The value of gut instinct in marketing

A computer mouse on a surfaceConventional marketing research – polls, surveys and number crunches about what’s sold in the past and how and where it sold and to whom and by whom – can tell you what, among all the stuff that’s already out there, people are likely to buy again.

It can’t really tell you much about that product no one knows they want yet. I’m not necessarily talking about a new invention or anything radical. In the early 90s, whoever thought fruity-colored computers would sell? If you’d polled people about Steven Jobs’ desperate bid to save what was then a flailing Apple company, I suspect they’d have laughed in your face. Computers in “strawberry” and “lime.” What self-respecting person would buy such a thing?

But look what happened. And now, ten or so years later, Apple’s on top of the world.

For that matter, if you’d asked me five years ago whether having a PDA and cellphone rolled into one made any sense, I’d have said absolutely not. You needed the PDA to jot down notes while you were on the phone, so how you use it as a PDA while talking on it? It turns out that minor issue was easily overcome by all the other features of smartphones. I didn’t think I wanted one, but now all I can think is: and I don’t have to lug around a separate phone.

There are so many examples of revolutionary products – and books, and movies, and TV shows and other media – that were destined to flop, according to conventional marketing research. But they didn’t. They tapped into what the audience didn’t know they wanted yet, and delivered it. What magical power is this?

Following your instincts

Sometimes conventional marketing research is wrong. That’s all there is to it. You can carefully research your keywords, read everything about which way Google’s swinging on domain keywords and site links and running ads and so on, and even get a marketing research firm to put together an expensive report for you – only to still get it all wrong. But surely just building a site you enjoy isn’t the way to get at what the audience wants, right? Especially if you’re not a particularly typical audience member, as so many of us entrepreneurial types are not?

It depends how you go about it. I think there’s a formula for following your instincts the right way, and it has worked for me:

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  1. Find an empty spot. In most niches, there’s something that really needs doing and hasn’t been done yet, or hasn’t been done as well as it could. For example, let’s say there are lots of informative blogs about Subject A, but not really any funny ones, even though Subject A is something in which funny things happen. Maybe loads of people are just waiting for a site where they can submit their funny Subject A experiences, or the things they’ve seen other people do wrong, etc. Or maybe you alone can provide loads of funny Subject A stories because you used to work in Subject A with the world’s most obnoxious boss and two of the stupidest co-workers ever.
  2. Develop a unique voice. Even if your site is mainly a shop, a blog with posts in a unique and enjoyable voice can’t hurt. I don’t mean that self-promoting tone where you talk about your kids and the visit to Kentucky last year and how you just haven’t been able to shake that flu and there’s something weird in your tonsil and you wonder if you should go to the doctor. But if you’re a thinker, then you probably don’t see the world in some boring Borg-like way. I.E., you’re a Democrat, but you’re really angry with the Democrats at the moment, and well-informed enough to tell us about it in terms that will make your fellow angry Democrats say “YES!” out loud at their monitors.
  3. Don’t let site visitors push you. When you’re aiming for something the audience doesn’t know they want yet, you can expect resistance at first. Sometimes you flop at the beginning, but in time the audience grows to love what you’re offering. Stick to your guns when you’re offering something new – people don’t always react well to change at first, but after a little while, the frighteningly new becomes intriguingly new. Make commenters work for you instead of the other way around.

So let’s do a case study on me. How well have I taken my own advice on this site? And let’s just talk about recently, since this blog is old and has been through about half as many self-re-inventions as Madonna.

Did I find an empty spot? Eh, sort of. My focus – on building and maintaining a community of website visitors so you don’t rely on search engines – is a bit different, but it’s not very far off from just plain marketing without SEO considerations. Your subject doesn’t necessarily need to be far off from others (i.e., a funny take on X instead of straight up informative). So yes, I’ve done that.

Have I got a unique voice? I think so. I see things a bit differently from lots of people, and I put that viewpoint into every post.

Making commenters work for me? Not a problem.

Will it work? Only time will tell. Sometimes the formula doesn’t work, but it has worked for me on other sites. Oh, none of them have a million visitors a month, but they’re substantial and slowly growing, and poised for exponential growth when they hit some tipping point along the way.

I’m not saying conventional marketing research is worthless – it has its place. But it will never be good at identifying what the audience wants, but don’t know they want yet. The only way to discover that that is, is to examine your own desires from a website, and build it, and see if they come.

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Last Updated:

June 8, 2019

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