People often believe that consumers can't tell you what they want. For this reason, firms tend to think its ok to just go ahead and manufacturer products or launch web sites without any research.

This is so fundamental that the idea forms the basis why people think marketing is about creating needs, rather than fulfilling needs (see our E-Marketing article on this topic).

Most of this flawed thinking is due to a misunderstanding of how to conduct research on consumers.

To understand this, consider that you asked consumers, say back in 1995, whether they wanted to buy books over the Internet. Of course they would have said "probably not." You could interpret their response as evidence that people don't want the Internet as a shopping vehicle, but then couldn't it also be that consumers didn't know what the Internet was - so how could they respond in any positive way?

The same is true for computers. Often people believe that consumers could never have said in any marketing research study that they wanted a computer. But again, this is due to a flawed way that people tend to think about marketing research. By the way, if you asked people long ago whether they wanted some way to correct typing mistakes or more easily conduct "what if" scenarios on their handwritten spreadsheets, you likely would have heard a resounding "yes!!"

You can see that consumers can't tell you what they want if you focus on your product. But if you focus on the benefits of your solution, any consumer can is able to make a thoughtful and meaningful response.

So how do you identify what people want when often they can't identify a specific product themselves? Here are some simple ways of thinking about marketing research that will help you better understand the potential (or lack of potential) for your product or service.

Watch What People Do In Real Situations - in other words, don't make the customers come to you, but go to where customers would actually use your product.

For example, if you're thinking about launching a web site for consumers that they would likely access from home, go to the homes of prospective consumers. Say it's a game site for kids. Spend time with kids in their bedrooms since that's where they would likely use your web site.

Likewise, if you sell something that businesses would use, watch people in their offices or in their manufacturing plant or wherever they might use your product. Companies who sell medical equipment, for example, often have their salespeople spend time in the operating room just to observe surgeons as they work.

Companies sometimes watch customers when they are "beta testing" their product, but this is often too late. Even without a product in hand, you can obtain much better information about the value of your idea by watching prospective customers in their normal situation.

Ask People About Their Lives Or Business, Not Your Product - companies get so enamored with their ideas that they tend to focus the research on their product. But customers simply don't care about your product, they have other things to think about. More importantly, if they do care about your product, they really care about the benefits the product provides.

So ask them about their daily lives and what types of things would make their lives easier. Ask businesses about their business processes and operations, and what types of things would make these more efficient. Don't focus on your product or idea.

Do More Listening Than Talking - Act like you're from a foreign country, or better yet, from a different planet. See the world for the first time. In this way, you'll get past your selective perceptions and biases and just see customers the way they are. You'll also ask better and more open questions and focus less on your solution and more on customer's problems.

Try A Variety Of Research Methods - Rather than focusing on one way of conducting research, try a variety of methods. For example, instead of just surveying customers, conduct in-depth interviews, have them draw pictures, tell hypothetical stories, or use observation techniques.

Engage Customer's Imagination - Potential customers either have the ability to solve many of their problems or the imagination to identify ways of solving these problems. Get them to solve their problems by asking them how they would do it. We've done this in focus groups by asking participants for their solutions to a current business problem - and they are able to do this quite well.

Even more engaging is to tap into customer's imagination. You might ask them to form visual images (pictures in the mind) of how to solve a problem.

For example, say you're thinking about a new business where people can buy groceries on the web. Ask them to delve into their memory about grocery shopping experiences they've had, and/or have them picture the various ways they interact with a grocery store. Probing this level of a customer's mind will point you in the direction of how to create not only original, but more importantly, useful product/service ideas.


These techniques will help you uncover the problems that customer's face. This is the so-called "pain" that form the basis of what solutions customers may look for.

As you might know, recently there has been talk that companies should not focus on current pain, but on the pain that customers will face in the future. But, again, these writers are not thinking correctly about the needs of customers - the techniques we're discussing, which have long been used by solid marketing companies, are looking for enduring customer's pain, not the little transient problems that are easily erased with a trivial solution.

All of these techniques will get you closer to understanding what customers really want, and give you a whole new perspective on marketing.

You won't say any longer that marketing is about creating needs. Instead you'll see that customers have profound and enduring needs, and good research can uncover them.

If you want to read more about this subject, we recommend a great book called "Truth, Lies and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning" - see our book section.

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image of Allen Weiss

Allen Weiss is founder, CEO, and Positioning Practice Lead at MarketingProfs. Over the years he has worked with companies such as Texas Instruments, Informix, Vanafi, and EMI Music Distribution to help them position their products defensively in a competitive environment. He is also the founder of Insight4Peace and the former director of Mindful USC.