Never Underestimate the Power of a Simple Survey (+ a Few Survey Tips)

As digital marketers, we spend a lot of time digging through analytics. And if you’re anything like me, a good portion of that time is spent trying to better understand the customer, their intent, hang-ups on site, or if you’re offering them the right kind of content/product/experience. Of course, analytics can tell you a LOT, especially once you start learning how to die different data sources together to get a more holistic view of the customer.

The one thing they won’t tell you though, is exactly what the customer is thinking. Yes, you can extrapolate and build hypotheses and test for correlations, but in my view the one true way to find out what a customer is really thinking is to just ask them.

Yes, it is true that customers don’t always know what they want, but by asking questions you’ll at least find out what they think they want. And that’s pretty valuable, especially when it comes to determining how customers are making decisions in the conscious part of their brains. But to ask them questions, you need to actually get out there and ASK.

The simplest, and in my opinion, most effective of these is the basic anonymous poll. Put together a question or two and trigger it to display for the people you are trying to understand. Make it as easy to answer as possible, with a limited amount of answer fields so it’s easy for them to make a decision. I also recommend including a free text form for those who don’t fall into the specific categories. You’ll find that some people didn’t quite understand the response options and typed in a variant of one of the existing responses, and you’ll also find additional answers that you never even considered to begin with.

Most importantly though, try to make the answer options as unbiased as you can. Include options that you don’t want to hear (i.e. “I don’t trust your company” or “your prices are too high.”)  Remember, the point of asking questions is to get as honest of feedback as you can so that you have actionable insights you can take back to your team to continue to iterate and improve.

A few tips:

  • For online surveys, try – they have a great system that’s easy to set up, has great insight and analysis tools, and is cost-effective.
  • You can also do surveys/polls directly on Facebook or Twitter, but remember that the only people who will be answering there are the users who actually use those services, which does lead to some potential bias.
  • Use your surveys to build better surveys. As you do a few, you’ll start to understand better how to word questions and responses so they make sense to the customer (as well as avoid leading them to answer with the option you prefer).
  • Your customer support can be a survey. Don’t be afraid to ask your support staff to ask customers questions. Just remember again that you will only be having responses from people who are contacting support, which is not indicative of your overall userbase (unless you have a really bad product and everyone calls support!). Also remember that people are less likely to give honest answers when they are talking to a real person than they are in an anonymous survey.
  • Don’t survey too often. Like anything else that’s not key to the experience, the survey does get in the way of the customer’s goals. Be mindful of this and respect the user.
  • A survey shows you care. Make it clear that you’re asking questions to make things get better. Customers do care that you care about them.

Have you had any positive or negative experiences with surveying? What other ways have you found effective to get direct customer feedback?

My Pick for Social Media Management: Sprout Social

If you’re running a business and you have a social presence (which you better have if you plan on being relevant), it can quickly become overwhelming to manage all your accounts. This can become even a bigger issue if you have more than one person managing your social accounts. You also need to be able to keep an ear out for voice of customer and to help with any incoming support requests or other customer questions.  Basically social’s a two-way street of communication, and there are a ton of lanes.

You can find a lot of options out there for social media management, especially at an agency level, but after all the ones I’ve gone through I recommend Sprout Social the most. You can manage Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google+ channels, schedule posts, create tickets to route messages to the right people on your team, etc. It also gives a good chunk of analytics, tying in to your Google Analytics even if that’s something you do.

Most importantly, with my team we encourage multiple people to be able to post to social. We follow brand voice guidelines of course so that the message is always consistent, but by getting people from different departments or backgrounds out there on the account we’re able to provide a much larger breadth of communication than we could with just one “social media manager.” The problem with this though is that you can get too many people talking at once, and your message becomes garbled. Again, Sprout helps with this as you’re able to see who posted what, when, schedule posts, see what’s in the queue to be published, etc.

So, long story short, if you’re looking for a good solution on how to manage your social media, check out Sprout Social. You can do a free trial too. It’s how I started with them and as soon as I saw they could solve my issues, I signed up for the larger package (professionally/business-wise, that is – for personal social media I do it all native to the platform).

