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The most common mistake businesses make with their marketing.

I’ve consulted with over a hundred businesses and if you add in all the sales enquiries I’ve had on top – that’s a lot of marketing problems.

I covered The #2 biggest mistake businesses make with their marketing (yup there are only 2 big mistakes). Trying marketing techniques constantly without strategy, consistency or persistence and then blasting the tactic for not working before moving onto the next new shiny thing. This is something I see frequently in smaller businesses, and a downside of being a small agile business – you can stop doing something as quickly as you start it.

But the number one issue is – most businesses cannot clearly describe what their product/service does or is in one sentence. And because of this, most of their customers can’t explain what they do either.

If your customers don’t understand what you do, they can’t buy from you as they don’t understand what they’re buying.

If you’re at a tradeshow or have a physical shop, shop traffic may enquire about what your product is and ask to test it out. If you’re online, you have to explain that through text – video is more of a time commitment for your customer as it can’t be grasped at a glance.

  • Do you have an area on your website that clearly states what you’re selling?
  • Does your ad explicitly state what you’re selling?
  • Do your social profiles clearly show what industry you’re in and where you belong within it?

One of my clients sold ski tour packages to schools. If he did not clearly state this, all sorts of things could be assumed by his marketing. One may assume that he sold ski holidays, was a ski instructor or sold ski wear. And if you get too into esoteric, mystical advertising about the experience of being on the ski tour – you’ll fail at the first hurdle when it comes to selling.

Often when I point out that the current marketing doesn’t offer a clear depiction of the business, people assume that I’m asking them to explain what their business is and does and start to explain. I shouldn’t need a 10-minute chat to understand what they sell – if I don’t understand the customer won’t.

It can be a point of contention when people ask me to run an ad campaign and I say ‘but it’s not obvious what the ad is for!’ and the client comes back with ‘it can’t be any clearer!’

Here are a few reasons why your messaging can get lost:

  • You listened to that sales guy on LinkedIn. At networking events, when someone asks what you do, don’t say ‘I’m an accountant!’ that’s unimaginative and will impress nobody. Instead say what value you provide: ‘I help purpose-driven business owners free up time and let them get back to doing the parts of their business they love by taking care of the books’.

This advice is… one of the worst business trends ever. Not only do you conflate your message – you sound, well, wanky. Adding pomp to your elevator pitch like this makes it look like you’re trying to make things sound fancier than they actually are and comes across as inherently untrustworthy. To be frank, it’s one of the reasons many salespeople aren’t considered honest.

  • Your head is in the business. It’s totally normal to be so engrossed in your industry that you forget what life looks like outside it. Maybe you know so much about sustainable cleaning you forget that a lot of people don’t understand what it entails. Maybe you’re selling such a high volume of kitchen supplies you haven’t realised that you didn’t mention that they’re for the catering industry and aren’t appropriate for small cafes or home use.

  • You just didn’t realise you needed to explain. It’s a home workout platform, but you don’t actually mention that in the first sentence because it isn’t attention-grabbing, or you wanted to mention your USP or get in your branded tone of voice. You tell yourself it’ll be fine, because people will get it. It’s not like you’re selling anything complicated.

  • If you asked someone if it was clear enough, they lied. Not many people are brave enough to stand up and say ‘this doesn’t make sense to me’. Because we’re scared it will make us look stupid. If you ask someone outside of your industry, maybe a family member or friend to take a glace at your website and tell us if it sounds okay and has a good user experience – they may try really hard to work out what your service is because we’re all a little worried about how we look first and foremost.

  • You sell IT services or SaaS. This get’s it’s own category because this industry is the worst for lacking clarity. First of all, the product itself can be hard to explain in the first place and can be quite complex. Secondly, we may not want to reduce the product down to describing it as a ‘project management tool’ when it’s a lot cooler than the competition and does a lot of interesting stuff. Thirdly, the Dunning Kruger effect can take place and really smart people can assume that the people they’re selling to are IT geniuses just like them and will totally know what it is! It’s called the curse of knowledge, it’s hard to understand what other people don’t know.

  • The curse of knowledge applies in other industries too. If you’re selling something like physio, it can be hard to remember that your customers don’t have a granular insight into the muscles in their body – they just know that they’re in pain. Most people who have a condition like tennis elbow or frozen shoulder aren’t actually diagnosed with it and even if they were, they probably don’t understand what it means. I’ve worked for a physio, so I know quite a bit about it, I’ve been diagnosed with thoracic syndrome and that’s dutch to me, but I do know I have a wonky shoulder.

  • You’re scared of sounding too basic. I’ve been competing with growth hackers, social media gurus, social ninjas and various internet growth experts for years. The reason why I’ve done quite well for myself? People don’t search for growth hacking internet ninjas, they search for social media freelancers.

Don’t be scared of describing yourself as a fabric manufacturer, or a cleaning product. We can add the fancy stuff afterwards, check out my messaging clarity framework:

1. What you actually do, in the plainest way possible.

Do you sell sewing supplies? Are you a law firm? Are there other important things to mention such as the fact that you’re a wholesaler to boutiques, or that you only work in family law? (A little joke here because lawyers would never neglect to be crystal clear in what they do and what services they specialise in!)

This should be in clear view, not after your first few sentences.

2. What makes you the best, or at least a reasonable option?

This is a great place to add any USPs or specialisms.

3. What does the customer get out of it?

Okay you’re a family law firm, but why do I hire you guys over the competition? Are you trauma-informed, supportive and compassionate? Experienced in working with distressed people and understand what I’m going through right now? That sounds cool.


Here’s a great example: The FutureLearn web banner.

Here we can plainly see:

  1. You can learn new skills online
  2. This is with world-class universities and experts. This isn’t a platform just anyone can create a course on.
  3. It’s going to future-proof your career. Nuff said.

Through the future learn banner, we can work out a few other messages. Visually the branding is similar to universities. The fonts, colours and logo seem like a modern version of universities such as UCL and the website is not so different to theirs.

Compare this to the banner of Skillshare and it’s clear which brand is selling courses that compete with local creative classes and workshops and which is aiming to establish itself as formal career training.

The future learn logo looks like steps, and indicates progress and climbing the ladder.

We can then see all the organisations FutureLearn is in partnership. Kings College, The University of Michigan, The NHS. Nice!

Compare this with one of FutureLearns partners – RaspberryPi. RaspberryPi is a super cool platform which teaches kids computer science skills and provides resources for their teachers as well. However, they don’t say this on their homepage. The banner on RaspberryPi is of a computer chip and leads to a different computing initiative they have, that I honestly don’t have the time to try and work out.

See the difference?

Check with someone who understands your industry but doesn’t know your brand

They say that if you can’t explain it to a 5-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself. But actually, there are many aspects of my business that my 5 year old, mother, or nan won’t understand.

Check with someone who works in a similar industry (education, business etc) and see if they think your offering is clear enough and if the parts that make you special are obvious.

It can take a lot of work and refinement to get to a position where you have a clear, cohesive message.

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