As any freelancer, entrepreneur, or startup knows, having a good product or service is great, but getting it out to the market is an entirely different kettle of fish. We’ve asked our marketing guru, Greg Atkinson, to share some of his insights in a series of in-depth interviews. A well-rounded marketer with over a decade of experience, Greg has led teams for household names like Carphone Warehouse, Best Buy, and the eBay-owned StubHub. In this article, we chat to Greg about building a marketing strategy from scratch.
In our last chat, you emphasised that the customer should always be at the heart of a company’s marketing. Talk us through that a bit.
Yes, it really starts with the audience. You can have a fantastic product or service, but you have to get that to market, and to do that, you really have to understand the audience, and what they want. It’s never a case of ‘build it and they will come’.
So, I think the first place you have to start is defining who that audience is. What are the key demographics? What’s the age and gender profile, what’s the average income, where do they live? Where do they go when they travel?
And I think the next logical step when thinking about audiences is what’s important to them. That’s very crucial, understanding their key motivators, and their key drivers when it comes to behaviours in your particular space. When you start to understand that, and it can be through using white papers or qualitative or quantitative research and a good pinch of gut feel, you can start to understand what’s important to your audience — what’s motivating them. After that you can say, ‘Ok, what’s my message then? What’s the thing that we hang our hat on as a business? What is it that these audiences should hear, and see, and feel? And how should they react to what they’ve seen and heard and felt?’ This is the first place to start because I think that’s real foundational work, which will then allow you to go to market effectively. Because I think a lot of businesses make the mistake of throwing stuff against the wall and hoping something sticks. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, and there’s always a place for dipping your toe in the water with a very basic strategy like that. But that can’t be all that you do, because you’ll fail, and fail quickly.
When you say you need to know your audience in term of age, gender, income etc. that’s all objective data. But in terms of their tastes and preferences, that’s often quite unique and subjective. So, how homogenous can you assume an audience to be? Do you think data can accurately capture the nuances of each individual?
Well, it depends on tactic. Some of it will be pulled out in qualitative research. If you’re running focus groups, then you can really start to get under the skin of what’s important to people. Let’s say, for example, Virgin Atlantic and the Premium Economy to Upper Class customer. These folks, I mean, I’ve been part of that audience for at least half of my career. So, I’m travelling for business not for pleasure. And to me, comfort is number 1. I’m preparing myself for what will be an intense week in California [Greg is based in the U.K.], I’m preparing myself for a whole world of pain when it comes to jet lag, I’m preparing myself to be away from family. And it’s an intense 13 hour flight. And I’ve probably just done that flight 3 weeks ago. Also, having access to the lounge is very important for me, because I want to have an environment to work before my flight. And seamless travel to and from the airport. These are all the things that will have informed Virgin Atlantic’s service. So, I choose Virgin when it comes to business travel because all of these are services that I get. Whereas if you travel with some other airlines, you might not get all of these.
It’s this type of information that any business will need, to try to understand the motivators and things that are important to customers. You start your business with an idea, and the idea is very personal. For example, Kalido’s place in the world is very close to Ash [Kalido’s COO] and Sanjay [Kalido’s CEO], but many things will be a catalyst for that idea to be reshaped. Some of it is what users have said, or what friends have said — and it’s this kind of information that’s helping to shape the product, and the positioning of the brand. And that’s why I say you can’t just build something and expect people to love it. There’s always an evolution. And you have to start by understanding that yes, there’s a place in the world for my product or service, and that’s great, but you also have to speak to all of your audience.
So, starting with basics, how do I find research? Is it practical for me, as a startup, to run focus groups? How would I get people in? Where do I find white papers?
White papers are fairly simple. You just register on certain forums or sites and they have lots of good content that gets updated daily or weekly. You’ll find a lot of good research that surveys various industries. Some content is paid for; most of it is free. That’s just a simple Google search to get access to that sort of thing.
