A curious thing happens when we ask a question, especially one that doesn’t have an easy answer you can look up online. It highlights a void, a gap in our knowledge. For some people, this can be an exciting feeling, but for others, it’s distinctly uncomfortable – like an awkward silence on a first date.
All too often, we rush to fill the silence, to find an answer – any answer – that will close the gap. But by shutting down inquiry too soon, we might miss a deeper insight or alternative perspective that can make a big difference.
Author Michael Bungay Stanier posed a question recently on Aidan McCullen’s innovation podcast that I loved: “Can you stay curious a little bit longer? Can you rush to action and advice giving a little bit more slowly?“
If asking better questions is key to unlocking impact and opportunity, where should we start? Here are five questions I’ve been asking recently; you might find them helpful too.
Start with why
Perhaps it’s a bit cliche to roll out the ubiquitous Simon Sinek quote in a business article, but ’why’ questions can be incredibly powerful if you use them correctly.
Critical and strategic thinking courses teach you to ask ’why’ five times to help you dig deeper into what's really going on in a given situation or to lift you out of the detail into the larger picture. Ideo phrases it slightly differently with its ’So what?’ exercise – which forces you to articulate clearly what impact you’re trying to create by asking ’so what’ multiple times and from different angles.
But there are a few other iterations of ’why’ questions that marketers could find value in:
’Why are you here today?’ is a good question for finding out what people’s priorities are and getting everyone aligned around a common objective before moving forward.
Asking ’why are we doing X, Y and Z?’ can help you uncover both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations behind an action; it can also help uncover hidden agendas and internal politics that might not be obvious on the surface.
’Why is this important right now?’ is one way to acknowledge changes in the marketplace with customers or competitors that you need to respond to.
Asking ’why not?’ in the face of objections can uncover real barriers – which gives you the chance to fix something before it derails your project – or highlight risk aversion – which gives you an opportunity to address fear and uncertainty and bring everyone along.
Asking ’why not?’ can also unleash your imagination and give you permission to experiment.
When was the last time you spoke to your customers?
Most of the marketing teams I’ve worked with over the last ten years are trying to do too much with too few people. Expectations are huge, and the budgets are rarely enough. It can be a sprint just to get the day-to-day tasks done. And customer research, which everyone agrees would be valuable, is often non-existent or outdated.
And while the fundamentals of human psychology don’t change, consumer behaviour, technology use and lifestyle habits do change. Just think of how much our normal routines – especially how and what we spend money on – have been turned upside-down in the past 12 months alone.
As the world changes around us and disruptions only accelerate, it’s important to keep a strong connection with our customers. We need to know what their life looks like now (and how your product or service is relevant at this moment). And the best way to do that is to ask them.
This can be as simple as regular one-to-one interviews or surveys or as complex as a full deep dive with a research partner, but do what you can as soon as possible.
If you were a start-up challenger brand entering your category today, what would you do differently?
I love this question, because it's so easy for us to work within the status quo. Especially if we've come up through the ranks within one sector. Individuals develop habits that are hard to shift, companies develop ways of working that become immovable and sectors develop ossified norms that most brands comply with.
Until a challenger comes along and turns the industry on its head.
Airbnb disrupted how we holiday. Uber disrupted how we move around town. Netflix disrupted how we watch TV and films. Dollar Shave Club and Harry's disrupted how people buy razors.
Challenger brands do this by finding patterns in the data that no one else is looking for. By talking to customers and finding a pain point that no other brand is solving. By taking calculated risks and moving fast. They hypothesise, prototype, test and iterate.
Established brands can do this too. Carve out time in the calendar to think and add a test-and-learn line item to your budget. Encourage your team to identify their frustrations with the sector. Find common themes from the conversations you have with your customers about their challenges. And then start testing new ways to solve them.
Are you measuring the most valuable KPIs?
The proliferation of data available from digital marketing can be overwhelming. It can be hard to know which key performance indicators (KPIs) are the ones you should be focusing on. But we need to push our measurement frameworks further. To do the hard work to find the metrics that truly address your bottom line.
A lot of this should naturally grow out of your overall business objectives and your marketing strategy. With a clear idea of what you're trying to achieve and which tactics you're going to use, there should be a handful of KPIs that tell you whether or not you've been successful.
And while it’s useful to have a few metrics you’re measuring over the long term, don’t be too prescriptive with your measurement framework. What matters might change from campaign to campaign. And you’ll track something different for your long-term brand building campaigns versus your short-term sales activations.
What are you not going to do this year?
Michael E Porter said: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.“
In a world where new channels, new tech, new memes and new opportunities are growing exponentially, it's easy to fragment your time, attention and budget on doing too many things at once. Professional creative Jessica Abel writes about ’the should monster’ – the immense pressure we put on ourselves to do more, be more, achieve more. It's easy to bring that into our marketing careers – after all, we don’t want to lose out to the next big digital trend.
But the truth is that one or two activities done really well can have more impact than a dozen half-delivered ones.
Steve Jobs knew the power of focus. He said: “I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things. You have to pick carefully.” We keep this in mind as we develop strategies for our clients – purposefully limiting our activity to what we believe will move the brand forward fastest.
Answering this question can actually result in more freedom and headspace to do work that delivers real results.
As technology continues its rapid advancements, and as artificial intelligence and machine learning get better at providing certain types of answers, asking the right question remains a very human thing. Picasso’s maxim sums it up best for me: “Computers are useless; they only give you answers.”
Today, let’s commit to the pursuit of better questions.
Julie Reid is senior strategist at Hallam