By Roy H. Williams
Most businesses target an imaginary customer because someone – probably an advertising salesman – once asked, “Who is your customer?”
Ask any businessperson, “Who is your customer?” and he or she will likely answer with a singular customer profile. Something like, “My customer is a career woman between 28 and 44 years old, college educated, making at least $45,000 per year. She has exceptional taste and style and wants to express her individuality through her purchases.”
And her favorite author is Danielle Steele and she likes to take long walks on the beach in the moonlight, right?
Ill-advised questions like, “Who is your customer?” must find their answers in that shadowland where memory meets imagination.
Although it may seem logical on the surface, “Who is your customer?” is a dangerously worded question.
Yes, I said “dangerously” worded.
Your whole life you’ve been told, “We remember more of what we see than what we hear.” But it isn’t true. In fact, clinical tests have proven quite the opposite: the precise wording of what enters our ears profoundly alters what we see in our mind.
The question, “Who is your customer?” conjures the mental image of an individual since “customer” isn’t plural. Ask that same business owner, “How many different types of people do you serve?” and you’ll get a radically different, far more valuable answer.
So now you’re going to tell me the 28 to 44 year-old female customer profile you gave me was the average customer, right?
Dr. Neil Postman, the celebrated Chair of the Department of Culture and Communications at New York University, has this to say about it:
“We must keep in mind the story of the statistician who drowned while trying to wade across a river with an average depth of four feet. That is to say, in a culture that reveres statistics, we can never be sure what sort of nonsense will lodge in people’s heads… A question, even of the simplest kind, is not, and never can be unbiased. The structure of any question is as devoid of neutrality as its content. The form of a question may ease our way or pose obstacles. Or, when even slightly altered, it may generate antithetical answers, as in the case of the two priests who, being unsure if it was permissible to smoke and pray at the same time, wrote to the Pope for a definitive answer. One priest phrased the question ‘Is it permissible to smoke while praying?’ and was told it is not, since prayer should be the focus of one’s whole attention; the other priest asked if it is permissible to pray while smoking and was told that it is, since it is always permissible to pray.”
In a Loftus & Palmer experiment reported by Dr. Alan Baddeley in his 1999 book, Essentials of Human Memory, a group of people were asked to watch the video of a collision between two automobiles. Viewers who were asked, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” gave answers averaging 40.8 MPH and reported having seen broken glass. But viewers reported speeds averaging only 31.8 MPH and remembered no broken glass when asked, “How fast were the cars going when they made contact?” Keep in mind that each group had seen the same video only a few moments before these questions were asked.
Control the question and you control the mental image it conjures.
Create your marketing plan around the question, “Who is my customer?” and you’ll soon bump your head against a very low ceiling. The true profiles of “your customer” are like the characters in a Fellini movie: an unimaginable circus of people with conflicted personalities and unconscious buying motives.
Proponents of hyper-targeting are quick to say, “You’re using the shotgun approach. I believe in putting the customer in the crosshairs of a rifle.”
But we’re not hunting just one customer, are we? Hyper-targeters believe in fishing with a hook. But for best results, I suggest you find a net.
If you want to grow your business, don’t target age, sex, income or education. Target according to buying motives. The question isn’t, “Who is my customer?” but rather, “Why does my customer buy my product? What does it do for him or her?” The answers to these questions will tell you exactly what to write in your ads.
Congratulations. You found your net.