When it comes to quantitative research, these days, you’re probably looking at a few hundred to a couple of thousand people to be statistically significant. So, you could simply pound the pavement. Get into some city centres and run some research yourself if you feel you’ve got the time and you can build a proper survey, and interpret the data well enough. For qualitative research, you could get focus groups of 30–50 people, for example. You can organise some of this through friends of friends, posting on local Facebook groups and so on. And often people will do this for very little money, just 20–30 pounds or so. You could pay someone 20 or 30 quid for them to sit for 2 hours and answer a few questions. That gives you data on differences in behaviour, and what’s important to people. The research can be as simple or complex as you make it, that’s really driven by you.
If you’re a startup, I would anticipate that you would go and pound the pavement and organise things like this. But if you’re not, and you want masses of data, you’d be looking at outsourcing it. Then it might cost you.
What are you hoping to get from the research?
I think research has 2 parts to play. One is validation. Is this data going to validate what you already think to be the truth — that there’s a place in the world for your product or service. The second is more about finding out something new. What have I missed? What are the driving factors that are important to the user that I haven’t covered yet? I think those are the 2 things that underpin success. Because if you’ve fundamentally gotten it wrong, if there is no place in the world for your product or service, or if the driving factors are completely different from what you thought, you’re not going to get off to a very great start.
In that case, it sounds like the timing of your research is very important. So, do you do the research before developing your product, so you can see if there is a need for it at all? Or do you do research slightly after development, so you can refine it before it goes to market?
I think in an ideal world, you’ll do it before. But I think 2 things stop that from happening. One is probably money. And the second is, if you’re a new startup, there’s just the sheer excitement of wanting to get it underway. So, you just jump straight into building it.
So, ideally, do your research before. Because if you’ve built it, and you’ve exhausted lots of development time, and you won’t be amending the product anytime soon, well, if it’s wrong, it’s probably too late. I guess second prize would be to do it in conjunction with early stages of development. Or when you’re doing a major revamp of the product.
Let’s say I’ve successfully collected the data. What’s next?
The next thing to do is interpret the data. What is it validating and contradicting to what you thought to be true? What is it telling you that’s new, and what changes do you need to make based on that information? And there should be some aspect to this research that speaks to how best to get the product in front of the audience.
So, some of the research should have been about the product or service itself. As a customer, is this product or service important to you, what aspects would be more important to you? The other part of the research should speak to habitual behaviour, for example, how do you respond to this advertising? When do you go online? The research needs to be able to tell you how you get in front of these people.
What if there are opposing views from the audience? How do you decide what’s relevant?
It’s all about balance. Let’s say someone said to me, ‘It would be ideal for me to be able to import my LinkedIn content when I download Kalido’. So, that’s a user group of one. I understand that it makes sense to them, but there are 2 things that make that information useless, at least for us. The first is that we’re trying to create something that’s considerably better than LinkedIn. One of the fundamental differences is that LinkedIn is telling you everything about your past, whereas Kalido is helping you to shape your future. And with a user group of one, it might not be relevant to the other 6 billion people in the world.
The same thing happens with research. If you have a focus group of 50 people, and 2 people said something to you, that’s such a small percentage of the group, you can’t really do anything with that information. So, it’s really about picking up on the themes, rather than trying to cater to every individual, or every response. So, you take a utilitarian approach, and try to extrapolate from that.
How do you make sure you’re getting relevant information? How do you approach the questions?
You have to plant certain seeds and see how they respond to them. You can ask a leading question on a theme, and then you leave it open ended for the person to answer fully. Let’s use the example of push notifications. You can say to a user, ‘When it comes to push notifications (so I’m being specific) what’s important to you (so it’s open ended)?’ They could say, ‘Well, not receiving too many is important to me’. So, then they’re being specific about timing and frequency. Whereas somebody else may say, ‘Well, I like timely, real time notifications to get the most out of the product’. So, you’ve got 2 completely different responses to the same theme.
What’s the next step, after collecting and interpreting the data?
I think of marketing in 3 distinct buckets. So, first there’s the research and validation phase, which we’ve just discussed. Then the logical follow on is developing the messaging. So, taking everything that I know to be true, what’s the suite of messages that we should be saying? Once you’ve got the messages, this is what people should hear and see, then you choose what channels the messages should be projected on.
