Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Reaching Them by Teaching Them

Connecting to audiences who aren’t falling for your sales pitch

In a world filled to the rafters with tech startups, Tuft & Needle has been doing something interesting for a startup company: making and selling mattresses.
They’ve also been doing something interesting for a mattress company: educating people about the mattress industry.
While ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft needed little help portraying traditional taxi companies as archaic and stubborn and worth leaving behind, the mattress industry seemed a little tougher to crack. Most people didn’t know much about its intricacies. But Tuft & Needle viewed that knowledge gap as a blank canvas on which to paint:

The really powerful thing they’ve done here is teach consumers useful,inside information about issues in their industry — issues most people didn’t know existed. Through this consumer education campaign they effectively acted as whistleblowers on their competitors, promoting their own approach and expertise in making high quality mattresses that are affordable, going from $1 million in sales to $42 million in just three years.
We hear all the time about the power of education. Tuft & Needle put it into practice. This was a big, bold, well-designed campaign that ruffled a lot of feathers. And it was centered around educating the audience — wowing them with useful information and industry expertise.
Consumers Don’t Always Need You to Entertain Them
If you’re most companies, you may not have resources or money for a big PR firm, or billboards, or Super Bowl ads. And that’s fine. The good news is that it’s not your job to make anyone laugh or cry or ponder the universe. They’ve got Netflix for that.
67% of consumers prefer when a brand’s videos educate or inform them more than entertain or inspire.
In a 2016 study, consumers showed that only 28% of those surveyed wanted to be entertained or inspired by a brand’s content, given the other choices. Which means, frankly, that you don’t need a brand storytelling consultant or a big PR firm to tell you how to make waves in your market. It’s a matter of delivering what you already know.
What Consumers DO Care About
They care about relevance. Things that are personally applicable to them. 88% of consumers said that their impression of a brand improves if they have personally relevant content.
So, it turns out that consumers want something useful from you — not just a good laugh, though it can help. I’m talking about good, old fashioned knowledge. Pro tips. How-To’s.
Listen, it’s no random occurrence that Yelp, Amazon, and Google have had such big impacts on customer-service-based businesses. The user-generated content on these sites provide consumers with the same thing Tuft & Needle gave their audience: the inside scoop. They want short cuts. Industry secrets. Your expertise. And it means more coming from the people they’re considering giving their money. That’s something they can use.
Consumers do care about feeling informed. And if you don’t fill that space, your customers will do it for you — and that’s a pretty volatile risk.
Be Your Own Publisher
We live in a world of consumers who feed on massive amounts of content, on-demand and in a format that can be accessed in less time than it takes you to read this paragraph. Every product, every service, anything that can be purchased, used or experienced needs content. Content tells stories, positions products, and creates valuable connections with consumers.
By communicating your expertise to customers yourself, you’re doing several things at once:
  • Providing something useful
  • Building relationships of trust
  • Positioning yourself as a thought leader
These are all brand-building activities that can bring in customers by delivering the kind of information they prefer to consume. The best part is, you’re the expert. And you don’t need a big ad agency to share your expertise for you.

For example, Facebook and Instagram have released “live video” features, which are great new ways for businesses to engage their audiences with useful information. A marketer friend of mine Camberley Woods leverages her expertise by giving free weekly tips and exercises via Facebook / Instagram Live videos. As people engage with her on these platforms in real time, she provides them with useful info, responds to their comments and questions, and builds trust with them as an expert in her field. The idea is for these bits of free information to help better illustrate the value of her expertise, and to build more perceived value around her paid services and products.
Creative brand storytelling is an important component to many strong brands. However, the biggest strategic key to using content to hook loyal customers that will genuinely share your business with their friends is even simpler — reaching them by teaching them.

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Trevor W. Denton

Trevor W. Denton

Media Director, CCO at Grandview Creative

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Are You Actively Listening to Your Customers for BIG IDEAS?