Bonus? Their support team has been awesome.

… and no, they didn’t pay for this. It’s just an endorsement / recommendation of a tool that I use that I’ve had success with, to help you more easily find success too.


Update on April 14th – Sprout just reached out to me to say thank you for the article. I didn’t even tell them I posted it. So they’re monitoring obviously works, and they were classy enough to say thank you. That’s like a bonused bonus.


A Simple Start in Personalization: New vs. Returning Customers

The whole concept of “personalization” continues to be a top-of-mind issue for Internet marketers. Of course it’s been a hot topic for a long time (I remember doing speaking engagements on it ten years ago), but with the resurgence of customer “experience” as the current marketing buzzword, it’s taking on an increased level of interest.  I’ll be speaking about personalization on a panel at the upcoming e-Tail Connect conference in Orlando later this month, and the other day I had a call with my other panelists to discuss the topic ahead of time.

The one thing that stood out to me in this discussion was the variations on how people define “personalization.” For some, it’s putting a customer’s name in the email subject line. For others, it can go so far as altering their website’s structure and design to match a specific individual. But no matter how you do define it, the one thing to remember is this: when you “personalize” you are simply adjusting an experience to make it better for the visitor, based on what you know about them.

A big mistake I see people make when looking at personalization is the instinct to approach it in a 1:1 manner, meaning each individual user is treated specifically based on a combination of all their unique attributes. While there’s a lot to be said of what can be done with this method, it does immediately cause two risks: 1.) by trying to do too much, you’ll end up hitting a wall and doing nothing, and 2.) the more detailed your personalization, the more you get into a space of diminishing returns.

My recommendation for anyone starting out with personalization is to start simply. It’s the whole “walk then run” approach, I suppose, but it’s also more than that. It’s also looking at things more simplistically so you don’t miss the larger, easier opportunities at the expense of the minor details.  One of the simplest ways you can personalize the experience though is to determine how you might want to alter the experience for someone who is new to your product or brand, vs. someone who is a returning customer and put them in their own separate buckets.

In order to do this, you need to be able to take a step back and attempt an unbiased look at what your pages look like to someone who’s never heard of you. As you do this, also keep in mind that many of your visitors will not be landing on your home page, so you be sure to look at your analytics and see where new visitors are landing. What is the first impression you’re giving them?

Here are some questions you can ask yourself.

  • What is this company selling?
  • What is their “brand promise” (why should I buy from them)?
  • What do I actually get when I make a purchase?
  • How long does delivery / shipping take?
  • Can I trust this company?

Try to ask questions like these, or others. Better yet, find people who aren’t familiar with you or your brand and do some user testing. Get feedback from them. What questions are coming to them as they land on these different pages?

Just as important here though is the flip-side. For customers who already trust you and buy from you, ask yourself what messaging you can hide. Are customer testimonials on the home page really of value to already existing customers? You’ve already sold them on your brand – should you keep trying to sell them on it? Or would that space be better served by other information (order status, or recommended products, etc.)?

Basically what I’m saying is this: the first steps of personalization can be simple, but they can make a big impact. Start out by looking at segments like new vs. returning customers and see what information or experience is important for one vs. the other and adjust accordingly. Then move on to more minute segments.

And yes, I know this is a pretty simple article and concept – but more and more often I find people are missing out on these simple tactics in search of a big breakthrough of something new. Don’t leave these opportunities on the table, because honestly they’re going to have the biggest immediate impact on your business.

Wallet and Key

Visitor Intent: A Key of Conversion Strategy

Every day your site has people coming to it. It might be dozens, it might be millions – but you have people coming (I hope) and chances are not every single one of those is familiar with you or your brand. But as you look at your site analytics and you see this traffic, the first question you should be asking yourself is this: Why are they coming?

You can dig in further in your analytics, look at referring domains, do keyword analyses, sort through page view data or do anything else your data-driven mind desires, but unless you try to answer this simple question first, the rest of the data can be rather meaningless.

