Five Pre-Tests of Your Agency's Positioning

There are five early tests that can be applied to your positioning before you make a choice. I’ve covered the first extensively in an earlier post (the number of competitors and prospects), and I’ll cover the other four here. Next month we’ll look at the tests that you can apply after your positioning is up and running.

Second Test: Drop and Give Me 20

This harks back to a Marine sergeant telling a private to give him a quick 20 pushups on the spot, or maybe a high school football coach doling out punishment for a bad 40-yard time. The idea is that at a moment’s notice, without any preparation, you can give me 20.

In this case, what I want you to give me is 20 insights that emerge from your expertise as applied to a particular focus. Here are the two rules that govern the exercise, and they are both assumptions you need to make about me, your audience for these 20.

First, assume that I’m smart. It doesn’t matter if I am—just assume that I am. Second, assume that I know a fair bit about marketing.

As you read your list of 20 things to me, nearly off the top of your head, will I have some aha moments? Will I learn something?

Say you’re that marketing firm that works with industrial manufacturers, and for the moment assume that I am smart and that I know a fair bit about marketing. Will I learn some things about marketing to industrial manufacturers that have never occurred to me?

When first developing this list, I used to have separate items for “is it true” and “is your expertise demonstrable before the engagement,” but over time I came to see that both of these can be subsumed under this “Drop and Give Me 20” category. If you can’t articulate your expertise quickly and concisely and in a compelling manner, it’s just simply not true. And if it’s not true, you’re going to struggle to demonstrate that expertise to a prospect with an article or presentation or webinar or explanation in an elevator. It’s more likely that good old lack of discipline explains why your expertise has not been demonstrable, but that’s a separate issue.

So that’s what I mean by, “Drop and give me 20.” If you struggle to assemble those insights, then it’s quite possible that your positioning isn’t deep enough and you’ll be easily interchanged. That’s a quick, fairly analog way to start this testing process. Can you talk to the prospect on a phone call and make him feel like he’s seeing himself in the mirror.

Third Test: Can You Buy a List

This follows naturally from our previous discussion of needing 2,000–10,000 prospects, because that thinking implies that you are going to actually have a list of them or buy a list of them. The salient point, here, is whether you can buy the list. It doesn’t matter that you actually buy a list, although there are excellent methods of doing it very well and quite safely, contrary to almost everyone’s first thought when they hear that notion. In other words, if you are having a visceral reaction to the notion of buying a list, get that out of your head or you’re going to miss a critical point, which is this.

For your positioning to make sense, prospects (your future customers) will need to be losing sleep over something with which you can help. The characteristics of their problem should be so defined that these 2,000–10,000 prospective customers share many common traits. So much so that someone, somewhere, has recognized this and gathered them together (creating a list of these people in the process) in order to profit off their common needs. Here are some examples of what might unite these prospects. They might want to:

  • Attend the same conference.
  • Buy the same product or service.
  • Read the same blog(s).
  • Participate in the same discussion group(s).
  • Graduate with the same specific degree.
  • Seek the same job title.

There are literally hundreds of demographic or behavioral commonalities that might unite your prospects. If that common trait is significant, someone will have a list. It’s not that likely that they’ll be a list broker, but they’ll have a list. There are more than 100,000 associations in the U.S. alone. And trade unions, alumni associations, business alliances, and every modern form of the ancient guild that you can think of. Gale’s Encyclopedia of Associations is a marvel to peruse, especially when you think you already know about all those groups united around some common interest.

If you can’t identify a few associations that overlap your target, it might be time to go back to the drawing board. Not because you have to buy a list, but because the shared pain of these prospects you are describing isn’t so great that they want to learn from the experience of other people losing sleep over the same things.

Fourth Test: Size of Employee Universe

Nobody is an expert in marketing or accounting or the law or engineering or consulting. Each of these categories encompasses too much raw material to allow mastery. Each of these categories of expertise has something narrower within it: a change consultant, or management consultant, or investment consultant, etc., to illustrate just the consulting category.

In a well-positioned expert firm, only a few employees within a given category should be able to change jobs without a thorough, thoughtful orientation in your way of thinking and solving problems for clients. If the firm they are leaving is closely positioned to the firm they are joining, there should be no problem, but otherwise you’re going to hire someone who is more like a blank slate within a category and you’ll need to infuse your firm’s expertise into them to fulfill the promises that your firm is making to clients.

If your expertise is largely interchangeable, your potential employees will be, too. Few if any will bring truly unique insight with them. They’ll just be generally familiar with work in your category and they’ll be warm bodies filling seats.

Expert employees at expert firms can teach an in-house seminar at your firm the very first day they start and most people will have some “aha” moments. The number of prospective employees from the larger pool who could actually do that is limited, and it illustrates how unique your expertise will be, especially if we’re thinking of the people who will have any contact with your clients.

What kinds of firms will your prospective employees come from? What firms will they go to after they leave yours? The answer points to how important real expertise is in your work. It also illustrates how positioning is the foundation upon which you answer nearly every other question, from where we’ll find our clients, to what we’ll say to them when we do, and all the way to what kind of employees we’ll need to hire.

It also highlights how painful positioning decisions can be. There will be times when a courageous positioning decision will have implications for your current staffing, which is also why you don’t want to make it a democratic process in which the answers are shaped by employees with too great an incentive to shape the positioning solution in such a way that they can keep their jobs.

Fifth Test: Will Somebody Travel

This final early test of your positioning is a direct indication of the demand for your expertise. That person who travels could be you or it could be the client, but in either case geography is not an obstacle for the solution.

Either the client will spend their own time coming to you or they’ll pay you extra to come to them. This was true in the previous era when business was largely localized, but it’s even more true now after the world has been Googleized. The singular important difference in our world is that prospects outside your market can learn about you and then subsequently bridge that geographic gap by having either of the parties travel.

The only exception to this test is if you live and work in such a large marketplace that you never run out of local opportunity. You’re a [fill in the blank] expert in Manhattan, and the greater New York City marketplace has more need than you could possibly fill. Even then, though, while you may not need the work from outside your locale, being an expert with a larger geographic footprint will enhance your reputation and deliver a price premium, which is really the larger point. Clients want to work with experts who are in demand. Everywhere.

Here we’ve looked first at the early tests of your positioning: the things that you can apply at the outset, before you put all that time and money into building your business of expertise. Next month we’re going to examine four tests that will only be applicable later, after your expertise has been applied repeatedly in the marketplace. This is pre-testing, if you will; the next section is back-testing.

Excerpted and modified from The Business of Expertise: How Entrepreneurial Experts Convert Insight to Impact + Wealth, by David C. Baker, 2017

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