In Marketing, Fish Where the Fish Are


It was a sunny April morning in, I think, 1996 (old age and faulty memory make details like this a bit fuzzy, but let’s just say it was a long time ago). I sat in the lobby of the university library, having been suddenly hit with the realization that, just maybe, I had considered my options poorly when I decided to become an art major. I knew that summer break was quickly approaching, and I thought I’d better start exploring some alternative career ideas.

That morning, I opened the newspaper (remember those?) and locked my eyes on an ad that read, “Sales professionals needed! No experience necessary. College students welcome to apply. Fast track to management within 6 months.”

The hastily constructed equation in my head went something like, “sales = lots of money = no more Ramen for breakfast.” And thus, a salesman was born.

As it turned out, the gig involved going door to door selling, of all things, plush ducks.

PlushDuckUndaunted (read: young and stupid), I hit up every house in a seven-block area. About half the time, no one answered. The other half involved a cacophony of door-slamming, icy stares, and (in a few particularly memorable cases) dropping of the dreaded F-bomb.

The thing was, I was only interested in making sales. My sales manager,  a guy who resembled a walrus with a comb-over, assured me that anyone in his right mind would die for the chance to own one of these things. If I couldn’t sell them, I must be truly sub-human.

What I wasn’t doing, though, was thinking like a customer. Most of the people who bothered to answer their doors were busy taking care of small children, trying to catch some sleep after working third-shift jobs, or simply trying to relax. They weren’t the least bit interested in plush ducks.

After a couple of miserable days of this, I circled the wagons with a couple of salespeople who had at least a couple weeks of experience (in that job, these people were known as “veterans”). They suggested that instead of focusing on residential areas, I should try small businesses.

I thought the idea odd — why would a small business owner waste her time with a plush duck salesman? I started to head back to the residential section of town, when it hit me:

People who run small businesses usually aren’t spending enough time with their kids.

Adults don’t want plush ducks (well, not the types of adults I prefer to associate with). But young children love stuffed animals. And adults who want to bring smiles to their children’s faces… well, you see where I’m going with this.

As it turned out, my logic was spot on. Small business owners, guilt-ridden from being married to their businesses, loved the idea of bringing home a gift that would make their children happy. Instead of turning me away, they bought the silly things and even asked when I would be back for more.

How about the happy hour crowd?

I decided to test the idea a bit further. I loaded up a cardboard box with ducks and walked into a full bar at about 5:30 PM. About 10 minutes later, I walked out with an empty box and a pocket full of cash. Why? The bar was full of people who knew that they should be home with their kids and felt pretty badly about it. Arming them with soft, fuzzy gifts for their children made them not feel quite so awful.

The story doesn’t end with me receiving a “salesman of the year” award. In fact, I never even reached “veteran” status. It didn’t take long for me to realize that hawking plush ducks wasn’t going to make a fulfilling career.

Besides, while people have lots of needs, I wasn’t comfortable with playing on people’s guilt. I’ll leave that to the floral and greeting card industries.

Fortunately, though, the experience taught me a few important lessons about marketing.

  • Don’t assume you know who your target buyer is. People have all kinds of reasons for buying, especially when it comes to products they didn’t even know they wanted.
  • Put yourself in your prospect’s shoes. If you wouldn’t respond to a particular sales approach, why would your prospects respond?
  • Fish where the fish are. If you stick to lead lists, geographic areas, and demographics you are comfortable with, you might be leaving giant piles of money on the table.

And to think I’ve spent almost 20 years trying to figure out how to incorporate my “plush duck” experience into a story. I can finally cross that one off my list. *bows*


Image credit: laihiu (modified)

Categories : Marketing Strategy

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