It is tempting to fully embrace data-driven decision making and demand all marketing efforts are backed with data and ROI. While this sounds reasonable initially, marketing is both an art and science, and great marketers should also spend time honing their customer intuition to be successful in their craft.

The problem with data-driven marketing

Data-driven marketing has the inherent assumption that efforts need to be measurable and deliver ROI. This is problematic in that marketers aren’t tapping their customer intuition to spend effort against difficult to measure initiatives and channels or proactively investing ahead of time. As a result, companies put the cart before the horse in pushing for measurable growth experiments and channel expansion while underfunding areas like messaging, new channel development, and brand building efforts. I’ve written in the past about the role of product marketing, and so much of the work is grounded on a deep customer understanding. Marketing at its most effective is informed by both data AND customer intuition.

How poor customer intuition hurts you

  • Experiments are only as good as your hypotheses. If you’re running a landing page or ad creative test, it’s only as good as the variations you’ve developed. If you’re building a predictive model, it’s only as good as the variables you feed it.
  • Difficult to measure channels get unexplored. Influencer marketing, conferences, a branding or site redesign, worth it? How will you tell after the investment that it was dollars well spent? If the ROI measure is the only gold standard, marketing teams will shy away from this type of work because it’s unrewarded.
  • Product messaging and positioning efforts are under-invested. If your message fails to resonate with your customer, they may not even consider your product as an option. This also often translates into lack of collateral, case studies, testimonials and other efforts because efforts to boost purchase consideration are not prioritized.

Marketers need to hone their customer intuition

To be clear, I’m pro quantitative marketing and measurement. It’s where I’ve spent the bulk of my career as a marketer and it’s insanely valuable. However, it’s important to differentiate between being being data-informed and data-driven. Being data-informed is using a mix of customer intuition, creativity, and data to decide where to spend effort, rather than being data-driven and allowing data to drive decisions and efforts.

This is where customer intuition comes in. Customer intuition is your skill in understanding the needs and motivations of your customer throughout their purchasing experience, and subsequently what makes a product resonate with them. It’s about improving your accuracy in successfully channeling an out of body experience of your customer to predict what would they say, think, or feel in relation to this thing? It’s like spotting a gadget at the store and thinking with certainty, “Oh! My friend X would find that delightful!”

The process of building customer intuition is about getting deeply curious about what’s motivating customer actions, instead of just reporting on them. What is it about the product that makes customers behave like this and not that? What brought the early customers in and what’s kept them here? What was the reaction to the new notifications that we just launched (spammy, useful, annoying)? When someone turns their subscription renewal off, why do they do that? And from those insights, can we get better at how we market and explain the product to others.

How to hone your customer intuition

The simplest test for your customer intuition is to start making predictions before you see results. Which email headline worked better? Which ad creative worked best? Will this feature be a hit or a flop? Your accuracy in making these guesses can be a simple way to build confidence in your intuition.

When was the last time you talked to a customer? You can increase the depth and frequency of your customer engagement as a way to get more familiar with your customers. It’s helpful to spend time consuming information: lurking on forums, reading support emails, engaging on social media, etc. It’s also helpful to spend time engaging: joining sales conversations, scheduling feedback calls, or spending time at conferences.

Point projects to collect customer feedback can be a helpful tool as well. This doesn’t need to be a full-blown market research project, but can also be a very lightweight exercise to prove out predictions. For example: I think our customers would find this feature really valuable, they just aren’t aware it exists. If I talked to five customers, would they agree? Leveraging user interviews, research, and even a few data points can help hone your intuition.

As teams scale, it’s increasingly difficult to spend time in this important but not urgent activity. Building systems for validating customer intuition can be a helpful to address this problem. For example, some teams schedule quarterly customer deep dives where datapoints are aggregated and live customer calls are scheduled. Other teams form customer councils where they build relationships with key customers and send mockups and ideas to them for feedback. Another way might be to introduce customer feedback into the process for larger scale projects, such as big redesigns or prominent messaging changes.

Strong customer intuition enables conviction

Building deep familiarity with your customer is helpful to enable smaller decisions to be made with higher quality, and larger decisions to be made with conviction.

For smaller decisions, many of the smaller projects marketers work on are too small to be backed by data and customer intuition plays a role in ensuring quality. For example, a marketer might work on an email announcing new features coming out in the quarter or partner with a designer to work on messaging copy for notifications for a new product flow. Often, these are considered too one-off to be tested or too small of to be optimized. Having stronger customer intuition will result in stronger decision making quality overall, such as deciding which product feature to highlight in the email or the right phrase to describe value in a notification flow.

For larger decisions, strong customer intuition is incredibly valuable because it enables conviction. Conviction is important. It enables you to take on risky, hard to measure channels which can be differentiators in the future. For example, Adobe’s deep investment into their evangelist teams or Hubspot’s focus on content marketing and INBOUND conference. Or it enables you to deploy your efforts ahead of when you need them. For example, investing in mobile or Facebook experiences early on before customers have definitively made the transition.

Building strong customer intuition enables that special blend of qualitative with quantitative, and making strategic decisions backed by data.