Marketing Strategy 101: How to overcome the politics of marketing to be more powerful than you ever thought you could be

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You’re in a conference room with the company’s management team. You’re presenting your marketing plan. About halfway through, one of the top execs says, “I don’t think this part is going to work. I don’t think our customers care about that, and I don’t think you’re reaching them the right way. How do you know this is going to appeal to them?” Welcome to Marketing Strategy 101. This is what it looks like when you haven’t done what I’m going to suggest: The single, most powerful thing you can do to become an amazing marketer. 

So back to the room. There you are, without an answer. In fact, there you are, with an exec asking you a question that, if you had done what I am going to suggest, would not even have come up in this meeting. 

After this question hangs in the room, the rest of the meeting will be a free-for-all, filled with opinions. 

“At our last company, we did X.” 

“I don’t think that method works. I know it doesn’t work for me.” 

“I think we should do X because it just makes more sense to me.” 

And all the power that you might have had in that meeting, as the person in charge of marketing, with all your marketing skills, will just run out of the room like water down a bathtub drain. Since you don’t hold power, as you would if you were an engineer or a developer, everyone will jump into the power vacuum.

Without the confident marketer in the meeting, marketing becomes the corporate playpen, where anything goes and nothing goes well. 

This is a real shame. You could be the master of that room. You could be the person who has the answers, can refute all those assumptions and opinions with real facts. And no, I’m not just talking about using data, as in the results of your campaigns. Yes, data like that is essential; it can help you fine-tune your strategy or put more resources into something that seems to be working better. 

But there is another type of information that, if you had it, would give you power that you, as a marketer, never thought possible. 

The source of that power comes only from one place: a personal knowledge of who your customers are, what they want, and how they want to buy. 

How to get the power

“I know who my customers are,” you’re thinking. And my answer is, “If you haven’t been talking to your customers on a regular basis, by interviewing them and/or helping them along their buying process, you are sadly mistaken.” 

You won’t know how off-target you are until you start to get to know your customers. Based on everything every marketer has told me who has done this, it will change your working life.

Marketers who make this one change propel themselves from so-so marketers who lose the conference room battles to confident, respected professionals. They can stand up and say, “Well, John, I know you feel that way, and I can understand why. But I’ve talked to 10 customers this month and they all tell me the same thing: They want it this way.” 

John will back off, because customers are the source of revenue, and if you are the one who knows your customers best, you will be the most powerful person in the room. At that moment, you will win, and you will continue winning. Everything will change for the better. 

The way to get this power is simple, but it takes a serious commitment on your part, because the pressures of your day-to-day, deadline-driven existence and your own natural shyness (most marketers are rather introverted) will make you hesitant to carry it out. 

Don’t pay any attention to those barriers. Decide that you are going to go for the golden ring and start working on it. 

Conducting the interviews

First, make a list of customers you want to talk to. Create a spreadsheet with their name, title, company, phone number, and email. Give yourself a column to record the status of your efforts. 

Get yourself organized; have your questions ready and set up a way to record the calls. Then start sending out emails and setting up appointments. Chapter 3 of my book spells out this method in great detail, including the questions you should ask, tested in thousands of interviews, to get the best information. They include:

  • How do you feel about our product/service?
  • Why did you buy from us?
  • What else did you look at, what did you think of them, and is there anything we could learn from them?
  • If you were our CEO tomorrow, what’s the first thing you would focus on or fix?
  • How was the buying process?
  • If you were looking for this on Google, what would you type in?
  • What trends do you see in your market/job/industry?
  • What’s your biggest challenge? (For B2B customers, say, “. . . in your work” at the end; for B2C customers, say, “in this area”).
  • Anything I should have asked you that I didn’t ask you? 

Have the conversations transcribed (Rev.com works well and fast), but also take notes, just in case. At the start of the interview, quickly tell them you are recording but you’re only doing it because you can’t type as fast as they can talk. Tell them that what they tell you is going into a report where their comments will be categorized by subject, so it will be anonymous (and keep that promise). Once you have said these things, they will open up and talk freely.

If they answer something with doubt in their voice, pursue it. Definitely drill down or ask for more information if you need to. Let them talk as long as they like; you’ll know when they’re done answering that one question. If they answer an upcoming question while answering an earlier question, don’t ask the upcoming question. 

Keep it all conversational so they don’t feel like they’re answering survey questions (they will get bored). Do not, under any circumstances, start selling during this call, even if they start to lead you there. Tell them you’d rather make that a separate call.

