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Wide Nets Don’t Win

The fear of loss is stronger than the desire for gain.

This is a scientific fact. Here’s the first paper that describes it, but there are a lot more which confirm it. It’s known as loss aversion, and it makes both us and our customers irrational.

Loss aversion is, for instance, why challenger marketing works so well. Lots of companies talk about benefits – what customers have to gain by using your product or service – but customers respond better if you can convince them that the way they are currently doing things is wrong. Tell them that they are currently experiencing loss and they’ll more likely act in your favor. (Don’t just take it from me – you can ask the Corporate Executive Board.)

Challenger marketing is underutilized, however. Why? Simple. Loss aversion. Most marketers are scared of being negative. They think – without any proof to support it – that communicating a thought which could be perceived as negative will turn customers off and cause a blowback on their brands. They are afraid of making people upset more than they desire gains. This persists and directs action even in spite of evidence that being negative at times can provide positive results.

An even more critical and fundamental area where loss aversion cripples marketers is in positioning. Marketers, and the corporate honchos that preside over them, love to cast wide nets. They just love to pretend that everyone is a potential customer. When that becomes the default scenario, we find ourselves in a dangerous position. Loss aversion makes us scared to cut out pieces of the market, that’s not what makes positioning an effective tool. Wide nets don’t win.

Positioning is about defining who is and who isn’t a target customer. We want to maximize the chance that we’re going to close opportunities. We do that not by casting the widest net, but by resonating with those our net is designed to catch. Those are the people we should want to sell to – not the masses who will suck up our marketing dollars and sales efforts but have little chance of converting. That requires putting your loss aversion aside and cutting out your true piece of the market – that which you are realistically and effectively able to capture.

Loss aversion is a powerful tool for marketers, but the same thing that makes it so useful can be harmful when it manifests in ourselves. Don’t just understand the psychology of your scientist-customers, but understand your own psychology as well. You’ll make better decisions as a result.

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