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Marketers know that the value of data from the past helps them strategize for the future. However, it may be time to gather data in a different and proactive way. Why not try an organic and mathematical approach?
Today’s guest is Susan Baier of Audience Audit, a marketing research company. She describes how attitudinal research can be more effective than demographics research. Susan explains the difference between audience and customer research.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
Nathan: By this point, we all understand the value of data. Data from the past helps us strategize the future. For example, if you shipped a project that performed well in the past, you’d probably want to publish something similar in the future, right? It’s common for marketers to also understand their existing business’ customers. We hear quips like this one all the time, “Use the language your customers use.” In that example, you can use it to write compelling copy that should attract an audience that’s like your existing customer base. But, maybe it’s time to gather data in a different and proactive way. That’s why we’re chatting with Susan Baier today on the Actionable Marketing Podcast.
Susan is the head honcho at Audience Audit, a marketing research company. You’re about to learn about the importance of attitudinal research and how it can be way more effective than demographics research. You’re also going to learn about the difference between audience research, customer research, and how removing bias from the data gathering and analysis processes can help you improve your product positioning, audience targeting, personas in ultimate conversions, and so much more. This episode is packed with actionable, quotable takeaways so get a pen and paper ready because it’s time to get AMPed with Susan.
Susan, thank you so much for being on the show today.
Susan: Thank you very much for having me.
Nathan: We’re excited to have you and maybe let’s just start at the beginning. Tell me a little bit about Audience Audit and what you do there.
Susan: I started Audience Audit 11 years ago after I got laid off during the recession from my last agency job. We do attitudinal audience segmentation research for agencies and their clients. We work with organizations all over the place, all sorts of different sizes and industries. Getting quantitative insight into what’s going on with the audiences that they are trying to reach with their marketing efforts.
Nathan: Nice. Susan, you dropped a lot of words there. Attitudinal. Let me pry into that a little bit. Attitudinal and quantitative, how do those two things actually come together? I’m super curious about that.
Susan: Lots of people don’t think they can go together. Attitudinal research is understanding what’s going on behind the ears. Not what actions you’re taking or what you look like on paper, but what opinions, assumptions, perspectives, preconceived ideas do you have in your head that are affecting how you approach your purchase decision. That’s attitudinal research. For a lot of folks (me included, years ago I started my first marketing job, it was in an agency in 1986) attitudinal research, if it existed at all, was really handled in things like focus groups, qualitative research where you could dig in and ask people how they felt about something and this kind of stuff.
People didn’t really seem to believe that quantitative research could be used for that. That is certainly not the case. Qualitative research has its place but you can also get quantitative statistically significant insights into the kinds of things that are affecting parts of your audience and they can have a huge impact on how someone approaches a purchase in your category, the kinds of things that they’re looking for, who they’re comparing you to, the challenges that they have with respect to making a decision and implementing whatever you’re selling in their business. It’s really combining my two favorite things, which are the big why question which I think, we, as marketers, need to answer more than any other and data, reliable data. That’s why I started the company honestly.
Nathan: That makes a lot of sense. We’ve got this approach at CoSchedule where we want to talk to customers. We, as marketers, are encouraged to do it and one of the things that we do is we go down this wide rabbit hole of why did they do this, why did they make this decision. It sounds like you guys are masters at that.
Susan: Well, I don’t know if we’re masters, but we do have an approach that we’ve been doing, we built 11 years ago and it’s worked very well. The clients who were using it are seeing the kind of results that we would hope to get from marketing initiatives based on that kind of information so, so far, so good.
Nathan: Perfect. Let’s bring it down to some of the foundations or basics of research here just so I can set a standard or baseline for our audience. I was wondering if you could just explain audience research. What do you mean by that or how would you define just audience research in general?
Susan: It’s funny because even 10 or 15 years ago, people weren’t really talking about audience research. They were talking about customer research, unless you were in the music industry or live events, and then you’d talk about audience research. I think the distinction between the two is important because you really need to hear, in almost all cases, not only from your customers, but from people who are not your customers. If you only are listening to your customers, you can have a very skewed perspective on the world.
