In most market research, you start with a hypothesis or a set of assumptions and you take it from there. Those assumptions often aren’t conscious – for instance, when asking a user to rank a set of product attributes you’re assuming you know which attributes are most important – but they’re almost always present. For most research that’s fine, however for problems that are large and unknown these assumptions hinder our ability to identify a solution. This is true not just for traditional market research efforts, but for analytics-driven research as well. Diving into data – big or small – to try to answer a question doesn’t guarantee a correct result.
For those big, vexing problems, we need another approach.
Customer Research Without Assumptions
Serendipitous discoveries require that we shake those assumptions. We need to be able to observe and learn without our questions or research getting in the way of themselves. In order to do this, we need to adopt a customer-centric perspective. We once again need to stop thinking about the customers and start thinking like the customer.
Obviously, in order to perform research you still need to know what it is that you’re seeking to understand. We therefore still need to be able to ask questions and set goals, but we need to ensure those goals are assumption-free. To do so, start with the problem you want to solve or question you want to ask, and then convert that into a broad but addressable customer-centric issue. In other words, you need to be able to frame it as a human experience.
Addressing problems framed in this manner is not something that can be done with surveys or some kind of defined Q&A process – both require questions which embody assumptions. Instead, such research must be primarily observational. You want to be able to gather information in an open-ended manner. Questions should only be asked in response to observation. The primary issue in the design of such studies must be: what about our customers can we observe in order to gain the necessary understanding?
When to Take an Assumption-less Approach
The assumption-less approach to market research should only be undertaken for big, unknown problems. If you are even moderately familiar with the customers and the market, can envision a defined set of possible outcomes with a good degree of certainty, and can frame a set of hypotheses, then the problem is capable of being defined in a manner which does not necessitate an observational, assumption-less study.
The assumption-less approach is best when:
- You are highly unfamiliar with the customers, market, or problem.
- The problem at hand is novel.
- Other methods of research or analytics cannot be used or have failed.
- You cannot define a set of likely outcomes and have no hypothesis to test.
Aided by technology, many life science marketers who perform market research are increasingly relying on a combination of surveys and analytics to perform market research. These methods, however, cannot answer all questions. Hypothesis-driven market research imparts assumptions which can confound the understanding of unknown problems. To best tackle those big problems, take an assumption-less approach and perform an observational study which seeks to better understand unadulterated customer experiences.
The average product launch has a lot in common with a firework show. A lot of effort goes into it and it’s relatively expensive. It makes a big splash and does a fairly good job of getting a lot of attention. Also like a firework show, after the big launch effort is over, the audience goes about their lives as if it never happened. People won’t think about it much after it’s over, and within a few weeks it’s lost to history.
That is not a satisfactory outcome for a product launch, but it is the outcome for most launch efforts. A lot of this is due to planning and strategy – marketers plan big splashes and track their “success” with vanity metrics so it looks like goals were met. That’s not how things should be done. A product launch shouldn’t just create a splash. It should start a movement. The goal shouldn’t be to get “x” number of people’s attention. That’s fleeting and far removed from the things that matter. The goal should be to change the way that your target scientists think; to change their opinions on how they should do things.
That begs the question… What do we need to change in order to move from this paradigm of creating big, splashy launches to creating ones that have a more profound impact – ones that start movements?
Three Things That Will Transform Your Next Launch
Beyond the standard things that companies normally think of for product launches, such as positioning and ways to reach the target audience, there are three key things that life science companies need to do in order to make their launch be the start of something that grows and becomes stronger with time instead of fizzling away.
1) Captivate the Audience
Captivating your audience should be priority #1 for most high-level marketing communications, but it’s especially important for product launches. As we’ve discussed previously, there are a number of things you need to do to ensure you get your audience’s attention and keep it for as long as possible.
First, start with your reason. Why did you develop this product or service? Why does it exist? Do NOT start your message by saying what the product is. You might genuinely care about your new product, but remember that your scientist-customers do not. Leading with a product-centric message is a sure-fire way to ensure a lackluster response.
