Market research lessons from the greatest art con of the 20th century

When working on a client’s book, it never ceases to amaze me when I come across content that isn’t relevant to their target readers. This could include terminology they don’t recognise, examples they won’t resonate with, or information that doesn’t clearly relate to what they’re trying to learn from the book.

The end result? This content gets cut.

(Sometimes the client might put it back in, but they’re aware of my stance on the matter when they do.)

The thing is, so many of us do the same thing in our businesses every day. We assume we know who our ideal clients are and that they want, only to discover that no one invests in our services, orders our products or reads our content. When we expected to hear applause, we only hear crickets.

The customer intimacy formula: Research + hypothesis + experiment

While almost every entrepreneurial blog discusses the benefits of choosing a specific niche, what many neglect to consider is what comes after you’ve chosen that niche.

The fact is, choosing a niche is only part of the puzzle. In order to connect with that niche and, hopefully, sell products and services to that niche, you need to follow a three-step formula:

Research + hypothesis + experiment

Research is about understanding your customers, or your niche. The mistake many new entrepreneurs make is simply choosing a target market than making a range of assumptions about what they want. For instance:

  • Niche = single women in their 20s. Assumption = they want to find a man.
  • Niche = new mums. Assumption = they want to lose the baby weight.
  • Niche = university graduates. Assumption = they want to stand out to hiring managers.
  • Niche = backpackers with blogs. Assumption = they want to make money remotely to fund their travels.

Now all of these assumptions might be correct, but they might not be either. The reality is that these are superficial judgements and, until you have a deeper understanding of your market, you aren’t going to have much success when it comes to developing content and marketing material for that audience.

Because of this, the foundation of building your customer knowledge is research.

This research then allows you to create a hypothesis. ‘Hypothesis’ is a scientific term used to describe an assumption that you make to guide further research. When it comes to your business or your book, it’s what you think they want based on what you know about them. What do you think their burning pains and desires are? And, how can you meet them with your writing, your products and your services?

The final step is experimentation. While your hypothesis has been guided by research, it’s still just a theory — the ultimate test is taking it to market to see what your niche really thinks. If they subscribe, download or buy, that’s a great sign — it means you’ve figured out what they want and you’ve presented it in a way that compels them to take action.

If not, this is a good thing — rather than spending months or years pushing something that doesn’t work, you can take this early feedback as another piece of research. This then informs a new hypothesis that you can experiment.

So, what does this have to do with the greatest art con of last century?

How customer understanding put a con man behind bars

From 1986 to 1995, supposed physicist John Drewe and painter John Myatt teamed up in the greatest art con of the 20th century.

The relationship started when Myatt posted a classified ad for ‘genuine fakes’ — paintings in the style of famous artists available for the bargain price of GBP150. Drewe ordered some of Myatt’s works and, before long, he was selling them on as the genuine article.

However, the scheme ran into trouble when buyers began to question the authenticity of the work. You see, when you by an expensive piece of art, you aren’t just buying a framed canvas — you are buying its provenance, or its history.

Provenance is proven with historical documents, including sale invoices, catalogues of art shows where the piece was featured, newspaper clippings about the piece, and even letters written by the artist.

So what did Drewe do? While Myatt forged the paintings, Drewe forged the provenance. Over nine years he pasted photos of new paintings into historical brochures, he typed ‘official’ letters on the stationery of respected associations, he photocopied old letters and documents so he could cut and paste them to create new ones, and he forged sales receipts. One of his feats was getting access to the Tate Museum archives in London, where he inserted records of false paintings.

To this day, there are still over 100 of Drewe and Myatt’s paintings in circulation, and the Tate’s archives are still considered to be compromised.

What does this have to do with you getting intimate with your customers?

In Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art, which shares this story, the authors discuss how the main detectives on the case (Searle and Volpe) prepared their evidence for trial.

‘Because the art world could arouse as much resentment as reverence, Searle decided to home in on the paintings that would not only make the best evidence but would appeal to a middlebrow jury. He began to steer away from the more abstract pieces, the ones that might prompt jurors to sneer and mutter, “I could have painted that myself!” To keep the jury from seeing Drewe as merely a mischievous prankster, a canvas pimpernel who had brought down the hoi-polloi and taken the aristocracy for a ride, Searle wanted to put “nice, pretty pictures” on the courtroom walls, works a juror could easily digest, understand and admire.’

‘[The friars] would make good witnesses. Drewe duped a religious order that depended on charity, and that would not sit well with a jury.’

‘[Palmer] had a clear expository style and could explain how she had arrived at each of her conclusions. If she could talk Volpe through the basics of art appreciation and the mazelike subtleties of provenance, she could certainly convince a jury. Unlike other experts, she had never given the nod to a single one of Drew’s fakes. She was untouchable, and her expertise was unquestionable.’

Take a moment to consider what these quotes imply about the jury, or the detectives’ target market.

Research: What do you know about your customers?

Just as you’re trying to sell potential clients on your products and services, Searle and Volpe needed to sell a jury on Drewe and Myatt’s guilt. However, they had hundreds of paintings, thousands of documents and scores of witnesses they could produce as evidence.

They needed to narrow down their choices based on what would most effectively persuade their market.

