Marketing ideas that stick, via Steinbeck and Scotland Yard

Posted on December 21, 2015 by Vicky Welstead

As B2B marketers embrace the blatantly-obvious-but-somehow-still-useful concept of human-to-human communications, the hunt is on for ideas that speak to people as individuals, no matter what they do for a living. Bland corporate logic is out. Emotional impact is in. The theory’s watertight, but there is a serious practical problem…

When communicating with hundreds, or sometimes thousands of people, how do you make every individual feel like they’re the only one in the room?

To have a shot at this difficult feat, you need a truly relevant idea. The best campaigns jump out at their intended recipients, cutting through the blur of information as a must-read. To find such an idea, you need to know what your audience is thinking, not just what they’re saying.

When searching for an idea that will stick, good intelligence is crucial. Watch out for the limitations of common research methods and be inspired by intelligence experts from artists to detectives.

Beware of homing in on obvious commonalities

This can lead to an idea that is as bland as the intelligence behind it.

Many research techniques focus on demographics, pigeonholing people and encouraging generalisations that result in dull, meaningless observations. “CEOs worry about the bottom line.” No surprise Sherlock!

Explaining how he wrote stories that stay with people for life, John Steinbeck once said, “I find it helps to pick out one person – a real person you know or an imagined person – and write to that one.” Knowing what one member of your audience really thinks can be more useful than superficial observations about the group as a whole.

Use personas with care

Personas can be incredibly useful tools, but only when they embrace diversity within a group, instead of glossing over the grey areas.

For the purposes of inspiring campaign ideas, personas that segment an audience by their mindset are more useful than those drawn along traditional B2B lines of sector, role, age or size of business.

It also helps to ground each persona in reality by referencing a real person that your team knows, so they can be referred back to as a litmus test as the idea develops.

Don’t expect people to know the truth

Intelligence research often relies on direct questioning, with carefully crafted structures and scales. While this feels reassuringly scientific, in our experience it risks being over-engineered and prone to suggestibility.

Avoid leading your witness, by taking inspiration from Scotland Yard's best practice interview technique.

Focus on building trust and a rapport with your interviewee and get them talking with open questions (think good cop, not bad cop). Some of the best gems come from casual remarks, much like the old-school killer journalist question that’s asked once the tape recorder’s been switched off. Likewise note what wasn’t said, as well as what was.

Whatever method you choose it’s all about getting closer to what people think, not what they say they think.

Recognise the difference between data and facts

Audience research is best designed to reveal clues, which can be interrogated and mulled over afterwards, rather than being read as gospel truths.

Keep sense-checking your insights. It can help to involve people who know the audience in different ways as part of this process, from sales people to complaints teams.


And once you’ve got an idea, try this three-step process to test how relevant it is:

  • Level 1: Does your idea tie into bigger conversations?

It might relate to the economy, the political landscape or trends in people’s personal lives. What major issues can you relate to and does your take on them feel fresh and interesting, or dull and done?

Rather than repeating something your audience has already heard, think about how you can move the conversation on, revealing a new dimension, or putting things together in a different way. Even better spot that next issue on the horizon before it makes it to the mainstream.

  • Level 2: Is it relevant to your audience’s sector and their individual business?

This is where mindset-led personas, or simply having a real person in mind, can be invaluable. When whittling down ideas keep asking yourself: who cares? Be ruthless in scrapping any that don’t make the grade.

  • Level 3: Does it tap into an individual’s personal challenges, fears and ambitions?

This is the crux of an engaging campaign. Sparking a personal connection can be the difference between a good idea and a great one.


Over-engineered processes can be limiting but these guidelines (part of our new guide to generating campaign ideas that sell) may help steer your thinking. Ultimately, when it comes to thorough intelligence, channel your inner Sherlock: “It is my business to know what other people don't know.”

This post is part of Man Bites Dog’s ‘No Idea?’ blog series on creating marketing campaign ideas that sell.


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