Marketing is Like Sex: Everyone Thinks They're Good at It

Last Updated Sep 14, 2011 2:51 PM EDT

Marketing is Like Sex Everyone Thinks Theyre Good at ItThere's hypocrisy in the corporate world that's begging to be called out.

Everybody thinks they're a marketing expert. Your boss, the CEO, the IT guy - I bet half the people in your company think they know more about what customers want than the customers do. Everybody's a focus group of one.

So where's the hypocrisy in that?

Simply put, they should know better. Hell, they do know better. They're smart. They know what one person's opinion is worth. You propose an idea and they want it substantiated, analyzed, and researched, right?

And yet, those same people will turn right around and impose their opinion on you. Hypocrisy.

It's sort of like the old line: those who think they know everything are annoying to those of us who do. But how in the world can you tell the difference between the two? I mean, really.

After all, those people - the ones who shouldn't be imposing their "focus group of one" opinions on you but do it anyway - are often right.

I didn't always see it that way, especially when my CEO was the guy doing the imposing. Then, one day, I realized that - as VP of marketing - I did exactly the same thing. I'd swoop into a meeting and trash everyone's long thought-out plan in favor of my own focus group of one.

And you know, more often than not, I was right. So, again I ask: how can you tell the guy who knows his s**t from the guy who's full of it? Quite a dilemma, isn't it?

Okay, let's see if we can break this down. There's a ginormous difference between the opinion of your average everyday product user and the opinion of someone who really has a knack for that sort of thing. Unfortunately, people don't walk around with big signs on their foreheads telling you which they are.

One thing's for sure. It doesn't always correlate to job title. I mean, your CEO could be a moron or he could be Steve Jobs, right?

Speaking of Steve Jobs, Apple somehow manages to divine what people want, even when they don't know it themselves. They don't use focus groups or research. They're their own focus group, as Jobs explains here:
We did iTunes because we all love music. We made what we thought was the best jukebox in iTunes. Then we all wanted to carry our whole music libraries around with us. The team worked really hard. And the reason that they worked so hard is because we all wanted one. You know? I mean, the first few hundred customers were us.

It's not about pop culture, and it's not about fooling people, and it's not about convincing people that they want something they don't. We figure out what we want. And I think we're pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That's what we get paid to do.

So you can't go out and ask people, you know, what the next big [thing.] There's a great quote by Henry Ford, right? He said, "If I'd have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me 'A faster horse.'"
Sounds pretty convincing, right? Well, on the flipside, check out this sort of confession from David Hornik of August Capital, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm:
VCs like to think that they are marketing geniuses. We really do. We meddle more in the marketing of our portfolio companies than any other area. If you have a chance to sit in on a startup board meeting, you can see this in action. The CFO gives a finance update and a few cursory questions are asked. The VP of Engineering talks about development and board members sit around the table nodding appreciatively. Then the VP of Marketing gets up and suddenly everyone around the table has a point of view.

Frankly, the reason investors have so many opinions about marketing is that we can fake it far more convincingly than in other areas of the operations ...
That doesn't sound very encouraging, does it?

Basically, the answer to the dilemma comes down to this. Much of the secret sauce in having a successful company, business, product, service, career, whatever, is knowing who to trust and listen to, versus who to ignore and hope they don't make a big stink about it.

In my case, it's sort of instinctive, in the sense that I grew up in what many would describe as a war zone on the streets of New York. As a result, my survival skills are finely honed, which includes knowing who's for real and who's just BSing to get attention.

If you didn't happen to grow up in a war zone, no worries; you can still learn from experience.

So, regardless of your company or what you do there, if you're the kind of guy who has a knack for getting inside customers' heads and knowing what they want before they know it themselves, by all means, speak up. Be a focus group of one.

And if you're the CEO or CMO and you don't have that peculiar knack, or you're a VC who's faking it, then you'd better have the instincts to know that you should listen to that guy. And do us all a favor. Keep your "focus group of one" opinion to yourself.
Follow Steve Tobak on Twitter or Facebook
Image: Dan Dierner via Flickr

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