How to write a good customer survey

“Are you afraid of the impending revolution of the robots taking over the world or do you feel completely safe and not at all worried about A.I. technology?”

That wasn’t a joke. A real surveyor for a real (and prestigious!) institution asked me this.

A pollster had called and I agreed to “answer a few brief questions on the economy.” Highly highly recommend you take telemarketers’ and pollsters’ calls if you’re having a slow night and need some entertainment. You will not be disappointed.

If you have a brain, you know this is a bad question.  It’s a bad question because answering it doesn’t tell you anything useful.

Market research is overflowing with bad questions (Why? that’s for another post). I know because I started my career in research. Surveys, assessments, phone screens, rating scales, in-depth interviews, focus groups, you name it, I did it.

If you’re writing a customer survey it’s because you are looking for information to help you grow your business. You want to get in the mind of your customer and walk around in there for a while.

Unfortunately, most of what you’ve seen (and are probably copying) is wrong and bad and won’t help you. Ergo, robot revolution question.

To avoid your doing what everyone else is doing wrong, here are the 10 things you need to do to write a good customer survey:

1. Cut the intro.

No one reads them. If someone is filling this out for you they have a job and a life too. They don’t care why you wrote it, what you were inspired by, what you hope to find, and that you’re sorry it’s so long.

If you must write something, keep it no longer than a line. But I recommend putting that fluffy preamble in your email where you ask them to fill out your survey in the first place. Except, I’d cut the fluff parts and say what you mean and keep it short.

Your survey-takers have a life. They aren’t reading this part.

2. Keep questions open-ended.

No one likes to sift through your 67-different-combinations-of-offerings squinting to read each one.  And everyone hates Likert Scales.
I know you’re trying to get statistically sound data you can analyze in fun ways, but let’s be real here – you’re not actually going to do that at this stage in the game. If you’re getting to know your customers, you’re getting qualitative data.

You need directional info and you need the juicy nuggets that come from a good ole fashioned brain dump. You want the rambling. You want the asides. You want ALL OF IT. Don’t argue with me on this.

The more information you can get from your customer – how she thinks about the problem you solve, and what assumptions she makes about the world, what keeps her up at night – the better. The best way to do that (save for a face-to-face conversation) is to ask open-ended questions and let her ramble. You’re not looking for statistical significance, you’re looking for the truth.

Ask open-ended questions. Nothing else.

3. Resist the urge to ask leading questions.

Leading questions are questions that influence the answer. Which is great if you have a boss and you’re trying to confirm his or her bias so you can get promoted. But it’s not so great if you want to get actual sales. (or if you care about integrity in research but…psh, who cares about that?)

Leading question:  Do you have problems with your boss?

Better question:  Can you describe your relationship with your boss?

Leading question: Do you agree that polluting is bad?

Better question: How do you feel about pollution?

Leading questions are great if you run a media company and want to give misleading statistics that give you more viewers, like “59% of people are afraid of an impending robot revolution.”

4. Resist the urge to ask yes/no questions.

This relates to numbers two and three, but deserves it’s own bullet because we often don’t realize we’re doing it. “Yes/no” questions are not that helpful unless you sincerely need to know yes or no.

If it wasn’t already clear: YOU WANT MORE INFORMATION THAN YES OR NO!

You want to know why, how, when, where, what, whose fault was it, what did they say, how did it make you feel, etc.

“Do you like coffee?” is not a helpful question if you’re launching an artisanal coffee subscription company. “Why do you drink coffee?” or “What do you like about coffee?” will give you much better answers.

To keep yourself in check, ask yourself: Could the respondent answer only “yes” to this question and feel like they answered the question?

“Do you drink coffee?” Yes.

“Why do you drink coffee?” Yes. (sounds weird)

“What do you like about coffee?” Yes. (sounds weird)

Go with the ones that sound weird when you answer “yes.”

5. Use answer prompts sparingly.  

Answer prompts are helpful for giving respondents a starting point to answer your question, but because they are helpful they also tend to cloud your respondent’s ability to be objective and come up with their own answer.

Exhibit A:

“What do you think of when you think about Margo?”

