Coffee N5 Podcast - Sharmin Attaran

Episode 87 – Coffee N.5 –  How Understanding Consumer Behavior Can Grow Your Business with Sharmin Attaran

We are so excited to have marketing educator and Ph.D. graduate Sharmin Attaran on the Coffee N. 5 podcast today. Sharmin began studying economics at UCLA, but towards the end of her senior year, she started working as an advertising intern for Vitamin Water, which completely fascinated her and shifted the course of her career. 

After confessing to her dad her newfound love for the advertising world, he suggested that she take her first marketing class: consumer behavior. Now she teaches that same area of expertise at Bryant University. She also graduated from Marketing and Entrepreneurship as part of a Ph.D. in the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Given the rapidly changing world we live in, Sharmin finds herself changing the topic of her lectures every year. However, she finds it important that her students know that marketing’s foundations are linked with the psychology and behavior of buyers. According to her, understanding consumer intent is key to a successful marketing strategy.

She also touches on the topic of digital marketing tools. Sharmin believes technologies like Google Ads have benefited small businesses and leveled the playing field. With the right online strategy, she says, anyone can grow their business and be competitive.

What you’ll learn:

  • How did Sharmin get into marketing after studying economics?
  • What is the importance of consumer behavior?
  • Why should we be more careful about boosting a post on Facebook?
  • How has digital marketing shifted the balance between large and small companies?


For more information, don’t forget to follow Sharmin on Twitter at @Prof_Shar. You can also keep up with her work on her LinkedIn profile or purchase her book.


Follow our host Lara Schmoisman on social media:

Instagram: @laraschmoisman

Facebook: @LaraSchmoisman

LinkedIn: @laraschmoisman

Twitter: @LaraSchmoisman


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Lara Schmoisman  0:17  

Hello, everyone. Welcome back to coffee number five. Today I was thinking about one of my first clients. And it was a client who was doing great. They open a store in a very popular street here in Los Angeles. And they were doing amazing. There were pioneers in what they were doing. And they were unique. Their facility was new, everything look pristine, just right. And they did their social media there. They did their brochures, they did absolutely everything because they were new, and they had all this energy to put in their business. But then they start getting busy, which was great, great for the business. But what happened a year later, they call me and say my competition who just open across the street is doing better than me in social media in Google people find them more than me, I say, Yeah, because you’re not doing anything. So one thing is, I mean, I started working with them. And finally we caught up at some point, but it was a lot of work. Because it’s not something you can stop. You need to be consistent and you need to create a solid basis for your business. You can need to create a foundation to grow your business in the marketing. Today I invited Sharmin Attaran, and she is a professor of marketing at Bryant University. And we’ve been having conversation and I love I mean, our last conversation with I could have stayed there forever. Because I we agree in so many levels. But I love that she’s forming this new generations now knowing all we know about the digital world that we didn’t know it at the beginning.

Sharmin Attaran  2:38  

That’s right. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here and chat with you more.

Lara Schmoisman  2:42  

Yeah, of course. So, Sharmin, tell us a little more about your journey. How did you get here? How did you that passion for marketing started on not only for to market? I mean, I know what is to be an educator in marketing. And I, and it’s challenging to because there’s so many parts of marketing, and so many pieces are moving pieces, and they change all the time that is super challenging.

