Ten years ago — almost to the day — I found myself sitting across the table from the publisher of a small Midwestern newspaper — discussing the need for an “Internet marketing plan” — and not feeling the love. To say I was unwelcome would be an understatement. But now, as I reflect back on that meeting, I have a better understanding of the fear, animosity and anger that ensued. The meeting started off as follows:

Publisher: You’re telling me corporate sent you here to help us develop an Internet marketing plan to address what today represents less than 1% of our total revenue? To be honest with you, I’m more concerned and focused on keeping and growing the areas that account for 99% of our existing revenue.

I must admit at the time I was disappointed at the publisher’s lack of interest in capitalising on future online revenue opportunities, but today I have a greater understanding — if not appreciation — for the publisher’s position. Neither of us had any idea that classified advertising revenue would decline 50% over the next few years, and with it, a primary source for cash flow and profitability. Nor did we have a clue as to the significant changes advertisers would make in the way they take their products and services to market.

Despite all that has changed since that stress-filled meeting ten years ago, the fundamental keys to marketing success have not changed. Regardless of the industry, sales channel, market, product or service, our relative success then — and now — depends on our ability to master the following:

Know your audience:

It starts and ends with the customer. Yes, we sell products and services, but we need to be able to clearly understand how our products or services benefit customers in relation to competing products or practices. This can only be accomplished with a clear understanding of the customer or prospective customer.

The criteria for being targeted should be based on something more than the fact that they are on our list; we have their mailing address, phone number or e-mail. We need to know if they are current or former subscriber. Are they a classified advertiser? Have they registered at our Web site?

Most of the information required to gain an understanding of our customers already exists in our business systems in circulation and advertising. When transaction (behaviour) information is combined with online registration information, response to ongoing promotions and contests or surveys, it is possible to piece together a clearer picture of our customers and prospects to better understand their needs.

Today the technology exists to cost effectively bring all of this information on customers and prospects together in a single integrated database that recognises existing relationships, includes relevant transactions (behaviour) along with contact information (physical address) and demographics (gender, age).

The journey to an integrated database begins with standardising the information we collect and retain on customers and establishing a process for bringing disparate information (databases, lists) together in a single place. It requires us to establish privacy policies that protect customer information and dictate how it is shared and used. Unfortunately, when it comes to developing and maintaining integrated customer databases there is no single software product that “does it all.”

Creating and maintaining an integrated database cannot be 100% automated as it requires humans to create business rules and methodology and deal with the ongoing exceptions to those rules. Does the destination (integrated database) justify the journey (time, effort, resources)? The answer is yes, as an integrated database provides us with the opportunity to understand our customers (prospects) and target relevant offers and content that results in increased response (lower CPO) for us and increased value (relevance) for customers.

Create products/services fulfilling needs:

This would seem like a no-brainer, but the graveyard of failed products and services is littered with the remains of offerings that were created without the customer/prospect in mind. Just because we can create or deliver a product doesn’t guarantee there is an audience (customer base) willing to try or buy. Too often our focus is on “what we can do” versus “what customers want.”

Today we may be able to provide an e-edition that is a complete digital replica of today’s newspaper. The question is: do current customers — or prospects — really want a digital replication of today’s newspaper online? Too often our assumption is that everyone is a prospect for our products and services, whether we are delivering a newspaper packed with content and ads or an e-mail selling women’s dresses. Nothing could be further from the truth. Few products today provide mass appeal and all products and services provide varying degrees of value to customers.

Price, package and promote accordingly:

A thorough understanding of customers naturally leads to the creation of products and services that fulfill needs and also should drive how we price, package, promote and bring our products and services to market. It is funny (or absurd) that someone would be unwilling to pay US$0.75 for today’s newspaper, but is willing to pay US$0.75 each for text messages updating the score of a game involving their favourite team. The newspaper is packed with content, but the text or e-mail score of the game fulfills a unique, time-sensitive customer need.

Too often we believe that “more is better” or “cheaper is better” when in fact an understanding of customers provides insight into the perceived value of our products and services which in turn should impact pricing, packaging and distribution decisions. No marketer wants to leave money on the table as a result of under-valuing a new product or service. Too often we fail to recognise the relative value of our offerings and as a result default to “cheaper is better” or “more is better.”

Make it easy to do business:

Making it easy to find, understand and buy our products and services is critical, but is something for which our industry, at least in the United States, has struggled. While it may be hard to believe, most daily newspapers in the United States — non-metro, community newspapers — still do not have the capability to take and process a secure online credit/debit card order.

Sometimes the problem exists before a customer even gets around to ordering. The way in which we price and communicate advertising rates is at best confusing and serves as an ongoing barrier for providing customers with self-service order options and capabilities. Sometimes the barriers to doing business are between our ears. Other times our legacy systems and processes serve as barriers for customer doing business with us.

For example, an advertiser cannot be provided with a real-time cost for the ad they are creating online because an algorithm has not been written to translate individual letters and characters to pica widths that in turn translate to advertising rates in the classified advertising system created by people in the late 1980s. Suggest flat rate pricing based on total word count (forget the pica’s) and you’ll begin to understand the problem with making it easier to do business with us. Sometimes it’s us.

Successful marketing requires us to not only know what customers want to buy, but also how they want to buy. We need to double our efforts to make sure we are providing the options and capabilities customers expect from any business operating in 2011, not 2001. To do anything less, is to negate the benefits gained from understanding customers, creating products that fulfill their needs and marketing smart.