min to LISTEN
September 26, 2017

Customer Research 101: Uncover What Your Audience Wants

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
Sales Consultant

This episode I’m talking to Liston Witherill, conversion optimization and copywriting expert and CEO of Good Funnel.

He believes that marketing is about helping customers make informed decisions in their buying process, and he wants to teach every business how to sell more effectively.

Listen in as Liston walks us through a step-by-step process of customer research and how to use it to understand what your customer really wants.

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We covered:

  • The importance of customer research
  • Establishing credibility and customer trust
  • Human behavior and irrationality
  • Why growth hacking is bullshit
  • The buyer’s journey and helping customers make an informed decision
  • Customer research techniques
  • Identifying your real competitors
  • Effective messaging


Full transcript:

Louis: Liston, thank you so much for spending a few minutes of your time in talking to me. You’re in charge of Good Funnel, which is an agency with a particular approach that I’m going to go through in the next few minutes, but you specialize in an area where very few people specialize in. You really try to understand why people buy, why they don’t, and then you base your marketing strategy and you help your clients based on that. My first question to you would be: why do you think so very few agencies and marketers in general avoid customer research, avoid trying to understand people better?

Liston: First of all, I wanted to thank you for having me here. This is a few minutes of my time, but it’s also your time and everybody listening to this. Thank you to you, Louis, and also to dear listeners. I appreciate that you’re listening to this right now. I also wanted to make one quick correction which is that, I am no longer an agency; I am a solo operator. That’s just a quick little side note.

In terms of customer research, I think there is a lot of reasons Louis, why people don’t do it. I think the biggest one though is laziness. I spoke to David Darmanin on my podcast as well as lots of other people - Susan Weinschenk and a few others. We all agree on this point, that the biggest thing preventing most people from doing customer research is that it takes time. They’re a little lazy about it. I think often they don’t know where to start. Hopefully one thing that we can do through the course of this podcast recording is give people some tools so that they know where to start.

Louis: That sounds exactly what I have in mind. I like to challenge you on this first [part 00:02:00]. I would agree that most people would be lazy getting into this type of activities. Exactly as you said, I don’t think they are lazy necessarily; I think that they really are overwhelmed by the amount of data they have in front of them, and they don’t really know where to start. I think not that many would be pure lazy and say, “I don’t want to do it. It’s just too much.” Do you agree with me?

Liston: Yeah, perhaps. One thing that I think anybody should think about in terms of customer research or really pulling any insights out of their business, is before you go into the task of doing it, I think you need to sit down and think about what is it that I need to know, what is the question that I’m trying to answer. Therefore, once I have that question written down - who knows what it is? Maybe it’s what causes my customers to buy for the first time? What causes my customers to buy for the second time? What causes people to not buy? All these type of questions are the things that we try to get at. There would be a specific way to answer those questions depending on what the question is.

On the one hand, I think you’re right that there can be a state of overwhelm and shrug your shoulders and go, “I don’t know what to do, so I think I’ll just guess,” which I think is how most customer research is done. If you’re crystal clear about the question you’re trying to answer, answering the question, finding the data, and doing it in a short time is actually not that difficult.

Louis: Yeah, that’s a fair point. From your experience, you started to talk about it - but from your experience, I know it’s a very generic question but you might be able to answer it. What’s the number one reason people don’t buy a product online? What’s usually the thing that you see the most happening?

Liston: Lack of trust is the number one thing. To me, all sales really comes down to establishing credibility and trust, and then obviously, right audience, right offer. Those are two other things that are pretty critical to nail. If you don’t have the trust and credibility, especially online, you have no chance to recover that sale. We’re starting to see ways of doing that now with targeted chat messages through products like Intercom or Drift, and we’re getting at ways to recover people and build trust depending on where they are in their process and what content they’re viewing. However, I think it’s going to be an ongoing challenge because what we’re really attempting to do online is sell without the chance to respond to people’s immediate individual needs. Therefore, the trust needs to be built very, very well, and the product needs to be positioned such that it meets enough of that average person’s needs that they’d be willing to take it, if they can overcome that trust hurdle.

Things like having a credible-looking website, which means good enough design (is what I would say). It doesn’t need to be the best design, but it needs to be good enough. A clear layout, testimonials on the page, examples of other companies using your service. These types of things all start to build trust whether it’s conscious or unconscious, and most of it will be unconscious on the part of the person viewing it. But if there’s no trust or a lack of trust, you really have no chance of that sale.

