The Marketing of Marketing is not Telling Us The Whole Story About Member Research

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The marketing of marketing is big business. Billions of dollars of marketing products are sold each year: CMS’s, marketing automation, advertising, customer data analysis and more. We marketers are very good at marketing especially the most profitable marketing products. But the most profitable marketing products, the sectors getting the most buzz, can not necessarily solve our association’s problems. Big data, social media and video are all the rage but are not the necessarily silver bullet we claim them to be. There are key marketing principles not much talked about that are at least as important. For example, we see more content on tactics than we do strategy. We wade through more messages about channel (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) than we find on storytelling. And we focus far more on data and surveys than we do on qualitative market research.

Today’s computing power makes quantitative data easy, fast, cheap and profitable. In other words, quantitative data services are very good business. Technology promises to give us unprecedented access to our members’ hearts and minds but does it really deliver?

Data is only half the story

When you first step into a marketing role at an organization with few member insights, start with the data. Particularly look at data over time. Are sales and profits increasing or falling and where? What messaging is working best, what web pages are getting the most traffic, what products are selling? Perhaps you have the tools to segment your audience to figure out who the organization’s biggest champion is, or the biggest user, or most profitable member group.

Surveys can help us collect even more data. How satisfied are they? How satisfied are they with the competition? Where we can market to them? Who are they and what do they do?

However, marketing communications and strategies built solely based on data can seem superficial, distant, institutional or even intrusive. We may start to repel members instead of attracting them. This is because database data, website analytics and survey responses cannot give us the answers to other critical questions and the important stories behind those answers. We are missing is the ability to ask why-type questions. Why do our best members love us? Why do they keep coming back? Why did they join, attend, contribute, or volunteer in the first place? What are their most worrisome professional problems and why?

We desperately need to know the other half of the story

Great strategy, marketing and innovation hinges on knowing what the problem is we are trying to solve. We were able to solve a problem for our members once but do we still know what problem needs to be solved today? What are they struggling with now? The answer, its story, and all the glorious context cannot be found in quantitative data. Instead it has to be asked and talked about in a real conversation.After many members conversations we start developing the ability to step into their shoes, deeply understand their worries, and even look back at our organization through their eyes.

I suspect that we’ve largely stopped talking about good qualitative customer research because it is messy, difficult, time-consuming, and sometimes expensive. But, this also means we miss out on the other half of the story we need to be truly successful. We are stuck working with an incomplete set of insights while trying to make very important, resource-heavy decisions.

How we discover the other half of the story

Would you like to know how to craft the most compelling marketing story to your best members not just which social media channel to reach them on?

Have conversations with them.

Do you what to know how to position your organization to be relevant now and in the future instead of measuring what was purchased in the past?

Have conversations with your members.

Do you wish you knew what innovations would stand the best chance of success?

Talk with the members who love you the most.

Okay. You are ready to talk to members but how?

There are many qualitative methods: focus groups, online discussion groups, in-person conversations and phone conversations. Depending on your research goals and your budget, any of these solutions can be right for you. Keep in mind focus groups and online discussion groups can get overrun by the respondent with the strongest personality or by the most charismatic communicator. Big brands counter this bias by fielding many, many groups. Members don’t want to hurt your feelings, which makes it challenging to get to the deep, dark truth in face-to-face conversations. Phone conversations, however, circumvent these problems.

In phone conversations members feel free to give you their honest opinions and share their deepest worries. In phone conversations you have the ability to ask for more detail on key issues. In phone conversations you can hear any underlying nervousness, excitement or despair. Be scientific and start with a rough script but don’t be afraid to ask for more detail when you need to understand. Be open to the responses and try not to judge so you can remain objective allowing each special member to tell you their truth. Be generous with your attention and your gratitude because your members are being generous with their valuable time and they are doing this because they want your organization to succeed.

Let’s not hide behind the data. Let’s talk more with our members. The whole story is waiting for you.

Have you conducted surveys and realized the responses left you with far more questions? Have you analyzed your organization’s data and then you wonder how you can learn more about members? This is normal and it is because data and surveys tell us about the past. Qualitative research can give us insights to feed the future. Amanda Kaiser serves the professional association community, grew up on brand strategy, and is a qualitative researcher. You can find more articles like this on her blog or follow her on Twitter.

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