Let's say you're in the market for a new iPad case. You want something strong and sturdy for travel, but also sleek and stylish. And you'd like it to be black and olive green. Or aubergine.
In other words, you are me. Last fall I started rooting around for that very case, querying on Twitter and Facebook and weighing pros and cons. Someone suggested I check out the Dodocase, which resembles a Moleskine notebook. I loved the look but wasn't completely sold. I tweeted once more: "Looking @DODOsays iPad cases--and *this close* to pulling the trigger ... Any opinions out there?"
As it happened, there were. Matt Winslow, co-founder of Dodo competitor Beacon Cases in Raleigh, N.C., fired back a suggestion to check out his product. In a subsequent e-mail, he discussed pros and cons of various cases and particulars of Beacon's unique "tab and gate design" (a pivoting wooden doohickey secures the iPad, as opposed to a tension fit or strap).
My experience researching iPad cases wasn't unique. You probably approach many planned purchases--anything from a refrigerator to a wedding ring--much as I did: by Googling options, querying your social networks, reading reviews or asking around on professional networking sites.
Keep this in mind: Your buyers are doing the same, and they have more information for online shopping at their fingertips than ever before. Some of that information may be stuff you put out there (on your website, blog or Facebook page), and some might come from external sources. In any case, your customers are likely doing their homework before they communicate with a single one of your salespeople.
Research company Aberdeen Group refers to this as the "hidden sales cycle." Nowadays, it's rare that we purchase anything without checking out reviews, visiting Angie's List or asking friends on Facebook. That means your prospects walk through your door (real-world or virtual) already knowing the issues they want addressed, the solutions available to them and the price range of those solutions. How can your business reach and respond to those "hidden" buyers?
Listen on social channels. Monitor relevant keywords on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, or monitor related topics on sites like Focus or Quora to find people who might be looking for what you sell.
Beacon's Winslow found me because he keeps an eye out for keywords and phrases like "iPad cases," as well as mentions of competitors. He monitors Twitter from the search box (search.twitter.com), but there are plenty of free and paid tools that can handle the task, including good ol' Google Alerts. Other monitoring tools worth checking out include TweetDeck, HootSuite, Topsy, Social Mention, MarketMeSuite and NetNewsWire.
Be the go-to source for information. Aberdeen says the smartest marketers have to "out-educate the competition to gain mindshare and shape the prospect's vision early." Do this by focusing on customers' problems in the content you publish, whether on Facebook or your blog or in webinars, e-books and white papers. And by positioning what you sell as a solution to those problems (when it is) and being honest (when it's not).
Winslow says his strategy is, primarily, to be a resource for anyone looking to buy an iPad case, and secondarily, to be a seller of the Beacon case. That seems paradoxical (shouldn't his approach be to sell as many Beacon cases as he can?) until you consider that it's a rare product that meets the need of every buyer in every possible scenario. (And in our socially connected world, unhappy customers won't stay silent.)
I appreciated Winslow's honesty in his communication last fall: "If you're looking for a case that's extremely sleek, the Dodo is probably your best bet. On the other hand, if you're concerned about durability, I would recommend the Beacon Case, hands down," he told me.
Buddy up marketing and sales. In larger organizations, make sure your sales and marketing functions are aligned. Some specific ideas might be for marketing staffers to produce sales-friendly content (like price comparisons with the competition or product-specific landing pages) and occasionally to participate in product pitches, demos or in-person sales calls. Also key is to identify when, exactly, to hand off a lead from marketing to sales.
So don't overlook the chance to out those hidden customers. You just may turn browsers into buyers.