Louis: That’s a very good point. Before drilling down into this in more detail, because it’s a really interesting topic and something that I really like talking about as well - I like to tell you two things. I haven’t told you that before, and I did that on purpose so that it will be a genuine conversation between us two, but the reason why I knew you from before and I wanted to get in touch is because when I hired an agency, I don’t know how - but I stumbled upon your website goodfunnel.co. I don’t remember exactly how, but the copy on the website was so compelling, was so well written, yet written in simple terms that I was like, “Fuck, this is the type of stuff we need to do.”

When I had this agency, we basically looked at your website, and I was like, “Okay, how can we have as good as copy as those guys.” This is why when you contacted me for this podcast, I was like, “Fuck, that’s amazing. I can finally talk to the guy and the brain behind it.” That’s the first compliment I wanted to tell you. For the listeners as well, you should definitely go to goodfunnel.co and look and read the copy. It’s really well-written, and you clearly have done your homework.

Liston: Thank you, I appreciate that.

Louis: To talk about you a little bit. You run marketing and sales for a consulting firm in the past, and then you went into digital marketing in particular. This is when you created goodfunnel.co. You seem to be very driven. You seem to really know where you’re going. You seem to be this kind of leader that people will naturally follow, but I want to go back to the root of that. Why are you the way you are today? What kind of kid were you? What kind of dreams did you have when you were growing up?

Liston: Wow. Answer this in 30 seconds or less, right?

Louis: No, no. Take your time.

Liston: What kind of kid was I? One important point to make in terms of my background is that I grew up with my - partially, half the time, my parents are divorced. Half the time I was with my dad and stepmom, and they ran something like nine businesses over the course of my life. Most of them were miserable failures, but two of them did pretty well. I was around entrepreneurship and technology from a very, very early age. In 1984, my dad started building custom computers for clients, and so by the time I was 12, I started building computers. I was part of the business. I think some of my drive comes from that. I think some of it is just genetic or natural, depending on what you believe, but anytime I take a personality test, I score very high for self-motivation and qualities like that.

I think natural part of it is my own background - part of it is learned from my parents. I also just really am deeply, deeply curious about people. What makes them make the decisions they make? Why do they do the things that they do? How do they arrive at those conclusions or actions? In my personal time, I read almost exclusively non-fiction, and for pleasure I’m reading books about behavioral economics or even academic papers about psychology and decision making. This is a window into who I am.

Louis: I would be quite the same. I would be very interested in that, but I can’t figure out why I am the way I am - why I have this interest particularly in knowing how people behave. Do you have any insight in your sites - why are you so interested in this topic?

Liston: Yeah. I think one of the big things is, I’m often perplexed about the decisions people make. There’s a great book by Dan Ariely called Predictably Irrational. What he sets out to do in the book is answer the question, “Why do people make so many decisions that seemingly are irrational?” They’re doing things maybe that appear to us to be against their own self-interest, and if we’re really programmed to survive and that’s how we’ve evolved, why would we do that? That’s one thing.

I’m very interested in politics, which I don’t want to talk about on this podcast. The only reason I bring it up is that, if you look at the way policies are formed or the way people support different policies that are often against their own self-interest, I start to ask why. I really am driven to understand what is going on, what’s the complexity and nuance behind a decision that seems to make [no audio 0:11:43]. I am trying to explain the world around me, really. Since so much of the world is driven by people and the way people behave - the more I can understand how people behave, the more likely I am to understand the world.

Louis: You don’t want to talk about politics, which is a shame.

Liston: Is it?

Louis: Yeah, it is a shame. No, no, it’s not. Let’s take a quick example on one thing you talked about which is why would people vote for a politician or choose a path that is directly against their self-interest? What would be the main reasons why they would do that?

Liston: I think it really varies. Man, are you really going to make me talk about Donald Trump? That’s not something I want to talk about.

Louis: No, no, no. Absolutely not, no. I actually do. I exactly knew the type of person you were talking about.

