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People The Achilles heel of online marketers

by Loknath Das

People: The Achilles' Heel of Online Marketers

There’s something tragically ironic about most online marketers. Our job revolves around convincing people to do something, but we often have little to no actual relationship with the people we try so hard to persuade.

Instead, most of us huddle behind computer screens trying to convince numbers to cooperate.

If you want proof, just take a look at HubSpot’s “State of Inbound” report: 65 percent of online marketers say that “generating traffic and leads” is one of their top marketing challenges; 43 percent say “proving the ROI of our marketing activities”; 28 percent have trouble “securing enough budget.”

Clearly, online marketing is very numbers-oriented.

Now, I’m a numbers guy (probably why I like online marketing), so I’ll be the first to vouch for just how important data is to effective marketing. But ultimately, you’re marketing to people, not numbers. So if you aren’t communicating with your current customers, and even your prospects, on a regular basis, optimizing those oh-so-important numbers will always be an uphill challenge.

Numbers vs. people

When you think about it, it’s pretty easy to see why many marketers prefer crunching numbers to calling people. After all, if we wanted to be on the phone all day with potential customers, we would have ended up in sales.

Why is that? Well, there’s safety in numbers.

You may or may not be able to write an ad that convinces Cindy Watson, the 28-year-old single mom with two kids and a $250,000 mortgage, to buy your designer jeans, but you can create an ad with a 3 percent click-through rate for those same designer jeans. With some testing, you might even get your CTR up to 5 percent.

You might not be able to count on Cindy, but you can count on those numbers.

If your ads are seen by thousands or millions of people, do you really need to care about Cindy Watson’s opinion? Sure, she might not click on your ad, but someone else will, right?

And that’s the problem with numbers.

If Cindy Watson isn’t clicking on your ads, who is? What is their story? Why are they clicking on your ad and buying your jeans? What makes them different from Cindy?

These are the questions that numbers can’t adequately answer. Sure, you might know that one ad has a click-through rate of 3 percent and another has a click-through rate of 5 percent, but if all you have is those numbers, you don’t really know why one ad works better than the other. As a result, it’s to either replicate your successes or further improve your performance.

To create a truly effective online marketing campaign, you have to understand what motivates your target audience.

This is why many online marketers struggle to turn numeric observations into measurable results. They can see the patterns in the numbers, but without customer insights, they don’t really know what those patterns mean.

Ultimately, if you aren’t regularly communicating with your current and potential customers, you don’t really know who you are advertising to. You’re missing a crucial part of marketing insight that — like Achilles’ heel in the battle of Troy — puts every campaign at risk.

Making friends and influencing customers

If you want to succeed at online marketing, you can’t just rely on market statistics or demographic data. You need to get inside your customer’s head.

However, if you’re like most online marketers, you can’t spend weeks interviewing your current customers or conducting extensive market surveys. Ain’t nobody got time for that! So, how do you get at the vital information you need to take your online marketing campaigns to the next level?

The good news is, using the following tactics, you can gain incredible insight into your target audience just by spending a few hours interviewing your customers. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Interview the right people

In marketing, we tend to live and die by the law of averages. If 5 percent of our target audience clicks on our ad, we can assume that one in every 20 people resonates with our message.

In interviewing, you have to take a different approach. You don’t really care about the people who don’t convert on your page. You want to know about the people who do.

After all, if you understand why people are responding positively to your content, you can use that information to create even more effective ads, landing pages and other content.

Yes, you can learn from the people who respond poorly to your content, but your top responders are your premium marketing audience. You know you want more of this sort of traffic, so if your time is limited, focus on the low-hanging fruit!

Along the same lines, if you can only interview some of your existing customers, interview your raving fans first. These are the customers that your business thrives on, so if you can figure out what makes your best customers tick, you can figure out how to create marketing campaigns that bring even more golden customers to your site.

