Off-target marketing

Written by ProfitGuide Staff

With the rise of the Internet, the phrase “permission marketing” has become the buzzword for a kinder, gentler form of cut-through-the-clutter marketing. The idea, popularized by business guru Seth Godin, is that you stop intruding on your prospects (as with, say, TV commercials) and start giving them reasons (such as contests or e-newsletters) to “raise their hands” and invite you to tell them about your product.

But how do you practise this marketing mantra when you’re an entrepreneur selling to corporate executives — flinty-eyed recluses who would rather wrestle a water buffalo than offer you any kind of encouragement?

Catherine McQuaid, a Toronto-based business-development consultant (, has a theory. She calls it “Big-Game Hunters in the Urban Jungle.” I think a better name is “Off-Target Marketing.” Either way, it’s an approach to prospecting that might help you build stronger relationships with hard-to-reach executives.

Warning: Big-game hunting is a complex affair that requires preparation, process and patience. Done properly, however, it could transform your business. McQuaid tells of one client who sells training services to banks. When she met them, they had just one customer in Canada. Now they work with 12 of the top 20 U.S. banks. “You may be small,” she says, “but you can win big.”

A former literature student at the University of Alberta, McQuaid never aimed to get into sales or consulting. But she abandoned her PhD to study corporate space planning (like architecture, but without the math), and then opened her own business in Edmonton. When Ottawa’s National Energy Program shut down Alberta’s real estate market in the early ’80s, she learned how little she knew about selling and took a series of jobs in executive search and financial services. While selling investments in limited partnerships to doctors over the phone, she discovered that the best way to market to people who are too busy to talk with you is to seek permission-based conversations, not appointments. With that, she developed a marketing framework that put her way ahead of Seth Godin (at the time) and led to her becoming a full-time consultant serving smaller businesses trying to get big.

McQuaid’s process is simple: get prospects to agree to meet with you by getting a high-quality digital sampling of your proposition — a PDF file, a Word document or a PowerPoint presentation-into their hands before you ask for the meeting.

To do that, she says, don’t go to the decision-maker. Enlist his or her assistant in the process. (That’s why I call it off-target marketing.) If you call the switchboard to ask for the CEO’s phone number or e-mail address, McQuaid warns, you may be pegged as a nuisance. Ask for the number of the support person, and you’ll likely get through.

Now, the permission part begins. Let the assistant know what you do. Ask permission to e-mail them your digital overview. If they find it appropriate, perhaps they’d pass it on to their boss. Get them to agree that you can call back to gauge his or her reaction, and suddenly you’re in the tent. The assistant is giving a “warm referral” to your key prospect, and you’ve been granted permission to follow up.

Next step: if the boss likes what you have to say, arrange a 45-minute phone conversation. McQuaid says too many marketers try for face-to-face meetings, which many prospects avoid. By offering a phone call, you’re respecting their space.

In your call, emphasize your experience and customer commitment. “From the outset, the whole approach must be: ‘We’re going to be your provider’,” says McQuaid. “‘We’re going to know your business from the inside out’.” Even then, your proposition will likely get kicked downstairs. But don’t look at this as passing the buck, she says. It’s a hot referral from the most senior employee to the person most likely to buy from you.

Before you make a sale, expect to meet five or six decision-makers per deal: champion, influencer, implementer, user and cheque signer. Each person is looking for different benefits, so you will have to meet the needs of each. Keep track of your conversations with each person along the way, notes McQuaid. That means maintaining an extensive database of “organization maps” and contact histories — everything everyone on your team has discussed with anyone on the client side. Your ability to recall every conversation will help convince corporate buyers that you understand their needs. “If you’re small, you have to behave like the big guys,” McQuaid notes.

Many businesses consist of silos-parallel bureaucracies administering complementary markets. Common sense suggests you tackle one silo at a time, but McQuaid recommends pursuing all these niches simultaneously. When you get a breakthrough in one silo, you can immediately brag about it to the rest, creating a stronger impression of momentum and success.

Even if you research the right prospect, prepare a killer presentation, generate referrals and shore up your processes and documentation, McQuaid can’t guarantee success. In her experience, however, every 30 contacts you make should net eight to 10 agreements to receive your e-mail presentation. Those reviews should generate three or four “qualifying conversations” with genuinely interested prospects.

It’s a lot of effort, but McQuaid says it works better than spending big bucks developing glossy brochures and websites. “They don’t bring real business,” she says, because they’re not about conversations. “You get into telling mode. You don’t have a chance to talk about the other person’s stuff.”

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