Red hair, wine, stilettos, etc.

Exhibit B:

“What do you think of when you think about Margo?”

Kindness, compassion, benevolence, etc.

Seems benign, but those two prompts take respondents into two totally different places. One is a bit goofier and related to physical items she’s associated with. The other is emotional states.

For example, perhaps you want to capture the physical items Margo is associated with because you’re a graphic designer and you need visual answers, not the emotional states. Or, conversely, you want to capture emotional states because you’re a graphic designer and you’re creating a color palate for Margo that needs to embody those traits.

Depending on what you’re asking the question for, either prompt could be helpful. But if you want to capture pure guttural reactions – don’t put a prompt unless necessary.

Times when a prompt is necessary:

You think your survey-taker will misunderstand the question.
You think your survey-taker will go in the wrong direction with the answer.

One last example, if you want to clarify instructions, but not give an answer, you can do something like this:

Exhibit C:

“What do you think of when you think about Margo?”

Can be anything that comes to mind. Don’t censor yourself here. There’s no “wrong” answer.

6. Create an atmosphere for honesty.

People care what you think. Make sure they know the survey is anonymous, that you appreciate the feedback, and this is a judgement-free zone. Come at it like a scientist. You’re trying to capture the truth of what your prospect is feeling, seeing, and behaving. It helps no one if they lie (which they’re doing anyway, see #10).

This has a significant influence on answers. It’s why focus groups are pretty useless. You want honest answers, otherwise, you won’t have information that helps you grow your business and sell more.

Consider the person who is balding. You have a conditioner that can help. The balding person is not going to tell you they perused the “toupee” section on Amazon unless they feel safe and not judged. But you need to know that they are looking for toupees! That’s really valuable information that can inspire blog posts, ad campaigns, headlines, and media planning (where you place an ad – like in the toupee section vs the hair color section).

You can bolster that this survey is a safe-zone in your email: “Responses are totally anonymous. Be blunt and honest. Don’t just give me what I want to hear.” And btw that should also be true. Don’t be an ass and track responses if you’re telling people it’s anonymous.

7. Ask 3-6 questions tops. TOPS.

Market researchers all over the world are yelling at the computer right now. They can yell all they want but it doesn’t change the facts: no one enjoys filling out surveys. No one. It is fun for no one.

So how do you get people to do something they don’t like? You compromise.

You want honest answers to help you understand your customer.

Your respondent wants to go back to her life and not be bothered by your survey.

3-6 questions are the compromise. You get to capture some strong qualitative rambling data (wahoo!) and your respondent gets to go back to their life.

Put yourself in their shoes. How much do you like getting a survey from BlueCross BlueShield with 35 questions they promise will only take 15 minutes (it never takes 15 minutes). You’re just hitting buttons by the end to make it stop and you can be entered in a raffle to win an iPad.

Which brings me to #8.

8. Do not offer an incentive in return for filling out your survey.

This is the worst part of the market research industry. Incentives immediately change the nature of the exchange. It becomes about the $50 or FREE yoga class or iPad raffle and not the information. Now, incentives are fine if you’re doing something in the hard sciences because you aren’t totally reliant on self-reporting (which is what a survey is). If you’re taking blood or saliva swabs from someone, it doesn’t really matter why they are there. Incentives won’t change the composition of their blood or saliva.

But incentives will influence how your respondents answer your qualitative questions about how they feel, think, and behave. This is the plight of the social sciences. If you’re a social scientist reading this, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re not here’s what you need to know: appealing to people’s humanity is enough to get them to fill things out for you.

I’ve gotten hundreds (yes, hundreds) of people I’ve never met to get on the phone with me and answer some questions or fill out a survey.  I know this works. People like helping people they believe in and that they think will actually listen. And people love love love to talk about themselves. If you communicate that you care about this topic and REALLY care about this person’s opinion/feedback (which you should. And if you don’t, go away. I cannot help you.) you can get them to fill out your survey.

This isn’t rocket science. Be genuinely curious and be respectful of people’s time. You’d be amazed how much you can get out of someone if you ask nicely.