So, the next bit is often the fun bit. What’s our campaign, what’s the message, what’s going to speak to those universal truths that we’ve validated through research? The message should always speak to that universal truth. A real world example is Nike, they’re one of the biggest brands in the world. They often have very inspiring messaging centred around their ‘Just do it’ proposition. So, it doesn’t matter if you’re the world’s best athlete or you’re just an average Joe, they’re breaking down barriers when it comes to physical exercise, which is just to get out and do it. That’s their clear positioning in the market, which is drawing a parallel to you, whether you are an average Joe or not — Nike apparel will help you be the best athlete you can be.
At the brand level, the message is very emotional. And further down, you’ll be hearing a message that’s a lot more functional. So, after you’ve heard or seen the overarching proposition of ‘Just do it’, you’re now on the Nike page, and now you’re going to get information about why this particular running shoe. Or this football boot is built for speed, and this one is built for power. It’s much more functional. So, emotional to hook love for the brand, and functional to sell the product.
Is emotional always the way a brand should speak? Most businesses start with selling people on how great they think their product is, and it’s all about the specs. Are you saying a brand always has to build feel-good first?
No, it’s a balance. Every situation is different and every product and service is different. A brand as big as Nike can err on the emotional side, because that’s how big they are, and that’s how ubiquitous they are. But a brand like us, where we’re in our infancy, we have to be more functional. We have to start by telling people ‘why Kalido’.
For any startup, you probably wouldn’t start with a purely emotional message. You don’t have the brand dollars to get it out. You probably can’t afford TV or radio. So, you focus on the ‘why’. You bring the emotion through the look and feel and you try to inject personality while talking about the specs.
Let’s say you’ve done your research, built and run a campaign, when do you start to relook things? When do you need to refresh your marketing?
You’d relook your marketing when you’re introducing new products or services. And then sometimes, it could just be, well, it’s been 5 years since we went to market, and the economic and political landscape have changed. So, there could be some sort of 3rd party external factor out of your control that makes you think you should go out and see what perceptions are now.
I think the important thing to say when it comes to changing your marketing strategy, is that it shouldn’t ever be a fundamental change at any given point. Rather, it should be a constant evolution.
And also, I personally believe that when you’re building something, always bear 2 things in mind. One is automation. Especially as a startup, you should look at how much you can automate. That’s just a practical, economical, and time management thing.
And the second is: try to always build something that has scale in mind. Scale doesn’t have to be about geography, it could be the evolution of the creative idea.
Things like the economic and political landscape are always in flux. When do you know when you need to address something in the external environment and when it’s just background noise?
It depends how important those 3rd party factors are to driving your business. So, you look at Kalido for example, where political and economic factors really do influence the business, because they could make one market or another more viable. In the U.K., something like Brexit means there’s more of a need for Kalido than ever. In other markets, things may not be political, but it might still drive the need for business. In Nigeria, more people than ever have smartphones, so just being able to access the product is a deciding factor. Then there’s also a place for a seasonal push. Like for us, we’d look at core attrition periods when people are moving jobs. Each case is different, but I suggest any business owner have some sort of a lens on external factors.
There’s a whole plethora of information and experience that’s needed to craft the actual messages, and we’ll cover that in-depth in another article. For now, can you give us a couple of examples of the channels a startup would be looking at?
So, you have paid social, and paid search on various different search engines like Google. Then you have search engine optimisation or SEO, this is how you can make your website rank higher on natural search. Or App Store Optimisation (ASO) in our case. Then there’s affiliate partnerships: complementary websites or blogs which will post about you, or link to you for a commission. Then there’s brand marketing [tv, radio, print etc.], which is what people generally think of. But I think one of the best channels is something like Kalido, that lets you market yourself or your business for free. It also regularly promotes businesses as Featured Providers, so any users nearby will see you. It’s really rare to have free advertising channels these days, and I think more people should capitalise on it.
Can you summarize everything that you’ve shared with us today?
Do your research and validate what you think and feel to be true. At the same time, try to learn something new. Cultivate your suite of messaging and differentiators. Explain ‘why you’. And then finally, decide what the best channels are for you to get your product and message to market.