Secondly, make the message something the audience can agree with – and is likely to agree with. You want them to buy into your message up-front in order to make them more receptive to everything else you have to say. Show the audience that you understand them and that your goals and values are aligned with theirs.
Lastly, make it emotionally compelling. This is what will really give your message the power it needs to drive people into action. Frame the message around something they care about and make it sincere.
Note that these three core components to captivating messaging remain true regardless of the format you’re using to deliver your message. However, using more highly engaging formats such as video or interactive content helps to both attract and maintain your audience’s attention.
2) Provide Genuine Value
Don’t just ask of your scientist-customers; give to them. In order to create a memorable, lasting experience, they need to be able to derive genuine value from it. If they do not, the experience will be fleeting. This is one of the reasons so many launches fall short – if the goal is just attracting attention and the metrics used to show success are things like visits or clicks, marketers are rewarded for creating stimulating and entertaining but ultimately shallow experiences (like fireworks).
The common intermediate goal of delivering a digital download or something similar is also insufficient in most cases. White papers are most frequently skimmed once and never touched again. Case studies focus on the wrong stage of the buying journey for most of your audience. Your goal should be to create a genuine resource for your customers related to the product or service being launched. Ask yourself: what are the needs of our target audience and how can we address them in a way that both is relevant to the product / service and creates value for our brand? Answer that question and deliver on it, and you’ll create a lasting, positive experience for your customers that is perceived over and over again.
3) Build On It
If you’re going to create lasting change in your market, a one-off event isn’t enough. To keep your movement going, you need to support it. The ways in which you can do this are myriad, but should be guided by your launch. Strive to create value and create experiences which build on those created in the launch itself. Even better, have the launch itself leave behind something tangible which can be built on or built around over time. Whatever you do, don’t just walk away. If you’ve come this far in the creation of a successful launch, keep going.
Which kind of launch do you want, the firework show or the movement?
Most life science companies still have a product focus, and many can get away with it because our industry, along with many other B2B industries, is a bit behind the marketing curve. Many companies place a very high priority on operational efficiency and building better products. Those things are undeniably important, but in many circumstances they’re not sufficient for winning markets anymore. There are plenty of products which were incremental improvements, or even significant improvements, and were offered at equal or lower products than their mainstream competitors but still failed. While there are many ways to fail in marketing a product, one of the largest is marketing a product. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
If You’re Only Marketing Products, You’re Doing It Wrong
Lets think about scientists for a minute. What are their goals? Maybe they’re trying to discover the next big drug. Maybe they’re trying to understand some burning scientific question. Whatever their goals are we can be reasonably certain that they are not to purchase “X” type of product. The need for a product is a low-order need. The experiment that the product will be used in is even a subordinate need to the ultimate goal. The point is that your product is relatively far from the thing that the scientist really cares about. Yet life science companies are trying to create competitive advantage in a manner which is almost entirely product-centric. That doesn’t make any sense.
We’ve seen symptoms of this shift from product to customer for a while. Personalization, for instance, tries to provide value by making the customer’s decision easier. Content marketing, when done well, tries to arm customers with knowledge. Companies are, whether conscious of it or not, being pulled into a more customer-centric viewpoint. But being pulled behind your competitors doesn’t create sustainable competitive advantage.
For a long time, companies looking to innovate would ask themselves “What else can we make and sell?” The question that you need to shift yourself to asking is “How can we provide value to our customers?”
Making the Shift
The most central facet of a customer-centric shift, especially since we are still talking about marketing products, is framing the product according to the needs of the customer. By that, I don’t just mean focusing broadly on customer needs, but rather focusing on specific customer segments’ purchase criteria and your products’ position relative to them. You don’t need to have a better, faster, or smarter product than your competitors. You need to have a product which more closely aligns with the needs of a specific customer. A Tesla is not claiming to be better than a Cadillac. They are simply meant for different audiences, and each segment is loyal to their brand in part because the brand focuses on their particular needs and desires (even if these desires are situational and therefore subject to change).
