Marketing as a contact sport

You only win in rugby if you're willing to make the tackles. Sure, the attractive part of the sport is the slick backline moves that result in a clean break and a trie, but although this is how you put points on the board, it's not how you win. You win, by making contact with the opponent and stopping their momentum. I remember from my school playing days we lost the games where we were afraid to make the tackles.

The same is true in marketing. There is a scary side to marketing that turns it into a contact sport that most businesses neglect, or actively avoid, hence losing the battle for sales. This part is called customer research.

In short:
  • The contact sport part of rugby = a tackle
  • The contact sport part of marketing = customer research

Customer research is where you engage with your target market, and it is almost always ugly, dirty, tiring work. Sending out a clean Google Forms questionnaire over email to your 20 most loyal existing customers and politely asking them to rank your service from 1 - 10 is not proper research. It's an exercise in mutual bullshitting. Everyone is doing, and saying, what they think they should "to make this go away quickly". Proper research, on the other hand, gets down to the real answers. It's a determined hunt for the hidden information that will deliver actionable insights which stimulates growth. 

What makes customer research scary, is that it's a journey into the unknown. Picking up the phone and asking ten non-active customers why they are not buying from you is daunting. The answers will be ugly. "We don't buy from you because your service is shit; your product is old; your sales rep is rude; after-sales is poor, out of stocks is unacceptably high...the competition gives me better terms and a wider variety." 

Ugly stuff.

No wonder businesses avoid this kind of interaction. We would much rather sit and over-intellectualise our marketing on a whiteboard than get our hands dirty. Much more fun to sit in the boardroom listening to digital agencies showing us fancy audits, than picking up the phone and talking to those with the real answers - the customer. We have long debates on "the role of marketing in our business", but no market research?

Making contact is, by definition, an impactful exercise, meaning a measure of bruising is almost guaranteed. It takes bravery to pick up the phone and call someone with straight questions. For starters, they may tell you to F-off (although, politely asking if you can ask some honest questions hardly ever results in such aggression). Other ways to make contact could involve organising focus group discussions with a selection of prospects in your boardroom, or ethnographic research where you shadow your customer for some hours to see how they operate. In very few cases does it involve only the (painless) exercise of sending out a questionnaire via email.

"But we already know our market", I hear you say. "We've been in this game for 12 years - the only thing that matters is product and price. No fancy answers to be found; nothing new". But such a view assumes you are selling a pure commodity, where the customer, product, and competition is the same, all the time. It may be the case with cement, or cooking oil, or diesel - and if this is indeed your case, good luck, because, ultimately, a commoditised market only has room for one player - the monopoly. 

Making contact is, by definition, an impactful exercise, meaning a measure of bruising is almost guaranteed.

Indeed, the answers are rarely as simple as merely "product and price". Almost certainly, there are more layers to it, but you have not discovered them yet. Remember, the market is dynamic, it does not stand still, and people only reveal their real needs once you engage with them. It is a bit like the difference between the cashier asking you "how are you", as you rush to pay, and your best friend asking you the same question over a beer. The one answer is short and sharp (and never the whole truth) "I am well", and the other is far more nuanced and opens up an entire conversation. 

Fact is that most businesses are so obsessed with sales that they talk to their customers like the cashier does. How are you? "I am well". Until a good marketing consultant asks to see the customer research and finds it is either non-existent, or thin with insight.

Few businesses know their customers well, and even those that do, never rest on their laurels, because the market never stands still. Competitors offer new and different things; your customers' customer suddenly has unique requirements; your customers’ business itself has grown, or evolved. No-one merely wants "product and price" - don't believe this, when you hear it. It's just their way of saying "I am, can I continue with my day?". But your job is to push for more; insist on the truth!

Marketing starts with customer research. Not a website; a post to social media, an attractive logo or expensive ad budget. The reason most businesses struggle to see marketing results and almost inevitably take a sales heavy approach is that they never genuinely engage with their customers. It is simply too much hard word digging out such a foundation fr your marketing, and too scary what you may find.

Running a successful marketing campaign is like a smooth backline move in rugby resulting in a try, but it all starts with a messy scrum (and the hard tackles). 

At its core, marketing is a contact sport. 

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