“What” is a Lot Easier to Ask than “Why”

In the last couple of sessions I’ve done, I’ve urged marketers in general, and search marketers in particular, to step away from the spreadsheet a little more often and start looking at why their customers do what they do. In Park City last week, at the Search Insider Summit, I urged those collected in the room to “spend less time thinking like marketers, and more time thinking like your customer”.

Do Unto Customers as You Would Have Done Unto You

There was a moment that crystallized the issue for me. The session was talking about mobile search, and one person in the room asked the presenter when the mobile carriers would make subscriber information available to marketers for better targeting. For me, this sent off all types of alarms, but in looking around the room, I could see marketing heads nodding in agreement. “Yes,” they nodded, “that information would make our jobs so much easier. We could zero in on exactly the right segment, so we could deliver ads targeted right to them.”

I couldn’t hold back anymore. Commandeering the mic, I asked how many in the room thought this would be a good marketing idea. Many hands went up. Then I asked them, as mobile users, who thought this would be a good idea. You could feel the paradigm shift sweep across the room. They chuckled uncomfortably as they realized they would be inundanted with more disruptive, annoying advertising. Suddenly, the shoe was on the other foot, and it didn’t fit very well.

Too Much What, Not Enough Why

As marketers, we spend long hours puzzling over the what questions:

  • What channels reach my customers most effectively
  • What messages will convert the best
  • What will give me the highest return on advertising spend?
  • What landing pages will yield the highest conversion rates

We crunch truckloads of data, because it’s available. You’ve heard it over and over. One of the blessings of search is that it’s so measurable. Yes, it is measurable, if you’re looking for the answers to what. What link, what click through rate, what traffic source, what conversion action? It’s all laid out for us in a statistical smorgasbord, and search marketers love to dive in. We feast on KPI’s and Metrics, finally pushing away from the table like some over-sated visitor to an all you can eat Vegas buffet, stuffed beyond the point of comfort.

But in pouring through this data, we tend to become fixated on it and think the truth lies hidden in there somewhere. We don’t step back and wonder “why” all those “whats” are happening. I had a great chance to chat with James Lamberti from ComScore at the show, and we talked about this. There’s few sources of sheer quantitative data richer than the ComScore panel. And James and I have had the chance to talk about how Enquiro’s qualitative approach often dovetails nicely with ComScores “quant” perspective of the world. As James said, “the thing I love about your research is that it tells me why much of the stuff we see in our data is happening.” Amen.

Human Hardware

Here’s just one example. In a number of studies done both by ourselves and others (one Microsoft eye tracking study comes to mind) we found that users tend to move down the search page in groups of 3 or 4 listings at a time. This is the “what” that was happening. But it wasn’t until I started looking at concepts in cognitive psychology that were several decades old that I started to understand “why”. It’s because, like most things, it’s human nature. It’s what I’ve started calling a “human hardware” issue. Often, when you see a consistent behavior emerge for the “what” data, it means there’s a significant “why” to be uncovered in the workings of the human mind. In this case, it was rooted in the concepts of working memory and channel capacity, along with the behavior of satisficing, based on work done by George Miller and Herbert Simon over 50 years ago. And once we uncovered the “why”, it lead to a whole new understanding of search behavior.

In his book, “How Customers Think”, Gerald Zaltman talks about a company that did a conjoint analysis of three different package designs. Conjoint analysis is perhaps the perfect embodiment of “what” research; what combination of factors provides the greatest positive response from customers. It’s the basis for multivariate testing in the online world. At the end of the study, researchers were confident they had found the best possible design, but were puzzled when market acceptance was much less than forecast. It turns out that their conjoint analysis simply showed them the lesser of three evils. They failed to uncover the fundamental problems with the design, because they were focused on the “whats”, rather than the “whys”.

Look for the Whys in the Shadows

“Whys” are difficult to uncover. As I said in an earlier post, “whys” are often buried in our subconscious, emotional brain. “Whats” are right there, on the surface, easy to collect and combine in a zillion different ways.  In fact, in many research projects, when behaviors emerge that don’t fit into the hypothetical framework of the conductors, (when the “whats” we see are not the “whats” we expect to see) they are ignored because they’re labeled irrational. In many cases, they’re not irrational. They’re just not understood by the researchers, because the “why” has not been uncovered. As Zaltman says in his book, it’s like the story of the drunk looking for his lights under a streetlight. A passerby stops to help and asks the drunk where he lost his glasses. He points to a far off place in the darkness. The passerby asks why he’s not looking there. The drunk replies, “because the lights so much better here”.

Quantitative data is incredibly valuable. It can provide statistical confidence to see if behaviors are representative. And from the patterns that emerge, we can identify the “whys” we need to look at closer. But it should be part of a collective research approach, not the entire answer. “Whys” should lead to “whats”, which should lead back to more “whys”. It should be a self feeding cycle.

Trust Your Gut

And for the marketers reading this, to ensure yourself a long and successful run as a marketer, become an astute observer of human behavior. Learn to embrace emotions and gut instinct, both in your self and in anyone you meet. As you go through each day, spend as much time as possible wondering why people do what they do. Develop a finely tuned ability to look at things from your customer’s point of view, and if it doesn’t pass the gut check test, don’t do it. Our emotions and instincts are a finely tuned, essential part of our intellect. Trust them more often.

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