November 3, 2001

Problem Solver

Want to set yourself apart from your competitors?

Most people mistakenly believe that Thanksgiving has been an American holiday since the Pilgrims and Indians first broke bread together in 1621. In fact, it wasn't until over two hundred years later that one woman's campaign of words made Thanksgiving an American tradition. That woman was Sarah Josepha Hale; you know her best as the author of the nursery rhyme "Mary Had A Little Lamb."

Sarah Hale had a simple marketing plan and a pen. She didn't write about herself; she wrote articles, menus, and poetry that focused on thanksgiving themes. In October 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, Hale wrote a letter to Secretary of State William Seward. Sent with copies of her previous thanksgiving articles, Hale's letter suggested a way to bring the nation together religiously by dedicating a day to give thanks for its blessings. Seward presented the concept to President Abraham Lincoln as a way to create national unity. Lincoln liked the idea and four days later issued a proclamation reserving the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving. The rest is history.

This example of an indirect form of marketing demonstrates how powerful such an approach can be, and how it can be more effective than the more common methods of self-promotion, public relations, or conventional advertising. A carefully crafted and strategically placed message of value to the recipient can attract attention, recognition, and credibility. This credibility marketing compels a response from a self-selected audience. It draws in the qualified market, but goes unseen by those you don't want to attract. In a time when financial planners and investment advisors face competitive pressures seemingly from all sides, Sarah Hale's approach can be quite instructive.

Before drawing the direct parallels to advisors, it's important to understand the challenges in front of us. In today's media-driven marketplace, there are three challenges all marketers face:

1: We live in a world of look-alike competitors

Due to the substantially similar choices available, it has become even more difficult to objectively select one advisory service over another. The public can't tell who is competent and who isn't. Since the alternatives appear to be basically alike, there are no obvious wrong choices--only unfamiliar ones.

2: Advertising and marketing campaigns don't net the returns to make them worth the effort

Web advertising and sizzling Web sites, unaffordable to most, don't insure you'll be noticed or that you'll be believed. You can no longer assume that you are getting consumers' attention just because you inundate them with messages. Your clients are buried in clutter. Prospects, inundated by noise, tune it all out. Consumers are tired of having the one commodity that they should be able to control--their own time--be continuously interrupted. They want to initiate contact on their terms.

3: Consumers require qualified information, not just media rhetoric

The media has an inherent conflict of interest. Its stated goal is objective journalism but its hidden agenda is to increase its audience, whether through sensational verbiage, expos?, or cloaking speculation in the guise of objective journalism. At best, the media can conduct and report an honest search for accurate information, but emphasizes only the more intriguing details. The general public's erroneous perception is that everyone in the media is an expert. Yet seldom do journalists or reporters have any personal experience or expertise with their subject matter.

These three challenges can be met by using credibility marketing, which I define as the use of innovative methods of conveying valuable information that can provide solutions, successful strategies, and preventive alternatives. Consumers start looking forward to hearing from you, and actually seek out your opinion or advice. The media benefits from including your information in their coverage and implicitly endorses your ideas. You appear as the expert and set yourself apart from your competitors.

Getting Started

How do you begin credibility marketing? You don't have to change what you're doing, just the premise of what you are doing. Your new premise should be centered on solving client problems. Funny, that's what you already do! You can eliminate out-of-date, time-consuming, and ineffective solicitation channels.

The point is that you must establish yourself as an expert and give your prospects a reason to find you or pay attention to what you say. Deliver the right informative messages and you heighten your prospects' level of interest. If you say it in a way people can understand, without talking down to them, they feel good about themselves because they're understanding a subject that they thought was very complicated. This strategy turns prospects into willing volunteers seeking what you have to offer.

The first step in building the credibility marketing process is to gather extensive knowledge about your own profession, your own industry. You do this through uncovering and understanding the unique needs and challenges that affect your clients; and by discovering, developing, and delivering solutions that address those concerns. You become the expert.

Second, accelerate the process by becoming a resource for the media, by writing magazine articles or books, and by utilizing integrated multimedia. Reporters and editors are always looking for a fresh angle or a great story under intense deadlines. Whether they are working on a daily newspaper or a monthly magazine, editors need a plethora of material to fill their space. An expert's knowledge of industry trends, and the patterns created by their clients' frequently asked questions, can be turned into dynamic story ideas.

Reporters and editors will never, in a lifetime of reporting on your industry or profession, be able to match the level of knowledge you have acquired by running your business. Their reputations depend on the quality of their stories; your reputation depends on the quality of your answers. And by providing data and research, you give reporters the valuable gifts of credibility and accuracy. They, in turn, give you third-party endorsements and greater visibility.

By integrating credibility marketing into a lifelong strategy, you build pathways that lead directly to you or your company. These work in both good and bad times, but especially during tough times. When people feel insecure or panicky, they want to hear from the expert, usually in the form of the written word. For a consumer, reading a newspaper or magazine is a way of gathering knowledge and getting advice without exposure and without the need to make an immediate response or take action.

Businesses frequently direct their public relations efforts toward mainstream consumer magazines, but these publications are mostly staff written or use professional freelance writers. Rather than compete against them, I've found that the editors of trade publications are more accessible. They are more likely to help a qualified individual tease out a good story. An article idea by an individual whose experience with a specific issue provides insight or perspective is valuable to the publication's readers, and helpful to its editors.

Most business people read one or more trade publications, such as this one. People may skim a consumer magazine, but 95% read and retain their trades, since these publications usually provide news and information of specialized interest. By their very nature, they provide third-party credibility to the information they publish. These are titles most people have never heard of, like Ocular Surgery News, Dirt and Rock, or Cemetery Management. There are over 20,000 such trade and association publications, not including the growing number of online publications.

You might also be surprised to learn that the favorite medium of the largest business-to-business advertisers is trade magazines; consumer magazines are number two by a great margin. To succeed in a brand-conscious world, advertisers go where research tells them to go. Copy their tactics.

Study the table of contents of a target market's trade publications. Then approach the editors with a story idea in the form of a query letter, not unlike Sarah Hale's letter to Secretary of State Seward. The query letter is a simple one-page letter that proposes the article idea, states the author's qualifications, and makes a short case for why the readership would be interested.

To avoid the appearance of merely being self-serving, I've found that the best approach is to use a problem/solution format. This approach may use the same basic structure as a sales presentation that shows how a service or product addresses a target market's concerns. In the beginning of the article, delineate the problem as simply as possible. Next, explain in detail the ramifications of the problem. Then present ways to avoid or resolve the problem. Tie it all together by listing the actions to take and the benefits to be gained from taking those actions.

Fine, but Does It Work?

The test of the success of any marketing effort is that it results in sales.

A few years ago, I wrote an investment article for the spokesperson of a medium-size financial firm. We placed his problem/solution article in a small trade magazine. A reader in Dallas sent the article to a business associate and friend who owns a rather large investment advisory practice in Houston. The article resonated with the investment advisor's own beliefs and values, and he arranged to meet with the author (my client). As a direct result, the advisor moved his accounts over and transferred $63 million of assets into my client's firm.

Sound successful?

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