value.
Marketers should also work like Social Scientists
In other words, marketers can’t just be the creative strategists behind a company’s branding. They must also be like a social scientist whose deepest interests are invested in understanding and reconstructing the company’s target audience to enhance sales.
However, very few marketers are trained to be social scientists. We are artists, salespeople, designers, and analysts. But traditional marketing hasn’t ever seriously sought out social theorists and cognitive researchers. That’s why marketers need to start borrowing.
In the following list, I’ve provided four strategies from anthropology that every marketer could use to construct better target personas for his/her company. If the goal of a company is to understand its audiences on a qualitative level, then there’s no better science than the thick description of ethnography. By borrowing ethnographic methods to do company positioning, marketers will be able to more fully understand their personas’ strengths, needs, and weaknesses.
What Can Marketers Learn from Ethnography?
1. Participant observation.
In junior high we heard about scientific methods of observation with blind studies, double-blind, etc. Well, ethnography takes a very different approach. Rather than just observing, anthropologists dive straight in and participate while observing. So, for example, imagine you work for a manufacturing company that creates metal hardware for a variety of furniture types, like desks, cabinets, etc. You sell directly to furniture companies already, but you want to grow your current customer base quickly. In order to develop better messaging, you could work with your current clients to do in-depth participant observation in their sales department. Volunteer to work alongside their sales force to understand exactly what their needs timeline is like. Record notes on how the sales process works, who has real decision-making power, and why. This kind of research takes time and commitment, but it can lead to powerful results for the long-term.
2. Semi-structured interviewing
Interviews are already a respected aspect of constructing good persona targets within companies, but ethnographers have found that asking questions isn’t always the best way to get the answers you want. Semi-structured interviewing involves asking a willing prospect or company a few questions, but the larger goal is to get them talking in a normal, long-lasting conversation. Semi-structured interview gives context for the conversation, but it provides the interviewee the space to go off into tangents, which often leads to the kind of high-quality complaining and worrying that’s useful in understanding your buyers' needs. Marketers working in the financial industry should definitely use this strategy because it encourages to people to speak freely. If, say, you represent an insurance brokerage selling to smaller insurance companies, then understanding their pain points through free and open interviewing could be highly valuable to creating a salient value statement for your services.
3. Life histories
Building life histories involves a bit of interviewing as well as some observation, but the goal is to learn the complete story of just a few people in a company. Imagine, for example, that you sell products your customers only buy once in a lifetime. Good instances of this include investment products like a 401k that an investment company might sell to a smaller business once in a 20-year period. By building a life history of an exemplary customer, a marketer for the investment company could really evaluate all the factors that come into play when the purchase is made. Maybe the best targets are those customers who are just reaching financial stability in their business’ history (5-7 years old)? Or maybe 401k sales work great when a business has just seen the fallout of a previous savings system like a pension? These are possible insights that can be taken from life history research to generate a more targeted sales approach.
4. Recorded conversation analysis
One last method of building a targeted marketing plan is to actually do recorded conversation analysis of interactions between your company’s sales and customers. By interpreting and analyzing the sales process, marketers can learn about customers’ needs and desires on a level that sales people in the sales situation may not be able to see. By observing and/or recording how sales and customer service interactions work, marketers can observe how subtle aspects of conversation might hint at the difference in positioning between a customer’s needs and how a product or service is presented to them for the sale. Most of the messaging expressed by salespeople and customer service representatives is established by a company’s overall messaging. By observing whether or not this messaging resonates with customers—in conversation—marketers can learn how and when they should refine their customer targeting.