THINK Contributor

Why “targeting” customers is the wrong approach

By , October 5, 2016

What if we didn’t target customers, but instead sought to serve them?


Is it weird to take issue with the word “target”? Am I being a bit overscrupulous? A bit too punctilious?


I don’t think so. Because the key to great marketing is adopting a customer-centric point of view: Of looking at the world through the eyes of the people you are trying to reach.


And that’s a whole lot easier when you think of serving a customer segment with marketing that is useful, inspired, and empathetic to their needs… rather than “targeting” them with marketing messages.


In my view, the most important key to a successful customer segmentation program isn’t a tool or technology. Instead, it’s something else entirely: The real key is empathy.


Or more specifically – it’s pathological empathy: Serving your specific audience and would-be customers with honest and clear understanding of their perspective, problems, and points of view. 


Why pathological empathy matters


Empathy is the thing that separates great marketing from mediocre marketing.


And not just any old run-of-the-mill empathy, but next-level, pathological empathy. As in: obsessive empathy for the audience you are trying to serve.


Pathologically empathic marketers don’t just create marketing personas and plug them into marketing programs and then deploy campaigns targeted to them.


They don’t just segment their list based on behaviors.


Instead, pathologically empathic marketers try to fully grok the customer mindset of various customer segments. They try to understand each of their hopes, dreams, aspirations, frustrations, and annoyances.


How, Exactly?


Sounds simple enough. But it’s difficult in practice, because it takes time to figure all this out.


But it’s necessary to great marketing. Great marketers slow their roll enough to figure out exactly who they are talking to, and how their product or service might fit into the lives of those individuals.


They do all this before they put a single pixel on a web page, or before they type a single character into a content marketing strategic plan. They adopt a slow marketing mantra, and they choose to go slow at first to be more effective, down the road.


At a high level, pathologically empathic marketers:


Listen more than they talk.


Collect data as a starting point for real insight.


Observe the behavior of their customers.


Read what their customers read; go where their customers go.


Survey and talk to them, too.


Walk in their customers’ shoes. Actually – scratch that. Pathologically empathetic customers don’t just walk in their customers’ shoes; they put on their socks, pants, shirts, and hats and they move around in those, too, trying to get a feel for what it’s like in their world. 


Why is that important?


There is enormous pressure on marketing these days to create amazing customer experiences to augment the sales process.  In the business-to-business world, that’s largely because customers are doing an awful lot of self-educating before sales is even aware that they’re shopping around – anywhere from 50 to 80%, depending on which buyer-journey research you follow.


Your prospects and customers don’t care about your products and services. They care about what those products or services can do for them.


It’s a subtle, but important shift in mindset. And it’s one marketers need to adopt, too: Focus on serving your customers, and giving them useful and inspired gifts that can aid them along their journey.


To do that well – to give your customers what they need – you have to create programs that resonate. And that means understanding your own customers beyond a superficial level.


Start by serving, not by selling.


Who’s in?



Ann Handley is a Wall Street Journal best-selling author, keynote speaker, and the world’s first Chief Content Officer. Ann speaks and writes about how you can rethink the way your business markets. Cited in Forbes as the most influential woman in Social Media and recognized by ForbesWoman as one of the top 20 women bloggers, Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, a training and education company with the largest community of marketers in its category. She was a long time monthly columnist for Entrepreneur magazine, is a member of the LinkedIn Influencer program, and the co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business (Wiley, originally published 2011. Paperback 2012.) The book has been translated into nine languages, including Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian, Portuguese. Her most recent book, Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content (Wiley, 2014) is a Wall Street Journal bestseller. She currently has more than 350,000 followers on Twitter and writes about content, marketing and life at the highly entertaining AnnHandley.com. A pioneer in digital marketing, Ann is the co-founder of ClickZ.com, which was one of the first sources of interactive marketing news and commentary. She started her career as a business journalist and editor. Ann is based in Boston, Massachusetts.


Ann is a paid contributor to THINK Marketing.


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