9. Do not send surveys to your friends and family.

This isn’t exactly about how you write a survey, but this affects the outcome of your survey big time, so I snuck it in. You’re welcome.
There are only two reasons to ever ask your friends for anything

Reason 1) To get information on you personally (i.e., “What are my strengths?”). They can articulate things about you better than you can and see you from a different angle than you see yourself. This is helpful if you’re doing a personal branding survey, for example.

Reason 2) They happen to be your market. If you’re targeting new moms and you have 6 friends that just had babies – cool. Send them a customer survey. But if you’re targeting new moms who love yoga and working out and your friends sit on the couch and eat Oreos all day, then their feedback won’t be helpful to you.

How do you know if your friends and family are your market? You want to find out if they’ve bought products or services like yours in the past or if they have the problem your product solves (they suffer from sweat stains and you’re selling sweat-free fabric T-shirts. They just started weight watchers and you are a health coach. They love reading books on parenting and you have a book on parenting. You get my point.).

The time to use friends and family is in promoting your business, not in collecting customer insights.

10. Listen to what people do, not what they say.

Your respondents are liars. All of em. They’re not lying on purpose per se. They’re mostly lying to themselves, but it’s still lying.

We have little-to-no self-awareness as to why we buy what we buy or do what we do. We don’t know why we do things, we just do them.

To avoid getting crap data, you want to learn to ask questions that focus on behavior and not explanations or rationalizations for behavior (unless you’re trained to see through that and know the difference, which is really hard to do).

A very popular question that leads to answers where people lie is this: “How much would you be willing to pay for a product like this?”

The answer to that question is not at all predictive of actual behavior. You would never spend $7.75 on a magazine because that is way too much, plus who the heck buys magazines? You did. You bought one at the airport because you forgot your book, your phone battery died, and you were so freaking bored and Chris Hemsworth is so freaking hot.

Better questions: “When was the last time you bought a print magazine?” or  “How much did you pay for the magazine?” “Have you ever spent more than $7 on a print magazine? And if so, when?”

I still like to ask why. It’s really interesting to hear how people rationalize their behavior. Just remember, any answer you get is an after-the-fact rationalization. You want to tap into what they were thinking before it was rationalized. “I was bored at the airport” is not enough. You want to know they were bored and they were pissed and they like Chris Helmsworth.

That way, for example, when you decide where to physically sell your magazine you can make sure you choose places in areas without cell phone chargers where people are more likely to have their phones die. Or when you decide to place an ad somewhere, you can lead with your good looking page covers instead of your more interesting stories. Etc…

Remember, the goal of a customer survey is to get in your customer’s head.  You want to capture the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of your market as accurately as you can.

It will do your business no good to get anything different. Even if it’s how they feel about the impending robot revolution. As long as it’s honest, then you’ve gotten what you came for.

 

The real reason self-promotion sucks

No one likes promoting themselves.

It’s awkward, uncomfortable, and it feels icky.

You think to yourself, “I’m not a sales person. I’m the subject matter expert. I shouldn’t have to do this. I’m above this.”

And then one of four things happens:

1. You start to explore your paid ad options because the thought of organically growing something makes you want to throw up.

2. You convince yourself affiliates are the way to go because it’s “efficient” and “gets you in front of other already existing audiences.”

3. You seek out a social media expert who will “do social” for you.

4. You do nothing because you’re waiting to get all your “ducks in a row” before you promote anything.

The trouble with each of these approaches is that they don’t solve the real problem. The real problem is that you hate self-promotion and you don’t want to do it.

And when we don’t want to do something, we’ll do anything to avoid it. Include make bad business decisions. Because we’re being motivated by fear instead of being objective about what’s best for our business and our customers.

So I’m going to explain why these approaches are no beuno for this stage of the game and then give you a better way.

 

Why you don’t want to start with paid ads:

 

A general rule of thumb for paid ads is that your cost per acquisition (CPA) needs to be less than your customer lifetime value (CLV). Which makes sense. If it costs you more to get a customer than the customer is worth, your business loses money. It defeats the purpose of your ad in the first place.

A lot of people think, “Eh, I’ll throw $100-$500-$1000 at Facebook and go from there.”

