I Heart Surveys (a marketing rant)

As a marketer, I’ve always been a huge fan of customer research and more specifically, surveys.  Maybe I need to get a life, because surveys excite me.   They’re an incredibly cheap and fast way to take some of the guesswork out of marketing.  Why not let your customers tell you how to sell to them?

This afternoon I was reviewing some customer research for an upcoming TV campaign and it reminded me of “Vortex”, a marketing program I created 10 years ago at a small software company…

In 2002 I went to work for a venture-backed software startup called Metallect (I know, strange name – I didn’t pick it).  Metallect developed a cool (and geeky) software product called the “IQ Server” that was used by large I.T. organizations.  The IQ Server had bots that would crawl through all of the software code in a company’s systems to catalog it, organize it, and make it searchable.  The IQ Server did for software code what Google does for web pages.

Why is this important?

Because over the past 20+ years, every large company has built and purchased dozens of software and database systems containing millions and millions of lines of software code.  These systems are critical to running the business, but they are poorly documented and tend to break.  Fixing those breaks is expensive and time-consuming.  In fact, most big companies spend over 70% of their I.T. budget maintaining their existing systems.  We’re talking about billions of dollars wasted.

Our business plan was simple:  The IQ Server would help I.T. organizations quickly pinpoint problems and proactively assess risk.  A $100,000 IQ Server could save a company millions of dollars!

The product had great potential but we had one big problem:  Our target customers — CIO’s at Fortune 500 companies — didn’t know the IQ Server existed, let alone that they needed it.  We were defining a new product category and our #1 challenge was explaining a new and complex product in a way that was compelling enough that a busy I.T. executive would: A) pay attention; and B) Write us (a 10 person software company in Texas) a big check!

As a marketer, you’re lucky if you come up with 4 or 5 truly great marketing ideas in your career.  I think the survey-based program I’m about to describe was one of those ideas (here’s another).   Like most good ideas, it was deceptively simple.  I would conduct an online survey of prospective customers, asking them to read my best description of the IQ Server and its key selling points.  Then I would ask three simple questions:

1) On a scale of 1 to 10, how valuable would this product be to your company?
2) Why?
3) Would you be interested in learning more about this product?

Question #1 provided me with a quantitative measure of how compelling my marketing messaging was.  Question #2 provided qualitative insight into the first question.  Real target customers told me in their own words why they did or didn’t find my sales pitch compelling.  And Question #3 was the moment of truth:  Who’s ready to write a check (or at least have a meeting)?

Now all I needed was a bunch of Fortune 500 CIO’s to take my survey.  But how?  Everybody wants these folks’ attention.

I solved this problem the old fashioned way — with bribes (completely legal, of course).  I bought highly targeted mailing lists from CIO Magazine and sent personalized letters offering to give each person a $100 Amazon gift certificate just for completing a 10 question research survey.  My bet was that the learning I’d gain from the survey would justify the cost.

As you might guess, the response rate to my direct mail invitation was high (over 10%).  But the answers to my survey questions weren’t very encouraging.  The average response to question #1 (How valuable would the IQ Server be to your company?) was around 6.  Potential customers saw some value in the IQ Server but they weren’t jumping up and down demanding it.  That won’t cut it for a start-up that needs to win customers quickly.

Fortunately, question #2 provided a wealth of “verbatim” feedback.  Without knowing it, prospective customers were telling me how to sell the IQ Server to them.  So I adjusted my messaging and ran the same test again (to a different list of customer prospects).

This time the results were a little better.  The average response to question #1 was around 7.  To make a long story short, I repeated this process maybe half a dozen times.  I spent tens of thousands of dollars on Amazon gift certificates, but along the way I was able to hone my sales pitch and get the average response to question #1 up to almost 9.

More importantly, through question #3 I generated over a hundred leads for our sales team.  These leads turned into our first few paying customers, generating hundreds of thousands in revenue.  My customer research had paid for itself – score!  I dubbed this program “Vortex”, a nod to the classic business book Inside the Tornado by Geoffrey Moore.

So what’s the point of this story?

The point is this:  Through the years I’ve used this approach over and over in different industries and it’s worked every time.  It may sound like marketing 101 (and it is) but very few marketers make intelligent use of surveys.

The beauty of surveys lies in their simplicity and that’s where most marketers screw it up (in my humble opinion).  Almost all of the surveys I see are poorly thought out and ask way too many questions (most of which aren’t actionable).

I believe that the quality of survey data is inversely proportional to the number of questions being asked.  So don’t get greedy and ask for too much.  Ten questions max and preferably only five to seven!  But think hard about which five to seven questions to ask and obsess over the wording of each question to make sure it’s crystal clear and will provide the exact insight you need.

One of the things I love about marketing is that it’s a combination of science and art.  The best idea wins, but you can stack the deck in your favor with the right data.  I believe that simply listening to customers is the best way to do that.


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