Sharmin Attaran  3:08  

Absolutely. You know, I didn’t start studying marketing. In fact, in my undergrad, I studied economics at UCLA. But towards my scene ended my senior year, I started working for vitamin water. And they had just moved from white stone, New York to Los Angeles, California. And it was a new brand. And it was colorful and fun and exciting. And I was going to trade shows and events. And it was this whole world that was so exciting that I’d never had really access to. And I also come from a long line of educators. So, you know, grandparents, mother, being teachers, my father’s a professor. And when I told him how much I loved what I was doing. I said, Oh Dad, I want to do advertising. He said, I think you mean marketing. And you know you’ve never taken a marketing class. So why don’t you take one, you know, my university and tell me what you think. So I went to his university, and I enrolled myself that granted I had already graduated from undergrad, an undergraduate class. So I took consumer behavior. And in that class, I learned the psychology behind why humans behave the way they do psychology behind buying sociology, how anthropology everything, you know, affected our buying behavior, and the light bulb went off. I said, I could study this forever. It was so exciting for me. So I threw myself into an MBA program, finished in a year and a half, and got myself into the Ph. D. program at University of Illinois, Chicago. And I studied Marketing and Entrepreneurship. And you know, once I got to Bryant which was you know, Oh, a great opportunity, I noticed that and you’re going to be able to agree with me, there were a lot of internships coming in for social media. And that’s because the students were young, they were young, they were in college, they were on Facebook, they were on Instagram. And that’s what businesses kind of thought was enough. And it wasn’t. And so I realized this real gap in the market where our students were not prepared, they were prepared to use social for their own personal needs. But they weren’t. They hadn’t learned how to use social media to run a business, and to build a brand, and to promote and sell. And so I found it, you know, important to create the first just a Social Media course. And now we have a full blown concentration. It went from, I think, for students in 2019, we have over 75 plus students now in the program, and now we’re, you know, landing our students some great jobs. And that, you know, really, I think you asked about passion for it. But I love what I do. And I find it exciting. And yes, it’s constantly changing. And that means that every class, I have to change my lecture from the last time I taught it, and to me, that’s exciting,

Lara Schmoisman  6:20  

to me to stay on my toes that I need to be keeping young and sharp, because I need to keep learning, and not trying to learn or finally hoping something else I can keep learning what I love to do, which is amazing. Because there’s always something something new to do. I have a question for you, because you mentioned about this class that you took all your master’s in marketing on entrepreneurship. Yeah. It’s so interesting to connect those two.

Sharmin Attaran  6:58  

Yeah, it was a really kind of unique program. And that typically entrepreneurship might be found in say, management. But we learned to kind of, you know, I was really into like social entrepreneurship, triple bottom line, subsistence marketplaces, and how to change behavior in rural economies. It was a very exciting program. But I always, at the end of the day, loved consumer behavior, consumer research. And I’ve now been teaching that that first class that I took, you know, way back when I’ve been teaching that class for 15 years now. So I kind of stuck true to what I really was passionate about. And I also teach, obviously, the digital marketing courses, but you have to take consumer behavior. And that gets back to those foundations you’re talking about. You have to learn consumer behavior and the foundations of marketing before you can apply all these great tools, these digital spaces and tools to your strategy. So it’s very important.

Lara Schmoisman  8:02  

Okay, so let’s do a lot of roleplay. Here. I am your student, and you’re the first class of the year. I’m like new artists and marketing in LA audiences, New York marketing, what’s your first pitch? How do you introduce this marketing world to your students?

Sharmin Attaran  8:19  

Well, I definitely start with the idea of, of consumer behavior, because every one is a consumer. And every topic in that course relates to we start from micro all the way to macro. So I tell students, you know, why, why are you wearing the t shirt? Or the outfit that you’re wearing today? Why are you wearing the shoes that you’re wearing today? Tell me about that? And they start talking? Oh, I don’t know, it was on sale. Or it was the only clean thing in my, in my closet, you know? And they and I say yeah, but so let’s get let’s peel back the layers, why did you really buy it, and all of a sudden, it’s because it was brand, or because it was a you know, the sale? Or it was you know, because I’m an athlete, and Nike is considered athletic and we start getting at, you know, the the real core reason why we behave the way we do? And also who influenced that decision? Was it you what you’ve seen online influencers? Is your family? Is it the city or the state you grew up in? Is it the organization that you’re a part of, you know, start small and we get back? Is it the culture that you’re a part of? Is it experience you had when you were abroad? What are all the various, you know, influential factors that that made your decision today and so they relate to

Lara Schmoisman  9:37  

it and understand if these come from a micro or macro culture chill, because it’s completely different the kind of marketing that we will do.

Sharmin Attaran  9:47  

Absolutely. And so I think them understanding that every single decision they make there some marketing related to it. They they they get interested and I mean digital marketing, social media. has made it really easy to see marketing front and central on a daily basis. So their exposure level is very high.

