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Fear of the unknown

Usually when we talk about “fear of the unknown,” we are referring to that gnawing, scary feeling inside when we don’t know what will happen. But there’s a slightly different fear of the unknown—one that all Internet marketers need to shake to get to the next level of effectiveness. It’s the fear that others will realize that you don’t know something.

Years ago, when I worked for IBM Research, I became known as an expert on electronic publishing, which is what we called electronic books before Adobe swept the market with the PDF file. I began to be invited to deliver private briefings to customers by their IBM sales teams. Those teams found that bringing an IBM Research expert to see their customers gave them access to people they might not normally meet. Back in those days, IBM dealt mainly with the technology folks in the computer centers and not much with the business types.
So, when I came to see their customer, access to these new faces was important to the sales team, and they were determined that I not blow it. One time, I was told that the IBM sales team had been trying to meet a particular customer executive for months without success, but that he would be attending my briefing, so I had to (simply had to) come across as a bona fide expert in my field. “So, when our customers ask you questions,” I was warned, “you better have good answers.” I wasn’t sure what they were planning to do to me if I was stumped, so I just smiled pleasantly and figured that whatever I had to say would have to be good enough.
Well, later that day, when I stood before the customer, I was indeed asked many questions about electronic publishing, and I did my best to answer them. But, wouldn’t you know it, I was asked a question outside of my field (OK, not just outside of my field, but one from two towns over across the tracks). I had no idea what the answer was. So I gave the customer my level-best answer, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know. I’ll research that and get you an answer as soon as I can.”
Well, the top dog from the IBM sales team was visibly displeased in the back of the room. No one could see his reaction but me, thankfully, but he shook his head back and forth several times, as if lamenting the transgression of a problem child. “When will these kids learn?” he seemed to be thinking. I knew that I’d hear about this when the briefing was over, so I steeled myself for a tongue-lashing.
After the last questions were answered, a few attendees lingered to ask me a few private questions—the last one being the very customer executive that the sales team was so concerned about. Top Dog waited behind him for his chance at me.
That customer executive asked a few questions and then said something to me that I could not have scripted any better, “You know, you gave us a lot of good information and you answered a lot of questions, but I have to say that when you answered ‘I don’t know’ to that one crazy question, it gave me confidence that you were telling the truth about everything else.” Then he thanked me and left.
Well, now it was Top Dog’s turn. After seeing how happy the customer exec was, he waited until we were alone and said to me, “That “I don’t know’ thing is absolutely brilliant! I have to start using that myself!” The fact that it took me a while to even understand what he was thinking should let you know why I was never a salesman.
But it did make me realize something very important—many of us are extremely reluctant to admit that we don’t know something, when in truth, we are unsure of ourselves at many points during each day. This reluctance is a serious fear of the unknown—a fear of people thinking we don’t know something.
The truth is that we really don’t know all that much when it comes to what our customers want on our Web sites, and we can either choose to admit that fact, and figure out what we are going to do about it, or we can continue to try to impress each either by claiming that we know it all. But we’re not impressing our customers this way.
Instead, we should remember that we don’t know what the best design is for that Web page. We don’t know what the right ad copy is. We don’t know what image to use. Or what words to use for our links. We won’t know until we try several (maybe a lot more than several) alternatives. We won’t know until we observe what our customers do when faced with these alternatives. Which one seemed to work the most? Can we improve even on that one? We need to remember to do it wrong quickly—and then fix it.
We can’t take this approach when we act like know-it-alls. We need to use that “I don’t know” thing.

Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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