Monday, April 7, 2014

Big data for not-so-big organizations

Read any business, marketing or management publication these days and you're almost certain to find an article about Big Data. The natural conclusion is that big data is for big organizations. That could be because just the term "big data" will leave those responsible for smaller organizations either terror-stricken or in a boredom induced coma. But concluding that not-so-big organizations have nothing to learn from the lessons of big data is a big mistake.

First, let's deal with this big name, "big data." While its true that there are companies that are combing terabytes of data to develop the algorithm that will predict the buying patterns of consumers in Wichita, those organizations represent the vast minority. Don't be intimidated by references to big data. Rather, consider how increased use of data can help you make better decisions.

Quoted in a CNN Money post, Sheryl Pattek, a principal at Forrester Research said, "It's not really a question of big data as much as it's a question of the right data. It's about turning data into insights that you can act on to drive business."

In other words, when it comes to data, size doesn't matter. However the value of data is irrefutable. As a recent report from Teradata concludes, "The evidence is proving that companies that act quickly based on data-driven decisions are succeeding over their peers."

This is particularly the case with marketing efforts. As the same report says, "data-driven marketing bridges the gap between what you do and what customers want."

So, where to begin? What data should you be sure to be assembling and how can you use it?

Contact information. This may sound ridiculously obvious but an e-marketer report on big data (ironically titled, Using Big Data Still a Challenge for Marketers) concluded that contact data was the most important for marketing success. Do you have an email address, or better yet, the most current email address for every customer or constituent? Do you have a program in place that makes it easy and encourages people to update their contact info? Once you've dealt with those questions, shift the analysis to prospective customers or donors and ensure that you have complete information for them. For example, do you have a first and last name to go with every prospect email address? Without that info, you eliminate the possibility of email personalization and the chances of converting that prospect into a buyer become slim.

The e-marketer report also presented the most valuable data that execs said was unavailable to them. Those data categories are essential to organizations. These are some of them and what you can do about them.

Web behavior. You better have Google Analytics running on your site. If not, stop reading this post and immediately contact the person responsible for your site. There is a ton of information that Google Analytics makes available to you that in turn will give you insight into the behavior of visitors to your site. Some examples: Where are they coming from? Is it from searches in a browser and if so what are the keywords that are delivering them? Alternatively, is there an external link that is responsible for referrals? What pages are people looking at on your site? Are they the ones that are important to purchases or donations? Should you re-jig content to increase conversions? The list of questions and resultant actions is endless. Google even provides a bevy of success stories that you can learn from.

Demographics. Hopefully you have lots of information about the people you engage with - whether as prospects or buyers. This includes age, income, location, maybe even marital status, number of children and other data that might be uniquely important to your organization. For example an independent school may want to know what schools siblings attend or attended. You should be able to construct the profile or profiles of your archetypical buyers. Then the question becomes where do you find more just like them.

Purchase (or donation) history. If you can track not only what people have committed to but the path they took getting there, you have powerful information. Combine this with demographic data and you could build powerful personas that you you can use to target marketing and messaging. For example if you discover that people with a particular combination of demographic markers are more likely to buy (donate/apply) when presented with certain information, you can target that segment and get them that information sooner or exclusively.

You can see that the same big data that C-level execs are looking at can benefit any organization - even those that aren't so big. The CNN post referenced above said that big data "seems to mean everything and nothing at the same time." That may be true but there is no denying that, as I said in a previous post, the discipline of data is the foundation for marketing innovation. No matter how large your organization don't dismiss the big ideas behind big data.

What do you think? 
How are using the premise of big data to further the success of your organization? What did I miss? What advice do you have?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Save your marketing dollars. Focus on fundamentals.

My suggestion to most schools is to stop whatever marketing you are doing and re-consider everything.

The impetus for this unusual advice was the plethora of independent school radio ads I heard this year. It seemed to me that twice as many schools as last year were running radio spots. They weren't very effective but there were lots of them and they were undoubtedly very expensive.

