Understand Your Audience

Preparing Your Case: Winning the “Hidden Debate” with Your Customers

The Last Fly by Boris Artzybasheff (1922)
The Last Fly by Boris Artzybasheff (1922)

“Will you walk into my parlor,” said the Spider to the Fly? — Mary Howitt

Whether you’re gloating or on the ledge about the most recent election, it’s a safe bet all Americans are united in one feeling—relief that it’s over! But one holdover from the election is worth examining as you turn your attention to the business year to come. How persuasive are your outreach materials? Do your white papers, blog articles, and web copy answer the real questions that your customers and prospects have? Or, like the political advertisements and phone calls we’ve all grown to loathe, do they simply bombard the reader with factoids, assertions, and “hooray for our side” ballyhoo?

When it comes to marketing a complex product or system, bombast, generalizations, and dubiously sourced facts don’t work very well. Your audience isn’t sitting around with their checkbooks open, waiting for someone to stoke their preconceived notions. They’re intelligent, astute, and full of questions. They demand (and deserve) a well-constructed and convincing argument, supported by strongly referenced evidence, logic, and organization.

But as research scientist and leadership expert Jay Conger explains, most business owners and managers have a problem when it comes to the art of persuasion—an infatuation with our own arguments. “First, you strongly state your position,” Conger says. “Second, you outline the supporting arguments, followed by a highly assertive, data-based exposition. Finally, you enter the deal-making stage and work toward a ‘close.’ In other words, you use logic, persistence, and personal enthusiasm to get others to buy a good idea. The reality is that following this process is one surefire way to fail at persuasion.”

So if your prospects remain skeptical no matter how much logic and passion you bring to the table, what’s next? Here’s a great exercise I call “Hidden Debate” that you can use to build more persuasive marketing materials. Start by preparing your case in the negative—think of every possible reason why the prospect should not sign on for your product. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty! By doing this exercise with an open mind, you will gain a thorough understanding of the arguments arrayed against you and the principles behind them. Frustratingly enough,  you’ll probably also learn that your services aren’t central to your prospect’s thinking or uppermost on their minds.

But don’t make the novice mistake of assuming that your next task is to construct counterpoints to all your findings. That approach will make your reader feel they’ve entered one of those overstuffed “Junque” shops you find on every small town square. Sure, they’re fun, but how can you find the treasure you’re really seeking amidst the hodgepodge of clutter? Remember, your customers care about answers to their gritty, immediate questions. What are the short-term problems that they face every day? What are their perceptions of risk? What benefit does your product or service actually provide, and for whom? These are the areas on which you should focus.

If you do it right, the “Hidden Debate” exercise just might fill you with empathy. By giving yourself the space to think outside yourself and your own needs, you will gain a deeper understanding of where your customers are coming from. This expansion of your world view will open you up to some creative approaches on how to best construct your next round of outreach materials. Each piece needs a clear organizing principle behind it, with a specific audience in mind. Depending on the audience you are trying to reach, you can create separate pieces grounded in fully nuanced, practical, real-world arguments that not only answer their concerns, but connect honestly with the emotion that underlies them.

Your prospects will thank you for providing them with collateral infused these vital characteristics: structure, research, and reliance on hard and persuasive evidence based on a true understanding of their needs. Investing in well-constructed, content-heavy white papers, newsletters, and other marketing pieces for your intelligent customers is challenging—but the rewards are more than worth it!

So what’s the deal about the spider and the fly? Mary Howitt’s 1829 poem is a classic story of how a cunning silver-tongued spider ensnares a naïve fly with empty words. Check out the complete poem. And if you want to see some fantastic illustrations, visit Shrine of Dreams for much more from Boris Artzybasheff, the Ukrainian-born illustrator who became an award-winning illustrator in the United States.

P.S. Warmest of welcomes to my latest customers: Carrtegra, Monkee-Boy Web Design, and the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum!

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