3 Lessons from Elementary School (Last Week)

I recently had the pleasure of spending the entire day serving as a WATCH D.O.G.S. dad at my kid’s elementary school. With my oldest about to head into middle school, it’s now or never. WATCH D.O.G.S. (Dads Of Great Students)  allow dads like me to work right along-side the educators as they read and work on assignments with students, play at recess, eat lunch with students, watch the school entrances and hallways, assist with traffic flow and any other assigned activities where they actively engage with not only their own students, but other students as well.

So how is this relevant in the world of marketing and communications? We talk a lot about ensuring our target audiences have a positive user experience through the ways they interact with our companies and/or brands. In the early phases of developing new product or service most marketers conduct extensive market research – focus groups, concept testing, card sorting to online panels, and any other number of traditional research methods. Ethnographic market research (“EMR”) is a powerful way to understand  their consumer in terms of cultural trends, lifestyle factors, attitudes and how social context influences product selection and usage. While EMR can take a few forms, the idea is to change the research setting from ‘behind the glass’ to a real-world setting, generally in-home or onsite where you immerse yourself into the customer’s life and the context of their day-to-day lives. That’s the opportunity I had to get into in the daily lives of my kids, their classmates, and sitting at the tiny desks and chairs of their elementary school.

Below are the 3 primary lessons I learned and how they reminded me to dig deeper as a strategist working with our teams and clients.

1. Spend Time in Their World – and Sitting in Their Chairs

I cannot count the number of soapbox lectures I’ve given my two boys on the importance of focus in the classroom. Yes, it’s been a LONG time since I sat in the elementary classroom and boy times have changed. I was so impressed at how teachers leverage technology – from videos, interactive games, mix of individual and group work, and organizing the day to switch from mental energy zapping subjects. My perspective is much more refreshed now that I’ve spent considerable time sitting in their (tiny) chairs.

Now think back to your target audience. What does their typical day look like? How are they switching between channels throughout the day – and what are the triggers for the switch? What are they looking for and are there ways to draw them in when they’re trying to be entertained or media snacking? Are they switching roles or “hats” throughout the day – from mom to manager to spouse to ‘me time’? When is the last time you spent time with your target audience? The simplest way is to look for online evidence of what’s top of mind – readbloggers who are in the target audience (and the comments on their popular posts), get help surfacing key themes from social, or find other media such as non-fiction books, podcasts, or vlogs where your audience is sharing stories from their lives. Do everything you can to spend time living aspects of their lives and “sitting in their chairs,” regardless of the size.

2. Learn From Their Influencers – the Good and the Bad

After killing it as all-time pitcher in kickball during 3rd grade PE class, I had the chance to spend time with several teachers while WatchDOG’ing recess. I genuinely wanted to hear from them what their biggest challenges are, how times have changed as educators, and what they feel is working with this generation of students. They shared their thoughts and experiences in trying to meet kids where they are and give them the best chance to advance, using methods designed to tap into a generation of students who live in an on-demand, digital, and device-heavy world. These wonderful teachers have a great influence on my kids and their peers.

In sitting through a few of classes with each of my two kids, I was reminded that you cannot replace the experience of observing in-person and in their environment. It was telling to see a few kids that my kids mention as their buddies who appeared to be good examples and influences while others are kids who we discuss how my boys may have the opportunity to positively influence or steer clear.

At W2O Group, we preach the importance of understanding influencers and their influence on a given audience or segment. Our analytics teams are amazing at what they can find and surface through a number of proprietary methods and tools. It starts by identifying, listening and learning from these individuals, outlets, and organizations so you know how to best approach them to establish authentic, transparent partnerships. You’ll clearly see a pattern of language and information flow than is very useful in engaging your customers. Ask yourself, do you know where your audience gets their information? Who do they look to for credible advice or information? If you don’t know or answer “Google?” then we need to talk.

3. Can You Explain it to a 3rd Grader?

As a part of my day, I was asked to explain what I do for a living to a room full of 3rd and 5th graders. Explaining the components of a brand strategy and how I go about researching and finding the key insight in the 3C’s was not going to cut it. Instead, I simplified my approach and explained it through a product they would all know and understand; quickly highlighting the steps involved, potential marketing channels, and examples from my career. As a result, they asked a ton of great (and hilarious) questions that demonstrated they understood and grasped the general idea. AND, as an added bonus, both of my sons finally understand what I do for a living!

It is amazing how verbose and complex we marketers can make our brands, products, or services over the process of brand messaging development. Of course, we rarely set out to intentionally do so, but it’s a common side effect of brand differentiation and doing everything possible to get a competitive advantage.

Start by evaluating the simplified version of your [brand, new product, idea] with your team. Share that with your a handful of people around you beyond your direct reports or marketing counterparts. Heck, explain it to your partner, parents, and/or kids. What are their reactions or feedback? Was there something missing? Do the simplified RTBs or key message points sound too similar or distinct enough? There is a good chance you’ll find holes you need to address and you saved time and money in realizing this now.

In the end, I enjoyed the chance to serve at my kids school and spend the day seeing them in their daily environment. Look for ways to do the same in the work you’re doing. Immerse yourself in THEIR world – listen and learn – and simplify the message. This is what we all want from the brands we engage with personally so why not do our best as marketers and communicators to offer the same to those audiences we serve?

Matt Noe
Matt Noe