Think about how you can leverage network effects to your advantage. Most people think about customer data in the light of providing personalized promotions, knowing what company-created content to send to whom, or understanding a users’ purchase history. Get past that. Think about what information your customers have to share with each other and how you can help spread that information. This can be as complex as community-building or as simple as curating customers’ questions. Whatever the implementation, this information creates advantage over those who cannot provide such value. Network effects build on themselves and can be difficult to replicate.
On a non-product level, don’t forget to consider the brand advantages which drive scientists to your products in the long-term. Creating superior experiences for your customers imparts brand advantage for your company that manifest in improved customer acquisition and loyalty.
Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean product innovation, and customers are no longer making purchasing decisions solely based on the features of the product. Product-based advantages are becoming ever more tenuous, and competing effectively and creating sustainable advantage requires shifting focus to the customers. Provide superior value to them based on an understanding of their needs, and you’ll win their business.
It’s no secret that the SEO world has changed. Ever since Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithm changes, and the subsequent updates to them, prior best practices fell apart. There’s no doubt about that. Things that were once highly effective tools of SEO, like link wheels, are no longer relevant. Because of the ever-decreasing ways in which a marketer can manipulate search engine ranks, there has been an increasing chorus of people proclaiming the “death” of SEO.
Some Self-Serving Claims
It’s been a long-running trend to proclaim the death of SEO. Here’s a nice little article from 2007 which lists other, older articles proclaiming the death of SEO. The claim that SEO is dead is not a new one.
These claims tend to come from two kinds of people: SEO-ers who’ve jumped ship and are trying to get people to follow them, or from people who work on elements of marketing that could be considered strategic alternatives to SEO. Once upon a time, a lot of these voices were from people doing search advertising. Now they’re mostly from content marketers.
Is content marketing important for SEO? Sure it is. Is it more important for SEO than it used to be? In most cases, yes. Is it a replacement for SEO? Not a chance.
The New Age of SEO
Let’s be clear on something: SEO is not dead. SEO will quite possibly never be dead so long as search engines as we know them remain widely used tools.
SEO has been an ever-changing field since the beginning. Remember “keyword jamming”? Remember those websites that were padded with “invisible” text at the bottom of the pages back in the 90s? Remember the link farms of the 2000s? … The most effective tactics have always changed as Google and other search engines have evolved, and I would be very surprised if that fact doesn’t remain true for a long time to come. The only thing about SEO that is infallibly true is the value of those highly coveted top organic search ranks.
The job of the SEOer has not changed. The SEOer is not suddenly a content marketer. The SEOer’s toolbox, however, has changed.
Many technical factors surrounding SEO are still important. Site performance is still very important and something that can be directly controlled. Clickthrough is still very important and is something which is readily influenced. Ensure that any page that you would want to use as a landing page has the appropriate metadata such that your site’s appearance in search results attracts searchers. Making use of Google Authorship and tagging content accordingly can have a profound effect, especially for companies which generate a lot of high-quality content. Additionally, SEOers need to ensure the website’s entry points should be controlled.
Keyword research is still important. The results of this keyword research are then fed to content development teams to help guide the content focus towards things that people are looking for. SEOers then need to ensure that the content is appropriately optimized, or that the content development teams know enough about SEO to create well-optimized content themselves.
Content marketing is very important for most organizations, but it’s still just one piece of SEO. Having an SEO strategy which focuses solely on content will put you at a strategic disadvantage versus those companies with a more holistic approach.
One of the biggest pitfalls of content creation – and by far the biggest content mistake by amateur life science marketers – is forgetting that your content isn’t just directed AT your target audience, but is FOR your target audience. Many content creators focus too heavily on what they want their customers to hear rather than sincerely addressing customers’ needs through content and, in doing so, providing customer value.
To illustrate the point, here are some types of content which I frequently see and which have the wrong focus:
- Generic event-promoting blog posts (“We’ll be at the XYZ meeting in booth 2000!”)
