Case 1: GroupOn
There’s a lot to admire about GroupOn, a business model that stimulates local and locally-owned business through group discounts. Similar to successful operations in China, GroupOn hits many social media and possibly social responsibility buttons. Half the organization is said to be local and central sales account managers.
Here’s a recent Fast Company piece on GroupOn.
Andrew Mason is the unlikely CEO of last year's unlikeliest breakout business.
Mason himself is a person of uncommon candor. "I feel like a lot of companies invest a lot of energy and money in trying to figure out who their customer is and how to be just like that, and it never comes across as genuine," Mason told Fast Company from Groupon's offices in Chicago. "The companies that I like to do business with are--even if you find them a bit strange--genuine and real."
Like many entrepreneurs, Mr. Mason proports a narrow conception of the scope and value of research. He implies that a company that invests in learning about their customers is by that very act showing they are out of touch with their customers. Founders in particular believe they have a handle on human nature and the market value and business viability of their product.
Mr. Mason speaks of companies that mimic their customers (“figure out…how to be just like that”), projecting a false front in lieu of an organic corporate identity, and how that is inauthentic, not genuine. For GroupOn, the corporation should be what it is, and the customers should be who they are. The “brand” is defined as authentic interaction.
Mr. Mason might be implying that ‘figuring out who the customer is’ does not accept customers on their terms, no matter how ‘strange’. If so, he may be suggesting that research generalizes too much and thus waters down each customer’s distinctions, distinctions that are what is genuine.
Fortunately, customer research is not as simplistic as “figuring out who the customer is”. The purposeis not to create a business and output tailored to current customers. The purpose of customer research is to think ahead to a bigger picture.
Online Community Management
Time for a side bar. As an online community manager I feel like I’m running a global open house party 24/7. Like any good host, I notice who shows up, who’s talking to whom, what is being discussed and where, the tone of the discussions, what activities are going on and how people move from one to the next: dancing, playing Kinect games, flipping through art books, hide and seek, show and tell, eating and drinking, migrating to a room to watch NASCAR, putting on swim suits…wait! I have to take the cover off the pool and maybe they would like a slide, or put up a net and toss in a volley ball! Is this a drinks-with-umbrellas set or strictly lemonade? How does the crowd change at different times of day? Who needs to be introduced to whom? Who would be good to put in charge of the grill? Where’s the best place to plug in the karaoke machine? Do I have the right partners and enough profit to keep me happy and this party going forever?
Leading a small business is the same thing. I learn a lot simply by minding the operation every day and watching and interacting with customers. How could I benefit from knowing more?
If there was no good answer to that question there would be no business, social, and financial research, analytics and forecasting. And while not faultless, benefit from these sources has often been achieved. It's a question of investment, and that is often a big roadblock.
Case 2: soma fm
SOMA FM, a fabulous internet radio station based in San Francisco, airs nor displays commercials. I recently listened to Rusty Hodge, founder, program director and general manager of SOMA FM, talk about his business. His comments reflect the small business owner’s outlook when he said, “I don’t care what listeners think of the music.” In my experience, people who say they don’t care are expressing two things: 1) they learn a lot from being plugged into their businesses, and 2) they’ve made do with their own inner guidance and trial and error without the cost of research and analytics while establishing their businesses.
Rusty points out that he gets feedback from listeners from their email, tweets and comments on the Facebook page. These data are almost certainly unrepresentative. But he says that based on a survey a few years ago of those who receive the email newsletter his listener’s tastes and preferences, and possibly usage patterns, are “all over the map”, therefore to him there’s little, if anything, to cohesively represent.
Considering the unsystematic approach to learning about listeners, it’s easy to see how this could seem so. For him, research appears to offer inconclusive, and thus meaningless and irrelevant findings. Not worth the investment, at least.
And that may be true up to a point in a business’s development. To move to a next level though, if a next level is desired, the question is whether daily business management provides adequate exposure to customer preferences and needs to meet business objectives.
So when Rusty said that he learns from his listeners from online and email feedback, I asked what he would do with analysis of that information. He had already stated he would not add or drop content at the direction of listeners. He is a businessman and an auteur.
However, he allows that the electronic music business is incestuous. If he learned that a segment of listeners of a certain channel like a certain song, he said he might consider programming the solo works of the musicians in the band, or other works of the producer.
In other words, he would do what an online community manager might do – refine and expand his offerings to attract and retain his most desired listeners. Who are his most desired listeners? No surprise - at this point, it’s those who donate money.
Conclusion: The plan for advancing small businesses to the next level is well-trod. Where does the organization see going to next? What are the viable ways that can happen? Finally, what information can help make it all so?
P.S./rant > I have always disliked the terms “customer insights” and “voice of the customer”. To me they feel like words stakeholders use to characterize [i.e. package] research. These terms imply a light impression, a tiny spark that may inspire business and product genius. They also diminish the effort and skill required to generate solid research findings, not to mention the courage to try and fail and try again in the course of exploration, and the leadership required to boost a team’s ability to discover.
Experience researcher in high tech and built environments with an anthropology provenance.