Tom Webster, writing and speaking

The Tyranny Of Averages

Added on by Tom Webster.

The other day, on Chris Brogan's Kitchen Table Talks series on The Pulse Network, he posed a question to his co-host Joe Sorge: what comes first, product, or audience? Being a curmudgeonly sort, I offered up that it was neither one: it is the Problem that comes first. All products have to address a problem - maybe it's a problem people know they have, in which case the audience is the driver. Maybe it's a problem they don't (yet) know they have, which necessarily leads with the product. But in all cases, the problem trumps all. No problem = non-starter. When you identify an audience in search of a product, one suite of options opens up to you. You connect with that audience to hone your product to perfection. You put up your most brightly-colored shingle to attract attention to your product. You iterate your product to anticipate the future needs of that audience. Above all, you solve the problem.

When you have a product in search of an audience, however, your options change (note, I did not say become more limited.) You might use content marketing to attract people who are looking for answers about the problem you address (and for advice on that score, let me highly recommend Content Rules, by C.C. Chapman and Ann Handley. No, this is not an affiliate link.) You might also spend your marketing energies towards increasing awareness of the problem, and not necessarily the product, which is the secret to the success of some of the pharmaceutical industry's most lucrative blockbuster drugs for maladies ranging from dry eyes to heartburn to "restless leg syndrome."

Once you start marketing a product in search of an audience, the numbers can become a little oppressive. You may discover, through either your own database marketing, or from some secondary research source, that only 1 in, say, 1,000 persons might be viable candidates for your product. To most people, this means that if you stood in a room with 999 other people, you'd be the only person interested. This, my friends, is the tyranny of averages.

When you come across data that suggests your product or service has a small potential market, it can be a little daunting to imagine walking into that room of 1,000 people, and finding the one person who might be interested. Fortunately for you, this is the wrong way to think about the puzzle. The tyranny of averages is such that small numbers can be deceiving: .1% does not mean one person in a room of one thousand, unless your product has no distinguishing features and in fact only appeals at random. No, .1% really means that somewhere out there are 100 rooms of 10. In 98 of those rooms, you got nothing. In two of them, however, almost everyone is interested. The key is to find those rooms.

Content marketers suggest that writing great content will "pull" the people from those rooms to you, and this is demonstrably true - as long as your content is about the problem, and not the product. It isn't the only way, however, and this is where research can come in to play. Chances are, the people in those two rooms have more in common than just the problem you are addressing. In fact, there is likely an entire constellation of distinguishing characteristics - demographic, psychgraphic and otherwise - that might loosely bind these people together. The trick is to figure out those other things - the things that sorted them into those rooms in the first place - and tap into those. "Pull" marketing is more efficient than "push" when you don't know those things, but when you do - there's nothing wrong with a little push. Push still works. On 98 of those 100 rooms, your push will impotently glance off the surface of the door (which is why you aren't buying Super Bowl spots). On two of them, however, you'll do a little better.

The point is that there is no such thing, really, as one in a hundred. One in a hundred is random. The problem that your product addresses is likely not randomly distributed - you just need to find where those distributions are "lumpy." In a hundred fishing holes, you'll probably discover that 98 of them are dry, while one or two are very well-stocked ponds indeed. Find out what else holds those ponds together, what those fish have in common, and your fishing will be more productive.

Always remember, though, start with the problem.