A Theory Of Marketing

"Don't think like a fisherman. Think like a fish." —paraphrase of Gary Bencivenga

A theory of marketing ought to be based on a theory of how people buy the kind of thing being marketed.

The best information I have on how non-professional buyers[1] discover and vet custom software development services suggests that these buyers seek to be efficient in their search, and that causes them to follow a process that looks like this:

I have reasonably strong evidence that non-professional buyers — as a group — make use of all the elements of this model. I have less strong evidence that they make use of them in the strict order I've portrayed here. And I have a strong intuition but no direct evidence that they seek to be efficient in their search.

Imagine for a moment that you spend most of your work days in that Autodesk office building you can easily see to the east as you drive north out of San Francisco on Highway 101. You're a director-level member of the marketing team there, you need some custom software plumbing between your marketing automation platform and your CRM, Autodesk's IT department has already said they don't have the bandwidth to do this (they'd probably screw it up and ship it 3 months too late anyway, you think to yourself), and your outside agency has reluctantly said they don't have the chops to do this. This is one of too many important items you're responsible for. How do you solve this problem?

Do you start your search for a solution via a broad internet search? You could, of course, but that would not be efficient. You'd be Googling, reading, trying to guess whether "elegant solutions to complex problems" translates to the specific capabilities that you need, trying to parse out other forms of bullshit from reality, filling out contact forms, coordinating meetings, trying to parse out yet more BS from reality, and all that with no guarantee of ultimate success. While a broad internet search (Googling) is an efficient way to get a ton of search results in front of yourself very quickly, the entire rest of the process that follows from that starting point is freighted with risk and inefficiency.

What would our hero in that Autodesk office building find more efficient? Any of the following:

  • Stroll over to the pod of cubicles where the developers work and ask around there. After all, those nerds probably know other nerds, and maybe they know the kind of nerd who can do a good job of creating custom software plumbing between the marketing automation platform and the CRM and the Autodesk-employed nerd could give you some insight into their nerd friend's level of reliability, expertise, and availability.

  • Ask the outside marketing agency (who you are reasonably happy with and you know will be mostly honest with you about stuff) if they know any specialist nerds who could solve the problem in a freelance capacity.

Of course what's efficient for one person may be quite costly and inefficient for another. My wife and I have discovered that we are not cut out for living in an apartment, and we've found a reasonably-priced house for rent in the next town over (Livingston, MT). We move at the end of the month. This makes us non-professional buyers for a cleaning service and a moving service. The difference in how my wife and I approach this buying process is hilarious. Both of us did what came naturally to us. In other words, what was efficient for each of us (because neither of us wakes up in the morning hoping we get to spend the whole day being non-professional buyers :) ).


  1. Set up an instance of gpt-researcher and get it going on collecting a list of cleaning services, moving services, etc.

  2. Fill out a bunch of web forms for the services found in step 1

  3. Wait

  4. Wait some more

  5. Let my wife know that progress is a bit... slow...

My wife:

  1. Send a text message asking the real estate agent friend she made a few months back for referrals (that's the "domain members" diamond in the model above). Agent readily provides a list of referrals she has on hand for just such occasions.

  2. Call the first cleaner on the referral list. They pick up the phone immediately, present as competent and professional, schedule the cleaning appointment. Done.

  3. Hand the moving company service list over to Philip b/c a man might get more favorable treatment than a woman. I call the first mover on the referral list, they pick up the phone immediately, present as competent and professional, schedule the moving appointment. Done.

What was efficient for me and my wife was quite different, and my instincts led me down an efficient-for-me but completely ineffective path. Here's the point...

Yes, there are probably serious, well-resourced buyers for your services who will find it most efficient to proceed through the process my model describes in a very different sequence than the model describes. Maybe they'll start with a broad internet search and never even try another method of discovering relevant service providers. But I argue that unless you have specific evidence that your buyers find that sort of pathway more efficient than the pathway I've described in the model, you should assume that the pathway my model describes is the norm.

To paraphrase what I said earlier, a theory of marketing ought to be based on a model of how people buy the kind of thing being marketed. So what are the implications of the model we're discussing here?

Implication 1: You don't create demand. The buyer's context does[2]. You might, however, have a bit of wiggle room to create demand if you're already present in their context. Maybe you're already working with them, they like and trust you, and you can expand your scope of work with them, for example.

Implication 2: So, you generally can't create demand, but you can intercept it.

Implication 3: The simplest way of thinking about where you can intercept demand is 1) within your existing network and 2) outside of your existing network. Most advice about marketing focuses on #2, but this model gives us a more precise way to think about both #1 and #2.

The ways you can intercept demand are:

Create/reinforce relevant memories

1: In the memory of past clients or others you've had a 1:1 or 1:many interaction with.

2: You can get in front of buyers with something they are self-motivated to pay attention to so that they think of/remember you when their context creates a buying need.

Create referral opportunities

3: Work to help your professional peers know and remember who you are and what you do. (Remember how our Autodesk buyer is likely to go about finding a developer!)

Intercept searches

4: Make yourself discoverable in focused searches.

5: Make yourself discoverable and clearly legible in broad searches.

This is my current theory of marketing. If you've been saying some version of "I really need to market myself!", then this is the list of things you should start doing. I realize that this is not a highly specific list, but it's also a pretty good way to vet ideas.

"You should start an email list!"

"OK, will this help me accomplish one or more of these 5 objectives? Given my context, will it help me as much as alternative options X, Y, or Z?"

More pulling on this thread soon, I’m sure.


A few things I’d like to signal-boost:

1: A client has a new offer for a rapid-turnaround critique of your survey: https://www.sammcnerney.com/45-dollar-survey-roast It’s a great way to get an expert’s eyes on your survey to uncover ineffective design, unconsidered bias, ways to get more value out of your expensive recruiting, etc.

2: A request on behalf of a client: do any of you have experience with selling enterprise service agreements to government buyers? If so, my client would appreciate being able to pick your brain on the intricacies of navigating this kind of sale.

3: (Re-upping this) I'm looking to connect an executive coaching client with other business owners who have similar revenue models. Specifically, he is interested in talking to people who:

  • Have long-term relationships (3+ years) with a small number of clients

  • Have high lifetime value from each client ($1 million+)

  • Have a smaller client roster compared to competitors

The goal is for business owners with this model to share insights and strategies around growing and scaling this type of business.

If you run a company that meets the above criteria and are open to chatting with my client, please let me know. I’ll then introduce you two to get the conversation started.

Friday Fun Poll


1: Non-professional buyers are those who do not follow a formal/rigid procurement process.

2: I'm assuming that you, like 99.9% of the rest of us, can't lead or push an entire market in a direction that changes that market's context and thereby creates demand for your services. :)