You see, people can come to your site for a variety of reasons and until you determine those reasons you can’t figure out what your conversion strategy should be. If you’re a retailer, how many people are coming to actually purchase something (intent to purchase)? How many are just doing product research? How many clicked through “accidentally” – thinking they were coming for one thing, but found out that what you had wasn’t what they were looking for at all? Or, if you’re in digital content there’s also that (rather annoying) question of how many people were looking for free/pirated product?

These questions are important to know. If 70% of your traffic is coming through just for price comparison and you’re a premium-priced product, those customers are probably less-likely to convert (although a retargeting campaign showcasing product features and why you’re worth the premium price might be a good idea). If 40% are there with intent to purchase, but aren’t converting – then you know you have to dig in deeper with some testing to see what you’re doing wrong.

Tip: The easiest way to determine intent is to just ask. Put up a simple survey and show it to the customers you’re trying to understand.

The point is, knowing what your visitors are coming to your site for is one of the most important things you can do when building out your strategies. If you see low-purchase-intent visitors coming through on a batch of paid search terms, maybe cut back on that spend. But maybe they have high intent, but are still in the research phase … then you can adjust your approach and make sure that you’re doing proper follow-up marketing with them for when they are ready to purchase. Adjust your expectations on that paid search channel and treat it as lead generation vs. looking at specific ROI.

That intent, and then further exploration of what you can do based on that intent, is what’s key to a conversion strategy. Until you know why your visitors are coming, you can’t do much to get them to convert to buyers. Even worse, if everyone you’re driving to your site has no intent to do what you want them to do, you need to rethink your acquisition and strategy itself.

What Mini Pumpkins and Googly Eyes Taught Me About Added Value

Way back in history, from when I was in grade school through my first few years of high school. I raised and sold miniature pumpkins. My grandpa had a farm, and he was the local pumpkin king, raising giant pumpkins (one year he almost broke the world record – but someone grew a bigger one than him that same year). Every year my parents would help my sister and I raise a field full of miniature pumpkins and decorative gourds, my parents would raise jack-o-lanterns, and my grandpa would raise the giants. The whole thing taught me a lot about hard work, business, presentation, marketing and a lot of other things – but those are all for another discussion.

What I want to talk here is how I learned how added value works. In particular, in regards to googly-eyes, stick-on eyebrows and funny hats.

The pumpkins we sold went for 35 cents a piece, or 3 for a dollar. Raising them was one thing, then you had to pick them, wash them, display them, etc. – which was a lot of work for 35 cents each. Not the greatest return on investment (I’m pretty sure I was working below minimum wage), but still I earned enough money selling these things to pay for a good chunk of my college – and to have some spending money as a kid as well.

The real money, however, was in the decorated pumpkins. As we went through our inventory, we’d set aside some of the best-looking specimens for their own special treatment. These top-quality pumpkins weren’t sold just as individuals for 35 cents, but instead they went through a process where my parents, sister and I would hand-decorate the pumpkins with various bits of craft materials. Add a few googly eyes, draw on a mouth and stick on a witch’s hat, and suddenly we were able to sell them for more like $3-5 a piece. Yes, there was extra work involved, and yes there was cost of materials – but the return on investment increased greatly on these when compared to their naked brethren.

I didn’t really realize it at first, but what I was learning here was that while raw materials have value, you can add extra value by taking your skills and combining those materials together to make something greater than the whole – and charge accordingly. People could have decorated pumpkins themselves, and I’m sure a lot of people did – but for those who wanted these cute little bits of harvest fun without doing the work, they were willing to pay accordingly.

The other lesson I learned is that people were much more willing to pay and buy these when they were told that my sister or I did the work. You could chalk it up to some sick desire to have souvenirs of child labor, but I’m pretty sure that the value came in because of the perception that they were even cuter because they were made by kids.

The moral of the story is this: No matter what you’re offering, you can always add extra value through your own skills and expertise. Even if it’s just googly eyes and silly hats.

Also, teach your kids about business. Even just a rummage sale or lemonade stand. They’ll be happy to get a few extra bucks, and they’ll be learning a lot while they do it (even if they don’t realize it at the time).

If You’re Gonna Be Awesome, It’s Okay to Brag

Our family got a new kitten the other day. It’s a little baby Siberian – born on New Year’s Day to boot. It’s our first “fancy cat” though, and one of the things we learned right away about these special breeds is that they need to eat better food than what we’d been picking up at the grocery store.

