How not to hate marketing (part two)

For many people who run small businesses, marketing is hard. This is the second part of my deep dive into marketing feels…

“Marketing is about translating what you have to offer into why anyone should care.”

So says writer and entrepreneur Margo Aaron, in an article entitled Why Marketing Makes Smart People Feel Stupid.

I found it when I set off an a journey to find out why marketing feels so terrible. The first part of my learnings is here:

How not to hate marketing (part one)

To save you reading part one, the place I got to in my research was this: The first step in not hating marketing is to understand that you fear being rejected – and then to do the work so that you don’t find yourself in a cycle of fear and failure.

Or, as Ross O’Lochlainn put it in a series of emails I signed up for from his website:

Selling is not evil.

Selling is service.

Unfortunately, through mastering sales, you’re on a collision course with your unresolved issues around self worth, and years of accumulated emotional damage.

And once you’ve worked on that, these are the things you should do before you put yourself out in the world: You need a deep understanding of what you offer. Then you need to find the people who need what you offer, but you also need to know how it is useful to them.

What follows is what I have learned about those two things: understanding my offer, and finding my tribe.

Understanding the offering

This is not as simple as it seems. 

In my experience, the emotional difficulty here is not fear of rejection, but rather issues of confidence. As a worker in the knowledge/creator economy It’s hard to look at your skills and expertise and your intangible qualities and not to “diss” them in a variety of ways. Some of the questions that plague me:

Surely there are people better at this than me? What do I offer that’s special?

Am I too generalised? Too specialised?

How can I explain this thing that I do, which is both obvious and non-obvious, to a world that wants simple answers?

These questions are all outward-facing; they assume an “other”, a potential customer who I fear isn’t going to get it. The key to a first step may be to put that “other” person aside for a moment and…

Start by focusing on myself: This advice about self-promotion on a parenting website resonated with me:

You need to figure out what you deliver like nobody else. It could be asking the best questions, saying what everyone wants said, or breaking tension with the right joke… If you’re unsure, start to pay attention to your day… If people come to you looking for the same kind of help – ‘Hey, can you cut 200 words out like you always do? Hey, can you punch up this script?’ – take note. That’s your ‘thing’.

Now you focus on the customer… 

An old post on Quora was the best find of my research. Eleven years ago, one Lars Lofgren had this to say (I quote it more or less in full):

The hardest part of being a marketer is relentlessly pursuing a deep understanding of your target market.

I don’t mean understanding their demographics. I mean developing such a deep understanding of who you’re selling to that you know more about them than they do.

You see, this is the key to marketing. Once you know who you’re selling to, all the other problems become easy. You’ll know how to sell to them, the positioning that you’ll pursue, improvements that your product needs, how to build their trust, and where to find new prospects… 

Most marketers completely skip this step. It’s boring. No one wants to schedule 20 Skype calls with prospects to get a detailed understanding of their problems. After that, you’ll get to read through 100s of survey responses. There’s also the 1000s of tweets, product reviews, blog posts/comments, etc that you need to collect feedback from.

And you can’t just run through a list of boilerplate questions and check off a bunch of boxes, you have to emotionally invest yourself in the conversation. You need to fully embrace their perspective. This is hard, emotional work. (my emphasis)

But this is what sets you apart from everyone else in your space. It’s also the defining trait of an amazing marketer.

I get it: know your client/prospect/lead/target market – really, deeply, thoroughly, truly. It is hard but if you don’t do it, you are stuck.

Here’s how I put all that together

Fine, I thought, fine. Let’s think this through, but simplify it a bit (while the specifics here are mine, I am hoping that following your own of version these steps will be useful):

Step one: What do I offer generally?

Essentially, I offer three services: writing, editing/proofreading and training, all of them “knowledge work” and all of them probably more-or-less obvious to a potential client. 

The subtle things I do are more about being the “rock” that teams rely on, the person who gets things done, the person who keeps everyone honest. All of this, put together, is my “thing”, my unique selling point.

A concept I learned on LinkedIn came in useful here. Banker, speaker and coach Eric Sim suggested the concept of a “combo specialists”. He said:

The combo meal at McDonald’s typically consists of a burger, a pack of French fries and a glass of Coke. The burger is your primary specialization, the fries are your secondary specialization, and the Coke is your interest.. in banking, my burger is investment banking, my fries are teaching, and my Coke is blogging on LinkedIn.

