Focus on customer needs, not their classification

Over the last 15-20 years, online ‘search advertising’ has gone from its invention to dominate product advertising. One result has been to really focus the minds of advertisers to target what potential customers are looking for. Yet this should not be something new. When I was a magazine editor, and had access to all the response data on thousands of advertisements, it was clear to see that what worked the best. Adverts which got straight to the point about the product and what it could do for the prospect. In today’s completely changed advertising world, this is one thing which remains the same.

Unfortunately for marketing people, product-focused advertising is boring. They’re always looking for new ways to approach things. Almost inevitably, their gaze falls on classifying the customers. So instead of creating three adverts for the three product ranges they sell, they try creating three adverts for the three different ‘market sectors’ they sell into.

The problem with this is that the different products are demonstrably separate items. The three market sectors are artificial constructs made up by sales departments. Customers in the water industry don’t care that you’re targeting their industry any more than if you’d divided them up by location.

Imagine for a moment that you’re selling blue widgets, red widgets and yellow widgets to the water, aerospace and construction industries. You could run separate adverts for blue widgets, red widgets and yellow widgets, each targeting all industries. Or you could run separate adverts for the water, aerospace and construction industries, each describing all of the products. Both seem to be reasonable approaches.

But imagine you’re a customer in the water industry wanting blue widgets. In the past, you’d have flicked through a magazine looking for ads for blue widgets. Any of those would catch your eye. Would an advert just for widgets in general, headlined “widget solutions for the water industry” catch your eye? Not as likely. That’s not what you’re looking for. The key thing is the term ‘blue widget’. Even if you did notice it, the ad’s generalised, unattractive catch-all title (with the ultimate turn-off, the word ‘solutions’) would reduce the chances of you responding too.

Now, with online search advertising dominating, the effectiveness of targeting what the customer wants – rather than who they are – is even more apparent. Nobody identifies what industry they’re in through a search. Whether they’re in the water industry, the aerospace industry or the construction industry, if they want blue widgets, they search for ‘blue widgets’. That’s where you need to be.

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