What, how, and why?

At the Skateboard Industry Conference earlier this year, and in these hallowed pages, I’ve argued:

1. That advertising and promotional tactics like running ads and hiring teams pass for marketing in this industry, but aren’t.

2. That marketing (maybe better called market research) is the process of finding out who your customer is and why they buy your product.

3. That few people in skateboarding (or in action sports) do marketing well if at all.

4. That favorable demographics and large company interest in the skate vibe are creating opportunities that we aren’t taking advantage of.

5. That good marketing will make you more efficient in the use of your advertising and promotional dollars¿a good thing at a time when this is a tough business financially.

Marketing costs a little money, takes some time, and will leave you with as many new questions as answers if you do it right. It isn’t a one-shot deal. Its value increases as you continue to do it over time and as you institutionalize it within your organization. How might you do some marketing in your organization? Here’s one general approach¿definitely not the only one, and not necessarily the best or the right one for your organization, but one I think you can implement and get some value out of.

The Right Questions

It’s easy to come up with a list of questions that, on the surface, seem relevant¿general questions like “Who’s my customer?” You could create a list of good, general questions like that in about twenty minutes and walk away thinking, “Yes sir, there’s not much to this marketing stuff.”

Instead, begin with a goal in mind. Let’s say the goal, as mentioned above, is to make more efficient use of advertising and promotional dollars. Ask questions that help you do that. Go through each of your advertising and promotion expenditures and develop specific questions¿questions that will help you know where to spend your money and what you’re getting for it.

One such question might be, “Do people buy our boards because of the team?” Well, duh, of course they do. Or at least that’s always been your assumption. Ever tested it? In several industries I’ve been amazed at the number of once-true assumptions that have been institutionalized in industry lore, even when they were no longer valid.

Among winter resorts, for example, the current assumption seems to be, “If we build it, they will come.” My guess is that snowboarders will come regardless of whether or not the resorts build new trails, facilities and lifts, and the number of skiers will continue to decline in spite of all the capital investment.

I’m not suggesting teams aren’t important to skateboarding, but if I had to prove it in a rigorous way, I couldn’t. Not unless I’d done some marketing. Use marketing to test your traditional assumptions. If you find something has changed, this information could provide a huge opportunity.

Based on a specific statement of what you are trying to accomplish, get more specific in the questions you ask. “Do people buy our boards because of the team?” is too general. No answer you’re likely to get will help you do anything better or differently unless, I guess, everybody says no.

Maybe “Do you know who rides for Brand Y?” would generate some useful information, if your goal is to focus your team spending on the riders who create the most brand visibility. If nobody knows a rider you’re spending serious bucks on, or if lots of people know somebody who only gets product, you’ve got a chance to spend your money more efficiently, or maybe just to spend less. Or to spend more but feel good about it.

Marketing’s biggest challenge is in asking the right questions based on specific goals.

Gathering the Data

I’m a big believer in quality and consistency over quantity. I’d rather see 200 thoughtfully and consistently completed surveys than 200 incomplete warranty cards where there was no contact between the customer and the company. Send team riders or employees with surveys in hand to skateparks on weekends.

Make a deal with some of your retailers to approach customers in their store in exchange for sharing some of the data with them. Let the retailers add a few questions they’d like answered. Give every consumer who works with the interviewer to complete a questionnaire a T-shirt, and turn the collection of market data into a promotion.

Do some training before you send people armed with good intentions and clipboards out to talk to customers. Make sure they understand why you’re asking the questions, what you expect to learn, and what benefit having the data is. Get them to practice a little with other employees or friends so that their lack of experience doesn’t skew the data collection.

Exercise some common sense. It might not work to ask team riders to collect data about team performance. A rider isn’t going to be anxious to report that nobody ever heard of him. Consider the possibility that young males might consider this as an opportunity to do something besides collect market data and return surveys predominantly from the best-looking girls at the skatepark that day.

All the data doesn’t have to be collected in one massive effort. A couple people in a couple shops for a couple hours a couple times a month will build you a big database faster than you think.

The experience the data collectors have can be as important as the information they come back with. They’ve just spent some serious face time with customers or potential customers. Sit down with them right after the session. What did they feel/see/think? What interesting comments did they hear that didn’t make it into the survey? What questions appeared to have been a complete waste of time? Did they hear gripes? New product ideas?

Most company representatives don’t spend enough time with the customer. Take advantage of those who are. In fact, spread the wealth¿get as many employees as possible to take a turn gathering market data.

