Customers vs. Consumers: Why You Have to Look Beyond Your Customer Data

Listening to your customers isn't that risky, right? Wrong. Only listening to your customer data means you're missing out on the insights that will drive your brand to be exceptional - and that's the premise of the innovator's dilemma.

Lots of companies still fail to speak to their customers regularly enough, so those who keep in close contact with them should rightly be proud. 

It no doubt gives you an edge.

But it can also create a dangerous blind spot that has been the undoing of many well-managed, well-intentioned companies.

How can a well-run, customer-obsessed company ever fail?

This was the subject of best-selling book The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen.

The Innovator's Dilemma

The danger doesn’t come from listening to your customers; it comes from only listening to your customers and not paying enough attention to what’s happening in the wider world.

Why should you pay attention to anyone who’s not paying you money? Those non-customers? Even those non-customers who you feel may never become a customer?

To answer those questions, let’s look at two specific ways that listening to customers over consumers can actually hurt your company, whether you’re a startup or the incumbent.

Market leaders and established brands

If you’re a market leader (or at the very least, a well-established brand), then you’ll have plenty of customers to talk to, which is a great position to be in.

You probably have larger marketing and innovation budgets than anyone else, and you’ve got the competitive advantage of brand awareness in your favour.

Assuming you keep your customer base happy, the future probably looks pretty secure.

In fact, you might be able to outcompete new competitors in terms of the sophistication of your product offering, investing in more and more advanced technologies that add incremental value to your customers, helping you grow your top line too.

And this is why you miss the next great wave of innovations that may well sweep away your entire company, no matter how strong you look right now.

How do you think Nokia was feeling just ten years ago? Six years after this cover story, they were no longer an independent company.

Then, of course, there’s Kodak, who suffered a similar fate, having been the market leader for many years. They even invented the first digital camera. But because they focused more on their core market (existing customers), and less on the emerging use cases amongst non-customers, they didn’t capitalise on their own innovation.

How to use consumer data for smarter campaign planning

If you’re not using consumer survey data as part of your campaign planning, you’re missing out on the opportunity to optimise your marketing. Find out how to use data to ideate creative concepts, test them with target audiences, plan your media spend, and measure the effectiveness of your campaign.

Get your free copy

What happens to market leaders when they focus too much on their customers?

This is the crux of the book, and there are lots of things at play here, but let’s highlight three common scenarios.

Scenario one: Build faster horses

While we’re not bought into the idea that people can’t articulate what they want, there is an element at work when specifically talking to existing customers.

It’s existing customers (rather than consumers in general), who will find it hardest to ‘think outside of the box’ and reimagine how they might interact with a product or service in your category that doesn’t work in a similar way to your existing solution. They will likely anchor everything to their frame of reference.

This makes it hard for you to come up with genuinely disruptive innovations, and focuses you instead on creating new features that increase the value of your existing solutions.

While this sounds great in theory, it can often mean you miss the really big changes (think Kodak and Nokia again), with devastating consequences.

Scenario two: What market?

Another likely scenario is that you start to pick up on some buzz around a niche market offering for customers that you’d never normally target – often because they can’t afford to pay the premium prices you currently ask.

This makes them less valuable, and because there’s not many of them, you shrug and think ‘what market?’

Unfortunately, this gives new competitors a toe-hold in your market and a loyal customer base. Adoption grows from there, their offering becomes more robust…and before you know it, they’ve eaten your lunch.

This is why keeping a regular read on consumers’ unprompted brand recall and purchase drivers is incredibly important, so you’re alerted to this threat before it’s too late.

Startups and challenger brands

The Innovator’s Dilemma focused on how market leaders get disrupted by new competitors coming into their markets, but startups and challenger brands can also be vulnerable when they focus too much on existing users.

Why? Because it can lead to you making the wrong decisions when it comes to future product development.

How? Because if you listen to your existing users – and particularly your most active ones – they’re going to give you feedback that best serves them. But their usage doesn’t reflect the average usage of your product or service, and is most likely focused on adding more powerful features, and more complexity.

This runs directly at odds with what your next wave of news users probably want, which is simplicity and ease of use.

This was a lesson learned early on by Sarah Tavel, Pinterest’s first Product Manager (now a partner at Benchmark Capital), who says:

“Your loudest users  –  the users who complain when you ship something they don’t like, and post in your Facebook Group their feature requests – are both a blessing and a curse. Without them, you wouldn’t have a company. But to reach your next 100m users, you need to be willing to ignore them.”

With this insight, Pinterest was able to continue scaling, and is today valued at over $13 billion. On the other hand, Digg was beholden to their early power users, and ultimately sold for $500k.

Facebook faced a similar challenge over 10 years ago now, significantly changing the way their newsfeed worked, leading to an angry backlash from existing users. That’s when they had 12 million active users. Today? They have well over 1.2 billion.

The lesson: being focused on your existing users and all the digital metrics they provide is valuable; but to ignore your next wave of users could be terminal.

The solution: Look beyond your customers with consumer data

How do you find out what non-customers want? How do you make data-driven decisions when you can’t look at your usual analytics dashboard?

This is where a commitment to brand tracking, research and intelligence is so important.

You have to reach beyond the easy-to-get, familiar data that existing customers and users provide you.

You have to focus on a process of deliberate self-disruption.

Never get comfortable. Don’t get lulled into the false sense of security that your customers have all the answers, or that the world won’t change around you.

A platform like Attest can help you to stay uncomfortably close to your market. The moment something changes, you’ll feel it. 

With a reach of 100 million consumers across 80 countries, we can help you get the consumer feedback you need to figure out future growth and stay one step ahead of disruption. 

It’s the only answer to the myopia that’s created by paying too much attention to your existing customers.


As Joseph Heller famously wrote in Catch-22:

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

This is the attitude every business would be best to adopt when it comes to staying sharp and ahead of the game.

Just because you’ve got happy users and clients – whether you’re a startup or a market leader – doesn’t mean you can ignore everyone else.

In fact, the best companies constantly look beyond their own customer base as part of campaign planning, to figure out what’s next and stay ahead of disruptive forces.

How to use consumer data for smarter campaign planning

If you’re not using consumer survey data as part of your campaign planning, you’re missing out on the opportunity to optimise your marketing. Find out how to use data to ideate creative concepts, test them with target audiences, plan your media spend, and measure the effectiveness of your campaign.

Get your free copy

The Experts’ Guide to Brand Tracking

How to look at the impact of things like audience reach, panel diversity, and survey design to help you decide whether your current brand tracker is up to scratch.

Get your copy now!

Alex Yankovskio


See all articles by Alex