- “White papers” which don’t do anything but restate the value claims for a product or service.
- Frequent social media posts about ongoing promotions.
- Blog posts which are little more than product overviews.
- Posting just about any overt promotional message to a LinkedIn group.
All of the above are company-centric or product-centric promotions. They do not properly address the customers’ needs. Even if a prospect has a potential but unrealized need for the product, these kinds of “content spam” will simply drive them away by trying to create an opportunity to purchase when most of your audience is likely not actively in a relevant buying journey. It’s the wrong message at the wrong time, and they’ll filter it out along with the mountains of other promotional content which they get bombarded with.
Instead of company-centric and product-centric messages, use your content channels to provide value-added, customer-centric content. Creating valuable customer-centric content, as well as matching each piece of content to the appropriate channels, requires three things:
- Understanding what information your customers are looking for.
- Understanding your customers’ preferences for consuming content.
- Ensuring that your content distribution is properly targeted such that any given piece of content is provided to the most relevant audiences
To do these things effectively, you need to remove your own mindset from the equation. You need to stop thinking about your customers and start thinking like your customers. If you can effectively do that when you’re planning content, you’ll end up with content which is more valuable to your customers.
The image below is of a Target which is near me. It shows what you would see if you just walked in the exterior doors of the Target. Can you think of any problem with this?
You could walk in that Target looking for a sweater, I could be looking for toothpaste, and someone else could be looking for an end table. Regardless of our very different reasons for being there, however, we’re presented with the same initial experience. That’s not helpful.
Now Target is a little bit limited by the fact that they have physical stores. It’s not particularly easy – in fact it’s downright impractical if not impossible – to personalize a physical experience for every customer who walks into your store. You can’t exactly modify the physical store for every customer. However, you can readily personalize the experience in the digital realm. Despite this, even the largest life science tools and services companies fail to do so.
The world’s best e-commerce sites, such as Amazon or eBay, don’t have that problem. They use what they know about you, and also what they know about the products they’re selling, to try to get you from where you are to where you’re going as fast as possible. (Note this doesn’t only apply to personalization, although personalization is an important part.) However, you don’t need to be a billion-dollar company to personalize digital experiences. There are many tools that make website personalization accessible to mid-sized companies and even which make financial sense for small companies with a strong e-commerce focus.
As we’ve discussed in a previous report, research from the Corporate Executive Board has shown that increasing the simplicity of the buying journey can lead to an 86% increase in initial purchases of a product and a greater than 100% increase in the likelihood that a product or brand will be recommended. Helping customers solve their problems has been shown to elicit a more positive reaction than any other brand experience. Help your customers solve their problems in a simple, streamlined manner, and they’ll reward you with their business. Personalization is an important part of doing so.
“But our product performs better than the competitors! And it performs better for almost all applications!”
This is the cry of one too many life science companies (especially smaller companies) who thought that an incremental improvement – and a bit of advertising money – would be all that’s required to outcompete their competitors. This company probably has a few loyal customers, but they’re just not seeing the market penetration that they thought they should. After all, with a superior product you should be able to capture a leading share of the market so long as the market is aware of it, right? In theory, yes. The problem is that it’s not so simple, and the real world doesn’t work like it should in theory.
Every one of us demonstrates this on a regular basis. Think about the last time you went to the grocery store. Are you absolutely certain that each brand which you’re buying is the best one? Maybe for a few kinds of items, but almost certainly not for all. The brands all claim to be the best, but not many people have sampled every brand of food which they eat, or compared them all for nutritional value and other important product attributes. Chances are you don’t even look at all the brands – you just get what you’re used to getting for many things. While it’s true that decisions for scientific purchases are more deliberate than picking up a gallon of milk, there’s still an emotional component to any purchase. Whether you know it or not, your customers are ascribing value to each brand they come in contact with (often subconsciously).