Of all people, I understand that the independent school marketplace is incredibly and increasingly competitive. That in turn, drives schools - almost desperately - to ratchet up marketing efforts using as many channels as they can think of or afford. The result is ads on buses, bus shelters, national newspapers, billboards and yes, radio. It's an ad rep's dream but do they really do anything? After all, these are wide-net advertising vehicles being used for narrow target markets.

In addition, there are now more "education guide" type publications than ever before. Here in Toronto, there are four or five of these. This has created two other dynamics. First, schools are scrambling to get their ads in these publications – in many cases for fear of being notable by their absence. That produces the second effect which is the need for pithy headlines and taglines. These gems of copywriting may keep some of my colleagues in business but they do nothing to differentiate. Here are some examples:

  • Be yourself. Be great. 
  • Be remarkable 
  • I am limitless 
  • Dedicated to Developing the Whole Child 
  • Become. Go Beyond. 
  • Confidence. It's Who We Are 
  • Igniting A Passion for the Art of Learning 
  • Learning for Life. Creating the Future. 
  • Education with Balance 

Let's be honest. Each of those could apply to any one of about 50 schools. They become meaningless – as does much of the marketing effort I've described above.

All of this marketing activity – with its accompanying expense – is more mystifying when every piece of market research that I have ever done or read clearly indicates that word of mouth is the principal driver of the decision to choose any independent school.

So, as I said, it's time to stop and re-discover the fundamentals. How? For that I turn to a great social fresh post from the beginning of the year that presented tips for 2014 from marketing pros. Here are the ones that make the most sense for independent schools.

1. Focus on the product. I always tell the educators with whom I work that my job is to take their great work and put in on a pedestal. But there has to be great work. The social fresh post goes even farther. "90% of companies would see more “marketing” success if they focused that energy NOT on marketing, but rather on improving the product or the service. Doing something worth talking about is more difficult."

2. Create and sustain buzz. Fuel and enable word of mouth through effective ambassador and communication programs. The marketing tip puts it this way: "Nurture advocacy! And instead of creating marketing campaigns, build movements around your brand. Only brands that focus deeply on building and nurturing long-term relationships with their true advocates will see sustainable business results."

3. Treat your parents like customers. My previous blog post provided some advice on how do that but here's what social fresh says. "Focus on customer experience. Brands like USAA, Amazon, Apple, and Google don’t succeed in social media because they have better content or social strategies, but because they offer great experiences and let customers do the talking for them."

4. Make social media a two-way channel. It's your opportunity to learn, listen and really be able to empathize. Or as the experts say, "social Media is not just a news broadcasting tool. Engage with your fan base: it is a blessing to have fans and customers, so treat them as such."

5. Stop, take a breath and do a reality check. Then, create (or re-create) a plan. The expert advice goes like this: "Re-evaluate everything. Do you think you know who your customers are, what they need, and how they are getting their information about your products?"

The irony is that sometimes it's harder to stop what you're doing and re-evaluate its effectiveness. It's easy to get caught up in the vortex of needing more marketing – and more marketing dollars. Smart school marketers will find a way to stop the cycle and re-focus on fundamentals.

What do you think? 
Is independent school marketing out of control? What are you doing to stay focused on effectiveness? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

How to personalize the parent experience

A recent Huffington Post article asks the question, “Is 2014 the year of personalization?” Examples of personalization in marketing abound from the sublime of Virgin America's Chatter initiative that will use video screens to deliver a personalized travel experience to the ridiculous of Nordstrom's personalized panties.

For any business or organization, personalization is an important, and maybe even essential way to differentiate and build strong customer relationships. So, how do independent schools jump on the bandwagon and begin to offer their customers a personalized experience?

Let's start with the obvious. Parents expect that their children are going to receive individualized attention and that any interaction related to their child's progress will be uniquely focused. But let's face it - meeting the individual needs of diverse learners isn't exactly groundbreaking in 2014. You are more likely be notable by the absence of differentiation, than by its presence.

Also, let's be clear about who the customer is. Parents pay for the education their children receive. From a customer relations perspective, students are essentially a proxy. If you want to impress the customer, it's the parent that must be the focus.

