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Leave out the cheese when building a better mousetrap

As a professional marketer, I'm often asked to produce "a magic pill." You take one and your ads become instantly more effective, and they sell more. This convinces you to run them more - in this magazine, its sister consumer publication, Soundings, or wherever. The first two ads will make Trade Only's parent company rich and happy ... or at least help them pay for my thoughts.

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Unfortunately, there is no magic pill. No surprise, right?

So I'd like to make some points that I hope will help you look at your ads in a more involved and empowering way.

There is an adage attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: "You build a better mousetrap, and customers will beat a path to your door." Entrepreneurs have relied on this idea for decades.

The boating industry - and this publication's readership in particular - is filled with entrepreneurs. And entrepreneurs tend to start with "a great idea." They will then "build it, sell it, people will love it, and it will be so easy to sell."

But we also all know from articles in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Inc. and a slew of build-your-business pamphlets and seminars that the operative word today, as it was yesterday, is "marketing."

Indeed, that adage hasn't worked and certainly isn't working today - because Emerson's mousetrap lacked   marketing.

The proof: You can't find one of them at Walmart or The Home Depot.

Marketing means bringing a product to a market ... for selling. A market is people - people willing to trade or spend money to solve a problem, their problem, not your problem. Consider the following scenarios:

Example 1: My car gets wrecked. I need transportation. I need a new car. I'm in the market. Is it improved gas mileage I'm looking for, 4-wheel drive, eight-speaker Bose entertainment during my commute or just cheap wheels?

Example 2: My house is overrun with mice. Is the better mousetrap really the tool for the job? I've never seen one or heard how it works.

Advertising media, whether print, online, TV or billboard, assemble marketplaces for you to find problem-solver seekers. They amass big groups of prospects, often thousands of times larger than you could assemble yourself. And with special-interest media, most of these people are at least partially prequalified.

But that's not a magic bullet either. These are crowded, confusing, congested marketplaces with lots of other marketers making lots of noise. Yes, the prospects are there: people bring their personal issues and problems - because those haven't yet been solved - to places where they think they will find solutions.

Perhaps the problems are top-of-mind priorities (a wrecked car or a house overrun with mice). More likely, the "problems" are more buried within peoples' brains, waiting for that "aha!" moment of realization: "Gee, I could solve that thing that's been bothering me about my boat - or my desire to go boating."

Every medium, print or otherwise, claims to generate huge commitments in time from readers. An issue that takes more than an hour to read, a site that holds a visitor for five minutes. Huge, right?

Actually, the congestion and speed of movement through any of these marketplaces are what's huge. The human eye and the brain that absorb the information move extremely quickly ... unless you give them a reason to slow down and to stop for your pitch.

If your opening message says more about you and your cleverness than about solving the prospects' problems, you'll be lucky to survive their glance. And a glance is all you'll get, because you have less than a second and a half, two seconds at the most, to establish contact and rapport. More than a blink, less than a sneeze.

If your headline is a label, a model name, a boastful bit of self-congratulation, you just threw away half of your "stop sign" - maybe the entire stop sign. If your photo or image isn't involving and engaging, the rest of the stop sign is gone anyway. That critical two seconds or less requires getting out of your head and into your customers' brains. Simply looking like you understand and can solve their problem reaches to their heart as well. And, compared with brains, hearts are much closer to where we carry our wallets.

Consider the difference in two marketing approaches. One marketer tells me all about his products, about his "amazing breakthroughs," his "incredible production techniques," all the nuts and bolts, everything he or she was so clever in creating. I move on.

Another marketer talks to me, asks about my problem and selects the information that will resonate with me ... because I came to solve a problem. It is clear this person has a solution that empowers me to buy what he's selling. So I pay attention.

Magazine advertising is - or should be - marketing in print. Online is just the same. Or at least both should be. Often they're not. Too many ads are product-driven, not experience-driven or solution-oriented.

When you think about advertising, think about marketing and solving customer problems. Not yours, theirs. What can your product or service do that sounds like a fine solution for them?

Now, can you put this into a message made of an image and just a few high-impact words that tell a strong story, one that can be absorbed in two seconds or less?

Before your next ad goes out your door, put it to that test. And good luck.

Donald Brewster joined the marine industry in the 1960s, helped launch Sail magazine in 1970, and has run his own advertising agency since 1973. He can be contacted through his new Web site - www.brewsterstrategies.com

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.

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