“Whoever gets closer to the customer wins.”
~ Bernadette Jiwa (best-selling author, brilliant marketer, and all-round smart cookie)
Cue *mic drop*
If you take nothing else from this post, please at least pin that one to the wall above your desk, tattoo it to your arm, and then add it to your list of daily affirmations.
Because while some marketers are still out there searching for the next “viral video” or automated email sequence that will skyrocket their company into the brand hall of fame, those who are really paying attention to marketing trends know that the best growth hack for any company is right under our noses.
(And in our inboxes, and on our websites, and in our DMs…)
Deeply understanding our customers and how they make buying decisions is absolutely critical for marketing success.
Yet, while every marketer worth their salt claims to be “audience-focused,” the data tells a different story.
Marketers who conduct regular audience research perform 466% better than those who do research “rarely”… yet 65% of marketers don’t do it.
So what the heck is going on?
Why are so many marketers *willfully* ignoring a potential goldmine?
The short answer: they’re not.
(At least not “willfully.”)
Most marketers want to talk to customers.
They want to deeply empathize with their audience and they know that 1:1 conversations with real customers will dramatically speed their learning curb.
They’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, but when they suggest investing time in upfront audience research, they’re immediately shot down.
Case in point:
I get messages like these ones from marketers weekly.
Some are freelancer marketers while others work in-house at VC-backed startups or at large advertising agencies. Their roles and industries vary, yet they’re all struggling with the same problem: getting buy-in to talk to customers.
Why do marketers keep getting shut down and told that there’s no time for research?
Simple. Their bosses (or clients, in the case of freelancers & agencies) underestimate the ROI on customer research.
By like, a lot.
And this is a big mistake. HUGE.
I get it. Probably more than most. Because I’ve sat on both sides of the table…
I’ve been the marketer who’s hired by a client and expected to create overnight results (often with little to no ramp-up time.)
I know what it’s like to be asked to write sales copy or design ad creative for an audience that I know almost nothing about.
And I’ve felt the shame of producing mediocre work that was rushed out the door and based on Googling, assumptions, and stereotypes because my client insisted that “we don’t have time for research.”
In short? I know how difficult it is to create impactful marketing when you don’t have the needed context to do your job well.
I’ve also been the overwhelmed CEO who needs my team to produce fast results… like yesterday.
I know what it’s like to hire a marketer and [unrealistically] expect that they’ll start driving growth immediately.
I know how frustrating it is when they keep coming to me with questions that I [wrongly] believe I’ve already answered.
And I know how disappointing it is when my new marketing hire invests weeks (or more) in a project or campaign that creates almost NO immediate value.
Yup. I’ve sat on both sides of the table…
Which brings me to my goal in writing this article (hint, it’s twofold):
If you’re a marketer (in-house, agency, or freelance) and you’re running into roadblocks getting buy-in and budget, read on. I have a few tools to help you convince your boss/client of its value.
If you’re an owner/founder/ other exec team member who isn’t straight up empowering your marketing team (internal or outsourced) to talk to customers h on a regular basis, read on. I have a few things for you to consider.
So here we go.
The rest of this post is going to be “choose your own adventure.”
Select one of the options below:
Help me convince my boss/client to let me do 1:1 interviews (for Marketers)
When I say I’ve been where you are, I mean it. Check out my post on Liquor & Guessing to learn about my start in the marketing industry.
I know what it’s like to feel like you’re shooting in the dark with every decision you make or being forced to execute on ideas that you’re not confident will work (and then getting blamed if they don’t).
I put my “founder” hat back on just long enough to compile my best advice for getting the buy-in and budget you need to regularly conduct 1:1 customer interviews.
Once you’ve read over my recommendations, click through to get a copy of the free email script and sample email I created to save you time.
Okay, let’s do this.
Time your ask strategically
There are specific times when your team or client may be more open to conducting audience research. Typically these events fall into two categories:
- Something isn’t working and they need to figure out why
- There’s a high-stakes opportunity and they don’t want to screw it up
Basically the bigger the risk of getting it wrong, the better the chances that you can get buy-in for upfront research.
A few examples could include…
- They’re preparing for an important event like a pitch or industry expo
- They’re investing big bucks in creating a critical sales asset (e.g. a new website, sales video, etc.)
