Marketers: Shift Your Paradigms

First published December 3, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I think I know what I want to do with the rest of my life. I want to shift paradigms.

Now that I’m older and arguably wiser, people sometimes ask me for that “one piece of advice.” Usually, it involves stepping into someone else’s perspective and seeing things from their viewpoint. With each year that passes, I find myself doing that more and more, leading me to dole out that piece of advice more frequently.

You see, there is no truth or ultimate reality. There is only our perception of it. We have a lens we see the world through.  And everyone else has his or her own lens.  Paradigm shifts happen when we suddenly see reality through another lens, and the best way I’ve found to do that is to try to understand what another person’s view of reality looks like.

In one of his books, Stephen Covey tells a story of a ride home in a New York subway. In the same car was a father with his two children. The children were running wild through the car, jumping on seats, jostling other passengers and fighting with each other. The father sat oblivious to the actions of his children, staring straight into space.

Suddenly, Covey could take it no longer. Someone had to rein these children in and the father didn’t seem to be doing anything. The reality through Covey’s lens was that the father’s obvious lack of parental discipline had resulted in two rude, ill-mannered children. Finally, he could take it no longer. He moved over to the father and said, “Your children seem a little rambunctious.” The father looked at the children, then, turned to Covey, “I guess they are. I’m sorry. We just came from the hospital. Their mother passed away this morning.”  Needless to say, Covey’s paradigm shifted in an instant.

The Paradigm of the Marketer

Most of the problems I see in marketing result from the fact that marketers see the world one way and their prospects see the world another way.  We have two different paradigms. And marketers have a difficult time putting their lens away long enough to try the view through their prospect’s lens.

About a year ago, at the Search Insider Summit (I’m actually at it again as I write this) I saw this clearly in a session on mobile advertising strategies. From the audience, which was made up entirely of marketers, there was frustration that the carriers wouldn’t allow targeting of mobile users through their account information. “You have all the information, why don’t you allow us to use it to target our messages?” was the cry from more than one frustrated marketer. I asked for a show of hands of all who thought, as marketers, that this would be a good move on the part of the mobile providers. Every hand shot up.

“Okay, as mobile users, who still wants to have ads targeted to you by your personal information.” Several hands suddenly wavered, hit by the force of shifting paradigms. Many went down. Others dipped noticeably as their owners realized their own hypocrisy. Suddenly, they were seeing the world as a customer, not as a marketer.

Analyzing campaign data and crunching numbers is not the way to shift a paradigm. Our personal lenses are stubborn things. It’s very difficult to swap them for another.  The best way carries the fancy title “ethnography” but it simply means “writing about people”. Ethnography, a branch of anthropology, seeks to understand people by observing them “where they live”, in the full context of their lives. In this setting, one gets further removed from your reality and more embedded in theirs, making paradigm shifts easier. I don’t think we, as marketers, spend enough time in the lives of our customers. And unfortunately, the Internet and the flood of data available is only making the problem worse.

The Survey Says…

Here’s my last analogy. I’m a huge “West Wing fan,” and I recently watched an episode from season two where President Bartlet’s staff was polling five red states on their attitudes towards gun control.  Not surprisingly, the percentage approving came up short of expectations. Josh Lyman, a White House staffer, was disappointed and frustrated.  “That’s it!” he said, “We have to dial down our gun control rhetoric.”

The pollster, played by Marlee Matlin, responded, “I think you have to dial it up.”

“That’s not what the data says,” Josh said.

“How do you know what the data says?” said the pollster. “The data says whatever you want it to. It depends on how you ask the question, what they had for breakfast and whether a gun control lobbyist pissed them off yesterday.”

Data tends to reinforce paradigms, not shift them. It’s the understanding that comes from personal contact that shifts paradigm. It’s sitting beside an apparently delinquent father and learning that he just lost his spouse.

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