Learn To Become A Beginner (Again)

“The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out.”

— Dee Hock

Last week I had two interesting conversations about the Internet. Neither one by itself would have stuck in my mind, however because they occurred within minutes of each other, something clicked.

In both instances I was speaking with marketing professionals from “traditional” businesses — defined as companies that don’t rely on the Internet per se to conduct their business — and in both case was struck by how they were trying to apply “old economy” logic to “new economy” tools.

The conversations went something like this:


ME: “I think that you, as the manager of this product, ought to be signing your name and including your email address when you send electronic communications to your customers. That way they can reply to you if they feel like it.”

Marketing Professional (MP) #1: “Whoa, wait a minute! What if they respond? I don’t want them to know my name; I’ll spend my life answering emails.”


Me: “I think that you need to invest some money in promoting your electronic newsletters, so that you can capture the email addresses of your customers, and have a platform for developing your relationship with them.”

MP #2: “We can’t spend money on things which don’t yield results. We need sales, and although we’d like more newsletter subscribers, subscribers alone don’t benefit us.”

Both of these examples are typical of what tends to happen as traditional companies (and traditional marketers) get involved in the electronic world. They use the new tools (e.g. email, enewsletters), but they apply the old rules.

MP#1has spent years learning how to cost effectively send communications to prospects (via direct mail, print ads, etc.). All One-Way communications. In the offline world there is no convenient way for customers to respond, and with rare exceptions, the only people who do bother to contact management are those who are unhappy. Like MP#1, many of us have become conditioned to avoid direct customer contact, assuming that most of it will be negative. Our communication is strictly one-way therefore, with our only exposure to live customers coming through the safety of one-way (coincidence?!) focus group mirrors.

Advice for MP#1: Stop Hiding in Your Office! Email allows customers to easily and instantly tell you what they think. The great (and surprising) news about all this is that most of the comments will be positive. The people who wanted to commend a courteous employee, make a casual suggestion, or “just say thanks,” were largely filtered out before, by the inconvenience of paper mail. Not only is MP#1 passing up an opportunity to collect first hand customer data, but she is also missing out on the chance to get some nice pats on the back from her (many) satisfied customers!

MP#2is also reading from an old textbook. In the offline world it is less productive to talk to somebody for the second time than for the first time (follow up direct mail always pulls less than the initial wave), and if you are trying to maximize sales it makes sense to keep looking for new people to put your offer in front of.

The online world however, allows you to cheaply build relationships over time(read “Permission Marketing” for the full story*). Spending money to acquire newsletter subscribers will yield future customers — many of whom would never have bought anything from one shot solicitations.

Advice for MP#2: Focus on relationships! Look for relevant ways to interact frequently with your customers! The percentage of people who are willing to “hear from you” (i.e. subscribe to your newsletter), is MUCH higher than the percentage who are willing to buy from you. . . TODAY. But these “lukewarm” people are your best prospects, and it makes sense in the electronic world to seek them out. (Remember, prospects are volume controls, not on/off switches, and their interest increases over time until they finally buy.)

BOTTOM LINE: You need the New Rules working together with the New Tools. One without the other won’t yield nearly the same results. The challenge for all of us is to leave our old assumptions behind, and learn to become beginners again.

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