In today’s world of clients needing more data/insights, ROI for their marketing spend and micro targeting to avoid waste, research is key. Clients want an agency that not only knows how to gather data, but how to work with it, how to interpret it and most importantly, how to use it to the client’s marketing advantage.
That can be a tall order when it comes to quantitative attitudinal audience segmentation strategies and research but my podcast guest, Susan Baier and her team know the ins and outs of this kind of research and know how to make it relevant to what you do every day.
This kind of research goes beyond demographics to really understand what’s going on with people; what they think, what they believe and what they want. And it’s done in such a way that it provides you with a large enough sample of respondents to make it well worth your while.
In this podcast, Susan and I uncover the power of specific, segmented research. Among other things, we cover:
- how to find the right audiences for your client’s money
- how to better sell the idea and value of research to a prospect or existing client
- how to use quantitative attitudinal audience segmented research to turned an upcoming event into a major win
- how to use research in an agency setting including common mistakes to avoid.
Susan Baier began her career as a brand manager for companies like Dial and ConocoPhillips and then switched over to the agency side leading strategic marketing initiatives and market research.
A few years ago, she launched Audience Audit (http://audienceaudit.com/) where she conducts custom quantitative attitudinal audience segmentation research. She helps her agency clients develop marketing and audience segmentation strategies for their clients based on customer insights. They develop messaging, strategic plans, and business development plans with real data that helps them understand how customers who look the same behave in very different ways.
To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/susan-baier/) and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.
If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below.
If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invest in employees and best of all, add more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host Drew McLellan.
Drew: Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency where we talk with folks who could help your agency get stronger, more profitable, be better for your employees and your clients, and most of all, be better for you. I am really excited today.
A topic that I have a lot of passion around, the whole idea of being smarter and taking smart data and insights to your clients as you put together proposals for them and the work that you do for them.
Today we’re going to spend some time with my good friend, Susan Baier. Susan began her career as a brand manager for companies. So, she worked for companies like Dial and ConocoPhillips and then switched over to the agency side. She came over to the dark side and worked with agencies leading in their strategic marketing initiatives and in their market research as you might imagine.
A few years ago, she launched Audience Audit where she conducts custom quantitative attitudinal audience segmentation research, say that 12 times fast, which she will explain to us what that’s all about.
She also helps her agency clients develop marketing strategy based on customer insights, message developments, strategic planning and business development consulting all around, being smarter and knowing more because you’re looking at real data. Susan, welcome to the podcast.
Susan: Hey Drew, thank you so much for having me it’s awesome to be on your podcast.
Drew: Probably in full disclosure, we should also tell the listeners that for the last couple of years, Audience Audit and AMI have partnered together to go out into the field and do some research. We have done two studies so far where we have talked to folks who hire agencies, CMO’s, business owners, that sort of thing, around how they feel about agencies, how they find agencies, the whole new business process, their attitudes about working with agencies, what they want and don’t want from agencies.
So Susan and I will probably be peppering some of that data into our conversation. And I will also, in the show notes, give you a spot where you can go download the reports that we are doing around those, so you can have access to that as well.
Again, great to have you here. Anything in your introduction that I left out that our listeners need to know about you?
Susan: No, I don’t think so. The only thing I would add is that, yes, we do this particular sort of weird niche of market research, which we’re going to talk about a little bit, but we do it specifically for small to mid-size agencies. That was an intentional choice in building this business. Just because of some of the challenges that I think that particular group faces and my personal interest in trying to help them out.
Drew: Let’s talk. Help the listeners understand how your research is different than maybe some other research that they have bumped into.
Susan: Research is more readily available now for agencies than it used to be with everybody on the internet and online survey software. But a lot of the research that’s used to support, say, audience personas and marketing recommendations is demographic. So it’s age, income or it’s syndicated research where they’ve sort of devised these 31 demographic lifestyle buckets across the country and are going to tell you how many people you have in each bucket.
While that information can be helpful in some circumstances, in a lot of ways it isn’t very helpful for marketers. We see a lot of research that we’re doing with clients in which the demographics of the audiences you’re talking to aren’t different. They’re all about the same range of ages. They’re all about the same gender splits or household income levels. But they feel really differently about the category that we’re asking about.
They’re making their purchase decisions very differently, and to me that sort of is at the crux of what we need to know as marketers. Why are people doing something and how can we respond to that in a relevant way?
Drew: Well and I think that’s one of the places where agencies could add great value, because a lot of clients can tell you demographically based on their customer base what their customer looks like. I think what you’re talking about is helping our clients understand what their customers are thinking and believing and wanting that they can’t see by looking at them.
