Advertising, Business, Consumer Research, Marketing

Conduct the Best Consumer Research for FREE. Here’s how.

Many marketers spend a lot of time – I argue too much time – seeking the answer to one of these two questions on consumer behavior:

“Why did they buy?”

“Why didn’t they buy?”

It’s funny how marketers tend to think about “consumers”. It’s as if they are this elusive foreign species that can only be examined at arm’s length behind the cloak of a corner window office. Careful – don’t get too close – consumers have been known to bite!

So, the task of getting into their head is often delegated to research consulting firms. Thousands of dollars and several months later, results are produced, reviewed, and executed by way of revised marketing strategy and ad spend.

Does this approach work? Of course.

But, what if I told you there was an alternative way to gain consumer insight – for free?


Gaining valuable knowledge into consumer behavior is as simple as stepping out of your office (it’s alright – the consumers have been heavily sedated for your safety) and into the front lines. Whether your business is a restaurant, store, medical facility or bank, you are doing it a severe disservice by not stepping into that environment on a regular basis through the consumer lens.

It’s the ability to take off that super trendy (yet ironically blinding) marketing hat and experience your business from the standpoint of you – the consumer you. Because, I hate to be Captain Obvious here, but, you and I? We ARE the consumer. Yes, we’re marketing mavens and business aficionados. But we’re also consumers. Much can be learned by simply stopping to look around, observe, and get in tune to your thoughts within the environment.

During my tenure at Sandbox, a full-service creative agency headquartered in Chicago, we spent a lot of time at our client’s place of business. I’m not talking about their office – I’m talking about their store. Conducting store visits and audits was a regular part of life, whether you were a research director, project manager, or intern. And that’s the beauty of this type of observation – you don’t have to be a seasoned Director of Planning to uncover opportunity for improvement, when approached from the consumer standpoint – the “you” perspective.

 “I noticed customers weren’t really picking up the brochure, and those that were, used it only with the help of a staff member.”

That was a real observation, made by a real employee that helped to better refine strategies for our client. And besides the hour or so spent outside the office, and the occasional client lunch, total cost for this type of invaluable insight was close to nothing.

I now practice immersive observation at my latest gig, co-owner at Piccolo, a contemporary Italian restaurant in the budding city of Nixa, MO. Sure, I still listen to social media chatter to help gauge brand buzz, but there’s nothing quite like being a fly on the wall to the conversation between two people as they take that first bite of food. Or observing the nuances of server-guest relations, and imagining myself as a consumer in these situations. Would the consumer-side of me actually be as satisfied right now as my business-side wants to believe I would be?

I believe retail guru Paco Underhill best summarizes the idea of thoughtful observation in this quote from his national bestselling book, “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping”:

“The purest example of human shopping I know of can be seen by watching a child go through life touching absolutely everything. You’re watching that child shop for information, for understanding, for knowledge, for experience, for sensation. Especially for sensation, otherwise why would he have to touch or smell or taste or hear anything twice? Keep looking: Watch a dog. Watch a bird. Watch a bug. You might say the ant is searching for suitable food. I say he is shopping.”

No matter your business, if you are trying to reach people, you must look at your world through their eyes.

Get into the environment you helped to create. You might be surprised at what you find.



A Different Competitive Approach

Why should a consumer choose your product or service over the competition?

If your answer includes the word “better” — better quality, better approach, better taste, better WHATEVER — rethink your value proposition.

When competition is low, you can bet on better. Let’s say your town is home to two craft cocktail bars. If Bar X crafts a better drink than Bar Z, then Bar X can win on better. But, let’s say your town is home to a handful of craft cocktail bars. Everyone is competing on better.

“Our mojito is better!”

“No way…our mojito is better than yours!”

“Really, we have the better mojito.”


Competing on “better” quickly becomes confusing in a highly competitive category. And noisy. Which leads consumers to tune out. That is, until, something categorically different comes along.

“We help you craft your own mojito.” 