Trouble is, until you have consistent sales, you have no idea what your customer’s customer lifetime value (CLV) is.  You end up just guessing that this strategy is positively impacting growth and hyper focus on the wrong numbers – like how many people saw your ad (vanity metric) versus how many people bought from you (real metric).

To add insult to injury, there is sophisticated art and science to writing ads. If you are averse to selling in the first place, then you’re going to suck at writing a strong (or even good) lead-generating ad the first few times around.

Did I lead with the right benefit? Did I have a strong enough call to action? Was the design clean enough? Was it clear what my ad was trying to say? Should I send people to a landing page or to a sales page? Do I make them opt-in first?

Unless you’re a huge weirdo like me who loves this stuff, you probably have a headache from reading that paragraph.

Running ads when you’re just starting out is like doing a 5 day cleanse when you’re trying to lose 60 lbs. You’ll lose a few pounds, but it won’t fix the real problem.

 

The problem with Affiliates

 

The logic I hear for this approach is solid – get in front of already captive audiences. That is smart. But there are better ways to do this out of the gate than affiliate selling.

To start going after affiliates when you’ve never sold anything online before is like being introduced to someone by a mutual friend and then immediately asking that person to give you money for your breast cancer walk. It may be a great cause, but they don’t really know you.

They’ll judge (or worse – dismiss) you as pushy and be mad at your mutual friend for putting them in that position in the first place.

Yuck all around.

The idea is to develop a relationship with the audience before you start selling them something. Which is a lot of work, especially if you hate self-promotion.

The affiliate approach seems easier because you can piggyback off someone else’s existing relationship with their audience.

Problem is, it’s transactional. It disguises itself as relationship-first (the whole “my friend has this great product I thought you’d love!” idea), but it’s about sales.

Sales are excellent. The lifeblood of business. But if you’re starting out, you want to have a relationship with your audience first. That’s where you want to spend a bulk of your time.

The reasons have to do with market norms vs social norms. Market norms are the unofficial laws governing behavior in a transaction involving money. Relationships governed by market norms are formal and strict, “I will do X for you for $Y compensation. No more no less.” This is how traditional businesses functioned in an industrial economy. Makes sense.

In a connection economy, however, you want to lead with social norms – especially if you’re trying to build a following.

Think about this: if you went to a friends’ place for dinner and realized you forgot to bring wine, so you gave them the financial equivalent when you arrived, say $30, how would they react? You arrive at the door and hand them cash.

It would be weird.

Same thing with your audience, you want to hand them wine.

If you want to go the affiliate route and don’t yet have a list, I’d recommend not selling anything at first. Provide value for free, like a PDF or lead magnet specifically for that audience. Get them on your list before you start selling to them.

 

Why you don’t need to “do social”

This one gets me all sorts of irritated.

Posting things randomly on social media is not “doing social.” I’m not actually sure what “doing social” is, but I suspect what people mean is that they want someone to post on social media platforms for them.

The problem with this is that it assumes that your audience is sitting around ready and willing to buy, click, or comment on your posts.

There’s nothing wrong with hiring an expert and going out of house for your social media. If you’re paying for social strategy because you don’t have the bandwidth and your prospects are on Facebook, all good.

If you’re paying for someone to post broadcast messages because you think you’re “supposed” to be on Facebook, then Houston we have a problem.

Before you pay for an expert, you have to understand how social works and why you’re on it in the first place. Let me be clear: What is the business reason you’re on Facebook? Twitter? Snapchat? How is it helping you meet your goals?

You’re thinking “Margo, obviously, it helps me to get the word out.” And you’re wrong.

No one is sitting at home flipping through their feed waiting to hear about your promotion. People want to watch a video of their friends’ engagement or like pictures from a party last week or watch a puppy walk around wearing a sweater. We engage with content that’s relevant, valuable, and interesting to us. You’re on Facebook, you know this. You’re a consumer.

There are no secrets about its function now that you have a business. The laws governing social media remain the same. It’s social. The reason you feel unqualified to do it now is because you feel self-promotey.