Susan: Yeah, I mean it makes the whole thing so much easier if you sort of know what is motivating someone, why they’re looking. The other kinds of data that we often have on people is what they’re clicking on or how long they’re on our site, or which page they came from and which page they left at.
That can be helpful in certain circumstances, but you still don’t know why people are doing those things and I think that’s why the whole sort of let’s develop our audiences process is so frustrating. It’s so difficult for our clients. It’s sort of hard for us, so we kind of feel a lot of the time like we’re sort of winging it, or having to make these big assumptions based on demographic data, as to sort of why the people that look like that are doing what they’re doing.
Drew: The research you do, it’s not like a focus group, right?
Susan: No, it isn’t a focus group. Ours is online quantitative survey research.
Focus groups are great, like any other research, for what they’re great for. They’re a great opportunity to actually talk to people about a particular category and have some more in-depth conversations. You can elicit things from them that they can sort of go on and give you more detail at. And sometimes they surrender things to you that you wouldn’t have thought to ask about.
Focus groups have their place. The problem with them is that it’s like eight people, and so unfortunately you get some data bias going on. You have a very small sample size, the loudest talker usually sort of tends to overtake the group. It’s hard to think of that as being a reliable basis on which to sort of steer your ship or state as an organization or make recommendations as their agency.
I like quantitative, statistically reliable research. And we have an approach that allows you to get to these sort of attitudinal questions and understand sort of what’s going on with people, but doing it in a way that you’ve got a large sample of respondents who are the kind of people that you want to be hearing from. So that you know you’ve got good reliable data to use when you start developing these audience segmentation strategies.
Drew: Once an agency has this, and I know we certainly have done this with our surveys, too. What is the advantage that having this insight, and how do agencies leverage this? And I know you work with lots of different agencies. How do they leverage this inside the client relationship?
Susan: Well there’s a few ways. One of the things, quite honestly, that it helps with is convincing clients that your recommendations are something they should be paying attention to.
For whatever reason, clients like to see things backed by data, and if you have data that says look you’ve got these two audiences. They’re both really viable for you, but they feel really differently about this so you can’t be sending them the same e-mail. We need to split this into two initiatives and get them on different lists. And you’ve got data to support that. Your client is much more likely to think that you actually know what you’re talking about and aren’t just trying to sell them another e-mail setup or whatever.
It’s great having data in hand to validate the recommendations that you’re making with clients.
The other thing that I know a lot of the agencies we work with find helpful is that at the same time that you’re identifying audiences that are perfect for your client in terms of the kinds of things that are important to them and the problems they’re trying to solve and all of that, you also often find audiences that aren’t really perfect. And so being able to, as an agency, come forward and say look, you know we have this research for you. There are a couple of audience groups in here that just we think are a perfect fit for you. We’re going to talk about those, but we also found one that probably isn’t a perfect fit and we don’t think you should be wasting your money trying to get more of those kinds of people. Because whatever, they’re switchers or they’re not going to spend very much or actually there’s a competitor who’s much better suited for them than you are.
I think that builds trust between agencies and clients too, to say, “Look, we’re not just trying to spend all the money you have, we want to spend your money smart.”
Drew: I think the other thing it does is it helps clients understand that just like we talk with agencies about every dollar’s not a good dollar and we’re really much better off chasing after our sweet spot customers, the ones that we can absolutely delight. I think sometimes what your research shows is, yes I see there are three or four audience segments, but boy I’d have a hard time making audience number three happy because they want stuff that, while we sort of do it or we can do it, it’s not really what we tee up every day for clients. And so you get to make more informed decisions about who your sweet spot customers are and how you can tailor your messages right at them.
Susan: Absolutely. And that’s so important and I think especially in our role as agencies and advisors to our clients, we have a responsibility to help them understand those kinds of things. Sometimes clients are very anxious to go after anybody they can get. That’s not necessarily the right move for them, and they look to us for expertise, and I think having data that can support those kinds of recommendations as to where they should go and where they shouldn’t is what our job is, quite frankly.
Drew: I know for a lot of agencies, and maybe this was the recession that did this, but for a lot of agencies, they have trouble selling the idea of research to clients. That a lot of clients are willing to go, “Look, let’s just make some assumptions, and I’m willing to concede these assumptions.”
How do agencies better sell the idea and the value of segmentation research into either a prospect or an existing client?
Susan: Yeah, well, I think one of the things that a lot of agencies, especially small to mid-size agencies struggle with, is they don’t have a level of confidence themselves on the right kind of research to do. How it should be done… a lot of them aren’t doing it in-house anymore. So, it’s kind of a weak spot for them, and inevitably when you get into a discussion with a client about “Well what can we cut? What can we adjust?” Something you’re not super competent about is going to be the first thing to go.
