The Marketing Strategist:

Predicting the Epiphany: How Big Questions Guide Big Insight

August 15, 2013

By itself, data is useless. What makes data useful is its ability to help answer a specific question—and for marketers, this question is usually about signals from the customer. Most people think about questions in terms of tweaking an offer in a way that persuades the customer to take some discrete action—the equivalent of, “Yes, I’m interested.” What gets a customer to click on a link? Download collateral? Hand over an email address? Agree to a meeting? These are tiny steps in the direction of a big win: a chunk of revenue. But these little questions often obscure the big ones. Two years ago, Target made the news when its data miners figured out, using transaction data, that a teenage girl was pregnant before she had told her parents. Childbearing sets in motion a huge, long-lasting shift in buying behavior—and the earlier a retailer creates promotions aimed at the expectant mother, the better its chances of becoming the go-to outlet for a stream of purchases lasting for up to 20 years. The trigger question for Target was, “How can we discover when a young woman is pregnant?” That was the assignment that Target’s marketers gave to the company’s analysts. More generally, the question is, “What clues exist to big, long-lasting changes in buying behavior?” It’s a question that is just as relevant in the B2B world as it is in B2C. Companies don’t get pregnant, but they do shift direction in big ways and over the long term. They reinvent themselves. They undergo sharp shifts that alter what they buy. Solution providers that pick up and act on clues to these shifts are a step ahead of their competitors. Like Target, these organizations may have a good sense of what’s happening with the customer even before other members of the family know. The S&P 500 index, which contains the 500 biggest US companies by market capitalization, was created in 1957. Only 86 of those organizations still exist. Some, like IBM, GE, and Honeywell, show little resemblance to the companies they once were. At others, like Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble, the core business has remained constant but the companies have undergone enormous strategic and operational changes. Each has experienced the equivalent of pregnancy—a life-altering event that leads to a long-lasting change in purchase behavior. In the B2C world, it may be possible to discern these shifts by applying predictive models to petabytes of transactions, web histories, and demographic data. In the B2B world, it’s more a matter of industry- and company-specific understanding. Most industries are under stress. Almost every company is concerned about going the way of Polaroid (or the other 414 companies that have disappeared from the S&P 500 over the past 66 years). Inside every organization is a vision of change struggling to be born. The big trigger question, in its most general form, is, “How can we divine that vision?” The key to engaging B2B customers—and the hardest part of the selling process—is developing insights about where the industry is going and how the customer’s company will choose to change. Those insights lead to what ITSMA has dubbed the epiphany: the dawning realization of an important and unmet business need. It could be entering a new market or developing a new product. It could be applying a new technology to solve a chronic business problem. It’s a golden moment for a provider to offer advice and support. The customer’s degree of enthusiasm will be proportional to the perceived value of the epiphany. A trigger question can be as trivial as whether a customer is more likely to click on a red or an orange hyperlink. Questions like that are important. They’re part of the empirical, data-driven mindset that all marketers are embracing. But finding the right trigger question can reveal changes in buyer behavior for years to come. As Mark Twain said about the right word, it’s the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. It isn’t easy. It may be as much art as science. But if marketers are to lead, it’s a journey worth starting.

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