What did the Primatologist say to the Chief Marketing Officer?

Go sleep in their nests!

photo courtesy of Fiona Stewart & W.C. McGrew via LiveScience.com

Perhaps I should explain…

Primatologists are scientists who specialize in the study of primates, usually of the non human variety. For almost a century they have been studying the nesting behavior of  chimpanzees in an attempt to understand why they build nests every day and sleep in them every night.

The way it’s always been done is to stand on the ground with notebook and binoculars in hand and observe, as astutely as possible, the behavior of their subjects. That’s the way primatologist Fiona Stewart had always done it but then she went further and did something remarkable, taking our understanding of primate nesting behavior to new heights in the process.

As told by LiveScience:

For six nights in 2007 and 2008, Stewart climbed 5 to 29 feet (1.5 to 8.8 meters) into the trees, either crashing in pre-used chimp nests or building nests using chimpanzee techniques. She spent another five nights sleeping on the bare ground.

By having the guts to do this she discovered things that ground-based researchers might have never understood.

Here are some of her discoveries:

  • Though her colleagues were concerned that Fiona might fall out of the nests in the midst of sleep, it turns out these nests “are built in a secure cup shape that makes falling out difficult.” That’s because “They’re interwoven, they’re spring-loaded. It has, essentially, the bed, the mattress, the lining, the pillow. It’s a clever device,”  said William McGrew,  Stewart’s former doctoral adviser and a professor of archaeology and anthropology at the University of Cambridge (LiveScience).
  • By wearing temperature sensors on her body, Stewart discovered that the nests kept her warmer than other sleep accommodations available to the chimps.
  • The nest also did a fantastic job of keeping Stewart free of pesky insect bites. In fact, she suffered 97% less bites up in the nests than on the ground.
  • Last but not least, Stewart discovered that though the menacing howls of hyenas and other predators persisted and interrupted sleep throughout the night, the nests did bring a modicum of relief and a sense of security which allowed Fiona to sleep more soundly in the nests than on the ground.

None of these insights would have been possible without the courage to go beyond standard field observation techniques.

It occurs to me that there’s a huge lesson for anyone in sales or marketing, and especially CMO’s.

One hears a lot of dogmatic talk about the power of data and analytics, as if this is some sort of panacea that will completely solve the challenge of understanding your customers.

My view is that it will never be as easy as all that.

I think that the way to truly solve this issue for your business or organization is to deploy a strategy that includes a data analytics component, but that also embraces a “get up there and sleep in their nests” component.

But don’t go and merely observe your customers. Don’t just go talk to them. Go live in their world, as one of them, instead. Sleep in their nests (so to speak) and seek to understand exactly what they do and why they do it from their perspective, not yours.

That’s the best way to improve your products and create a path to true innovation.

Precious few companies truly understand the power of doing this. And the few who do are legendary for their ability to breathe new life into fading brands or discover entirely new market opportunities.

But the oft heard excuse for not pursuing this is that we don’t have the time or money to invest in such an initiative. Amidst slipping sales, market share, and profits, can you afford not to?

Interestingly, some scientists, and some marketers, might actually look down their nose at such an approach. They are enamored with the mistaken notion that data, analysis and conventional models can give them the answers they seek. But my take is that there are some things you will never be able to answer  that way.

Despite quantum computers and massive data sets, some fundamental aspects of your customers’ behavior will remain a mystery and that’s okay.  But that’s why, sometimes, you just have to go and see for yourself.


photo courtesy of Fiona Stewart & W.C. McGrew via LiveScience