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Marketing Lemmings


I rented a storage space for one of my businesses last week. While I was waiting for the manager to complete all of the paperwork, I happened to glance around the lobby and noticed a “business card rack” hanging on the wall in the corner. You know, a piece of plastic with pockets to hold business cards for display and distribution.

I thanked the manager for the nice service he was providing by allowing local business owners who were renting storage spaces from his facility to “network” with and offer their services to each other. He corrected me, explaining that all of the cards were only from movers, packers, shippers, etc. looking to solicit business from the renters.

“Nice idea,” I said, but then I also remarked that, unfortunately, it was my prediction that none of the cards were effective; that not a single one of them would give anyone any reason to call that business instead of one of their competitors (whose cards were also on the same rack, within easy reach).

To amuse myself (and because the paperwork still wasn’t done yet), I walked over to the rack to verify my belief. As if that were really necessary.

Sure enough, every one of the 50 or so cards contained only the same, most basic of information: Name (and usually logo) of company, address, phone number, website. Blah, blah, blah.

Not a single headline.

Not a single offer.

Not even a single testimonial.

Not a single reason for me to call one particular company instead of another.

You can guess the result: A prospective customer would grab a few cards of the type of service they were looking for, then would “call around,” shopping mostly on price, absent anything else to differentiate the companies. Each service provider would then grumble, of course, about all the “tire kickers” and “price shoppers” that always call them, and how tough business is (likely blaming their misery on “the economy” just for good measure).

Which brings me to the fourth and final “Quantum Leap” a business owner can make to move from average to extraordinary income: Understand that almost all the advertising and marketing you see is completely ineffective, and don’t even think about copying “what everyone else is doing.”

One place this is painfully obvious is on such “business card racks” – but because the business owners generally aren’t paying anything for the privilege of displaying their cards, little complaining occurs.

A traditional breeding ground for business owner complaints, on the other hand, is the local yellow pages. Just as with the business card rack, there every company’s ad must run directly next to, above, or below all the ads of all their competitors. If ever there was a place a business owner would do whatever he could do to differentiate his company, this would be it, right? And yet, just as with the business card rack, there are rarely any yellow pages ads giving any reason for a prospect to contact one company instead of another. Instead, the overwhelming majority of ads are simply overpriced, oversized and ineffective business cards.

I spent several years as a “local marketing consultant” for a major yellow pages publisher, and met with over 1,000 small business owners and marketing people in the process. Probably 90% of them complained that they weren’t making any money from their ads.

But when I asked them how they came up with the content of their ads, they almost always shifted responsibility away from themselves, claiming “the rep made up the ad” or “my ad is the same as everyone else’s, so what’s the problem?”
THAT is precisely the problem.

It’s natural when someone starts a business to do so because they’re very good at and very excited about providing the product or service; but they usually don’t know the first thing about effective marketing or advertising. So they simply look around and copy whatever everyone else is doing in a weak and costly effort to attract business.

That’s a surefire formula for failure – just like lemmings blindly following each other over a cliff.

The solution is to learn and implement effective marketing and advertising strategies. Coming next Wednesday: One prominent example that’s bound to make some lightbulbs go off for frustrated small business owners.

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