challengeMarketers like to ask: How do I increase my sales? How do I get more leads? How do I drive more traffic to my site? How do I achieve better search engine rankings? How do I keep customers from abandoning their shopping carts? How do I use the data I get from my analytics software? How do I move to the next level?

These are important questions. Over the last decade we’ve challenged hundreds of clients to reframe their questions. For instance, instead of asking, “How do I increase my sales?” marketers should address, “We need to reach more people.” Jeffrey, my brother and partner, and I put this list together to help you consider those in this two-part column.

There Is a Bigger Question: What Makes People Buy?

Focus on this question and everything else falls into place. Understanding “What makes people buy?” requires more than a simple change in tactics; it requires a significant change in perspective.

Your perspective dictates your strategy.

Without the correct strategy, you can win all the battles and still lose the war.

Without the correct strategy, you can get more leads, drive more traffic, rank high in the search engines and still fail to increase sales.

This isn’t theoretical. We see it happen all the time.

Tactics: The Unspoken Assumptions

When you tackle site optimization, design, or redesign, you begin with a set of assumptions. Usually, your assumptions reflect a granular, detail-oriented view of the problem as the business sees it.

This leads you to imagine the solution lies in the application of “best practices” — a series of tactics. But Sun Tzu explains that tactics, applied without effective strategy, are “the noise before defeat.”

To answer the question “Why do customers buy?” you must approach the problem as the customer sees it. Until you understand the customer’s perspective, you can’t talk tactics. For now, put those tools back in the box.

When you ask, “Why do customers buy?” your view of your situation zooms out. You see the larger picture that will help you systematically connect your tactics.

You must fully understand the answers to the buying question before you can begin choosing the system’s components. We’re not talking about your system for selling. You already understand that system. We’re talking about the customer’s system for buying.

In review:

  1. Begin with a new set of assumptions: The problem is systemic, not granular.
  2. Embrace a new perspective: See what customers see. Understand the questions customers ask as they try to solve their goals.
  3. Ask a bigger question: Why do customers buy?
  4. Develop a new strategy that reflects this perspective. How can I answer questions the customers ask and help them buy?
  5. Remember, it’s too early for tactics. Understand the big picture and how it affects the customer’s system for buying.

The critical answers to this new perspective — the answers that meet your specific needs — can only come from you.

Seven Online Marketing Challenges

Sometimes you really do just need answers to the questions marketers ask — just not as often as you’d think. We don’t doubt you put in a lot of time; we do suspect you’re not asking yourself the more complex questions. However, when you do have the challenges below, there are ways to solve them — and frame them as bigger questions.

1. “We need to reach more people.”

  • Improve your search engine rankings by adding more keywords to your content.
  • Find new places to advertise.
  • Grow your mailing list.
  • Advertise offline.
  • Initiate a viral marketing effort.
  • Increase the number of links to your site.
  • Create an affiliate program.

That’s a start. Next you must ask yourself the bigger questions:

  • Are the people coming to our Web site satisfied with what we present? Or does our presentation set up obstacles to buying?
  • What does our conversion rate reveal? If less than 10 percent of the visitors to a page are not taking the action we want them to take, we’ve got a problem.
  • Do we provide enough information so people return even if they are not ready to buy right now?
  • Is our rate of repeat visitors increasing? If it’s decreasing, we’ve got a problem.
  • Are the people who buy from us sufficiently delighted to buy again, or are we always looking for new customers?
  • What does our repeat customer rate tell us? If our business is at least two years old and less than 30 percent of our customers aren’t repeat customers, we’ve got a problem.
  • Are we marketing to the search engines or to the people who visit our site?
  • What does our transaction rate tell us? Are our visitors taking the actions we’d like them to take, or are they just “visiting”?

2. “We need to reach better people.”

  • Find more appropriate publications to target.
  • Explore better keywords.
  • Identify a better list to source.
  • Define the characteristics of the most qualified buyers.
  • Reach your competitor’s customers.
  • Insure shoppers can find you when they’re ready to buy.
  • Create the right content to attract search engine traffic.

That’s a start. Next you must ask yourself the bigger questions:

  • If we’re reaching the right people, do we have relevant content that meets their needs in the early, middle and late stages of their buying process?
  • Is our offering so narrow that there are few qualified people?
  • Is the decision cycle for this purchase so short that we must win buyers before they’re aware of their need?
  • Is our message strong enough to persuade the “wrong” people we reach to pass it along to the “right” people?

3. “We need more resources.”

  • Decide if more money might solve the problem.
  • Decide if more time might solve the problem.
  • Determine if your staff is sufficiently skilled to solve the problem.
  • Perform a vendor/consultant evaluation.
  • Define the opportunity costs in terms of return on your investment.

That’s a start. Next you must ask yourself the bigger questions:

  • Do our resource allocations match our priorities and our goals?
  • Are our resource allocations based on predicted rates of return?
  • When we allocate resources, do we hold decision-makers accountable for the returns?
  • If we don’t have the time or resources to do it correctly now, when will we?

Next time we’ll cover the last four of seven strategic challenges that marketers must consider. Are there other challenges that marketers must tackle? Let me know.