Not long ago I was in Southern California where I visited with 42 undergraduate instructors at six different colleges.
If you read my article on The Strategy that Almost Got Me Fired, you know I'm fond of some something I call toll booth questions. These are questions that help capture backstories and details of the customer experience.
One of my toll booth questions on this trip was this:
“Do educational publishers actively listen to you?”
I was a bit surprised that 31 people said NO quite decisively. Only five people said YES, and six wanted some clarification of what “actively listening” really means. (These are academics after all.)
The perception of this small group of instructors (most of them were teaching business, social science, or humanities courses) was that publishers were not actively listening to them.
As for what active listening means in this context … it’s really about how well publishers are capturing the customer experience and backstory, especially pain points. It's also about how well publishers are listening for BIG IDEAS from their customers.
Historically, publishers have "listened" to their markets via surveys, product reviews, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews. Overall, it’s been a functional and symbiotic relationship, one that has enhanced the product development process and yielded some BIG IDEAS that were developed into great new products.
But many people I know who work (or recently worked) at educational publishing companies report that the relationship with their customers has become much more complicated.
That is probably an understatement, and merits a slight detour for a little background.
Just last week I was talking with a friend in the industry who described what's happening at educational publishing houses this way:
"We're watching a train wreck in slow motion."
Another friend who works at one of the BIG educational publishers recently described his company's latest round of "personnel reductions" this way:
"Let's not kid ourselves about what's really happening. We're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."
So what do these analogies have to do with symbiotic relationships and whether or not publishers are actively listening to their customers?
Well, how challenging do you think it is for people on that metaphorical train wreck or a sinking Titanic to actively listen to customers?
Not easy. You might even say "complicated."
Perhaps the 31 professors in California nailed it, but my conversations were by no means a valid sample of the cohort population as a whole. So I decided to launch a ONE THING Survey* to 1,200 undergraduate instructors representing 10 different academic disciplines.
I purposely did not want to ask survey participants if publishers were listening to them. That approach is fine on campus where I can explain what I mean by active listening, but in an online survey it seemed leading, awkward, even harsh.
So I decided to ask them that if they ruled the world WHAT they would like publishers and ed tech companies to do to improve undergraduate education. By combining this with questions about the importance of product reviews and instructor feedback I was able to explore their beliefs and attitudes about how these companies really view and utilize their feedback. In other words, they were telling me how well they thought publishers and ed tech companies were actively listening to them.
And what did we learn?
Over 40% of survey participants believed that publishers place a much higher or somewhat higher value on product reviews and instructor feedback today than they did in the past. Another 40% felt that publishers value product reviews and instructor feedback about the same today as they did in the past.
On the surface this suggests that college instructors perceive that publishers are listening to people in their market spaces, a perception that clearly contradicts the information I gathered during my campus visits in Southern California. But don't leave the room just yet.
I also asked participants to comment on how useful product reviews are at various stages of the product life cycle. The majority of participants reported that feedback is useful at all stages. It’s worthwhile to note that 43% of participants believe that reviews and feedback are extremely useful when testing a new product concept--this was the most common response among all the response choices.
The optional open-ended responses to this question included a number of comments that expressed some degree of doubt about how publishers actually use product reviews. Several participants who responded that product reviews were extremely or very useful expressed doubt about how publishers actually use this feedback.
The tone of many responses were similar to what I heard on my campus visits. One response in particular was fairly representative of at least a third of the comments to this question:
“I almost never hear back from publishers. I have no knowledge of how or if my feedback is being used.” 
Another respondent said this:
“ My experience has been that if you have opinions different than what may be desired, those opinions get dismissed. However, if your opinions are in line with expectations of the publishers, they are happy to hear more and listen to that feedback.”
Here we see a perception of selective listening or more specifically, confirmation bias. Again, about one third of the comments had some measure of this tone present.
Perhaps the most important question in the survey was this:
How Optimistic are you regarding the kind of new product educational publishers will bring to market in the next few years?
While 37% of participants were extremely or very optimistic, 42% were only somewhat optimistic and over 20% were not too optimistic or not at all optimistic.
My personal interpretation: a large percentage of instructors are apprehensive about the future, something that has been confirmed in numerous virtual focus groups and one-on-one interviews that we have conducted over the last couple of years.
Then, of course, there was the if you ruled the world question:
What is ONE THING you would direct educational publishers and ed tech companies to do?
This question allowed for a complete open-ended response, and I must say that I was hoping to catch wind of several BIG IDEAS percolating inside the fertile minds of the participants. Frankly, many of the comments focused on price, revision cycles, and improving the quality and availability of instructor resources, the same things publishers have been hearing for at least 25 years. Been there, heard that.
Now, before anyone dismisses this group of participants as being short on BIG IDEAS, let me reveal a most interesting tidbit. 26 of the participants of this survey emailed me personally to share a BIG IDEA that they were interested in exploring or promoting.
Some of these folks asked me if I could recommend a company that might be interested in their idea. It says a lot that 14% of our survey participants would take the time to communicate with me outside of the survey.
Follow-up conversations with these folks suggest that most of them fall into one of three categories:
  1. They are not sure who to share their BIG IDEAS with. (Translation: They don't know who's listening.)
  2. They are not comfortable sharing their BIG IDEAS too openly, fearing that they might lose control of or rights to these ideas. (Translation: The wrong people might listen.)
  3. They are not sure a publisher will carefully listen to their BIG IDEAS. (Translation: They're not sure the people who used to listen still do.)
So in the end, it really does come back to listening. To be fair, I know several people in the educational publishing and/or learning science business who are excellent listeners, skilled at tapping into the customer experience and capturing backstories. These folks are part of a minority, however.
So the moral of this story is that active listening matters. It is something that every educational publishing, learning science, and ed tech company should do within the market spaces they hope to serve and support with their offerings.
Believe me, those college instructors are out there, and they’ve got feedback, stories ... and some really interesting BIG IDEAS. They want to be heard.
If you'd like to see the complete survey results, you can download my Summary Report HERE.
Hey, thanks for listening.
DAVID BRAKE is the founder of The Grandview Group and Pubcentral. His companies help organizations and individuals create content and product that connects with customers. He is the coauthor of The Social Media Bible 1/e (Wiley, 2009) that featured a future-thinking chapter titled Everyone's a Publisher, something he truly believes.
ABOUT THE GRANDVIEW GROUP. We help clients get closer to customers, markets, and the future. In the last decade, over 1 million educators, administrators, and students have participated in one of our surveys, product reviews, virtual focus groups, or one-on-one interviews. We also create and curate content for textbooks, online courses, and other content-rich education and training products. What can we do for you? It all begins with a quick conversation and a few questions.
* ONE THING Surveys have only five or six questions and are written in a conversational tone. The goal is to engage participants in a five minute dialogue around one particular topic. The questions I ask are the same questions I would ask if I were making a campus visit or meeting someone at a professional event. The questions give me insights into your world, your story, and your view of the future. Hundreds (sometimes thousands) of responses generally give me the “big picture” where I can see consensus, qualify confusion, and identify potential trends in the higher education space.