Rand Fishkin was on your show and I really liked his episode. He was talking about research. One of the things he said, which is absolutely true is, “Who is your sample? Who are you hearing from? And how might that be affecting the information that you’re getting?” Talking to your customers is absolutely critical, but I also think it’s incredibly important to talk to people who were your customers and aren’t anymore, and people who may never have heard of you but are nevertheless in the market to solve a problem that you solve and sort of understand what’s going on with them. That gives you opportunities to tap into new markets that you may not have been considering and get a perspective from people who haven’t found you to be the right solution yet but might if you position what you do a little bit differently or spoke more clearly about some of the attributes that right now are subdued.
Nathan: I really like that perspective. Audience being more like voice of the market versus voice of the customer. One is definitely skewed differently, correct?
Susan: Yeah, you bet. Audience can include influencers. Audience can include middlemen who are making arrangements for people to buy what you sell. What it boils down to very simply is the people who need to be listening to you. You can imagine yourself onstage and there are people in that audience with all different motivations, but if they’re sitting there and don’t find anything interesting in what you’re doing up on stage, then you’ve lost an opportunity to engage them for whatever purpose they make sense for you as an organization. You really need to think more broadly and consider what you’re really trying to find out and who’s best to help you determine that.
Nathan: Nice. That makes sense. One of the things that I’m interested based on this definition then would be would you look at your email subscriber base as audience or would you tend to look beyond that because email subscribers already know who you are?
Susan: Email subscribers, customer files, whatever you have in email can be super helpful for understanding that part of your audience. You might also, for example, want to understand the people who are following or engaging with you on social media platforms, people who are in the market that you may have never heard of.
Research demonstrates that especially in B2B, much of the time, people have already gone far down their decision path before you’ve even heard from them because they’re doing research and checking alternatives to you or whatever. There are maybe people out there for whom you should be in a consideration set and are not and have had no contact with your organization, so lots of different things to think about.
All of our projects are custom, so every client is looking at understanding a different aspect of what they’re doing. We rarely have a single source of respondents for the kinds of work that we’re doing.
Nathan: That makes sense. One of the things that I wanted to ask you about, Susan, was based on that, the B2B purchase decisions being made before they almost reach out to you or a lot of times, they’re far enough down, what sorts of things do they need or do you have any insight on that? I suppose it’s different for everybody.
Susan: It really depends. Here’s the thing. A lot of us, for example, have a website that basically says, “Here’s our stuff. See if there’s anything that you want.” We use our sales organizations to bridge the gap with people in understanding how what we have can solve the problem they are trying to solve. Well, that’s great if they’re talking to your sales organization, but knowing how much research is happening behind the scenes without any contact with you, anonymous visits to your website, not providing contact information, checking out third party reviews of you, you can’t leave that explanation, that bridge of how you have solves what they are struggling with, you can’t leave that to chance.
You’ve got to have that conversation earlier, which means that when you are messaging about what you’re doing, you need to focus on the problems that you are tackling and then talk about how you have solved those problems. On your website, you need to do the same thing because there may be (and we see it all the time in our research) plenty of people out there who have a problem for which you are absolutely perfect, but they don’t even know that the kind of thing you do, much less your brand, can be a solution for them.
I have a really good friend who ran a company that does CRM stuff. He doesn’t give this answer anymore, but when I asked him years ago what problem he was solving, he said, “Well, they don’t have a CRM system.” That is not their problem. In fact, a lot of them don’t know what that is and those who do may think it’s not relevant for them. They’ve missed that bridge if that’s what you’re saying. “Need a CRM? Come see us.”
Instead of talking about how disorganized you are, how stressed you feel, and how you’re missing out on prospect opportunities because you can’t keep track of who you met at that conference and keep things organized, and if you can meet people where they are from the standpoint of a problem, then you have an opportunity to talk to them further about how you can help. But if all you’re doing is spouting, “This is what we do,” and they are unable to make that connection, in the absence of your salesperson sitting there with them talking about it, then you’ve lost them. They are likely prospect, they probably love what you do, and you’ve missed them completely.
We all need to do a better job as marketers thinking about this question of problems we’re solving. Why are people here? What’s kept them from getting help before? And focus on those kinds of things in our communication more than just the stuff we have, how many colors that comes in, and the fact that we have free shipping.
