I can’t remember where I first saw the most important sentence I’ve ever read about marketing. I don’t even know who said it. But it doesn’t matter, because I’ve never forgotten it and it guides my thinking every day.

To paraphrase:

Nobody will take action on something unless it’s one of the top 3 problems in their mind

Like all the best insights, it’s obvious when you think about it – yet unless you hold it constantly in your mind, you’ll be blinded by your own priorities and won’t act as if it’s true.

What is the Top 3 principle?

Would I like to be able to make a better cup of coffee? Sure.

Does my bookkeeping take longer than I’d like. Yep.

Would I benefit from a pair of running shoes that helps prevent knee injuries? You bet.

But I’ve got a million other things on my mind too – so if you showed me an advert for any of those things right now, I’d ignore it. I might not even notice it.

If you want proof that people are only ready to act on a tiny subset of possible needs at any one time, try offering something for free.

Even if you take a super-valuable product or service and offer to give it away for nothing, most people won’t take you up on it unless you completely remove all effort for them. Just having a brief conversation about it, filling in their email address to get it, or even thinking about it is too much effort if it’s not in their Top 3.

(Obviously three is an arbitrary number, but it’s probably not far off: thinking about myself, I’m aware of lots of things I’d like to change but I doubt I’m ready to actually pull the trigger on more than a few.)

As a marketer, this gives you two options:

  1. Concentrate on just getting your product or service in front of those who are ready, and ignore everyone else
  2. Work to elevate the need for a group of people until they are ready

1: Just focus on those who are ready

This is largely what branding is for. McDonalds spends billions of dollars on advertising, but they’re not expecting you to see an advert and immediately change your plans for the day to go get a Big Mac. They just want to make sure that when you are ready – you want food that’s quick and cheap and consistent – you’re primed to believe that McDonalds is the place to go.

You can also strategically choose where to locate your marketing to reach this group. If someone searches on Google for “best coffee maker”, you can be pretty sure that by advertising against that search result you’re only talking to people who are in the mood to solve their coffee problem now.

Similarly, a jeweller could open their shop on Hatton Garden and an Indian restaurant could open up on Brick Lane. People who are ready to buy those products now go to those locations.

2: Elevate the need

A band whose name I forget used to have a t-shirt with the slogan “Marketers create need”.

There’s a lot of truth to this when it comes to introducing new products that nobody had any idea they wanted. But most marketing is about elevating an existing need, rather than creating a new one.

In other words, take an item that might be number 12 in someone’s personal priority list and bring it into the Top 3 so they’re ready to take action.

It’s difficult to do this in a single interaction. You see Infomercials manage it (someone wasn’t really thinking about their abs before, and after 10 minutes they can’t live without the new Super Crunchomatic 3000), but it’s not common.

It’s much easier to elevate a need through repeated interactions after time. This is why I love email marketing: you earn somebody’s attention once, then you can reliably and repeatedly get in touch with them to elevate the importance of the problem in their mind.

Say you sell a product to help people achieve better posture. By the time you’ve emailed someone about the dangers of bad posture, some research about how it affects lifespan, some tips for “quick wins” to start working on your posture and a case study of someone who fixed their posture and solved their persistent back pain, their posture problem has gone from a vague “maybe should sort this out one day” to being uppermost in their mind.

Of course, this never means it’s OK to exaggerate or lie: you’re not creating a non-existent problem, or making it sound worse than it is. Done properly, you’re helping them get around to making a positive change that otherwise would’ve languished on their mental to-do list for years.

How can you make use of the “Top 3” principle?

Firstly, it gives you a framework for distinguishing between three different groups:

  1. It’s in their Top 3 – they’re ready to act right now.
  2. It’s outside their Top 3 but in their Top 30 – they’re not ready yet, but they could be a buyer eventually.
  3. It’s nowhere – ignore them, because they’ll never care however hard you try.

For each piece of marketing you do, you should ask yourself: is this for Group 1 or Group 2?

For Group 1, you should be talking about your solution rather than the problem – because they’re already perfectly aware of the problem and actively looking for the answer. You should put this message somewhere they’re already looking (e.g. search results for “Best coffee maker”, or a bridal magazine if you sell wedding dresses).

For Group 2, you should be talking about the problem – your solution is irrelevant until they move from Group 2 to Group 1. You should be working to elevate its importance in their mind through repeated exposures hitting different aspects of the problem, and put the message in places where the type of person who’s likely to have this problem might be spending time.

Secondly, the Top 3 Principle gives you an important reality check: not everyone is as obsessed with the problem you’re solving as you are.

You can have a perfectly good business by just targeting Group 1. There’s no point trying to sell a wedding dress to a woman with no plans to get married, and if she is getting married there’s a strong chance the dress is close to her Top 3 anyway.

But a lot of money gets wasted on ineffective marketing that treats Group 2 as if they’re Group 1, and bores them senseless with your wonderful solution to a problem they don’t care about.

So don’t assume everyone cares as much as you do, because they don’t. Instead, ask yourself how much they currently care – and tailor your message accordingly.

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4 thoughts on “The “Top 3” principle

  1. Noticed a typo

    ….and put the message in places where the type of person who’s likely to have this *person* might be spending time.

    * problem*

  2. Rob, thank you. I’m just taking the very first baby steps in starting a business. I’m very conscious marketing is the area I have most space for development. It can be a pretty overwhelming landscape at first, but a handful of clear, simple principles like this make the first steps possible. Much appreciated.

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