Digging Deeper: How Woody Smith and Avenue ISR use market research to answer strategic questions

When a business or organization wants to introduce a new product, break into a new market, or assess their reach and impact, who do they call?

If they’re in Traverse City, the answer is usually Woody Smith.

You might call Smith “Mr. Market Research” – though he insists that his business, called Avenue ISR, is “really more of a business strategy consultancy that uses marketing research … to answer strategic questions” than just a straight market research firm.

Semantics aside, there’s no doubt that Smith has made a name for himself within market research in northern Michigan. From businesses to nonprofits to public entities, Smith and Avenue ISR have lent their insight and assistance to many of the biggest organizations in the region. Over the years, their efforts have touched local tourism, hospitality, education, manufacturing, retail, healthcare and more.

For instance, in 2015, when Traverse City Track Club wanted to assess the economic impact of its annual Bayshore Marathon event, the nonprofit called Avenue ISR. The same was true for the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) when the time came to gather public feedback about its move to make two blocks of Front Street pedestrian-only during the summer of 2020.

Other past or current clients include Munson Healthcare, Hagerty, Britten, RJG, Cone Drive, Fustini’s, Traverse City Tourism, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Great Start Traverse Bay Collaborative.

Those are some big names, which begs a few crucial questions: First, what does “market research” actually mean? And second, why do organizations need it?

“Generally, there is a problem or an opportunity that is facing a business, or a nonprofit, or a local community,” Smith said of what brings clients to his door.

Businesses trying to figure out where they take their scarce resources and invest them is one common element, he says.

“And that can be for innovation; that can be for strategic marketing and determining which market segments are most attractive; that can sometimes be the customer experience and how to improve it to build a more strategic relationship,” he said.

In other words, businesses and organizations rely on market research firms like Avenue ISR to help illuminate pathways toward smart, lucrative decisions.

As an example, Smith pointed to a company Avenue ISR recently worked with that manufactures camping products, which was in a very competitive space where everybody was trying to do the same kinds of things.

“Everybody was trying to create more and more technical products, and to make them lighter weight for people doing expedition-type things,” he said. “But (the client) had a hunch that there might be some emerging opportunities somewhere else.”

Enter Avenue ISR. By researching the marketplace, delving into the demographics, and crunching the numbers, Smith and his team were able to identify a market segment that was younger and interested in a different set of priorities, in terms of the products that they would buy.

The team also helped map out a path for what the company would need to do to position itself to meet those needs. Just like that, a business in a crowded market was able to call an audible and reposition itself in a more wide-open lane.

But every project is different. Where that client wanted to find an open lane, another recent Avenue ISR client – MAWBY Vineyards and Winery in Leelanau County – was already operating (and growing) in a unique niche. Where the Traverse City area has its fair share of wineries, MAWBY is the only one that zeroes in exclusively on the sparkling wine space.

That product focus is unique on a statewide level, too: MAWBY calls itself Michigan’s only and oldest sparkling wine house. Despite MAWBY’s singular vision, though, the winery came to Avenue ISR in 2018, at what Smith described as a “crossroads.”

“(MAWBY) was growing in Michigan, but they didn’t have a very clear picture of what was driving growth and where market trends could take them,” Smith explained. “Who were the company’s newer consumers and how could the company win more of them over and make them loyal ‘BUBBLEheads’ (the name MAWBY gives to its wine club members)? How could MAWBY maintain growth without compromising the brand?”

Avenue ISR’s research helped MAWBY understand that much of its growth was coming from “a newer generation of sparkling wine consumers” – people whose tastes, priorities, and desires were slightly different than the traditional sparkling wine drinker.

Understanding that customer profile, Smith said, helped the winery shift its market positioning, messaging, public relations, and digital marketing in ways that further differentiated the brand from its competition.

“Avenue ISR helped MAWBY identify who our customers were, how they were learning about our brand, and who we were missing out on conversations with,” said Michael Laing, the vineyard’s “director of MAWBYness.”