I think if you’re an agency that really wants to develop a reputation for building recommendation fund data, you’ve got to get comfortable with the right approaches. That doesn’t mean you need to necessarily do that research yourself, but you have to feel really good about what you’re recommending and why it’s instrumental in what you’re trying to do for a client.
That’s step one, like you’re not going to be able to sell anything, if you don’t feel good about yourself, you don’t feel comfortable with.
The other thing is that clients can see if you’re just slapping stuff in there that you don’t have a place for in your process. You know what I mean?
I think that agencies that do a lot of work based on data have a process that anyone can see. They go to the website. They talk about it. They have case studies or whatever that show not only do they know how to sell research, but they actually know how to use research and integrate it into the kinds of things that they’re doing for clients strategies and tactics alike.
That’s really important, I mean you could put lipstick on a pig, but in the end if you don’t understand research and you aren’t really committed to driving your strategies off of research, it’s going to show.
Drew: I think sort of tangential to that are the agencies that sell it as a thing as opposed to weaving it through everything they do from that point forward.
Susan: Yeah, and that whole ‘selling it as a thing’ is one of the things I think a lot of agencies struggle with. We have lots of shiny toys to play with in the agency business.
Drew: Are you saying you’re a shiny toy?
Susan: Yes, I’m sort of a shiny toy, but a lot of clients will come to us and say, “Hey we need to be on Facebook, we need this shiny toy, or we need re-targeting, we need that shiny or programmatic media buying,” or whatever it is.
“I’ve heard about this thing and that’s something I want and I need that.” I really believe that we, as advisors to our clients have to resist the temptation to pull out the shiny toys and say, “Oh, this is a chance to use this,” because quite honestly, what we do shouldn’t be about the way we do it. It should be about the problems we’re trying to solve for our clients’ customers and how to sort of make that connection between our clients and the people that they’re trying to serve.
Quite honestly, that sort of runs antithetically to an approach from an agency standpoint that says, “Okay what’s our social media program? Are we going to budget against our web program? What’s our media program?” I really believe that the agency has to be flipping that assessment and saying, “What are we going to be doing for this audience? What is the most efficient, best spend, most effective approach to connect with that audience for our client?”
And maybe some of those audiences need social, maybe some of them don’t. Maybe re-targeting is right for some of them, maybe it isn’t, but I think we should be building strategies that are audience up instead of ‘shiny toy down.’ That makes sense?
Drew: Yeah, well I think the other thing that does is you know today’s shiny toy is tomorrow’s discarded toy. And that’s, I worry about and I talk a lot with agency owners about, you know, “Don’t build your whole model around whatever it is, the HubSpot of the world. And there’s nothing against HubSpot, it’s a great tool, but it may not be the tool five years from now. And so when you build your agency around tools or platforms or channels, I think that you’re dating yourself very quickly, especially with the rapid rate of change that we’re experiencing in the industry today.
One of the things that’s never going to go away is our customers need to sell stuff to somebody. And that somebody is their audience and being able to understand the audience and sort of how they behave and what matters to them and where they hang out and all of that, that’s never going to go out of fashion.
Susan: You’re exactly right, and I think the agencies that are out there that say “Look, what we specialize in is understanding the people that you are trying to sell to,” have a real advantage against the sea of agencies that are saying “Hey, we’re specialists in this shiny toy.”
Drew: Right. In terms of building these audience segmentation strategies into the process, is this something that you see clients… or not clients, but agencies able to use or sell better with prospects? Or are the, are they more successful going back to clients that they’ve had for a while and saying… well actually let me back up.
Let’s say I’ve had a client for five years and I’ve never talked to them about research and all of a sudden I have the bug and I want to do that. How do I have that conversation with them without it looking like “Hey what the heck? Why haven’t we been doing this for five years?”
Susan: Yeah. Well, I mean that’s a great point and a lot of agencies are in that situation, but the reality is five years ago this was a lot harder to do. This was a lot harder to get 10 years ago. This kind of work was $200,000 and took nine months, and it was simply out of reach not just for agencies, but their clients. In many cases, unless you were one of the very sort of large massive agencies.
But things have changed, and the reality is it is much more economical now to get to the people that you want to hear from. It’s a lot easier for them to engage with you in research than it used to be. And as a result, it’s more affordable. It doesn’t take as long, and it doesn’t cost as much. So I think going back to clients and saying “Look we now have this tool that you may never have heard of, because it’s kind of unique and it’s fairly recent, but it’s something we want to work on with you,” I think is the right way, and it’s true.
