Give Them What (They Think) They Need

Bloodhound dog draped in wrapping paperStory time, kids. Gather ’round.

So back in the day, well before the Category 5 shit-storm that destroyed my legal career, before I had evolved into the marketing pro I am today, I tried to launch a solo business as a lawyer.

Mind you, I’d never marketed my own business before, except as an actor, and that was well before the days of the web. When you’re the thing being marketed … well, it’s different.

I had been blogging for a few years, though, so I was perhaps more familiar with the technology than most newcomers.

So I hired a designer to create a custom WordPress theme, set up my site, and then promptly … sat back and stared at the screen.

For days.

I had no idea what to put up there.

Oh sure, I had enough sense to know that what I wanted to do was called content marketing, and that this meant I needed  – y’know, content. And I knew this content should be targeted to my prospective clients.

I knew I could write – it’s always been the thing that comes most easily to me. (Well, that, and sarcasm. And watching TV, but I guess that comes easily to most everyone.)

So, I asked myself, “Self, what do these prospective clients of ours need from us?”

And then, my friends, I sat down and wrote. I mean I wrote, people. I wrote a lot. I wrote over 20,000 words within a week or so.

Then I sat back – again – and stared at the screen – again.

And thought, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

They were good words, mind you. Proper spelling, good grammar, with headings and subheadings and keywords. (Oh, my.)

But something was wrong.  Well, maybe not wrong, per se, but definitely … off.

So I got out of the chair – my ass was numb by this point – and I went about my non-business business. I drove my kid to school. I shopped for groceries. I walked the dog.

This was the morose ‘80’s musical montage part of our story.

And throughout it all, I kept asking myself the same question, over and over again.

“What do they need?”

Wash a dish. “What do they need?”

Put gas in the car. “What do they need?”

Take a shower. “What do they need?”

And then, my friends, it hit me. The proverbial bolt out of the blue. The metaphorical light bulb switching on.

It hit me like the proverbial ton of metaphorical freakin’ bricks.

I was asking the wrong damned question all along.

The $64,000 question wasn’t “What do they need?” at all.

It was “What do they think they need?”

All my expertise and know-better was worth pretty much bupkus. It was so much puffed-up Greek, or may as well have been, to those prospective clients.

It wasn’t wrong.

It wasn’t inaccurate.

It certainly wasn’t badly written.

It wasn’t even inapplicable or irrelevant. Not by a long shot.

It just wasn’t what they thought they needed.

So I regrouped. I started thinking about that question. I thought about those prospective clients in a whole new way. They stopped being one big nameless, faceless mass of unknown individual humans. They became specific people. The assistant manager of the grocery store I frequented whose wife was on bedrest with her fourth pregnancy. The woman who lived next door with her disabled husband. My kid’s second-grade teacher, who was struggling to pay back her student loans.

I thought about those specific people, and then I thought about what kept them up at nights. I thought about what made them wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat – and what they typed into Google’s little box, hoping against hope they’d find something out there in the digital ether that would make them feel better.

I thought, in short, about what they thought they needed – not what I knew (or “knew”) they needed.

Then I went back, revised much of what I’d written earlier. And I wrote other things, all in response to that question.

And within two months, I was seeing measurable and fairly consistent results. People called. People set up consultations. People hired me.

(Also, within six months, I was ranking higher for short-tail keywords – short tail, mind you – than the applicable courts’ sites in my state.  But that’s another post altogether.)

Moral of the story, kids: You have to connect with your prospects where they say – where they want to meet you – not where you want to meet them.

This is part of July’s Word Carnival – stories for small business owners by small business owners & bloggers. This month’s theme: “Marketing without Marketing.” Check out all our carnies on the digital fairway here.

Photo Credit: SuperFantastic via photopin cc

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef July 30, 2014 at 8:24 am

This is one of the hardest lessons for people to get sometimes. And it’s something I point out quite often: when faced with a decision to buy either a bran muffin (what they need) or a cupcake (what they want), the frosting usually wins. We really do need to give people what they’re willing to pay for. And then add in what we know they need. That way, expectations are exceeded all the way around. Great post!

Sharon Hurley Hall July 30, 2014 at 10:53 am

It’s amazing what a difference it makes when you frame your discussions in terms of what people want. It makes it easier to bridge the gap between their perception and your professional knowledge of what will give them the results that matter to them. Great post, Annnie.

Melanie Kissell July 30, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Forget what a difference a day can make …
What a gargantuan difference a doggone word can make! Think “think”!

Wonderful story, Annie, and I adore your wit. Not to mention your relentless courage and perseverance in getting to the nitty-gritty of the needs of your target audience. Thank goodness for showers, gas stations, dogs, and dirty dishes. LOL!

Michelle Nickolaisen July 30, 2014 at 8:37 pm

Dude, this is SO IMPORTANT. People are just, wow, shockingly bad at getting it sometimes! I’m not even trying to mock – god knows I’ve made this same mistake – but I’ve also talked to or worked with clients who are really kind of stuck on selling “themselves” (or a version of them) in the copy, instead of focusing it to apply to their potential customers and clients. I’m glad you realized it and fixed it…and are now sharing some wisdom on it 🙂

SandyMcD August 1, 2014 at 4:13 am

I love this post Annie. First, I love how you write. Second, I love your raw and relentless honesty. Third, I love how you have framed this all time piece of marketing gold, so that we can just GET it. Thank you.

Nick Armstrong August 1, 2014 at 4:20 pm

Annie – this is strong work, for sure.

I’ll tell you that I had a hell of a time getting this at first, especially as a stubborn, head-strong 25-year-old who had just been run out of the computer programming industry by a series of really silly, really ineffectual idiots. I knew and worked with some truly amazing people, all of whom tried to give me the best shot they could at a pathway I could grok, but the fatal flaw was that – I was in a spot I didn’t want to be. And I knew I wanted to get more into marketing, and that knowledge was sort of… hidden away, until my appendix made the point more forcibly.

You’re absolutely right when you say you need to give a client what they think they need, rather than what you know they need. You can tell ’em the “right way” all day long, but if it’s not “their way” then you’ll be correct and broke.

Molly McCowan August 1, 2014 at 8:22 pm

Wow, Annie. This is a fantastic post! Even though I often ask myself the “what do they think they need?” question when working with my copywriting clients and *their* customers, it took me a long time to reframe my thinking about my own customers. Because my clients come from such radically different backgrounds, it made it really hard for me to feel like I was speaking directly to them. Although it’s still a challenge, your post has reminded me to ask that key question. Thanks!

BusySuperVA August 4, 2014 at 11:54 am

Great post. Love your writing as well!

Michelle Church August 4, 2014 at 1:56 pm

What an excellent way to tell that story…Love it and too true. You inspired me on my newest project, more than you know. Much love to you Annie!

Carol Lynn Rivera August 5, 2014 at 8:51 pm

A truer thing has never been said. Really! This is something I had to learn (the hard way) also. And something I insist in teaching my clients now. I like to start by asking them what they THINK they know about their customers and then getting to the “what do you really know” part. We tend to see things through our own lens of experience so we think other people want what we want. Alas! It takes some serious thinking and understanding and even research to get to the point where you realize you don’t know anything. And then you have to figure it out 🙂 I enjoyed your story and your writing… as always!

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: