May 18, 2009

New-Style Marketing Efficiency

In an interview Sunday with the New York Times, Steve Balmer registered his impatience with management presentations that “take the winding road” instead of declaring their message upfront and letting the group debate it.

Mr. Balmer is well known to be a no-wastage guy when it comes to time. And now that the economy is threatening Microsoft’s  thirty straight years of growth, he wants to push that spirit of compression deeper. Microsoft has to shift to a culture of efficiency. “Organizations need to do more with less.”

I have a suggestion for increasing efficiency and effectiveness together. Possibly Microsoft does it already, but not if it functions like most large companies.

In my area, marketing and distribution channels, it’s customary to precede initiatives by testing the waters with large, comprehensive quantitative market research and strategy initiatives. It’s an expensive and slow way to start. Worse, though, it almost always kills momentum, as people question methodological purity, insist on greater accuracy, and quibble about segment definitions.  A penchant for exactitude often snuffs out action.

Companies get off the dime faster and cheaper with small-scale actionable efforts done internally. The nimble ones use facilitator content expertise to pull insights out of a handful of conversations they hold with well-placed managers around their company and representing its partners. In business-to-business settings, they use the same extended discussion format to understand key customers’ chief business issues and opportunities. In consumer businesses, they may conduct a few customer focus groups. Usually they find that ninety percent of what they need to know – and almost always the critical ninety percent – can be pulled out of what people simply talk about when you listen and respond intelligently.

I don’t mean, these companies just do what customers tell them to do or fix what customers are dissatisfied with. Instead, smart listeners pick up on clues in their subjects’ remarks. What are their aspirations? What’s getting in their way? Help them imagine the unimaginable.  Surveys aren’t good at detecting what would, in the now over-used term, delight customers. And delight is the basis of exciting new businesses, which may require wholly different strategies, operations, and distribution.

Quantitative research has its place. But it isn’t first place. The new efficiency in marketing will increasingly rely on strategy beginnings that are deeply insightful and open to adventure and unanticipated discoveries. They really will do more with less.



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