This is one of the great challenges of marketing — keeping the cart in its place.

After all, the cool stuff is in the cart — the engaging, interactive, attention-grabbing things that everyone talks about.

And then there is the fact that all of the things that should come first can be tedious, and for most, just aren’t that much fun. (On the other hand, everyone enjoys providing opinions on the colors in the logo, the font size on the website and the copy in an ad.)

So it’s understandable that we’re easily distracted by the visible, tangible elements.  But if marketing efforts are continually unwieldy, frequently derailed, and rarely take you where you intended, chances are good you’ve allowed the cart to come before the horse.

Putting First Things First

Successful marketing seldom begins with a focus on the high-profile elements of an executable plan. Start by focusing on the catchy tag lines, high-end production, and copy points, and — absent a fat budget and a time-frame flexible enough to cover short-term missteps — you’ll likely watch as your campaign goes nowhere.

In a crowded, noisy marketplace, how do you make a dent? How do you reach your audience if you don’t have an Apple-like budget?

Keep the horse squarely in front of the cart.

In practical terms, this means begin by knowing who your target is. Specifically. For professional service providers this means the name of an individual with hiring authority. Or, as noted below, an individual (or group) that is part of a relationship map leading to the hiring authority. In this context, an industry rarely qualifies as a target. Nor does a company. A target is the person vested with the authority to subscribe to your services.

With the target identified, it’s time to invest in listening. This is the market research piece of the process. A highly functioning listening platform will reveal what your target cares about most, and help you create a relationship map that leads to connection and conversation.

It isn’t sexy. Nobody hums the jingle. It isn’t the focus of black-tie award ceremonies, and doesn’t lead to hanging out with celebrity spokespersons.

But it is the key to marketing success.

Smart targeting takes time. It requires a strategic foundation. But if you’re not putting appropriate resources here, you’re essentially hoping the market targets you.

And listening is just plain difficult (if not downright intrusive to practice and processes you have in place) — especially when you have killer-products / services. The natural tendency is to skip the listening part, and jump right in with your elevator speech, talking points, or list of offerings.

But targeting and listening are where the journey is measured, and roadblocks and detours anticipated.

For every enterprise or professional service practice that wrestles to gain visibility, differentiate itself from the competition, and get the most from each resource invested in marketing, these two steps change the equation.

Invest in this less-than-glamorous roll-up-your-sleeves work, and all that stuff in the cart becomes much more relevant and effective — primarily because it will hit the target.