Lively Laddering

“But how does server virtualization make you feel?”

Sounds like an odd question to pose to a Chief Technology Officer, but it might be appropriate.  Everyone outside of congress has human emotions. Numerous studies show that promotions appealing purely to emotions sell better than those that pry only on intellect. Exploiting common target buyer emotions is a basic marketing tactic.

Which is oddly missing from most B2B marketing.

High tech entrepreneurs rarely add qualitative research to their task list.  Having met with early adopters, they mistakenly assume they understand everything about their entire market. The motivations of early adopters are as different from the broad market as are Hillary and Bill Clinton’s motivations toward Monica Lewinsky. Start-up founders may accidentally appeal to one or another emotional motivation of early adopters, but rarely do they take time to discover the motivations of each buyer genotype within their top three market segments.

One tool in qualitative market research is called “laddering”, which attempts to guide an interviewee through the hierarchy of motivations, from the most basic functional features through the respondent’s most personal emotive desire. Laddering is useful since asking people about their feelings first can produce bizarre and misleading responses. Thus it is better to begin from the foundation of the buyer/vendor relationship — the features offered by the product — and slowly ascend the ladder of motivations.

(One fine example of doing it the other way is when researching new features for products.  Herein you explore what people love, hate and want in order to discover what the market is not providing. We did this for a B2B client by asking interviewees “What do you hate about your job” in order to discover what could be fixed. We got some mighty good and mightily strong responses.)

The more common ground-up approach involves getting interviewees to explain what product features are important, what are the expected functional outcomes (benefits), why these outcomes are important (higher order benefits), and how achieving this makes them feel. The laddering process eliminates unsupervised thinking, and leads the respondent through the levels of saying what they know (basic features and benefits) into discovery of what they don’t commonly articulate (personal aspirations or organizational benefits) and their own feelings.

Appealing to their feelings is what most B2B companies fail to do.

Apple gets this.  iPods were sold using happy dancing silhouettes which spoke directly to the buyers’ emotional gratification of the joy of music (and to the age group most likely to perform spontaneous dance moves in public). Emotional drivers apply to business too. The slogan “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” was an appeal to every CIO’s fear of technological failure and involuntary unemployment.

Like it or loath it, you have to make qualitative research part of your marketing strategy. Failing to identify and echo the emotional drivers of buyers leads to limited sales, to people who accept primary features as sufficient, and thus would just as soon buy from your competitors.


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