Listen carefully; don’t let yourself be distracted by chat or email. They will sense if you are listening or not, and will start to terminate the interview. Plus, you will surely miss a super important comment. I’ve had a customer say something in an offhand way that summed up everything everyone else was saying; that one comment became the main strategy for the entire marketing effort.

Here are some helpful truths:

  • After one call you will wonder why you didn’t do this sooner. It will be a bit mind-blowing.
  • It only takes 5 – 7 conversations with customers of the same type before you start to see obvious similarities in their comments. They will even use the exact same phrase to describe an experience or their opinion about your company, its products, or its services. By the time you’ve had an in-depth conversation with the 7th person, you will have information that you can take to the bank. 
  • If your company is doing a great job, they won’t have much to say in answer to the “CEO” question. If you need to fix something that is really broken, they will have a lot of observations and suggestions. 
  • You can do this exercise about twice a year, and still be on target; even in the fastest-moving markets, customer desires, opinions, and buying processes don’t change that fast. 
  • You will write (or your writers will write) the best copy you’ve ever written and will be right on target with your strategy after conducting these interviews. Everything you do will be more effective, because all your messages will resonate with your customers. This knowledge will take  you way past “tips for digital marketing” and “how to write relevant copy.” You will know what they want and how to give it to them.
  • Yes, I know, you’ve probably created personas. But after conducting even a couple of these interviews, you will realize how insufficient those personas have been.

I’ve tried every research method there is. Nothing works as well as a phone conversation, where you have carved out time to speak with them and they are in their own environment. Phone works better than online (they will be careful about what they type, online) and in person (they will be distracted by all the body language stuff). And don’t waste your time with a survey that will be dominated by what you already know. You won’t learn anything new. Or focus groups, which are dominated by the more aggressive participants and, again, people being careful about what they say. 

Presenting your findings and starting to exercise your new power

Once you have the interviews transcribed, do as you promised: Take paragraphs from each person’s comments and place them in a report that is organized by question. Separate each person’s answer to that question with a horizontal line, so it’s obvious when a new person is speaking. I call this the Conversation Report. 

Surprisingly, even the busiest exec on your management team will read this long report word-for-word. And even more surprisingly, after they have, they will be 100 percent more likely to support all your marketing efforts, because you have finally found an efficient way to get your customers into the heads of your top managers. 

This is, by the way, why you get so frustrated as a marketer. Even if you haven’t done these interviews, you believe you know the customer better than others in the company, but you have no good way to convince them of your customers’ preferences and specific opinions. 

Doing this one thing—interviewing your customers, yourself—will change that radically and permanently.

To make it easier to take all this information to the next level, you will also want to create a Summary and Recommendations report where you pull out the phrases that best characterize the answers to the questions you’ve asked. This summary will give you a laser-focused tool to use in your next strategy meeting. 

In this same document, you can make recommendations about the main theme of all your campaigns. Based on what you learned from customers, it will be absolutely obvious to you. You will also be able to explain where and how you will be running those campaigns (remember, they will have told you how they buy; now you can get in sync with their buying process). 

What does this have to do with digital marketing? Everything. You are selling to people, and they have very specific ideas, desires, and opinions. They pop around sites like an excited dog on a hunt when they’re looking for that perfect product or service. If they come to you or see your message and it doesn’t resonate with them in the first nanosecond, they will zing out of there faster than you can say, “Nope, not for me.” 

As a buyer, you know you do this. We all do this—as buyers. 

And yet, marketers, without this in-depth, in-person understanding of their customers, create sites that don’t answer the most burning questions right off the bat; that go into great detail about things customers don’t really care about; that don’t immediately communicate why their solution is better than the others their customers have been looking at; that drown out the essential information with concepts that their managers have insisted on; and on and on. 

Because of this, marketing is the most broken and ineffective department in any company. Just because of this. 

It’s a shame, and it’s driven me crazy ever since I started interviewing customers and had my own eyes opened. Whenever I started working with a new company, every single time, company execs would tell me, “This is what matters to our customers.” And then I’d interview customers, and they’d say, “Well, actually, what really matters to me is X.” And “X” wasn’t even on the radar of those confident execs. 

The meeting where you present your findings will be a turning point in your career. You will realize that the politics of marketing have been painful because every discussion was missing the most essential element: The true mind, heart, and very specific buying preferences of your customers. 

Time to get out of your comfortable bubble. In fact, you will be making new friends, who will propel you to a whole new marketing universe. Your customers are holding the power that they will gladly give to you, if you just ask them. 

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