In my business: My burger is writing, my fries are editing and proofreading and my soft drink is learning and growing and helping other people to learn and grow.

And I guess the subtleties about the way I do things are what’s known as customer service: the way in which I offer my service, the way it all comes together.

If the main meal is writing, what do I offer, starting with what I don’t like doing? I don’t write keyword-stuffed blog posts to sell products or services that I know nothing about. I don’t write copy for marketing agencies. I don’t write video scripts. And I don’t send people copy that was actually written by an LLM.

Rather: I write well-researched, in-depth copy (thought leadership, white papers, features) that grabs people’s attention, keeps them reading and leaves them feeling informed and entertained. 

Step two: who is my target market, what do they need and how do I find them?

I take the point that Lars Lofgren makes about understanding my target market seriously. But I don’t have hundreds of products or customers, or social media accounts that generate 1000s of data points. And I don’t have a marketing team.

So how do I research and understand my target market based on a small sample of customers?

I turned to ChatGPT, reasoning that it might be useful to get something else to scour the Internet for me. I asked it: “You are an expert marketer. Please draw up a plan for a freelance thought leadership writer who needs to know what the needs of their target market are. Please cover the steps a person working on their own can do easily.”

I got the usual very long answer (read it here). I honed in on this point: 

Profile Your Ideal Client: Create detailed personas of your ideal clients, considering their industry, job role, challenges, and goals.

I’ve heard this before, as I am sure have you. But I persevered.

I asked the chatbot to give me more on creating client personas, taking into account that I only have a few existing clients. 

I was told, again, to analyse existing clients (full answer here) and to reflect “on the problems you’ve helped them solve and their overarching business goals”.

The next step was to “Conduct Interviews: Schedule brief interviews with your existing clients to understand their needs better. Ask questions about their challenges, goals, and what they value most in your work.”

That’s where the problem comes in 

At last, here was the sticking point, the messy bit where I had work to do. I felt that familiar reluctance to go any further. I just don’t want to conduct interviews with my existing clients, talking to them about myself and my business. And for that reason I have never actually done this. So I asked ChatGPT:

Please offer advice on how to overcome reluctance to do this step: “Conduct Interviews”.

And got some useful advice – that I would have to talk myself into doing it (read the full answer here). Summarised by ChatGPT into five points:

  • Understand the value: Recognise that client interviews aid personal and professional growth by offering insights into clients’ needs, enhancing content quality and client relationships.
  • Frame the request positively: Express gratitude and highlight mutual benefits, emphasizing that their feedback helps improve your services.
  • Keep it brief and respectful: Assure clients the interview will be short (15-20 minutes) and provide questions in advance for focused discussions.
  • Use various communication channels: Offer multiple interview formats – phone, video chat, or email – to accommodate clients’ preferences.
  • Develop a structured approach: Prepare open-ended questions and cover key areas like challenges, goals, and content preferences to guide the conversation effectively. 

This works for me: it gives me a way to frame the exercise so it feels less intrusive to my existing clients. This I can try!

Where to from here

That’s as far as I’ve got in my research. These are the action points that I will now be implementing and which might be useful to you:

1. Frame marketing positively: View marketing as a collaborative effort to improve your services rather than a one-sided request. Selling is service.

2. Deal with your feelings: Your reasons for “hating” marketing are unique to you. Figure them out, write them down. Remember: it’s not about you: you are ultimately there to help your customers solve their problems. Address the fear of rejection by understanding your target market, ensuring that your product or service is a good fit for your prospect, and deeply understanding the value of what you offer. Those things get broken down like this:

3. The target market: Profile ideal clients. Schedule brief interviews to understand their needs better, and ask questions about their challenges and goals. Ask about what they value most in your work. Using the information gained, build a profile of an ideal client.

4. The value of my offering: Critically, using the information from existing clients, understand the true nature of my offering. Because that’s what I am selling.

Part three to come: Translating all that into an actual marketing campaign in the real world.

Main picture: Glenn Carstens-Peters, Unsplash

How to reach me

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your communication needs (writing, editing, coaching and training, social media).

I write a post every week, some about my professional life and work, and some about broader issues. You can get either of those, or both, in your email, by subscribing here

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