Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2007

Market Catching Fire?

Unfortunately, most marketing is ineffective.  As I wrote a while ago, marketing effectiveness may depend more on timing and sequence than on effort and money.  Like all persuasion, it's not enough to throw a bunch of features and benefits at your target audience:  only subtle and flawless orchestration will make you overwhelmingly effective.

My earlier article was intended for sales and marketing professionals.  But VCs, CEOs, and non-marketing executives need to keep things simple, and it helps if they have a simple rule or standard that they can "always" apply. 

Sort of like, "What would Jesus do?" except in this case we'll have no problem with the money-changers.

The Only Question that Matters

Vendors spend time and energy making their products and services better.  The marketing materials tend to focus on the features, functions, benefits, and advantages of their offering.  Typically, marketing "works for sales" because they're the immediate customer.

That's supply-side marketing.  It's focused on competitive differentiation -- how you are better -- which will only be effective when a prospect is already aware of you and interested.  In other words, supply-side marketing assumes demand. 

Usually, highly innovative products can't assume demand--far from it.  So demand-side marketing must start from a completely different point.  To develop demand, you follow a learning or awareness model such as "AIDA."  Your marketing materials tend to focus on increasing a prospect's knowledge and interest in your product category before trying to focus demand on your specific product. 

In the course of developing demand, the ultimate marketing question is...

How are you relevant?

It's a deeper question than you think, because relevance depends on the audience and their objectives, not yours.

Prospects go through a range of objectives that may evolve in fairly chaotic ways.  Almost all vendors understand that the prospect's need for information changes during the sales cycle, but -- again -- that only occurs once the prospect has figured out that your product category is relevant to them.

The trickier part is the demand development cycle that precedes the prospect's willingness to take a sales call.  How do you make your product relevant?

Well, the answer is, you don't -- not until you've made your product / service category relevant.  And that doesn't happen until you've made a problem (or a missing upside) visible and relevant to the prospect.  Creating visibility for the problem (or potential benefit) is the only real reason to do advertising (or better yet, blogs and contributed press articles).  This takes at least time and effort, plus usually money.  Unfortunately, the results may not be directly measurable for several months. 

CEOs hate marketing that doesn't lead to sales.  Sloppy- thinking marketers will blather they need to "do branding" or "raise awareness."  But both branding and awareness exercises are just irritating noise to your audience unless you are also becoming relevant to them.

The fastest way to become relevant is to have an audience defined around a community of interest, which usually clusters around a demographic, vertical, or business-process focus.  (e.g., iPod owners, telecom carriers, or finance departments of F1000 companies).  The tighter your community definition, the easier it is to find them (in web forums, blogs, industry associations, etc.) and to effectively communicate with them.  Your goal early on is to earn enough credibility to be listened to, and to provide information about the "problem area" so you can draw them towards your world view.  You want the targets to start seeing that they have a problem that can now be solved.  (Note, it's way too early to start saying "solved uniquely by me" -- at this early stage of awareness, that would blow your credibility.)

The evolution of relevance, to the prospect, looks like this:

  • This is a business or personal issue I care about

  • This is a problem / improvement I'm interested in

  • This is a product / service category I want to know more about

  • This is a group of vendors I want to understand and compare

  • This is a company I'm willing to take a sales call from.

Emotional drivers dramatically increase relevance, particularly after the early stages of awareness.  What's in it for the individual you're trying to get to?  How can it make them feel more important, more attractive, more healthy/wealthy/wise?  Nobody thinks the iPhone is cheap, but everyone thinks it's cool (which is another word for personally relevant). As you can never know where an individual prospect is in this pre-sales evolution, you need to make sure that any information they'd need at each stage is available to them at all times.  But to reduce the chance of confusion, you want to present the information in a partitioned way so that the user sees only the level of information that is relevant at their current state of inquiry.  If you're clever in your use of Web 2.0 interactions, online ads, landing pages, content management system, IVR and other tools, you can create the illusion of a personalized response to the customer's current level of interest.  With some attention to detail, you can move the customer from general awareness to determined interest at very low cost.

That said, just putting out a viral campaign is no more effective than just putting out a website:  why will your offer be relevant to your social network, and why will it be in their interests to forward it to their social network.  In designing a viral campaign, think through the specific situations or triggers that would make using your widget (or whatever) an immediate advantage for the network participants.

Making your initial call to action free dramatically lowers the bar for relevance.  But even free takes time -- a costly commodity.  So design positive incentives to make the trials really happen.

Customers ought to be a slam dunk when it comes to relevance, right?  Don't count on it.  But do count on the fact that selling to existing customers is far more profitable and reliable than trying to grab new ones.  So relevance after the sale is the best marketing bet you can possibly make.

Once the sale has been made, your professional services and support organization are in the best position to keep your product relevant to the customer.  After all, they deliver the value and have the most frequent customer contact.  To build relevance in the customer's mind, you'd want to:

  • Show the business impact that has resulted from use of your product.

  • Provide a steady diet of tips and techniques to help them get the most from your product or service on an ongoing basis.

  • Give the customer best practices and lessons learned from their competitors (avoiding, of course, revealing any customer secrets).

  • Run a quick ROI study before "renewal" time.

Ideally, the account manager would do all this on a regular basis -- but most vendors can't afford to have dedicated account managers.  However, I have seen SaaS / subscription vendors doing some of these things, which shows real promise for that business model.

Relevance isn't just "benefits"

Instead of focusing just on "my benefits are better than the competition's," vendors should find ways to make their offerings relevant to prospects.

Relevance answers, "tell me again why I should care?"

It answers, "how much better can my company do?"

It answers, "what's in it for me?"

If you answer those in a compelling way, and the prospect will be saying "I've got to have this yesterday."

Now isn't that the kind of market you'd like to be selling into?

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