Through ISR, Laing says the winery learned that “what we think about our business is not necessarily what the customer thinks.”

“That is a powerful moment: When you can gain insight from the consumer’s perspective and develop ways to speak to them in new ways,” he said.

The result? MAWBY has expanded sales in Michigan and grown the brand in new markets even over the last few years when times have been uncertain.

“Our wine club has expanded, and our reach of loyal supporters has grown,” Laing said. “Woody and the Avenue ISR team are a big part of the MAWBYness movement and we will certainly be working with them again.”

How do market researchers come by these valuable pieces of information? The approach can vary depending on the project or even depending on the market researcher. For Smith and Avenue ISR, the weapon of choice is typically quantitative (rather than qualitative) marketing research.

“That’s not to say that I can’t run a good focus group, or do in-depth interviews, or many of the other things that are on the qualitative side,” Smith said. “But usually, I’m doing something where we’re trying to model what a certain business’s demographics might do.”

In the case of market segmentation, Smith and his team identifies a group of people, what they spend; how many they know are in the marketplace and whether or not that number is likely to grow, giving them a rough size of the business opportunity.

This pinpointing allows them to suggest tactics that would develop into new business results.

“Obviously, companies know their markets and they know their businesses,” Smith added. “But we are able to look at questions like, ‘How are things changing?’ and ‘Where do you have the best advantage relative to competitors?’”

Another major category of market research in northern Michigan? The economic impact study.

Given the area’s sizable base of tourism, hospitality, festivals, and events, it’s not uncommon for organizations that draw visitors to the area to engage firms like Avenue ISR to assess their impact on the local economy. Usually, Smith noted, those organizations are interested in using numbers to tell strategic stories about their events; impact studies give them the data they need to do just that.

Case-in-point is the Bayshore Marathon, a race that has grown since its 1983 inception into a major event that can draw thousands of runners to Traverse City on Memorial Day Weekend each year.

In 2015, following the Bayshore’s biggest year ever – 7,159 participants across three races – the Traverse City Track Club, which hosts the annual race, engaged Avenue ISR to assess the economic impact of the event. Smith and his team surveyed over 1,600 attendees to identify key demographic details, spending habits, and other details about participants.

Avenue ISR’s report on the Bayshore, released in October 2015, clocked the event’s total economic impact at $1.9 million – between race registrations, hotel stays or other accommodations, dining out, local shopping, buying gas, and more.

Beyond the dollar amount, Smith remarked at the time about another surprising finding of the study: showing how non-local the Bayshore Marathon actually is. Avenue ISR’s research showed that just 15% of the events participants lived within the local five-county region. Of the remaining 85% of racers, 29% traveled from Detroit, 32% made the trek from somewhere in southern or southwest Michigan, and 10% were from out of state – including participants from Washington, California, Texas and Florida.

The study also showed that 10% of racers in 2015 had visited Traverse City for the first time to participate in that year’s Bayshore Marathon.

When asked to describe the complex math equation that allows market research firms like his to come up with a single dollar amount for an economic impact study, Smith says that looking at the proportion of people coming from outside the area who are visiting specifically for that event – and who they traveled with – is the starting point.

Diving into where they stayed, what types of accommodations they used, the activities they participated in and the spending they did round out the study.

“Then there are some pretty good models and multipliers that show how a dollar in the local economy is going to change hands a certain number of times, and you look at those multipliers to come up with an overall number,” he said. “But a lot of times, coming up with a number is just a starting point.”

The dollar amount is not the the ending point, says Smith, because the overall driver  – in addition to bringing in dollars – is the attendees’ positive experience, which could be a gateway experience for overall talent attraction.

“Certain types of events bring professionals to the area what have never been here before,” he said. “They came because there was a race or event that that was appealing to them, but they discovered northern Michigan, and that’s something that can influence them to come back again in the future, or maybe even consider this as a place where they or their family might want to be (permanently).”