For the company in the scenario outlined at the beginning of this article, the unrecognized problem is that unrecognized, confounding brand effects may be holding them back. In other words, the company is getting “out-branded”. Even though their product is an improvement to competitors or alternatives, and from a strictly rational decision standpoint customers should be driven to their product, the benefits are not enough to overcome emotionally-based perceptions. This problem is especially prevalent for small companies and for products early in their life cycle when there may not be independent validation of the products’ value.
Causes of Brand Problems & Potential Solutions
As we’ve discussed previously, brand value is effectively the sum of all the experiences that stakeholders have had with your brand. For any given customer, it’s the sum of all of that person’s experiences. (Note that these experiences can be second hand as well; a discussion about a brand with a colleague is still a brand experience.) This value manifests itself as an emotional attachment and resulting brand preference, which may be conscious or subconscious. If the sum of the customers’ experiences with the competitors’ brands have been more positive than their experiences with your brand, they will show a preference (perhaps even an irrational preference!) for the other brand which will hurt your demand. If you’re a small company or working with a new brand, it may be that they simply don’t have enough experience with your brand. For larger companies, it is more likely to be that the customer experiences which you have provided have been poor. Each of these issues call for a slightly different approach…
For small companies / new brands, you need to give your market a reason to engage with you in the first place, and unless your product / service is truly revolutionary, the product alone won’t be a compelling enough reason due to the aforementioned brand effects. This is not a conundrum, however. Consider ways to deliver value that is not intrinsically linked to your product but still relevant to it; in other words, ways in which you can provide value to your target market that do not require buying anything from your company or using your product. Creating valuable content has become the default method of doing so, however many markets are suffering from content overload; there is simply too much content being produced considering the audience’s limited time. If that is the case, consider developing resources rather than content.
For more established companies with a larger existing reach and customer base, work on improving existing experiences. Note that “experiences” could mean anything from support to digital user experience to the actual quality of your products. Diagnosing poor customer experience within a large enterprise is well beyond the scope of this discussion, but improving customer experiences is critical for any life science company which is underperforming. While fixing the root cause of your poor experiences is critical, creating customer resources can be a helpful way of getting customers to re-engage with your company and create positive brand value.
You don’t have to do something wrong for your market to be biased against you and hurt the demand for your products. Brand value is not an absolute. It is an relative, emotional thing, and the most important aspect for your company’s performance is how well your brand value stacks up against your competitors’. By focusing on customer experience, you’ll help to grow that brand value over time and shift market preferences in your direction. Along with those preferences will come more sales.
By now, any decent SEO-er knows that the old way of performing SEO – basically, manipulating ranks through inorganic backlinks – is worthless. Google caught on and killed it. As of Panda 4.0, there are extremely limited ways in which someone can fool the rankings system, and doing so will only hurt you in the long run. That being the case, more SEO experts are turning to content development to improve SEO. In a sense, this is good – content development is a legitimate way of trying to improve rankings. However, as SEO-ers start to think about content, we need to remember that the content itself needs to be prioritized above SEO at all times. In other words, life science marketers cannot let the quality of their content slip due to the desire to focus on SEO.
Remember that the purpose of using content for SEO is to have your content seen by your target audience. Your audience, when consuming that content, is going to judge you by its quality. If you’re churning out low-quality content for SEO purposes you may get a lot of eyeballs, but you’re going to be turning off your audience due to the low value of the content which they’re landing on. This can be especially damaging if the audience doesn’t have prior experience with your company. Instead of trying to develop content strictly for SEO, take the high-quality content that’s being developed as part of your content marketing strategy and optimize it!
There are a number of things that you can do to improve the SEO of your high-quality content. For example:
- Think about how your audience would ask questions related to the topic at hand. Is there any particular phrasing that they would use? If so, try to incorporate that phrasing into your content to improve the match for relevant “long-tail” search terms.
- Make appropriate use of heading tags.
- Ensure your page titles and URLs are optimized and relevant. Some content management systems default to generic nomenclature for URLs and titles, using things like an arbitrary numbering system or the date instead of a rich description. Ensure your settings use the title of your content (or at least part of it) in the page title and URL.