Luckily for Farnsworth (that’s his name), the cat lady we bought him from was well-prepared. She gave us a list of all the foods we need, and even recommended that we order it from

Now, having only had regular old cats, I never really had to order from a fancy online store to get grain-free, “steam-cooked” pouches of cat food that are arguably better than what I feed myself. Therefore, Chewy was completely new to me. Nonetheless, I took her advice, shopped the site and found everything I needed. Roughly $160 later I was ready to check out with enough cat food to make it look like I was doomsday-prepping.

The big bonus? FREE SHIPPING. Every order from Chewy is free once you hit $50 apparently, which was nice since cat food is heavy – especially the stuff in the cans.

The problem for me though was that I’d procrastinated in ordering this food. The kitten was being picked up in two days, and there was no way I was going to have this food in time. Since I didn’t want the little guy to starve, or be forced to eat peasant food, I did what anyone else with half a brain would do – I went to Amazon and Prime-shipped a small box of pouches to tide the new guy over until his feast arrived.

But here’s the thing: Chewy’s shipment actually arrived before my Amazon order. And it wasn’t because Amazon was slow, but because Chewy was so darn fast. Seriously, $160 in cat food was delivered to me in a day. It was awesome. Of course I had no idea it would be here so soon, and having no idea how long their shipping would take, I had ordered extra from another retailer to avoid accidentally starving my cat … and if I’d thought it over before completing my order, I very likely would have just dropped off Chewy and gone to Amazon. (Honestly, the only reason I didn’t was because I wanted to try Chewy out to see how they were).

Putting aside all my cat-rambling, here’s the point I’m trying to make: Chewy offered free shipping, and it was actually good, fast free shipping. I didn’t have to worry about how long it was going to take – but they should just go ahead and brag about it a little! Maybe I was an odd case, but I can’t help but believe that fast shipping, even when it’s free, is part of what Chewy is giving it’s customers as part of their brand promise.

If so, shout about it. Let customers know. Tell them that their order will be there soon. Don’t lose out on potential new customers by keeping this information hidden or unknown. A simple message in the basket explaining how quickly I could have expected my order would have avoided them even risking losing my business to Amazon.

The moral of the story? If you’re going to do something awesome, it’s okay to brag about it. Tell the customer why you’re awesome. Surprises are nice, but giving a promise ahead of time and living up to that is even better.

P.S. I’m planning on shopping with Chewy again, and I already told several friends to start ordering their pet food from there. I know of at least one who did already. BOOM. Word-of-mouth win. (Plus, they got this sweet blog post out of the deal too).

The First Step in Personalization? Selective Exclusion. (a.k.a Hiding)

In a few weeks’ time, I’ll be in Orlando for the 2nd Annual eTail Connect conference. Last year’s event was a great one, and I had some fantastic discussions with other people in e-commerce, and to say I’m looking forward to this year’s event would be an understatement.

As the date nears though, I’m starting to get my thoughts together for the panel I’ll be participating in: ‘Walking The Line Between Personalized And Intrusive – Mission Impossible?’ It’s a pretty straightforward question, but it’s one definitely worth discussing, especially as we as marketers try our best to provide customers with an optimal experience, but without moving into the “creep factor” realm.

In my opinion, there’s one simple way to take a step toward personalization without ever risking going there. That’s through what I call “selective exclusion.” Basically, that means a form of personalization where you don’t particularly provide content specifically chosen for a specific user or group, but instead you use the knowledge you have of the customer to get rid of noise or otherwise unimportant information. In other words, use what you know to give customers less of what doesn’t matter.

Here’s a simple example of what I’m talking about.

Let’s say a band like Beyoncé puts a new album out, and Musicnotes has all the sheet music for the album. It’s something big and I’d want to promote it heavily … but I also know that I have a large segment of users who only play classical music. Their preferences state they only play classical. Their buying behavior also only shows classical. So you have a few options.