<record scratch>

Different turns heads. Different rises above the shouting match of who’s doing it better. Different is memorable.

If competition has you brainstorming how to do it better, don’t waste your time. Figure out how to do it differently.





Business, Editing, Marketing, Writing

The Devil IS The Detail

Do you consider yourself to be “detail-oriented?” Great. Now stop that nonsense and read on.

When I first started my career in advertising, I would pore over every project with intense scrutiny. To call-out that slight discrepancy in the kerning of a word within legal copy gave me a rush; I prided myself on being the epitome of hyper-scrupulosity. But then, something happened. I gained a new perspective. It came by way of a casual conversation with a fellow freelancing colleague that went something like this:

Colleague: “I had to reprint my entire presentation at midnight last night. More out of pocket costs at Kinkos! <insert nervous laughter here>”

Me: “Wow, what happened?”

Colleague: “Page numbers weren’t centered. I typically prefer the page numbers to be centered, and this time I right-aligned. Ugh…didn’t look right.” 

Me: (Puzzled) “Does your client feel that strongly about page numbers?”

Colleague: “Oh, I’m sure he wouldn’t have noticed. But I did. And that’s all that matters.”

So let’s break down this scenario a bit, shall we? My colleague spent additional time (time = money) and financial resources for a reprint due to an inconsistency that had zero impact on the final audience or the substance/accuracy of the presentation itself.

An eye for detail is a value-add trait…to a point. In fact, I published (and still stand behind) the financial impacts of seemingly minute details. But when losses outweigh gains, the attention spent toward said detail produces diminishing returns.

How do you distinguish the value-add details that warrant special attention from those that are actually costing you? Behold, a handy (albeit aesthetically lacking) decision tree for all of my meticulous-minded brethren and sistren:

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 10.46.31 AM

It’s been said that the devil is in the details. Sometimes, the devil is the details. Improve efficiencies (and save your sanity) by learning to distinguish between the two.






Business, Content, inspiration

Finding the Meaning in Menial

It was the day before my sister’s baby shower. My mom and I scrambled to organize the flower arrangements, party favors, game cards and a million other details to ensure those months of planning came together just right. At the last-minute, we decided there wasn’t enough pink decor (because you can never have too much pink decor), so an impromptu order was placed at the local Party City for a couple dozen pink helium balloons.

The employees – mostly teens – were visibly disillusioned by their “menial” summer job of fulfilling helium balloon requests and appeasing panicked moms in search of  Frozen party poppers. After speaking with one of the employees, my mom was told that the balloons would be ready that day and guaranteed to last through the weekend.

By the next morning (day of the shower), the balloons were deflated, sickly hovering inches from the ground. The order wasn’t even correct to begin with, and by now it was too late to rectify. But, who cares, right?! They were just balloons. Those employees had better things to do than put forth 100% into such a “menial” job. It’s a temporary occupation in their career path that doesn’t count for anything more than a paycheck…right?

Even a task as seemingly menial as accurately fulfilling balloon orders has meaning. These employees are helping to bring color and fun to events that commemorate life’s greatest celebrations – birthdays, graduations, weddings and baby showers. Suddenly, that lowly summer job at Party City is something much more significant.

I’d argue there is no task or job that is menial, as there is meaning in everything. It simply depends on your outlook. 

It’s not just teenagers working a summer job that struggle with finding meaning in the menial. If you’re a manger, director or even a corporate executive – at some point in your every day, I’m willing to bet you execute a task at the office or at home that might feel “below you.” Or perhaps it’s your career that feels trivial. “I manage a gas station – where’s the meaning in that?” I’d reply that you’re ensuring hundreds of individuals and families can continue their journeys and safely arrive to their destination.

Because there’s meaning in everything, that’s reason to give everything your 100%. Every time. You never know who you might impact or whose day you could brighten with something as simple as correctly filling that balloon order. So go ahead, find the joy in reorganizing the status template, sorting the mail or delivering every McMuffin with a smile. And mean it.


