Before I had kids I actually read Infinite Jest, a book is so long and dense, it’s the subject of jokes about people who only play music on records and hand-grind coffee.
In my defence, I remember almost nothing except this one scene:
The narrator as a kid eats toxic mould and on the discovery, his mother just runs around in circles in the backyard in hysterics, holding aloft the mould.
I am that mom. My entire experience having children is that suddenly, there’s too much risk in the world.
But it’s the same for brand owners.
Brands can be too risk-averse – and it hurts every aspect of their advertising
I get it.
The big brands we see are so safe. They appeal to everyone,
Putting something polarizing out there… It feels scary. What if people don’t like it?
Here’s the thing. Some people 100% will either not like it or not get it.
You know how the rest of this argument goes if you’ve read anything about niching, point of view or positioning.
But you may not know that testing and validation – keys to conversion optimization – are a waste of time unless you have nailed down your positioning.
“Put simply, brand positioning is about owning a unique position in the mind of the target consumer, and it is an articulation of what you want your brand to be to consumers. It’s established relative to your competition in a way that signals differentiation and it is about making sure that when your target consumers think of your brand, they know the benefits you offer. Therefore you are showing the value of your brand to your target audience.” – Qualtrics
Running quantitative tests without positioning is like letting our kids ask every other kid in their class what they really think of them.
Please do not do that.
It only really matters what a select few think. As a brand owner or manager, you should never be hostage to any and all user feedback. (Just because they clicked on your ad or bought from you once? That doesn’t mean their opinion should hold weight.)
Done right, testing and validation put your message only in front of a specific target to find whether it’s persuasive enough to overcome fears, doubts, uncertainties.
Why we need to take data and testing with a grain of salt
I recently interviewed Suzie Yorke of Love Good Fats – a brand that exploded on the market, in part because of the brilliance of Suzie, an ex-P&G marketer.
Suzie talked about the tension between really listening and filtering out what’s actually just noise.
Because it’s one thing to be tuned into voice-of-customer and to be all about testing. And it’s another to be so influenced by data that you forget the core of your brand.
Your brand is the value you deliver for a very specific buyer.
For Suzie, that means it doesn’t really matter if the data shows middle-aged men are clamouring for meat-flavoured snack bars. That’s not her bag.
She’s spent enough time talking face-to-face with her ideal buyer to know that some trends aren’t relevant to her target audience.
We can even ignore feedback from those in your perfect demographic (or industry if you’re B2B) who aren’t at the right stage of awareness.
Like my parents, who actually do run a business and at important networking events introduce me like this:
“This is our sweetie and she’s just the best-est writer!!” (Love you guys!)
They’re not aware of conversion rate optimization.
And that’s cool – it’s also why I don’t ask them what they think of my website, though. Or write marketing collateral for other business owners who just ‘need a wordsmith’ and think conversion copywriting is too expensive.
(And feedback that it’s “too expensive”? Don’t change your price quite yet. Chances are, they either don’t see a point of difference or they’re not the right buyer.)
So, yes, ASK. Ask away. But remember that not everyone’s opinion has a place in your testing and validation.
If you’re a start-up, focus on a core group of influencers
Graham Robertson of Beloved Brands talks about the importance of being laser-focused on a specific audience, especially early on.
“Start-ups should deploy a craft brand strategy. To stand out, you must be utterly different to a core group of trend influencers who are frustrated with the major competitors. You must be willing to take a “high risk/high reward” strategy. It is O.K. if your brand alienates those who are not yet ready to take on something new. Playing it too safe will lead to your destruction. Do not worry about the mass audience, and avoid trying to be too big, too fast.” (p. 61)
Influencer strategy aside, what Robertson is saying is that you can only cut through the noise if you’re markedly different.
And the way to do that is to speak to a very specific audience’s unmet needs.
This is the core of positioning.
For copy that converts, tighten your target market
Again, turning to Beloved Brands, Robertson says, “There is a myth that a bigger target will make a brand bigger, so the scared marketer targets “everyone”… Spreading your limited resources across an entire population is completely cost-prohibitive… This fear of missing out (FOMO) gives your brand a lower return on investment and eventually will drain your brand’s limited resources.” (p. 77)
Graham explains how to divide up the market to identify the most motivated possible audience, using three categories of segmentation:
- Consumer profiling: demographics, socio-economic, geographic/channels, current or new customers
- Consumer behavior: benefit need states, purchase occasion, purchase behavior, perceptions and beliefs
- Consumer psychographics: lifestyle, personality, values, attitudes
You don’t need data on each of these. A good starting point, says Graham, is to use a combo of three to four segmentation elements to narrow your target. (p. 79)
For example socio-economics, benefit need states, lifestyle and values. We’ll walk through an example.
And because I know this worries a lot of brand managers, we’ll get more granular about what it really means to zero in on a target.
How big is your actual target market?
When I’m like Hal’s mom, running around in circles figuratively, it helps to put the risk in the context of the numbers.
