I originally published Accidental Marketing on ClickZ September 10th, 2001. How much in our world has changed in the last decade? Has your organization changed to make sure they aren’t doing any accidental marketing? What are the obstacles holding organizational change back?

Here is the article as it appeared when I first wrote it:


No, no, that’s not the title of Seth Godin’s next book. “Accidental marketing” refers to a pervasive Web-based trend that is focused on the “how” of marketing but not on the “what” or the “why.” It’s frightening to watch people get all excited about new technology that allows them to perform miracles and then track the results of their miracles with thousands of metrics — when those miracles have little or nothing to do with actually converting traffic or closing a sale. I’m no Luddite, but I often don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read about these brilliant new marketing tools.

So what’s wrong with the greatest and latest marketing tools? Nothing at all is wrong with them per se. However, I’d like you to picture the following scenario. You and I decide to get into the entertainment business, perhaps making movies, since I hear you can make big money from it. We find some investors, buy some great real estate for the studio, buy all the latest equipment, negotiate awesome distribution deals, contract with some high-priced talent (how about Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts — let’s not spare a dime), then spend like mad on advertising for a movie about… how wall paint dries differently in different climates.

Can you imagine how unsuccessful we would be? It’s not the tools of the trade (the “how”) that would cause us to fail but rather the “what” and the “why.” The two questions that we failed to ask are, “What will people perceive as valuable enough to pay for?” and, “Why can we provide it better than the competition?”

It’s obvious, at least to most of us, that even if we buy the same basketball shoes as Michael Jordan, that alone won’t give us his abilities. Great marketers, like great athletes, aren’t born that way; they are trained to develop their natural abilities and hone their skills. Persuading people to take action is both an art and a science requiring lots of intelligent planning by professionals trained in the fundamentals of marketing and in exactly how marketing needs to be done to support sales.

Here’s the definition of marketing according to the American Marketing Association: Marketing is the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of ideas, goods, and services to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organizational objectives. Did you notice how broad that definition is? Is that what you think of when you think of marketing? In most companies, the marketing department is dominated by either creative or analytical personalities. Instead of looking at the marketing process as a holistic strategy concerned with the objectives of the larger business, the process becomes tactical and emphasizes analyzing or separates it into parts. It’s this sort of myopia that is the leading cause of accidental marketing, which is getting customers in ways that have nothing to do with, or even in spite of, your marketing program.

By now you may be anxiously thinking, “How can I tell if my business is practicing accidental marketing?” As you continue to read, be brutally honest with yourself about your responses to the following questions:

  • What came first, the idea for your product or service, or the understanding that there was a market need that needed fulfilling? If you answered the idea came first, that’s a big red flag.
  • Who are your customers?
  • What do they really need?
  • What benefits (not features) of your product or service satisfy the real needs of your customers?
  • What about your product or service is unique, and how can you answer the customer’s question, “Why should I buy from you?”
  • What other options does a customer have to buying your product or service (including doing nothing at all)? Are they better options, or worse?
  • How does a customer make a decision to buy products or services like yours?
  • What does your customer need to know before he or she will buy from you?
  • How does your customer perceive not only your product but also your company versus your competition?
  • What is the process a customer goes through before buying your products or services?
  • What is the value of your product or service to the client? (This is not the price.)
  • What would a customer say if a colleague asked him or her to recommend your product or service?

If you and your marketing department don’t have detailed answers to all of the above questions easily rolling off your tongues, then you are most likely engaged in accidental marketing.

Also, if you have one or more of these symptoms, you are engaged in accidental marketing:

  • More effort is spent discussing how things look than what they convey.
  • More effort is spent tracking metrics than understanding what they really show of customer perception and customer behavior.
  • More effort is spent explaining what you offer than listening to what your customers want.
  • More effort is spent attracting prospective customers than figuring out how to convert them to customers.
  • More effort is spent attracting new customers than keeping existing ones.
  • More effort is spent looking for and implementing the latest and greatest technical gimmick than adapting time-tested persuasion principles that have been proven to work.
  • Marketing doesn’t talk to sales or doesn’t respect its input.

Whether “accidental marketing” becomes a buzzword any time soon really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that those who persist in practicing it won’t be around long — and those who don’t won’t miss those who do.