Are You Asking the Right Questions?

Last week a colleague told me about a company that has decided to kill its content marketing program because no one could answer the question “What is the ROI of thought leadership in terms of sales?” Well, people knew the answer. Management just didn’t like it. The answer was “We don’t know.”

Asking the right question is important to us in marketing. This ability enables us to discover things that others don’t see. And until we discover things that others don’t see, we can’t differentiate our ideas and our businesses.

Asking the wrong question – even if we get an answer we like – can lead straight to failure. This situation is classically represented by the now-famous line that Henry Ford actually never said: “If I had asked customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’” The lesson isn’t that we should stop asking customers what they want. No. It’s that until we ask the right questions, we can’t get the answers we need.

In the case of my colleague’s story, “What is the ROI of thought leadership in terms of sales?” is the wrong question. It misdirects the inquiry. It stunts the exploration. It prevents discovery. This question’s truthful answer – “We don’t know” – brought assessment to a halt and kept the team from seeing any kind of value in its content marketing program.

Ironically, the content marketing program might have won a reprieve if the team had manufactured a questionably rosy answer, like “The sales ROI was positive.” Two wrongs – a misguided answer to a misguided question – might have made a perverted right, buying time for the team to come up better and better questions for discerning the program’s true value. 

How do you know you’re asking the right questions? Consider your intent. Ask yourself whether you’re open to answers that challenge your convictions or whether you’re looking to support those convictions. Right questions typically come from curiosity and openness to discovery rather than from an urge to prove something or someone right or wrong. 

Even if you’re asking the right questions, how do you know you’re getting truthful, useful (right) answers? Consider the likely intent of the people answering you. Do you sense that they’re teaching? Selling? Exploring a concept? Lying? It does you no good to ask the right questions if you accept wrong answers.

If you want right answers to right questions, look at what’s behind your questions before you ask them, and then look at what’s probably behind the answers. Be curious and open in your asking, and be scrupulous in your listening. You just may discover something worth discovering, something no one else has seen, something that could differentiate your business. 

Let’s return to the company that killed its content marketing program. The team got hung up on ROI in terms of sales. They posed an obvious question that was easy to ask and maddeningly impossible to address. These folks might have come to a more satisfying decision if they had asked a broader, tougher, potentially more productive question: “What is the value of thought leadership for our business?” That’s a question that deserves a right answer. 

Author: Robert Rose
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS. Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.