Category Archives: market research

Weeding the Garden

By Dan Woychick

Between rain showers, I spent this past weekend helping my wife tend to our garden. Though I built the raised beds and patio in our backyard, most of the regular maintenance falls into her very capable, green-thumbed hands – and that’s a good thing. If it were left to me, weeds would be overlooked, changing light conditions ignored, and the garden would slowly deteriorate – inevitably if not intentionally – due to other competing priorities.

Every nonprofit marketer or designer I’ve met has too much to do, but little is done to evaluate which tasks are worth doing. Should I be weeding the garden or building a new bed? It’s time to examine how we spend our time.

An unexamined life
Much of our life is unconscious repetition. Wake up. Brush teeth. Get dressed. Similar behavior exists in the workplace. Send a news release. Place an ad. Update the website. Even though it’s less stressful, running on autopilot is no way to live or work.

The best organizations perform ongoing assessments and make changes when necessary. They manage conflict, seek out the best information available, and make small bets on new initiatives.

When choosing how to spend your limited time, it’s helpful to do the following:

Document your process
Many people love the excitement of jumping into a new creative assignment so much that they never stop to ask: When we’ve been successful, what did we do right? Every project should begin with clear, realistic objectives and time-tested guidelines to ensure that success can be replicated.

For our firm, it’s the creative brief that provides the foundation to both proceed with the assignment and measure results. Contrary to the notion that process stifles creativity, I’ve found it helps us see problems with fresh eyes and spurs important questions before beginning. Just like with a golfer’s swing or a surgeon’s operating room protocol, consistent outcomes are rooted in a strong process.

Question everything
Even (or especially) when you’ve done something hundreds of times, it’s good practice to poke your assignment full of holes before moving ahead. By what measure are we evaluating this? How will this project help meet our communication objectives? Is this a necessary activity/feature or an outdated habit?

Last week, I met with a client to review its 32-page, biannual printed magazine. Among the questions we asked: Does it need a traditional table of contents? What could we do with that space instead? Do readers find the listing of contents useful, or is it simply a nod to convention? We plan to find out by asking a small sample of readers to review two new options.

Improve incrementally
An iterative approach to improving results is common when direct, measurable comparisons can be made, as with A/B testing online ads or direct mail packages. However, even less quantitative methods can help offset limited anecdotal information.

Be patient. A common mistake is to change too many things at once, leaving uncertainty over which changes caused the improvement. Try comparing only two ideas for best results, and allow time for refining prototypes based on audience feedback. No matter what you’re trying to improve – cost efficiency, outcomes, or even the need for the project itself – an iterative process produces the best possible solution.

One of our clients indicated “several” people had complained about the size of the text on their new website. However, she was convinced the problem was the font, not the size. Rather than change both at once, we changed the size and solicited feedback, which helped us improve the user experience while avoiding unnecessary changes.

Manage priorities
Wishing the weeds would go away is no plan for a healthy garden, and complaining about how busy we are doesn’t get to the root of the problem. To build an efficient work environment, encourage questions that challenge the status quo and adopt a systematic, analytical approach to your projects. With any luck, you may even be able to enjoy a little time outside this summer.

Related content:

What Motivates Us To Do Great Work

Optimizely

Legacy Issues

The Right Tool For The Job

by Dan Woychick

Last weekend, I agreed to help a friend install his new home theater. First, we needed to remove the baseboard so we could keep all the new wires hidden from view. Lacking a crowbar, my friend grabbed the nearest screwdriver and proceeded to gouge the wooden baseboard and scratch the painted wall. As any do-it-yourselfer knows, using the wrong tool can make a small project a lot bigger.

Smart communications professionals recognize the importance of gathering consumer insights. Unfortunately, sometimes, they also reach for the wrong tool.

Lack of focus
When seeking audience opinion, the tried-and-true focus group is often the research tool of choice. Get a moderator, some pizza or doughnuts, and 8-10 people in a room, then watch the insights fly. But qualitative research from a group of strangers gathered around a table may not yield the insights you need.

Focus groups are best used when you have little knowledge about how your product, service or organization is perceived. They can give you a good starting point for further, targeted research. More often, you need specific information.

Simulating behavior
If, like me, you’re lacking a degree in cultural anthropology, interviewing a representative sample of your users about their needs is the next best thing. Interacting with and observing individuals one-to-one often reveals truths that remain hidden in a group setting.

It’s common practice to conduct this kind of research when embarking on a website redesign. Individual test subjects answer questions and complete a series of tasks, giving designers insight into how the site can be made more functional.

A similar approach can be useful whenever “navigation” is involved, such as with magazines, forms, and environmental signage. With as few as 4–5 people, we’ve gathered useful feedback simply by watching and asking a few questions. For example:

  • How often do you currently read (or use) this [publication, form, building]?
  • What is your overall impression?
  • Do you find this valuable, relevant, informative, etc.?
  • Is it easy to find the information you’re looking for?
  • Are there other sources you rely on to get similar information? Where?
  • How does this make you feel about the organization?

By keeping things simple, it’s easier to commit to an iterative process, conducting tests early and often.