Drew: I think especially as we are in the research that you and I have done together, one of the things that we’re seeing over and over is that clients are feeling incredible pressure to be results driven.
One of the things that gives them comfort around choosing an agency and keeping an agency is that the agency is leveraging data. Because let’s face it, they have to sell inside their organization their allegiance to their agency. And the more data and the more proof points you can give that client contact to walk into the c-suite and say “Look at what the agency gave us and look at this insight and here’s why we’re doing what we’re doing,” with real numbers and stories about these audience segments and all of that… that has a great sticking power in terms of keeping or getting a client.
Susan: It does. And I think the whole explosion in the conversation around big data really sort of helps in that regard, because there are lots of organizations feeling the pressure to be utilizing quote unquote “big data.” They don’t feel like they’re on the ball if they’re not using it, but the reality of big data is often very different.
So we have clients who wish they were using data, but aren’t. Like know they should be, right? For the first time and feeling that pressure.
And then we have clients who are really struggling under a mountain of analytics data or data they’re capturing in their own databases about people and really having a tough time figuring out how it can help them. Because it’s just so overwhelming and coming in with some ideas about how to use data, but to sort of, use data in a smart way, use data that’s actually helpful.
A lot of times I see a look of relief on clients when they realize that yes, they can work with data and no, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming, and they’re still making decisions based on something that’s real and not a guess.
Drew: Yeah. Can you give the listeners an example of a client, I know you have some of your agency clients who’ve given you permission to talk about the work that you do with them.
Give them an example of how the research informed the client in the agency about the audience, and then some of the marketing decisions that the agency was able to push forward with their client because of the data.
Susan: Perfect. Idea Agency is one of our client agencies. They’re out in Massachusetts. They’re a small agency and they’ve been using this type of research for quite some time with all types of clients. And one of their clients is Tufts University in Boston.
Tufts was interested in putting on an event to engage alumni with the university. They had sort of differing levels of engagement from various types of folks and they’re really trying to sort of solidify a connection with alumni.
We did some research with the Idea Agency and Tufts into why alumni were engaging with the university, and we found a whole host of reasons. But really, some substantially different groups of people who had all gone to Tufts, it’s very similar demographically, but had really different rationale for engaging with the university.
Some of them were just Tufts lovers and wished they were still back there and wear their sweatshirts on the weekends and go to football games, and stuff like that. But then there are other folks who either really appreciate the alumni network that they’ve got going with Tufts and sort of want to utilize that in their own career. Or have a lot of expertise and really want to contribute that back to Tufts to help it be successful.
Drew: Okay so stop, I just want to clarify.
Susan: Too much?
Drew: No no no. But I just want to clarify, so you go out you do the research and you’re looking at people who demographically look exactly the same, but what you found is that they fell into three distinct buckets. One which is I bleed Tufts ‘whatever the color is,’ right? So, I’m all about Tufts. I have the ornaments on my tree and I still can sing the fight song.
And then we have a second group that it’s really a matter of they want to advance their career by connecting with the other influential Tufts alumni and for them it was all about networking and connecting.
The third group is the group that was all about sort of giving back to Tufts and believing that they could give them good counsel, right?
Susan: Right, correct.
Drew: I just want to make sure that the listeners are tracking that those are three distinct groups.
Susan: They’re really different groups and they’re all engaged with Tufts but they’re engaged for really different reasons.
Sort of in seeing this overview of the audience that they have to work with, the folks at the agency and at Tufts decided to build an event specifically for that third group. Specifically, for those folks who believe they have a lifetime of experience behind them, that they really want to give back to Tufts and help Tufts be successful.
The agency proposed an event called the Leadership Summit. It was the first time that they’d done it and it was a weekend event where people paid to come. It was $150 or $200 or something like that. There’s a whole host of activities and stuff like that, but rather than sort of throwing a whole bunch of different kinds of activities at these folks, because they understood what they were interested in in their engagement with Tufts and what they were looking for, they built that event specifically for those folks.
For example, the keynote at the event was a preview of the Tufts five-year strategic plan that was getting ready to be published. And it was followed by opportunities for the attendees to engage with Tufts senior leadership and talk to them about the plan and give them feedback and make suggestions and sort of have that engagement.
This event was built specifically for one part of the audience that they’re working towards, this large alumni group. This event was built specifically for that one segment, and it was incredibly successful. As I said, it was the first time they did it, they had at least twice as many sign ups as they had hoped for.
And at the end, they asked folks if they should indeed, as planned, have this once every couple of years and the attendees asked them to have it at least twice a year, if not more often.
