The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
– Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate in Physics

Stronger strategy, better targeting, more effective messaging, improved customer service—your success in these areas is strongly linked to your ability to accurately understand your target audience and engage with them in a way they find meaningful.

And while most marketers would probably agree with the above statement, when it comes to the actual doing of real-world marketing, practitioners are often content to base their decisions on gut feelings rather than evidence and deep insight.

In other words, they frequently make their decisions based on their first best guess.

The problem for every marketer that’s ever lived is that you are not our target market. Even if you share the exact demographic and psychographic profile of your ideal customer, you’re still not your target market. Why? Because, completely unlike your prospects, you understand all the details of your product or service intimately. You’ve already bought into its value and, most importantly, you are deeply invested—both emotionally and financially—in seeing it succeed.

As a result, it’s critical to regularly and systematically reconnect with what your customers actually think, rather than rely on what we think they think.

Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.
– David Ogilvy, Advertising Luminary

3 (Mostly) Easy Ways to Avoid Self-Delusion

Here are three ways to stop marketing by first best guess and start basing your decisions on actual intel.

They are listed in order from quick and easy to high fallutin’ and spendy.

1.) Talk to your sales team.

Want to know why people choose your product? What single message resonates more than the others in the mind of your prospect? What new pain points have emerged over the past year? Talk to your sales people.

Sales teams are the single most accessible source of reliable intel about what your prospects actually think and do. They’ll tell you that, yes, a mobile app would be cool, but what your prospects really want is an integration with Salesforce. And while you’re at it, they’ll tell you that your website is confusing and terrible on mobile.

Speaking of websites…

2.) Turn your website into a comment card.

Website analytics tools do a great job telling you what’s happening on your site (organic traffic is up 20% year over year, yippee!), but they don’t explain the why that’s ultimately driving user behavior (did we get 11 page views because our site is engaging or because the user couldn’t find what she needed). Tools like Hotjar make it cheap and easy to set up user polls and surveys on your website. Not sure where to start? Try setting up a simple three question user survey. Or target specific problem pages and ask users to rate the page and leave comments.

Yes, it’s true users aren’t always great at knowing and articulating what they actually want, but this type of qualitative feedback can be extremely helpful in uncovering previously unknown issues and confirming (or contradicting) your intuitions about what visitors think about your website.

Here are actual comments we’ve collected in user polls:

  • “Very easy to navigate. Love it.” and “I like your site best of all the ____ sites.” <—One of many data points (both qualitative, quantitative and anecdotal) confirming the layout of a critical section of the site was on-point.
  • “I would love to see all the months grouped together to make it easier to go through, but if not I still look ;)” <—Supported the client’s instinct that this simple feature should be included in an upcoming website redesign.
  • “I could not find a link for entry to the ____________.” <—The web team realized link wasn’t prominent enough and made a quick adjustment that boosted event registrations.
  • “Cannot find help with relocation info.” <—This comment was a complete non sequitur that had nothing to do with the client’s product/service offerings. Ultimately, it became one of several threads of evidence supporting a hunch that the client’s SEO strategy was too broad.

In isolation, none of these comments is earth-shattering; however, combined with other qualitative and quantitative evidence, they can help you see your website and brand with greater objectivity.

3.) Pony up for actual research.

If you really want to know what your audience thinks, feels and behaves, it’s hard to beat professionally executed research. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s worth it. A qualified research partner will help you prioritize what to investigate, implement a sound process, source respondents, and mine the results for meaningful, statistically reliable insights. Plus, you’ll get to say things like multivariate attitudinal segmentation and single variable linear regression with a straight face. What’s not to like about that?

The bottom line is there’s no excuse for self-delusion when it comes to understanding what your customers really think. Good luck and happy researching!