First, let’s deal with the prerequisites to personalization.

Data is the foundation of personalization. It starts with basics – contact info, names of other family members like siblings or grandparents. Beyond that good data could include birthdays and other milestone dates. However, the real crux of useful data is that the details of every meaningful interaction a parent has with the school must be recorded whether its a meeting with a principal or a negotiation with the tuition office. That leads to the next point.

Data discipline and consistency are vital to personalization. Every staff member must understand the importance of recording the details of interactions and effective data conventions must be in place. Something as simple as recording a date as 3/5/14 as opposed to 5/3/14 can yield disastrous results. This also means using the right tools. Schools need a database that provides necessary structured data fields as well as the ability to create specialized areas in which to record information that is particular to the school.

What can you do with all this data? Here are a few basic ideas that share one common theme. Parents want to know that you know who they are.

Personalize the personal meeting. Any time a head of school, a principal, an educational consultant or someone from the business office meets with a parent, it’s essential that they access to detailed information and ideally have familiarized themselves with it. It’s both impressive and comforting to a parent when the person with whom they are meeting can ask about other family members, knows about unique circumstances and the details of previous meetings or calls.

Acknowledge important events. This should include personal letters recognizing a birth or a death in a parent's family. Personal birthday wishes for students are commonplace. Take that to the next level and send each parent a birthday greeting. What if you sent birthday cards to siblings not yet at the school? You can also recognize significant achievements in parents’ lives, whether those are in business or in communal efforts.

Personalize the business experience. Think about your last call to a local utility or financial services company. It makes a huge difference when the person with whom you are speaking can access notes about your individual circumstances and previous interactions. A parent’s communication with the school’s business is no different. When a parent calls, the person on the line should be able to call up a database record and speak knowledgably about that parent’s circumstances. In addition, every form that a parent is required to fill out, whether online or on paper, could have the name, address and contact info fields already completed.

Tailor the web. A school that I work with recently introduced a personalized parent dashboard that upon login, presents essential links for each child including teacher names and contact info, class lists and parent resources. Using cookies would make it possible for a parent visiting the website to be presented with the items he or she viewed most often.

While these may all sound like common sense, in a busy school environment, it takes forethought and discipline to make any of these happen on a routine basis. Think about all the ways a parent interacts with the school and be vigilant about finding ways to personalize the parent experience.

What do you think?
Is personalization a key to independent school success? How are you personalizing the parent experience in your school? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

4 ways to change your customer relationships forever

Forget about customer satisfaction. Your real goal ought to be customer transformation.

Every now and then you come across an idea that is just brilliant. Do yourself a favour and read a Harvard Business Review post from a couple of years ago called, "Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become?" In it, Michael Schrage a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, argues that just meeting the needs of customers or even addressing their pain points, isn't good enough.

His assertion is that most business owners see customers only as a means to the end goal of growth or profitability. True success however comes from making the customer the raison d'etre of all business activity and asking the question, who do you want your customers to become? Shrage turns the classic approach to innovation on its head. Instead of asking how can we design better products and services, the more powerful question is how can we design better customers. Think about Apple. Ten years ago, their customers never imagined the ways in which a smartphone would impact their lives.

It's a powerful idea. But does it have practical application for the 99.9% of businesses that lack the god-like aura of Apple? Can a manufacturing company or a professional services firm really transform the lives of its customers? The answer is a resounding yes but it demands that you answer an incredibly challenging question. For my business, what do I want my customers to become? Do you want them to use products differently or implement new processes or take a more sophisticated view of an industry? Another way of looking at it is what is the intersection point of a better state of being for my customers and improved business performance for me?

The path to changing the reality of your customers begins with a very practical question. How can you  begin to transform the lives of customers today? Here are 4 ways.

Engage. You can't begin to think about making customers' lives better without knowing who and what your customers are today. Give them tons of opportunities to tell you about what they want and need. That can be done using social media or various forms of market research. Or better yet, go out and meet with your customers. In person. Nothing can replace the power of a face to face conversation.