Great engagement from those folks, and a great sort of continued engagement by Tufts after the event with these people, because they connected with them in a way that responded to something that was very important to these folks, right?
They don’t want to sit at a football game with a bunch of students and sort of watch the game. That’s not what their engagement with Tufts is about. But the opportunity to hear where Tufts is going and to engage with senior leadership about their thoughts with regard to that, and sort of offer their expertise was exactly what these folks wanted. And it went off without a hitch.
So the agency did a great job in sort of helping the client understand the power of focusing on a particular group, because you can imagine an event that was trying to reach all these different people.
Drew: Well imagine it would have been, we would have a football game and we would have shown you the new dorm rooms because they’re very different from where… or the new media center, because it’s really different from when you went to school. And they might have had smatterings of things that would have appealed to this person. But I bet at least a third, two thirds of it would have been off target.
Susan: Well sure. And so if you’re looking at attending an event, and you see that two thirds of the stuff that’s going on isn’t something you’re interested in, are you going to go? I don’t think you are.
Drew: Well, and are you going to pay to go on a weekend? Right.
Susan: Exactly, but if you look at an event and say, “Wow I want to go,” you know if you had that experience, Drew, where you’re at a conference or some sort of industry event and you go “Geeze, I wish I could go to all of these sessions. Yeah it’s really hard to pick what to do.”
That’s what you want to get to, and so that’s the experience these folks had. Everything about this event was built specifically for them understanding what they wanted to do. And as a result, they loved the event and they asked for more. Which by any yardstick I think is a terrific measure of engagement with a target audience.
Drew: Well and again, I think this is a great example of when you knock it out of the park like that for a client, that’s a client who comes back and says,”What else can we do?”
Susan: What else can we do? Yes, absolutely.
Drew: Which is music to every agency’s ears.
Susan: Absolutely, and the funny thing about it is this, other than getting the research done itself, what the agency did wasn’t any more expensive or crazy or hifalutin than sort of a normal approach to making a recommendation for an event. It’s all the same elements. We need to design and print out brochures. We need to send out email invitations. We need to do this or do that. But the addition of some real insight into the audience that they were trying to serve made the whole thing more successful.
Drew: I think one of the appealing things of this kind of research is it’s all about eliminating waste, right? So it’s about even if you spend the exact same number of dollars, if we know every dollar is pinpoint targeted at what matters to this subset group of people, so that there’s very little waste, that’s a much more efficient spend which is part of how you sell it into the client. Because now the client goes. “Oh I get it. We’re going to spend the same $20,000, $50,000, $100,000 dollars, but I’m not guessing that three of the five of these things are going to work.
Susan: Right, or the people are going to drop out after the first day, because it just wasn’t interesting enough or whatever. Right. It gets you on both fronts. You’re focusing your efforts, and the audience you are trying to reach sees you doing that for them, and responds in kind.
Drew: Yeah. So as the agencies think about wrapping research into their process, or all of that or really re-engaging, because I think a lot of agencies, especially for those folks who are a little more gray-haired, probably earlier in their career, research was a bigger deal. And then we sort of went through this phase where to your point, it got so expensive that, coupled with some economic bumps in the road, I think a lot of people sort of got out of the habit of even thinking about research.
And now I’m hoping that it’s coming back in vogue and that, especially with all of the discussion around data and data being different than insights, I think one of the things that’s critical about good research is that it can’t just give you numbers and data, but it has to help you understand what those numbers mean, and what to do about it, right?
Susan: Yeah, and I actually think that the drop in research usage by agencies has some more nefarious background. I actually think that a lot of the people who are making decisions in those agencies, and in fact, on the client side aren’t using research because they’ve had a terrible experience with it.
I mean I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who say, “Okay, let’s talk about research,” and there goes the eye rolls, and I know what they’re thinking. They’re thinking of reams of three-hole punch pages set into a binder, gathering dust on a shelf someplace. We spent all this money. We don’t know how to interpret it. It never gets used.
And so they don’t use it, and I don’t blame them. There’s nothing worse than spending your client’s money on something that they can’t use. It’s a recipe for disaster.
I think that’s one of the problems, and one of the things we try to do is provide agencies with information that’s actually helpful. That they and their clients can actually understand. And they don’t need a three ring binder and a weekend to read through it.
A lot of researchers aren’t marketers, and a lot of marketers aren’t researchers and sometimes things get lost in translation.
Like you said, you end up with a bunch of numbers, but how those numbers translate to something you should be doing as a marketer is a lot harder to see.
Drew: Well and I know one of the parts of the research that we’ve done together that I think the agencies find most valuable is we will talk to them about what we learned in terms of the data and the segments. But then we sort of say, “Okay, so if this segment is the group of folks that you want to talk to, these are the kind of clients you want to have, here’s some things you need to think about.”
