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Allow me to paint a picture of your role and our experience as modern marketers… We’ve found ourselves in a race to be better. Better than the direct competitors in our market category. Better than others we may not deem comparable, yet find are feeding off our market share.

Our marketing messages are similar to our competitors, sometimes just a reordering of the same English words we choose to describe our products, solutions or services. We compete for the attention of the same target audiences, personas and buyer’s journeys.

We are heads down and knuckles tight on the tactics of today, relying on big data to guide future recommendations and validate past ones. We love when correlations are revealed, when we see patterns in the numbers, when a mathematically sound algorithm identifies that audience x will buy just like audience y.

Once impossible to speak with, Facebook and Google are now calling us – and the onslaught of software companies and consultants who spam us daily are multiplying. Sitting among a pile of marketing playbooks, how-to-guides and notes from a recent podcast/conference/article, we consider who we need to help further explain, prioritize and execute what’s next.

This is the picture of modern marketing. In a function of business where people love to talk about how “no one can keep up with it all,” – it is one of ironically slow iteration, where we pull a series of levers to “optimize” what’s mostly already being done.

We’ll often mistake activity for productivity, stockpiling small improvements with specialists (in email, social, affiliate, search, advertising, Amazon, content) who seem to know more and more about less and less.

Of course it’s not all bad – and there can be small jackpots along the way, sometimes making for substantial performance improvements across any given marketing effort. The problem is the system, if you will, is setup to drive a focus on “better.” Better messaging, better targeting, better reporting, the list goes on. Better than what? Better than whose? Yes, better is good, but the extreme focus on it distracts from something even more important: different.

Why is Different Better than Better?
I’ll refer to a business strategy known as Category Design to answer this question. Over the last two years, we’ve adopted several practices from this that apply to our client work. The gist of this strategy begins with discovering and defining a problem that justifies the creation of an entirely new (product or service) category.

Arguably, at some level, we should all aspire to be a category owner/leader. Why? Because category leaders frequently set the agenda for how other competing products will eventually follow. They tend to assume command over the thought and vocabulary of their category, and often help customers identify a problem they didn’t even know they had. Think Uber, Airbnb, Apple (iPhone).

And people love them for it. Category leaders regularly dominate the majority of their market – leading people to choose between them or simply the cheapest alternative available (if possible).  

The biggest lesson? Category leaders are disruptive to an industry or existing category (think Netflix). If you’re buzzword-sensitive like me, and cringing at the word “disruptive,” just insert different. Investors pay attention to this closely, and at least in the public tech world, they’ve learned it may take 6-10 years for a true category leader to emerge.

That range also happens to be the sweet spot in terms of highest returns on investment – but the more important point is this: just trying to be better is what everyone else is doing. Truly being different is where the inspiration and money flows. That’s not an “optimization” discussion, it’s an innovation discussion. Oh, and if you’re sick of the word “innovation,” just insert, making something new.

Jobs to Be Done Theory
It’s a goofy phrase (“jobs to be done”) to articulate around someone not already familiar with Jobs Theory (jobs to be done and jobs theory are interchangeable). Here’s the quick summary. You don’t just buy a product. You hire a product to get a job done, to help you make progress towards something based on your circumstances.

In this context, you hire and fire products all the time. If your hire a Starbucks espresso to help you feel awake, and it does a good job — you’ll likely hire it again in the future, given the same circumstances. Great. Cool theory bra. But why do we even need this?

The primary thought leader behind Jobs Theory, Clayton Christensen (the Harvard Business School Professor pictured in this article), provides the best answer I’ve heard. Christensen points to the fact that many business leaders and decision makers have taken their companies in the wrong direction because they have allowed “the data” to be the leading influence for guiding their actions.

Of course, we live in a time when big data and analytics are practically celebrated. Why? Because they provide the logical and defendable pillars that support a wide range of business recommendations. “The numbers don’t lie,” right? So it’s no wonder executives have built or burned their reputations on bold yet cover-your-ass-proof decisions relying on the accuracy of data.

To Christensen’s point, however, the most common problem relates to data that is being structured to show correlations. If you’re a data geek you might be saying, wait, what’s wrong with correlations mister? Correlations are proof of patterns, and provide the substance of predictability.

As a marketer, you also appreciate correlations, especially when it comes to advertising. For example, Facebook’s lookalike audiences algorithm – which can look at the attributes of customers who buy from you, then systematically send your advertising to a new audience with similar attributes (age, gender, relationship status, location, behavioral elements, etc.).

So what’s the problem with correlations? Actually, nothing. However, correlation does not equal causation. The problem is correlations offer only part of the equation needed to pursue how you’ll do something different.

Causation is the other piece to the puzzle, and is the substance of why people buy. Causation encompasses the emotional, social and circumstantial journeys not easily derived from data analysis. It is the fundamental element of why people hire products to make progress in their lives, regardless of whichever customer persona or demographic box some marketer (or algorithm) assigns to them.

And in this world of modern marketing, causation is ironically best achieved through actual conversations with your customers. To be clear, I’m not talking about the “conversation” on social media channels, if you can even call it that anymore… but real voice-to-voice, listening-to-learn questions and human interaction happening over the course of a solid hour. How’s that for complexity?

Capture the Conversation™
Beyond what you may already be doing well in marketing, customer conversations are the key to understanding why your customers buy. Remember, this is about being different, not just better — and as it happens, your customers have the vast majority of insights you need to grow and innovate. How will you get this from them?

At Room 214, we employ our own Capture the Conversation framework to help address not only getting those customer insights, but how to apply them to brand and marketing strategies after you have them. I’m sharing this with you not just as a shameless promotion, but because it’s actually an opportunity that’s being missed by most companies (and consultancies) who are only thinking of how to apply Jobs Theory to innovate products and services. There’s more.

Although surveys and focus groups have their place, this work begins with a different kind of conversation for a different kind of outcome. Asking recent customers to remember the time they first purchased is where you want to start. Building a timeline before and after that event that pulls from their memories, emotions and circumstances will create a surprising volume of information to be organized.

One colleague recently shared with us his experience of having a very confident CEO present for a customer interview. As the CEO was hearing the questions asked of the customer, he was internalizing what he knew must be how the customer was going to answer. The CEO was wrong on every count, and this began a new path of thinking beyond what he had experienced and thought he knew.  

If the picture I painted for you is true, that we have found ourselves in a marketing race to be better, maybe we can agree that being different is actually where we really want to win. Being different isn’t a short-term effort, but the resources to start making this happen for you are very accessible.

Jason Cormier

Jason Cormier

As co-founding Partner of Room 214, Jason is dedicated to helping people and companies grow and innovate. He is a best-selling author of Transformative Digital Marketing, is on HubSpot's Global Partner Advisory Council and serves as a mentor for social entrepreneurs at Watson University. He believes in acting out of love instead of fear, connected leadership and open book management.
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