- They’re considering entering a new market
- They’re preparing to launch a new product
- They’ve just closed their financing round and want to scale up their marketing
- They recently launched a big campaign (or product) that flopped
- They need the research to do internal selling, like to settle feuds between department heads or to get approval for new initiatives
Timing your ask around one of these events will dramatically increase your chances of getting buy-in for audience research.
Reframe how you talk about “research”
The dreaded R-word.
Most business leaders are allergic to research. When they hear the word research, they think it’s going to be expensive, time-consuming, and (in their opinion) unnecessary.
And business leaders have good reason to be skeptical about “market research” because “market research” often doesn’t work. Lots of famously failed products were backed by oodles of market research—Google+, New Coke, Microsoft Zune.
(I could go on a big rant about the difference between market research and customer research and how many teams actually do market research all wrong, but I’ll leave that for a future blog post.)
My point is that you need to choose your words carefully. You’re not going to ask for permission to do “research.” In fact, you’re not going to ASK for permission at all.
Here’s what to do instead. I call it The Buy-In Burger:
Step one: State the problem
You might say something like:
“We’re getting consistent traffic to our website, but we’re not converting that traffic into leads effectively. Either we’re targeting the wrong people or our current messaging is missing the mark. ”
Step two: Explain your solution
“To better understand what motivates customers to buy, I propose conducting 4-5 quick 1:1 interviews with current customers. I’ll ask specific questions to uncover what customers are thinking as they move through each stage of the buying journey.”
See how you didn’t ask for permission and you didn’t use the R-word? You proposed a solution to a problem they know they have.
Step three: Highlight the quick win that your team will get from this upfront investment
“This quick upfront investment will enable me to use our customer’s own words to write high-converting copy.”
Step four: Use evidence to support your approach
If you have your own success stories, use those. You could say something like,
“I used this same method before rewriting [CLIENT’S] website, which led to 3X more conversions.”
If you don’t have your own stories to share yet, you can say something like…
“The world’s top conversion copywriters use 1:1 interviews before every copywriting project—it’s the most effective way to figure out how to quickly boost conversions.”
Again. Emphasize how quick it will be.
Step five: close by promising future value from this investment
Is there another important project coming down the pipe soon? Is there another challenge that your team needs to overcome? This is where you’ll mention it…
“These interviews will be useful immediately for the web design project, but I’ll also gather essential data that we can use when [INSERT FUTURE INITIATIVE/CHALLENGE].”
And that’s the buy-in burger:
- Quick win
- Future promise
To save you time, I’ve created an email script you can use to present this idea to your boss or client.
How to overcome possible objections
Even when you use the buy-in burger format, you may still get pushback.
The most common objection you’ll hear is…
“We don’t have time to do interviews”
Here’s how to respond so that you can make “time” a non-issue:
Explain that doing interviews won’t actually add additional hours to the project. Yes, you’ll be working around your customer’s schedules, and it may take a week or two to get 4 or 5 customers on the phone. But, the insights you’ll gather will be well worth it. Explain that while you’re waiting to conduct the interviews that there’s plenty you can do in the meantime to set you up for success.
If you don’t do 1:1 interviews, you’d just need to do another form of audience discovery instead—like sending a survey, running a series of experiments, or doing an in-depth competitive analysis. Explain that these activities will actually require just as much time upfront and won’t be nearly as effective for getting the answers you need.
Chances are that you may have been brought in to re-do work that was done poorly in the past (e.g. rewrite website copy, create an email nurture sequence, create an effective content marketing strategy, etc.). When that’s the case, I like to pull out this little quote…
This quote serves as is a good reminder that if you don’t invest the appropriate time upfront, you end up wasting a lot more time in the long run because you’ll just need to do it over… and over… and over.
If you’re a hired gun and you’re trying to sell a new client on the value of 1:1 interviews, another common objection you may hear is…
“We don’t have budget for this—we just want [whatever they’re hiring you to do]”
To address this objection, again explain that there isn’t really an extra cost for doing the interviews. If you don’t do interviews, you’d need to do another form of audience discovery, which would likely take just as much time and cost just as much.
