Marketers: Steer Right Along Consumer Desire Paths

Desire paths are a concept born in the physical world. You see them in places where there is a nicely planned path of travel — like a paved walkway through a park — and not far away from it, there is an alternate path that has been cut by people choosing their own path. That’s a desire path.

John Long blog image
Credit: John Long

Desire paths are a concept born in the physical world. You see them in places where there is a nicely planned path of travel — like a paved walkway through a park — and not far away from it, there is an alternate path that has been cut by people choosing their own path. That’s a desire path.

There are many different reasons for desire paths. Perhaps people want to take a shortcut through the park. Or maybe the additional path was started because so many people were walking the paved path, people wanted to find an alternate route to avoid the crowd. Or, perhaps, there was unspoken “rule of the road” that paved paths were for walkers and bikers created a new path to make things safer for all travelers.

In any event, the point is this:

People simply don’t always go the way you want them to go. And a ton can be learned by watching the behavior of those people finding their own way.

In fact, some college campus planners are now starting to end sidewalks short of their destination on purpose, so they can observe where people naturally create the end of the path. After they see where people travel on their own, they come back and pave that path. In other words: Designers are giving people a start, and then co-designing the end based on desire paths.

Now to get this in the business realm, the paved path provided would be “marketing.” And the well-beaten path created by people going where they want to go would be “market research.”

As a brand, you most likely do market research to try to understand what products or offerings or marketing messages you should create based on what people are craving, or what they are missing in other brands’ offerings. Then you put those offerings into market and spend advertising and content dollars to make people aware of the value you provide. And, in a perfect world, the dollars come rolling in.

But many brands miss the idea of using their marketing as market research. Desire paths are a good metaphor for an iterative approach to marketing … to learning from how people use content and experiences — the paths we provide. We can also learn a lot from observing how they *don’t* use them … or alter them.

Let’s call that information we gather “digital desire paths.”

When Twitter was first getting started, the idea of hashtags weren’t a designed part of the system.

Instead, people using Twitter who wanted to be able to better identify different topics for others to search for, follow and contribute to started using hashtags to identify words as specific keywords for search. Sometimes, the words were common (like #skateboarding) to allow people to find specific conversations, but not all mentions of the word (skateboarding, sans #). But other times, the words were more branded (like #NikeSB or #SkateYourDunks or even #trashin) to allow brands or power users to “own” specific conversations.

After the idea took hold and people started using hashtags to full effect, the engineers at Twitter added functionality to the system to make hashtags work better. They formalized the convention — like paving the dusty path created by walkers through a park. But the starting point was a desire path of power tweeters. (But just try to imagine Twitter  — and now Instagram  — without hashtags! The experience would be much less pleasant or rewarding.)

Digital desire paths, like hashtags or fan blog posts and more, are the clues for where people are going already. It’s simple market research that’s worth far more than creating functionality in a product, or value in content, and then seeing if people actually want it. This is market research from the bottom up — real indicators of need from the most ardent fans to inform creation. If you’re brand is authentic to the conversation those desire paths intone, they can become your path into the conversation and to more targeted content ideas.

Let’s take a note from college planners in marketing. Let’s create some great starts and see where our audience takes them. Let’s learn from the desire paths, and then create content that’s in people’s natural path, rather than always trying to tell them where to go.

‘Killing Marketing’ to Save It

The book “Killing Marketing,” the latest from Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose, says this: “We must kill marketing that makes a living from accessing audiences for short bursts of time so they might buy our product.”

Millennial marketing
“BMXr’s,” Creative Commons license. | Credit: Flickr by micadew

The book “Killing Marketing,” the latest from Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose, says this: “We must kill marketing that makes a living from accessing audiences for short bursts of time so they might buy our product.”

It continues: “We must rebirth a new marketing that makes its living from building audiences for long periods of time, so that we might hold their attention through experiences that place us squarely in the initial consideration set when they are looking for a solution.

“This is the marketing of the future. It is achieving a long-term return on the one asset that will save our business: an audience.”

The book is wonderful — I highly recommend it. It’s chock-full of ideas about how to transform the marketing department from a cost center to a profit center. It details multiple ways to pull direct and indirect revenue from marketing, once true engagement with an audience has been established. In their words, it will transform your marketing into something more powerful than “the art of finding clever ways to dispose of what you make.”

But specific to the selection quoted above, for me it’s another spark of thought about the downside of personas based on demographics.

If you’re personas are demographic- lead rather than interest-led, then you’re setting yourself up for selling in short bursts of time. You’re not going to be able to establish a long-term relationship with an audience based on who they are and what they truly care about — because you simply won’t know what those things are. And you won’t create experiences that hold an audience’s attention for future consideration.

To truly build audiences for long periods of time, we need to start with interests and preferences rather than demographics.

To employ a far overused example …

Red Bull doesn’t define its audience as “Millennial males who want an energy drink.” The brand understands its audience by defining all of the facets of interests in a lifestyle of adventure — from edge (extreme) sports to music to fashion to travel and so on. And then Red Bull provides that audience with access to that lifestyle, through publications, events, social media content and more … and it sells some energy drinks, as well.