Nathan: I just had a conversation, just really informally with someone who’s working at Gartner. CoSchedule does this content marketing platform magic quadrant.
Susan: Yes, I’m very familiar with it.
Nathan: Yeah, so this analyst basically said that people in small- and medium-sized enterprises don’t even know what the acronym CMT stands for, so it really reiterates your point here.
Susan: Yeah, it’s a problem. It’s sort of the forest for the trees. We all know what we do, we’re enthusiastic about it, and we like talking about it, but we have to remember that our audience doesn’t always know what we know, they don’t always think in terms of things the way we think in terms of them, and they certainly may not understand the jargon and the acronyms that we use to talk about it. Unfortunately, as marketers, our messages can do more damage than good because it can distance ourselves from our audience and make them feel like, “Oh yeah. That’s not for me.”
Nathan: I agree with you. That’s great insight, so thank you for that, Susan.
Nathan: Let’s talk about how we find those things a little bit. I think that goes right into research. How would you go about trying to find that sort of information? It sounds like, even in this example, we’re talking major positioning of your product. What would you suggest for gathering that research? Are there specific methods like surveys? What would you recommend there?
Susan: Well, that’s what we use, the survey of connotative data. But there are people who approach this in a lot of different ways and I think all of them won’t agree that the first thing that you have to stop yourself from doing is pushing your assumptions onto the people that you’re asking. If you’re going out there to do audience research and you say, “Look, we, as a company work with these people all the time. We already know that there are people like this, people like that, and people like that. We just need to find out how many people we have in each bucket,” you’re already doing yourself a disservice because you’re already using assumptions that you have to artificially stratify people and those assumptions may not make a lot of sense.
I work with clients all the time who are organizing their audiences based on demographics. Are they millennials? Are they boomers? Gender. Income. “Oh, if they have more money, they’re in our marketplace. If they don’t have as much money, they’re definitely not in our marketplace.” Basic things like that. But also, on the B2B side of the house, “How big is their company? What vertical is their company in? What is their title?” And basically saying, “All right, we have these clients who are little, tiny companies and this is what they want to buy. We have companies that are big. This is enterprise level and this is what they want to buy.” The minute you do that, you lose an opportunity for insight.
We do research all the time and I could tell you, in 95% of the studies that we do that identify attitudinal segments organically, those things don’t matter. Those things are not differentiating between buyers. How big their company is, how small it is, their gender, their household, those things almost always turn out to not tell the story. So if that’s all you’re looking at, you’re missing a story completely in a lot of cases.
You have to try to not get yourself into trouble with your own assumptions. That’s true whether you are hiring somebody to moderate focus groups, whether you’re doing interviews with people. You’ve got to figure out a way to let them tell you instead of you telling them and having them agree with it.
Nathan: I really like that. As marketers, it would be easy for us to go to demographics because that stuff is easily findable and maybe that’s the problem with it.
Susan: Well, it’s how we were all trained, for that exact reason. I’m no different. Anybody who’s had education in marketing or business, that’s how we were told to identify our audiences. The problem is, for marketers it’s not very helpful. I’m sure you’ve had the experience. I certainly have, over the years of sitting around a conference table to figure out what our personas are based on the eight people that are in there and the assumptions.
Even if you do have some sort of demographic profiling going on, you’re still stuck when it comes down to what should the messaging be, what should the content be that we need to provide somebody, because none of those things help you. And then, we get into more assumptions. You have people designing segments that say, “Well, she’s a woman, 25-49, she has two kids, a job, and a Volvo so she must be stress- and safety-oriented. We’re going to get our content about that.” That’s just so many assumptive leaps that have been untested with the actual audience that we can get ourselves into real trouble.
Nathan: You just described the persona that I can remember from previous lines of work. You basically described it perfectly.
Susan: And we’ve all done it. In the absence of anything else, our companies, our clients, if we’re in an agency, they rely on our expertise and that’s fine. I’m a huge fan of the strong marketing gut. I’ve seen it in action, I’ve worked with brilliant marketers, and it is definitely there. The problem is that’s a lot of trust to put in your gut. When I started in marketing, you couldn’t tell what was working and we told clients that. “Well, you can’t really measure advertising in that way, blah-blah-blah.” That is certainly not the truth anymore.