And think about some of the research around, how important the relationship is versus how important your niche expertise is.
What we’ve talked about with Tufts is the same thing for agency owners, which is, we can’t be everything to everybody either. And we need to look at the agency that we’ve built and figure out which clients we can make really happy and then how do we fashion ourselves and how do we talk about ourselves and what kind of content do we create to attract that sort of client to us?
I think for most agencies, part of the research that we’ve done together in the report where we sort of say, “If this is the target you want, here’s four or five things you need to do, and you need to spotlight that you do, because that will attract them to you.”
Susan: Yeah. And that’s what I love about it. That ability to focus. And it’s so funny because as you can see in the research that we’ve done together, right, there is no right answer.
It’s not like every agency is going to look at the segments that we’ve found among buyers of agency services, and all land on the same one as being perfect for them. Because it’s a dance. It’s between what’s really important to them, what do they really value, what do they really require in an agency relationship? And what does your agency do? What are you good at? What have you decided to focus on?
So it’s not that you sort of go through this analysis and then everybody says, “Oh, that’s the winner,” and you’re up against every other agency in the country. It’s finding this segment that’s right for you and for whom you are right.
Drew: It’s about chemistry and it’s about match and it’s about who can I absolutely delight every day, as opposed to who is going to be a grind to make happy?
Susan: Yeah and you know the reality is if you’re trying to… if you’re a small agency, if you’re five or 10 people, right? Regional agency. And you’re trying to go after clients who really only want prestigious national brand agencies with 30 people on their account team, you’re going to have a problem. It’s not going to go very well.
You’re going to waste a lot of your time and money trying to get them and you’re not going to get anywhere with it.
Every agency is different. Every client is different, but understanding the types of clients that are a good fit for your agency given who you are and what you do and what you want to do, is so important.
You and I are both small business owners, and none of us have time to waste going after the wrong clients. We need to focus on the ones that are going to love us, and that we’re going to be able to do our best work for.
What kind of mistakes, as agencies are sort of thinking about… This was where I was 10 minutes ago and then we went down the rabbit hole.
But if agencies are thinking about starting to bring research back into their shop or to their shop if they’ve never had it, what are some things they need to avoid when using this research to develop their audience segmentation strategies? What are some mistakes you’ve seen agencies make as they try and wrap their arms around research on behalf of clients?
Susan: One of the big ones, and unfortunately I have seen it a fair amount with clients who will send something to me that say “Oh our old agency did this for us.” It’s not good research, it’s not done well. I mean research, like anything else, right? Like creative, like buying media… There is a skill and an art to it. And so I think that sometimes agencies sort of try to throw something together and say, “Oh this is what we need,” but again, they’re not really understanding the pros and cons of various approaches to research. And they’re not necessarily skilled at doing it, and so they’re kind of winging it. And I’ve seen that kind of thing come around to bite folks.
I would encourage agencies who really want to incorporate research into what they’re doing to get some expertise, either in the house or outside or partner with somebody. But do it well if you’re going to do it.
Drew: Other mistakes that they make?
Susan: Other mistakes… I think going in without data these days is a mistake. Just across the board.
Because here’s the thing: Clients have access to the same kinds of analytics that we have now. If you throw something out there, in the old days you could say, “Oh it’s advertising, it doesn’t get measured that way, everything’s fine.”
Drew: It’s all about brand awareness.
Susan: Right. Well, clients can see the numbers now, and they can see them just as quickly as we can see them. And if you’ve got a campaign out there and it’s not performing, they’re going to see it. You can’t hide anymore if your recommendations are working.
I think it is very risky to sort of sit around a conference table and say, “Okay, I bet these people will like this, and let’s spend $20,000 of our clients’ money to find out,” you’re walking the razor’s edge. And if it doesn’t go well, they’re going to come back to you and say, you know, “This didn’t work.”
I think that anything you can do to get some real insight into what is driving their prospective customers, you need to try to get it because you’re really hanging yourself out there if you don’t.
Drew: I also think it gives you justification for the choices you make whether it’s wording in messaging or its colors, all the subjective things we do that really aren’t subjective. But our clients think they’re subjective.
It’s difficult to argue, “Well I’ve been doing this for 20 years so I know this is the right color, or I know whatever. But when you have a data around these are the sort of words that trigger good emotions with this segment, or whatever it is. You can say well, here’s what we heard in the research is that they think of us as being very warm and welcoming and they want to partner with somebody who is this or this, so here’s how we chose the language that we did. Or here’s why we use that visual, because it depicts what they told us they want.
