Doing Marketing; What, How and Why?

At the Skateboard Industry Conference earlier this year and in these hallowed pages, I’ve argued:

1.     That advertising and promotional tactics like running ads and hiring teams pass for marketing in this industry but aren’t.
2.     That marketing (maybe better called market research) is the process of finding out who your customer is and why they buy your product.
3.     That few people in skateboarding (or in action sports) do marketing well if at all.
4.     That favorable demographics and large company interest in the skate vibe are creating opportunities that we aren’t taking advantage of.
5.     That good marketing will make you more efficient in the use of your advertising and promotional dollars, a good thing at a time when this is a tough business financially.
Marketing costs a little money, takes some time, and will leave you with as many new questions as answers if you do it right. It isn’t a one shot deal. Its value increases as you continue it over time and, indeed, as you institutionalize it within your organization. How might you do some marketing in your organization? Here’s one general approach. Not by far the only one. Not necessarily the best or the right one for your organization, but one I think you can implement and get some value out of.   
The Right Questions
It’s easy to come up with a list of questions that, on the surface, seem relevant. General questions like “Who’s my customer?” You could create a list of good, general questions like that in about twenty minutes and walk away thinking, “Yes sir, there’s not much to this marketing stuff.”
Instead, begin with the goal in mind. Let’s say the goal, as mentioned above, is to make more efficient use of advertising and promotional dollars. Ask questions that help you do that. Go through each of your advertising and promotion expenditures and develop specific questions- questions that will help you know where to spend your money and what you’re getting for it.
One such question might be, “Do people buy our boards because of the team?” Well, duh, yes of course they do. Or at least that’s always been your assumption. Ever tested it? In several industries I’ve been amazed at the number of once true assumptions that have been institutionalized in industry lore even when they were no longer valid.
Among winter resorts, for example, the current assumption seems to be “If we build it, they will come.” My guess is that snowboarders would come regardless of whether or not the resorts build new trails, facilities and lifts and the number of skiers will continue to decline in spite of all the capital investment.
I’m not suggesting teams aren’t important to skateboarding, but if I had to prove it in a rigorous way, I couldn’t. Not unless I’d done some marketing. Use marketing to test your traditional assumptions. If you find something has changed, it’s a potentially huge opportunity.
Based on a specific statement of what you are trying to accomplish, get more specific in the questions you ask. “Do people buy our boards because of the team?” is too general. No answer you’re likely to get will help you do anything better or differently unless, I guess, everybody says no.
Maybe “Whom do you know that rides for Brand X?” would generate some useful information if your goal is to focus your team spending on the riders who create the most brand visibility. If nobody knows a rider you’re spending serious bucks on, or if lots of people know somebody who only gets product, you’ve got a chance to spend your money more efficiently, or maybe just to spend less. Or to spend more but feel good about it.
Marketing’s biggest challenge is in asking the right questions based on specific goals.
Gathering the Data
I’m a big believer in quality and consistency over quantity. I’d rather have 200 thoughtfully and consistently completed surveys than 2,000 incomplete warranty cards where there was no contact between the customer and the company. Send team riders or employees to skate parks on weekends. Make a deal with some of your retailers to approach customers in their store in exchange for sharing some of the data with them. Let the retailers add a few questions they’d like answered. Give every consumer who works with the interview to complete a questionnaire a T-shirt and turn the collection of market data into a promotion.
Do some training before you send people armed with good intentions and clipboards out to talk to customers. Make sure they understand why you’re asking the question, what you expect to learn, and what the benefit of having the data is. Get them to practice a little with other employees or friends so that their lack of experience doesn’t skew the data collection.
Exercise some common sense. It might not work to ask team riders to collect data about team performance. A rider isn’t going to be anxious to report that nobody ever heard of him. Consider the possibility that young males might consider this as an opportunity to do something besides collect market data and return surveys predominantly from the best looking girls at the skate park that day.
The data doesn’t all have to be collected in one massive effort. A couple of people in a couple of shops for a couple of hours a couple of times a months will build you a big data base faster than you think.
The experience the data collectors have can be as important as the information they come back with. They’ve just spent some serious face time with customers or potential customers. Sit down with them right after the session. What did they feel/see/think? What interesting comments did they hear that didn’t make it into the survey? What questions appeared to have been a complete waste of time? Did they hear gripes? New product ideas?
Most people from companies don’t spend enough time with the customer. Take advantage of people who are. In fact, spread the wealth- get as many employees as possible to take a turn gathering market data.
Your data collection is going to be biased in some way no matter how hard you work to collect it in a consistent and dispassionate way. The way the interviewers dress, the locations you select, the time of day, the different ways interviewers approach the customer and a bunch of others we can’t even conceive of will all affect the quality of the data. You strive to minimize these influences in the way you develop the survey, train the interviewers and select the locations. At the end of the day, with enough good interviews completed, you recognize, or at least hope, that the biases will have been statistically reduced to background noise. That brings us to what to do with the data.
If you’ve gone through the process correctly, data analysis should be almost an anti-climax. From the process of designing the survey, you know specifically what you are trying to find out and what kind of decisions you hope to make from the data you collect. You know before collecting the first piece of data exactly what the analysis process is going to be. It will have become clear in the hard work you did establishing goals and developing the right questions.
Responses will be counted, and percentages calculated. Maybe you will have asked the same questions in a couple of different ways and will want to compare the responses. But when the simple counting and calculating is done, there are a couple of statistical techniques that will help you get the most out of the data.
Not all the questions you ask will require this kind of analysis. But when appropriate, the concepts of “mean “ and “standard deviation” are powerful tools that are not tough to use once you understand them.
A standard distribution is represented by a bell curve. Bells can be taller or flatter depending on how the data points are distributed. The vertical line that divides the bell exactly in half represents the mean on the curve. The mean is the point where half the data values are greater and half are smaller. Simple so far.
The standard deviation is a statistic that tells you how tightly all the data points are clustered around the mean . When the points are pretty tightly bunched together and the bell-shaped curve is steep, the standard deviation is small. When the bell curve is relatively flat, you know you have a relatively large standard deviation. One standard deviation away from the mean in either direction on the horizontal axis accounts for somewhere around 68 percent of the data points in this group. Two standard deviations away is roughly 95 percent. Three accounts for about 99 percent of all the data points.
So who cares? Just for fun, say you ask 200 customers how old they are. Their mean age is calculated as 14 with a standard deviation of one year. So you know that 68 percent (one standard deviation away from the mean in either direction on the horizontal axis) of your customers are between 13 and 15. 95 percent 12 and 16.    You can see how this might help you focus your marketing efforts.
Mean and standard deviation are calculations that lots of cheap calculators can do. Excel will do it for you on your computer. So, as I started out by saying, you can do this yourself. On the other hand, time is money, and there lots of companies around that specialize in designing surveys, collecting data and interpreting the results.
Any masochists out there who actually want the formula for calculating a standard deviation should let me know and I’ll be pleased to provide it. 
Even if you get some professional help and trade some money for time and efficiency in the process, your customer and industry knowledge will still be required to make sure the right questions get asked of the right people.
Somebody once said that half of your advertising and promotion budget is wasted- you just don’t know which half. Marketing can help you figure that out. Just to pick a number, if you spend $20,000 to do a survey that helps you save only $5,000 a year, a return on investment of 25 percent, isn’t that a great deal? My guess is that you’ll do better between more efficient spending and better customer focusing. Do the marketing yourself or get help. But please do it.



