Most marketing fails to accommodate for a simple maxim -- that it is preferable to be "spoken with" rather than "spoken at." Speaking "at" someone is more like a lecture. Marketing, on the other hand, should be more like a great conversation.
From whom might you expect a lecture? Parents, teachers, supervisors -- in other words, authority figures. Without implicit authority, lecturing or speaking "at" someone seems self-absorbed and rude. Imagine if I approached you at a party for the first time and started rambling about all of my great qualities. Yet, that is exactly what most marketing campaigns do -- ramble at strangers. It's a wonder we put up with it, and it's no wonder why most of us are turned off by it.
Marketing As Conversation
Even in a position of authority, lecturing has its limitations. Remember the teachers who had the greatest impact on you? Your favorites knew more than the material. They knew how to capture your interest and your imagination. They gave you confidence to learn for yourself, and they solicited your thoughts and ideas by listening to you.
Now, think of most of the marketing you experience as a consumer. Whether via television advertisements, direct mail, telemarketing or e-mail, most marketing barrages you with information that speaks "at" you, not "with" you. Like a rude conversationalist, the messaging talks, but doesn't listen. This is a key reason why marketing often falls short of expectations. But, the good news is, there is tremendous opportunity to increase its effectiveness. Marketing teams need to approach their messaging as a conversation with the target market. Focus on creating and maintaining a dynamic, shared exchange of information.
Limitations Of Traditional Approaches
Marketing admittedly faces several limitations inherent to its mediums and time restrictions. In many instances, there isn't time for "great conversation." Sometimes you simply need to deliver the message. However, if you want to get the most of your marketing dollar, it is important not to let common practices get in the way of unrealized and untapped opportunities for a more powerful, effective approach.
Like a listener dying to "get a word in," the recipient of marketing messages is often dying for an opportunity to contribute information. And, an effective marketer should want to hear what the consumers have to say. Unfortunately, this often does not happen, due to the one-way nature of traditional marketing approaches. Regrettably, these approaches will not be easily changed because many marketers are comfortable with one-way tactics. Dynamic, two-way marketing programs, on the other hand, require significantly more effort, creativity and inventiveness. Let's face it -- it is easier to mail thousands of brochures than to figure out how to have "dynamic, two-way communication" with several thousand people. But, for those who have the talent, drive and foresight to figure it out, this creates great opportunity.
A good way to start "listening" rather than "talking" is market research. Unfortunately, many companies, particularly smaller ones, conduct little or no formal market research (though they may informally gather customer input). If a company does not listen to its customers, it will likely fall out of step with their needs (if not now, eventually), and its messages will begin to fall on deaf ears.
Yet, when a company does conduct research (i.e. "listens"), it typically does so separately from the promoting and selling efforts (i.e. "talking"). And, for a very good reason . . . mixing the two could confound or bias the results of the research effort. Yet, many business situations may not require the sterile environment used in most market research. Informal focus groups and roundtables have become popular techniques for this reason, among others. For better or worse, researchers and promoters tend to have different focuses. The former are often dedicated to collecting, analyzing and summarizing data. The latter are dedicated to communicating the benefits of the product or service. Coordination between the two is critical for overall effectiveness.
While it may reduce bias, separating research from promotion creates a problem as well. Just as incessant talkers are a bore, constant listeners do not make for very interesting conversation either. And, people are inherently suspicious of those who collect information, but don't share something in return. Therefore, researchers face a continually difficult challenge in getting people to provide them with the information they require. In addition, common research gathering techniques, like surveys, are inherently limited because respondents often view them as laborious, boring and sometimes even suspicious. (e.g. How are they going to use my information? How is this going to serve the interests of the surveyor?) As a result, researchers often use gimmicks like sweepstakes, prizes and other incentives, in order to get people to respond -- but response rates still remain low.
So, either we have the target customer telling the researcher about all his needs, issues and problems, or the promoter going on and on about the excellence of her product. But the question remains: How can we make the two work together? How can you create dynamic, two-way communication between the marketer and the consumer, given the established mentalities discussed above?
The Hot, New Trend: Interactive Marketing
With the limits of advertising time and mediums, how does one engage the consumer in a conversation? Often, this is easiest at the point of sale . . . assuming the salespeople aren't walking brochures and customers truly find them engaging. The limitation of this method, of course, is scale, as most selling (and therefore marketing of this type) is handled one customer at a time. But, how can one achieve two-way communication in mass?
One approach is to make the marketing experience interactive. We've all heard about new technologies that will allow us to interact and order goods, a la The Truman Show, while being entertained. (e.g. Samantha of "Sex and the City" is wearing cool shoes. Click on your television screen to see the number of outlets where you can order them.)
Yet, before you worry about creating a compelling, interactive experience, you need to understand why the consumer would want to interact with you in the first place. The key here is to make the marketing message inherently valuable; in other words, make the consumer actually want the marketing message. It may sound ridiculous, but ask yourself what the consumer would be willing to pay to receive your marketing message. If the answer is, "They wouldn't pay anything," then you are not alone. But, delivering value in the message is where the opportunity lies.
