When you ask any stakeholder what they’re objectives are, regardless if we’re talking about a web development or online marketing project, one of the first things they’ll invariably tell you is sell. Sure, they might word it differently but that’s about what it boils down to. Obviously, sales teams are expected to learn the ins and outs of the products they sell but should this in-depth level of product understanding extend beyond the sales department? You bet.

The first and most important person who should have a very firm grasp of the product is the owner, followed by whoever is tasked with communicating with creative agencies, marketing and customer support. We’ll get back to each of them some other time but for now, let’s see what knowing your product actually means and how to get your hands on all the relevant information.

The “What”

Knowing what your product is seems pretty self-explanatory, doesn’t it? And it is, until you add context to the mix. Let’s say, your company sells cupcakes and suppose you want to sell your cupcakes online. The first thing you’ll be asked is what does your business do and the answer they’re looking for isn’t sells cupcakes. In the context of literally hundreds of pastry shops, what is that one thing that makes your cupcakes to dies for?

Do you use 100% organic ingredients and decorate your cupcakes using incredibly intricate lace frosting? Then your business sells deliciously-vintage, 100% organic cupcakes, with one-of-a-kind edible lace decorations. It doesn’t have to sound fancy and you don’t have to word it like a marketing catchphrase but the answer to who you are as a business should immediately say what you’re offering, what’s different about it and, albeit indirectly, who it’s for.

In this case, you’ve already told the designer or marketer what sets you apart (100% organic/ one-of-a-kind edible lace decorations) from the scores of other cupcake sellers out there, you’ve given them a feel for your business’ personality (deliciously-vintage) and, even with just this scrap bit of information, they have an idea of who your product caters to (a mostly-female audience with above-average income who puts quality over quantity and doesn’t mind spending a little extra to pamper themselves), which brings us to the next point.

For “Whom”

The problem with “we want to sell cupcakes” – aside from being vague, impersonal and boring – is that it doesn’t define an audience, which in turn will make any branding attempt a living hell. Trying to sell to everyone, not unlike trying to be everywhere, requires investing massive amounts of resources into something that has very little odds of returning any value.

However, clearly defining the “what” will go a long way in helping your figure out for “whom”. Use a balanced mixture of your own experience with the product, past clients’ reviews, business experience, forums and social media to determine and build a detailed buyer personaUnderstanding your consumer means you know what they’re looking for, what incentives their purchases, what they’re into and even how they speak.

It might not seem that important at first, but knowing how to talk to your audience enables you to get your message across, not just in terms of what type of wording gets their attention but their level of product-literacy, if you will. Take the example of a camera retailer selling both entry-level and professional DSLRs online. It’s obvious that you will need a different approach for each of the two audience segments, namely non-technical descriptions and tutorial-oriented content which will allow the former to understand the products and select the ones that fit their needs on the one side, and highly-technical descriptions with media content that showcases the device’s performance at different apertures, environments, etc on the other. While you should adapt your content to address the needs of each audience segment, your brand’s voice must remain consistent throughout.

The “Why”

Now that we know what we’re doing and who is interested in what we’re offering, we have to figure out why anyone would buy anything from this particular brand. In other words – What’s in it for them? For the organic, lace-decorated cupcakes the value is given by the 100% organic product topped off by the unique decoration. So why would people buy them? Because they’re delicious, healthier than regular cupcakes and look absolutely stunning. And that’s what you have to reiterate in your product descriptions, marketing material, visuals, etc.

It gets a wee bit harder for retailers because they don’t manufacture the product, so in addition to showcasing the product’s value, one has to constantly reinforce the value of buying from that particular retailer. No, stumbling upon your store is not valuable for a potential customer, it’s a fortunate occurrence for you. Instead, figure out a way of adding value to your customer’s shopping experience by offering unique discounts, free gifts, a better interface, comparison features, etc. Our DSLR retailer could, for instance, rely on a feature consisting of a large, 360 degree view of the product, complete with zoom, bring to front, button highlights and anything else that allows the potential buyer to have a more hands-on experience with the product. Regardless of how you choose to present your business, always emphasize the benefits for the customer and from the customer’s perspective, not your own.

The “How”

Noticed a pattern yet? Most of your business has to do not with how you see it but with how others perceive it and interact with it. It follows that if you want to gather information about your business and products, you ought to look to the people who engage with and buy your stuff. This would have been a pretty tall order a few decades back but now we’ve got this fancy new thing thingamabob called “social media” to help us out. Contrary to what you may think or what some self-appointed social media guru might have told you, social media is not your personal marketing channel on which you can broadcast your promotions day in and day out to a crowd of eager consumers. If you ignore social media’s social component and use it mostly for self-promotion, you might as well go home right now and forget about it altogether. When people are annoyed with commercials, they change the channel. When a brand becomes irritating online, they’ll unfollow it and good luck getting any results with no audience to talk to.

Much like the “why” in doing business with one brand as opposed to another, following a businesses on social media is done voluntarily, so you have to make it worth their while. Yes, their while, not yours. Your content has to offer value for your audience first and you second because if all you do is talk about yourself, your brand, your products, your wonderful promotions, you’re doing nothing more than patting your own back. However, building a relationship with your customers allows you to ask, simply and honestly, ask for their opinions and feedback. It’s as easy as posting a question on your page, gather the info and react accordingly. Are you experimenting with a new flavor of frosting? Ask who’s willing to have a taste and tell you what they think. If you have a brick and mortar shop as well, ask them to stop by for a free sample. Such events don’t just help you connect the dots between your online and offline marketing efforts, they allow you to directly engage consumers and offer them the opportunity to pitch in and help you create a product they love.

Another great way of defining what makes your business valuable for potential customers is by finding overlapping businesses and understanding what they have to offer. Let’s make one thing clear, though. I am by no means suggesting you should adopt their website features, mimic their marketing campaigns or adapt their content to your own business. Instead, use your competitors to analyze, understand and define what makes you different and how you can do better. If your competitors have poor product images, hire a professional photographer and produce hi-resolution photos or, if you can’t afford one, learn to make the most of the resources on hand.

The Bottom Line

Once you’ve gone through the entire process and have a firm understanding of what you’re doing and how well it’s received by your audience, you can work on improvements. Achieving any measure of online success for you and your business involves taking a very active role in its development, on a regular basis. There is no such thing as “let’s just do this and things will fall into place”. Technology, online platforms, user behavior evolve over time and if you become complacent, you get left behind. It’s as simple as that.

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