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Want to Increase Sales? Don't Buy Ads.

You can buy marketing, sales or attention, but product-market fit should always take center stage.

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This story appears in the September 2021 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

“I want to increase my sales. Does that mean I need to buy ads?” — Edward, St. Louis

Sure, you can buy sales. That’s what paid media is — it gives you access to a large audience and helps you test your messaging. But there’s a downside to it. Paid media can trick people into conflating sales with demand. It can also make entrepreneurs with smaller budgets feel like they have no shot at truly connecting with their audience.

Federico Gastaldi

I’m here to tell you that’s not the case. You can buy your way into sales, but you can’t buy your way into product-market fit — and that is the thing you should be most focused on.

A company that has achieved product-market fit (PMF) is likely doing great with sales, but that’s not to say PMF is about making money. It means what it sounds like — that your idea is in demand, and it changes people’s reality for the better. No amount of paid media can replicate that.

Related: 4 Questions Brands Should Ask Themselves Before Making Content, Starting With, 'What Problem Am I Trying to Solve?'

So how do you know if you’ve found it? When companies come to my consultancy, Pen Name, for guidance, we help them answer that question by focusing not on their product — but on their customer.

You should be obsessed with understanding the inner emotions and pain points that drive your customers’ behaviors. What leads them to action? Survey data is a fine place to start, but it won’t contain all the answers. You must go deeper to consider their mindset and actions, look at current behaviors, and suggest alternative options to assess how they react.

When targeting your customer, we recommend taking a very narrow and specific view of who will get the most value out of what you created. By identifying a smaller audience, you make it easier to determine when (or if!) you find PMF. Plus, it’s cheaper.

Here’s how to start. First, if you have a product, get it into your customers’ hands. Ideally, they’ll pay you for it, but you can start free, too. Heck, even PayPal started out by paying for their early customers.

Related: 7 Bulletproof Strategies to Increase Sales and Make More Money

Next, interact with them directly. Ask questions that give you insights into current behaviors, their level of satisfaction with what they do now, and the importance of the category you’re trying to solve or improve. For example, you could ask, “What are you doing for [the problem] right now? How big of a priority is [the solution] for you right now?”

Your ideal consumer will already be doing something to solve the problem you’ve targeted, will have a high level of dissatisfaction with that current option, and will greatly desire and highly prioritize a new alternative.

Once you’ve collected answers, you can start to assess how much they need your product. You can even explain what you’ve created (or are creating) and ask how much they would pay for your offering.

Related: 3 Ways You Can Increase Sales Without 'Selling'

While this is not a foolproof method, you’ll be surprised what you find out. Because when you find PMF, your initial user base is insatiable. They get it, love it, and need it. Then they’ll tell others—and their advocacy will lead to a second tier of consumers who might overlap with your initial narrow scope, or expand who you help.

Whatever you do, do not become so obsessed with the idea of growth that you overlook consumer insights and leverage. It costs less and is worth much more to the short- and long-term goals of your business. And the payoff is something you could never buy.

Adam Bornstein

Written By

Adam Bornstein is the founder of Pen Name Consulting, a marketing and branding agency; a New York Times best-selling author; and the creator of the two12 event.