Monday, March 10, 2014

Who is Your Audience and What do They Want?

Tigers rarely actually eat
cereal. They also rarely
wear neckerchiefs.
They say that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. Well, if you lead a horse to a nice, juicy steak, you will probably not only fail to feed your horse, but probably spook him. Save the steak for your pet tiger. Lead the horse to grass.

As a consultant, I work with a number of different fan conventions and businesses. Most businesses think they know the answer to the question "Who is my audience and what do they want?" Do they really? Or do they just think they do?

Let's take Steampunk World's Fair, for whom I am Sponsorship Coordinator, as an example of one who does it right. Their primary audience is people who are interested in Steampunk, which is a subculture that includes literature, clothes, and a bit of music. That is who they are, but what do they want? The obvious answer is that they want great performances by bands and other performers that they enjoy and a great array of vendors. But, hose bands play a variety of venues and most of the vendors have online stores, so why do thousands of people make the trip to New Jersey for the Fair?

First and foremost, people go to a convention for an experience. They want to have fun. They want to be among their own people, having a relaxing and enjoyable time. You could have the biggest names and the best dealers, but if the vibe is bad, the event will be bad. Steampunk World's Fair creates that fun, engaging environment. From the web site, to the decorations, to the program book that looks like an old Victorian newspaper, to dozens of other little details, for one weekend in May, two modern hotels are made to feel like a great enclave of an age that never was.

Steampunks in their natural habitat: Piscataway, NJ
Among the work I do for this event is coordination of sponsorship. A sponsor has a very different perspective on an event. Many sponsors do attend the event, and, as an attendee, they love all the event has to offer. As a sponsor, however, they care about very different things. The fantastic program book made to look like a newspaper is exciting to them because its uniqueness will cause attendees to keep it, and the ad the sponsor bought in it, for years to come.

As a counter example, let's consider another business I have worked with. It is a game store in the Northeast United States. For those of you unfamiliar with game stores, they tend to be part retail store (selling board games, card games, trading card games, role playing games, and the like), but they are also part community space. Almost anything you can get at a game store, you can get online for less. People are willing to spend their money at a local game store because they enjoy spending their time at their local game store. The natural conclusion to draw about a store is that people go there for products and prices. For a game store, one would be mistaken. People go there for the experience. The products are just how the store monetizes that experience.

This game store, however, is very large and has become focused on product rather than experience. They have come to think that the customer cares only about price and event prizes, so they focus on what is on the shelves but fail to address the experience of the customer when he is in the store. They mistake a lack of other options in the local market for customer loyalty, believing that customers come back because they want to rather than because they have no other option. Customers say things like "There's something off about that store" and "It's not a comfortable place to hang out." The result is that in a business that used to demonstrate spectacular growth year after year, growth has slowed to almost nothing.

The goal is to give the customer what they want, not just what you think they want. You may be wondering how you find out what the customer wants. It's easy. Ask them. People love to talk and they love to give their opinion... if you ask for it.

You should also keep in mind that people are giving their opinion to everyone else. In the example of this store, all of the other stores in the region know what people think of them. Other customers know what people think of them. Random people on the Internet know what people think of them. Don't you want to know at least as much about your customer's opinions as your competition does?

It's a simple two step process:

Step 1. Just get into a conversation with a customer and ask "What do you think we do well? What do you think we should do better?"

Step 2. Shut up and listen.
Step 2a. No, seriously. Do not speak. Just listen.

You may be tempted to address their concerns, explain your choices, or even argue with the customer. Don't. Thank them for their input. Possibly ask questions to be sure you understand what they are getting at. Did they say something that surprised you or doesn't sound right? Ask a few more customers at random. If they all say the same thing that sounds wrong to you, it's probably not the customer who is mistaken. At the very least, you have a messaging issue.

Tigers like steak. Horses like oats. Mix them up and you're liable to be kicked by the horse and eaten by the tiger. What does your audience want?

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