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Some people call them brainstorms. Some call them ‘Ideation sessions’. Still others call them “a complete waste of time”. Whatever you call it, the act of getting two or more people together in a room to think on the outside of their heads is almost certainly going to happen to you.

So you might as well set it up for success by following these 5 simple rules I was lucky enough to learn from the SXSW panel “Turning a blank page into a great idea”:

1. Get the numbers right.

You often can’t control how many people are going to be in a session, but if you can, keep it around the dozen mark – then plus or minus one. Odd numbers create a more natural sense of dynamism, which is crucial if you want progress. Dealing with large numbers? Break the room up into ‘cafe groups’. Y’know, a natural number of people you might see around one table in a cafe.

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brainstorm, creativity, ides

Brainstorms are often an exercise in random creativity. they shouldn’t be

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2. Get your timing right.

Below two hours is rarely enough time to establish group dynamics, wade through all the obvious ‘first idea’ responses and start generating fresh thinking – maybe even with some consensus. Beyond three hours, people get bored and, even worse, distracted by FOMO*.

3. Do your homework.

Group idea sessions don’t (generally) occur for  no reason. There should be research, background material, competitive analysis** and, if you’re really lucky, a brief. Read them all. Understand them. Then, summarise everything you’ve learned (plus some of your own research) to a series of sketches (not slides) and have them on the wall before you start.

4. Start as you mean to continue.

Don’t wander through introductions or meander through the brief, kick the session off with a short, impactful and creative intro. It could be as simple as a clip from YouTube or a quick game or quiz – but make sure it is at least tangentially related to the topic at hand. Put some thought and effort into your opener and you’ll communicate your expectations: thought and effort from your participants.

5. Pass the mic (or the marker).

Ask your participants to describe their idea, or problem or example (or whatever they are trying to express) as a sketch, without words. You’ll force them to think clearly about what they are trying to express, because they’ll want to boil it down to a simple a picture as possible. It’s also a good leveler: seniority and politics get replaced by drawing skill.

 

These 5 tips were distilled from the SXSW Panel: “Turning a blank page into a great idea”, presented by Edelman Strategist and Ideator JB Hopkins along with New Yorker cartoonist Matt Diffee, who also revealed his 5 simple ways to improve an idea.

 

* Fear Of Missing Out. It’s why you check your mobile phone Every. Thirty. Goddamn. Seconds.

** I was once handed a folder marked “Competitive Anal”. It might have been an abbreviation, but I didn’t want to risk it, so I left it unopened.

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

 

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How do you find out what your audience is thinking?

Start by thinking like a scientist.

Our recent post on the ongoing tension between global brands and local audiences prompted some requests for advice on finding and developing local insights – the sort of deep audience understanding that lets you tune a global strategy for more effective local activation.

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focus group

Focus groups: everyone acting like clowns and delivering completely random returns.

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At Ogilvy, we’ve developed a simple approach for ‘bootstrapping’ your way to local insights, one that doesn’t require the time and money of traditional audience research methods, such as the dreaded focus group. This approach was developed specifically for some of the global brands we work with here at Ogilvy, but can be easily adapted to most brands and situations.

customer insights

We call it The Relevance Engine, but that’s just a nifty title for a serve of common sense, spiced with a dash of curiosity and simmered over a little bit of actual work. Like most things in this business, it’s not rocket surgery.

The starting point is the audience – you really have to be able to at least name them before you start. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown persona (although that wouldn’t hurt), but at least some sort of pen-portrait of the audience your brand has, or the one it would like to have, in a particular market.

You can’t just shake an audience and expect an insight to fall into your lap. This is where I believe a lot of marketing-focussed ‘big data’ investments are going to go absolutely nowhere – massive systems will be constructed to collect terabytes of data without ever being asked a single pointed question.

The Relevance Engine asks you think like a scientist and requires you to be a little disciplined: you need to start with a hypothesis.

This hypothesis should relate to your audience and maybe even your brand (or at least your category) and be something that you think might be true. The hypothesis might be something likeEntrepreneurs in our market expect some form of government assistance” or “Parents in our market are very competitive about their children’s progress, but realise it is now socially unacceptable to display it.”

Once you have your hypothesis (you can call it a hunch, or an assumption, or an idea, if you like), you then use The Relevance Engine to test it, to prove it to be either true or false.

In the version we use, we place the hypothesis in the middle of a circle and then, around the edge of the circle, we have eight different categories of data that we could potentially test the hypothesis against:

1. Global Brand Guidance

This sounds contradictory, but you really should see if there’s anything in the existing or supplied materials that answers your question first. Your local market may not be as different as you first thought. The global guidance also might contain something relevant, hidden away in a support point, or an explanatory section or an appendix. First rule of research is make sure the research hasn’t already been done.