In this case, what is the actual size of your target market? Chances are, even if it’s niche, it’s enormous.
Let’s quickly work through this to show how profitable it can be to focus your marketing on a narrower audience.
For example, say you’re selling a healthy packaged food to American women. Or a meal kit delivery, or a nutrition-related course.
Now, we know age and gender don’t entirely determine purchasing behavior, but it’s a starting place. (Especially since your ad targeting, creative direction and other choices often force you into thinking this way.)
At first, you assume your demographic is between the ages of 25 and 50 (that’s ~50 million US women).
Unless you’re P&G, that market is too big.
And we know that trying to connect with too large an audience only dilutes the effectiveness of the message. You simply can’t be specific enough in your copywriting and visual creative with an audience that large.
Ok, so let’s say we want to narrow in on the age most likely to buy healthy foods. The ones with the highest awareness and intent, as we think of it in copywriting.
Now we’re getting into consumer behavior and psychographic data… And it looks like the 25 – 34 demographic has the highest potential. That’s about 20 million women.
But your product isn’t cheap and is best suited to women facing time pressures – working women. So, let’s narrow further to the top 25% of income earners.
That’s still about 5 million prospective customers. Even if 1% of those bought $100 worth of product from you a year, you’d generate $5M from that demographic alone.
Being exclusive – and inclusive – in finding your target market
By slicing the market that way, we can do more interesting things with copywriting. We can talk to a very specific audience and:
- Empathize with their very specific lives
- Point to specific life goals
- Show and write about the things that interest them
- Reflect their likely values and attitudes
- Counter their specific objections
- Show proofs of authority that matter to them
- Make offers in the ways they prefer to buy
And specifics like these sell – or convert, as we like to say.
But as Robertson says, by being focused on a target, we don’t overtly exclude those outside the target. People outside of that bracket will still resonate with your brand and buy.
Which is a loaded topic…
Because there is a rising awareness of inclusiveness in marketing. And so while certain creative and advertising decisions may force you to zero in on an age group, gender, socio-economic position… I’d color outside of those demographic lines deliberately.
Here’s why and how.
The demographics only bring you closer to the psychographics
Starting with demographics is, well, a starting place. It reassures us, as I’ve said, that we can go narrow.
Plus, it’s easier to know a target demographic market deeply. To understand their lives, beliefs, tastes, experiences… all key for conversion copywriting.
But once you start to understand that audience, it makes more sense today to build the brand, the creative and write the copy to the psychographics and behaviors.
And then be inclusive in the representations of people who mirror your buyer. Chances are, they could be younger, older, any gender, orientation, skin colour.
This is difficult because first, we have to make assumptions about the buyer. And then we have to question those assumptions.
It can be harder to find, validate and test advertising based on psychographics and behavior vs. demographics.
- Instead of just dropping the age range into the targeting of a Facebook ad, you have to think about their interests, where they hang out, what else they might buy.
- Instead of targeting a group on LinkedIn based on their job title or industry, you have to question whether they’re in the frame of mind to choose your solution.
- Instead of taking feedback from everyone on your list, you have to consider which of those are really ideal and not accidental customers.
Otherwise, the results are skewed. Testing and validation only matter if you can get feedback from that ideal buyer, with the right awareness and intent.
That’s where qualitative research becomes so valuable to offset quantitative. Interviewing and surveying real people can often tell you more of value than clicks.
Being niche is competitive. Being cluttered is not.
As brand owners, almost all of us can take more risks by being more niche. More personal. More relevant. More specific.
Robertson uses examples of Five Guys Burgers and Dollar Shave as “craft brands”. Both went in the opposite direction of the mainstream… and the rest is history valued in the billions.
In short: Your target audience can develop a tighter bond with your niche brand than they can with mass-market brands. Because they see themselves in you.
So, the risk that we’ll be too polarizing is really in our minds.
The real risk?
On the other end of the spectrum are what Robertson calls “cluttered brands”.
“They get stuck in the cluttered mess of the market, without a defined target market or a defined point of difference. Consumers cannot describe them, and worse, the brands cannot express themselves. These brands lack a loyal base of customers and are unable to generate any positive growth or price premiums. They end up as an indifferent commodity, disconnected from consumer needs…” (and he goes on to paint the picture of total brand decay – see page 63)
These are brands that haven’t staked out their positioning in the market, and it shows.
You might be wondering…
Why is a conversion copywriter so opinionated on the topic of brand positioning?
As a copywriter, I see fuzzy positioning at the core of conversion problems every day. The perfect headline, call to action, email, ad… we can’t write any of those persuasively unless we know exactly who we’re talking to.
And our clients won’t see results if they vacillate around the question of who they’re for.
If that target changes too often… if we allow ourselves to be pulled in all directions by data from a broader group, the tests simply aren’t valid tests.
That’s why the question we’re obsessed with around here is how our clients can be different and better to a very specific audience.
Only then do we test and validate our copy.