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If you, like me, love marketing, then you probably love problem-solving.

Whenever I read case studies, I invariably start relating them directly to my own clients, or potential clients I have my eye on. The ideas just jump off the page-- a postcard campaign that would work for the local bookstore! Or how about an email campaign co-sponsored by a restaurant and the local music festival? Yes!

Before long I realize that I'm guilty of one of the most common errors in marketing--neglecting to start at the beginning. Marketing solutions aren't a case of one-size-fits-all.

Or: How can I hope to solve a problem when I donít know what the question is?

What's Your Rationale?

Do you remember when you wrote essays at school and the teachers used to always be saying "make sure you answer the question?" I still think about that now, whenever I sit down and start working through a brief. It's easy to make assumptions, to get carried away with tunnel vision, to miss the point entirely.

Years ago I trained as a fitness instructor. When it came to devising new exercises to music, my teacher had a favorite expression--"What's your rationale?" If we couldnít justify what every move was designed to achieve, it was out.

For marketers, not starting at the beginning isn't just about not having a plan, it's about not having any clear idea of your objectives. It's being seduced by whatever comes along and convinces you at the time. It's the equivalent of going shopping for a new bathroom, and deciding to buy three tubs because they're all on special--never mind that you don't need them, you have nowhere to put them, and you've now blown your budget.

A photographer was recently asking me for advice, and she began by telling me about her web site. No one could ever find it on the web. We took a look at it, and I pointed out to her that it hadn't been optimized. We went to Google and I demonstrated to her what came up for "photographers in Brighton" and other such phrases, and lo and behold her site never appeared in the results.

I probably could have sold her a search engine optimization service then and there. But at this point she hadn't articulated her objectives, and I hadn't asked her. I simply had assumed that since she was concerned about her web page not being found that she was talking about new customer acquisition. I was wrong.

Never Presume

When I dug a little deeper I discovered that she wasn't really looking for new customers at all. She had been in business for 15 years, she had reduced her working hours now and really enjoyed the extra time with her family. She had enough regular clients and found the majority of new customer inquiries to be dead ends. So why the worry about her invisible web site?

It turned out that she was using the site primarily as an online gallery of her work, to which she was able to refer clients when necessary. Most of her work came from client referrals, but in true word-of-mouth fashion, her web address was often misquoted along the way. Also confusing was the fact that her business name was different from her own name, and people weren't sure whether her URL was .com or

The visibility problem Tamara had led with was a symptom, not the problem itself. Nevertheless, we optimized her site a bit. I then worked with her to devise a client retention program which up until that point had been informal and inconsistent. An initial mailing to her client base invited them to subscribe to email updates. Around 70 percent of the list responded positively. Right away, with regular email correspondence, clients were going to find it easier to remember the URL, visit the site, and refer friends.

Having pinpointed Tamara's underlying objective, which was to continue to work fewer hours while doing the the kinds of assignments she enjoyed, we focused on how to increase the profitability of her existing clientele and keep the high-end referrals coming.

We sat down and worked through her portfolio of services, determining which were the most and least profitable, and which had the greatest potential for growth. At the same time she identified her target market more precisely and where her brand sat relative to the competition. This proved to be an eye-opener, enabling her to formulate precise, measurable objectives. She was able to eliminate many of the activities she had previously been spending time and money on, and concentrate on the relevant ones.

Of course, it would have been simple for me to have sold her that SEO package, and then moved on to the next target. But that wouldnít have answered her objectives, ultimately she wouldn't have been happy, and she probably wouldn't have recommended my services.

By getting her to articulate the underlying question, I was able to then help her answer it properly--and ended up with a satisfied client AND the opportunity for more work from her.

Only when you start at the beginning ("what's the objective? What's the question we're trying to answer?") can you expect to solve the problem and achieve the desired results.

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Robin Houghton advises small businesses and nonprofits on how to make the most of their marketing budgets (especially online) at Reach her at