Lara Schmoisman  10:07  

I always remember growing up in Argentina, of course, everyone has Coke and Pepsi, but we were a coke family. Because I believed that when coke came out, it was appealing to my parents age at that time, and my parents grew up with that. And then they was part of my beliefs. So if today, I don’t drink sodas, but you asked me, What’s better Coke or Pepsi? I will say Coke, because I grew up with that. And it’s what ingrain? Is, the story behind the brand, and the story of artists are a unique story with the brand.

Sharmin Attaran  10:42  

Absolutely. And that’s something that you know, brands need to take into consideration, because that’s where true connection with the brand lies, right when it’s more of a personal connection.

Lara Schmoisman  10:55  

Absolutely. Okay, I want to talk a little bit about small brands, because we were just talking about huge brands like Coke or Pepsi. But what happened with and this is where we connect with entrepreneurs, a lot of entrepreneurs, of course, absolutely everyone needs marketing to launch a brand or the product. But they many times they are comparing themselves, or they’re trying to use strategies, or they see what these big ones are doing, which is completely different from their means not their wheels.

Sharmin Attaran  11:27  

Right? Well, in a sense, digital marketing tools and options have can level the playing field. Right. So I was just teaching search engine marketing the last week in class. And, you know, you obviously have a large budget if you’re a big company and spend a lot of time with like search engine optimization and such. But even a small business can compete in in in Google ads, right? If they have the right keywords, and they you know, have a budget for that, you know, they can play in the same spaces that these large companies play. And it’s all about strategy. And it’s all about, you know, understanding, you know, consumer intent, and the intent of the person that’s searching online. And if you can build that strategy, and you have your toolkit like SEMrush, or Uber suggests there’s so many tools to to kind of figure out what the right terms would be to bid for, then you can pay play in the same field.

Lara Schmoisman  12:34  

But you know, that you need to have a budget for it, you’re not going to be able to get in the market or compete without having a budget.

Sharmin Attaran  12:41  

Yeah, there absolutely needs to be a budget. But in the meantime, there’s a lot of ways through social media, through writing on your site, and blogs, you know, understanding all the various touch points that your customer comes into contact with you, and how to optimize those touch points from how they become aware of you to them, considering you to actually converting and hopefully becoming loyal customers, analyzing every single one of those touch points, what is the customer feeling, thinking, doing experiencing in that touch point. And if there’s gaps or areas for improvement, really hitting the nail on the head, and making sure that you’re focusing your efforts, so that you can help someone go through that journey. As well as there’s so many nurturing opportunities that, you know, are, again, strategic and not expensive, as long as you are understanding who you’re attracting where they are, how they’re thinking, and how you can help them.

Lara Schmoisman  13:43  

Yeah, but I mean, I agree with you, 100% with you, but also the, the entrepreneur in this case, they need to understand that also, there is a scale of how much you can do with organic, organic is fabulous. And I love and always I say if you have small budgets divided in a good percentages on Google organic as much as you can, and then because organic is gonna keep building up,

Sharmin Attaran  14:12  

right. In the meantime, right? Yeah, yeah,

Lara Schmoisman  14:15  

I’m paid. It’s gonna go on, and it’s gone.

Sharmin Attaran  14:19  

Yeah, but you have so many efficient ways of using that budget, because you can target so you know, my nucleus, it’s, it’s really powerful. So I think you start small, you know, with with a smaller budget, and as long as you’re kind of seeing some benefit, right, you can start getting a little more

Lara Schmoisman  14:41  

that’s a lovely key word that Isha see here. There is some you cannot expect overnight success. Absolutely. Yeah. So we need to have the right expectations for the right of budgets that we have. And how do you explain that to us? Students or do your clients or mean success studies for me is not anymore how many followers it is because those numbers don’t work anymore. It’s how much engagement you get.