Susan: Absolutely. One of the other things that I see agencies do that I don’t think helps them is go to sort of a standardized packaged research about their client’s industry, and use that as a basis to say, “Okay this is what’s going on out there and this is what we need to do.”
The reality is for most of our clients, they are not competing against the top five players in an industry. They’ve got a specific niche, whatever it is, and those sorts of prepackaged research reports really aren’t providing any insight that would be helpful to my client’s particular client. Right? In the market that they play in what they do.
Custom research can cost a little bit more sometimes than some of those other things, but it is so worth it to be able to go to a client and say, “Look, we are building this for you, which means not only can we assess whether the things you now believe about your audiences are true. We can confirm or deny, but we can also settle those debates that you’ve been having internally about, ‘do they think this or do they think that? Would they prioritize this over that?’ And answer questions that you have always wanted to ask.” Which is one of the great things about customer research. You’re talking to these folks, you can ask questions that you’ve always wondered about that can really help you deliver from a product standpoint, from a messaging standpoint, from a marketing standpoint, etc.
I think sometimes it’s easy to say, “Oh we’ll just send an intern over to Google to buy the first $500 research report that we find.” It’s a little harder to say “Let’s build something specifically for this client. But in my experience it is so much more valuable and so much easier to sell in to a client, because it’s built specifically for them.”
Drew: I think the other danger of using third party research data is all your competitors and all of your clients’ competitors are using the same research. It’s why everybody sounds the same.
Susan: That’s exactly right. There’s a better way to go for sure.
Drew: If folks are thinking, “Boy I want to do this. I’m committed to get it. I know that I want better insights. I want to start weaving research into the work that we do.” Can you think of an example or two of agencies that you’ve worked with that have figured out how to sort of make this part of their D.N.A?
Susan: Yes, absolutely. We work with a lot of small to mid-size agencies all around the country, and some of them just have an opportunity for a particular client and get some research as part of a web redesign or something like that. It’s sort of a stand alone kind of thing.
We have other clients, though, that after doing this once or twice have realized that this is how they want to develop all of their strategies. So, they have started to actually build this into their process.
Idea Agency out in Massachusetts is one of these organizations, and if you go to their website (http://www.ideaagency.biz/) you will see they’re very transparent about how they go about their process, which they call the purple process, for their clients.
One of the first steps in that process is doing this type of research for clients.
From their perspective, if a client doesn’t want research, then that’s a conversation they have. So, instead of talking about “Hey let’s… you need to do this,” the conversation is assumed that “You need to do this, and if you have a problem with doing it, let’s talk to you about what that is,” but it gets built into the bulk of their client relationships. It’s how they base everything that they do.
Drew: What you’re saying is rather than putting it on the table, the client has to say they want to take it off the table.
Susan: That’s exactly right. Then there’s an opportunity to have that conversation, showcase studies, have them talk to other clients who have had the benefit of that research in developing their marketing, and really sort of have that conversation. But yes, it’s assumed to be on the table from the get go and it’s substantiated.
I mean any prospective client can go to their site and see that it’s in there and hear the agency talk about why it’s in there, and how fundamental it is to what they do, and see case studies of that.
That is truly embracing a research based strategy approach.
Drew: I think it’s also the difference between it being optional as opposed to, “Look, this is a best practice and we’re a best practices firm, so this is how we conduct ourselves.” It gets back to the ‘every dollar’s not a good dollar’ discussion which I often have with the podcast guest.
If a client is not willing to do that and you believe that research is a critical part of how you build audience segmentation strategies that are unique and targeted and with very little waste, then maybe that client is not a great client for you.
Susan: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
I think it’s more than just saying “We do it.” Because geesh, how many articles have you read that are like okay, “Okay, step one, figure out your target audience. Okay step two, now that you know your target audience,” and people are like, “What? How…?
Drew: How do I figure that out?
Susan: How are we supposed to do that? And I see a lot of agency websites that are like, “We’re going to understand your audience and then we’re going to move right on into all of these shiny toys that we have to play with to execute against them.”
But just saying you understand their audience is very different than saying how you understand their audience, and I appreciate the agencies who are out there saying “Look this not just an assumption that you know who your audience is or that we do. This is a step. This is an important step in the process. To clarify, to validate, to explore before we start making recommendations.”
Drew: So true.
There’s listeners out there who either have walked away from research or they’ve never done a lot of research on their side of their shop and you and I have been so compelling, that they now are thinking “Yep this makes sense to me, I can see how I can differentiate myself in the marketplace. I could really knock it out of the park and do business pitches, etc., etc.”