  1. You could promote the Beyoncé music to everyone, even the group of people who only like classical.
  2. You could selectively target the content to only show up to people who like similar genres to Beyoncé.
  3. You could just not promote it at all because you don’t want to annoy your group of classical musicians.
  4. You could add a promotion to the site for Beyoncé, but simply hide the promotion (or use default content) for the classical customer.

Of course, #4 in this list is the solution that I am recommending in this scenario, through my concept of “selective exclusion.”  The point being, you may not have something in particular to promote to your classical customers, but instead of showing this Beyoncé promotion to them and diluting the value of your page by presenting them with messaging that is of little value to them, you can just skip it altogether.

It’s a simple concept, but it’s something worth keeping in mind. In my experience, the more “noise” you put in front of a customer, the less likely they are to be able to complete what they came there for in the first place. Even worse, if you continue to put irrelevant content in front of them they may start to think that is the only content or products you offer, and soon start to find a place that specializes in the kind of product they look for.

Of course, in a perfect world we’d always present every customer great products and content that are specifically matched to them. But that takes resources – resources many of us may not have available (or that simply aren’t cost-effective). Yes, there are many tools out there that make this easier, like Monetate or Adobe Target – but they still require us to make decisions and the promotional materials … and that doesn’t even start to address the amount of variations you could get into at a true 1:1 level of personalization.

What’s most important is that you don’t send your customers on wild goose chases or distract them with information that you know will be irrelevant. Instead of thinking of personalization in simple logic terms of “If customer is X, then promote Y” think “If customer is not X, then don’t promote Y.”  It allows you then to easily handle the instances where “if customer is everything but X” much more easily.

Just remember, if it’s not relevant. Keep it hidden. Not every customer needs something special just for them, but every customer does need you to know when it’s best to say nothing at all.

Stop “Surprising” and “Delighting.” Build a Great Product and Experience Instead.

I have a pet peeve that’s turning more and more into a lingering frustration, and that’s all the hype I’ve been hearing about “customer experience.” It seems to be the headline of every other article, and if I hear someone talk about “surprise and delight” one more time I’m gonna freak.

Here’s the thing. Customer Experience has always been the most important thing to focus on. How you treat your customer, and the experience they have shopping with your or interacting with your brand is basically the key to any successful enterprise.

But it seems to have gone beyond that lately. It’s gone to companies going out of their way to build experiences that are beyond the brand – turning the marketing into a kind of circus sideshow / novelty act.

If building out experiences beyond your core is what you are doing, that’s of course fine, but my fear is that in this strive to “surprise and delight” our customers, we’re losing track of the most important part of our jobs – to serve them as seamlessly and professionally as we can for the purpose in which they are interacting with us in the first place.

So, here’s my tip: Before you make it your mission to “surprise and delight,” spend as much energy as you can going through your core product experience. Do user flow analyses, work with QA testers. Get feedback. Dig into analytics. Use the product yourself and give feedback and iterate until it’s flawless.

Then, once you can’t find a single sticking or pause point throughout your user journey, and your product does everything that your customers expect, and in a way that is absolutely obvious, then you can look at going farther.

“Selling” Should Never Get in the Way of Usability

The other day I bought tickets for Batman V. Superman, and with that purchase I got a batch of free digital comics. Pretty great deal, especially since even though I’m a big comics fan, there were a few included that I hadn’t read yet. The extra bonus? They were on a digital comics platform that I’ve been a long-time customer of, so they were getting added the ecosystem I’ve already built up a library in, vs. having to use a whole new system just to access the content.

Before I get into the meat of this article though, I have a sidenote that will put things in better context. Even though I said above that I’m a longtime customer of the platform, I have to admit I hadn’t used it in quite some time. Back when I used an iPad as my primary device, I used this service extensively. But then I traded in my iPad for a Surface Pro (which was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done, by the way). My Surface was on Windows 10. The comics platform had a Windows 8 app. It didn’t work at all. I don’t think I ever once got a comic to load without it crashing. A few months later, they announced they were dropping Windows support completely and that I should just use their web experience (which although nice, is nowhere near as useful as the old iOS app I was used to – and couldn’t be used offline). Long story short? I stopped buying from them.

