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Differentiate or die! It’s the digital marketing curse…

While I am usually preaching differentiation to large businesses, I have been working with a lot of small businesses lately in my workshops and online courses. Seems like 2012 is the year that a bunch of small businesses decided to get serious about digital. And some of them aren’t always happy about my advice, because their differentiation has always been about their location. If you own a retail store or a local service business, your marketing has probably been lame, but you’ve never had to pay for that before. With digital marketing, you must differentiate or die. Let me explain.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, one of the students in my class came to me not understanding this concept. He has had a successful store that sells eyeglasses and other vision aids. And he wants to sell online. Great idea, except what does he have to offer?

When I asked him this question, he quickly rattled off his time-worn pitch. “We have great selection, great service, and low prices.” Well, OK. So, I asked him a few more questions:

  • Do you have the best selection of any online provider? No, not even close.
  • What service exactly do you provide for someone buying online. Gee, nothing, really.
  • Do you have low prices compared to other online vendors. No, they are lower.

Problems for our heroes.

To compete on the Internet, you need to have something special. That hoary marketing pitch (selection, service, prices) worked just fine when you were competing against a couple of places a few miles from you. I bet you could beat them in all of those areas if you knew what you were doing.

But you can’t compete on price with mail-order contact lens shops. Or on selection either. And who is doing any service?

What should they do instead? They must find a way to differentiate, which usually involves specializing. So, I started asking questions about what they do that no one else does. Something they are really good at. And they told me that they have two very interesting areas that they do very well:

  • Eyeglasses for the mentally challenged. Many people that need eyeglasses can’t handle them. They lose them, break them, refuse to wear them, and otherwise lose the value of the glasses. This shop knows what kinds of glasses can work very well for this population and they know how to explain what kinds of glasses work for what kinds of people. What they haven’t figured out is whether they can do this for people that don’t come into the store, because it is so individualized. But it is a least a start.
  • Vision aids for athletes. They’ve noticed that in recent years more and more athletes come in with particular vision correction needs and they know which needs (and which sports) seem to correlate to which eyewear.  They think this one could be a bit easier to do online because it isn’t as personalized.

Now, this company is still a long way from being a digital marketing powerhouse. It is not simple for them to sell online. Frames are one thing, but contact lenses and lenses require explanations for customers for getting exact measurements that aren’t always on the prescription. And they have to ship things and manage returns and…it isn’t a breeze.

But expecting to sell whatever they have in the store with nothing but a catalog is even more unrealistic. By thinking through the first steps of differentiation, at least they have a fighting chance. What differentiation do you need for your business?

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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