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Marketing Machine

Published: Sunday, June 16, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

When I was 8 years old (Anne), a wonderful thing happened! My family visited relatives in Erie, Pa., where my uncle worked as an executive for Marx Toys. I remember walking into the toy store back room that doubled as my cousin’s bedroom.

Bob: So, what was the going rate for product testers in those days?

Anne: Anyway…at the end of the visit, my uncle brought out some brand new toys still in packaging. My gift was a most spectacular pinball machine that kept me entertained for years. I loved sending those little silver balls into the maze of whirring spinning gears and frantically manipulating the flippers for more points. It was primarily a game of skill: the more you played, the better you got. I think that’s where our idea for “The Marketing Machine” was born.

We’ve been studying and practicing marketing for at least a couple of decades. The Marketing Machine is a virtual visual aid that guides us as we ask questions and make decisions. Imagine a complex-looking machine. As you approach it, you see a small slot in the top. The opening is exactly the size of a dime. You decide to play. As your dime goes into play, you hear the whirring and spinning as the machine goes into motion. You learn which buttons and knobs help the dime’s progress. A few minutes later, a quarter drops into a tray on the side! This dependable machine delivers a quarter for your dime over and over again, given attention to its workings and changes in the environment.

When we work on a marketing project, we imagine building a Marketing Machine. What do we need to put in place in order to get a good level of return on investment? What will give us the highest level of consistency while pointing us toward areas for further improvement? As we build the machine, we can test our current assumptions by making small investments and carefully watching the results. But the most important part occurs at the very beginning, with asking questions and making assumptions to test.

We have two major areas of concentration: the market and the invitation, the communications that encourage a potential customer to engage with the product.

• The market: Who is your ideal customer? Take time to identify them. Some companies even imagine one person or a small group, give them a name, a personality, and a lifestyle. Then they “see” how the product fits into their lives. The goal is for your ideal customer to self-select when they become aware of your offer. They’ll be more likely to do that when they see themselves in your invitation.

Don’t fear that your market will be limited by identifying an ideal customer. The work you put into getting to know them helps you craft a more compelling, unique message. That alone will attract more people to your offer. Some say that Steve Jobs never listened to his customers. We believe that he knew his market intimately. He knew how he wanted to interact with technology and he knew from experience that there were many who felt the same way. When he designed to his exacting requirements, he rarely let his ideal customers down. Designing for the few, Apple attracted the many.

• The invitation: How do you let your ideal customer know you’ve got something he will want to experience? Now you look back at the product through the eyes of your customer. Does the product solve a problem or create an opportunity? It’s usually easier for potential customers to self-select when your communications help them see their problem clearly and recognize the solution your product offers. However, opportunity products can also be successful, especially when you really know the values and aspirations of your ideal customer. Four years ago, no one knew to want an iPad, a product that not only became a fast winner but created an entire tablet market. And all it took was Steve Jobs, a multimillion-dollar ad budget, and a company history of consistent innovation. Take comfort: wherever you are in your company’s growth, Steve Jobs was at that same place at least twice.

Design a company that creates products and messages your ideal customer can’t resist.

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