Another common objection you might hear is…
“I don’t want to bother our customers”
When you hear this, it’s usually coming from a place of fear. What they might actually be saying is “I don’t know if we’re creating real value for our customers and I’m afraid of what we might learn.”
There are two ways around this argument:
You can suggest that you start by interviewing a “friendly customer” — someone that the business has a good relationship with already and that you know will be open to helping out. Encourage your boss or client to participate in the interview so they can see firsthand how it works, and how valuable the insights from these interviews really are.
If your client or boss still doesn’t bite, you can suggest that rather than talking to your own customers, that you talk to your competitor’s customers. You’ll still learn a ton of valuable information and you won’t be bothering your own customers.
The final objection that you’ll hear is…
“I can tell you what you need to know”
This objection is tricky to navigate. You don’t want to insult your boss or client by implying that they won’t have the answers you need, but you also want to make it clear that secondhand intel just isn’t the same as hearing it directly from the customer’s mouth.
When faced with this objection, explain that you know they could do an excellent job of answering your questions, but that hearing it from them just wouldn’t have the same impact. And that’s not a criticism of them—it’s neuroscience.
As a marketer, you need to hear the customer describe their pains, their goals and tell their stories in their own words.
Hearing their own words—often called the Voice Of the Customer or VOC—is priceless. There’s really no substitute for it. When it comes to understanding others and developing empathy, it’s not just WHAT they say that matters, but it’s HOW they say it.
Tone of voice matters.
Most importantly, their stories matter.
All of these cues will help us to shape a clear picture of the customer. Your team can share their own stories with you, but third-party accounts won’t have the same impact as hearing it directly from the customer.
Plus, the questions that YOU need answers to as a marketer are unique. These are questions that likely haven’t been asked before and therefore CAN’T be gleaned by talking to other team members.
(Want to know which specific questions you should ask? I’ve got something coming for you.)
This argument will typically win them over. If it doesn’t, what should you do?
What to do if you can’t get buy-in
If you absolutely can’t get buy-in to do 1:1 interviews yourself at this time, you have a few options.
You can ask to listen in on sales calls or review records from a chat support tool like Drift or Intercom. This won’t be the same as conducting an interview yourself, but you will still be able to pull out some valuable nuggets.
You can also scan Facebook groups, Quora or Reddit for clues into what your audience is struggling with and what their goals are.
And review sites like Amazon, Facebook page reviews or G2 are a goldmine for gathering voice of the customer data.
Are you ready to take the plunge and ask your customer for buy-in?
To help get you started, I’ve created an email script you can use to guide a conversation with your boss or client. This script is a good jumping-off point, but you may need to modify them a bit for your own purpose.
Ok. Go get buy-in. And remember, you got this!
Show me why I should encourage my marketing team to talk to customers (for Leaders)
I’ve been in your shoes. Believe me.
I get why you’re skeptical about letting your marketing team talk to customers.
Your customer relationships are sacred.
You’ve worked hard to build trust with these people and the last thing you need is for some brash marketer to come along and waste your customer’s time.
Plus, you’ve already invested A TON of resources learning about your audience. Why duplicate work that’s already been done?
Everything you read says to move quickly, follow the data, and experiment your way to success. So why should marketers waste time talking to customers when they can learn by doing? Right?
I’m about to dive into how customer interviews differ from other types of audience research you may have already done, and why conducting the interviews is 120% worth the small amount of time invested.
But first, a quick note about giving your marketing team access to your hard-earned customers…
While it might seem super risky to ask customers to take time out of their day to talk to your team, I have good news…
People like to talk about themselves.
They also like to help other people.
These two natural inclinations make customer interviews surprisingly pain-free for both your marketer and your customer.
In fact, in my experience, customers almost always enjoy the opportunity to share their buying story. It can be weirdly cathartic, plus this personal touchpoint helps them to feel more connected to your brand—which is never a bad thing.
Okay, back to our regular programming:
The time your marketers spend talking 1:1 with customers won’t be wasted. In fact, it’s absolutely essential if you expect them to create high-converting and cost-effective marketing campaigns.
Remember the stat from earlier:
Marketers who conduct regular audience research perform 466% better than those who “rarely” do research
What makes customer interviews so powerful?