In the time since, I’ve continued my love affair with comics, but have returned to the comic book store and the classic printed books as my format of choice. But I got these free comics … and there were a ton of other comics I’d bought previously through this platform that I hadn’t even gotten the chance to read, so I decided to dive back in.

Like most everyone these days, I pretty much live on my phone. It’s an Android (a 2nd generation Moto X, to be precise), so I decided to get the comics on there. I downloaded the app. Simple, like it should be. But then I tried to use the app, and was reminded of the other issue I had back when I’d been trying to use the Windows 8 app, because that same issue was front and center here: There was no clear way for me to access my library of purchased comics.

What I got instead of a quick access to my comics was a page with all the stuff I could buy to use in the app. In fact, if I didn’t know that the app was actually the way you consume your purchased products, I’d have thought it was purely a shopping app. And while I can understand the reason to want to monetize in the app, what I couldn’t understand was why the “read my comics” area was ridiculously hard to find. I eventually found it, and every time I open the app I am starting to learn more and more where to go to get my actual purchased content – but that is not the way an app for consuming digital content should work, which leads me to the point of this whole article:

When you design any app or website, design with the purpose of fulfilling the user’s primary goal.

When you design any app or website, design with the purpose of fulfilling the user’s primary goal. In this instance, the main use of a digital comics app will in almost no instance ever be to just buy comics. It will be to read the comics. Yes, you want to monetize. Yes, the customer needs content to actually consume. But above all, the customer wants to experience his or her own brand of joy by actually reading the content.

Amazon gets this with their Kindle app. Yes there are promos, but the books in your library are what’s front and center. At Musicnotes our app is designed to let people access and use their sheet music. True, we don’t currently have in-app purchases, but even if we at some point do, they will not take over the main experience. If someone wants to shop, give them quick access to your store. If you want to promote, find relevant ways to cross-sell. Heck, you can even run a promo on your home screen – but don’t go to the extent where you actually make it difficult for the customer to use your product.

Here’s how I look at it: If you keep the customer’s ultimate goal in mind, and build your experience around helping them best realize that goal, you will succeed. A great experience isn’t just bells and whistles or personalized adds, it’s one that guides the customer to experiencing success in what he or she set out to do. When you do that, those customers come back. They tell their friends. Their LTV goes up, as does their word-of-mouth.

So again, don’t let your short-term goals get in the way of the customer. Figure out what the customer really wants to do, and help them do it. If they need to buy something to get there, help them along the way – but the main purpose in any interaction is to make your customer achieve their goal.

Oh, and yes I did like Batman V. Superman. It wasn’t perfect, but I liked it.

Ends-Focused Marketing: Your Business is Really a Service

One of the things marketers struggle most with is what message they want to portray to their customers. Oftentimes this turns into a list of features and benefits of the product, or simple positioning of the brand in comparison to competitors.

When I talk to others about marketing though, the one biggest piece of advice I can give is this: figure out what your customer is trying to accomplish.

In the end, the products we promote as marketers are in almost all instances, the means to an end. For Musicnotes, that end is simple: someone wants to play a song. For a book store, the customer wants to read something. How they discover your brand and how you help them discover the right product is part of the marketer’s job, but the most important thing to remember is that they have a purpose and its your job to help them fulfill it.

This is why I push so much for marketers to focus on customer experience, and in particular, an experience that gets customers to where they want to be as simply as you possibly can. It’s also why I shy away from cross-sells and up-sells, as they can be distractions to the purchasing process. Distractions in the process are just that: distractions. Unless you’re providing true discoverability where discoverability is actually wanted, skip it. Otherwise you’re just getting in the way.

My theory is this: If customers can rely on you to fulfill their needs, with a product they trust and in as painless as a way possible, you’ve just delivered joy. That rush of dopamine they get from actually doing what it was that they set out to do (read a book, learn a song, run a race) was catalyzed by you.

So, keep these purposes in mind at all times when you’re marketing. Don’t just list features or come up with pretty graphics. Show the customer how you’re going to solve their problem. Make the customer happy.

If they’re happy, they’re going to come back. And their going to tell their friends. And you’re going to be successful.

Remember their goal and help them reach it.