The Press, September 2013

Article - winning export strategiesIn all the controversy over intelligence gathering by the Government Security Communications Bureau (GCSB), our ‘spy’ agencies come out more ‘Maxwell Smart’ than real smart.

Given that less than 90 people have been ‘spied’ on by the GCSB in the last decade, it all seemed like a lot of noise about not much. Where Kiwis could get into a lot more ‘intelligence gathering’ is in the way we market our export products, particularly the high tech ones.

In the annual Market Measures study of sales and marketing by hi-tech exporters, the highest growth firms are very clearly those who put the most emphasis on understanding their market.

The majority don’t have this focus. Hundreds of software, electronics and engineering companies in New Zealand are generating ideas and new products, but not enough knowledge about the market or person who will buy them.

Local companies have invested in building a product only to discover that the problem it aimed to solve wasn’t really an issue outside of New Zealand, or that the product requires enormous change on the part of the buyers for them to be able to use it effectively.

Matt Haig in his book ‘Brand Failures: The Truth about the 100 Biggest Branding Mistakes of All Time’, describe the technology companies in his list that failed became “blinded by the technology itself, and almost forgot the target market completely.”

Why do so many of us dive into launching a new venture without more than a cursory glance at the people expected to part with their cash for it? It’s a natural human tendency to assume that we know what others will like – we encounter a problem in our daily or business lives and find a solution to it, and quickly assume the way we solve that problem will attract others.

Business is about risk, so there are no guarantees, but gathering data from your market as early as possible is a much safer strategy for taking a new product to market.

Having some knowledge is better than none, and the right sort of data about potential customers can give you immense marketing power.

Those tough decisions (How do I price this? Is that advertisement going to work? Should I use that reseller?) become easier the more you know about your target markets. Firms armed with some insights about their market are more likely to ‘land’ on the right spot in their export markets, while those going in blind have to hack around in the undergrowth before happening on the most profitable segment to target.

To get this data, do you have to turn to the market research ‘vampires’, as famous adman Kevin Roberts calls them, so adept are they at sucking the life out of good ideas?

The fundamental problem with market research is that data has become so easy to gather in large volumes that insights i.e. information that really helps you make decisions, are harder to extract.

Getting the right market data comes from starting with the end in mind. You need a very clear understanding of what decisions you actually want to make with the intelligence gathered.

With a clear understanding of the decisions you want to make, you can work out what sort of information will be needed to support those decisions.

For example, you may want to decide what promotional strategy to use in launching a product into a new market, so the information you need is how your customers typically gather information, what kind of channels they prefer, what style of communication suits them. The value of your research hangs on knowing the right questions to ask.

Gathering data from customers doesn’t necessitate formal, expensive market research.

With the right frame of reference the Internet can be a powerful research tool, with a poor research structure you can drown. You can find anything from the profit and loss statements for a UK competitor, the number of commuter buses plying the streets of Melbourne (down to their size, make, year of manufacture, cc rating, capacity and typical routes), to the number of commercial bakeries in the US state of Wisconsin (there’s 62).

Research can be as simple as ringing up a dozen customers or prospective customers. Telephone or online surveys, listening to your call centre, mystery shopper reviews, even talking to people at the local supermarket - they're all valid options.

The last step is working out exactly who you should be researching. You need to understand all the different audiences in your value chain - who uses your product, who buys it, who supports it, who is the reseller or channel partner, who is the end customer. Each group will have a unique perspective on your products and they need to be seen in context.

As we become more of a tech exporting nation, Kiwis need to be a bit more ‘GCSB’ about our markets, not by being Maxwell Smart but by taking a smart approach. Listening hard to the right people and you’ll find those tough marketing decisions become a lot clearer.

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