“I’m starting a cycling tourism business,” I answered.
“Do you know anything about cycling tours?”
“Hmmm, okay. Well, that’s good. It is good, isn’t it?”
“I guess so. We’ll see.”
Truth be told, I’m probably getting too much pleasure from these little flashes of cognitive dissonance that happen when I tell people about my current project. I like watching as they struggle to connect the dots -- maybe because this gives me some comic relief from my own struggles to connect the dots.
But I’m beginning to suspect there may by a silver lining in my ignorance. Because I know so little about this business, I’m also taking a different approach to the one aspect I should know something about: its marketing.
I could have jumped in and started lining up search campaigns, digging into social media targeting and setting up email campaigns. But instead, I took a step back and looked at the most successful cycling tourism operation I know: the Hotel Belvedere in Riccione, Italy. This year, TripAdvisor rated it one of the top 20 hotels in the world, based on the rave reviews of its cycling clientele.
If you’re a road cyclist, chances are pretty good that you’ve heard of the Hotel Belvedere. And if you have heard of it, chances are extremely good that you heard about it from a friend who also cycles. The Belvedere has built its substantial business largely on word of mouth.
We all know word of mouth is the most effective form of advertising. But why is it so effective? We typically assume that’s because the message is coming from an objective source that we trust.
But I suspect there’s more to it than that. I think it’s because word of mouth is almost always delivered from one person to another. Word of mouth is messaging to a market of one.
There are some fundamental aspects of this that bear closer examination. Word of mouth usually occurs between friends, or acquaintances. That means both parties have at least a passing understanding of each other, knowing common interests and personal likes and dislikes. This allows the message to be tailored for optimal reception. The most effective points of persuasion can be embellished and the least effective ones can be skimmed over. Messages are pre-filtered based on an implicit understanding of the audience.
Secondly, word-of-mouth advertising is based on a two-way conversation. The message evolves according to that conversation. Special areas of interest can be explored more deeply, and concerns can be addressed. And, all along the way, both parties learn more about what a future engagement between the prospect and the product in question would look like.
I suspect the power of word of mouth also comes from the medium in which the message is delivered (thank you, Mr. McLuhan). And, if this is the case, then we should see how the strengths of that medium could be extended to other marketing efforts. We should deconstruct the advantages of targeting a market of one.
The biggest hurdle to this approach seems to be the lack of mass normally associated with marketing. In my case, I’m actually planning for a slower approach, with allowances made for building engagements one at a time. If you’ve ever read Eric Ries’ excellent book “The Lean Startup,” you already know such things are possible.
The advantage of the market-of-one approach is that each encounter also provides invaluable market feedback, allowing to you to continually evolve your offering. You focus on going deep, rather than going wide. Each encounter gives you the opportunity to create a friendship.