Have you ever had a “menial” job that you turned into something satisfying and significant? Share your story!


Photo Credit:





Cloudy With a Chance of…You Decide.

I peeked out my bedroom window; billowy, ominous-looking clouds swelled the morning skyline.  My iPhone weather app confirmed the obvious – 60% chance of rain. Despite the threat, my legs ached for a good outdoor run.

I once again gazed out the window, and then hastily peered down at my running shoes.

Wait…did that storm cloud just laugh at me? 

I had two options:

  1. Hunker down with a bowl of last night’s spaghetti and settle in for some CNN Headline News.
  2. Take a chance on the rain and get my you-know-what into gear.

I chose option 2. And you know what? The sun came out. You want to know what else? I actually topped my all-time speed record.

Don’t let the threat of something bad stop you from pursuing something great. 

Business, Marketing

Can you impress me in less than one second?

I’ve always chosen the path less traveled.

In high school, while most of my classmates chose to study one of the more popular languages, like Spanish or French, I chose the lesser popular “German studies.” Sprechen sie Deutsch?

Around 95% of my graduating class chose to attend the University of Missouri, otherwise known as “Mizzou”. I chose Missouri State University. It wasn’t because I couldn’t get accepted into Mizzou, but because I wanted to do what everyone else wasn’t. Not to mention the fact that MSU just so happens to have the largest and most highly accredited Business Administration program in the state. (Take that, Tigers!)

Following graduation, most everyone I knew moved back to St. Louis to start careers in the city they knew since birth. My husband and I decided to pack up and start careers in Kansas City – a place I had never even been before.

As I approach my XX birthday (a lady never tells her age), I see that most of these same people have long started their own families. But instead of swan diving into parenthood this year, my husband and I decided to take a bucket list trip to the Maldives. It was incredible. See?


I was recently reminded of this habit of going “against the grain” during a conversation with a prominent senior VP of marketing communications. She mentioned that one of her best marketing strategies is to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. This strategy has worked quite well for her over the years.

I’d say this same strategy has worked pretty well for me, too – which got me thinking.

What’s something that everyone is doing right now?

Digital marketing.

What’s something hardly no one is doing right now?

Direct mail.

Well, I’ll take that back. There are still quite a few companies out there with a direct mail strategy; however, according to the Winter 2015 issue of “Chief Marketer”, direct mail volume is down overall.

Let’s rephrase the question then, shall we?

What’s something hardly no is doing effectively right now?

Direct mail.

Direct mail today is bad. Really bad. Maybe my mailbox is just unfortunate in that it attracts poorly executed pieces, like the pretty girl in high school that for whatever reason couldn’t land a decent boyfriend.

I still get excited to check the mail. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I can’t be the only one. Remember the days when people sent handwritten letters? How unfortunate to think that those born after the year 2000 probably don’t even have that recollection. It’s still a treat when I find a handwritten note or personalized card in my mailbox, although such occasions are usually reserved for holidays or following the attendance of a wedding. More typical is that I open my mailbox to disappointments similar to this:


According to Michael Fortin of The Licorice Group, it takes a person less than one second to decide whether or not to throw away a direct mail piece.

Capturing attention through direct mail is by no means an easy task, and perhaps is the reason why so many fail. But, the challenge can be worth the strife. Consider that physical marketing materials such as direct mail better engage your audience and trigger more emotional responses than digital marketing, according to a study conducted by Millward Brown, Using Neuroscience to Understand the Role of Direct Mail. The result? Deeper brand engagement.

This isn’t true for just any old mailer though. You have to get noticed.

It’s not enough to just be where others aren’t. Once you’re there, you have to do it better.

When is the last time a direct mail piece stopped you in your tracks? Better yet…when was the last time you were so impressed by a mailer that you actually wanted to save it, to show it off, like Phil? Phil from Paragon Design was absolutely wooed by this promotional piece from Veer – find out why here.


