Every so often, a discussion erupts through email that makes me really happy about my job. I have the privilege of working with, interviewing, and connecting with some really smart people. Recently, I started emailing with Steven McConnell, the head of digital marketing for Arielle Careers, an executive branding company based in Australia. He's whip smart and has provided fuel for some interesting topics. I decided to pick his brain about how small companies can do marketing more effectively. It's particularly apt as we come to the end of National Small Business Week.

1. How do most people understand marketing and why is that incorrect?

I hear a lot of small-business owners use "marketing" as a substitute term for "let's do a mail drop" or its digital equivalent, "let's blast out an email newsletter to our list." Others confuse marketing with the need to convince, cajole, and push 'n' sell.

Larger companies tend to also view it as a process of crafting a desirable image and connecting it to their product. A few days ago, for example, I discovered a brochure from a luxury car maker in my mailbox. This brochure pointed out that one of their cars "features an aggressive front end which makes a bold statement that you're firmly in control of your life." All of these businesses make the mistake of having little concern for needs of consumers, or concern for their most brittle, surface needs.

2. So how should you define marketing?

For me, marketing is the process of understanding a person's values and desires at the deepest, core level; it's ensuring that services and products solve people's problems at that level; and it's crafting marketing campaigns that communicate and connect with a sharply defined audience. There are two things that most people miss.

First, marketing demands that you place someone else's needs above yours. Unfortunately for many business owners, marketing is primarily the answer to their own, rather than someone else's, problems. They start a business because they want to be rich, famous, or they don't want anyone telling them what to do. These motivations set the context of their actions and end up driving their marketing strategy. "Doing marketing" becomes synonymous with "trying to get more customers," rather than looking for more ways to deliver value. Pretending to care replaces actually caring.

This leads me to my second point: The job of marketing comes with responsibility. Going back to my car brochure, for example, having a car that makes a statement that you're "in control of your life" and "have made it" is a fairly common marketing angle. However, what's underneath that? Will a person who is truly, firmly in control of his or her life be swayed by an ad that makes such a promise?

Scratch the surface and you discover an appeal to insecurity. The ad is designed to appeal to someone who wants to be taken more seriously and prove something. Will owning a luxury car fix that? Probably not. Not for a long time, anyway. If you dig deep enough, you'll find that a lot of products that marketers sell are designed to mask insecurities. This is where professional responsibility comes in. Marketers are often the conduit between the consumers and business owners, and, as professionals, we need to know when to say, "I won't help you sell that because it doesn't actually help anyone."

3. You told me that marketing is really a process of enrollment. What do you mean? How is it different from convincing?

Enrollment for me is the holy grail of marketing; it's a byproduct of knowing your customers' needs better than they do and approaching the process from an abundance mentality. It happens when the relationship with the customer is shrouded in trust and there's a deep knowingness that you share the same values. It has nothing to do with making someone sign up or buy. Those things might happen, but that's not the point. The point is to connect.

Enrollment is the opposite of convincing, which is the default method of influence when what you're offering does not occur as valuable enough to a person (or there's a lack of connection and trust). At Arielle, for example, we sell personal branding for executives. While our services could be of interest to many, we are quite selective in whom we work with. We look for a subset of executives who are at a stage in their career where chasing seniority and money is no longer as interesting as building something interesting or meaningful. Our clients get their kicks from growing as human beings while they're building something cool and contributing to others.

Being selective allows us to zero in on a narrowly defined slice of the market that we know very well. As a result, connections and enrollment happen very often. Our conversions are extremely high; however, the sales process is pressure-free. People just intuitively know when we're right for them.

4. Why do you think it's important to have the right definition of marketing?

Growth feels quite hollow after a little while if it's not connected to a bigger purpose--it's time we stopped celebrating record sales without asking why. Doing this will not only help us feel like our time at work is time well spent, but also reduce the amount of junk that gets made in the process. Our planet and kids will probably thank us for it.

5. Where do most small companies fail when it comes to marketing to customers and tapping into a real need?

I'd say most seeds of failure are sown very early--before the business even opens its doors. People start businesses for all kinds of reasons--because they love the idea, they want to prove something, they like the product, and so on. Some motivations, however, will silently undermine your success. Knowing what drives you is critical, because your motivations set the context for your actions. The context, in turn, sets the boundaries inside which you will look for solutions to the problems you encounter. This means that the more you're driven by your own needs, the more myopic your work becomes.

Conversely, the less you need, the more you're free to give and the more you're able to solve complex business problems in creative, leveraged ways that deliver the most value. Even if it means making less sales in the short term.

Published on: May 7, 2015