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When Marketing gets confused with Selling

7 Oct

As someone who works in the university sector it’s been interesting how the industry is transitioning into a competitive market-competing for customers. From a decision making perspective I’d argue that this transition phase has produced a significant error at some universities-the confusion of marketing with sales. For arguments sake, this is a focus on a very narrow frame to make a point, a polemic.

A few years ago I was part of research team which explored how students (16+) were making decisions about university courses and one thing was clear from the data- students all wanted to know what they were going to get in return for their money at the end of the course- their employability prospects. This was in 2011, and students knew they were looking at least a 20k investment in their education. I was lucky enough to have access to data from 2008, where the perceived debt\loan burden was nowhere near as high, and the financial crisis (089) was months away. The clear finding from this earlier data was that students prioritised different things in their decision making- enjoying the course, social life, making new friends.

In a crude summary, student decision making in 2008 was more focused on enjoyment, in 2011 decision making more focused on return on investment. Fast forward to 2014, and universities need to sell potential customers a future beyond a degree. So, on this basis, it’s easier to sell a future in Nursing because it’s a visible profession, it has a visible employer (NHS for example), pay scales, progression, pension plans. Also, there are bursaries available which ease the financial burden. However, it is not a profession which is so easy to market.

Sport on the other hand is far more glamorous and very easy to market, but, far harder to sell. It’s harder to sell because the life after university proposition is not so visible; the return on investment is harder to work out. The problem is this- if easy to market subjects don’t sell then marketing gets blamed, or the marketing budgets get cut or increased, subjects get more\less exposure etc. But all of these decisions are based on confusing marketing with sales and an error.

To dissect this confusion, just an idea, a possible approach is to assess the decision making of 2014 students along a single criteria- return on investment. The next step would be a focus on the courses which are able to effectively address this criterion and then market them. This is opposed to focusing on courses which are easy to market, but don’t sell. In the meantime, focus on improving the selling points of courses which are easy to market but conflict with the decision making criterion-clear return on investment; don’t just market them and expect them to sell.

Market Research and Visualisation

2 Sep

An alternative or complimentary approach to traditional methods of market research (focus groups, questionnaires for example) is the study of consumer reasoning. Whilst questionnaires and focus groups can tell you what choice a consumer would make, they don’t tell you the reasoning behind that choice or what, for example, a particular product will be used for.

A great illustration is Klein’s (2013) account of a market research project he and his team carried out with a major blue chip company. The company supplied premium detergent but were losing market share. Following focus groups and questionnaires the blue chip company had made the decision to launch a basic brand of detergent. Klein has brought in as a verifier of the market research results; what Klein thought he could add was an investigation of consumer reasoning.

Klein carried this out by mocking up a supermarket in the form of photo cut outs and asked consumers (one at time) to talk aloud as they made decisions about which detergent to purchase; the consumer was required to ask the research team for price and other related information. To cut it short, the results revealed that consumers were not interested in a discounted version of the detergent (which the focus groups and questionnaires suggested). Instead, they made their decision by choosing the cheapest luxury item. All that was required was to offer discounts and offers on the existing brand. The money saved and made by the blue chip was many millions ($).

Some of the latest visualisation kit, some of it full size, allows you to take this type of research to the next level. We’re currently putting together projects to identify and fix decision errors using visualisation. An example is high street planning, we know what consumers say they want, but what do consumers actually use high streets for? What reasoning strategies drive these decisions? The answers can have very different outcomes to those based solely on traditional methods.

Reference
Klein, G (2013) Seeing What Others Don’t; The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, Notable Books