Inform. Make sure your customers are up to date with the latest trends and best practices. Yes, they should be subscribed to your blog and receiving of all your case studies. But you can also point them to other sources of information – industry sites and newsletters, conferences and webinars for example.

Connect. Create communities for your customers. Give them the opportunity to talk to others in the same industry or those from different industries with similar challenges. How? You can create online forums or social media communities. But the low tech approach may be the best. Introduce your customers to other customers – one-on-one or in gatherings. Enable them to develop the relationships that will make a difference to their business.

Inspire. Help customers set the bar higher. Empower your customers to see beyond their current realities and imagine something better - whether its a new product, process or ultimately better results. Provide your customers with white papers that detail the cutting edge of the industry. Connect them to inspiring people. Talk to them about – or better yet introduce them to – businesspeople who dared to dream. Share your own aspirations.

The reality is that by making your customers both the means and the end goal of business success – by putting them at the very centre of what you do, you not only have the potential to transform your customers, but you will create a truly powerful relationship with them. No pricing strategy, customer satisfaction plan or quality assurance program can match the impact of transforming the lives of customers.

What do you think?

Is the goal of customer transformation reasonable and attainable? How would you achieve it? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

9 ways to get survey results that matter

survey results, independent schools, fundraising, markeking that works
You probably know that surveying stakeholders is critically important to the marketing success of your business, school or organization. That’s the easy part. The hard part is how to get started.

There are consultants and firms that will develop surveys and provide analysis but like all good things in life, they come at a cost. On the other hand there are numerous online alternatives, many of which are very robust and cost effective – and are worth using. But, for your research to be effective, you need to know what you are doing. With that in mind here are a few (nine to be exact) tips on how to create surveys so that you get results that matter.

1. Link questions to decisions. Think about the questions you need to have answered in order to make important decisions for your organization. You may want to start with a list of issues that are currently under discussion. For example, you may want reaction to the new product line, the revised curriculum or updated donation opportunities. Survey questions should also support decision-making on longer term issues like service, quality and pricing because it's not going to be practical or meaningful to survey more than once a year.

2. Make it actionable. Don’t ask questions for the sake of asking questions. If you can’t or are not prepared to act upon the results related to a particular question, don’t ask it. You don’t want to ask your customers how they feel about your hours of operation if you do business in a mall where those hours are restricted. Similarly, you don’t want to ask for feedback on your organization’s mission or philosophy if is there is no mandate from the Board to make changes. In addition to wasting the time of the respondent in answering these questions and your own time in tracking results, you will be setting unattainable expectations. If you ask me whether I would prefer to have expanded donation opportunities, I assume that by answering the question I may influence change. If that change is not possible, you’re just leading me toward inevitable disappointment.

3. It’s got to be measurable. If you just want to hear what people are saying about your organization, you can monitor social media or stand in the school parking lot. The point of surveying is to arrive at results that you can analyze and compare – year over year or to other similar organizations. Questions have to be framed in a way that allows for measurable results. Have respondents rank or rate statements or choose from a list of potential responses.

4. Make questions precise. You want to zone in on exactly what it is you want to know and make sure the question will provide the response. Instead of asking a respondent to rate their satisfaction with the service provided, ask them about the various aspects of that service. Was it prompt? Were their questions answered? Was it delivered pleasantly? This will not only provide precise information, it will be a more effective guide to changes in customer service you may want to consider.

5. Use clarity. What you are asking the respondent needs to be crystal clear. Test your question by imagining yourself in the shoes of your customer and ask yourself whether you would understand what’s being asked. When people take a survey and don’t really understand what’s being asked, they skip the question or answer indiscriminately.

6. Be polite and conversational. Phrases like “Now we want to ask you some questions about why you support our organization” are effective because they show respect and they may even make the intent of the question clearer. Questions that begin with please – as in “Please rate the following ….” value the respondent and by making the experience more pleasant. In that way, you also increase the chances that someone will complete the survey.

7. Open-ends add context. Open-ended questions – those that require a narrative response – are important for two reasons. They add context to the measurable parts of the survey. By reviewing the open-ended responses you will likely begin to understand the reasons for empirical results. In addition, respondents often want the opportunity to express an opinion or tell you their story. The responses can be very rich. Just be prepared for the bad news as well as the good.