And rightfully so – it’s super uncomfortable. You have to post in front of friends, and family, and people who might not be your target market. Which is terrifying because they’re all judging you (or at least, it feels that way).

What’s worse is that you’re posting into the ether, being totally ignored, getting zero engagement, and feeling like poop about your efforts.

It feels futile in the beginning because literally no one is paying attention and that sucks.

It’s also really hard. Even if the rules remain the same, you’re not the same. You’re thinking like a business and start to speak in a different voice or what I call the “overly chipper effect.” Happens to everyone. Whenever we stop thinking like a person and start thinking like an entity, we talk like a used car salesman.

That may work if you’re applying for a job at Merrill Lynch, but for all other things in life it turns people off. And (spoiler alert) customers and prospects are people. It helps when you talk to them like people.

Don’t mistake this to mean that you shouldn’t create a social media strategy or editorial calendar or eventually hire someone to help you manage social. You totally should. But in the beginning, there is no substitute for your developing a relationship with your audience. And facing the awkwardness.

 

On doing nothing:

Nothing feels safe. We love nothing. Because it’s not *really* nothing. It’s waiting, preparing, gettin’ all our ducks in a row. You’re doing a lot of work while you’re doing nothing.

My favorite is when you make a laundry list of things that you must have in place before you can start promoting. “My site isn’t optimized.” “My copy on my about page isn’t done.” “I don’t know exactly perfectly 1000% who my market is yet.” “I need a logo.” “I don’t have a tagline.” “I don’t have my funnel optimized.” “I don’t have a company email address set up yet.”

And they’re all legit reasons. Perfectly legit.

Trouble is there are always perfectly legit reasons to do nothing. I can think of a million things wrong with this website right now you’re reading. Typos I haven’t caught yet. Opt-in copy is sub-par. No lead magnet.  Crappy logo that I made in an hour and now won’t load properly, but I haven’t had a chance to fix it.

The point is this: there are a million things that are wrong and will continue to be wrong/not ready/legit reasons for you not to act.

All of these all ladder up to the one real reason you’re not promoting: fear.

Aversion to self-promotion has to do with fear (everything has to do with fear. Little $%^&er.)

Is my pitch is bad? Is this idea really dumb? What if people think this is stupid? What if no one cares?!!

Here’s the truth: Your pitch is bad. People will think what you’re doing is stupid. And no one cares.

Let’s just start there. It’s a heck of a lot easier.

No one got on a bike and started riding. It’s not a thing. Not even prodigies. Same rules apply here. You’re going to suck at promoting yourself, your business, and your ideas until you’ve done it, a lot of it.

Which is why, despite being perfectly wonderful marketing approaches, paid ads, social media, and affiliate marketing won’t help you at this stage. They prevent you from addressing the real problem (fear). And that will follow you around for the rest of your life until you address it.

That’s why I recommend the Toe-Dip approach.

I was never the kid who jumped straight into the pool if it was cold. Or warm. Or ever. (I was a weird kid).

I was scared of getting my hair wet and being really cold. You know, legitimate things.

But if I didn’t get in the pool, I’d be forced to sit outside with my parents who were not fun to play with. So, I’d get in the pool slowly. At my comfort level.

Starting with my toe. I’d dip my toe in the pool. If I determined the temperature wasn’t life-threatening, I’d put my entire foot in. Then my leg (but only up to my knee), then up to my thigh…eventually, I got in the pool and had a blast.

That’s how I recommend you address your discomfort with self-promotion. Slowly and methodically, without wasting too much emotional energy hating yourself or squandering money on ads before you’re ready to actually run them properly.

The idea is to build up your tolerance for discomfort in stages. Dip your toe in.

I like to start by doing things that are kind of visible, but not too visible:

  1. Update your Twitter bio with a link to your site (and a blurb, if you’re daring)
  2. Update your Instagram bio with a link to your site (and a blurb, if you’re daring)

These don’t broadcast your updates to anyone, so you can start to get comfortable with the link being live and existing in a (technically) public place, but no one will really see it.

Then you can stick your foot in:

  1. Update your Facebook bio and/or put your link on your profile somewhere.
  2. Tell a friend you trust about your new project. Over drinks. Even if they’re not your market (unless you have really crappy friends), they’re going to be excited for you regardless of the topic. And that excitement helps.