Well, that’s easy. 1:1 interviews are the fast-track to building empathy with an audience.
Empathy is a marketer’s superpower
There’s a reason why marketers like Gary Vee are always talking about empathy.
Gary says, “Empathy. It’s one of the biggest things to which I attribute my success… if you can understand what the other person is thinking and what their goals are, you can reverse engineer those aims and map it back to your goals too. That knowledge sets you up to win. You’ll both win.”
Empathy gives you the ability to connect with your audience in a way that data can’t.
While statistics from generic market research (whitepapers, research reports, market analyses, etc.) might offer some insight into who (ie., the type of people that make up your market) and the what (ie., the product or service they are buying) you’re missing out on a crucial insight.
Why did they start looking for a solution like yours?
Why did they need a better solution in the first place?
Why did they choose your product over your competitors?
Conducting 1:1 interviews allows you to pull out their why’s and develop empathy for that person and the audience they represent.
Empathy doesn’t travel through osmosis
While YOU might know your audience extremely well—heck, you may have even been the customer yourself at one point in your life—it’s impossible to take what’s in your head and transplant it into your marketing team’s head.
Imagine you’re trying to sell a friend on trying a restaurant they’ve never been to. You’ve never been there yourself, but you’ve been told it’s a nice spot, and the online menu looks pretty good too. How convincing do you think you’d be when pitching that place?
Now imagine telling your friend about that same restaurant, but you’ve actually eaten there yourself. You’ve smelled the fresh bread, taken in the soft lighting and perfectly spaced tables, joked with the server, and been wowed by the main course.
In which scenario are you going to be more convincing?
The same goes for your marketing team. Having 1:1 conversations with actual customers is much more powerful than looking at a bunch of data or hearing third-party stories from other team members.
Empathy travels through stories
One of the most important reasons to encourage your marketing team to conduct 1:1 interview is so they can hear customers talk about the decision to purchase your product in the form of a story.
Research shows that people remember facts or data points 6-7X better when they’re delivered in the context of a story. (Psychonomic Science)
So, not only will hearing the customers’ buying stories help them to empathize with your audience, it will give them clarity and focus, resulting in more effective messaging over time.
How much better, you ask? Let’s take a look…
Ongoing customer discovery drives 2-3X faster growth
According to a study by ProfitWell, companies that actually TALK to 10 or more customers a month—for the purpose of customer research—grow 2-3X faster than those who don’t.
And we’re talking about company-wide growth. That’s HUGE.
Yet only 3 out of 10 companies do it regularly.
While this is a scary stat for the state of business as a whole, it’s fantastic news for you as a team lead.
By being among the few companies who prioritize customer discovery—perhaps the only one in your specific market—you’re giving yourself a competitive edge.
While on the other hand…
Without empathy, marketing doesn’t work
There are countless examples of marketing teams who have clearly tried to fabricate empathy in order to sell more of their products.
One great example is Bic’s “Pens for Her.”
These specially designed pink and purple pens are meant to fit better in a woman’s hand, and of course, the colours speak for themselves.
To say the pens didn’t go over so well with consumers would be putting it kindly. They sparked a barrage of snarky Amazon reviews, with the likes of Ellen getting in on the mocking.
And it doesn’t just happen with women’s products. Millennials are often the victim of advertising stereotypes, like in 2016 when Microsoft used trendy, overly-casual language to engage local interns with this email campaign:
Not surprisingly, the email made lists of “cringe-worthy” millennial marketing campaigns and serves as a prime example of how it’s not enough to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk.
To steal Cassandra’s wise words…
Clearly empathy is important in marketing, and it comes from talking 1:1 with someone. Hearing their story, and understanding their why’s.
You just can’t fabricate empathy.
Conclusion? The ROI will be WELL worth the time it takes your team to conduct 4-5 customer interviews.
Intrigued but need more proof? Check out my free webinar on why customers *actually* buy where I’ll show you why guessing just won’t work the way you hope it will. I dive deep into:
- The psychology behind buyer journeys and triggers
- How top brands are using customer insights to outsmart their competition
- How to ensure the customer interviews lead to more clarity and focus for your marketing team