8. Be time sensitive. There are probably tons of questions that you would like answered but a survey that is too long compromises the quality of responses in two ways. This research from the people at Survey Monkey proves that the longer the survey, the fewer people will complete it. But the deeper finding is that the longer the survey, the less time respondents spend on each question. While greater respondent affinity (as is the case with schools and religious organizations) buys more time tolerance, your survey should take no more than 10 minutes for maximum effectiveness.

9. Report back. This is the step that is probably most often missed by organizations that conduct research. Close the loop by reporting back to your stakeholders on the results of the survey. You can brag about the positive responses and in addition tell your community what action you are taking as a result of negative responses. It demonstrates accountability, transparency and a commitment to your customers and to continuous improvement. It will also encourage people to participate in future surveys.

Done well, surveying stakeholders will allow you to gauge satisfaction, determine the effectiveness of marketing or operational initiatives and verify the assumptions you are making about customer behaviour. Perhaps most importantly it is the best way to evaluate the success of branding efforts.

What do you think? Do you have any advice for those doing their own research or any experience wit your own research that you think can be helpful?. Please share.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Branding gaps and 6 ways to bridge them

Branding gaps are the most likely source of declining enrolment in an independent school. But where do you find them and what do you do about them?

First, some ground rules. For the purpose of this discussion I am using Seth Godin’s definition of a brand: “A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.” So, you can see that a brand is infinitely more than logo, tagline and ad copy.

Now, to define branding gaps we need to accept that organizations effectively have two brands. One is the promised brand – the one that marketing, communication, mission and other efforts have been designed to convey. The other is the delivered brand. This is the one you find out about when you survey stakeholders and ask them to characterize their experience with and perceptions of your school. In organizations that really have their branding act together (think Apple, Whole Foods), the two are aligned. In most organizations, there are going to be differences between the promised brand and the delivered brand and those differences are the branding gaps.

There are many sources of branding gaps. Most of them can and should be considered proactively. Here are some ideas for where those gaps maybe lurking in your school and what to do about them.

Teachers – There is no one more important to delivering your school’s brand than teachers. For most families, they are the most common point of communication. It’s critical that teachers know and understand the school’s brand. Clearly it should be reflected in all their communication with students and parents and that includes classroom websites and email blasts. I would contend that the brand should also be evident in the classroom. I know a Head of School that challenges teachers to consider the changes they would make to classroom content if the mission of the school changed. If mission and curriculum are married, then brand must also be part of the educational product.

Everyday Communication – Parents are recipients of what sometimes seems like an endless stream of communication from the school. While this often deals with day-to-day issues like early closings, lunch programs and upcoming events, there’s no reason that it shouldn’t reflect the school’s brand. The danger is that much of this type of communication is often written hastily by people other than marketing and communications staff. There are a number of solutions. Many of these communications can be anticipated and templates can be prepared in advance. Everyone in the organization should be brand-trained and understand how that affects even the most mundane messaging. Finally, a review system that gives the communications staff the final say could help maintain the brand.

Office staff – We all know the adage about having one chance to make a first impression and office staff are the front line of most interaction with stakeholders – whether in person, by phone or by email. Like everyone else, they need to understand the school’s brand promise but more importantly they need to know how to incorporate that into daily activity. Front-line staff in a school that emphasizes inclusivity and diversity should communicate differently than those in an elite IB school.

Board members – Lay people are often represent the greatest brand challenge. Their implicit contract with the school is not employment based and requires more refined management measures. Yet they wield tremendous influence –within the school community and the community at large. Brand training for board members is essential. What’s more is that lay people are often not aware of the ways in which they subtly make brand impressions in their everyday conversation.

Mission/Marketing Misalignment – Finally, it’s possible that everyone in the organization is delivering the brand experience dictated by its mission or even brand strategy and the real problem is that marketing efforts have missed the mark. What’s being promised isn’t what’s being delivered. Assuming that most people are satisfied with their interaction with the organization, the fix is to re-tool the marketing effort.