This gives me hope. It tells me there are well-done direct mail pieces out there – somewhere. So, I’m going to hold a little contest. You could win one million dollars.

Not really. But there is a prize. Read on.

The request:

Send me a picture of the most impressive direct mail piece you’ve ever received. Tell me about what makes the piece so effective.

Judging rules:

Your submission must capture my attention in less than one second. (Yes – we’re going to be true to life here.)

Where most see this as a challenge, I see an opportunity. Perhaps it’s that “against the grain” mindset kicking in once again.

The top three submissions will be featured in an upcoming post.

To inspire your journey, I’ll leave you with this excerpt from Robert Frost’s classic poem, “The Road Not Taken”:

Two roads diverged in a wood,

and I –

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Marketing, Social Media

Are You Guilty? The 8th Sin of Social Media Marketing Revealed.


Mashable recently posted an article entitled, “7 Sins of Social Media Marketing.” Evil acts that topped the list included one-size-fits-all strategies, talking to yourself, and ignoring customer complaints. Agree, agree, and agree. But, as I made my way to the last of the seven sins, I was surprised to not see what I consider as the most serious social media blunder to date.

So, today, I would like to take it upon myself to formally name “infrequency” as the 8th sin of social media marketing.

Brands that are considered to have an “infrequent” social media presence tend to fall into one of two camps:

Squatter – The squatter believes showing up is good enough. He sits behind the screen, taking up cyber space, waiting for fans to flock. The squatter will occasionally post or tweet, but his scant and unpredictable frequency falls on deaf ears. His behavior is the result of either ignorance, shyness, time deprivation, or all of the above.

Purger – The purger recognizes that just showing up isn’t enough. He understands the need to engage with his audience through regular posts and tweets. But, alas, time gets the better of the purger. Before he knows it, five days have flown by without a single post or tweet. He curses himself, then makes up for lost time by expelling a litany of content all at once. Newsfeeds suddenly become clogged, followers can’t keep up, and everyone’s left confused and nauseated. After the whirlwind settles, the purger sits back for another few days until he is next compelled to violently shove content down the throat of his highly irritated audience.

If you’re a squatter, your audience will forget you. If you’re a purger, your audience will hate you.

Neither a good outcome.

If you’re reading this post in horror after identifying yourself as one of the above, I suppose now would be the perfect time for me to divulge to you the secrets of dominating the social media frequency game. Luckily for both you and me, Buffer already developed the Guidebook. Read it, print it, and execute its teaching daily. Frame it on your wall and toast to its awesomeness with your favorite Chianti.

If you take nothing else away from the Buffer Guidebook, remember this:

To ‘know’ the BEST frequency for posting on social media is an impossibility. You can only predict and measure.

Predict. Measure. Repeat.

At this point, you may be thinking that in this day in age, only “rookie” brands could be classified as squatters or purgers. You’d be mistaken. Even supposed “well known” brands can fall into the trappings of infrequency. With established brands, however, we more commonly see what I call misfrequency – posting frequently enough, but the strategy is all wrong. They’re misfiring.

It’s likely we’ve all committed a social media sin at one time or another. So, if you’ve identified yourself today as a social media sinner, consider yourself saved. Because the most damning sin of all, perhaps, is never recognizing the wrong in the first place.

Is there another social media snafu that you believe deserved a spot on the “7 Sins” list? Comment below!

Cassie D’Arpino is a freelance Marketing Communications & Strategy Specialist, helping brands better connect to their audiences in meaningful, emotional and effective new ways. Her experience prior to working as a freelancer includes six years in strategic planning and senior account service at a shopper marketing agency in Kansas City, Missouri. Cassie received her MBA from Missouri State University, and currently resides in Springfield, Missouri with her husband, Steve, Pekingese puppy named Bella, and two Persian cats, Garfield and Cubby. She is a lover of Sriracha, a neuromarketing nerd, and obviously, a fan of animals with short snouts.

For more musings on marketing, follow Cassie on Twitter: @Cassie_DArpino