The Strategy That Almost Got Me Fired

When I began my career as a sales rep in the “textbook publishing” business, Beth Lewis, the talented woman who trained me, insisted that I meet with 20 professors every day.
“The more professors you talk to, the more books you’ll sell,” she told me. Seemed reasonable.
Unfortunately, my misguided attempt to comply with her advice almost got me fired.
Her edict was clear enough, and I vowed to do my best to talk to 20 professors a day. I had a good memory, so I was able to memorize a lot of product information. And since I had two weeks before the Fall semester kicked off at most schools in Iowa and Nebraska, I took advantage of the time and practiced “my pitch” on dozens of friends and relatives.
I practiced on my mother and my brother. I practiced on my wife and three of her siblings. I practiced on neighbors. None of these people were actually college professors, but they all agreed that I sounded great. (Note to self: a blog on sampling bias is in order.)
How good was I? Well, one of them almost pre-ordered a copy of the new Principles of Marketing book I was promoting, but at the end of the day I just couldn’t charge my dear mom the $46.00 list price. (Yes, you read that right, $46.00.)
So, with all that product knowledge in my head and my sales pitches nailed down, I was ready to tackle my largest account, The University of Iowa, on the Fall day that classes began. From there I planned on visiting most of the colleges in my territory, telling great stories about how the products in my book bag would change their lives and the lives of their students. I was 23. I was pumped. And I was naive. (Wait for it.)
At first, seeing 20 people a day wasn’t easy … especially in the era before cell phones. Some days I only managed to get in front of 13 or 14 people, and since I had to report this information to the company, I was often feeling like I was letting Beth and the company down. So I worked harder.
Within a few weeks I was averaging 20 professors a day. To be fair, some days I only saw 15. But on other days my count was in the low 20s. On one day in particular I saw 25 professors.
And then Beth Lewis paid me a follow-up visit. She wanted to work with me for a couple of days, see how I was doing, give me a few tips. I was eager to show her how good I was, let her hear my product stories, witness my carefully practiced delivery. I was sure she’d be impressed and proud.
Beth was a great listener, and she listened to me all day. Amazed as I was at her listening skills,  I had the distinct feeling that she was becoming fatigued as the day went on. (I assumed she was in awe of the pace and energy I was sustaining.) Thoughts of big bonuses, sales awards, and promotions were entering my mind as the day drew to a close.
Then, reality hit me. And fortunately, for the sake of my future in this industry, Beth gave me some helpful advice that altered the course of my career.
“I listened to you carefully today,” she said.
I nodded with pride, expecting the appropriate kudos for such an impressive performance.
“You didn’t stop talking all day,” she said. “You deluged every professor you met with key features and infinite details about your products.”
“Yes,” I said, a knot forming in my stomach, not really sure if I should say "thank you very much" or "gee I'm sorry."
She then went on to teach me the importance of asking good questions. Though it seemed a bit misdirected to hold back valuable information and consume precious minutes by letting the professor opine … and some of them could really opine … I was learning something very important about collecting the customer backstory, an integral component of what we today call the customer experience.
The Golden Rule of the Backstory
Let the customer drive the conversation with their backstory, but you control the road the conversation travels down.
You see, questions are like toll booths on a turnpike. Place them into the conversation strategically, and then let the customer drive as fast or slow as they like, in whatever lane they choose.
Once I learned this basic concept, I was able to work on perfecting those toll booth questions. Eventually, I got to the point that I could ask just five or six quick questions and collect most of the information I needed to close the sale. Really.
That doesn’t mean that I closed every sale, but remember the Principles of Marketing textbook I almost sold to my mother? Well, I officially sold 8,200 copies of that textbook in my territory that year. Really.
The secret? Toll booth questions. You see those toll booth questions allowed me to collect the right kind of information at the right time in a conversation. Product knowledge was still important, but Beth taught me that my job was to tell a good story based upon the things that each professor had told me. In other words, product features didn’t matter unless you could connect a particular benefit or advantage to some part of the customer experience.
“Your story should convey the product benefits that are most important to whomever you’re telling your story to,” said Beth.
It all seems fairly basic now, but I’m convinced Beth’s advice should be taught to a new generation of product developers who now work at “learning science companies” creating amazing blends of content and technology. A great product story will emerge from a carefully harvested customer backstory. Really.

This lesson has stayed with me over the years, as I moved into product development roles with Times Mirror, Prentice Hall (Pearson), and McGraw-Hill. In fact, I’m convinced that toll booth questions are as valuable when you are testing a new product concept and doing product reviews as they are when you are promoting and selling the finished product.
In PART TWO, I’ll go into more detail on how to create and deploy toll booth questions throughout the product life cycle, but for now, let me summarize what we’ve discussed here in PART ONE.
  1. Selling doesn’t involve telling until you’re done listening to the customer's backstory.
  2. Let your customers feel like they’re in control and driving the conversation while you control the road's toll booths.
  3. Five toll booth questions are enough to close the sale, or validate the concept, or move your product along the product development lifecycle.
While this may not be easy, it’s a strategy that almost anyone can master. Really.
Until next time …
David Brake is the founder of The Grandview Group and Pubcentral. His companies help organizations and individuals create content that connects with customers. He is the coauthor of The Social Media Bible 1/e (Wiley, 2009) that featured a future-thinking chapter titled Everyone's a Publisher, something he truly believes.