Knowing Your Audience

Knowing Your Audience

By Todd Wilson Monday, Nov. 11, 2013

We go to great lengths to know and understand our customers. Behavioral data, preferences and profiling, personas, surveys, and on and on. We continuously collect a flood of digital information that can sometimes be overwhelming to point of “data blindness” – losing the ability to weed out the true signals from the noise.

There is some data, though, that can’t easily be gathered or measured via digital engagement. Hoteliers, for example, need to genuinely understand the wants, needs, and desires of guests traveling to their destinations – information that’s not always readily attainable via digital methods. For small, locally owned properties, this is fairly easy – but what about the big hotel chains of the world? How do they adapt to each locale and the customers who visit them while still staying true to their brand (and delivering the experiences their loyal customers expect)?

Starwood’s approach, profiled a few months ago by AdAge and others, is very interesting example. In order to help understand the unique needs of the markets they serve, they physically moved key members of their team to a few important international destinations. By spending a month in Dubai and Shanghai, they gained a genuine understanding of those markets and the people who visited them, even tweaking brand strategy and borrowing some local customs for wider distribution.

It sounds like a novel and innovative idea, but this kind of immersive experience should be the norm, not the exception. “Data” doesn’t exist solely in the digital realm; some data needs to be touched, felt, and experienced rather than analyzed via flow charts. Dubai, for example, is a unique place; you can travel by boat taxi to the spice and gold markets in the “old” city just a few miles from the massive, Manhattan-like skyline featuring the tallest building in the world. No digital data is going to help you understand what that experience is like. (Likewise, nothing can prepare you for the intense heat of Dubai in the summertime. Dry heat or not, it’s oppressive.)

Obviously, the expense of moving team members to different cities for a month at a time is cost-prohibitive to most of us. That doesn’t mean that the idea can’t be replicated on a smaller scale. It doesn’t have to be isolated to visiting far-off cities, either. Sometimes you can have an immersive experience without leaving the States – or even leaving your laptop. When was the last time you physically went through the process of booking a room at your own destination, or renting one of your own cars, or flying on your own airline? A few months ago I walked a company through a first-hand experience of becoming a new customer and making a transaction – and they were shocked at how difficult and confusing it was.

Sometimes it’s incredibly hard for us to step back from our desks and really experience what our customers experience. We pore over reams of data we think is giving us deep insight into their habits without ever simply visiting a destination, booking a room, or making a transaction. Starwood’s experience is on a grand scale, but it’s a great example of a smart company simply taking the time to understand their own brand through their customers’ eyes (and changing in subtle ways as a result). Remember this as you refine your strategy for the next year, and make the time to genuinely understand what your customers experience – you’ll find that “data” as we define it today is incomplete without the context experience can provide.

Todd Wilson is an associate principal in global accounts with ExactTarget. Follow him at @toddwils.

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