Sharmin Attaran  15:13  

Absolutely. And you know, there’s so many ways of calculating engagement, but that’s really the true currency. Right? Of online is how, how much engagement Do you have? I mean, I have an influencer account. Hangry girl, Rhode Island. And so I posted about food and such, and I’ve worked with hundreds of brands. And, you know, brands don’t really want to work with you, unless you have at least I would say, you know, two to 5% plus engagement rate, because then it’s a waste of their time, I will say even 3% Yeah, so really trying to understand where you’re putting your money, and what you’re going to get out of it by picking the right, you know, tools, platforms, brand, collaborations, sponsorship opportunities, and so forth is so important. And, you know, it’s really, you know, the best formula to use is engagement rate, right. And so that’s, that’s really what the currency is right now. Followers, I mean, you could buy them, they could be bots, they could be, you know, completely useless. And there are platforms where you can check for that this

Lara Schmoisman  16:31  

is also Northlake. But I mean, I always talk about ecosystems or Omni channels to create strategies, because as we all know, I mean, I always call the home base or website, because everything we do is going to end up there. And we but Instagram, which is a great platform, or Facebook, or tick tock or whatever, whatever other platform you want, there is not yours, they are letting you use their platform. So you cannot put all your business there. You need to create a strategies that they are going to be connecting your message, your product, your values, whatever you want to convey, you need to use the native language of the platform.

Sharmin Attaran  17:14  

Absolutely. And I always say that those, those platforms are kind of roads, right? You’re building roads towards your home or your website. So how can you use leverage these various platforms to bring people to the space that you really are going to be, you know, conducting the business? So that’s, that’s a really important point.

Lara Schmoisman  17:32  

Yeah, I love that word. I never use it. I love the roads. Provel I think it’s really important because where the conversion is going to happen is in your home.

Sharmin Attaran  17:42  

Right? Right. Absolutely.

Lara Schmoisman  17:45  

And right now, I there is a big confusion. And this is something I would love to address with you. I can see lately a lot of people spending money in boosting, boosting, boosting I CSA No, I say no to that, why? Let’s explain the audience why.

Sharmin Attaran  18:02  

So boosting a post is a really easy way that Facebook has created for users businesses, particularly, to put money behind their posts, right, and send out a mini targeted ad, let’s say or post that’s been doing well, to more followers to get more followers to drive conversions, whatever, wherever you are in the journey you’ve been sending the ad out for. But boosting a post is a very limited capability within the Facebook Ads Manager, what companies should be doing is opening up the full suite of opportunities through the Facebook ads manager because when you open up ads manager, yes, it can seem overwhelming and complicated. But with that, you get so many more options for your ads, so much more control of who sees it when and what language and such and, and, and so much more tracking, and measurement right in the analytics section of that dashboard. But obviously, these companies, their businesses, they’re trying to make your life easier, but easy, you lose control and targeting,

Lara Schmoisman  19:14  

let’s be clear, it’s not about tool. I don’t want to say that boasting is terrible or is not my preferred choice. I think that if you’re looking to get a few more followers here and they are but with a risk that they are not going to be loyal followers, because of the algorithm and how it works though maybe those followers are they’re gonna come in today because we boosted but then tomorrow they will live.

Sharmin Attaran  19:41  

Yeah, and we have way more control in the platform. It takes a little bit more time to learn it. But you know, Facebook offers courses, they have a Facebook blueprint courses. You can just hop on Facebook Ads Manager and learn how to use it. There’s tons of videos. It’s pretty easy if you just walk through Do it with a video once. And then you have so much more control your ad?

Lara Schmoisman  20:05  

Absolutely. And I think a lot of people are boasting besides that it’s easy, because they don’t have a clear idea. What’s your conversion? Is it that’s what I call always content with intention. And we spoke about this many times about my I am a system informative, entertaining, memorable and actionable, that at the end of the day, what are you looking for? Are you looking for followers? Or are you looking for convert in your product? I think that there is this popularity content, that a lot of people are running in the competition, without realizing that maybe it’s not what they need.

Sharmin Attaran  20:42  

Yeah, I mean, here’s kind of a good rule of thumb for boosting. So if you see some organic content, in your analytics, in your Insights section, that’s doing really well or had a lot of engagement, you know, boosts that, you know, it’ll probably, more people will like it more people will be engaged with it, and that’s fine. But if you want to actually have Facebook work for you, when you go into the ads manager, it shows you various goals and awareness, goals and consideration, and goals and conversion, it’s actually listed just like the journey, and it will optimize your ad, and all the characteristics of the ad for the goal that you choose. So if you want to be more strategic, and you want to, you know, really have control over your ad and what it’s doing for you the intent that you were speaking of, then the ads manager is just the way to go. And you can run them through through Instagram as well, obviously, because they’re connected. So it’s like this one big hub.

