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A leap of faith: How market leaders navigate the unknown

By Jamie Gilpin / October 15, 2019

When Amazon created Echo—the AI personal assistant that’s become a staple in homes—the public wasn’t clamoring for it. They faced lengthy internal debates about its market appeal, and began building without any product of its kind on the market to compare to. But its rise to a billion-dollar product and one of the brand’s biggest hits in hardware history speaks for itself.

For brands that aren’t Amazon (or don’t have access to an R&D lab with unlimited funds and resources) there’s an easier way to predict the future: social media. Looking to social is like looking into a crystal ball. It has answers. It holds some of the best clues to what the future will look like. It will make your job as a marketer easier if you let it.

Market leaders know that sometimes you have to show people what they want before they even know they want it. And to navigate the unknown means evolving to a social-first model. Not just within our own marketing teams, but in every department. Why? Because the customer’s entire experience starts and ends with social.

From the moment someone starts researching a brand, to when they visit that brand’s website to understand their perspective, to when they finally become a customer and share their brand experience—every step of that happens on social. Even when a customer is angry and leaving, the first place they go to lament is social.

How can market leaders stay a step ahead and build the products and services for needs their audience has yet to realize? It comes down to social listening, trend prediction and the customer experience.

You have to listen to break the rules

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Henry Ford’s most famous adage almost makes it sound like listening to your audience isn’t the answer. But what he gets at is that to innovate, you can’t rely on what people tell you they think they need. You have to dig deeper to understand what they’re really asking for.

While leading the marketing team at Envoy, I was inspired by a book called Non-Obvious: How To Predict Trends and Win The Future. I’ve learned that one of the most powerful ways we can bring author Rohit Bhargava’s lessons into our work is to leverage our position as the voice of the customer. And yes, we can do that by all traditional means—focus groups, surveys, etc.—but what the best marketers are doing is tapping into the largest focus group in the world: social media.

With social listening, you can input and explore so many different keywords that together allow you to tap into those real, unencumbered conversations and sentiments. While what people say on social isn’t always an exact mirror of their behavior, the aggregate view can give you authentic insight into your customer base.

My biggest takeaway from Bhargava’s book is the art and science of trendsetting through examining industries that are vastly different from one another and mapping out the non-obvious connections in order to start predicting trends.

At Envoy, our goal was to become a thought leader in the HR tech and immigration spaces. It was applying Bhargava’s tactics in brainstorming—adopting a “yes” mindset and encouraging sharing, not critiquing, in order to focus our energy and capture a wide breadth of ideas—that was so vital in creating our next big content campaign. As we laid everything on the table, we mapped out where that core piece of content was going to come from. We could clearly see the threads between current trends and our thought leadership stance, areas we could tap into to differentiate us from everything else out there.

The process validated that we were on the right path. By applying some of the insights you uncover through social listening to inform your efforts, you can actually shape trends in your own market.

Focusing on customer experience to innovate

Now that you have a game plan, it’s time to focus on the customer.

In the last 10 years, customer experience has gone from a buzzword to an area of focus that carries a lot of weight for marketers. We’re the first to meet customers. We cultivate the community that ushers them through their journey to the product. We build loyalty to make them lifelong fans.

Even through product recalls or public missteps, a strong relationship between a brand and its consumers can help a company retain business. In fact, when brands develop a history of transparency, nearly nine in 10 people are more likely to give them second chances after bad experiences and 85% are more likely to stick with them during crises.

As it is, talking about marketers truly owning the customer experience feels like lip service. No one is doing this exceptionally well. Marketers are still learning about activating the power of social to deliver on the world class experience that so many aspire to. And that’s why the shift in getting an entire organization to think social-first is hard. No one disagrees that it’s the logical step. But it takes a change in mindset and buy-in to implement.

Change is hard on a business. But what’s harder is hindering your business from innovating and growing. Large companies are failing at more rapid rates than ever before, and it’s often due to failure to listen to their audiences and innovate.

Blockbuster was a household name and at its peak in 2004. They survived the change from VHS to DVD, yet failed to innovate into a market that allowed for delivery (not to mention streaming).

The video retailer figured their physical stores were enough to please their customer, instead of listening to the consumer demand growing around delivery and the immediacy of streaming. This left Netflix the room to swoop in, effectively end Blockbuster’s business and change the market.

They met demand, then focused on a customer-obsessed experience to lead the market. With Netflix’s use of data to predict and personalize viewing, as well as using its social and brand editorial department as the engine to educate and keep their shows and movies at the forefront of the pop-culture, they pioneered a direct, mutually beneficial relationship with consumers that breeds innovation and longevity.

What move will you make next?

As a business function, marketing is often the mirror to an organization. Not only does marketing reflect how you’re performing as a business, but what your customers need from you. But we can’t be the voice of the customer without proactive effort. We can’t fortify customer satisfaction without being trend predictors.

Predicting what consumers want before they themselves know what they want forces brands to think outside the box, to look beyond our own industries and competitors. To look at tangential industries and businesses that can inform what people want next.

So many different aspects of your business start to change when you can get ahead of the forecast.

Jamie Gilpin

Jamie Gilpin

Jamie Gilpin is the CMO at Sprout Social. She is an experienced marketing leader with demonstrated success in growing brands in the technology space through strategic positioning.
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