The M-word

Written by ProfitGuide Staff

What’s wrong with these pictures?

» A chief executive I know e-mails me about a new contest his company is running, and he’s very excited about it. I click on the link to read up—and I don’t understand a word. Who are they targeting? What are contest entrants supposed to do? I still haven’t a clue.

» Developing new website copy for an old-line manufacturer, I ask the vice-president what’s distinctive about his product. Higher quality? Better service? Lower prices? He thinks for a minute and then says, “Depends on the day.”

» A professional speaker asks a group of friends to critique his new website. I suggest (as diplomatically as I can) that I don’t understand his message, his photos are fuzzy and that his innovative USE OF typography ACTUALLY undermines his message. He takes lots of notes, but changes nothing.

» I’m facilitating a discussion group of fast-growth CEOs who want to talk about marketing. They all say it’s essential to the future of their companies. So, why does only one in 10 employ a marketing manager?

It’s safe to say none of us has as much business as we’d like. In any industry, a certain amount of trade walks in the door—maybe enough to live on. But if you want to create a sustainable organization, you need more clients to make a conscious decision to do business with you. You do that by letting more people know—especially those in your target market—what you’re selling and why it’s special.

So, why is marketing so damn hard?

In her recent best-selling book Money: A Memoir, New York publisher Liz Perle examines her ambiguous relationship with money. She realizes that, years ago, she made a secret contract with cash: “I was fearless about making decisions for corporations but totally full of fear about making my own,” she writes. As far as money was concerned, “I would do what it took to get it—work hard, marry right—but I didn’t want to have to think about it.”

That strategy served her well, for a while, as she soared to the top at three publishing companies. But when her husband left, her choice never to even balance her own chequebook left her flat broke and clueless. In interviewing more than 200 women, Perle discovered her unconscious avoidance of things financial is not so unusual. Her book is a wake-up call for women (and maybe a few men) to overcome their willful neglect of personal financial responsibility—before it’s too late.

If bright and successful people can harbour self-destructive delusions about money, is it possible that otherwise sensible and decisive business owners are willfully neglecting marketing? Let’s look at the similarities: managing your money requires taking time, actually discussing long-term goals and plans with your partner and dealing with pesky personal issues like “how often do we eat out?” and “why exactly do we need a new car?”

Marketing isn’t much different. It’s an open-ended, creative discipline with no clear “right” answers. It shuns the easy measurement and accountability expected of most business processes. It requires us to interact with other people (some of whom dress funny) to discuss goals and tactics. And it forces us to examine our most fundamental assumptions about the business.

Early in my new content-marketing career, I discovered how hard it is to separate individual marketing initiatives from the big picture. Brought in to help firms do something simple, such as write a press release or update a website, I would ask a few positioning questions to ensure I understood the market and the message. Questions like: Who is your target audience? What do they expect from you? What do you want to sell them?

Not only could many companies not answer those questions, I discovered they had been unconsciously avoiding them. Understanding customers—not to mention ourselves—is a tricky business that takes time, effort and thinking. Putting aside the daily busywork to recalibrate and refocus not only seems wasteful, it might expose competing points of view, lack of focus or a failure to keep pace with the market.

My meddling in this unexplored territory has caused all kinds of upset. Partners have disagreed with each other, CEOs have realized that they’ve been targeting the wrong market, rank-and-filers have blurted out, “We’ve been asking for a plan for years!” None of this, I hasten to observe, represents any brilliance on my part—I’m just asking the basic questions business people should be keeping in mind all the time:

» Who is your market? How has it changed since you last asked this question?

» Why do customers buy from you?

» What’s the highest-value product or service you can sell to them? And what do they really want to buy from you?

» Who else needs and wants the products or solutions you’re selling? How can you engage them?

Start there, and see where it takes you. Yes, marketing is a complex process that inevitably engages every part of your business, from product design and packaging to sales and customer service. But that doesn’t mean it’s not simple.

It just has to be faced.

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