Your data collection is going to be biased in some way, no matter how hard you work to collect it in a consistent and dispassionate way. The way the interviewers dress, the locations of the interviews, the time of day, the different ways interviewers approach the customers, and a bunch of other aspects we can’t even conceive of will all affect the quality of the data. Strive to minimize these influences in the way you develop the survey, train the interviewers, and select the locations. At the end of the day, with enough good interviews completed, you should recognize, or at least hope, that the biases will have been statistically reduced to background noise. That brings us to what to do with the data.

Analysis

If you’ve gone through the process correctly, data analysis should be almost anti-climactic. From the process of designing the survey, it should be clear what you are trying to find out and what kind of decisions you hope to make from the data collected. Before collecting the first piece of data, the analysis process is established. This will have become clear in the hard work that went into establishing goals and developing the right questions.

Response will be counted, and percentages calculated. Maybe the same essential questions have been asked several different ways to compare the responses. But when the simple counting and calculating is done, there are a couple of statistical techniques that will help you get the most out of the data.

Not all the questions will require this kind of analysis. But when appropriate, the concepts of “mean” and “standard deviation” are powerful tools that are not tough to use once understood.

A standard distribution is represented by a bell curve. Bells can be taller or flatter, depending on how the data points are distributed. The vertical line that divides the bell exactly in half represents the mean on the curve. The mean is the point where half the data values are greater and half are smaller. Simple so far.

The standard deviation is a statistic that tells you how tightly all the data points are clustered around the mean. When the points are pretty tightly bunched together and the bell-shaped curve is steep, the standard deviation is small. When the bell curve is relatively flat, you know you have a relatively large standard deviation. One standard deviation away from the mean in either direction on the horizontal axis accounts for somewhere around 68 percent of the data points in this group. Two standard deviations away is roughly 95 percent. Three accounts for about 99 percent of all the data points.

So who cares? Just for fun, say you ask 200 customers how old they are. Their mean age is calculated as fourteen with a standard deviation of one year. So you know that 68 percent (one standard deviation away from the mean in either direction on the horizontal axis) of your customers are between thirteen and fifteen; 95 percent are between twelve and sixteen. You can see how this might help you focus your marketing efforts.

Mean and standard deviation are calculations that lots of cheap calculators can do. Microsoft Excel will do it for you on your computer. So, as I started out by saying, you can do this yourself. On the other hand, time is money, and there are lots of companies around that specialize in designing surveys, collecting data, and interpreting the results.

Even with some professional help, trading money for time and efficiency in the process, your customer and industry knowledge will still be required to make sure the right questions are asked of the right people.

Somebody once said that half of your advertising and promotion budget is wasted¿you just don’t know which half. Marketing can help you figure that out. Just to pick a number, if you spend 20,000 dollars to do a survey that helps you save only 5,000 dollars a year¿a return on investment of 25 percent¿isn’t that a great deal? My guess is that you’ll do better between more efficient spending and better customer focusing. Do the marketing yourself, or get help. But please do it.

Jeff Harbaugh works with companies managing transitions to help them recognize and take advantage of new opportunities. Reach him at: (206) 232-3138.ents the mean on the curve. The mean is the point where half the data values are greater and half are smaller. Simple so far.

The standard deviation is a statistic that tells you how tightly all the data points are clustered around the mean. When the points are pretty tightly bunched together and the bell-shaped curve is steep, the standard deviation is small. When the bell curve is relatively flat, you know you have a relatively large standard deviation. One standard deviation away from the mean in either direction on the horizontal axis accounts for somewhere around 68 percent of the data points in this group. Two standard deviations away is roughly 95 percent. Three accounts for about 99 percent of all the data points.

So who cares? Just for fun, say you ask 200 customers how old they are. Their mean age is calculated as fourteen with a standard deviation of one year. So you know that 68 percent (one standard deviation away from the mean in either direction on the horizontal axis) of your customers are between thirteen and fifteen; 95 percent are between twelve and sixteen. You can see how this might help you focus your marketing efforts.

Mean and standard deviation are calculations that lots of cheap calculators can do. Microsoft Excel will do it for you on your computer. So, as I started out by saying, you can do this yourself. On the other hand, time is money, and there are lots of companies around that specialize in designing surveys, collecting data, and interpreting the results.

Even with some professional help, trading money for time and efficiency in the process, your customer and industry knowledge will still be required to make sure the right questions are asked of the right people.

Somebody once said that half of your advertising and promotion budget is wasted¿you just don’t know which half. Marketing can help you figure that out. Just to pick a number, if you spend 20,000 dollars to do a survey that helps you save only 5,000 dollars a year¿a return on investment of 25 percent¿isn’t that a great deal? My guess is that you’ll do better between more efficient spending and better customer focusing. Do the marketing yourself, or get help. But please do it.

Jeff Harbaugh works with companies managing transitions to help them recognize and take advantage of new opportunities. Reach him at: (206) 232-3138.