Lara Schmoisman  21:46  

Even though you can also connect WhatsApp. Yeah, it’s just a great platform. Yeah, absolutely. Let’s talk for a minute I want to talk about the algorithms are changing all the time. But and this is a question that I get all the time do I need to post every day?

Sharmin Attaran  22:04  

Of course, it depends on I mean, every day, how many how frequently every day. You know, Twitter’s the way that it shares its feed is chronological. So it’s okay to post on Twitter, say three times a day, because it just so happens, I hopped on at a certain time and saw a few posts, whereas the other social platforms like Instagram and Facebook, are based on algorithm and engagement, entertainment value popularity. However, Instagram is just about to launch the option to see your feed chronologically. So that’s something marketers are gonna have to take into consideration, right? What is blasting your audience and what is not, but posting once a day? Makes a lot of sense, right? Because you want to continue having people interact with your content you want to show up on on their feed. And what the algorithms are particularly looking for, is what I call friendship. Right? Who are you social with? Who are you friends with? And friendship is symbolized by a view a like a comment, right, a direct message. So any of the ways that we signal to people and it creates a notification for the other party? That’s an engagement, right? So so that’s how we signal Hey, we’re friends, show me more of that person’s content and vice versa. So, you know, it’s so important to be engaging every day. Posting is a part of that.

Lara Schmoisman  23:41  

Absolutely. Sharing before we go, I have a last question for you. Sure. What was that mistake when you started in this world? That it was an eye opening an aha moment that you made that mistake? And I said, Oh my God, it’s gonna be crazy to get this fix or, but you learn so much because we learn so much from our mistakes like remember when one of the documents that you did delete it, but then you did much faster and much better the second time? Oh, that’s when What’s that mistake that you learn and our audience can learn from it?

Sharmin Attaran  24:19  

Um, I would say you know, making sure that you give yourself solid experience in the field that you want to enter before kind of dedicating yourself to it, right, get getting some experience for so I’ll go back to my college days. I was pre med for almost two years before you know taking biology chemistry, and such before I went and started working for a hospital and realizing this wasn’t where I was happy. And you know, jumping into that internship, say with vitamin water, I realized, wow, this is what I can be passionate about. And once I had that solid experience, I was able to really that it drove the rest of my career. It drove, you know, and I always tell my students that like get internships get out there

Lara Schmoisman  25:11  

practice I’ve asked the professor, do you think that we pushing our students, our new generation so fast into deciding what they want to do?

Sharmin Attaran  25:23  

I know at Bryant we definitely suggest internships early on. And most of our students, we have a really strong career center, make sure that our students are getting these internships early. And we guide them and make sure every week they send me an email saying how to go what was good what I learned, so that they’re actually processing and not just kind of blindly going through the internship, they’re processing on a weekly basis, how did they feel? What did they learn, and didn’t match what they expected, or maybe exceeded their expectations? But what did they learn? And then they have to write a reflection paper at the end to discuss, you know, all these things, and how did it tie to the theories they learned in class? How could they apply what they learned, you know, back and forth. And I think that makes them very thoughtful in their decisions. In addition, in our classes, we work with clients, so they can’t leave our program without having worked with the client and practicing what they’re learning. And hey, if they don’t like it fine, but the majority of people really enjoy, you know, seeing the fruit of their work. And I think really making sure that you have that experience is so helpful, especially you know, to find your passion, and then go go chase after it.

Lara Schmoisman  26:47  

That’s amazing. Sharmin, thank you so much for having coffee with me today. Thank you for

Sharmin Attaran  26:52  

having me. This is an awesome platform. Thank you for inviting me and of

Lara Schmoisman  26:56  

course, and I love to talk to you and I can keep talking to you forever.

Sharmin Attaran  27:01  

Same, Have a great day. 

Lara Schmoisman  27:05  

Thank you so much. And to you guys. I will see you next week on more coffee number five

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