Marina Petrova on Understanding what Your Clients Really Want

7 min read

Marina Petrova is an expert in both traditional and digital marketing, founder of the New York Online platform (USA) and a friend of GMS.

Our readers might have already met Marina at the GMS Mobile Marketing Forum 2019, where she shared her knowledge about modern search trends affecting SEO performance and identified factors that marketers should consider when optimising their content and engaging with their audience.

marina petrova at mobile marketing forum gms

Today we meet Marina again to figure out how brands can truly understand their audience, and why not all Big Data is equally useful.

GMS: Greetings, Marina! We have recently attended a webinar you hosted together with Seth Stevens-Davidowitz — a former data scientist at Google, economist and author of the bestselling book Everybody Lies. We believe that this webinar perfectly complements the theses that you voiced at the GMS Mobile Marketing Forum. Tell us, at which point in your career did you clearly realise that the consumer is not always ready to be sincere about what he really wants?

Marina Petrova: I have been working in online marketing for over twenty years, the last seven of those as a founder of the online travel business. It has always been a part of my job to “unravel” the client, to find out what he really is into, and, to be honest, I have always been very interested in figuring out the psychology of consumer behaviour.

Even back when I worked in the advertising business, I was always puzzled by the survey results that served as a basis for marketers’ further actions. Finding evidence as to why this information is not always to be trusted was no easy task. However, when Google came along, bringing the ability to analyse search queries, everything changed.

My chance to get proof that customers are not always — intentionally or unintentionally — honest, came when I launched New York Online. Managing an international platform for travellers intending to visit New York brings you a whole new level of insight: you have to roll up your sleeves and carefully study each market, each segment if you want to grow. I wanted to.

The most apparent example is restaurants. In the surveys, most clients indicated that one of the reasons for visiting was the opportunity to experience the dizzying variety of cuisines from different countries and regions, concentrated in one city. This makes sense — there were 25 thousand restaurants in New York before the lockdown.

Search terms are so much more than SEO keywords. As obvious as it sounds, if people are looking for it, it’s important to them.

The reality is, the first thing 90% of guests do is look for their national cuisine restaurants: tourists from China are looking for Chinese joints, travellers from Russia — for Russian, Brazilians — for Brazilian, the list goes on. And this is just one example.

Search terms are so much more than SEO keywords. As obvious as it sounds, if people are looking for it, it’s important to them. Thus, we have almost completely rewritten all the content on the website. Subjectively, I may not always like this type of content, but my task is to give the buyer what he really needs.

Reading Seth’s book, Everybody Lies, left me thrilled, as I have finally found a like-minded person, who not only perceives the search data as a massive source of insight but also wrote a thesis on the topic. I highly suggest you read his book if you haven’t yet: it does a great job explaining why traditional research cannot be blindly believed.

GMS: In your opinion, what explains the discrepancy between the survey results and what really matters to people?

Marina Petrova: There are a couple of reasons. One of them is so-called “social desirability bias”. Consciously or subconsciously, we want to appear better than we are, and seek the approval of others.

For instance, when asked about their favourite book, more people will pick Crime and Punishment compared to Fifty Shades of Gray; Fellini, not Michael Bay, is more likely to be listed as one’s favourite director, and Forbes, not the tabloids, will top the list of preferred press. In reality, the picture is very different, which once again proves that not all data can be trusted.

GMS: In other words, Google serves as a sort of “truth serum”?

Marina Petrova: Correct. In Seth’s words, Google is a “digital truth serum,” and I like that definition. One of the key advantages of this data source is that the user is very much invested and extremely honest as a result, sincerely hoping to find a solution to his problem.

At the same time, Google is gradually ceasing to be synonymous with the word “search”. If a user wants to buy something, he goes straight to large marketplaces like Amazon. If a client wants to understand how something works, he opens YouTube — the second largest search engine on the Internet after Google. It’s no secret that most YouTube searches start with “how to…”.

Social media, on the other hand, is a whole different story. People are looking for approval on social networks (the aforementioned “social desirability”). But don’t be hasty to exclude social media from your analysis entirely. Instagram is now used for search, and by analysing hashtags, you can quite easily understand what your audience is interested in and build a dialogue with them, taking into account not the subjective assumptions about the audience preferences, but what really matters to them.

Instagram allows someone to make searching as fast and straightforward as possible, as the user does not have to read through the search results — he simply scrolls through the images marked with a specific hashtag. Also, people can ask questions to their friends and subscribers directly on social media. Have you noticed how often people look for advice on Facebook? This is another form of search that shouldn’t be ignored.

To sum it up, knowing what your consumer is looking for, you can use this knowledge as an excellent basis for designing your campaign.

GMS: The data sources you listed indeed look promising. However, won’t targeting, based on this ultra-precise data, be treated with hostility as a user privacy violation?

Marina Petrova: The search insights won’t provide you with individual data on each consumer. It is aggregated information: I cannot see what you are looking for on Google or who the 5.5 million people that have used the #gift hashtag are. But as a brand, you can draw conclusions from this data and understand what is essential for your audience and build a dialogue with them, instead of obsessively offering what they may not really need or be interested in. Analysing search queries allows marketers to see their audience in a completely different way, much more in-depth than “18-45, average income +”.

I agree with Seth that search queries are not always a set of keywords in the “product-city-buy” fashion: users tend to ask full-fledged questions like “are deodorants with aluminium salts safe?” And this is an excellent opportunity to start a dialogue.

“…Users tend to ask Google full-fledged questions like “are deodorants with aluminium salts safe?” And this is an excellent opportunity to start a dialogue.”

Provide answers to questions that customers really care about, instead of guessing.

Talking about questions: be prepared for them to vary wildly from region to region and from country to country, and in some cases, they will catch you completely off-guard. For example, consumers might ask whether it is safe to give vitamin and dietary supplements (designed for human consumption) to dogs, or how these supplements go together with the region’s traditional medicine.

An example that Seth brings up in our webinar: based on search data, he analysed what problems consumers from different countries are trying to solve by taking Omega 3 supplements. The same product with the same set of characteristics can be sought by completely different categories of customers depending on the market — something that should be considered, while preparing your campaigns.

Omega-3 supplements use by country based on search data
Omega-3 supplements use by country based on search data (sourceData Insights webinar)

Finally, it’s important to remember that customers like to associate themselves with brands. In particular, this means that the consumer wants the brand to share his values and outlook. If your customers want to know whether you support the fight against global warming, whether you recycle industrial waste or adhere to the best practices in personnel management — talk about it.

By providing users with answers to their questions without aggressively promoting your product, you form a trust between the brand and the client, which in the long term can ensure his long-term loyalty.

GMS: Indeed, sometimes, when trying to predict what our consumers want, we rely on our perception of their needs or, as we found out today, often incomplete data.

Are you planning to continue working with Seth, and where could our readers learn more about the secrets of effective customer acquisition?

Marina Petrova: For those who have not yet seen Seth’s and mine joint webinar, I suggest you watch it.

We tried to make it fun and to add as many practical examples as possible. Seth explains why Google is a truth serum, and I share the analysis I’ve done with search data for several well-known brands.

Seth and I believe in the value of search data for effective marketing campaigns that don’t break the boundaries of privacy. We plan to continue our cooperation and will eagerly share updates on the new materials.

GMS: Marina, thank you for the valuable insights! And now, it only remains for us to hope our readers try out the approaches we discussed in practice, and, of course, to stay safe.

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