The real solution is the 3 M’s - You can only fix branding gaps that you are aware of. The key to brand management is to measure, monitor and modify. You have to survey stakeholders on a regular basis to determine if you are delivering your intended brand. Likewise, it’s critical to be monitoring social media including the parking lot that, in a school, is often the most potent social media channel. Final, you have to be prepared to act based on what you discover.

Branding gaps can undo the most masterful marketing efforts and create enrolment crises. Knowing how to find them – and bridge them – will undoubtedly improve results.

What do you think? What branding gaps have you uncovered in your organization and what are you doing about them?

Monday, January 28, 2013

Content marketing can't close the sale

It takes a person to do that.

I read an article last week that promoted the use of content marketing in automobile sales. It started by detailing the way the Internet has changed the relationship between salesperson and customer. Salespeople used to have exclusive access to product and industry knowledge.  With it came credibility. They were the experts. Now that consumers can use online resources to know just as much as the salesperson, the power balance in the relationship has shifted.

So, how does the salesperson re-gain control? The article suggested that the solution was for salespeople to use various content marketing techniques. A post on the Dealer Communications site makes the point that product information is ubiquitous online and that consumers are actually looking for perspectives to help them parse all the data. That in turn provides opportunities for salespeople to provide consumers with unique insights using blogs, videos and other online content.

As I was reading this, I kept thinking about a famous quote from the hugely successful insurance salesman Ben Feldman. “Sales is 98% people knowledge and 2% product knowledge.” I began my working life as a headhunter, which is the most challenging sales environment you can imagine. My experience then and throughout my career has proven the wisdom of Feldman's words.

It seems to me that content marketing addresses the product knowledge portion of the quote. But that’s only 2% of the sale. What about the other 98%? Sooner or later, the sale must be consummated in a personal meeting. What happens then?

The same Dealer Communications post makes the following assertion. “When customers consume your self-published content prior to sale they have a stronger connection with you.” Really?? This assumes that sales connections are built on the knowledge or perspectives of the salesperson as opposed to the salesperson’s knowledge of the customer.

In his Sales Lion blog, Marcus Sheridan talks about using content marketing to boost the sales of a company that installs inground pools. The company changed its sales approach from a traditional model to one where a request for a quote is met with an invitation to review the company’s vast online resources (blogs, videos, e-books). I found the next two steps in their sales process astounding:

Once a potential customer educates themselves through our content, they tell us the pool and options they want, at which point we send them via email an actual quote.

If the customer reviews the quote and agrees to its terms, we then go out to their home to confirm there are no hidden costs and write up the contract.

It would appear that we’ve gone one step further and virtually eliminated the salesperson. The first personal contact with the company is to confirm the details of the order. According to e-how.com the average cost of an inground pool is $20-30,000. I’m not sure about you, but there’s no way I would make a $20,000 buying decision without seeing someone. And even if I was prepared to do the preliminary work online, my interaction with the company rep would have huge impact on my decision. Content marketing may deliver the salesperson to my doorstep but it’s her sales ability that’s going to close the deal.

Even companies like Zappos that do all their business online have staked their success on the quality of the personal interaction with the customer. Tony Hsieh’s mantra of Delivering Happiness cannot be rendered by content alone and the training and selection of their customer service reps is now legendary.

In talking about great salespeople, Enterprise Rent-A-Car CEO Andy Taylor  says, “the people who are the most successful are the ones who listen most closely to the customer.” Continuing, he adds, “We follow the two ears, one mouth rule here.” Sales success is built on asking tons of questions and listening carefully to the answers. Moreover, sales is always a transfer of emotion. The only way to close a sale is to deliver what the customer has told you she wants in an way that makes her feel good about her decision. Content marketing can’t do that.

There’s no question that content marketing is valuable to the sales cycle. It can definitely generate leads and it can even help to qualify prospects. But capitalizing on that value and making the sale is going to take that 98% of people knowledge. The bottom line is that to improve sales results your human resources are still more important than online resources.

What do you think?