The goal here is to boost your confidence and get you comfortable with being “out there.” You’re not even promoting per se, you’re acknowledging the project is real and live and exists in public and could possibly be seen by others. Which is frightening.

As you start to get more comfortable with being “out there,” you can move to the next stage which is a bit more public:

  1. Update your LinkedIn bio (You can turn off the broadcast feature so your friends aren’t notified unless you want them to be. I recommend using the broadcast feature so more people get the update in their news feeds, but if you’re still just dippin’ in your toe, don’t stress about it. Just update. Get yourself comfortable with the link simply being live and up.)
  2. Email a few of your close friends or colleagues and tell them not to give you any constructive criticism for at least 2 weeks. That way you’re facing your fear of people seeing your site/project and judging you, but you don’t get any feedback that could deflate you until you’re ready to take it objectively. (we get all defensive or worse, hurt, when we get feedback before we’re ready)
  3. Post in a Facebook group where you know no one. Anonymity is a godsend when it comes to overcoming your fear of promotion.
  4. Post in another Facebook group with the same copy you used before.
  5. Post in a different Facebook group with different copy.

Facebook here can also be LinkedIn, it doesn’t matter. The point is slowly upping the public-ness of your promotion. There are a ton of little things you can do to increase your tolerance for discomfort. The goal is to get to the point where you’re no longer scared, you’re having some fun being creative. And you’re less vulnerable to the reactions of others.

Another way to do that is my version of “exposure therapy:” Start introducing yourself differently at social functions. Preferably ones with drinks. Each person that says, “So what do you do?” test a new pitch on them. You can even say, “I’m not sure yet…can I test out what I’m working on?” or “I’m working on something new but I’m not sure how to describe it yet.”

The idea is to get yourself comfortable with talking about it and getting blank stares. And you will get blank stares. It feels like crap. Just expect it. Also expect that you will eventually get that one person who is part of your target market and you’ll realize you’re not being self promotey – they actually want to hear ALL about your product or service.

Which is the point. When you’re speaking to people who speak your language, who are interested – who need and want what you’re selling – it stops being self-promotey and starts being helpful and appreciated.

But in the beginning you’re not there yet. And everything feels self-promotey.

And self-promotion sucks.

Anyone who tells you you’ll get over the fear either doesn’t have it or is lying to you. You won’t get over the fear, but you will learn to act in spite of it. That’s the goal. And soon it will feel normal.

In the beginning you want to follow the famous Paul Graham dictum, “Do things that don’t scale.” When you’ve gotten traction and you know your product or service sells, then you can scale (aka: employ an affiliate strategy, run ads, hire experts, etc).

Know why you’re employing the marketing approach you’re employing. The why should always be “because this is the best way to reach my target market,” and not because deep down you’re avoiding doing the hard work of on the ground non-scalable icky-feeling self-promotion.

Why marketing is so confusing

Have you ever seen a marketing agency’s about page?

Like this one:

“[NAME] is an agency that works to bring innovation throughout their projects and push technology as well as strategy to help their clients achieve success.”

Huh?

If I were copyediting this it would be bleeding in red ink. What kind of projects? What kind of technology? Success in WHAT? What do you DO?!

This is the marketing equivalent of a politician’s answer: lots of words, yet somehow, nothing of substance is actually said. It’s code for: we aren’t sure either.

You could argue like many do, that marketers are consciously deceiving you [LINK]; but having worked in the underbelly of this institution, I can assure you that’s giving them way too much credit.

Most marketers (agencies especially) are just as unclear on what they do as you are.  Which is why you’ve probably walked out of a 2-hour meeting going, “Wait…what?”

No one is blurring the truth on purpose per se; we’re all confused. And the reason it’s so confusing has to do with this unique place in history we happen to be in.

Marketing, as an industry, is in transition.

It’s similar to where medicine was in the 1950s.  Back in the day, you just had “doctors” and “not doctors.” And doctors did everything. You’d never expect a podiatrist to be able to perform an appendectomy today. That’s CRAZY. But back in the day, we did. We didn’t know any different. Specialization was not a prerequisite for implementation.

