“In between what might have been and what has come to pass / A misbegotten guess alas and bits of broken glass.” – James Taylor, “Long Ago and Far Away”

Sometimes valuable marketing lessons turn up in the most unusual places.

Take, for example, the movie Big Night.

When I first saw this film back in 1996, I was mostly interested in the gastronomic delights it largely revolves around. But when I watched it again this past weekend, it reminded me of perhaps the single most important Early to Rise marketing principle.

Set in a 1950s blue-collar New Jersey town, two Italian brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub, playing the chef) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci in the role of the manager), head up a failing restaurant. Meanwhile, just down the street, Pascal’s, another Italian restaurant, is thriving and packed every night.

The difference?

Primo thinks he knows better than his clientele. After all, he can make the world’s finest risotto. But his customers don’t want risotto. They want spaghetti and meatballs.

And yet, despite the empty seats every night, Primo won’t give in. He rails against Pascal, his declasse, pasta-peddling neighbor.

“Do you know what happens in that restaurant every night?” Primo yells. “RAPE! RAPE! The rape of cuisine!”

He dreams of changing his ignorant customers. “Give people time. They will learn,” he tells Secondo.

Secondo knows better. “This is a restaurant! This is not a f***ing school!”

Even their competitor, Pascal, tries to clue in Primo on the key marketing principle he just doesn’t seem to understand. “First, give people what THEY want. Then, later, you can give them what YOU want,” he advises.

I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that Primo never gets it.

So what if you are thinking of starting a new business or introducing a new product line? How do you find out what your potential customers want so your “dining room” will be kicking butt instead of standing empty?

The answer is simple. By testing.

If a salesman’s mantra is “ABC – Always Be Closing,” your mantra as a marketer and business builder should be “ABT – Always Be Testing.” ETR experts such as Marc Charles, Paul Lawrence, and Wendy Montes de Oca write about this frequently, but it is well worth repeating.

If you are marketing an information product online, testing is easy and inexpensive…

  1. Write a strong sales letter for your product’s “landing” page and a series of small keyword ads that you can test. (Or hire a copywriter to do this for you.) The keyword ads will link to the full sales pitch on your landing page when someone doing an Internet search clicks on them.
  2. Test your small keyword ads on pay-per-click (PPC) search engines like Google, Yahoo!, and MSN and analyze the results.
  3. Test new keyword ads and headlines, and maybe a couple of different sales letters on a couple of different landing pages.
  4. Once you know which combination of ad/headline/sales letter works best, run with the winner.
  5. Expand the list of relevant keywords in your campaign based on your winning combo, and an increase in sales will follow.

If you don’t get a good response, you may be suffering from “Primo’s Syndrome” – trying to sell risotto that no one wants. So start over with a different product. Don’t let your ego convince you that you can teach the marketplace what it should and should not buy, or you and your ego will soon find yourselves in the poorhouse.

If you are selling a hard product instead of an online information product, there are plenty of small-scale ways to test how appealing it will be to potential customers. For example, you could offer it on eBay or on high-traffic classified ad sites like CraigsList.com, Sell.com, or ePage.com. Or you could rent space at a local flea market and see how much interest you attract. Or you could sell it on a consignment basis at a few shops.

Another way to test a product idea fairly cheaply – whether it’s an info product or a hard product – is via a direct-mail promotion. You simply send a sales letter to a small, targeted sample group of qualified prospects (people who have bought similar products at similar prices). If the results are promising, you then roll it out to a wider market. (You can learn direct-marketing basics by searching ETR’s archives and reading articles we’ve published on the subject.)

The point is, you don’t need an office, you don’t need fancy computers, you don’t need a business plan. And you certainly don’t need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch a business… only to find, as Primo did, that no one shares your vision or taste.

I’m seeing a wannabe entrepreneur make this potentially fatal mistake right now, not three blocks from the Early to Rise offices.

His idea is to open a gourmet food store in a new development that’s being built – a block of charming condos with retail stores planned for the ground floor. For six months, I’ve seen the “Coming Soon” sign in his window. And every day, I see him in there… working on the floor or the cabinets or the shelving.

I’m guessing here, but he must have put in at least $50,000 worth of time and materials by now. Meanwhile, this neighborhood has zero street parking and is likely to have very little foot traffic for a long, long time. Many of the already-built storefronts stand vacant. I wouldn’t call it a ghost town, but it’s not exactly Times Square either.

Perhaps, somehow, his store will be successful. If so, good for him.

Heck, I’ll be there on opening day – buying my fresh buffalo mozzarella and Parma prosciutto and sun-dried tomatoes and a baguette or two. But I’ll come back only if I like what I get and the prices are fair. I don’t want mediocre goods marked up 300 percent simply because they’re being sold in a “gourmet” shop – and I don’t know anyone else who does.

I’m hopeful. But I’m also worried. Because I’m thinking this would-be-business builder does not know what I know after living in this area for seven years: Two similar stores in similar locations have failed.

Did he try selling his goods at the local Green Market last spring? Will he offer some uniquely beneficial service so that folks like me will go out of our way just to come to his store? Did he do a test mailing to local residents to see if they have any interest in what he’s doing?

I’ve not seen it, but I hope for his sake he’s done some kind of testing. I hope he knows what Pascal, the smarter restaurateur in Big Night, knew: “First, give people what THEY want. Then, later, you can give them what YOU want.”

Test, test, test… and listen to what your marketplace tells you.

Remember (as Secundo might have crudely put it) that you’re running a business, not a f***ing school.

[Ed. Note: Charlie Byrne, ETR’s Editorial Director, is on the board of experts of the Internet Money Club, ETR’s new Internet business-building program. The program is entirely sold out – but you can click here to get on our waiting list.]

Charlie Byrne

Charlie Byrne is a former Senior Copywriter and Editorial Director for Early to Rise. Charlie spent the earlier part of his business career as a systems analyst, project manager and consultant in New York City for Fortune 100 companies including Philip Morris, Digital Equipment, and Citicorp as well as New York University and Columbia University. He then spent over ten years at Reuters Ltd and Interealty Corp designing and implementing financial, real estate and news information services. In 2003, he joined Early to Rise as a senior editor and copywriter. Since then he has helped publish over 1000 editions of ETR, resulting in gross revenues of well over $25 million. He has also produced dozens of winning sales letters and promotions, including two that brought in over $200,000 in under 24 hours, another two that have grossed over $1 million each, and a single sales letter that sold 25 units of a $10,000 product.