All businesses would like to gain more control over how often their marketing campaigns are truly effective. But for many companies, marketing success is often a result of fortuitous accidents, as the following examples from three of my clients demonstrate.

Fortuitous accident #1: In the course of conducting customer satisfaction research, a company accidentally discovers that the vast majority of its customers use its product for a completely different purpose than originally intended. By slightly restructuring the product and refocusing its marketing message to feature this newly discovered use, the company adds millions in profits to its bottom line.

Fortuitous accident #2: A company hires an outside firm to review its ad copy, thinking that improving the copy would produce a significant jump in sales. But it turns out that the copy is actually quite good. The real reason its marketing isn't producing results is that it's getting tossed out by a gatekeeper, never getting into the hands of the intended prospects. By finding a new delivery method that will get the marketing piece past the mailroom and the gatekeeper, and directly into the hands of the intended prospects, sales soar.

Fortuitous accident #3: A software company discovers that its demo CDs are getting mangled by the machines that the post office uses to process mail. It put a simple message on the outer envelope: "Please do not bend or x-ray—magnetic media enclosed." This message not only prevented the CDs from being mutilated, but the implied value increased sales significantly.

What do all of these fortuitous accidents have in common?

These companies stumbled onto opportunity gaps—lucrative, but hidden, marketing opportunities that they and their competition were completely missing.

The fact is, there are dozens of opportunity gaps in any business. Some of them are product gaps—desirable features or functions that a product is missing. Some of them are marketing gaps—positioning, offers and marketing messages that are more potent than what you're currently using.

Have you ever wondered why a competitor whose product isn't as good as yours always seems to outsell you? It's because, either deliberately or by accident, it has discovered an opportunity gap that gives it a powerful competitive advantage.

You could easily make up this lost ground by finding your own opportunity gaps that would allow you to capture far greater market share. But the reason most businesses don't take advantage of these gaps is that they are rarely discovered intentionally. If you look at the examples above, these companies didn't even recognize that a gap existed before an ugly problem reared its head.

But if you really want to dominate your market, you must begin to look for these hidden opportunities before a problem or a competitor's superior offer forces you to make decisions reactively.

Trigger Events

Every new idea is stimulated by a trigger event. Something happens that causes you to consider a situation in a new and different light. In the three examples above, the trigger events all occurred accidentally. And this is how most trigger events are initially recognized.

For example, when the software company's demo CDs were getting mangled by mail processing machinery, it created a trigger event that forced the software company to come up with a solution. However, the solution was intended to solve an operational problem, not to improve marketing. It was a completely unexpected side effect that the message "Please do not bend or x-ray—magnetic media enclosed" actually increased the perceived value of the package and prompted more people to open it, resulting in increased sales.

While these types of events that accidentally uncover opportunity gaps can be quite lucrative, the problem is that you never know when an accidental opportunity will present itself—or whether it ever will. If you stand around waiting in the rain for a bolt of marketing lightning to strike, you may just end up with a wet fuse that fizzles out.

So the trick is to be able to discover these lucrative opportunity gaps on demand, and before your competition has any hint that they even exist.

Rolling Your Own

While almost all trigger events occur by accident, the good news is that you can cause them to occur at any time, and as often as you need to. All it requires is a shift in attitude and a simple process that allows you to intentionally create your own trigger events.

The attitude shift is small, but it's often the most difficult aspect. Instead of passively waiting for market conditions, problems or opportunities to present themselves, you have to shift to a proactive method of seeking out these situations before they actually occur. As simple as this may sound, most companies are so conditioned to being reactive rather than proactive that it takes dedication to make this shift.

But once you've committed to making the shift, the process of creating your own trigger events is relatively simple and can potentially deliver substantial rewards. The process employs a long list of trigger questions that starts with these:

Trigger Question 1: What is the easiest opportunity available to your business?

Working either by yourself or with a team of your staff members, list as many potential answers to this question as possible. Then, go through your list and rate each idea, keeping only the top one or two.

Why work with something so obvious? Because the obvious is often the component that is most ignored. For example, I was recently contacted by the CEO of a training company. Beginning with the obvious, I asked him what lead generation methods they currently use and which work best.

"We've tried a lot of different methods, but so far nothing works better than cold calling. With cold calling alone, I can keep all the business we can handle coming in," he said.

"So what's the problem? Do you hate cold calling?" I asked, thinking I had hit the root of the problem since so many people absolutely dread the idea of cold calling.

"Not at all. In fact, I actually enjoy it. Probably because it's been so successful for our business," the client replied.

So where was the opportunity gap in this situation? It turned out that the CEO was in a time bind. He couldn't find enough hours in the day both to do as much cold calling as he wanted and to deliver the company's training programs.

My next question drilled down to another layer of obviousness. "What would happen if you quit delivering training programs and just relied on your staff to do that? Would that be a more effective use of your time?" I asked.

As is often the case, his answer was, "Of course! Why didn't I think of that?"

Don't overlook the obvious. Often, all it takes to substantially increase your sales is to dedicate more resources to what already works best for your business.

Trigger Question 2: What does the future hold?

"What could your competition do in the near future that would leave you scrambling to catch up?" This question forces clients to think beyond their typical marketing rut and consider a broader range of marketing opportunities. By helping them think about what the competition might be up to, there's a natural inclination to think bigger and differently than if you're only considering your own business.

This question frequently reveals powerful opportunity gaps. In some cases, it has lead to the restructuring of products or the creation of completely new product lines that enabled clients to make significant sales they wouldn't have seen without that simple question.

Trigger Question 3: What do companies outside our industry do that's successful?

Borrowing successful marketing strategies and techniques from companies outside your industry is an excellent way to increase your chances of creating a breakthrough for your business. Why? Because almost all industries suffer from "marketing tunnel vision." In any industry, each company's marketing looks and feels nearly identical to its competitions'.

Nowhere is this worse than in the auto industry. Turn the sound off and look at any television commercial for new cars. Without the announcer telling you what brand it is, you can barely tell one car from another. So what does that force car dealers to do to sell their inventory? They must resort to constant discounting, because their cars don't seem any better or any worse than everything else that's on the market.

I know a dentist who used this type of trigger question to transform his practice from barely paying the bills to having to turn away patients. He realized that one of the biggest complaints patients had was that they had to take time off work to go to the dentist, or to take their kids to the dentist.

So he looked outside his industry and noticed that more and more businesses were staying open later at night to gain business from people who were busy working all day. Supermarkets stayed open later, as did many malls, convenience stores, record stores, restaurants and so on.

Following the lead of all these other businesses, he decided to become "The Night Time Dentist," with office hours from 4:00 pm to midnight, five nights per week. He sent fliers to businesses in his area with employees who work the day shift, as well as to the homes in his surrounding area.

Within weeks, his once-thin appointment book was filled to capacity. And it's continued that way for many years.

One More Thought

We've all heard the old adage, "You can't expect to get different results if you keep doing the same things you've always done."

I'd amend that a bit to this: "All you have to do to get different results is ask better questions."

As you can see, asking the right trigger questions is an easy, reliable way to pack a lot more selling power into all your marketing efforts.

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Bob Serling is the founder of Idea Quotient. Contact him at