Those of us sitting in organizations on the client’s side watching analytics come in and those of us in agencies, our decision makers, our clients, our bosses are seeing results as fast as we’re seeing them for a whole host of things. You can’t fake it anymore. You’ve got to actually know. A strong gut aligned with good, reliable data is a beautiful thing.
Nathan: I agree. You’ve sold me, for sure, if I wasn’t sold already.
Susan: That’s not what I’m trying to do. It’s one of my little soap boxes, honestly. I’ve been in marketing for over 30 years doing marketing strategy and I’ve been in the same place that somebody listening was feeling like they’re doing that right now. I’ve been there. Trust me. I totally get it, but we have to do better. However we do it, we have to do better, whether it’s our approach or another one. It’s really important to understand this why question and to understand it without, as much as possible, imparting our own bias, or our clients, or our bosses, or the product development team, or the brand team, or whatever into what we find out.
Nathan: I agree. One of the things that I wanted to ask you then, Susan, removing bias and trying to get to that sort of information, how do you go about crafting questions? Are questions the right way of approaching it? Is it open ended? I assume that if it’s multiple answers or something like, “I checked this box. It’s biased and put it into it already.”
Susan: Anytime you build a survey, there’s going to be a bias because you’re choosing what to leave in and what to leave out. That’s true for your focus group, moderator, strategy, anything like that. You’re never going to get rid of all bias. What you try to do in a survey is not write leading questions, not write questions that combine a bunch of different things so that how they feel about one thing, they can rate, but all the other things, maybe they felt differently and they don’t have that option to talk about. Part of it is just good survey design, which is widespread and easy to find if you Google. Lots of advice if you’re using SurveyMonkey, SurveyGizmo, Qualtrics. There’s lots of advice out there about how to do good survey design. That’s just the baseline thing you need to do.
The problem with attitudinal segmentation is you have two options. One is you decide what the buckets are and ask people which one they’re in. I would argue that is not the best option. The other one is you have to figure out a way to learn what the buckets are by what your audience tells you and that’s what we do.
We are developing our attitudinal segmentation based on a list of typically around 40 statements that we write uniquely for each client based on the areas that they’re trying to explore, that respondents to the survey rate in terms of their level of agreement with them. Disagree completely, agree completely, something in the middle, and it’s a sizable enough scale that you’ve got some granularity on it so it’s not three points. We are using a six or seven point scale, typically. Then, they rate all of those.
Then, we do an analysis that says, “Which of these are hanging together?” Meaning that there are groups of people in this audience for whom groups of these attitudes are connected and that makes them very different from any other group in the audience. We’re writing those statements trying to spread as wide a net as we possibly can without putting our own assumptions in there. It’s like throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks because some stuff won’t stick. Some stuff will stick to things that you didn’t think it would stick to, honestly.
Just trying to basically not make assumptions about how people feel about price, but let’s ask them some attitudes about price. Let’s ask them some attitudes about their own level of confidence that they know what they need to know to make the right decision, that they have the information that they need to make a decision. Attitudes about how their organization handles change and how likely they are to make a change if it seems like it’s something that makes more sense. What kind of vendor relationships do they like? How do they view providers? Do they want advisory relationships from their vendors who are saying, “Hey, maybe look at this or maybe think about this?” Are they really just transactional and they’re going to do all the research themselves, decide what they want, and go pay for it? That’s when the vendor is going to hear from them, when it’s time to buy.
We put a whole range of these things up there and then see what is connecting large groups of this audience together and what’s falling out of the analysis altogether because maybe everybody feels the same way about it. Or people may have strong opinions, but it’s not really connected to a set of attitudes that you can look at and say, “Oh, now I understand this person.”
Our approach is organic. It’s mathematical. The analyst doing the segmentation analysis itself don’t know what any of those statements are. They’re coded so we’re not incorporating any potential analyst bias that’s saying, “Oh, I think this should probably fit with that.” We’re just eliminating, as much as we can, of our own assumptions to see what they tell us. It’s fascinating when they do. It’s my favorite part of my job. It’s like Christmas when I get data back because we’re not only seeing who’s in this audience, but we’re seeing how many different segments did we find that are unique, what is defining each of those segments.
