Big Learning from Small Businesses

Big Learning from Small Businesses

Congratulations, you’ve got your big job on the marketing team of a Fortune 500 company. You’ve got your MBA from a top-tier school and feel like you’ve made it to the elite class of marketers at the top. You read books about using actionable insights to create snackable content with a disruptive brand identity. You’ve just put together a presentation about your new, bold idea to create a storyscape for your customers that will engage them in a multi-channel second-screen environment. You truly are an expert in your field.

I have a bit of bad news for you—for us. There are hundreds of thousands of small business owners and craftspeople around the world who are instinctively better at marketing than us marketers. This is surprising to marketers who have had formal training with case studies and classroom discussions.  An expensive degree, piles of business books, and command of analytics doesn’t necessarily mean you know it all. The truth is this: all of those things help, but they aren’t the fundamental traits that separate good marketers from great marketers. Take the Merchant, the Craftsperson and the Creator. They all have fresh perspectives on how to be great marketers, and provide insights we can all learn from.

The Merchant

While it’s not universal, it’s all too common that modern marketers have never met their customers. For many modern marketers, customers are data points on a graph projecting growth over the next quarter. They act as an almost intangible force.They’re the people with misconceptions about your product, and you just need to find the right messaging, right channel, or right landing page experience to engage them and change their behavior. You haven’t developed a shared language that both you and your customers understand. This creates a one-sided conversation with data points.

The merchant does not deal with data points. She deals with Bill and Suzanne that stop by her stall at the flea market every 2nd Tuesday morning. She knows that Bill and Suzanne are avid collectors of antique vases and would love this new piece she just got in. In fact, she was thinking about Bill and Suzanne the moment she saw it at the estate sale she went to last week. She always takes some time to chat with Bill and Suzanne to get to know them a bit better. She doesn’t try to understand her customer just so she can sell them the right color porcelain in the future, but also because she knows the loyalty that comes with a customer feeling like you really care about them for more than what’s in their wallet.

How you can be like the merchant:

If you have a sales team and you’ve never spent time shadowing them, then you’re missing a huge opportunity for real insight.Try scheduling some ethnographic interviews with your customers, and really listen to what they’re telling you and how they describe the problems they’re facing. Understanding how they speak about their world can begin to help us sound like we actually care. The merchant teaches us that empathy is a key trait of a great marketer.

The Craftsperson

You were hired by your company for your skills in marketing. You get together with the rest of your marketing friends and talk about how you’ve done something really nifty in Marketo. Can you speak as confidently and passionately about the product that you’re trying to market? Would you be able to help your customers implement it into their technology stack? Can you explain your product to your parents in such a way that they can tell their friends what their kid does every day at work? For many modern marketers, products are interchangeable and only the techniques really matter. They very rarely actually use the product, or know how it’s made.

The craftsperson does not just know his product, he’s in love with it. He can talk to you for hours about the different leather gauges, tools, stamps, and finishes that he’s found to create this very specific shade of blue. Every product he sells is a small piece of himself. Very often a craftsperson started making his product because of some kind of dissatisfaction with the quality of the other products on the market, so he deeply understands why his product is better than his competition’s. Communicating his value proposition is not a challenge, but an opportunity to show someone else the world that he loves so much.

How you can be like the craftsperson:

It may not be a reasonable request for you to understand every intricate detail of your enterprise security software. However, do you know as much or more about your product than your customer? Can you read through the notes from the newest product release and actually understand what was changed and why it matters? The craftsperson teaches us about the next key marketing trait: curiosity. Be curious about the product you are marketing and eagerly spend the time to learn every technical detail. The result will be more well-informed campaigns and a passion for your product that will shine through to your customer.

The Creator

Do you regularly take honest feedback from a live customer? How does that feedback influence changes to your product, your messaging, or any other aspect of your marketing efforts? The creator instinctively sees the product development process as a collaborative effort with the customer. Consider the world of independent board games. Before any game ever goes to market, it sees hundreds of play tests. These tests aren’t done in sterile focus-testing environments, but on the floor at game stores and convention halls where the customer really lives. If a rule doesn’t work, the creator changes it. If a card was too powerful, it gets removed. For the creator, product testing and iteration are not just part of the development process, they’re the entire development process.

How you can be more like the creator:

Let’s make a change to the way we do our brainstorming meetings. Instead of recapping some research report done by a third party, let’s give everyone a pre-work assignment. In order to attend this meeting, you must spend at least three hours talking to and learning from a real customer. These meetings with customers would need to take place in the environment where the product is actually used (at home, at work, etc.). Imagine how this conversation changes if everyone in the room has had a real customer experience. The creator has taught us that in order to create great products and great campaigns we need to be humble. You are not a visionary and your opinions are not infallible. I know this is a hard thing to accept, but I think you can handle it.

In Summary

Okay, so let me sum all this up for you as simply as I can:

  • Stop treating humans like data points. Be empathetic like the merchant and start to see your customer as more than just credit cards with bodies attached to them.
  • Love your product. Be curious like the craftsperson and learn as much as you can about what you’re trying to bring to market.
  • Collaborate with your customer. Be humble like the creator and realize that you don’t have all the answers about what your customer really wants.

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