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How Assumptions Infect Your Marketing

If you've never asked your customers what they want, then you really don't know. And that's a problem.
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Do you know what your customers really want?

Harvard Business Review recently published an interesting article about three myths marketers believe when it comes identifying what customers want:

  • "Most consumers want to have relationships with your brand."
  • "Interactions build relationships."
  • "The more interaction the better."

In each case, authors Karen Freeman, Patrick Spenner, and Anna Bird, who were involved with studies involving a total of 7,000 consumers, point out some basic fallacies. Although they focus on three specific examples, there's a bigger point to be had: Marketers suffer most by pledging allegiance to a mass of suppositions, assumptions, and habits.

Have you made these statements?

The three myths listed by the authoring trio are common enough. Read business journals, walk around at trade shows, or read the blogs and Twitter musings of "experts" and you'll hear them aplenty. The first seems like the most common. As the authors point out, this is factually wrong, as only 23% of consumers in their study wanted a relationship with a brand.

It's surprising that the number is even that high. People want relationships with family, friends, lovers, work pals, but not with companies. Even the 23% is suspect, because as the study showed, I want a relationship with a brand generally meant I want a discount, please.

How things go wrong

They went on to note that shared values, not interactions, build relationships, and that there's no correlation between interactions with a customer and the chance of that person purchasing again or suggesting the brand to someone else.

One reason for the marketing myths is that companies want a never-ending stream of attention from consumers. They want to become the center of people's lives and, as a result, risk pushing customers away with a steady stream of marketing messages.

But there is something even deeper: fear. Marketers (and business people in general) often operate out of fear. That shouldn't be surprising, as fear is one of the great motivating factors that direct marketers have used for many decades: "Do you make these mistakes in English?" was one of the most successful direct marketing campaigns ever.

Does fear make up your mind?

If fear motivates all consumers and all marketers are consumers, it stands to reason that fear drives many of their decisions. The fear of making mistakes and getting fired or losing business for doing the wrong thing drives them into grasping for surety. Again, this shouldn't be surprising. We all make assumptions about questions of which we're not certain.

Assumptions don't hurt decisions when they happen to be right. The problem comes when what you presuppose isn't correct. For example, I remember reading a tome on marketing many years ago in which the author mentioned being told early in his career that advertising fine clothing always had to use illustrations and not photographs because photos wouldn't work. Tell that to the fashion industry and its associated magazines.

An insistence that consumers want a relationship with brands probably comes from the fear of losing customers and wanting to keep them close and a career safe. It's no wonder these same marketers decide that increasing customer interactions is the best strategy–they long to know that they and their staffs can directly affect customers and their own immediate futures.

Letting go to keep customers

Unfortunately, even when assumptions are right, sometimes it's only temporarily. Holding onto them means you will eventually head in the wrong direction when things change. And when they're wrong in the first place? Maybe things will eventually pivot to your advantage. But then, as Lewis Carroll famously pointed out, a broken clock is right twice a day. You just don't know when.

Find out how consumers really do react. When the information isn't readily available, see if there's a way that you can learn yourself. Get the facts and let go of your assumptions. Only when you are willing to let go of these fixed pillars can you really begin to find stability and safety.

Last updated: May 29, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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