Sales Clinic: Marketing Imagination — Part 1

I’m in multitasking mode today, writing this, performing some routine maintenance on my computers, and watching the British Open on TV. The Open Championship (as the Brits officially call it) is one of my favorite sporting events, especially when it’s played in Scotland, as it is this year, at St. Andrews. For a hacker like me, it’s refreshing to watch the real golfers hack their way through the Scottish wind and weather, over the hills and dales of the seaside links golf courses, and through the gorse—thick, heavy grass that makes the “rough” at a typical American country club look pretty feeble.

The announcers stress that links golf requires more imagination than its country club counterpart. There are a lot more right-or-left or high-or-low decisions to be made.

So what does all of this have to do with printing sales? It’s really pretty simple. If you want to be successful as a marketing services provider (MSP), you’ll need to bring some “marketing imagination” to the party, because this is a whole different game than simply selling printing.


MSP Defined

What exactly does it mean to be an MSP? I think that discussion has to start by asking what marketing services are. Obviously printing is one of them, but what else are we talking about here?

I think we can start with some ancillary-to-printing services like design and mailing. And from mailing, it’s a fairly short step to mailing list sourcing and management. From there, though, I think it’s a fairly large step to database development and management, especially the development component.

In the early days of mailing services as a product for quick printers, I remember quite a bit of complaining about how crappy the typical customer’s mailing list was. When you consider that the data a mailing list carries is only a matter of names and addresses, it can get downright scary to consider how much work you’ll have to do to develop and maintain a real marketing database—one that will allow you and your customers to take full advantage of the advanced printing capabilities that have really spurred this transition in the first place.

Having said that, the development and maintenance of a real marketing database is a marketing service that some customers will pay for. The more complex the database—and the more valuable the data!—the more you can charge for the service.


Marketing Plan

Data is not the end product, though, at least not for my vision of a marketing service provider. The greatest value an MSP can provide is to put that data to use. The MSP’s whole selling proposition has to be “We can help you to grow your business.” The ultimate sale is the how—in other words, the marketing plan.

I teach a seminar on “How to Build a Marketing Plan.” I always start it by asking attendees, “How many of you would agree that it’s a really good idea to have a comprehensive, written marketing plan in place for your business?” Every hand in the room always goes up. Then I ask, “How many of you have one?” Not so many hands. And when I ask why that is, the answer generally has something to do with not knowing where to begin.

That’s actually pretty simple. A marketing plan is really only the answer to three questions: 1) Where are we now, 2) Where do we want to be, and 3) What will it take to get there?

Most of your customers will have some sense of where they are now, and where they want to be. They’ll look to an MSP for help in how to get there, ideally both for the plan and the execution.

It’s important to understand that a direct mail program is not a marketing plan. At the level I’m talking about, direct mail might be one component of a marketing plan. It’s also important to understand that this MSP thing has to take you well beyond printing: Personalized email, website design, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and whatever comes next in terms of online marketing and communications opportunities. Any or all of these could be components in a comprehensive marketing plan, which probably means you have a lot of learning to do.

One of my clients said it very well: “We’re not a printing company, we’re a communications company. We have to master all forms of business communication and not limit ourselves to putting ink or toner on paper.”

Compare that attitude to something else I heard recently: “We have to fight to preserve print! We can’t let these other methods of communication destroy our business!”

Personally, I’m not one for swimming against a tidal wave. The printing industry has been hugely important in the development of civilization, but it cannot impose its will on the civilization it helped to develop.

Let’s go back to “We can help you to grow your business.” Start by asking what “grow your business” means to your prospects and customers. Are they looking for new members, customers, or donors, or to sell more or get more from those they already have? What do they know about all of those suspects, prospects, or customers? What do they need to know in order to bring your advanced capabilities to bear on their marketing challenges?

That’s really the essence of your marketing plan, right? To find applications for the marketing services you provide.


Imagination and Creativity

I wrote recently that the printer who “owns” the marketing plan really does “own” the customer, at least to the degree that “owning” any printer-customer relationship is possible (“What Happened To Loyalty,” QP, July 2010). I’ve also written that you only have two ways to grow—gain new customers or sell more to the customers you already have. Marketing services expand your product line pretty dramatically, and it has the potential to be hugely profitable. There’s a lot less material cost involved when you’re selling ideas, as opposed to ink or toner and paper.

That leads us to the ultimate success factors for MSPs. I think this is going to be one of those 80/20 situations, with the smaller part being technical competence. The larger part will be imagination and creativity—developing marketing plans that 1) incorporate all of the things that a printer who has evolved into an MSP can sell, and 2) actually work to grow the customer’s business. I’ll write more about imagination and creativity next month.