Sticking with it

“Choices suck. They are inherently limiting.” – Craig Armstrong

“Just throw it against the wall.”

Most cooks prefer to taste-test a single strand of spaghetti to check its doneness, but not this one. She’d scoop out a strand of spaghetti from the boiling water and, with a deft flick of the wrist, chuck it against her kitchen wall. If it stuck, it was done.

Reminds me of an outdated online marketing technique that’s still being used. Because of (1) the negligible cost of sending e-mail, (2) the “if you build it they will come” website-development mentality, and (3) the apparent lack of usable metrics, online businesses have been throwing money at the wall and content at consumers for at least 10 years. Whatever stuck has been deemed a “success.”

But online business has changed and will continue to change a great deal. And what seemed to work in the past works less well now – and, eventually, could (read “will probably”) harm your online business.

The reason is simple. Everyone is vying for consumers’ attention, both offline and online. Every year, it seems to take a little longer for them to sift through all that data to find the useful, interesting, relevant, and timely ideas and information they’re looking for.

Our Own Worst Enemies

Consumers – yes, that means you and me – know what we want. More choice! And may we have more features, options, colors, flavors? And could you add soy milk, skip the cinnamon, then top it off with ice cubes … to go, please?

And that’s just to get a cup of coffee. Don’t even get me started on cars, laptops, and safety seats for children. My head is spinning just thinking about the options.

Perhaps we don’t need so many choices. But we still want them, right?

Maybe not.

The popularity of sites like,, and’s user reviews indicates that although choice seems to be important, most of us just want a good recommendation from a credible source. We simply don’t have the time to completely research every new purchase we want to make.

Meanwhile, the average marketer feels his website must offer choices galore to try to answer the needs of all the people all the time. And Mom and Pop’s small online store has to compete with big businesses that have pockets deep enough to do it.

What’s a small Internet business to do?

Very often, if you look close enough (or stand far enough back), the solution lies within the problem.

While choice is not a bad thing in itself, the attempt to offer every option to all the people all the time is counter-productive. Having too many options is confusing for the customer. Paradoxically, it makes it more difficult for him to make a choice. As a result, a website that takes this approach will have an overall response rate that, in terms of the size of its target audience, is low.

It’s easy to understand why this happens. When you market every one of your offers to the same large group of people, only a small percentage of those people – a subset within your target audience – can possibly be interested in them.

You would never send out a print direct-mail marketing campaign in such an indiscriminate way. The cost alone would be prohibitive. But even if you had unlimited funds, sending a sales letter to an audience without having data that supports their probable interest in your offer would be considered bad marketing practice.

The Future of Online Marketing

The old way says you need a one-size-fits-all website serving 10 million visitors – and that the numbers have to be big to make it work. But a website can’t be successful if it’s nothing more than a glorified brochure that treats every visitor the same.

Websites that work well these days have to be smarter. They have to help guide you to what you are most likely looking for, and maybe even customize the content and pathway through the site as you use it.

You can already see this in practice. Sites like Google and Yahoo offer personalized home pages where the user decides what information should be presented to him.

How can you apply this kind of thinking to your online business? Here are a few ideas to get you started …

1. In E-mail

An e-mail campaign can be used not to push content at your audience but to learn what type of content they actually want to read. The Daily Reckoning e-letter now includes a survey in every issue to solicit reader feedback. Those comments help create and focus the e-letter’s ongoing content.

Metrics (like open rates and click-throughs) can show you what your readers are actually looking at. These are like footprints that people leave behind – giving you information that can help you find better ways of providing content that is timely and relevant to your readers’ interests.

2. On the Web

My friends and colleagues Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg (authors of the excellent book Waiting for Your Cat to Bark), who run the consulting firm Future Now, have developed a unique method for developing websites. They call it Persuasion Architecture. It allows you to develop your site from the perspective of anticipating and satisfying a customer’s needs and expectations, while still accomplishing your marketing goals.

3. Offline

Eventually, we’ll stop thinking of “online” or “offline” marketing as being separate. Both will be equally useful within an integrated marketing approach.

My longtime friends Jonathan and Mary Hinde run a small aromatherapy business from their home in Cambridge, England. The greatest strength of their business is the wide range of products they offer – over 1,300. Their greatest weakness is … you guessed it: too much choice.

Not long ago, I suggested they try an experiment. I had them think of about five or six broad personality “types” their customers might fall into. (This had to be an educated guess, as they don’t meet their customers. Orders come in via phone, mail, fax, and the Web.) The next step was to decide which of their best-selling products could be applied to each defined customer type.

They ended up with a grid of six typical customer profiles and about 100 best-selling products, with checkmarks indicating where a product was likely to match a customer type.

Over the last month, they’ve tried to guess which “type” each new customer would fall into, judging by what he or she ordered or sounded like on the telephone. They’ve then sent the customer a “Thank you and welcome” letter, along with a recommendation for three or four best-selling products that match his or her grid profile.

The initial results are encouraging. Jonathan said this test has already resulted in 25 percent more repeat sales and 37 percent more income from new customers.

An Army of One

Whenever I bring up the concept of targeting discrete groups within their overall customer list, many marketers with big lists say it’s too “fiddly.” That it’s simpler to just point and shoot. And small business owners complain that they don’t have enough customers to make segmentation worthwhile. But the fact is, every customer is already a segment … of one. Target that one, and you win every time.

I admit that you could continue throwing spaghetti against the wall, and some of it will stick. But wouldn’t it be smarter to figure out what your customers really need?

[Ed. Note: David Cross is Senior Internet Consultant to Agora Publishing in Baltimore. Meet him in person at ETR’s Information Marketing Bootcamp in November. He and other Internet marketing experts will show you how to build and/or dramatically grow your business. Sign up now to reserve your spot.]