2. In-house research

This one is not always so easy to tap into, but the company behind the brand has almost certainly conducted some research around their product and the intended audience: a feasibility study, a competitive analysis, product history, category survey etc etc. If you have it, go back to it. If you don’t, ask the marketing department to share it. If they don’t have it, ask them to ask the sales people, or the product people, research people, lab, finance or whomever. A lot of global brands have dedicated research departments or teams. Find them, use them. Nothing is more compelling to a client than findings based on their own research.

3. Publishers

Do you remember back when magazines where printed on paper and when you read them, little subscription and survey cards would fall out? Publishers have always spent an enormous amount of time maintaining an intimate understanding of their readers. Digital publishers are getting even more intimate. Find a publication (print or online) that targets the same audience your brand does and then ask them about your hypothesis. If your brand has a marketing budget, I’ll bet the publication will tell you the answer over a nice lunch, which is what this industry needs more of. Seriously.

4. Channels & re-sellers

If your brand allows it’s products to be sold via other means (retail stores, affiliates, representatives, agents, re-sellers and so on), go and test your hypothesis with them. Drop in to their outlet, call them up, buy them a coffee or a beer or a steak sandwich or a bowl of noodles and have a chat. They’ll know a lot about your audience, because your audience are their customers.

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insights, science

Disclaimer: The Relevance Engine won’t turn you into an *actual* scientist (like this guy).

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5. Salespeople

Every global brand has a sales department or team or function. Whether these people sell directly to end customers (in the case of big b2b and technology brands) or to a distribution network (financial products, retail, travel, entertainment etc), they’ll also know a lot about your audience, because your audience are their commission and, therefore, the car they drive, their kid’s education, family holiday destination (you get the picture).

In many large organisations, the disfunction between sales and marketing can actually work to your advantage here: coming in as a neutral 3rd party (agency or consultant) often allows sales people to share more than they would inside the company structure. At the very least, they are usually surprised and pleased that someone is asking their opinion about a topic in which they regard themselves an expert.

6. Digital newsfeeds

Ok, so Google reader is dead. And missed. But there are alternatives, and some of them are very, very good. (Flipboard, we’re looking at you, you saucy little neo-digital-magazine-minx you) Regardless of what you use, the basic premise here is simple: ask your computer to test your hypothesis for you. Using an RSS reader of some sort, tune your digital/mobile/computing apparatus to your desired audience and hypothesis (use a few logical keywords and phrases) and have the magic of the internet stream a constant feed of articles, opinions, stories, alerts and trends past your eyeballs as you go about your daily life. Before long, something utterly relevant to your experiment is going to show up – clip it, file it. Done. Great job, internet!

7. Social Media

An increasingly increasing portion of the web is now composed entirely of people opinionating. If you can’t find your audience (and, by extension, what they’re thinking about) on social media, it is quite possible ur doin’ it wrong. Go find the prominent voices and influencers for your audience on social networks, find the groups and chatrooms and discussions, find the blog posts and tweetchats and hangouts and slideshares, and LinkedIn groups, and pinterest boards and tumblrs and webinars and oh god, I’m getting fatigued just trying to keep up with all the fabulous new ways we’ve invented for people to bloviate online. My recommendation? Quora. Go post your hypothesis there, as a question, and see what happens. Failing that, try Reddit. Feeling brave? Ask 4chan.

8. Live events

We’ve written at length about how to make live events work for brands in the digital arena but what about flipping the equation for a second: how can you use an event to listen to an audience, rather than just talk at them? You could try just going to one and listening, for a start: Walk the floors, eavesdrop. If it’s an event you have presence or permission at, try interviewing people, running a survey or getting a presenter to ask the question and get a show of hands. I’ve seen video confession booths, incentivised surveys – all sorts of stuff. One thing that’s true of all events, everyone wants to offer an opinion. Use that opportunity.

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insights, customer

Leave no stone unturned in your search for insights.
Or, you could do it the easy way.

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Tired now

That seems like a metric shit-tonne of work, right? And it would be, if you were crazy enough to interrogate all 8 data sets listed here. (There are plenty of others available, but these are the most accessible).

No need. The Relevance Engine may require a bit of discipline, but it doesn’t demand complete masochism. Just pick 3. You can even pick the 3 easiest ones if you like – although we’ve designed the whole thing to be relatively easy to complete from your desk with just a couple of afternoon’s worth of work (even less if you delegate).