Liston: Yeah, obviously. Why do people do things that are against their own self-interest? I think what they’re perceiving is that it’s not. I think that that’s kind of a first condition that we need to think about. Let’s just go ahead and talk about voting. People vote for lots of different reasons. The reason people voted for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton could be different. Some people may not even be voting for political outcomes. As I talked to a lot of people who did vote for Donald Trump, and I asked them, “Why did you vote for him?” Some of them cast a vote against Hillary Clinton. They’re not saying, “I support Donald Trump so much.” They’re saying, “I don’t like Hillary Clinton.” Other people are basically, what I like to say is, taking a piss on the system. They say, “I’m so upset with politics.” You saw this in Brexit. “I’m so upset with politics. I’m so upset with politicians ‘lying to me,’ saying we’re all going to be better off, and I’m not better off than I was 20 years ago. I say, ‘Fuck ‘em all.’ I’m just gonna vote for something that I know is going to piss them off.” That’s a totally different reason why you would vote for someone.

Some people voted for Trump because they thought business experience was a really important thing. We’re actually seeing that that turns out not to be such a governance strategy. The point being is it’s not one reason. There’s lots and lots of different reasons. People in some ways are either trying to express themselves, which would be a way to satisfy their own self-interest. “I want to be heard.” That’s one thing. But that’s not the same as “I want a better economic outcome,” which would be the most rational reason to vote, or “I want a stronger, more stable, more equitable society.” To me, that would be a rational reason to vote, but that’s not why everybody votes.

Similar to buying. I always give the example - a lot of people get hung up on selling features of a product, so “It does this. You would use it in these circumstances.” One of the products I love to give the example of is Roundup Weed Killer. I live in the US. We love our lawns here, something like a third of all of our surface area is dedicated to grass lawns, which is insane. You need to control the weeds, otherwise your lawn looks like shit. It could be tempting to sell Roundup by saying, “Most effective chemical, kills 99% of weeds. Have the greenest lawns.” All these things. Greenest lawn would be more of a benefit, but the way the chemical works and what it does - those would all be features.

I would say though that people aren’t actually buying any of that stuff. The main reason they’re buying Roundup is because - not just “I don’t want weeds,” and then the next level is “I want a better lawn,” and then the next level is “I want a greener lawn.” I think it’s a level beyond that, where they’re saying, “I want my neighbors to walk by and think I have the best-looking house on the block. I want people to ask me how I was able to do such a great job on the visual appearance of my house, and therefore give me social points, sort of a political pull in the neighborhood. Everyone talks about how great my lawn is.” The reason people buy it may be varied, but ultimately people want to feel pride in their home and they want to feel like their neighbors are recognizing them for having a beautiful home. Those things are totally different than how effective the chemical is. Is this making sense?

Louis: Absolutely. To me, it does. Hopefully the listeners will get a good understanding of it. But right there is the difference between talking about features and talking about the job to be done, talking exactly about how customers feel. Getting to this conclusion that seems extremely simple, or it’s because people want the neighbors to look at the house and therefore they will feel better about themselves, about their social status. That’s very simple, but yet this is incredibly difficult to get out of customer research. This is what we’re gonna talk about in the next few minutes and how to actually get to this answer. That’s pretty exciting.

Before that, I like to back down a little bit on talking about marketing. As you know, the [un-goal 0:17:45] of this podcast is about shady, shitty marketing and the bullshit around it. I’m interested to know on your side, what annoys you the most in today’s marketing?

Liston: The thing that annoys me the most by far is - I have a very good friend. Philip Morgan and I talk about this a lot, and he’s actually written an article about it. What marketers will tend to do, particularly in the marketing about marketing market - if that’s not [bad 0:18:20] enough - what a lot of marketers will do is choose one fringe example of something that worked, that may or may not ever work again, and then extrapolate from that, that this is the new way to do your marketing. That’s one of the things I hate.

In terms of actually marketing products, for me, it’s very simple. I don’t like when people stretch the truth far enough to obviously say, “That’s a lie.” We talked about this in the lead up to the show. If you have to lie about your product, you have a shitty product. I can’t sell or market effectively a shitty product. If you can’t be honest about your product, there’s something wrong with the product, or there’s something wrong with the person you’re marketing it to. That’s a bigger problem. The solution is not to lie or mislead your audience about it because ultimately what you’re going to find is people are dissatisfied. You have no word-of-mouth. There’ll be no growth behind your product, and so I would look at those signals if I were you and use those to determine, “Am I doing something wrong on the front end?”

Louis: Yeah, I agree 100% with you. I know that a lot of our listeners don’t necessarily have the power to make any changes to the product or the services they’re selling. I know that a lot of them feel in their guts that they are not doing the right thing, that they could do something better. What would be your advice to those marketers, feeling like they have to lie or trick people to send more stuff?

