The power of anecdote and agenda: Researching your prospects' buying patterns

by Barbara Bix and Melissa Josephson Edwards

As marketing directors, we want to invest money in marketing projects that demonstrate a return on investment and that will make a difference in the bottom line. How can you develop a great marketing campaign that will deliver results?

By conducting market research to:
 

  1. identify the best market segment(s),
     
  2. pinpoint the most promising prospects, and
     
  3. understand clients' needs and wants.

Armed with this information, marketers can implement an effective marketing campaign that will attract and deliver the best prospects to the client development/sales team.

For many accounting firms, the idea of market research can be daunting. How much data do firms need? How do marketers get the data they need? One concern is that getting a lot of data is expensive.

The ultimate solution is getting "just enough" data to identify the best prospects and determine what it will take to get them to act.

"Just enough" data enables marketers to make wise marketing investments and manage the cost of data collection.

Here's how to do it.

Tricks Of The Trade: Using An Anecdote

The best way to learn about how and why businesses decide which accounting business to use is to ask them to describe how they chose the service they're using today. Marketers can get much better information when prospects describe their previous thought processes and how they actually made decisions - versus "conjecturing" as to what they might do in the future. When decision makers report on historical behavior, they automatically take into account all influential factors at that time - rather than limiting their response to just one question.

How Anecdotes Can Further Your Understanding

Anecdotes reveal prospects' needs, wants, and priorities. So, ask prospects about the past and listen for stories. When answering open-ended questions, respondents often provide stories rich with detail and ideas that marketers may not have even considered.

When people tell their stories, they emphasize what's important to them and describe what motivated them. On the other hand, surveys with "framed" questions generate responses that are limited by marketers' preconceived hypotheses and assumptions.

Understanding how and why people hire a professional services firm also helps marketers differentiate critical needs from requirements that are just "nice to have." Marketers can go back to stories to learn not only what prospects value, but also to learn what circumstances trigger retaining the services of a firm and where prospects turn to get the information that informs their purchasing decisions.

In addition to helping marketers determine what features to include in a new service, the information gathered from stories can highlight what messages to emphasize and identify the most effective marketing media and sales channels.

Use Anecdotes To Identify Market Segments

Anecdotes and stories also help segment the market. While we all have individual preferences when we make buying decisions, most of us fall into broader groups of people who tend to buy in the same way, time and time again.

The cost-effective approach to segmenting the market is interviewing respondents who appear to share similar characteristics. Talking to clients, prospects, and people in a good position to observe a lot of prospective clients making buying decisions will also reveal the buying characteristics of these broader groups more quickly.

When respondents repeat the same stories over and over again, chances are these respondents are in the same market segment. Stories – unlike answers to survey questions – provide such a depth and breadth of data which really represent multiple data points.

If you're hearing the same multidimensional story – rich in details and hitting on many of the same dimensions, – you've probably identified a market segment. Once you're getting this kind of data convergence, you can validate this hypothesis by continuing to interview from the same group until you get 5-8 people telling the same stories. The chances of 5-8 people telling the same story – with the same buying criteria and buying behavior – are small, unless they're buying in the same way. If the data is not converging, you are probably crossing market segments. To distinguish the boundaries of the market segment, interview until stories change and see if you can define the circumstances under which the stories change.

Tricks Of The Trade: Avoiding Agenda

One problem inherent in all data collection is bias. People often have agendas or preconceptions about their markets, especially insiders who have typically approached the client set from a particular angle. An example of this is the "happy ear" incentive, where company employees or partners hear what they expect to hear, rather than what the client is really saying.

Many companies, therefore, choose to outsource market data collection to independent researchers who are trained to ask questions that are open-ended and probe the whys and hows of past behavior. These professionals offer more than an impartial agenda. They typically have a broad base of experiences across industries and companies and can apply best practices and lessons learned to your particular market and industry. Through their ability to access the right people quickly, they can help you cut costs by identifying the "right" people to interview.

Solid Beginnings Lead To Long-Lasting Success

Successful businesses are built on sound and compelling data that represents clients' needs and wants. Gathering anecdotes and avoiding agenda are key to effective data collection. By identifying and speaking with prospective clients in your market segment, you can quickly and cost-effectively identify your target markets, nail client requirements, and pinpoint effective marketing messages.

With careful forethought, firms can spend just enough time and money on data collection to get it right—and avoid blind marketing investments—without breaking the bank.

About the authors
Barbara Bix is Principal of BB Marketing Plus, a strategic marketing consultant that works with professional service organizations, and a member of the AccountingWEB Bloggers Crew. Melissa Josephson Edwards is a strategic marketing consultant and an expert in creating marketing communications programs. She can be reached at melissajosephson@yahoo.com.
 

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