Selling ideas at the intersection of interest

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By Francis Moranintersection

I had an excellent and productive meeting earlier this week with the hard-working folks at Startup Canada who are, among an impressive roster of other activities, preparing for a major lobbying and information session on Parliament Hill in November. I have been a proud advisor to Startup Canada ever since Victoria Lennox contacted me when she was first putting together this grassroots movement to cultivate a more entrepreneurial culture in this country, and have watched, mainly from the sidelines, as the organisation has gone from strength to strength.

Startup Canada, which usually concerns itself with talking to, listening to and championing the critical economic contributions made by startup entrepreneurs, quite rightly understands that policy makers, whether sitting in parliaments or in the senior bureaucracy, need to gain a far greater understanding of, and appreciation for, the role that startups play in advancing Canada’s economic, job-creation, innovation and competitiveness agendas. Accordingly, the group has planned an ambitious day of activities this November when they will bring their message — and a good cross-section of entrepreneurs and community leaders who embody that message — to Parliament Hill.

My meeting with the Startup Canada government relations team was to help them thrash out their messaging for this critical initiative. I won’t steal any of Startup Canada’s thunder by revealing anything more about what they are planning; that’s not the purpose of this post. What I do want to do here is summarise some of the counsel I provided, which was all about selling ideas rather than products.

Turns out, selling an idea is not all that much different from selling a product.

I have long maintained that the only opportunity to have a conversation with somebody — a conversation with anyone about anything — lives at the intersection of interest between the participants in the conversation. If that intersection doesn’t exist, the conversation doesn’t take place. If you are still reading this post, it’s because you and I are currently at such an intersection: You have an interest in reading what I had an interest in writing. It is, perhaps, the most fundamental — and often the least-well implemented — principle in all of communications theory.

I say least-well implemented because far too often, those wanting to communicate to others — whether it’s a company trying to sell a product, a political party looking for your vote, or even a guy trying to attract the attention of a woman in a bar — might understand that they need such an intersection but they put all their effort into building one of their designs rather than finding one that probably already exists.

In media relations, it’s the difference between putting out a news release that’s all about your agenda versus connecting with target media and finding out what issues they’re already interested in covering and then fitting your story into their agenda. If your announcement is big enough, you will succeed in persuading the media to meet you at the intersection you have built. But it is far easier — and usually far more productive in terms of the quality of coverage that it produces — to intersect with the media where they are already hanging out.

In the specific case of the lobbying initiative Startup Canada is planning, it would be dead easy for the organisation to develop messaging and material that loudly trumpeted what it was doing to promote an entrepreneurial culture in Canada and how important that is for the economy, job creation, innovation, global competitiveness and so on. If they did that, though, they would be making the same classic mistake that many marketers make in talking all about themselves and not about the needs of their target audiences.

Just as in marketing, selling an idea requires that you identify your target and ask yourself, “What pain or need does this target have that we can address in a unique, high-value fashion?” Then, your conversation must intersect from the outset with the very keen interest your target is inevitably going to have in addressing its pain or need. Fortunately for Startup Canada, its agenda has several busy intersections with the agendas of the policy makers with whom it needs to communicate during its lobbying day. Starting from those intersections of interest rather than shouting its own agenda at its targets will result in much higher levels of effective engagement.

It really is all about fundamentals, which means I never have to stray too far when counselling clients, whether they be the technology startups that make up the bulk of my consulting practice or pro-bono efforts like Startup Canada. It all comes down to the following four steps:

1. Who is our target? Who has the pain or need that can be addressed by what we do?

2. What exactly do we have (or have to build), whether it is a product or an idea, that will address that pain or need in a unique, high-value fashion?

3. What’s the environment into which we are going to launch our product or idea? What else is competing for our target’s wallet or attention? How does our target usually buy what it is we are selling?

4. What is the messaging we need to develop and what are the tactical options available to us to carry that message to our target? How will we know they’re working?

In my marketing practice, I call this process the “Four steps on the road to revenue”™. They apply equally whether you’re a product company, an advocacy organisation or a guy in a singles bar.

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