Liston: They may not like it, but first of all, I would say, marketing, selling, asking people to transact with you in any way - it’s a relationship. I always think about a photograph versus a video. A photograph is a snapshot in time, and I think when we get too caught up in collecting tactics about marketing, we treat our marketing or our sales as if it’s a snapshot in time. We have one second to make the sale, and that’s it. That’s just not the way it works. People are exposed to you for a long period of time.

Today lots of literature saying that people make 50%-70% of all of their research in buying decisions before they interact with you directly. There’s a lot that they’ve already built up. It’s not like, “How can I have that one tactic that’s going to change everything?” That’s not how it works. The way it works is, there’s this whole collection of things that are happening, that point to a person making both an emotional and irrational decision in order to buy something from you.

What I would say is, you need to talk to your team if you’re getting feedback from people saying, “The product is wrong” or “It’s not for me.” Maybe you’re not selling it to the right person. That would be the first thing to look at.

The second thing to look at is maybe the product needs to be altered. If your team is not willing to respond, maybe you should find a new job. I don’t know how else to say it.  Let’s think about it this way. If you were the CEO or the boss, making all the decisions across a total product, what would you do and what would be the necessary steps in order to build a machine that really works? If you can start to answer those questions, I would say, go and talk to your team and get some clarity and let them know. “Here is a big problem that we have selling this product and here’s why.” Of course, the more people on your team, the more they’re going to say, “Sounds like a marketing problem” or “Sounds like something you’re doing wrong” because no one wants to take blame.

Ultimately, it’s got to be a series of complementary steps and actions happening to get people to make a decision. It’s not just a snapshot. You’ll definitely need to work with other people on that.

Louis: You mean that growth hacking is not going to work? Is it?

Liston: Oh, man.

Louis: I can’t wait for your answer to that.

Liston: What’s that?

Louis: You were [coaching 0:23:08]. I was like, “I can’t wait for your answer.”

Liston: Yeah, right. I wrote an article. Growth hacking is a bunch of bullshit. Here’s what I mean by that. I work a lot in the B2B space, and growth hacking doesn’t work in B2B at all. The reason is, if you look at all of the examples of growth hacking that people tell as being like, “Oh, if I could only do it like that.” Dropbox, Airbnb, Hotmail - those are three of the biggest examples that people give about how growth hacking was just such an amazing success. In all of those cases, the product was free. They were all pre-revenue. No one made any money from any of the growth hacking. In fact, Dropbox, if you look - yeah, they got a lot of product awareness and adoption, but they are giving away free storage. Now they don’t really even care to sell to the individual market; they want to sell to businesses.

No. There is no magic thing. I’m sure you’re familiar with the article of The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs, which is just a wonderfully written piece. I forget the name of the author. Basically what he says is, if you stumble on to some marketing tactic that works much better than you think it should, there’s a waning time on that. It’s going to expire. Other people are going to figure it out, too, and it’s no longer going to work. Now you’re back to the hard work of doing slow, plodding work that makes a difference over time. That’s really the way that building a business works.

Louis: Yup. I completely agree with you. I think marketers have a role to play in making the web a better place, making the internet a better place. What’s your view on it? How do you think we, as marketers can make the internet a better place?

Liston: Wow. That is a really big question. I think the thing that we could do is be a little bit more respectful. What I mean by that is when I see a company like Basecamp, and I just love Jason Fried and Basecamp and what they do. I don’t use the product. I actually don’t like the product very much, but in terms of how they built their business, I love it. When you visit Basecamp, they’re not throwing all kinds of pop-ups and downloads and all this kind of stuff at you. They’re basically saying, “We have something good. If you use it, we think you’ll like it. We have some free content for you, if you want to be more awesome at managing projects.” That’s about it. I think that their focus has been on building a product that a lot of people like. That’s obviously the best marketing.

I have a friend that has a pretty early stage company, and they’ve been growing at something like 50%+ month over month for 16 months straight. The reason they’re growing that fast isn’t because they have such a great marketing engine; it’s because the product works for a lot of people and solves a big problem for them. I think there’s a role in customer research and talking to your customers and coming at it from a marketing perspective that also rules in parts of what you learn into the product, and that’s going to naturally market your product.