2. Ask the right questions

Once you have the right people on the phone, it’s important to ask the right questions. It might be tempting to focus on questions like, “How long have you been in business?” or “How did you find our site?,” but those are numbers questions. You can answer those with a little bit of research.

Instead of trying to categorize your customers, use your interview to get at the information you can’t learn by number-crunching. Remember, the whole point of interviewing your customers is to learn why they responded positively to your ads and why they like your business.

Here are some questions to try:

  • Why did you pick our product/service?
  • What is your favorite thing about our product/service?
  • Have you ever tried the competition’s product/service? What did you like? What didn’t you like?
  • Why were you searching for a product/service like ours?
  • Where do you go for information about our product/service?

Each of these questions teaches you something about why people found your business and became your best customers. And, if you know why your top customers picked your business, you can use that information to bring in even more golden customers.

3. Dig deeper

Even if you’re interviewing the right people and asking the right questions, sometimes it can be hard to get at the real why that motivates your customers. To be honest, they may not even be fully aware of their own why.

This is where laddering comes into play.

As the proud father of a very precocious 6-year-old, I’m very familiar with the concept of laddering. In essence, laddering is the art of asking “why” over and over again until you discover the fundamental truth behind something.

So, if my 6-year-old asks me, “Where do rainbows come from” and I tell her they happen when it rains, that’s one rung on the ladder. When she says, “But why?” and I say, “The sun shines through the rain and clouds and creates a rainbow,” that’s another rung.

When she asks “Why?” again and I say, “because the sunlight bounces off the back of the raindrop and to our eyes, but because raindrops are round, light passes through them at different speeds and separates into different wavelengths that our eyes perceive as the colors of a rainbow,” we’ve added a final rung to the ladder and gotten to the real why she’s after.

Incidentally, I’ve never been out-why’d by my daughter.

Obviously, as adults, we can be more subtle about laddering than a 6-year-old, but the fundamental principle is the same. If you sense that there is more to an interviewee’s answer than they are saying, keep digging until you get to their real why.

4. Make it concrete

Of course, all of this touchy-feely why business can sometimes feel a little abstract to a numbers-oriented marketer. Fortunately, if you’re looking for concrete insights into your customers’ whys, you can get at that data by using perception maps.

You’ve probably seen perception maps before. Essentially, they are four-quadrant graphs you can use to help your customers define their why in concrete terms.

Here’s a sample perception map comparing the values different car brands are associated with:

Typically, perception maps work best when you have already gotten a sense for what your customers value about your product or service. By putting those values onto a perception map, you force an interviewee to show you how those values weighed into their decision.

So, a customer might say that they love your product because of the features, but if they are forced to map features against cost, you both might discover that cost is much more important than you thought.

In addition to helping you get at your interviewee’s why, perception maps can help you understand how your product or service is perceived by your customers. Often, as marketers, we end up marketing what we value about our product or service — not what our customers value.

If you find yourself in this sort of situation, you have two options: 1) rethink your marketing; or 2) rethink your product or service. Either way, what you learn from perception maps can be game-changing for your marketing.

5. Keep talking

Finally, your business and your target audience are always changing and evolving, so you can’t just talk to a few customers and call it quits. Achilles won a lot of battles before a competitor finally figured out his weak spot.

If you want to avoid Achilles’ fate, you need to be willing to tend to your own Achilles’ heel on a regular basis. The easiest way to do this is to set aside time every few months to interview some of your new customers.

As you go through this interview process, keep an eye out for new information. Do your newer customers love your company for different reasons than your old customers? What do they value? Is your marketing communicating the kind of message you’re hoping to send?

Whys change over time, so if you aren’t talking to your customers on a regular basis, you’ll quickly lose touch with the people you’re marketing to.


For many online marketers, their Achilles’ heel is people. They are brilliant at using demographic data, statistics and numbers to tweak their marketing, but they haven’t taken the time to get to know their actual customers.

It’s an oversight that can cripple their marketing.

Effective online marketing requires both numbers and customer insight. Otherwise, you’ve only done half of your market research. But, if you know both w


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