What are some baby steps that an agency owner can take…? So they don’t have a client yet that’s going to buy this, they’re not ready to jump all the way into the deep end, but what are some baby steps that they can take to begin to be more research-centric and to learn more about it and to start thinking about how to weave it into their agency’s culture?
Susan: Yeah, well I think that sort of exploration phase is really important. As I said you just don’t want to slap it in there you. You really sort of need to understand what you could offer and how it could help. I think the best way to do that is to talk to researchers.
There are lots of folks out there. You can Google folks if you want somebody local to your agency, or people who specialize in a particular type of research, or particular approach, and you get on the phone with them and let them tell you how it could help you accomplish what you’re trying to help with clients. And sort of build an acumen within your agency, not necessarily about how to do the research, but how to choose the kind of research to do. Because it’s a big wide world out there and there’s everything from one on one interviews and phone polling to focus groups and other sort of qualitative message. There’s online survey research of a variety of different kinds.
And any quality researcher would be happy to talk to you about why they do what they do and whether they think it can help you. And you know I’ll tell you, I know a lot of researchers and all of us, any ethical researcher will tell you what their research is good for and what it isn’t. So, the folks who are out there moderating focus groups are very good at saying, “This is what a focus group is great for. This is some of our limitations, and for your problem, we’re either a great solution or you need to go look elsewhere and I can give you some names.”
But I would start talking to researchers and develop an acumen about the different types of research that are out there. And an opinion as to the kinds of things that you think would help you accomplish better work for your clients.
Drew: Okay. Any other next steps?
Susan: Well, after you have identified what you’re trying to do, then it seems to me you have two choices if you want to incorporate this into your agency. Either you build the acumen internally, right? So you hire folks who are good at research or know how to do a particular type of research or bring it in-house, or you find partners to work with that can help you develop a process and incorporate what they do into your process, help you talk to clients about this type of work and its benefits.
What you don’t want to be doing is getting yourself in a situation where you’re the one having to justify the statistical backbone behind a particular research approach if that’s not your thing. That never works well. If you’re not going to have that acumen in-house, you need to find somebody that you can work with who’s willing to do that with your clients and answer questions and sort of get everybody on the same page.
Drew: We’re running long, which I knew we would because I knew we would have a lot to talk about. But anything else that you think that we should make sure the listeners know that we didn’t cover?
Susan: The only thing I would say, as you mentioned, we’ve done two of these studies now about organizations buying agency services. And in both of them, the one we did last year and the one we just finished and are getting ready to present, the importance of recommendations based on data and research are in the top few things that organizations, across the board, are looking for. It is very important. They want substantiated recommendations.
So, I think if there are agencies out there that think there is a segment that won’t require that or doesn’t want that, I think they’re mistaken. I think one way or another, agencies have to be prepared to level up in terms of substantiating their recommendations with some kind of background research or analytics or data or something that tells the client that they’re making the right decision.
Drew: And I think it’s a way for an agency, a small to mid-size agency, to really differentiate themselves in terms of “I’m not just going to give you a Google analytics spreadsheet, but I’m going to give you data we can actually take action on, and be confident about and that’s going to help you grow your business.”
While I think everyone is sort of enamored with big data, which by the way I don’t think most people can even define, I think what they really want is they just want to be smarter at their job and hit their goals and metrics so they don’t get fired.
Susan: Yeah, and they look to agencies for that kind of expertise.
Anybody can churn out a report, right? Anybody can copy and paste from Google Analytics into a spreadsheet. That’s not what clients are looking for. They don’t need reporting. They already have reporting.
What they want is understanding, and they want an agency that shows that they not only know how to get data, but know how to work with it, know how to interpret it and understand it. And I think that’s an acumen that any agency hoping to make it in the next 10 or 15 years has to develop one way or another.
Drew: Absolutely. So if folks want to track you down and further discuss audience segmentation strategies, if they want to reach out to you, what’s the best way for them to do that?
Drew: All right. Thank you very much, I know you’re crazy busy, and I know that you’ve been traveling all over the globe, so I appreciate… We had to reschedule this several times to work around our schedule, so I appreciate your flexibility in doing that.
As always I am grateful for your willingness to share so freely with all that you know and your commitment to helping agencies get better, so thank you very much.
Susan: Oh, thank you so much, it’s always a great pleasure to spend time with you, Drew.
Drew: I’ll talk to you soon.
Susan: Okay, bye-bye.
That’s all for this episode of Build a Better Agency on audience segmentation strategies. Be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. While you’re there, sign up for our e-newsletter, grab our free e-book and check out the blog. Growing a bigger, better agency that makes more money, attracts bigger clients, and doesn’t consume your life is possible here on Build a Better Agency.