2 replies
  1. dave goodland
    dave goodland says:

    great article, thanks. Just wondering how simple demographics would be able to enhance business decisions? If a skater owned skate store finds out that 90% of their X products are purchased by Z individuals (for example Element decks are purchased by mainly black, male skaters between the ages 14 – 18 and who skate > 5 hours a week), what is the importance of such information? How can the skate store owner use this information to increase revenue?

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Too many retailers in the skate industry don’t use their point of sales systems as anything more than glorified cash registers. Obviously if you know what your customers are buying and what your margin (percentage and dollar) and inventory turns are then you adjust your inventory to give you the most gross margin dollars. I say it in a single sentence like it’s a simple thing to do. It’s a lot of effort and you have to work on it constantly but it’s worth it.

      Demographic information can also be good, but it’s harder to gather and it’s hard to know if you’re gathering the right stuff. Let’s assume as you suggest that black, mail skaters with the other attributes you suggest are buying those Element decks. How did you know to start collecting that information in the first place? Could it also have to do with their income level? If you carried some other brand, would they buy that instead? Do you sell your Element decks for two dollars cheaper than the other local stores? How do you collect that information? So the short answer is yes, demographic information can be good. But it’s not easy to collect, it’s hard to know what to collect, and it’s hard to know if you’re missing some factor or including one that doesn’t matter.

      Hope that helps. It’s a good question worthy of a much longer discussion.


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