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Climbing the Ladder to Your Ideal Audience

Date published: February 10, 2014
Last updated: February 10, 2014

After the Grammys a few weeks ago, we examined how a tweet from Arby’s beat Pepsi’s “halftime” show. I emphasized the importance of audience segmentation in order to communicate with the crowd that cares the most about your product. More recently, my colleague explained how creating a quality piece of content depends on understanding your audience and knowing what they want to read. With all this talk about catering to your ideal audience, you may be asking yourself, “How do I actually get to know who these people are and what I have to offer them?”

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Market Research

You could spend a lot of money to hire a market research company that will help you write the questions you want to ask your ideal audience, gather a representative sample of your target market, collect the data and provide pages of statistics and demographics that pertain to your issue at hand.

Or you could identify your brand’s biggest champions, spend 40 to 60 minutes interviewing each of them to get to the root of the personal values behind their preferences, and create prototypes (often called personas) to develop a clear image of the ideal customer to target.

Both kinds of research can be meaningful. But here’s where the difference lies between standard, quantitative research, and deeply probing, qualitative research: the former delivers demographics, which describe the typical customer across a broad spectrum, while the latter describes the ideal customer or “brand champion” in specific terms.

Which of the following women can you more effectively cater to?

  • A married woman somewhere between the age of 30 to 45 with a college degree, a $50,000 yearly income, 2.6 kids, living in the Midwest or Southeast, and who is a heavy user of your product
  • A mother of two who is nervous about turning 40 soon, spends 50+ hours a week at the office, is a neat freak who considers cleaning a hobby, and spends much of her discretionary income on items for her home

The benefits of prototyping instantly become clear. But how do we get the data necessary to create an accurate prototype? The answer is through a process called laddering. But I must warn you: it’s not a clear, straight path to the top as the name suggests.

Uncovering Your Target Market’s Lifestyle & Motives

There are two things about your ideal audience you need to know:

1. Why they do not buy your product

2. Why they really do buy your product

Phase one: DO NOT WANT

Figuring out why they’re not interested in your product is easy. Generate and utilize articulate surveys, customized focus groups built specifically to serve your needs, and in-depth interviews to yield lists of possible reasons why the ideal target audience rejects your product.

How many people do you need to talk to? As with so many other aspects of marketing, it varies from scenario to scenario. What’s more important is who you interview. Unlike qualitative research, laddering is not concerned with ensuring a representative sample of the population; rather, it demands input from brand advocates.

As Brian Wansink states in his article New Techniques to Generate Key Marketing Insights “the key to understanding why people don’t use products sometimes lies in the introspective answers of a few than the initial answers of the majority.” Remember quality over quantity.

Phase two: DO WANT

Understanding the true motives behind why people buy your product is much more complex and requires a bit of skill. But just like any other talent, practice makes perfect. You won’t have all the answers after your first laddering interview, but you’ll feel more comfortable by your fifth or sixth.

By definition, laddering is “a closely related series of questions that determines the attributes, consequences and personal values behind a customer’s preferences.” At first pass, your respondent’s answers will likely be only surface deep and describe product attributes such as color, taste, price, size, and so on. Keep the conversation high-level until you’ve developed a list of tangible preferences in Phase One, which will serve as the framework for this second phase of questioning.

Channel your inner 3-year-old and ask “why” over and over, but do it with genuine curiosity and frame it properly.

Interviewee: I like your trash can because it has a wide opening.

Interviewer: Why is wide-mouthed trash can better for you than a narrow one?

Interviewee: Because when my son and husband play trash-ket ball, they have a better chance of actually making it into the trash can when the mouth is wider.

The interviewer could go on to ask about how the interviewee feels when her son and husband miss the trash can, how housework responsibilities are split or shared in their household, who takes out the trash, and so on. The goal is to understand why she subconsciously makes the decisions she makes.

Be aware of the flow of conversation. Don’t hop around your list of attributes and ask about capacity, then color, then durability. Instead focus solely on capacity until you’ve uncovered the values that led to the subject’s capacity preferences, then move on to an exhaustive discussion of color and so on.

A note of caution: It goes without saying that all the basic “do’s and don’ts” of conducting any kind of qualitative research are given before designing a laddering strategy. Here’s some additional help on the basics of qualitative interviewing that will assist you in your climb to the top.

Here’s an application of marketing segmentation that could have been inspired by laddering and prototyping:

Patrón emailed this message to members of what they call their “Social Club.” It effectively communicates three things:

  • Exclusivity (paragraph 1)
  • An opportunity to be a maven (paragraph 2)
  • The vivid description of product attributes

Patrón determined that the image of elitism has merit to members of their Social Club (see: DO WANT above). Once they grabbed the connoisseurs’ attention with the notion of loyalty, style, and prestige, they fired off a long list of product attributes (see: DO NOT WANT above). Bonus points for a clear call to action.

Once you’ve taken your time in collecting detailed customer insights, put them to good use by crafting prototypes for your product’s ideal buyer segments. In my next post, we’ll discuss how to turn the results of your laddering interview into a useful customer prototype.

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