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What Boaty McBoatface tells us about feedback?

As a marketer I’ve always believed in the power of having a deep understanding of a company’s customers, and in a continual feedback approach to constantly check and test how the brand is being perceived, making sure we’re delivering what customers want and making sure products and services are developed in a useful direction. The thing is, there have been a number of occasions I’ve found this approach to fail and the recent Internet poll which resulted in the Internet suggesting the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)’s new £200 million research vessel should be called Boaty McBoatface demonstrates one of these points.

Boaty McBoatfaceI’m not for one second saying we shouldn’t be speaking to our customers and try to get a better understanding of what they want. What I’m saying here is we should take everything they say with a pinch of salt.

I think asking questions is a great starting point, the answers give a business a perspective and direction. From this point it’s time to set sail and follow the course with the understanding of what you’re doing and why. If you try to get opinions about what you’re doing you need to be prepared to ignore them, understanding that you might get extreme opinions or even middle of the road answers which would make you just like your competitors if you implement them.

Let’s take Boaty McBoatface as an example. It’s a great idea to be able to get the public to name a research ship and by doing so involving lots of people in the decision, however the mistake was allowing the people to be able to submit their own ideas and then have them voted on. A better idea would have been to have a short list of names presented by the agency, or have a two stage process in which ideas could be submitted and considered, and later voted on. The problem NERC have had has been compounded by showing the results of the survey as soon a person has voted on it – this just facilitates the herd mentality on the Internet. There again this has been great PR for NERC.

At least NERC did stipulate that members of the public could only make suggestions, Greenpeace once ended up having to name a whale “Mister Splashy Pants”.

We can thank James Hand, a public relations professional and former BBC employee for the selection of Boaty McBoatface. He added Boaty McBoatface as one of the default suggestions – probably thinking it was a bit funny and no doubt imaging that the public would soon ignore that option and start coming up with more valid options. Of the option he said: “I would say 90% of the entries at that point were really quite funny so I thought, I’ll throw one into the ring and just see what happens.”

NERC’s Director of Corporate Affairs Alison Robinson said “We’re delighted by the enthusiasm and creativity people have shown to help the Natural Environment Research Council make sure the new ship has a name as inspirational as she will be when she sets off for the polar seas in 2019.” So they’re really chuffed by the amount of PR they’re received.

The amount of coverage online is bound to have improved the SEO of the website as well, with thousands on links being pointed back at the organisations website and an incredible amount of national and international awareness for a research association which would generally only be known about by a very specific interest group.

The same can happen if you ask your customers about your brand, your product, your services or your marketing campaigns, especially if you’re positioning yourself as a challenger brand. The thing about trying to make a difference as a brand is you’ve got to have a vision and it’s likely your customers won’t have that vision. If you’ve found a problem which you recognise as an opportunity, it’s likely your customers won’t see that there was even a problem to be fixed.

I’m a thorough advocate of getting suggestions from the customers, but that data has to be properly interpreted. Online we should be looking at various optimisation tools to really understand through AB and Multivariate testing how existing elements should be advanced. When reviewing the data, we also need to be clear that we’ve got a statistically significant amount of data from which to get a steer.

It’s also important to recognise that the way in which you posit the questions can also impact the results you get. As with the early suggestion of Boaty McBoatface, if questions lead the respondent in a certain direction it’s likely you’ll always get that kind of answer. I’ve seen this a number of times, in a previous role we once asked a group of people “what would you change about this poem” (it was a piece of copy aimed at students) we got around 50 suggestions with minor edits – a few of which we implemented. We then presented the copy to two other groups asking them: “do you think students will be inspired by this poem”, “could you write a poem that would make people more enthusiastic about being a student”. Most people responded yes to the first question and we got few if any responses to the second question, demonstrating that it’s easy for customers to pick apart something when it’s presented to them.

Often the public don’t know what they want until they know they can have something. It’s our job as marketers to determine what they want, what they’re going to want and present it to them in a way in which they feel they’ve made a choice about it.

I think the “let’s ask the customer route” is often a direction to take when you’re really not sure what you should be doing. If you’re at that point then I’d be asking if you really have the kind of understanding of your potential customer base you should have in order to be going to market. It’s certainly not a position an established organisation should find themselves in too often.

This all points to the importance of understanding the customer by clear research, understanding potential outcomes when you speak to customers (in the same way a sales person would attempt to understand objections before talking to a client), and being confident enough to let you’re customers know the direction you want them to take.

Ultimately, I just wish I’d come up with something as brilliantly viral as the Boaty McBoatface story.

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