Monday, January 7, 2008

Shrinking to Grow

I wrote this column for the Oct. 2007 issue of Business People magazine. Who is your company willing to concede so you can focus your marketing efforts?

Shrinking to Grow
Want to reach more people with your message? Focus on a smaller audience.

When it comes to marketing, what’s the best way to grow your business? Getting your message out to more people, right? Well, not exactly. With so many messages competing for the attention of today’s consumer, the key is differentiation—focusing on the one most compelling attribute your company offers that isn’t duplicated by your competitors. Sometimes that means reaching more people who will be interested in the primary benefit offered by your product or service. More often, however, it means you may need to focus on a smaller audience.

Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Conventional logic encourages us to cast a wider net, build a bigger tent, and open our doors wide to the masses. This conventional logic, however, ignores the fact that today’s audiences are increasingly fragmented. Changes in our communications environment—the Internet, TiVo, the 24-hour news cycle—have given the audience an increasing number of choices and more and more control over which messages they hear, and when and where they hear them. That means there’s no one best place, time, or medium for reaching a mass audience. When companies try to say everything to everyone, therefore, they end up saying nothing to anyone.

Let’s say, for example, that you sell furniture. You could try to reach everyone who needs to furnish their home—men and women of all ages, income levels, and tastes. But what would your message be? How would you target that audience? Sure, you could put together a TV spot, but where would you want you ad to appear to reach such a diverse group? You could do a radio commercial, but what station would you pick? You could run a print ad, but where would your ad run?

Now, imagine that you focus on being the area’s premier retailer of furniture for single, professional women. In doing so, you will concede a large portion of the audience since the vast majority of people who buy furniture are not single women, and since many single women already have all the furniture they need. But consider how much easier it is to get your message across. When you consider the audience’s media consumption habits, psychographics, and common bonds, is it easier to reach a hypothetical “everyone,” or an audience comprised of single females?

Today more than ever, marketing works best when companies are vigilant about conceding as much of the audience as they dare to concede. Companies succeed when they design a message for a very specific audience, and leave everyone else out. No exceptions. This doesn’t necessarily mean their audience is small, but it’s certainly aimed at fewer people than it would be if the message wasn’t as refined.

Look at the messages used by some of today’s most successful local companies, and you’ll see that they consistently focus on a limited audience. Sweetwater doesn’t try to reach everyone—just musicians who want state-of-the-art audio equipment. Eddie Merlot’s could aim to be like every other steakhouse, but it stands out by providing an alternative, with d├ęcor and menu items designed to appeal to audiences often ignored by the traditional steakhouse. And one of my favorite places to shop—the Three Rivers Running Company—has differentiated itself by speaking specifically to the needs of runners, instead of trying to be all things to all athletes. All of these businesses have made their way not only by knowing who their customer is, but by knowing who their customer isn’t.

It may be tempting to see these businesses as anomalies because they have enjoyed great success. However, their ability to differentiate themselves is precisely the thing that has stimulated this success. Like more and more business communicators, they have learned that in order to reach more people, they need to sharpen their focus.

Their example shows that it can be done, with great results. It’s not always easy, and it won’t happen overnight, but you can start right away. Begin by not trying to be all things to all people, and you may just end up being more than you ever expected.

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