Timing is (almost) everything

Editor's note: Gina Pomponi is president and COO of marketing and advertising agency Bluewater.

No one can deny the importance of research as a valuable marketing tool. Every smart marketer starts by utilizing research to evaluate everything from the media marketplace, the category, competitors’ media activity and much more. It’s an absolute necessity for any smart marketer to use as part of their planning process, rather than just haphazardly throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. But beware that it can also be a pitfall and lead even the savviest person down a rabbit hole if it is not used at the right time and for the right reasons. So, let’s dive deeper into the “when,” “what” and “why” research is most effective. 

Portion of clock face, concept of finding the right timeFor direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketers there are three primary stages when research should be leveraged to be most successful: planning, testing and optimization. Whether or not you start your process with secondary research (data compiled from an outside or third-party source such as MRI, Nielsen, etc.) or primary research (such as internal data, focus groups, etc.), the types of research used at each stage will vary depending on the goals of the strategy and the desired outcomes. 

An expert understanding 

During the planning stage, it’s critical for DTC marketers to conduct research that provides an expert understanding of the brand’s historical campaign and sales data, the product, competitors, the industry situation and, of course, the audience opportunity. When it comes to understanding the customer, many marketers will default to primary research only, doing focus groups, surveys and social listening. Although a common mistake, it’s a big one, and an unnecessary use of marketing dollars at this point. Those of us who have been in the industry for years understand that what people say in a focus group or on a survey and what they actually do in real life can be conflicting. Why? Because of societal pressures or desires to be perceived in a certain light. Even the national thinktank Populace has reinforced this point with its research study on long-term national values between Republicans and Democrats. Thank you Todd Rose, co-founder and president of Populace, for openly admitting that people sometimes say what they think others want to hear. 

When it comes to understanding the customer, we have two fail-safe options during planning. First is to default to the details of the historical marketing data. That behavior data will tell a marketer if the consumers who have been targeted are the right or wrong audience going forward. How, you ask? I remember something I read in my college marketing textbook that explains this concept very well. Mazda launched its new two-seater sports car in 1989. It implemented a huge multimedia campaign targeting young moms. Why? Based on its primary research from focus groups and surveys, it identified young moms as its target audience, assuming the sporty two-seater would be an easy vehicle to use to go to the store and run errands around town. Surprise, surprise, this campaign was a complete flop. The Mazda Miata actually resonated with middle-aged men (hitting a mid-life crisis) who wanted an affordable sports car.

The second fail-safe option is if it is a new-to-market product and there is no historical data, the best bet is to simply throw a wider net by including audience segmentation testing and collect as much campaign behavior data as possible for analysis and optimization in other marketing stages. This will allow you to determine which target audience responds the strongest. 

Keep in mind, I am not saying that primary research data isn’t important, because it is. However, it’s much more useful during testing than it is during the planning stage. This is the perfect time in the marketing cycle to bust out the primary consumer research and combine with campaign behavior data. Once the marketing team understands what has worked and what has not, based on behavior data, a test plan can be implemented that includes variations on messaging, product benefits, offers and media placement. The fun part is taking the voice-of-the-customer data collected in primary research to add additional layers of test messaging, customer journeys, imagery, calls-to-action, etc. Once executed, those tests based on the voice of the customer can absolutely be validated as true or false using the campaign behavior data, hence closing that gap we addressed previously that what people say and what they do can conflict. 

The most exciting research stage happens after we launch a campaign and begin to collect our own data. Optimization would not be possible without research and analysis into campaign behavior data. It’s what connects planning to testing, creating an ongoing cycle of improvement. As marketers dig into the abundance of data that can be collected from the breadcrumbs that consumers leave online, with customer service, using an app or even using coupons at a retail store, several key questions can be answered. How many interactions or ads does it take to drive a purchase? Where else are customers shopping? Which target audience is the most cost-effective? Which channel is the most effective? Are different types of customers responsive to different channels? Which calls-to-action are more effective? 

I could keep going but you get the point. Now armed with intelligence from data, marketers can be agile in shifting dollars from a poor-performing channel to new channels (back to the testing) and to channels that are high-performing. The end game is always to find the path to the greatest ROI. 

Put it in practice

Getting away from theory, I have two examples where the team at our firm put the above in practice. First is with a brand everyone should know, SodaStream. Before approaching us, it made assumptions and based its market position on purchase drivers for consumers in other countries. Specifically, for consumers abroad, environmental responsibility and being “green” were the core reasons to buy and use a product like SodaStream. It went to market in the U.S. with that messaging and performance was significantly lower than it had seen in other countries. We started over with the planning process and because we had historical behavior data, we knew to take a different approach. Changing up the messaging and positioning platform to focus on health and wellness, we went to market with a DTC strategy. Jackpot! Through analysis into the core source of truth, campaign behavior data, we learned consumers would make a purchase decision to be healthier or lose weight versus environmental reasons. The “green” part was simply a nice afterthought versus a purchase driver for Americans. The results of our shifting direction were so impressive that it got the attention of PepsiCo, which ultimately purchased SodaStream for $3.2 billion. 

Another great example is with Cubii, a startup company with a compact under-the-desk elliptical machine. Cubii conducted early primary research identifying a younger demographic as its core audience for its newly launched product that lets you “get fit while you sit.” Although Cubii felt confident in its young-professional target audience, we were skeptical. As a result, we threw a wider net and developed creative and a media test that included audience segmentation testing reaching both young professionals and the senior audience. Test results quickly indicated that this product resonated best with seniors and we quickly adjusted our media strategy and were poised for rollout. This discovery and the exceptional results positioned Cubii to be acquired in Q4 2020 for $100 million. And to think this little startup could have failed if it continued down its initial path. 

The important point in both examples is that the right type of research at the right stage of your marketing efforts is critical to ultimate success and growth of your business.

Learning and adapting

Marketers always need to be learning and adapting. Determining the best research tool for your challenge should be based on the goals of your strategy and your desired outcomes. There is also an appropriate time to incorporate intelligence from both primary and secondary research. And don’t forget that no matter if it is primary voice-of-the-customer research, secondary market research or behavior data research, nothing should be viewed in a vacuum or your marketing strategy could fail. Even with campaign behavior data as the core source of truth in DTC, marketers must review several data points to make critical decisions and report meaningful outcomes.