I think where we get into trouble is if we’re selling something that people don’t really want that much, that’s when the web becomes a really nasty, ugly place, full of intrusive advertising, loud images, deceiving headlines. Those are the types of things that I really like to see people get away from, but I confess that there is no foreseeable future without that stuff.

Louis: Yeah, things are getting better I think. I don’t remember which guest mentioned that, but he said that those products will die anyway because they’re bad, or else they will improve and therefore the marketing will get better. I think the respectful brands and respectful companies will stay there for decades, and the other one will just struggle and die naturally.

Liston: I think there is a business model component to this two. Outbrain, for instance. I don’t know if this is still true, but at one point, most of their sales were coming from companies trying to buy traffic because they paid less for a click on Outbrain than they would get on display ads. Basically, Outbrain had underpriced Google’s display network, which meant that people were just funneling traffic. That’s a guaranteed way to have a shitty internet. Outbrain is still around for some reason. I’m not totally sure why. I personally don’t know anybody who uses it. I think those are things that needs to be addressed that are little beyond marketers, but partially also, from a marketer’s perspective, right? If we’re going to advertise on a network like Outbrain, I think it’s incumbent upon us to do it in a legitimate way that makes people happy when they interact with our ads.

I’ll give you an example. I subscribed to the Washington Post, and they’ve dedicated a ton of money into their technology. They have in line ads, when I’m browsing the morning paper on my phone. They look like articles. Great photos, very well-written copy, great storytelling. That’s where I think that marketing is going to have to go, where you invest much more in a small number of resources rather than throwing shit at the wall or spaghetti noodles at the wall and seeing what sticks. That’s what I’d be hopeful for.

Louis: For the listeners who don’t know about Outbrain. It’s basically the small related articles at the bottom of news articles, etc. They’re usually extremely bad, like “You won’t believe how this grandma won $5,000 yesterday using this one simple trick,” type of ads. They are usually pretty bad ads. Exactly as you said, that line - usually companies are funneling traffic to their website, and all those get paid for the traffic that they are getting in return. It’s pretty bad. I know a few companies using them, but this is a type of stuff we talked before - is that they wouldn’t necessarily tell you that they are using them because it’s kind of nasty.

Liston: Yes. We won’t name any names, but it’s nasty. Shame on them.

Louis: Let’s get into the customer research part because that’s a really exciting thing. My guess is that a lot of listeners have never done customer research the way you’ve done and the way you talk about. Exactly as we said at the start, I like to go into the details of how to get started and how to do customer research the right way, how to actually understand why people are buying from you, why they are not buying from you, and what to do about it.

Liston: Yeah, sure. Great question. I am a big believer in the buyer’s journey, which is really a fancy way of saying: people go through a process in order to make decision about whether to buy from you. I’m not of the opinion that it’s our job to convince people or persuade people to buy from us. I’m of the opinion that it’s our job, as marketers and/or sales people, to give a complete picture about what people would get by buying from us, so that they can make an informed decision.

That’s really my goal - is helping people make informed decisions, and underlying that is this assumption that if I have a good product, and I’m showing it to the right person, they’re often going to say, “Yes, I should buy that,” because it is actually in our mutual interest. I’m making something that can help them, and by buying it, they’re giving me something that I want, which is money and a new customer.

I think that’s the first part of it - is having the right mindset going into this. Back to this customer journey idea - if anybody wants to learn more about how to do this and if you’re furiously taking notes right now, I do have a Buyer Insights Email Course that’ll teach you the main things that you need to know about this. You can just go to buyerinsightscourse.com and sign up for free. It all starts with your customer. We wanted to learn who’s actually buying from us, what was going on at the time that they bought it. We want trigger events. For instance, the trigger event for Hotjar for instance might be, “I feel like I could have more conversions on my website, but I’m not totally sure what’s happening to prevent me from doing that.” That could be one. Or trigger event could be, “My boss told me, we need 10% more revenue from our ecomm store within the next six months, and I don’t know what to do, so I’ll sign up.” That would be a very powerful trigger event because it’s external to the person. That would be a very strong sale for us to make.

I’d say the fastest thing you could do is go out to people and ask 10 of your customers, people who bought, who are a representative sample of all of the people who buy, and ask them, “What caused you to buy? How did you find us? What was your research process? What were the final doubts in your mind before you bought?” That would tell us what the objections are that we need to overcome and how we can do that more effectively. I would also ask them, “What was it like after you bought? What did you actually get out of this?” Those are often two different things. When you’re doing a customer research, you really need to ask specifically what they thought they were buying initially and what they actually got because often those things will not be the same.

