Design Thinking for Inbound Marketers

By Ty Hagler | 7 minute read

Hello Eskimos, let’s talk about ice.

Advertising and marketing professionals have long been known for their creativity at generating attention to drive prospective customers through a funnel towards a sale. This topic may sound a bit redundant, like Design Thinking for Industrial Designers, but please hang in there with me. While the methods and mindset aren’t new to marketers, practicing the techniques will make us better at our craft.

What is Design Thinking? 

Design Thinking is often confused for a process or tool that either works, or doesn’t. In practice, we have found that Design Thinking is a mindset for managing risk and uncertainty. It starts with the idea that human creativity requires flipping back and forth between divergent and convergent thought. Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes this as System 1 (Fast and Intuitive) and System 2 (Slow and Logical) in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. If one were to design a creative process for computers, perhaps it would be a different approach, but this basic observation is fundamental to all of us humans. The Trig process for Design Thinking then creates three cycles of divergence and convergence through Explore, Prototype, and Build. The process is cyclical, not linear, as we navigate the possibilities to uncover new value in a complex environment.


Domains of Marketing

Broadly speaking, I view marketing as having three core functions: strategic planning of the company, brand building, and lead generation. Marketing has accountability for creating, growing, and sustaining demand.

Strategic Planning As a key stakeholder to any innovation effort, marketing helps ensure the growth of the company by identifying new market opportunities and aligning products to serve customers.

Brand Building Make a promise, keep a promise. Great brands position themselves to make compelling consistent promises that the operational team can consistently deliver.

Lead Generation Keep the sales pipeline full by building awareness among the right prospects and providing targeted messages that move them towards a conversion.

Design Thinking for Marketers

Design thinking, as a discipline of thought, is most useful when you are seeking useful new practices in a changing or uncertain environment. For the most part, you don’t want to Explore-Prototype-Build on a routine process like your daily commute or have pilots get creative with their flight patterns. With the disruption of traditional media and the constant churn of digital media tools, practicing good design thinking practices will help marketers identify trends as they emerge and produce original techniques to engage with customers. To help illustrate, I’ll use the rising popularity of Quora among marketers as an example.


There are so many digital marketing tools and platforms being continuously launched that it isn’t possible to keep tabs on all of them. Instead, start with understanding your customer’s journey as they search for solutions that your company offers. Content marketing is a well-known trend that we have been exploring. Marcus Sheridan is definitely the pioneer we seek to emulate with his book, They Ask You Answer (TAYA!)  We can extract a principle by exploring new channels where customers are asking questions such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Reddit, Medium, Slack communities, and Quora.


The key here is empirical creativity. Play, experiment, tinker, measure. Quora didn’t really get my attention as a marketing tool until I wrote an answer based on a funny conversation with my son went sort-of viral: Terminal Velocity of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The comments are hilarious, especially the indignant defenders of dinosaurs and nerds challenging my calculations. It’s always fun to troll paleontologists (out of jealousy... it was my childhood dream job), but it doesn’t exactly have marketing value. 

What got my attention with Quora is that it promotes content to its audience on merit and interest-specific targeting. Quora is effectively the TAYA social media platform. To prove out the merit as a marketing tool, I started responding to a number of questions relevant to Trig’s field while following the TAYA principles. I also started observing my own behavior in reading Quora content. Why did I drill down and click into that article?  Do images always help my click through rate or is a compelling hook in the first two sentences the best at drawing me in? With enough validated prototypes and empirical evidence, we can start to build scale. 


There isn’t any way of predicting which answer will spike in advance, but you can improve the odds by writing a lot of answers to topics where you have expertise and try to recognize patterns. At the time of this writing, I have answered 37 targeted questions with varied results. Here are a few emergent best practices for Quora that we are building out:

  • The first two sentences are key

  • Use stories to connect emotionally

  • Break up text with formatting

  • Include a compelling image

  • Seek out questions that have a high ratio of followers to answers

  • Use Quora search to find questions in a specific topic area

  • Inspired writing to answer a question beats repurposed content

I can’t help but laugh after realizing the personal benefit of working through this case study. As a result of writing this case study, the Trig strategy for Quora as a marketing tool is evolving from low risk individual experiments to a team effort with organized best practices where we expect cumulative returns.

After wrapping up with an initial Build phase, good Design Thinkers then circle back to the Explore phase to continue diving into best practices and learning from others. For those interested in the Quora platform as a marketing channel, be sure to check out the recently launched Grow with Quora podcast.

Hopefully this example illustrates one application of Design Thinking, as a mindset, that can be helpful for marketers who are facing a chaotic environment where they need to quickly make progress in managing risk and uncertainty.

Ty HaglerComment