The Ideal Target Audience Isn't Who You Think It Is

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Perhaps it's a function of our Internet-driven world that makes everything from Grandma to groceries just a mouse click away. Whatever the reason, hi-tech companies are obsessed with short-cutting the sales process.


From Web sites to sales automation, the abdication of the sales role to technology and sales reps' "don't call us until you're ready to buy" attitude inevitably trickles down to impact a company's direct marketing strategy. For an agency, this often materializes as a directive to "target the decision makers."


Spurred by the mandate to target people based on little more than check-writing authority, many hi-tech companies (and their agencies) embark on campaigns on the "golf-ball-in-a-box" theme.


You know the type -- Company X mailed a set of gold-plated golf balls in a custom-manufactured marble box to 600 top executives and generated a phenomenal 25 percent response. These campaigns get showered in awards but rarely succeed in generating the genuine business opportunities for which they were intended -- least of all on a cost-per-lead basis. Focusing marketing dollars on reaching decision-makers may seem efficient, but it's usually just the opposite. In fact, top-down marketing presents two fundamental challenges:


<B>Problem No. 1.<B> Decision makers are hard to reach. They have more demands on their time, more distractions and more "screens" (the mail clerk, the department secretary, and the executive assistant) that may prevent them from even receiving the message.


<B>Problem No. 2.<B> Decision-makers don't always feel the pain that your technology can help solve. CIOs may have signing authority for your $250,000 customer relationship management system, but on a daily basis, are they grappling with the problems that your software can help solve? Probably not. And that makes it less likely that your message will resonate with them in the first place.


The result: In their drive to streamline the sales process, companies are leaving a lot of leads (and potential customers) on the table. Here are a couple of proposed solutions:


<B>Solution No. 1.<B> Don't shortcut the process. Let your sales force do the selling. (That's what you're paying them for.) Advances in Web technology notwithstanding, no one has invented the direct marketing campaign or Web site that can answer questions, handle objections, probe for needs and close the sale better than a live human being. Sure, we'd all like direct marketing to do the job for us, but in the technology business (unless you're Michael Dell), it rarely works that way.


<B> Solution No. 2.<B> Broaden your scope. Don't limit yourself to the executive suite. Think of direct marketing as a means to identify organizations with the problem your technology can solve, no matter what job title the caller has on his business card. Sure it's more work for your sales force. But the people who are ready to buy will respond regardless, and in the meantime, you'll also generate leads from a much larger spectrum of potential customers who have the problem you can solve and want to do something about it.


If that's not a good lead, what is? How low should you go? As a general rule, target the highest level in the organization at which the problem is understood. Don't aim so high that your prospect doesn't grapple with the issues that your technology addresses. But don't aim so low that your contact doesn't have the means or influence to evangelize your product.


Choose carefully, and you'll not only minimize your sales cycle by entering at the optimal point in the corporate hierarchy, but also maximize results by targeting the people with whom your message will best resonate. Finally, test. Direct marketing is measurable, so use that to your advantage. Test CIOs against application developers, for example, and gauge which group generates a higher response and more sales. Ultimately, you may find that your ideal audience works in a cube -- not the corner office.


Howard J. Sewell is president of Connect Direct, a full-service agency in Redwood City, CA. His e-mail address is howardsewell@connecthe.com.
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