I’ve never gone along with the maxim: “Perception is reality.” The fact that reality is reality keeps me going every day. If I have to start accounting for versions of the truth, I’ll likely hang up my tool belt and quietly retire to a cabin in the woods. Opinion, though — opinion is a strong force. It can’t affect reality, but it can certainly affect perception.
Have you ever had a shirt you wore, but didn’t like much? Maybe it was a marginal fashion call, but deeply discounted on the sale rack. You thought you’d take a chance with it. The first day you attempted to wear it out, you checked yourself in the mirror, lost your nerve and changed it for a more acceptable option. Yet it’s still in your closet. You can’t commit to wearing it. You can’t commit to throwing it away.
I call mine a day-six starter. It’s like the minor league pitcher a baseball team will call up every few months to give their other five starting pitchers an extra day of rest. It’s the shirt I wear while my favorite shirts are in the laundry. My day-six starter recently got a promotion to the regular rotation (bear with me, baseball season is back).
Surprisingly, I got four or five compliments on it. Perhaps it was the perceived “newness” as a departure from my stale stable of shirts. Maybe I didn’t believe in the shirt before — I didn’t have the requisite swagger to pull off the look.
No matter the reason, it was one of those times when I realized I was on the wrong side of public perception and readjusted my thinking. Now I’m on the same page as the people who see me each day, and to top it all off, I’ve got one more great-looking shirt than I previously thought I did.
What would have happened if I had defied my newfound admirers? “You don’t know what you’re talking about. This is an ugly shirt. You should see the beauties at the dry cleaner,” I might say in opposition.
First, that would have been a weird conversation that left everyone walking away uncomfortable. Second, they would leave thinking, “I’m never saying anything to this guy about his shirt again,” which means they won’t have an opportunity to talk about my much better shirts when they’re clean. Let’s take the shirt you love that your spouse hates. You know the one.
You got it when you were single and wore it all the time — thinking it made you so cool. Then your spouse breaks the news to you, about a year into marriage: It makes you look like a doofus.
Bam! Your favorite shirt becomes your least favorite shirt. If nothing else, it becomes your least-worn shirt. You keep it, though, just in case your spouse’s fashion sense comes around.
If you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave it at the far end of the closet rod, deep in the shadows.
These same tropes play out in advertising all the time. I call it “the focus group of one.” It’s the one idea your niece can’t get out of her head, and she convinces you to build a marketing campaign around it. It’s the one customer who says the voice actor in your commercial is too racy for the airwaves.
These opinions weigh on you, and you change your personal taste. We tend to lose perspective as business owners by thinking about what we want instead of what our customers want. Making marketing decisions based on personal taste is kind of like wearing your spouse’s least-favorite shirt on date night and wondering why he or she hasn’t complimented you.
Your spouse is the one who has to look at the shirt — making your spouse’s opinion a little more valid than your own. Similarly, your customer is the one who has to buy the product. Beauty isn’t in the eye of the beholder, it’s in the eye of whoever gives you the most positive feedback — or better yet, the most money. It’s so difficult to do and can seem counterintuitive, but when we run customer-focused businesses, we must throw out personal taste and err on the side of consumer taste.
In 2002 Ludicorp developed an online multiplayer game called Game Neverending that focused on allowing hundreds of users to play together online at once. To facilitate the online community, functions like instant messaging and group chats were added to the game, along with, eventually, a photo-sharing feature. The photo-sharing component soon became more popular than the game itself, with users logging on solely to exchange photos.
Ludicorp could have limited the photo exchange capability to return the focus to the game, but instead the company listened to its customers and rolled the photo-sharing component out into its own product.
In 2004 Ludicorp launched Flickr, the online photo storing and sharing service. Flickr was purchased by Yahoo in 2005 for about $35 million and had 112 million users in 2015. All too often we spend our time looking to the strategies of big corporations or studying marketing theory when our customers are so obviously telling us what they want.
I’ve sat in many a meeting where a company had a successful product that wasn’t the product they most wanted to sell. Instead of realigning their perspective to match that of their paying customers, they disincentive consumers. Marketing a new or less popular product is the best way to stir interest, but it should never come at the expense of the thing your customer wants the most.
When we talk about customer service, we say the customer is always right, even when they’re actually wrong. “My steak is undercooked,” the customer (who ordered a medium-rare steak) says. “It sure is. I’m so sorry. We’ll get that fixed,” the waiter responds. The same should be true when it comes to marketing and selling. “I’ll have the steak,” our customers tell us.
“No you won’t, I’d rather sell you grilled chicken,” we reply all too often. If consumers want something from you, then don’t spend your valuable time trying to explain why they shouldn’t want that particular thing. If you’re explaining, you’re losing.