Sept/Oct 2006

The Danger of Assumptions in Marketing

by Curt Swindoll, CEO, Cool Strategies

A direct response wag once blogged that "assume" may be the most dangerous word in direct marketing. Our client nearly discovered the truth of this statement during a recent engagement.

The client organization views its work as highly educational. As a result, a number of years ago the organization began bundling some of its training materials with a self-testing tool. To use the tool, customers had to install it on their PC, which meant our client had to distribute an installation disc with their own product materials.

The organization received a call recently from the self-testing tool's manufacturer. The bad news was that the manufacturer's PC product was going to be discontinued. But the good news was that the tool was now available for use online through a simplified browser interface. The question was whether or not our client was interested in continuing to partner with the manufacturer, since the new tool would require some development effort and up front cost.

As I discussed the issue with the client, I learned that they receive about one call per month, usually from people who are having trouble using the software. The organization never heard from raving fans about how much they liked the bundled self-testing tool.

With that information, it seemed as though this might be an easy decision: stop bundling the self-testing tool with the organization's own products based on the assumption that the organization's constituents did not find the self-testing tool to be valuable. We believed the way we saw the situation was the way the situation really was, and that "data" was now ready to inform our decision and the future direction of the organization's products.

Confirming (or not) the assumption

Our client happens to use Convio's online software, which includes a tool for conducting online surveys, so it occurred to me that a quick online survey might be helpful in confirming our assumption that the organization's constituents did not find the self-testing tool valuable, before we made a final decision. So, I asked my client to pull a list from its offline donor database of anyone who had purchased one of the organization's more popular products that came bundled with the self-testing tool in question. In minutes, we had a list of 650 names and email addresses.

We then uploaded the file into Convio, and created a very simple, three-question survey to find out:

  1. Did they realize a self-testing tool had come bundled with the product they had purchased?
  2. If so, was the product helpful to them?
  3. What comments would they like to make about their use of the self-testing tool?

We wrote up a quick email in Convio, linked it to the survey, and emailed it to everyone in the uploaded group. What we learned shattered our assumptions:

  • Nearly 88 percent were aware that the self-testing tool came bundled with the organization's product they had purchased.

  • Forty-one percent had found the tool useful. Better than we had thought, but certainly not stellar. Fifty-two percent had not found the tool helpful. (Seven percent didn't respond.)

  • Those that used the tool commented that they loved it. But, of those who said they didn't use the software, three main reasons were cited:

    1. It did not run on a Mac;
    2. They had problems installing the software; and 
    3. The user interface was too complicated.

The whole effort took minutes to execute, cost nothing out of pocket, and was completed in only half a day from the initial conception of the idea to a statistically valid sample response.

Interestingly, the manufacturer's redevelopment and deployment of the self-testing tool as an online-only tool resolved the first two concerns. We then verified that the user interface had been overhauled in the new version as well.

In short, of the customers who were frustrated by the self-testing tool, approximately 75 percent of their problems would disappear if we moved to the new version of the tool. And, based on the number of positive comments we received from those who were using it, the change was well worth the cost and time for development.

Indeed, assumptions can be dangerous. However, by using online, integrated software tools like email, surveys, and graphical reporting, mistaken assumptions are easy to avoid. The greatest challenge may simply be remembering to utilize these tremendous tools before making significant — and erroneous — business decisions.

Curt Swindoll is the CEO of Cool Strategies, a consulting firm that specializes in integrated and strategic offline and online fundraising practices. He can be reached at curt@coolstrategies.com.


The Danger of Assumptions in Marketing | Convio