That’s the biggest piece. Talk to your customers, get that information about why people buy, take notes. After you do 5 to 10 interviews, you’ll know at least twice as much as you knew before, probably much more than that. If you still want to keep going, I think there’s two more things that I’d really recommend you do - is you can look at what can be observed on your website: analytics, click maps, those type of things, data. On the one hand, we’re asking people to respond to questions; on the other hand, people’s behavior may differ from what they tell us. Because some of their answers may be aspirational, whereas their behavior is just their behavior. We can observe it. We can see what they’re doing and draw some insights from that.

The other thing is the competition. The reason you want to look at the competition is any time someone’s making a buying decision - the way the human brain works is we compare things against other things. If you go house shopping, no one’s going to look at one house and take it, or at least very few people will. They’ll look at a few houses and then say, “Well, this one’s in a busier neighborhood, but it’s walking distance to restaurants and shops. This one’s cheaper, but I have an hour commute.” On and on and on. Same thing’s going to be the case when people buy from you. You want to know what are they comparing you to, and that’s your true competition. Then figure out, how can you differentiate from your competition in order to give people a very legitimate and clear choice that’s different from the other options out in the market. That’s my synopsis.

Louis: Going back to the first point, which is talking to people and actually interviewing them. How would you convince customers to talk to you? What’s the hook for them?

Liston: The hook for customers is I always elevate them to a level of expertise and also ask for a favor. If you’re doing this over email, I use a subject line like, “Can you do me a favor?” and then the body of the email would be something like, “Hey, Louis, thank you so much for being a customer of my company. One thing that we need to do occasionally is talk to our best customers like you and understand why they bought. You, Louis, have this really exclusive knowledge, which is why you bought, what you’re getting out of our product, so I’d like to talk to you for about 20 minutes because you’re an expert on our company and have a perspective that we don’t have internally. Would you be willing to help me?” Usually what I find is - depends on your customer type. If you’re in the financial industry, this is going to be tough because it’s very closed off and there’s lots of rules and regulations, but in most companies you’ll find that people will be very responsive. People love, love, love to talk about their opinion. We want to give them a chance to do that.

Louis: Which is why this podcast is so successful.

Liston: Yeah, because I love to talk about how smart I am.

Louis: It’s true. We’re not even laughing about that. That’s exactly true. This is why so many people are willing to talk on podcast, obviously because they might get business out of it, but also it makes them feel good about themselves. It makes them feel good about being an expert in their field, and that’s a good feeling.

That’s a very good email script that you got there. It’s all about them. It’s all about making them the center of this project, saying that “you are an expert in our product, and we want to know more.” Is it possible to meet them face to face?

Liston: Face to face is fine. I would definitely advise at a minimum to do a video chat if possible. There’s a whole - maybe not science - but there’s a way to do good interviews, and most people don’t. The key is to talk as little as possible. You want to cue people up, so that they’re focused on the right things and you’re getting what you want to get out of the conversation. But really, ask open-ended questions and just be quiet. Then if people start to open a door - and what I mean by that is they tell you a little bit about something that you want to know about, but they don’t tell you everything that’s on their mind. I’d say something like, “Hey, you mentioned where you were at the time that you bought. That seemed important. Can you tell me more about that?” We want to ask these follow up questions, so that people will expand upon what they’re telling us.

Louis: That’s a very good point. It’s difficult for most people to put their journalist hat on, while usually it’s the sales hat that they have on, but yeah, it’s extremely beneficial to avoid trying to convince them of anything. It’s all about letting them talk, and it’s not about them being right or you being wrong. It’s just their truth, and this is what you need to listen to.

Liston: They’re giving you very valuable information. Your job is just to shut the fuck up. We’ll be really clear about it. Additionally, I said open-ended questions - the alternative to that is we don’t want to ask any leading questions. If you had an email product, you wouldn’t want to ask a question like, “Is the automation and drip sequence feature your favorite feature?" That would be an awful question, because you’ve primed them about the answer you want to hear. Most people will want to satisfy you, the interviewer. Rather than that, you would say, “What feature do you find yourself using the most?” That would be a much better question.

