Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about writing books as a child in Namibia. Snow, ginger beer and how nice it was when the sun came out. However, Chimamanda had never seen snow, nor tasted ginger beer and the sun coming out was not often a topic of conversation in Namibia. But as her only encounter with literature was from books published in the UK, her understanding was that this is what books were to be written about. An opinion formed, through no fault of her own, of limited exposure, a single understanding which ultimately put her thinking in a corridor.
As marketers we often face a similar danger of single story thinking. We have an idea of what the customer thinks, we know what our customer wants and we deliver according to that picture.
But what if our assumptions are too narrow? What if we have flattened our understanding of the customer and flattened their experience with our brand and the category in the process?
Henry Ford famously said (or possibly didn’t, but regardless): “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”. This thinking pushed the understanding of the consumer in a new direction, exploring beyond the logical next step. By taking a single minded view of what our customer wants, or what we think our customer wants, will not get to the root of what they want.
So, as marketers, what do we do? We don’t have the luxury of creating millions of individual campaigns for every possible customer, but at the same time we don’t want to blind ourselves according to the idea of the one perfect customer.
Every story begins with an idea
While everybody may be different, subsets do share common fundamental similarities. Take one look at photographer Ari Versluis and profiler Ellie Uyttenbroek’s Exactitudes series and explore the stylistic similarities amongst groups as obscure as Yupster Boys and Ecopunks.
Using these similarities as a starting point we can develop customer personas: exploring their interests, fears, media consumption habits, needs, ambitions, demographics and influencers – built through intuition, market intelligence and research. This helps us to visualize our customer, providing characteristics that make our customers feel like real people rather than just market segments.
Personas are a fantastic tool, providing a consistent language for discussion (ie what would Martha, mother-of-three say about this?) and a totem around which to centralise our thinking. By themselves however, personas are a blunt tool for creating a relationship.
The devil is in the detail
Using personas as a starting point, we can sharpen our view of the customer with data driven insights. While personas talk to the ‘why’, data exposes the ‘how’. It can illustrate what customers think and say and how it might differ from what they actually do.
An individual’s history can help to build a solid prediction of their future; How they buy or use our brand or product, where they buy or use our brand or product, when, for how long and with what frequency. The more granular the lens we apply, the greater the insight that may come from the small details. It allows us to take our ideas and our instincts and use analytic data to galvanise them.
Netflix’ executes this level of specificity through the seemingly endless hyper-categorisation (76,897 apparently) of its catalogue. While their customer might identify they have an interest in science fiction, Netflix might discover through their usage a preference for a time period, female leading characters and films with a happy ending. It allows Netflix to deliver suggestions to users based on myriad data points resulting in categories as specific as Forbidden love sci-fi films from the 1950s. It enables Netflix to provide one-to-one customisation to a subscriber base of 44 million.
Characterisation needs customisation
With a strong picture of what our customers look like, we have a greater platform on which to build a communications strategy. But this should just be the beginning. Every marketing strategy should include some room for flexibility – a baked in capability to evolve the story and adapt the communications for the individual.
Perpetual data monitoring and evolution allows us to listen to our audience and react.
By starting with a broad view of the customer, sharpening it with data powered insights and allowing it to grow by listening and reacting we can truly create a dialogue with many, no matter how different they are.
It allows tailored communication that is three dimensional, not simply a flat approach to an assumed customer.
As Chimamanda advised, only when we reject the single story do we regain paradise.