- Improve the clickthrough rate of digital content by using a descriptive meta description tag
- Improve the CTR of your digital content even more by using Google Authorship and ensuring you have a good headshot in your linked Google+ account. This can have a huge impact – I’ve seen various case studies claiming that pages with authorship attribution and a headshot displayed in the search results see between 20% and 150% increases in clickthrough. Eye-tracking data is just as compelling: searchers will pay more attention to author-attributed pages than higher-ranking videos with larger images.
If necessity dictates that you need to create content strictly for SEO purposes, especially if it would fall outside the bounds of your content strategy, ask yourself the following questions to ensure that you don’t churn out junk content:
- Does our target audience have a need to know about this topic?
- Can we create content which would genuinely fill that knowledge gap?
- Would our target audience expect us to provide this type of content? If not, would they find it odd that we are? … I think of this as the realtor / lawnmower conundrum. Your realtor, knowing that you just bought a house, would be in a great position to sell you a lawnmower. They even know what kind of lawn you have. However, you would likely be put off if your realtor tried to sell you a lawnmower.
While the tools at one’s disposal to positively affect search engine ranks are more limited than they used to be, SEO is still important. As SEO tactics take a more content-centric approach, it’s important you don’t churn out low-value content. Your content strategy should be focused on the content. Working SEO into your content strategy will have a far more positive long-term effect than trying to take to shape content around an SEO strategy.
Last week, we discussed solving the above equation which tells us what the most powerful brand positioning opportunities are. Now we must translate the results of that equation into tangible elements that will align with that desired position. This includes some basic elements of messaging (such as the brand name itself, slogans, and core messaging) includes visual elements (logos, typography, and other elements) and also includes voice & tone, which provides guidance as to the overall “feel” of customer interaction and customer-facing communications.
Special focus should be given to the core messaging, as that is where the capability to captivate the audience really lies – especially early on. In order for the brand positioning to be effective, you need the audience to go along with it, and the core messaging is what will deliver the most impact. To be effective, the core messaging needs to do three things. First, you need to make a compelling “why”-type statement. In other words, you need to tell the audience why you’re doing what you’re doing rather than just what it is that you do. Secondly, you need to frame it as a statement that the audience can agree with. You want them to buy into it. Lastly, you need to make it emotionally powerful, such that they become engaged with your brand’s story. The logos and imagery will be important carriers of your brand, in other words they will trigger the association in the minds of the customers, but they actually play a relatively small role in the positioning of the brand. That’s far more about what you have to say and how you say it. The most common error made in initial brand development is focusing too heavily on imagery and visual elements to the detriment of the other aspects.
Once the core brand elements have been determined, it is useful to collect some feedback on them. This can be done via a primary market research study, or even with real-world data collected via a phased rollout. Certain brand elements may be able to be A/B tested to determine which are optionally effective, although you need to be careful not to put too much weight on short-term behavior as the brand is concerned most with long-term impact and the two are not always in alignment.
At this point, you understand your desired position and have formed your core brand elements. It takes a lot of thoughtful effort to get to this point, but this is only the foundation. Brand positioning is the platform upon which the brand is developed and truly built. Ultimately, the brand is created by experiences, and crafting positive experiences for the customers which align with the brand position are the key to making the brand position a reality. What those experiences will vary from brand to brand, but one thing always remains true: helping your customers solve problems is the most likely way to evoke positive emotions. Focus on identifying and solving your customers’ problems, especially in a way which doesn’t require a purchase, and you’ll be on track to develop positive brand value. Do this better than your competitors and you’ll create a competitive brand advantage for your company. (More information on providing superior customer experiences can be found in our latest paper: “Superior Experiences.”)
Whether you are actively shaping it or not, your brand is being developed every day, with every stakeholder interaction. It’s up to you to develop your brand into something that provides positive value for your company. Competitive advantage isn’t all about products and operations – brand plays a very significant role in determining winners and losers. Shape your brand into something valuable, develop it through positive customer experiences, and you’ll position your company to be the winner.