Selling Umbrellas on a Sunny Day

The rain in LA reminded me of one of the most basic and straightforward examples of what makes a business, or businessperson, successful.

Rain, in a very narrow and specific context, is a problem. It makes you wet. Being wet in the rain at the wrong time (like when you’re in a suit on your way to a meeting) is no fun. So someone, somewhere invented a solution to this problem. The umbrella.

If you live in New York City, you know that the only time you see someone actively selling umbrellas is…when it rains. On sunny days, you never see someone on the street, trying to convince passersby that they should buy an umbrella in case it rains someday.

That’s because on sunny days, they’re too busy selling sunglasses and bottled water. They still have some umbrellas. They’re safely stored away somewhere, waiting for the right time when selling them makes the most sense.

When they are most needed…

When they have the highest value…

When they solve an actual, urgent, in-your-face problem. In other words, when people are most willing to pay for them.

What do you sell? How badly do people want it? If the answer is “not much,” ask yourself if you are trying to sell umbrellas on a sunny day.

Finding the Right Problems to Solve

Your marketing doesn’t work for the following reason: You haven’t identified a specific problem to solve, exactly why your solution has value today and to whom it matters most.

Which means you’re trying to sell a solution no one wants, can’t afford or can find cheaper somewhere else.

Fixing your marketing starts with:

1. Fixing your solution by first proving to yourself why your service or product is something people actually value enough to pay for.

2. Creating marketing campaigns that communicate the right solution to the right people and at the right time.

It’s easy to start from a solution idea that intrigues us, and try to work our way back to finding the right problem to apply it to. Certainly, that approach can work. But more often than not, as I have often learned myself the hard way, it doesn’t.

Photo Finish

From the LA Times:

For photographers and graphic artists, not a pretty picture out there

Think it can’t happen to your industry? Think again. Solving the same old problems in the same way and expecting to get the same pay is a recipe for doom. Take for granted that your business will be radically changed, sooner or later, by technology and increased, cheaper competition.

Be at the forefront of that change, adjust your approach to focus on offering solutions people actually value, and be in position to change gears completely before the floor gives way.

American Express did. They used to be in the freight business. Then they invented traveler’s cheques. In other words, they’re still around because they found a new, better problem to solve.

30 years ago, the New York City garment industry occupied most of the real estate between Fifth and Ninth Avenues from 34th to 42nd Street. It didn’t change, didn’t pay attention, didn’t want to see the signs. Done.

Whether you’re managing a whole company or just your own career, it really doesn’t matter how badly you want things to stay the same. What matters is your ability to see when it isn’t, and then do something about it.

Fire, BAD! New Media, GOOD!

The buzz about Social Media tends to celebrate all the reasons why traditional marketing is dying and how Web 2.0 is the fatal blow. It reminds me of Phil Hartman’s Frankenstein on SNL…

Traditional Marketing, Bad! New Media, Good!

And I agree.

Too many businesses waste precious time and money on poorly conceived branding campaigns, and I wouldn’t miss cold calls, junk mail and spam.

But when the argument about new marketing or old marketing becomes about good or bad, right or wrong, it misses the entire point. The right marketing channel isn’t determined by any macro trend, but by where your customers are now, and where they are going to be in the future.

Maybe that happens to be New Media like Facebook and Twitter.

Or maybe that still means the Thursday morning networking event with the great bagels and bad coffee, or that inexpensive but very effective coupon mailing, or continuing to sponsor your kid’s little league team.

Adapt, evolve and expand your marketing tool box to include new marketing channels and media. But don’t get so caught up in new trends that you stop doing what already works now.

French Fries and Iphone Covers

We think we know what people really want.

Few of us really do.

We’re all enigmas. We’re irrational. We make illogical choices, take actions that contradict our stated plans, and take the most useful things for granted while treasuring (and buying more of) things that shouldn’t matter nearly as much.

I hardly ever wash my car. I eat french fries in it while driving, occasionally dropping one between the seat and the center console, never to be seen again. I got the oil changed, finally, but only after weeks of annoying wrench shaped lights on my dashboard.

You will never see my iphone in public without its protective cover. I have 2. One for normal, every day use. One for running. I won’t use it with dirty hands, or let my 6 year old play with it (bad Dad!), or let too many days go by without cleaning the screen with an appropriately soft and non-scratching chamois. Same goes for my laptop (the not touching it with dirty fingers, not the chamois).

I love my car (it gets me to work and meetings and goes really fast). I merely like my iphone (it lets me make calls while playing Fieldrunners). If my iphone suddenly split into 2 equally shiny and pretty pieces tomorrow, life would go on. If my car blew up in a mushroom cloud of french fries and gum wrappers, I’d be in a serious bind.

Yet I continue to value my phone more than my car, at least in how I take care of them. I’m illogical.

So are you.

So are your customers, leads, prospects, bosses and coworkers.

Logic alone won’t tell us what people will value. What they’ll want. What they’ll respond to. Educated guesses just begin the experiment.

To find out what people really want, watch and listen for clues about what they already treasure, then give them more of that…

The Online Marketing Sweet Spot

With so many online tools and channels, it can be very difficult to decide where to start and which ones to focus on. What makes any one online marketing tool relevant to you?

Most don’t actually start out that way…

    1. At first, it’s so new that few marketers know what to really do with it. Twitter was a good example: 140 character long “tweets” about where you’re having lunch or which movie you just saw? At first, its marketing value wasn’t quite clear.
    2. But then, some really creative people figure out how to use it to expand their reputations online and connect with new prospects and clients. As this happened, its cost-effectiveness (time invested, not just money) goes straight up. This is the online marketing sweet spot.
    3. Unfortunately, once marketers discover something, more competitors start saturating the channel and raise the cost to compete. End users start to get sick of all the noise, or just get bored with it altogether, and jump on to the next best thing. We’re seeing this with email today. Spam nearly killed it as a viable marketing option, and although it’s still a critical part of any online marketing campaign, it’s definitely past its prime. People block out so much of their incoming mail while at the same time companies like Facebook and Twitter have shifted how people communicate with their friends and coworkers.
    4. Which leads to the last step: the death plunge into obsolescence (remember Friendster?).

Appealing To Everyone Is The Fastest Way To Go Broke…

Lack of specialization is one reason why the industry is seeing such downward pressure on pricing. Companies that don’t specialize are stuck selling a commodity in a market where new competitors enter every day. The only way to compete selling a commodity is branding (think Quaker Oats) or price (think $5 logo design).

The narrower your specialization:

  • The more money you will be able to charge, even if your potential market is smaller.
  • The easier it is to answer the question “Who are my customers?” and start marketing to them.
  • The easier it will be for the right clients to find you.
  • The easier it is to reach out to the right repeat users/connectors with enough depth and consistency to become relevant to them.
  • The more selective you can be about which clients and projects you take on.
  • The less effort it will take to convince clients that you are the best choice for their specific project.
  • The easier it will be to create an effective web site, search ad, blog and every other marketing campaign you will need. You’ll be clearer about what to say and why, because you’ll understand the real value of what you do.