Same for marketing today.

We can’t seem to decide where to draw the line, so we don’t.

Instead, we clump everything together and call it “marketing!” when really we mean “web development” or “public relations” or “data analysis” or “graphic design” or “social media management” or “SEM” or “advertising.”

Few of these have overlapping skill sets, btw.  A good web developer is probably not a good social media manager in the same way your brilliant IT guy is probably not great at being the MC at your holiday party. They’re different skill sets.

It’s no one’s fault. This is actually a really great thing, like adolescence. It’s unpleasant, but necessary for maturity.

People who had a business back in the day didn’t need to study design or HMTL or copywriting or know anything, really, other than, “My business sells widgets – do you need widgets? Buy them here.” An announcement would suffice.

Getting someone’s attention back then wasn’t difficult. You had 4 ways of reaching people (Radio, TV, Print, or what’s called OOH (“Out of Home”) which includes things like billboards and subway ads).

Today it is exponentially more difficult to get someone’s attention. For two main reasons:

One: There are lots products to choose from in each category. If you want a watch, you don’t just go to the watchmaker. You do “research” and go through 50 brands before you decide on the watch that’s right for you.

Two: There are wayyyyy more distribution channels beyond the original 4, such as your computer, smartphone, or tablet. And then the million channels within those channels, like search engines, social media, or plain ole regular media like forbes.com.

It’s harder to stand out today than it was back in the day.

In your mind, marketing is just a bunch of things that help you get customers. The how is up to the marketer (which, in fairness, is a decent way to think about it).

Here’s what typically happens:

You, business owner, get smart. You do some reading; you learn enough to be dangerous. And you’re like, “Ah! I got it. I need SEO!” So, you do the logical thing and you hire an SEO guy. The SEO guy is like, “Yes! I have a client! I’m going to do the best job ever!” and he does.

But then sales are “eh.” And you’re left wondering why.

It’s because marketing is a system.  SEO is part of that system, but it’s not the entire system.

Neither you nor your hire know who is responsible for setting up that system. The SEO guy thinks it’s you since he’s only here to do SEO. And you think the SEO guy’s responsible, since, WTF you’re the business owner and that guy is in marketing, so this is his domain to rule and advise you on.

(Not to mention, the SEO guy, in earnest, promised you SEO was the silver bullet you were looking for and would get you a bagillion leads. (he wasn’t wrong that it would help with leads…it’s just…you need to then do something with those leads…hence the “system”))

This happens all the time. It’s the chicken or the egg conundrum of marketing. Who is responsible for setting up the system!?

SEO without a conversion optimized site (which is part design, part development and engineering, part copy, and part branding) is like getting everyone in the neighborhood to come to your shoe store and then the store looking like crap and no one can find their sizes or styles they like and then asking, “Why did no one buy shoes?”

There’s no simple answer. It’s inventory, it’s merchandising, it’s the pricing strategy, it’s the distributors, it’s the checkout process, it’s customer service…There are a LOT of reasons someone didn’t buy shoes.

When it’s a brick and mortar store, it’s much easier to assign jurisdiction and governance to each domain. Obviously, your marketing person is not going to be responsible for checkout or inventory, that’s fulfillment and supply chain territory. But in today’s world, especially online, the lines aren’t so clear-cut.

The trouble lies in one simple question: Where does marketing begin and end?

The simple answer is: we don’t know, yet.

Lots of thought leaders wax poetic about how “marketing is everything!” and they’re not wrong. Every customer touchpoint is communicating something about your brand to your customer.

But it’s not exactly a helpful distinction (or definition) when you’re trying to run a company and make different departments responsible for things.

We’re getting close. We’re nearing the phase where we go, “hmm maybe a foot doctor should focus on feet and an internal medicine doctor should focus on appendices. And also – let’s get a different doctor working on the brain. They shouldn’t be messing around with feet or appendices. That seems like a good idea.”

Until then, if someone tells you they’re in marketing, reserve judgment when they cannot tell you exactly what it is they do. Odds are, they aren’t quite sure what they do either.