The results are in

What does a successful ‘scientific result’ look like? I’d say 2 confirmations from 3 different sources is a positive: take a few choice quotes & a handful of stats, put them into a nicely-laid-out ‘research deck’ and hey presto: local insights, backed by science. Any global team worth it’s salt will allow a local team to pursue a genuine insight if they’ve done their homework.

Now take your local insight, turn it into a value proposition (if you need help doing this part, you can get it here), put it in a brief and off you go: you’re got most of everything you need to create locally relevant work for your globally-powerful brand.

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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Here’s the thunderbolt from the Argentinian leg of our w2fm Sth American tour: you won’t be able to extract customer insights from your partners and channels, if their insights aren’t being listened to first.

Partners: hear them first, before you ask them to listen on your behalf.

That came through pretty clearly in a few sessions we ran in various countries recently, but it really crystalised for us as we tried to run a game of “What’s my motivation in this scene?” with a few partners who were cast in the role of customers. Sure, the language differences weren’t helping, but it became obvious the partners needed to discuss their own motivations first.

When you think about it, that’s logical. But marketing often just considers partners as just a link in the messaging chain. At best, they simply pass along the script, verbatim. At worst, they’ll let the marketing materials pile up in their inboxes like so much spam.

Because, without relevance, all massages are spam. And all humans are refining their mental spam filters every day, punting as much as they can to the junk folder in their cerebrum, trying to keep the cache clear for more important, interesting or entertaining messages. In fact, this “filtering” is getting so intense that some writers have pointed out that increased internet use is re-wiring our brains. And perhaps, not in a good way. Yes, we can process more messages faster, but at the expense of being able to concentrate on more complex, involved or even simply lengthy messages. Good news for tweets, bad news for books.

Net net: the message you are sending also has to be relevant for the messenger, or it will just get caught in the spam filter.

Another revelation from the Buenos Aires leg: I now know someone who has a patent for a robot. That does sound like rocket surgery.

The best marketing is insight-driven marketing. But how do you generate real customer insights? Do you try and read some meaning into the data? Or, coming at it from the other direction, do you try and quantify and qualify your experiences, assumptions and “gut feel”?

Personally, I prefer the latter (creative types generally shy away from rigid formulas).

Trouble is, we generally spend our working lives far removed from the customer experience and so our impressions are generally second-hand, or based on assumptions. It’s even more problematic for agency people (yet another step removed from the sales floor) and it becomes really difficult when you’re trying to solve for a product category that bears little resemblance to your own life. What would I know about negotiating a deal on a fleet of company cars, for example?

But there are people in every marketer’s organisation that know quite a lot about what goes on in the customers’ mind: the sales guys. These guys (and I’m using the non-gender-specific version of the word ‘guys’ here) might actually be in the sales department, or they could be from a retailer, or Business Partner, reseller or some other part of the channel network – it really doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that these guys live or die (metaphorically, of course) on their ability to understand what’s motivating the customer. And that’s why we were very excitied to finally get the opportunity to put a sales guy in the hot seat of one of our most popular w2fm games here in Sydney a few days ago. “What’s My Motivation In This Scene?” is a role-playing scenario which models the influencer and decision-maker ecosystem that surrounds any significant purchase, and although we’ve trialled it a couple of times before, we’d never really been able to get the customer viewpoint properly represented.

 

Having someone from sales play the role of the customer changes the whole dynamic.

 

We knew this game had potential to unearth some fascinating insights, but we didn’t realise just how effective it is when you put a sales guy in centre stage and give them the role of playing the customer. Talk about a revelation – suddenly we get to see how they view the marketing and the messages; when they want to hear from us and when they really, really don’t; and most importantly, who they have to answer to.

The other discovery of the day was how effective a really switched-on social media expert can be, playing the role of the ‘bloggosphere’ and the ‘twitterverse’. With the help of a laptop, they can call up and analyse social media sentiment on the fly, throwing the peer-to-peer dynamic into the mix and revealing the parts of the decision-making that these channels seem to exert the most influence over.

 

Here's a twist: colleagues from Melbourne Skyped in to the role-play via video

 

Although its not the aim of a session like this, one interesting side effect was a newfound appreciation from both sides of the sales/marketing divide (and, let’s be honest, it is a divide in almost every organisation of size). It may seem so obvious that it’s hardly worth stating, but unless marketing builds programs that actually help the salesforce, and unless sales actually pick up the marketing ball and run with it, we may as well simply rely on a spreadsheet to tell us what to do.

And, as a creative type, I can confirm that’s not what I get out of bed to do every morning.