A Marketing Mystery

Paul Talbot Copywriting 0 Comments

Two men want to buy the exact same white shirt. They have roughly the same levels of education and income. Their jobs are much the same. So are their homes, their media consumption habits, and their personal interests.


They drive to Nordstrom in similar cars from the same neighborhood and when they arrive in the men’s wear department, each man knows exactly what kind of a white shirt he wants to buy.

One man goes straight to the tables where the shirts are stacked up. He finds his size, picks up a shirt, goes to the cash register, pays with a British Airways VISA card and leaves.

The other man loops around the tables of shirts, glances at the white ones to confirm that Nordstrom has what he wants, and continues to wander, looking at other shirts, sweaters, jackets, and pants.

He tries on a sports coat, hangs it back up, and tells an attentive sales clerk that he’s just looking and doesn’t need any help. He runs his hand through a rack of neckties and moves on to look at socks.

Then he returns to the table where the white shirts are stacked up. He finds his size, picks up the shirt, heads to the cash register, pays with a British Airways VISA card and leaves.

We Know A Lot About These Two Men. And We Know So Little…

They are easy to categorize, easy to segment, and they allow us to define a group of likely future buyers. For marketers who work with personas, avatars and the like, they are identical twins.

But identical twins sprung from the same genome tend to embrace their own individual behaviors.

As marketers, our own tendency is to rush to judgment, to lean too much on data and not enough on behavior.

We realize that we don’t know how consumers and prospects behave until we watch them. Nothing else matters as much.

Our analytics tools illuminate the individual paths people follow through our websites and email sequences, where they go, how they get there, where they have come from and what they do. When our tools are set up properly, the insight is astonishing.

But our tools tell us nothing about desire. We don’t know why people do what they do, or don’t do, on the path to purchase.

And we actually don’t learn much or dig deep with surveys. Not unless we’re accomplished at the art of asking questions in a way that gets us past people giving us the answers they think we want to hear, or the answers that make them feel good.

All we can do is to try and get better at understanding our prospects and customers.

This takes curiosity and humility. It also requires an acceptance ambiguity, and the ability to line up the mysteries of desire, motivation, and consumer behavior alongside the stark realities of data.

(And only when the data is properly interpreted does it have value.)

Consumers are irrational. Any copywriter worth his salt will never take a shot at projecting response. We simply don’t know, because we’re dealing with human nature.

It’s why J.P. Morgan gave this answer when he was asked where the stock market was heading.

“It will fluctuate,” he said.

The white shirts will be sold.

We will be able to look back at the transaction and learn something about the characteristics of the customer.

But the desires and motivations of the customer, the complex crosscurrents of reasons why the customer finally parts with his money, remain the mysteries content marketing tries to solve.

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