Advertising, Consumer Research, Marketing

Gain consumer insight – for free.

A lot of marketers spend a lot of time seeking the answer to one of two questions on consumer behavior:

“Why did they buy?”

“Why didn’t they buy?”

It’s funny how these same 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? Sure.

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 a severe disservice by not stepping into that environment on a regular basis and observing its functionality through the consumer lens.


Observing through the consumer lens is the ability to take off that super trendy (yet ironically blinding) marketing hat, and to 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 time spent at Two West, an agency in Kansas City with a shopper marketing focus, 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 research director in order to uncover opportunity for improvement when approached from the consumer standpoint – the “you” perspective.

“After I watched the demo on the product, it was hard to navigate back to the home screen.”

“I noticed customer’s weren’t really picking up the brochure, and those that were, used it only with a store rep.”

These were real observations, made by real employees that helped to better refine strategies for real clients. And besides the hour or so spent outside the office, and the occasional compensated lunch, total cost for this type of invaluable insight is close to nothing.

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.”

Underhill’s insight transcends beyond just retail. No matter your business, if you are trying to reach people, you must look at your world through their eyes. It’s not done in an office, it’s not done through a mediary. It’s done firsthand, by you. So get out there, and watch. You might be surprised by what you – the consumer – can discover.

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How to be human.

I read an article the other day about “how to be more human” with your social media strategy.

How to be more human?

Has the proliferation of “screen” consumption and contribution – texts, tweets, posts, and likes – finally choked our capacity for basic human connection?


In Sherry Turkle’s 2012 TED talk “Connected but alone”, the cultural analyst argues that cell phones and social media are shifting the way in which we relate to each other, and to ourselves – and not for the better. Over time, our attention has become fragmented, sporadic and fleeting; our ability to hold meaningful conversation has diminished.

Sherry’s insight into technology and social media’s affect on the human psyche had me pondering the implications for brands. My thoughts began to formulate by way of rhyme, because, what better way to channel your firing neurons than to the catchy beat of “There Was an Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe”?


There once was a brand,
that lived in a screen.

Thousands of fans, likes, and followers,
so popular, it would seem.

The brand thought it was connecting,
but should have known,

When you live in a screen,
you’re connected, but alone.


While technology is hailed as a great way to “connect”, studies continually find that it’s actually making us feel more lonely and isolated than ever. A poignant yet haunting observation by Jonathan Safran Foer from the New York Times perfectly summarized the disturbing affect of technology on our ability to be…well, human:

“Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat. Each step forward has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.”

Feeling connected to others is a basic human need. But if you believe you’re 100% connecting with consumers through social media and technology alone, you’re actually only about 50% there. There’s a huge emotional component that simply can’t be fulfilled through a screen.

And now, time for a disclaimer, since I can already envision a heated social media manager formulating his retort to this seemingly counterintuitive way of thought. I’m not discounting the various benefits of your brand engaging with consumers through social media, apps, text, online, and the like. In fact, I’m an advocate of their use and firmly believe in the value and real ROI of actively engaging through these channels. But if you believe your engagement strategy is fulfilled through this alone, you’re missing a huge opportunity to connect with current and potential customers on a more meaningful level. An emotional level. A human level.

So, for a moment, let’s put down the phone and step away from Twitter to identify three ways in which your brand can do just that.

Be where your customers are (outside the screen). Besides on their phone and online, believe it or not, people do have lives outside 5” screens. Know your audience well enough to understand where they spend their time, and then show up. The more you can physically get out into the community, the more word-of-mouth traction you can gain and the more brand awareness you will create.

Buy some stamps, get nostalgic, and use USPS. I don’t care who you are, or how old you may be, receiving a handwritten letter or pretty invitation in the mail is kinda’ fun. Not email, I mean, goes-in-that-box-that’s-outside-your-house MAIL. Do you have a customer that is discontent with your company? Why not put pen to paper and connect through a personal letter? Opening my mailbox to a handwritten note from the CEO would surely make me feel more appreciated than a generic email *ding* to my inbox. What about if you’re a company that’s about to throw a new product launch party? In addition to announcing on Facebook, why not send a nicely printed invitation to your top fans? There’s no better way to feel like a VIP than when you’re holding what feels like a golden ticket right in your hands. That same feeling just can’t be replicated through an e-vite. Sorry.

Create opportunity to gather. A Springfield, Missouri high-end clothing and accessory company, Staxx, recently organized an educational event focused on the various benefits of their new essential oil products. Hosting social and educational events that tie with your brand are smart ways to connect. I’d also love to see more brands solicit feedback from customers not only by way of email survey or Twitter chatter, but through in-person meetups. Customers want to know that you’re listening. They want to know their voice is heard. Accomplish all of this while building invaluable rapport by inviting a handful of customers to your office for camaraderie over coffee and donuts on a random Wednesday morning. It doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) a scientific tabulation of feedback results. Just listen. Be human.

Used in tandem with technological engagement, face-to-face interaction is still the best way to connect with consumers, addressing the emotional void that can’t be filled by status updates, wall posts, likes and tweets alone.

We shouldn’t have to work to be human. We are human. Peer out from the veils of technology and start acting it.


Pursuing your passion is not bullsh*t.

The top two regrets of the dying, according to nurse and author Bronnie Ware:

1) “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

2) “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”

After six years working for a (truly) amazing company, but in a job that didn’t exactly have me bounding out of bed every morning – admittedly, this revelation about late life regret struck a chord.

But it wasn’t just the thought of dying unfulfilled and regretful that was reason for concern. When my cardiologist proclaimed I was officially the youngest female he had ever treated for severe hypertension, I knew I needed to formulate an exit strategy.

So, I quit my job.

I then made the conscious choice to not spend another minute building a life I knew I’d one day regret. I decided to turn my passion for marketing communications and consumer strategy into a career where I could enjoy more flexibility. Now as a freelancer, I do what I enjoy every day, with the ability to work my own terms. Those terms? Work smarter, not harder.

DREAMY MILLENNIAL BULLSH*T, screams my fellow LinkedIn peers and elder corporate comrades.

I’ll paraphrase one professional’s comment on LinkedIn, in response to an article about building the life you want by turning a passion into a career:

As a kid, I didn’t exactly dream about being a mortgage lender, but guess what? Someone has to do it. If everyone just decided to quit their job and pursue their “passion”, the real work wouldn’t get done because everyone would be skipping around as an artist or writer. –Negative No-shenanigans Nancy

Calm down, Nancy. No need to worry about everyone jumping ship to become hipster artists (the horror!). Why am I not worried? Because there will always be people in the world (like Nancy) to fill in where others decided to take a leap of faith.

Some people are content with “good enough.” Not miserable at their job, but not happy. Some people really are miserable, but make the best of it, and find contentment in that approach.

Unfortunately (or, fortunately?), I am not either of those people. (And yes, understood not everyone has the luxury to drop everything and pursue a new path – just keep reading, my friends.)

I strongly believe following your passion is not bullsh*t. Here’s why.

Studies have shown that those who are passionate about what they do tend to be more successful and productive. In fact, passion isn’t just a factor, but the factor, for success, according to the field of positive psychology. Makes sense. If you like – no, love – what you do, you’re going to pour your heart and soul into it, not because you have to, but because you want to.

And guess what else? People who pursue their passion, in any capacity, are happier than those who don’t. For some, pursuing their passion can be turned into a lucrative career. For others, not so much; however, accumulation of wealth is not indicative of a “happy” person. As the precursor approach to Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in”, I believe Arianna Huffington’s “lean back” view is more reflective of a profound priority shift in American society:

“Ultimately, success is not about money or position, but about living the life you want, not just the life you settle for.”

Now, pursuing what makes you happy doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach. Do you enjoy cooking? Carve out time on the weekend to put your grandmother’s recipes to the test. Do you find that you not only enjoy cooking, but you’re also pretty good at it? Great. The intersection of passion and talent is success. Pursue your passion every chance you get, and you may find that success comes to you naturally.

Maybe turning a passion into a career isn’t for everyone. Maybe it’s better that it’s not. But for everyone else? Go ahead. Get out there and turn those bullsh*t dreams into your own success.