And then once we have that information, how is all the rest of what we collected in the survey like demographics, like brand awareness and usage or competitive awareness and usage, and social media, and other media habits, how is all of that laying out against this insight that we now have about what’s going on attitudinally with these groups?
Nathan: Love it. I’ve done pricing sensitivity analysis and stuff like that. It seems like that’s child’s play compared to this. But one of the things that I’m really curious about, especially because now you have this information, it’s much better than demographics, how do you turn it into a framework for marketers to use this? Is that where a persona profile comes into play?
Susan: Yeah. That could be a part of it. We do a lot of our work with agencies who are there to do the work on behalf of their clients in interpreting this. Even experienced marketers on the client’s side don’t always know what to do next or have their finger on the pulse of opportunities to take advantage of this information like a full-time marketer agency type of situation maybe.
In either case, there’s a variety of things you can do with this information because your audience doesn’t touch you just when they buy something, they touch you when they see messaging from you, they touch you when they have a problem and call your customer service line, they touch you when it’s time to renew their membership. There are a lot of touch points for brands with their audience. Once you learn who you want to be talking to, what matters to them, and the kinds of problems they’re there to solve, you can just think about how to manifest that messaging and content across a whole range of things.
To your point, a lot of my clients are developing personas, which are incredibly helpful from a marketing standpoint in just reminding you who you’re talking to, what matters, the kinds of things they care about more than other things, and if there, in fact, differences by demographics, or by preferred resources, or their social media usage, you put that in there.
But those personas can go beyond just marketing. I have clients who have developed whole sales training programs for their direct customer and prospect contacts, who are meeting with prospects and customers and talking to them about how to identify a segment quickly in someone they’re talking to, and get right to the message, just like you would want to do on your website.
Customer service, same thing. If I know what segment you’re in, I probably have a better idea of the kinds of things that you might be having issues with based on how you’re likely to use my software or the kinds of features and benefits that were most appealing to you when you bought my product.
Understanding these kinds of things can be super helpful across the organization. They can also be really helpful for just getting everybody on the same page. I worked in a lot of organizations that were very siloed. I’ve worked with clients who have been very siloed. Universities where the graduate program people were over here, online people were over there, and the campus people were over here. Helping them see an audience that they share together and understand that can break down all kinds of barriers and allow for new opportunities to crop up. It goes beyond just personas. It really goes beyond just slapping something on a wall that says this is what we know now. It’s about implementation. It’s about using the information.
In segmentation in particular, the value is not only in understanding what’s going on between the ears and giving yourself some new stuff to talk about, it’s about understanding how to talk to certain groups of people in your audience, what you can say to everyone that’s universally appealing, what you should never say to anyone because nobody cares, and what really matters to certain groups that are going to make them go, “Where have you been all my life?”
That’s where we’re all trying to get to, that aha moment of a prospective customer who goes, “Oh my gosh! I wish I’d known about you before. You are clearly for me.” That’s really the value of having this kind of information, is implementing it in a way that it’s going to make people see that you really are devoted to what they need, the help they are looking for.
Nathan: You just blew my mind, Susan. I’m rapidly writing down notes over here.
Susan: Another soap box.
Nathan: No. It’s great. That’s a lot to bring back to even my team and how we think about research here. I can tell you that personas have definitely shifted the way that our entire company approaches product development, sales, and customer experience, so it’s fun to hear that you’re seeing something similar that is working.
Susan: As long as they’re based on the right thing and they’re real, they can be very helpful. If they’re not, you could have a problem.
Nathan: Yeah. If you’re off-track, judging from everything you said, that can be very misleading for everyone in the company then.
Susan: Yeah. I had a client once that had developed their own personas but they were frustrated because when they interacted with folks who downloaded stuff from them or signed up for a newsletter, whenever they ask people, “Which one of these are you?” 60% of respondents said, “None of these.” That’s a good sign that maybe you need to do a little more work on your persona.
Nathan: I agree. Susan, you just gave us a wealth of knowledge. Thank you so much for all of these that you shared I think that’s a good place to end this episode today. I just want to say thanks again for the time today. We appreciate it a lot.
Susan: You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.
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