Quality, not quantity
Quantitative research is useful when an organization wants to benchmark results over time. Many people place their trust in cold, hard data – the more of it the better. Seeking statistically valid numbers, however, presents two big hurdles – time and budget.

Depending on what is being measured – and for what reason – the importance of sample size is often overestimated. If I’ve interviewed five people who have difficulty navigating your website, surveying 500 or 5,000 more provides very little benefit. There are diminishing returns with each additional data point.

Watch, listen and refine
Many decisions are better served by more frequent questioning of fewer people, refining as you go. Making a habit of interviewing your customers will make your organization more responsive and serve as a tool for continual improvement.

Related Content:
Don’t Make Me Think
To Focus Group, Or Not To Focus Group
Conducting a Needs Analysis

Mining Your Blind Spots

by Dan Woychick

I was recently asked for guidance from a communications professional whose new boss wanted a report on their advertising’s return on investment (ROI). Panic ensued.

I can understand the panic, as it sounds a little like a Dilbert comic strip after the pointy-haired boss has returned from a conference with a new buzzword. This is not meant to deny the importance of spending ad dollars wisely, or tracking the effectiveness of your marketing efforts, but trying to construct a meaningful ROI report retroactively is folly.

What can be measured?
Everything. Anything. Just because it’s difficult to find meaningful numbers to attach to an enterprise doesn’t mean people won’t keep trying. Data allows us to rationalize our actions. And it’s widely accepted that reason is more reliable than emotion or feelings. But is it?

Conventional wisdom
Across the corporate and non-profit landscape, quality improvement efforts are stuck in the factory mentality of the Industrial Age. If only things are well-measured, the thinking goes, we’ll produce better widgets, graduates or advertising.

Our brains are wired to overestimate the likelihood that our future will look a lot like our past. This influences everything we do, placing great importance on data – essentially, history quantified. Unfortunately, our high tech world’s rapid pace of change virtually guarantees that the future we imagine is an illusion.

Learning to anticipate
Wayne Gretzky, the hockey legend, consistently outfoxed bigger and faster competition by passing to spots where a teammate was going to be. How did he always seem to magically be one step ahead of everyone else?

Undoubtedly, through hours of practice on his backyard ice rink, he acquired lots of data. But many players practice a lot. It may be precisely because of Gretzky’s disadvantages that he discovered an unexpected competitive advantage. He could sense, or feel, the play developing, and learned to see risks worth taking.

Risk aversion is human nature, but it blinds us to opportunities as well as threats. In marketing your organization, common assumptions about what the future holds (influenced by those ROI reports) create an artificially narrow set of choices.

To expand your vision, you need to recognize and resist the herd mentality. In your market, or with your audience, what is least likely to happen? Learning to see into your blind spots – exploring unexpected territory – allows you to anticipate the opportunities that others miss.

Related Content:

How to Become a Visionary

The Big Assumption Underlying Internet Media Ventures

Field Sense May Be Teachable

Favorite Links: August 2010

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Learning to Say No to Bad Ideas
A List Apart

FrogMob: An Experimental Method of Crowd-sourced Research
Frog Design

Why Online Education Needs to Get Social
Mashable

How Will You Measure Your Life?
Harvard Business Review

The Decision

by Dan Woychick

Imagine a crisp autumn day. A teenager is visiting a college campus with her parents. It’s just one step in a lengthy selection process of reviewing websites, speaking with friends and relatives, and weighing the pros and cons of one school versus another.

Even though most people aren’t given a national TV audience to announce their plans, it is widely assumed that a big decision – choosing a school, volunteering time or money, pursuing a job – demands deep thought. But does it really work that way?

In our experience with regional public universities, we’ve noticed the opposite is true. Prospective students are not very familiar with many schools, often making their choice based on general – and sometimes inaccurate – impressions. In other words, the common perception – touring multiple campuses, filing lots of applications, sorting through piles of information – is the anomaly, not the rule.

Just the facts, ma’am

As noted in Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide, it turns out our brains weren’t designed to be rational or logical or even particularly deliberate. This can be seen in all walks of life, for instance:

  • In an age of unprecedented dissatisfaction with our elected representatives, incumbents are still re-elected nearly 90% of the time. Even taking into account an incumbent’s built-in advantages, this doesn’t seem possible.
  • Kobe Bryant is considered by many to be the premiere basketball player on the planet. Who else would you want shooting the ball with the game on the line? Based on statistical analysis, dozens of players perform better under pressure. While Bryant makes a lot of clutch baskets, he is not more skilled at making those shots, he just takes more of them than other players.

The facts suggest we persistently disregard information that would be helpful in making our decisions.

If I’ve heard of you, you must be good.

With exposure to a barrage of daily messages and with access to a world of pretty good – or at least largely indistinguishable – choices at our fingertips, we often take decision shortcuts by turning to the familiar. It’s as much a coping mechanism as it is a reflection on what we value or believe.

We trust who and what we know.

Are we doomed?

So, while this is great news for Goliath, it represents a daunting marketing challenge for underfunded nonprofits with little name recognition. How can you compete?

