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Sound Advice

Marketing students help Sonos better understand its customers

If you’ve never heard of Sonos, that’s probably because you’ve never heard a Sonos One.

It’s one of the newer products made by Sonos, a company that, for music aficionados, is a go-to source for high-quality home sound systems.

The global company, which has one of its main offices just down Washington Street from Suffolk University, approached the Sawyer Business School last fall and asked if students in the Marketing Program would help them with some research. It went so well that Sonos came back again this past spring.

“Because of Suffolk University’s downtown location, the Sawyer Business School is within walking distance of well-known local and global brands,” said Marketing Professor Pelin Bicen. “Our department had done work recently with Roche Bros. supermarkets and George Howell Coffee. But this was a chance to take it up a notch and work with a multinational consumer brand, which the students found really exciting.”

Everybody wants to rule the world

The company already puts lots of marketing muscle behind what it calls the “Modern Music Lover”—25-to-65-year-olds who have a passion for music. That’s who the marketing students focused on last fall for their research presentations.

But this spring Sonos came up with a new assignment: The company had entered the world of voice-assistant speakers last fall and wanted to better understand how consumers interact with them.

More and more, people are using their voices to control their devices, whether it’s Apple HomePod, Amazon Echo, or Google Home. By one estimate, more than 50 percent of all searches worldwide will be done by voice within four years. That’s a lot of chatting to Alexa and her kin.

With that marketing challenge looming, Sonos asked the students to research the 18-to-24-year-old demographic to learn more about how these late-millennial consumers interact with smart speakers.

“Sonos likes working with Sawyer Business School students because the analysis and recommendations they present are often different than the approach we would take,” says Dennis Brosnan, consumer insights manager at Sonos. “This pushes us to think about our landscape from a fresh perspective, which is critical in an increasingly competitive industry. Not only that, the Suffolk students represent this exact demographic, which means they’re able to provide extra insight.”

Someone like you

Sonos executives briefed dozens of undergraduates in the “Business Research Methods” course in early 2018. The students then went off in groups to begin their research, following the same process that any professional marketing agency would use:

  • Design and send surveys to the target audience
  • Conduct in-person interviews
  • Analyze the data using platforms like SPSS, a software package used for interactive statistical analysis
  • Create a client-ready presentation

After the groups presented to their own classes, professors across the marketing program selected five outstanding teams to present to Sonos executives. For many students, this was their first-ever “real-world” presentation.

“I remember that day; I was shaking,” said Joseline Argueta, Class of 2020. “But it’s all about teamwork, and we all supported each other. We were always there to answer each other’s questions and help each other out, so it was pretty great.”

After analyzing the data, the winning team proposed making the Sonos smart speaker experience a lifestyle decision as much as a sonic one. So it recommended marketing to “artistic millennials”—18-to-25-year-olds who love music and think Sonos is an expressive and courageous leader in the audio component universe. The executives were intrigued.

“The ‘artistic millennial’ actually relates to a potential early-stage initiative at Sonos that we had not really focused on,” says Brosnan. “The students provided a case for the opportunity with a full data framework and inspired us to think about how we could develop the concept further.”

We will, we will rock you

Sonos is positioning itself to take on tech behemoths like Amazon, Google, and Apple in the smart speaker space. Toward that end, it’s made the Sonos One platform-agnostic, which means that, unlike other proprietary smart speakers, it will stream virtually any music service and work with voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant.

That’s just one way Sonos is trying to increase its audience, as it calls customers. And it’s possible that the work the Sawyer Business School students did will be a part of the strategy as well.

Whether or not the company decides to focus on the artistic millennial, however, the experience the students gained was invaluable.

“Coming to a corporate office so near Suffolk was really interesting,” said Ariana Malcolm, Class of 2020. “This is something that we can take with us and expand upon. We have built our knowledge on how to interact with executives and how to present in front of important people, which I think is a really important skill to have going into a career.”

–Ben Hall