Every company aims to maximize profit. Yet, in the frenzy of everyday work, it is not uncommon for "urgent" issues to supplant "important" ones, thereby shifting the focus of marketing professionals.

The most important contribution that marketers make to the company's success is consciously choosing a strategy for optimizing sales and marketing resources—and then sticking to it.

Selecting the 'Right' Target Market

Picking the right target market by selecting the most profitable group of customers is the critical first step in developing an effective marketing strategy. Doing so enables marketers to concentrate their firepower and limited resources on those prospects that will yield the greatest profit.

When identifying the most profitable market segment, look for the group of customers that...

  1. Derives the most value from your products and services and will therefore pay top dollar for them

  2. Is large enough to generate the desired revenue

  3. Is the least expensive to serve

A good example of targeting profitable customers is Jayne, a speech pathologist, who used to work with hospital patients and university students who needed speech therapy.

Through conversations with contacts in the business world, Jayne found a much more lucrative market niche: foreign business executives who needed help with accent reduction to improve their speech and presentation skills. These executives were willing to pay top dollar for her services because outstanding communications skills were key to their success.

The foreign business executives were also more cost-effective to serve. Jayne created a standard—and effective—program for accent reduction, which she easily adapted for each new client.

The irony was that once Jayne identified this more profitable market, it became much easier to generate new business. The foreign business executives had natural and tightly knit networks through their expatriate communities and often referred Jayne to their friends and colleagues. Word of Jayne's services spread quickly, generating more business from high paying clients—and, therefore, higher profits for Jayne.

Dissecting the Profitability Equation

As demonstrated by Jayne's example, the best market segments are those that that optimize the "profitability equation": Profits = (Price x Quantity) – Expenses. Marketers must examine and weigh the best combination of these three variables. It helps to start by analyzing the makeup of each variable and how the variables affect one another:

  • Price: As illustrated in Jayne's example, different customers derive different value from the same product and will pay different prices for it. Therefore, maximizing price requires knowing who derives the greatest value from your products or services. To determine the most desirable market segments, ask: What alternatives do prospective clients have? What is the availability and quality of substitute products? What are the prices of these competing products and services? How do your products and services better meet the needs of your customers? If you can articulate a stronger value proposition, you can charge higher prices.

  • Quantity: There is a direct relationship between price and quantity. If you can charge higher prices, you don't need to sell as much volume to achieve the same profit. Jayne was able to charge higher prices to a much more concentrated group of clients.

  • Expense: One way to look at expenses is in terms of actual dollars spent to acquire and serve customers. Another important factor is the actual amount of time spent on each customer. Customers require different levels of attention, and some are much more expensive to serve than others. If you can determine which market segments are easiest to acquire and serve, you have the flexibility to discount prices or sell less and still achieve your profitability goals. When determining which market segments to target, don't neglect to ask: Do certain customers require ancillary services for which the company may not be able to charge? What are your selling expenses? Are certain market segments harder to reach? Do particular customers require custom product development?

Applying the Profitability Equation to Select Your Target Market

Much of the information you need to evaluate these three variables lies within your current customer database. By starting with the current customer base as a guide, marketers can look at a whole market to...

  1. Find groupings and identify segments. Some natural groupings will automatically pop up, such as customers by geography, industry, specific purchases, etc. Ultimately, look for customers in a segment that share similar characteristics.

  2. Assess the relative benefits of serving each segment. How large is each market segment? What are their alternatives? What will they pay? What will it cost to reach them? How long will they take to make a buying decision? How much effort will it take to turn them into satisfied reference accounts?

  3. Identify potential threats, such as competing solutions, that might cut into volume or require additional expenses to thwart.

  4. Apply the "profit maximizing" formula and do the math. Review price points, calculate the volume of customers at each price point, and incorporate associated expense information into each segment.

When you are armed with this information, creating an effective marketing strategy is much easier. Once you apply the profit maximizing formula, it's easy to select the right target market, focus your marketing dollars, and make the most of your resources.

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Barbara Bix is managing principal of BB Marketing Plus, where she helps companies enhance their brands by capturing and enhancing the customer experience.