Let's reflect back on the Sex in the City example. Let's say a program sponsor, called "Sexy Shoes," could add value to the show by supporting it with advertising. A break in the program to advertise shoes would not add value because viewers do not like to have favorite show so blatantly interrupted for advertisements. However, with an interactive model, if a viewer liked the Samantha's shoes in an episode, she may want to know how to buy them and wouldn't mind interrupting her favorite show by clicking on the screen. The audience has a choice; someone else isn't forcing it upon them. If other viewers don't like the shoes, they can choose not to receive the information. The consumer, therefore, receives value (entertaining television programming) before receiving the option of additional information on a related product (e.g. Samantha's shoes) or service. The message, "Samantha looks great in our shoes," is subtle, but it's also very convincing because its something the viewer realizes for herself.
The best way to convince a customer of something is to get him to discover it for himself. Sometimes the target audience may not know what they want, and the marketer has to convince them first. As outlined in the previous example, the best way to convince a customer of something is to get him to discover it for himself. It is more difficult, no doubt, but companies that can pull it off will have more motivated buyers on their hands. And, in many cases, the alternative can even damage a brand -- because the simple act of trying to convince somebody of something (i.e. buy this product) often makes that something appear less exclusive and desirable. (Think of a nightclub or a country club, for example).
A more commonplace example of en-masse, two-way communication is the Internet "chat," which may become the most powerful marketing tool. The value is a medium to communicate with others in a free-flowing information exchange. The challenge is getting somewhat tangential and non-commercial communications to focus on the product or service being offered. Some companies have realized success by sponsoring use-net groups for this very purpose.
Several companies have successfully delivered value by educating consumers on subjects relating to their product or service. For example, a retail clothier may provide free information on how to dress, a law firm may host a seminar to keep its clients aware of new government regulations or a consulting firm may distribute a newsletter that demonstrates how a particular problem can be solved. Not only does the information enhance the image of the company as having expertise on the subject matter, but it also generates selling opportunities with more aware and better-educated customers. However, although there is value delivered in the message, these approaches still do not directly generate feedback and information from the target audience.
Building upon this idea, we at Vcapital have created interactive, educational tools for several of our customers. These tools dispose of conventional "listener-and-talker" communications by providing an educational tool that customers can use to evaluate their own business practices. When a company introduces valuable, high-level information, while encouraging constructive feedback, its customers become better-motivated communicators and potential buyers.
"What would a customer pay to receive your marketing message?" View this method against my earlier question: What would a customer pay to receive your marketing message? Some people do indeed pay for information on how to dress. Some executives pay to attend seminars or to receive certain newsletters. Some people would even be willing to pay for business diagnostics, like the education tool described above. People are much more willing to purchase the products and services they want -- not those they are told to buy.
"Okay, if people prefer to be spoken "with", and there should be value in the message, then what about the popularity of the home shopping network (HSN) and other infomercials? People sit and watch what is essentially one-way promotional hype for hours." True, these approaches are focusing on those who enjoy the "shopping experience." This is a type of marketing that provides a means of entertainment for its target audience. And, it is interactive, in that the customer can see the counter clicking down in the bottom corner of the screen. It's their way of saying, "We're listening to you respond, and we're going to keep this product up there as long as you do (or until we run out)."
Of course, you need to consider whether your product or service lends itself to the "shopping experience" dynamic -- and whether your prospective customer would respond to this technique. For most professional products and services, it is unlikely (unless you're Tony Robbins). But, there are infomercials that are educational and substitute real, two-way communication between the marketer and consumer for communication between the marketer and a surrogate (an actor who is supposed to be like us). This has proven to be a creative and successful technique in a very niche industry.
Traditional marketing methods, like advertising, and new alternatives, like infomercials, can have an important role in a well-orchestrated marketing campaign. But, whatever techniques are chosen, they should focus on the unique attributes of the prospective customer. Marketing investments go much further when modeled after a great conversation with an interested and informed target market. Deliver value in your message; the more sophisticated your service, the deeper the conversation. Avoid speaking "at" your prospective customer. Dynamic and interactive marketing is the key to great conversation with your customers.
Laurence Hayward is the president of Vcapital, where he manages operations, products and services directed towards entrepreneurs and professional service providers. Hayward has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, management and consulting for professional services and technology companies. Prior to joining Vcapital, he was marketing director at Arthur Andersen, where he led the firm's $500-million global practice dedicated to serving startup and venture-backed companies.
Hayward holds a master of business administration degree in marketing and a bachelor of science degree in psychology, both from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is active in the entrepreneurial community and has served as a judge for Northwestern University, Kellogg School's business plan contest and Arthur Andersen's Global Business Awards. Hayward also serves on the board of directors for The Entrepreneur Institute (TEI) and the Research Institute for Small & Emerging Businesses (RISE). In addition, he is a member of the advisory board for Travis Maguire & Associates, a student-run advertising agency he helped build in 1989.
Laurence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org