Have you ever seen little kids playing organized youth soccer? Without fail, they swarm like bees to wherever the ball is--sideline to sideline, end to end. Then the ball gets kicked or squirts out and the swarm buzzes in a new direction.

The kids haven't learned to play their positions yet, or don't want to. They're little kids, they want to be where the action is, they want to make a play. The temptation to chase the ball is too great.

I've seen companies market this way--and not just young companies who don't know any better. Companies that aren't sure of their position in the market, or are constantly changing it, or believe their position is everywhere.

Companies desperate to make a play. Companies that believe opportunism is the best strategy.

They see a potential market (the ball), and rush over to capture it (score a sale). More often than not, they spend most of their energy buzzing from market to market, occasionally landing a sale, but never staking out and defending a position that will help them win over long term.

The analogy to soccer isn't perfect, but you get the idea.

I've seen this "soccer marketing syndrome" most often in companies offering products across multiple industries. When I work with a client, one of my first questions is what is their target market. I get nervous if they proudly say, "Every market!"

"Every sales person needs one!" they shout.

"You can manage any-sized network with it!" they boast.

"So who do you market to?" I ask.

"Everyone!" is the answer.

In that case, open the vault. Hire experts in every industry. Add additional product features for each type of customer. Can't do it?

The alternative is to play your position.

Determine Your Market Position

I've been working with one client who until recently had been marketing all over the map. Success had come in drips and drabs. It wasn't enough.

The first order of business was to determine our best-bet market position. By this I mean deciding where our value proposition was most compelling and we could achieve the most success, while taking into account competitors, willingness to pay, size of market, etc.

We took a closer look at current customers in each of the markets we'd sold into.

What problem were we solving for customers? Which customers seem most excited about our solution? We zeroed in on one market segment where customers talked about the severity of the problem they faced, the sense of urgency they had about it, and their willingness to pay to solve it.

We also gathered feedback on several new product features that would be extremely useful to this customer segment.

Then we made an assumption: We already knew of several companies in this market segment that were facing a problem and trying to solve it, therefore there must be other companies like them in the same boat.

What About Market Research?

Wait a minute! Where is the market research? Where are the focus groups? Well, we're talking about a small company with a skinny budget. A few cost-effective customer visits provided the kind of valuable intelligence you don't find in analyst reports predicting market growth. These visits also helped increase customer intimacy and sustain relationships.

Try getting that benefit from a focus group.

Savoring the Sweet Spot

Now, instead of being everything to everybody and delivering bland, generic marketing messages, we crafted a hard-hitting value proposition for a specific target market.

We improved the product. We found other companies with similar profiles to our current customers, and went after them in a concerted, focused marketing effort.

Suddenly we owned a clear market position and had found a sweet spot. Leads were easier to get, and easier to convert to sales. Productivity increased. Revenues grew.

The Law of Sacrifice

But what about all those other markets we could sell into? They're still there, of course, and we may get to them tomorrow (because now it looks like we'll be around tomorrow).

In their well-known book, "The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing," authors Al Ries and Jack Trout talk about the Law of Sacrifice. It's one of my favorite laws and it says that in order to gain something you have to give up something, such as a market or product line.

The authors write that the world of business is populated by big, diversified generalists and small, focused specialists. They claim the generalist, not the specialist, is weak.

Want an example? Consider bankrupt K-Mart, a generalist discount department store vs. The Gap, which is successfully operating three specialty brands: Old Navy, Banana Republic and The Gap.

Back to Soccer

The truth is, when you learn to play your position and stop chasing the ball all over the field, you're not going to be a part of every play. But you'll be better prepared and more focused, so that the plays you do make will have a much greater impact on the final score.

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