You’re right. Be a journalist, listen, make sure you’re getting what you need out of it, but your goal really is to just be quiet, take notes, also record the call, so there isn’t a lot of pressure to manually write down everything that’s happening.

Louis: That’s the first step. The second step you mentioned was…

Liston: The second step that I mentioned was analytics and data. If we’re talking about websites, we have an advantage in terms of learning about people and what they’re actually doing. If you’re in a content role, one of your first questions should be, “What are people actually paying attention to now? Where do most of our sign-ups come from and why?” Those are the types of things that would help you learn, not only what to create next and what’s missing, but also how to sell and how to drive awareness in the future. I think data is a really critical thing.

Louis: Then you mentioned competitor. What would you typically do with these competitors? What type of competitors would you select?

Liston: I haven’t written about this, but I think about it a lot because if you ask someone, “Who are your competitors?” any good entrepreneur will tell you, “I don’t actually have any competitors.” I’ll give you an example. I was listening to the founder of Equinox gym, which is a very fancy gym. It’s like $250 a month or something. It’s very fancy. He was asked in an interview, “Who are your competitors?” and he said, “Really, I have none.” That’s not really true. There is a local country club. There is any gyms that are nearby. There is getting a nice pair of Nikes and just running on the sidewalk. There is all kinds of competitors that he has to deal with.

I think the key for me, is usually to ask people, “Hey, when you’re making a decision to do business with us, were you evaluating us against other companies?” They’re inevitably going to say yes, and we’ll say, “Okay, who were you comparing us to?” Then they’ll tell you, and then you would ask something like, “Why did you ultimately decide to go with us?” In other words, the information they’re giving you - I’ll translate it from a marketing perspective. What we’re really trying to get them to tell us is, “What was the differentiator about us that stood out the most that made you choose us?” That’s really, really important.

To answer your question directly about competitors, I think it’s best to just ask people, “Who were you comparing us to, and why?” That’ll give you your best competitor list because if you go online, if you ask a product like SpyFu who your competitors are, it’s just going to do keyword research. That’s not a good way. You’ll tend to want to go choose other people in your area. If you’re a local business, you are restricted to your local areas. If you’re a plumber, you’re not going to look at competitors in another city. Generally, I do business with people all over the place, and they’re comparing me to a very finite group of people. So I’ll ask them, and they’ll tell me.

Louis: There is one competitor, should I say one alternative that marketers tend to forget, and that’s actually to do nothing. Because people tend to choose the least risky options. Sometimes the least risky options remain to do nothing. That’s something to account for, right?

Liston: Right, absolutely. Right, do nothing or just stay status quo. If you’re selling a CRM and someone doesn’t have a CRM, they’re probably using a spreadsheet. Or they’re just using their inbox. Those are the types of things you would want to message if you feel like someone’s in that state. Versus if they’re switching to something. That would be totally different messaging. If they already have a CRM but they want to switch to something that’s bigger, has more features, blah blah blah. Yup, I totally agree. Do nothing is the most likely choice that they will make.

Louis: You talk to people, you already get to know them, why they bought, and why they almost didn’t buy the type of alternative they compared you to - then I’m curious to know, once you’ve done that, how would you come up with an effective messaging or an effective copy for your website?

Liston: That is the art of it all. Isn’t it? Because now we’ve collected a 10, 20, 40 pages of research, and we have to make choices. It’s one thing to have the data but it’s another thing to figure out what is that one, two, or three things that I want people to remember when they are exposed to my business. That’s a very difficult question. The way I would look at it is: what is the stickiest message? By sticky, there’s a book by the Heath Brothers called Made to Stick. They talk about basically why are things memorable to us. If you’re not familiar with it, you might read it. Basically, you need to think about what will agitate someone’s pain, what will get their reward receptors up and activated, and also what would be memorable. Those are the three things I would think about in terms of choosing how to message.

It also depends on where you are in your cycle. Great example I like to think about is Slack. If you go to Slack’s homepage, it doesn’t say anything about instant messaging for teams. It’s all about work better, work smarter, more collaboration. Everybody already knows it’s an instant messaging solution. They didn’t start out that way though.

If you’re coming at it from a place where everybody’s already aware of your product, you’re going to focus not on the general overview of your product, you’re going to focus more on pains and benefits. It really depends on where you think people are in their buying process when they come to you and how aware they are of you. Overall, I would say - that mix of pain, reward and memorability. That’s what we want to focus on.