If Red Bull did the former (define a demographic), it would’ve been able to effectively place an ad for an energy drink on channels where Millennial males might be. And the brand would’ve sold some drinks, and perhaps captured some people who would continue to buy Red Bull through the years. But the brand affinity it would’ve created would’ve be thin, at best. And it’d be in a constant cycle of reloading short-term audiences. That’s a losing game.

Instead, Red Bull tilted toward the latter — personas based on interests. But … how did that happen?

Maybe the brand started with an idea like: “We see opportunity to engage the ‘extreme sports lifestyle audience regardless of age, location, etc.’ in a whole new, deeper way.” Or, perhaps Red Bull carefully observed its initial audience — the short-term customer audience it had when it first went to market with the drink — and asked questions like:

  • We see Millennial males are a big part of our initial audience, but what’s behind the demographic?
  • What commonalities does that portion of the audience share with the rest of the audience?
  • What is it that our audience — in aggregate — is telling us they care about most?
  • What information are they craving most?
  • And is anyone else providing that information? Access?

I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. And most of the stories we hear about Red Bull’s content marketing successes don’t focus on the starting point of audience understanding. But I imagine it was more along the lines of not resting on an initial, demographic-lead audience understanding. I imagine the brand had a short-term audience, but decided it didn’t want to have to constantly reload. Good for Red Bull!

Smart marketers will take note and do the same. They’ll dig deep. They won’t rest on the easy, starting answer. They’ll get past the simple, demographic personas, and they’ll start thinking about interests that transcend demographic as the path to building a long-term, engaged audience.

In short: Demographic-led personas lead to decent targeting and short-term sales. Simple ROI. Interest-led personas lead to engagement and brand affinity for the long-term: Simple ROI plus customer lifetime value.

Zooming In, Zooming Out: 2 Focal Lengths for Better Audience Understanding

Instead of a scientist measuring a particle, imagine you’re a marketer and the red dot is your audience. You really want to know who they are, so you try to get close.

I truly admire artists like Keith Haring. He created an iconic style that’s known across the world — even by people who don’t know the artist’s name. And when I think about creating an iconic, signature style like that, I imagine artists have an idea that they simply can’t shake. And they keep trying, over and over, to create the perfect expression of their vision. Only with each iteration, they are creating something that may be based on the same idea … but each expression is entirely new unto itself. And is its own version of perspective.

Now … I’m not an artist. I certainly don’t have an iconic style. But I do have an idea that I can’t get out of my head. I keep returning to it over and over again. Because I know there’s a lesson for marketers in the idea. So once again, I’m diving into The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle — a scientific principle I’ve used in many presentations before.

In the simplest terms, the principle establishes this: There is a limit to the ability that you can understand both the exact location and the exact momentum of a particle in motion.

There’s an equation that goes along with the principle, and it includes things like The Planck Constant, central to quantum mechanics. But for the sake of this marketing article, we’ll focus on this visual expression of the idea:

John Lane artIf you’re trying to measure the precise location of the red dot, you’d want to get as close to it as possible, to plot the exact X and Y axis — down to the deepest decimal. “The fifth nine,” if you will.

If you’re trying to measure the exact momentum (to understand how fast the dot is moving from one spot to another), you’d take a view from the top, open end of the cone — so you’d have context to measure the location in relation to other objects at varied times.

To get better understanding of one aspect — location or momentum — you lose the ability to focus on the other.

Now, instead of a scientist measuring a particle, imagine you’re a marketer and the red dot is your audience. You need to know both to be successful. You need to get up close to connect. You need to see the bigger picture to create a lasting relationship. To truly understand your audience, you’re going to need to zoom in and zoom out.

Zooming In: To know your audience,  you try to get close. (At least I hope so. But for most brands, it’s more like close-ish. As close as they can get without actually talking to that audience. But that’s a different post.) You should want to do this to ensure you’re going to set up camp on a channel with a storyline that will resonate greatly.

Zooming Out. To ensure the money you’re spending on that channel and that storyline is well spent — that it isn’t wasted on a trend that passes in a hot second — you need a more broad view. You need to see all the different influences on your audience that you can only get from a broad view.

Marketers’ Most Recent Answer to Solving the Riddle of Getting Both Perspectives Is Big Data

But here’s the even newer wrinkle (and why this principle is back in my head again): The growing reliance on Big Data is actually best for the broad view. And relying on big data is steadily pulling us marketers farther and farther up the cone. It’s allowing marketers to better see where people were, and where they might be headed. But it’s taking us farther and farther away from understanding the individuals within our audience. It’s creating — and even causing us to crave — an abstracted view of our audience rather than a precise view.

The Answer to This Problem Is: More Small Data!

Small Data is gathered by actually reading the comments on Instagram posts. Not just the comments they leave on your post … but the one they left on their best friend’s post yesterday. Within that comment — that comment gained through super-tight focus — are the keys to communicating in their language … to connecting with them based on a challenge, need, value or passion that that individual is expressing.

