Decision MakingLeadershipMeasurementTechnology

How Data Can Be Dangerous: Don’t Market to the Middle

Danger!  Your data is causing you to market to the middle of your audience and miss many opportunities.

In my recent post, I wrote about the dangers of relying solely on data to make good marketing decisions.  While data is the ultimate sanity check, data can also be easily skewed, misinterpreted and used in ways that were never intended (or worse, in ways that are meaningless).  Without good judgment and interpretation, data almost certainly will lead you astray and you could market to the middle.  But there’s a subtler danger that lies beyond just the use of data in your marketing decisions.

What if your actions as a marketer are closing off options for your customers?

What if both you and your customers would be better off with those options open?

What can we, as marketers, do about it?

Douglas Rushkoff, an NYU professor and leading thinker on the Internet and society, said in his recent book:  “Companies know things about you that you don’t yet know yourself, and they only know them in terms of probability.  The world that you see is being configured to a probable reality that you haven’t yet chosen.”  And we, fellow MENG members, are the ones doing the configuring.

We work hard to understand our audiences.  We try to decipher their behavior.  We work to develop models of their personalities and their tastes.  We try to determine what we think they are going to do next.  And then we build every experience custom-tailored to each individual, bringing them closer and closer to the next action.  And then the next.

If you look deep down inside the models that got you to “knowing” what each and every individual’s behavior is going to be, you’ll find they are all based on statistical averages. Even if you segment your audience really well, you’re still looking at statistical averages of each segment.

That works for the 68% of your audience within the first standard deviation from the mean. It skews the results for the next 27% and for the last 5%―the outliers―you just have no idea what they would have done if you didn’t pre-define their path.

Market to the Middle:  The Small Danger

You’re missing some great ideas and opportunities.

One of the tenets quoted so often is that the opportunity for innovation lies with the outliers.  It’s the customers who do the weird thing with your product or ask for something which you haven’t yet thought of who show you the way to your next big opportunity.

When you don’t let them get there by following the market to the middle, when you decide they should follow one of your home-made yellow-brick roads, you miss out on the great opportunities they bring.

This is just another way of saying you are listening to your customer too closely, and you will be disrupted by some other company that thinks about the problem differently.

But that’s just the small danger.

The Big Opportunity

Ten years ago, a small group of sales and marketing people started thinking differently about how to use all the then newly available technology to advance the field.  One of the core tenets of that group―later codified in this book and many other publications―is that companies must now learn to adapt their sales and marketing to what, where, and how customers want to buy, rather than asking customers to adapt to how the company wants to sell and market to the middle.

We’ve tried many different forms of this, but what it comes down to every single time is: we have a really hard time delivering a perfectly customized sales process, product, service, and experience to every single customer.  We’re still looking at averages.

A Short but Relevant Digression

In the old, industrial-age, grade-school classroom―the kind most of us experienced―teachers were said to be teaching to the middle, which means they were teaching to the average student in the class. That makes it very difficult for the students at the top and bottom of the class (for different reasons) to learn effectively.

I recently worked with a company that helps school districts implement personalized learning. What that means―when it’s fully working―is every single student gets exactly the right challenge, information, work, assignments, and education he or she needs at every single moment throughout his or her school career.  Sounds like a tall order, right?  It is.  It requires rethinking how education is delivered.  It redefines (and, I believe, elevates) the role of the teacher.  It changes the school from a factory, churning our identically educated kids, into a greenhouse, growing each and every unique kid in their own unique way.

Can we marketers do the same for the customer experiences we deliver?

Yes, but we have to change the way we do marketing.  It’s OK to rely on data, as long as we’re careful using it and do not always market to the middle.  But we have to start building organizations and processes in a very different way.  Can our marketing analysts turn into customer coaches?  Can our marketing leaders turn into Sherpas (with apologies to the site of the same idea)?  Can our content developers become editors?  Everything we do now would have to change.

And change is hard.

But there’s always someone ready to disrupt if we don’t.  And all the outliers, and then the 27% and, eventually, the 68%, will just go their own way―not ours―right to that disruptor.

Your Turn

I’ve attempted, in this post, to offer a glimpse into an idea I am developing in my own work.  But it’s just beginning.  Please tell us what you think in the comments or on social media, and let’s discuss how to do this.  I look forward to your contributions.

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