So they considered what they knew. As a jury is supposed to be an average cross-section of society, they knew they wouldn’t be getting art buffs who would appreciate the finer points of abstract art. They would be getting regular people on regular salaries, some of whom probably thought the people buying this art (some of the forgeries sold for six figures) had it coming.

Being that they were regular people, the detectives couldn’t assume they would agree that Drewe’s scheme was a crime. They needed to persuade the jury that Drewe and Myatt had defiled something precious.

Before moving on to how they did this, take a moment to think about what you know about your customers.

Where many entrepreneurs focus when choosing their niche is demographic information — gender, age, occupation, income, family situation and so on. While that can be enlightening in some businesses, what’s more powerful is the way they think, feel and act.

Think about:

  • How much do they know about your area of expertise?
  • What makes them frustrated?
  • What are they trying to get done?
  • What problem are they trying to solve?
  • What do they care about? (And what don’t they care about?)
  • Who do they identify with?

Keep in mind that you want to avoid making assumptions at this stage of the process — you want to learn how your target customers genuinely think and feel. This will involve talking to people who are in your target market.

If you’re just getting started, think of five people who are like the customers you want to attract and invite them out for a coffee. In this coffee, don’t talk about your business idea — talk about them. Learn about where they are in life — what’s going well and what their niggling issues are. When you come across a problem, get more detail — have they done anything to solve it? Is it a big enough problem for them to take action, or is it an annoyance they can live with? The same goes when you come across a desire or a goal — is it deeply motivating, something they will work for, or is it just a ‘nice to have’?

If you already have a business, you can also speak to past and current clients. Ask the same questions about their lives, their problems and their goals, but also ask them about why they decided to work with you. How did they hope you could help them? Why did they choose you over the thousands of other professionals in your field?

Once you’ve spoken to five people, you should have a good idea of who they are and what really motivates them.

Hypothesis: Using your knowledge to establish an assumption

The mistake many entrepreneurs make is that they stop with an analysis of their market. They answer a range of questions about their demographics and motivations, and then go back to doing what they were already doing.

In other words, they stop at the research part of the equation.

Unfortunately, this research isn’t going to be effective until they consider how to interpret that research (their hypothesis) and whether that interpretation can be proven (their experiment).

A hypothesis is usually an if-then statement, so ‘If something happens, something else will happen.’

In the Drewe and Myatt case, the detectives’ hypothesis might have been, ‘If the jury sees the con men as unethical, they will deliver a guilty verdict.’ A secondary one might have been, ‘If the jury sees the con men as pranksters, they might rule them innocent on some charges, or might request a lighter sentence.’

To figure out your customer hypothesis, think about how you can interpret what you know about your market. You can do this by asking a single question:

What does this mean they want?

For instance, if your previous research revealed that your target customers have put on 10kgs and are worried about looking good at their upcoming wedding, your hypothesis might be that they want to lose the weight quickly. If they are business owners approaching retirement but aren’t sure what to do about it, your hypothesis might be that they want a reliable plan to ensure they have enough funding to maintain their desired lifestyle.

Keep in mind that your hypothesis doesn’t need to be perfect — it simply gives you an idea to test that can be refined as you learn more about your market. For now, just focus on creating a hypothesis, rather than the perfect one.

Experiment: Testing your hypothesis

At the moment everything is just theory — you need to test it on people who fit your target market profile.

In the case of the art forgeries, the detectives tested their hypothesis that the jury needed to see Drewe as unethical by choosing ‘nice, pretty pictures’ that the jury could appreciate and choosing witnesses that were beyond reproach — two elements that would encourage the jury to see Drewe as unethical.

The point on witnesses is interesting, as it demonstrates how easy it is to turn your market off even if your hypothesis is correct. Because the people on the jury might naturally be judgemental of the people working in a world so different to their own, the detectives couldn’t rely on those who had a financial interest to gain from the art sales, they couldn’t rely on those with reputations to protect, and they couldn’t rely solely on the experts who had been duped by the forgeries (after all, that might create the impression that, ‘if the expert couldn’t tell it was a fake, what’s the problem?’).

Instead, they chose friars from a religious order that Drewe had coerced into providing a letter of authentication for a painting for no reward. They also chose an art expert who had never been swayed by any of the forgeries, making ‘her expertise unquestionable’.

If this approach hadn’t resonated with the jury (in other words, if their experiment failed), they would then need to reassess the potential evidence to find something that would.

In your case, your experiment might include social media and blog posts, product and service launches or sales calls.

My advice is always to start small. If you bet everything on a single experiment, you run the risk of having nothing left if it doesn’t pay off. By contrast, if you start with smaller experiments, you have the opportunity to get to know your customers on a deeper level, to understand what they want and what they don’t and then, once you’re ready for a big experiment like starting a new business or launching a new product, your chances of success are exponentially higher.

What might these ‘small’ experiments look like? Some ideas include:

  • Look for some paying clients on the side of your day job before you go all in on a new business.
  • Write social media and blog posts related to a new product or service idea and gauge the response before your big launch.
  • Launch smaller, low-risk products relating to your idea before you launch bigger ones. (This might be writing an eBook before publishing a paperback, or doing a free webinar before developing an eight-week video course.)

Any experiments that fail are just another form of research — another way you can understand your niche, and some more information from which you can develop a new hypothesis. And any experiments that succeed are a stepping stone for future experiments.

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