Small Data is gathered by talking to your audience. You ask for input or invite it, rather than always pushing your message. Once the input flows in — whether via suggestions or questions — you don’t stop after a two-line conversation. You cultivate the third, fourth and fifth exchanges. And then you incorporate your new discoveries based on the conversation into your storyline and lexicon. (This is qualitative input, not based solely on the Big Data algorithm breakdown of the exchange.)

Small Data Is …

Yes, Big Data is good. The bigger picture — the momentum and direction — is important. But Small Data — the highly-specific details gained by tight inspection and interaction — is just as important (if not more so) to building engagement.

So take a lesson from science! Think about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Deliberately take two views of your audience — by zooming in to Small Data, zooming out with Big Data, and continually repeating the process. Your marketing will be better for it.

Straightforward Steps to Achieving Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In marketing, empathy is the code word for understanding your audience’s needs, desires and communication preferences so well that your marketing is tuned perfectly toward meeting those needs and desires, and inciting action. At least … that’s the goal.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In marketing, empathy is the code word for understanding your audience’s needs, desires and communication preferences so well that your marketing is tuned perfectly toward meeting those needs and desires, and inciting action.

At least … that’s the goal. In reality, marketers are challenged on a minimum of a three different levels:

  1. Do we truly have the capacity for empathy, or do we just like to say we have it?
  2. How can we best achieve empathy?
  3. If we’ve achieved empathy, are we actually expressing it? Are we providing value to our audience based on that common understanding? Or are we still pushing product and employing a couple of words to make it sound like we have empathy?

Let’s make the correct assumption that we should have empathy at the core of our marketing. So … how we do achieve empathy? And how should it shape our communications?

Empathy requires truly understanding our audience.

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around it.”
— Harper Lee. “To Kill A Mockingbird”

Certainly this wasn’t written with marketing on the brain. And Harper Lee’s words are not even the origin of the idea. But I’m going to terribly twist the thought to our ends and say it’s a great statement about what it takes to truly understand an audience. And currently, most marketers aren’t taking this tact when they say their gaining an understanding of audience.

Because, usually, the process marketers take (dubbed persona creation) involves gathering just about everyone into a room to talk about the audience…except members of the audience themselves! Which means marketers come together to discuss their biased beliefs of what an audience thinks, feels, wants and needs.

We’ve even gone so far as to try and talk ourselves into believing that’s the right way to do things by quoting other people — like Henry Ford (“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”) or Steve Jobs (“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”).

I would posit that those dudes were smart enough to know how important it is to know what people are asking for. And that, if the whole story is told, Henry would’ve heard “faster horses” and interpreted the thought as “a more rapid means of personal transportation.” Therefore he knew what his audience truly needed, even if it wasn’t in the form the audience thought it might come in. That’s understanding people far below the surface. That’s empathy. (I’ll give Steve the same kind of credit.)

If you’re going to truly understand your audience, then you have to spend time with your audience, and hear what they’re saying beyond just the words used.

How do you spend that time? Here’s three straightforward ways.

Straightforward Method 1: Observe

I guess you could call it stalking … but not the creepy “get yourself arrested” kind of stalking. As audiences are now creating plenty of profiles, content and commentary, those signals become the easiest entré into understanding who your audience really is, as individuals. Simply observing the language used (including shorthand like emojis), the commonalities of self-description and other surface cues can help you better understand the tendencies, needs and wants of your audience.

As an example, take a look at my actual Instagram profile. You’ll see several things that might be important to you, as a marketer. If you’re selling bourbon or beer, you’ve got the info straight from me that I’m a part of your audience. Likewise, if you’re selling marketing technology, I might be a good target, too. Now, that’s a bit too easy…especially if I’m already following your beer brand, this is just validation that I’m actually interested, but it’s not really new information.

If you go a bit farther, though, you’d find information that builds from that validation point, and gives you some interesting angles to work into valuable content for me (and others like me in your audience). I’ve been spending time at the pool … I play golf … I proudly promote my Raleigh community…so on and so forth. And I haven’t even delved into the photos I’ve liked from others – to start to build a picture of who I influence, and who influences me. Or followed myself (in this case) to other social networks to see what I’m posting.

One way to build empathy for your customers.

As a marketer, you can build some pretty amazing interest graphs of your audience that go far beyond demographics. And those interest graphs become the sparks of new content that is driven specifically by what I’m already engaging in. (Like: “Best IPAs To Drink Poolside.”) This is gaining an understanding of who I am, what I like, what I do and what I think. This is building empathy.

(A note on demographics: We marketers love the idea of personas. But I not-so-secretly hate personas. Because the commonly accepted version of personas are based on demographics. And empathy cannot be defined by demographics. One 44-year-old digital marketing expert is not just like another. But if you concentrate on demographics and don’t dig into the individuals behind the averages, that’s what you’ll be led to believe.)