Ethnography

134: The Other Way to Get More Sellers: Convert the Unbelievers

One of the biggest catalysts for growth across all business sizes has been the proliferation of consumer data. This is why so many stores and fast food restaurants give you deals to use their scannable MVP cards. That is how online retailers can suggest related purchases. And that’s how Target has gotten so good at demographic predictions that they were able to surmise a female teenager was pregnant before her parents knew.

Data is king. It instructs business decisions and marketing choices. It can make advertising more effective and—just as important—more efficient.

Advertising firms and in-house marketers have leveraged all sorts of audience tracking statistics to better target and communicate with prospective customers. The auction industry is all over the spectrum on this from (1) bid callers guessing on a gut feeling to (2) auctioneers with anecdotal impressions to (3) firms knowing which exact Tweet brought someone to the bidding page of a particular lot. On the aggregate, we are slowly getting better at getting in the heads of those who buy and sell at our auctions.

One thing we’ve yet to crack is how to get in the heads of those who don’t consider auction as a viable marketplace for what they want to buy or a valuable marketing tool for what they want to sell. I’ve seen attempts at advertising to these unbelievers range from futile to comical. The problem is that believers talk about what they believe with the assumption that unbelievers are starting from the same values, concerns, and perspectives.

This isn’t exclusive to the business world. Organized religion and its constituents often have the same issue. Much of the time, the converted struggle to communicate in appropriate, attractive ways to the secular marketplace of ideas. One of the many exceptions to that might lend some insight for the auction industry.

A couple decades ago, my pastor had a conversation with a professional ethnographer who was consulting at one of our area’s local nuclear engineering firms. The University of Virginia consultant had been hired to identify subcultures within the company in the process of recommending improvements for company productivity

That conversation led to my pastor creating a similar study for his thesis on the way to his doctorate. For more than a year, he studied the culture of the local unchurched and routinely interviewed multiple secularly-minded adults from various walks of life, asking questions about what they didn’t like about the concept of church or their past church experiences. He learned a lot.

Then came the hard part: making changes in his church to reflect what he had learned. After casting the vision for these changes, 75% of his friends and family in the assembly left the church. The logistics got harder. The preparation and execution required more time and more energy. What was left of his comfortable country church became the seeds of a church that now welcomes up to 4,000 people a weekend across four services—in an area with hundreds of other churches in the phone book. A church with limited influence and impact became a place where unchurched people try the church experience and where the convinced affect social justice and evangelism literally around the globe.

Back to the auction world . . . one of the questions I regularly field is, “Where do I find more sellers or buyers?” 

I usually reply, “Where do you find your current buyers or sellers?” Finding common denominators in your current customers and extrapolating that to other similar people is a good first step.

The next step is approaching those who aren’t sold on auctions. (By the way, that’s a majority of our culture.) This process includes interviewing our friends, family, and social connections—asking them what their perception of auctions is and what they liked or disliked about any auctions they’ve experienced. Inviting honest feedback is the easy part; not rebutting that feedback is harder.

The hardest part, though, is making changes in our company culture, business practices, and auction terms to remedy those stigmas and barriers. You might lose some of your faithful. You will definitely lose time and money—at least in the beginning. You might be criticized by your peers. 

At the same time, you might build an organization that becomes a model that others study for their own growth strategies.

Photo purchased from iStockPhoto.com

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