Answering the answerable

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So here’s the thing: There are only a handful of truly unanswerable questions out there. Like, “What’s the meaning of life?” or “What’s at the end of the Universe?” For the rest of life’s questions, finding the answer is usually as simple as asking somebody.

I’m always a little surprised when I watch client teams debate things like, “Why do people buy our products?” or “Who are our core customers?” These aren’t philosophical debates. They are real questions with real, knowable answers.

Great product. Terrible sales.

Debate raged over who their customers were and what they liked about the product.

Last summer, we were working with a photography software startup, which had a fantastic product that was getting great reviews, but wasn’t selling well. Debate was raging over who their customers were and what they liked about the product. Like a lot of software companies, this startup was talking about a long list of features, but weren’t sure which ones mattered and which should just be dropped.

We said, “Hey, this is an answerable question! Let’s ask people.”

And we did. In talking to happy (and not-so-happy) customers, a few things emerged, but the really interesting part was how the happy customers felt about their photos. They all saw their photos as embodiments of memories. They’d keep a bad phone photo of a good moment because the memory was more important than the picture. For our core customers, photos were not just a hobby; they were memories. What’s more, managing those memories was increasingly difficult. 

We asked, "What do you love?"

For our core customers, photos were not just a hobby; they were memories. And they were getting really hard to manage. One guy even said, “I’ve been trying to solve this problem for decades.”

Old shopping lists were mixed in with baby photos and vacations. Duplicates abounded. What people really loved about this product was how easy it was to delete photos from multiple devices — one of the very features that our client had considered scrapping based on complaints from people who had inadvertently deleted their originals. Instead of being a flaw, it was the product’s most compelling feature. One guy even said, “I’ve been trying to solve this problem for decades.”

So why don’t we ask? Why sit around and debate these answerable questions? I think there are a couple of reasons. Perhaps part of the problem is simple laziness or ego. People say the darnedest things and their answers don’t always fit neatly into our strategy deck. Sometimes the truth means more work. But, hey, that’s life and that’s the truth. As marketers, we ought to be eager for that.

Sometimes the truth hurts.

We weren’t talking to sad people; we were talking to women who got stuff done.

One time we were casting real customers to be in TV spots for a new client. Their stories were going to be very emotional. We had tissues on the table and sympathetic expressions on our faces. Just one little problem: We weren’t talking to sad people; we were talking to women who got stuff done. We’d completely misunderstood our audience and how they saw the problem. Good thing we spoke to them. Too bad it wasn’t until after we’d gotten client approval on our concept. That was awkward. Sometimes the truth hurts.

Another reason we fail to ask, I think, is analysis paralysis. We say, “Oh well, 35 people; that’s not a significant sample size and we don’t have budget to interview the thousand we’d really need to make this actionable.” Well, sure. It’d be great to have your qual and quant it too, but that’s not always feasible. And I’d argue that you can get great insights from even just one interview, provided you keep it in context.

During a messaging project for one of our B2B clients we asked to meet with a few of their enterprise customers. This particular client’s customers are very private about their business practices and decision-making — getting the meetings was not easy. The sales team was, understandably, guarded about their relationships, and there simply weren’t very many people willing to meet with us. It took a lot of effort just to get two interviews, but, wow, was it worth it. One woman, who politely declined to be recorded, neatly summarized why usability was so important by explaining that the employees at her organization all wanted “the Amazon shopping experience.” She went on to explain that it didn’t matter how good, or expensive, or innovative a technology was — if people didn’t use it, it was a waste of money. That wasn’t news, but hearing her say it transformed one of several messaging points into something far more tangible and concrete.

Talking to people is sometimes uncomfortable. It’s like going on a blind date or to an awkward family reunion. But when you talk to people, you hear about their experiences. You may not agree with the conclusions they’ve drawn or the choices they’ve made, but you get to see your product (or your job) from someone else’s perspective and learn from their experience. That can save you a lot of pain in the long run. And I’ll take learning the easy way over the hard way every time.

At least, that’s what I’d tell you if you asked me.