  • If you’re well-positioned in the minds of consumers, the pool of competitors shrinks. We’re this, not that. It’s called branding.
  • You’re less well known than you think. Invest in some small-scale market research so the right messages are reaching the right people.
  • Expand your communications beyond the low-hanging fruit. Anyone can preach to the choir and remain a well-kept secret. Using social media can strengthen connections with customers and turn them into advocates.

    Like you, your audience is faced with decisions every day. To guide your marketing decisions, remember to ask: How can we get more people to know, like, and trust us? Becoming the familiar option will help more people choose you.

    Related Content:

    How Facts Backfire

    The Relevance Filter

    Everyone Has Choices

    Expand Your Way of Seeing

    By Dan Woychick

    In the modern business environment, nothing is trusted more than cold, hard facts. Simply using one’s own eyes and ears to observe how people interact with your product or service, on the other hand, is an underappreciated skill.

    Ethnography is observing people’s behavior in their own environments, so you can get a holistic understanding of their world. – LiAnne Yu, cultural anthropologist

    While it’s not necessary to be a trained social scientist to benefit from observing others, like any skill, regular practice increases proficiency. When communicators put themselves in others’ shoes, they begin to see beyond their own preconceptions, leading to more compelling stories and experiences.

    What’s bugging you?

    If you’ve ever been to an airport, chances are you’ve got an opinion or two about how the whole experience could be better – from parking to check-in to boarding your flight. When it comes to personal preferences, you’re probably not as unique as you think.

    Keeping an ongoing, personal “bug list” is a good place to start training yourself to note patterns of behavior in real-world settings. Those behaviors will provide clues to where opportunities for improvement exist.

    Take the time to gather new insights. If you’re far removed in age and experience from your target audience, curiosity is the key to obtaining new points of view. When it comes to honing your powers of observation, look for a few people that fit your target audience. It’s better to know a few people deeply than many people superficially.

    Imagining action

    When conducting on-site research is impractical – maybe you’re planning for a winter event in late summer – it may be useful to think in terms of verbs rather than nouns.

    Take a college, for instance. Don’t think of class registration, think of a specific student registering. This involves action – all of the steps and processes around this activity. Is there a building that registering students need to visit? Picture that environment. Are there forms to fill out? How could they be simpler? Imagine the experience of a real person moving through the necessary steps to register for classes.

    If you know your organization well, you can “see” that experience. Where are the opportunities to improve communications? If that experience is improved, does it present marketing opportunities?

    Define the problem.

    The tighter the focus of your observation, the more valuable the insights will be. For example, broadly trying to encourage more people to make donations isn’t nearly as helpful as asking: What are the competing priorities for young, first-time donors?

    Removing barriers to communication will make interacting with your organization more intuitive. Once you become more attuned to audience behavior, keen observational insights will make your communications and marketing more powerful, clear, and well understood.

    Related content:

    Ethnography Primer

    Everything You Know Is Wrong

    By Dan Woychick

    There are a few unwritten rules in marketing, including: people don’t read, social media is a game changer, and the more data the better. But what happens when best practices aren’t?

    For every adage, there’s a counter-intuitive example that proves the folly of following absolutes. The death of reading, it turns out, is greatly exaggerated. According to researchers at the University of California in San Diego, people are reading nearly three times as much as they did 30 years ago. And how does it change your marketing efforts if the hottest social network of 2009 isn’t as social as expected? With only 27% of its users actively participating, Twitter is becoming more of a news feed than a social network.

    Homogeneous thinking

    The propensity to follow conventional wisdom is understandable. Entire businesses are built on “the wisdom of crowds.” (See Netflix and Pandora, among others.) Without question, using good data and the experience of others to guide decision-making is safer and more efficient than reinventing the wheel. It eliminates the big mistake. But it also eliminates the transcendent.

    Because few people trust their intuition or instincts as much as their data, a lot of marketing efforts tend to look and sound alike. Unfortunately, original ideas aren’t the result of number crunching or focus groups. As Henry Ford noted, regarding the first car he ever built: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

    It takes courage to be unconventional.

    When we encounter bold ideas, we’re inevitably drawn to their audacity, often nodding reverently: “I wish I’d thought of that!”

    The Flip has been the best-selling camcorder on Amazon.com since the day of its debut, capturing about 13% of the market. Yet no market research suggested an unmet need for a virtually featureless video camera.

    When is a risky choice a good idea? When it works, of course! In the most recent Super Bowl, the New Orleans Saints’ onsides kick to start the second half was widely credited with turning the game in their favor.

    More marketing failures are the result of trying to please everybody than going against the grain.

    Innovation comes from asking the right questions

    I only know one graphic designer joke: Q: How many designers does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: Does it have to be a light bulb?

    Without exploring what is possible – and even what may seem impossible – no one generates new ideas. The more you question the status quo, the more often you try something new or different, the more likely your ideas will break new ground.

    In an undifferentiated marketplace with a multitude of pretty good choices, falling back on conventional wisdom just won’t cut it any more. Or as your mom might say: “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?”

    Related content:

    Are Metrics Blinding our Perception?

    Social Media Sins

    Too Much Data Leads to Not Enough Belief

    The Art of Non-Conformity