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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Being first

The classic book "Positioning" by Al Ries and Jack Trout should be on your list if you know little about marketing. You can purchase it inexpensively in paperback at your local bookstore.

One of the cornerstones of marketing is you never want to be second (or certainly third, fourth or fifth) the market -- you will almost inevitably lose in "me too" games, even if your product/service is truly better than the competition.

I learned this lesson some years ago when I set out to publish a better local general business newspaper than the existing (and struggling) competitor. So I took my existing construction and real estate news titles, and turned them into sections within the new business publication, produced with much higher technical standards and content than the other guys. I even set out enhanced distribution to create real value for advertisers and readers alike.

It didn't take me too long to discover that I had created a very weak general business newspaper with a relatively strong construction and real estate section. I lacked 'position' -- this spot was owned by the general business publisher -- and nothing short of its failure would allow me to occupy the space (and even that didn't work, because someone in business too close to me for comfort swooped in and snapped up the title with a little creative accounting.)

Eventually, I gave up the ghost -- selling my business (with a couple of, in hindsight, truly major exceptions), to my former competitors for a pittance -- with a modest down payment and series of progress payments that would allow for a year or so's salary equivalent.

When I resumed my business less than a year later after an important (and restful) sabbatical, I set out to build the brands within my niches; and the construction title roared back to life.

Oh yes, what about the exceptions?

The purchaser of my existing business didn't want a title called the OCHBA Impact!, a tiny product for the local home builders' association (now named the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association). He also didn't want a small contract I then had with the precursor to the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce. These two little projects barely paid their way, but with a part time salesperson and contract production people, they allowed me to 'stay in business' and have the infrastructure when the purchasers of my business decided they didn't want to continue the modest payments to me and thus voided our non-compete agreement.

The Impact! now remains our longest-standing product; and represents an important area of business expansion potential. It provides a valuable and important connection to the industry.

We had fun with the Chamber of Commerce/Board of Trade publication when non-competition restrictions were voided. Suddenly, we grew the thing from 8 pages to 48 pages; packed with highly profitable ads; especially since we didn't try to circulate the publication to non-members. However, that experience taught me some things about litigation and court fights; topics for another set of stories.

Eventually, I realized that our business could best be focused within a specific niche -- regional construction industry publishing -- and that is where we are today.

So, you are a general contractor, a sub-trade, an architect, engineer, or consultant. You need to find a place where you are 'first', not just better. This isn't as hard to do as you may think. Just consider your strengths, and define your uniqueness, perhaps by geographical or topic speciality, or some special service offering. Focus is good -- the minute you say you can do everything for everyone, you lose. I recommend you not spend too much time thinking about your competition; think instead about your special strengths, and unique offer that will allow you to be first in your clients' minds.

This is generally the most important marketing lesson you can learn. Be first, in your potential clients' minds, be smart, and you'll retain the lead.

See this Wikipedia entry on "positioning".

2 comments:

Sonny Lykos said...

Mark, as usual, a great column, especially when you state:

"So, you are a general contractor, a sub-trade, an architect, engineer, or consultant. You need to find a place where you are 'first', not just better. This isn't as hard to do as you may think. Just consider your strengths, and define your uniqueness, perhaps by geographical or topic speciality, or some special service offering. Focus is good -- the minute you say you can do everything for everyone, you lose. I recommend you not spend too much time thinking about your competition; think instead about your special strengths, and unique offer that will allow you to be first in your clients' minds."

And I've had "Positioning" for several years and would highly recommend it to every business owner.

Mark Buckshon said...

Thanks, Sonny for the comment. I'm sure we both see enough people in this business beating their brains out chasing "leads" without appreciating that a little thinking and focus could give them hugely profitable businesses, especially since effective marketing is not as widely practiced as it should be in the sector.