Why Prospects Aren’t Looking for You: The Myth of the Self-Directed Buyer

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As much as I love companies like Hubspot who provide free webinars and ebooks on a myriad of web marketing topics, I also recognize that, behind every blog post and free marketing piece they give away, they also have an agenda—to convince business owners that “outbound marketing” is old-school and ineffective, and that “inbound marketing” is where it’s at. This clever if somewhat misleading video depicts their take on the differences between the two.

Reminiscent of Apple’s “Get a Mac” commercials, cool hipster “Inbound Marketing” sits at a table, lackadaisically reading his magazine while, seated next to him, nerdy and slightly older salesman-type “Outbound Marketing” brags how he’s “gonna set some appointments and close some deals.” As Outbound struggles making call after call with no success, Inbound sits confidently until his phone rings—then promptly closes a deal with someone who “found him on Google.”

Yet, in a recently-published ebook, Top 5 Mobile Marketing Case Studies and How-tos, this same Hubspot highlights a pizza restaurant chain that used SMS, a contest, and *gasp* direct mail to entice customers to register for their loyalty program. Yes, you heard right—direct mail. OMG, wouldn’t that be considered “outbound” marketing and therefore “old school”?

An equally realistic version of Hubspot’s video could show Outbound successfully making calls and setting appointments, while Inbound spends massive amounts of time trying to learn Google AdWords, agonizing over keyword selection (then paying too much for them), emailing Google’s help desk to find out why they’re rejecting his URL (only to receive cryptic replies back in response), then watching as his budget is blown and his ads disappear due to poor click-through rates. (Oh, did I forget to mention click fraud?)

Both scenarios are plausible—depending on your customer. Inbound marketing works well with the self-directed buyer. But if the customers you’re targeting are not self-directed, inbound marketing is a complete flop. Here’s why.

The self-directed buyer is one who knows he has a particular need, he can describe that need in terms of a solution, he knows where to find someone who can solve it, and he is motivated to find that someone. Let’s take a look at each of those.

Knows He has a Need

Recently, my wife discovered water leaking from a pipe that runs along a wall of our basement—not profusely, but enough to be a problem. The water had already flowed across a section of the basement and had gotten some things wet. Do you think I knew I had a problem? You bet I did.

Can Describe it in Terms of a Solution

Along with knowing I had a problem, I also knew that a plumber was the solution. But what if that weren’t the case? A few months ago, my wife noticed a burning smell—like an iron had been left on. The second time it happened, she called me upstairs and I could smell it, too. So we knew there was a problem, but who should we call?

Being the sharper tool in our cozy little shed, my wife suggested the fire department. Sure enough, three fire trucks and a dozen concerned neighbors later, we were able to breathe easier knowing the problem had been resolved.

Knows where to Find Someone Who Can Solve It

In both my examples, I knew where to find the people who could solve my problem. But what about those that don’t? I had a prospect once tell me that they knew they needed a website; they just didn’t know were to find someone like me. Since it wasn’t “mission critical,” they simply did nothing—until I contacted them.

Is Motivated to Find that Someone

Here is the final, key ingredient. One question I didn’t include in my list of Seven Questions You Aren’t Asking that Will Cost You the Sale was: “Is this problem a back-burner issue or something you need solved immediately?” This is a good question to ask. Here’s why.

Many people have problems. They know they have problems. They know where to get help for their problems. They simply aren’t motivated to do anything about it. (I suppose dental work falls into this category.)

When people know they have a need, can describe it in terms of a solution, know where to find someone who can solve it, and are motivated to find someone, they will typically go to one of three places: a search engine, the Yellow Pages, or a friend or colleague for a referral. The self-directed buyer is also the person who wants to be in control of the sales process. They will research purchasing decisions online, use social media to collect information and opinions about prospective vendors, products and services, and will purchase only after they’re ready to make a decision.

Now ask yourself this: does this self-directed buyer sound like the majority of the people who would be my potential clients?

Does it describe some of them? Of course. There will always be a percentage of those who seek us out. But are there enough self-directed buyers looking for the services you provide? And, if so, how likely are they to find you amongst the thousands, nay, millions of others offering the exact same service as you?

Don’t misunderstand me. Referral clients are wonderful to work with, because they are ready to buy and are usually not considering anyone else. If you generate a sufficient income from people who seek you out, then you’re doing something right. When my partners and I first started our business, we found that word-of-mouth generated more than enough work for a part-time venture. But we knew that, if we wanted to take this show on the road, relying solely on word-of-mouth would not support three people and their families. And that’s exactly what I found when I took the business full-time.

One of the larger and more successful web companies I know of has a job opening posted on their website—but not for the typical designer, programmer, or SEO guru. It’s for a sales position. Anyone without the following qualifications need not apply:

  • Must have earned performance based six figure income in this industry
  • Hunter-style business generator

Sounds just a little old school for a forward-thinking interactive web agency offering extensive search marketing solutions to its clients, don’t you think? You can bet they didn’t get to where they are by relying solely on “inbound marketing” and word-of-mouth. And neither should you.

So if you’ve reached the same conclusion, if you find that there are simply not enough people seeking you out or referring you, and your dilemma is, “What’s a poor freelancer to do?” then you may want to consider some form of old school outbound marketing. Stay tuned for next week’s article, where I’ll give some practical suggestions to put you on the right path to doing exactly that.

John TabitaJohn Tabita
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Former owner and partner of web firm Jenesis Technologies, John is currently Director of Digital Strategy at Haines Local Search, a company providing local search marketing solutions to SMBs, including print and Internet Yellow Pages, web design, and local SEO. When not working or spending time with his family, John offers great sales and marketing advice on his blog, Small Business Marketing Sucks. When not working or spending time with his family, John offers great sales and marketing advice on his blog, Small Business Marketing Sucks.

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