What Happens When You Get Stuck In Your Ivory Tower?


Ivory Tower? You haven’t heard of it? For our purposes, it’s when company executives get stuck in an environment or thought process that is disconnected from the practical concerns of the real world.

It could be living in “the good old days” and refusing to acknowledge change. Or maybe it is just plain arrogance that we are all guilty of sometimes.

Effective marketers cannot afford to live in, or even visit, an ivory tower. The constant emphasis on ROI reminds us that for every marketing dollar spent, there needs to be a healthy return.

A while back, I wrote a post about the benefits of sharing marketing initiatives interdepartmentally. I suggested marketers must take advantage of feedback loops in their own company. You can catch up on that post here: Why Marketers Fail at Internal Communication and What to Do About It.

The Ivory Tower syndrome is the opposite problem – it’s not looking outside your company. And, it’s equally destructive.

Here’s an example. An executive once told me that “everything you need to know about our products can be learned within these four walls.” And he meant it. The answer was “No” to market research, to focus groups, to marketing roundtables with outside sales reps, and so on.

Wow. Really? He knew everything? He didn’t need to ask the customer which problem they were trying to solve?

Needless to say, without market input, several expensive products were developed and achieved little to no user adoption.

Please don’t fall into this trap. Your customers deserve more and your company needs to remain competitive to stay in business and grow.

Leave the Ivory Tower and Reconnect with Customers in Everyday Life

For an eye-opening experience, leave the office and shadow a salesperson. The perfect day to tag along is one where he or she is visiting several prospects in various stages of the buying process.

Take notes on the following:

  • Which industry is it?
  • Who are you meeting with and what is their role in the decision-making process?
  • How does the customer describe the problem?
  • What is the motivation for change or staying the same?
  • Which solution are they currently using to solve the problem (if any) and how is it working for them?
  • What is the cost of not changing?
  • Which unique feature(s) of your product would benefit the customer the most?
  • How are budgets and pricing discussed?
  • Which competitors are mentioned?

Armed With Reality – Now What?

It’s time to compile and analyze what you’ve learned. Two invaluable techniques for arriving at user-focused materials are the identification of personas and a jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) framework.

Much has been written about these two approaches and why one is better than the other.  My belief is that the two are compatible. Choose the approach that works best for you.

A persona is a written summary of the characteristics of your buyer. The more detailed the persona, the better. It includes personal demographic information like age, education, industry experience, time in current job. It also includes less tangible items like behaviors, motivations, emotions, the experience they want while using the product, and the decision-making process. Several profiles will emerge from your data.

The value of a persona is that it becomes infinitely easier to target a particular buyer than to target the entire universe of everyone that might ever use your product.

Likewise, the JTBD approach centers on the idea that when users use a product, it is for a specific job or to achieve an outcome. The entire set of jobs results in the list of the needs the user has. Once these needs have been identified, products can be designed to solve the problem in the best way possible.

JTBD is a newer technique and popular in today’s business press and UX community. The value of JTBD information is understanding what the users are trying to get done and what are the key success indicators for the job, both functionally and emotionally.

Incorporating What You Have Learned

Okay, so you’ve left the ivory tower, you’ve had your reality checked, what’s next?

Now it’s time to do a gap analysis. Gather all the company’s existing marketing materials. Do a complete audit of all brochures and any document or slide deck. Look at the home page of your website. Does the content speak to the needs and concerns of the personas and the JTBDs you have developed? Is there a gap between where you are now and where you want to be?

All too frequently, our marketing and sales tools focus on the products we have and all their great features. It will become crystal clear where the rewrites are needed and which new content must be created. Get your project manager hat on and schedule the rework. Who knows, your work in defining the persona and JTBD may actually influence the next round of product development.

Oh, and remember that executive I spoke of at the beginning? He was once a struggling entrepreneur bootstrapping his company by building products based on his own knowledge and experience solving a real world problem. Over time, his passion for the products, customers, and business changed.

He was bored.

So, he left the ivory tower. He sold the business and did a lot of soul searching. He developed a totally different product in a different market. He was brought  back to his roots in listening to the  customer and success followed.