A thing to keep in mind, Louis, is the human brain is a very advanced machine, but it has lots and lots of limitations. One of those limitations is that our short term memory can only hold, depending on who the person is, somewhere between four and eight things. If you approach your website and your messaging, such that you’re trying to communicate 10 things, there’s a very good chance people will remember zero. If you approach it with the idea that you just want someone to remember one or two things, it’s much more likely to be effective.

Louis: I think it’s coming from the book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, and they mentioned the law of focus. I found that extremely valuable. They say that if you focus on one thing only, in your messaging - one key benefits such as DHL and overnight delivery, all that kind of stuff, then your customer will associate you with others. For example, if you focus on very fast delivery, an hour delivery, people will think that you’re also very well organized, very well structured, and that your employees must do a very good job and the leaders must manage them very well. There’s all of those extra things that happened in your customer’s mind, that makes it a very interesting tactic to actually, just exactly as you said, focus on one or two things instead of trying to say everything.

Liston: Right. I hate to go back to politics, but if you talk to a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump and you asked them why, some large percentage of them will say, “Well, to make America great again.” You say, “What does that mean?” and they don’t have an answer for that question. But it didn’t really matter - that one thing. I think there is focus, but there’s also repetition. The more you say something, the more likely people are to remember it. By definition you can’t say as many things. I think focus and repetition go hand in hand, and they really do create this chance for being much more memorable.

Louis: I hate to talk about them for many reasons but if you think of McDonald’s and their strategy, it’s been years and years and years that they are using the exact same five-tone music.

Liston: I’m lovin’ it?

Louis: Every single time. “I’m loving it” as well, and the golden arches. There are things that they have kept the exact same for decades, literally decades, and that works in people’s mind because exactly as you said, they will remember it. They will build some sort of love for the brand after a while, once they go there and they are satisfied with the experience.

Liston: Absolutely, yup. I totally agree.

Louis: But that’s not a good example. We need to sell good products not shitty products as we said before.

Liston: I just had McDonald’s the other day. I like McDonald’s. I just wouldn’t recommend you eat it very often.

Louis: I’m blaming you that you shouldn’t do it. It’s really bad for you. That’s a really good snapshot of what people should start doing with customer research. Once again, and you’re not paying me for that - and I genuinely, honestly say, if you guys go to goodfunnel.co, read the copy, and try to reverse engineer it, you’ll understand how much research Liston has done in writing it. It’s pretty mind blowing actually. Go on it, and you’d see a proper example of messaging and copy done right.

Liston, you’ve been amazing. Just one or two questions left for you. What do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next 20 years, or even 50 years?

Liston: For me it’s very simple. You’re not selling to web visitors or clicks or impressions; you’re selling to human beings. Be in touch with the fact that there is an actual person, who’s living a life, who’s giving up either their hard-earned money or their company’s hard-earned money to do business with you. It’s really critical to always approach it with the mindset that you’re actually dealing with people. Maybe another way to say that is “Don’t be a sociopath.”

Louis: Okay, I already know the title for this podcast episode. It’s all good.

Liston: You’re welcome.

Louis: What are the top three resources you will recommend to marketers and listeners?

Liston: Oh boy, that’s such a good question. Top three resources I’d recommend to marketers. Number one by far to me is the book Influence by Robert Cialdini. That is just such a well-written book, and it’s the definitive book on persuasion. I would definitely recommend that one.

I would also recommend Steven Pressfield’s latest book. I think it’s called Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit. He’s a very established author, and probably some people listening to this have heard of him. Basically it’s about how he learned to tell stories effectively. It’s a jog through of his whole career from advertising and marketing and being a madman to being a novelist. To me, he just does a really good job of describing how to tell interesting, convincing, memorable stories. That would be the second book that I recommend.

I think the last thing that I would recommend is Alex Blumberg’s Creative Live. The founder of Gimlet Media, so if you’re a podcast nerd like me, then that means a lot to you, but he basically created a company that has this giant podcast. He’s very, very good at telling stories. You can see a theme here. We want to connect with people and understand how people work, and one of the ways that we’re most memorable is telling stories. I really recommend Alex Blumberg’s Storytelling Through Audio course, which is just excellent.

Louis: That’s a pretty good way to end this episode. Liston, once again, thank you so much for your time.

Liston: Thank you, it’s my pleasure. Thank you so much.

Louis: I’ll talk to you soon.

Liston: Great.