Marketing strategy–now that’s my idea of an interesting challenge. Fishing, not so much. Sure, I could have told you I’m a prolific fisherman, and probably get away with the lie. But I did learn a thing or two as a boy, watching my dad fish, as I occasionally glanced up from whatever book I was immersed in.

Years later, I found myself thinking hard about how to capture customers as I worked on a landing page or direct mail piece for a client. Why the image of all the smelly, wiggling fish in my dad’s old bucket occurred to me, I can’t say. But I suspected that my wise pop might have taught me some useful lessons without saying a thing.

1 Cast out to where the fish are.

Dad could have just dropped the line in the water, from where he was standing at the edge of the dock. Kind of like companies who develop marketing messages from where they stand. In other words, from the natural perspectives and assumptions of internal company culture.

A certain parent I know would have found this approach easy, but futile. To fill the prospecting funnel (or the frying pan, as the case may be), it takes a strong, smooth cast to arc into the freshwater territory where the fish are swimming. Or into the emotional territory of how buyers feel when they’ve discovered a smart solution. They’re just not going to swim right up to a company that thinks only in terms of their line of physical products. They’re just not.

2 Reel ’em in slowly.

I won’t say that fisherdad never let a big one get away. But it didn’t happen often. A measured, steady hand winding that reel never gave in to the excited, jerking anticipation of an impressive catch.

Marketers of course aren’t allowed to put sharp metal objects in the mouths of their prospects. Which is probably best. So we reel them in only in a figurative sense, with a series of persuasion points that mirror the stages of human decision-making. Skillfully done, that strategic sequence builds engagement and desire, especially when it’s as invisible as slender nylon line among the water’s reflections.

3 Bait the hook with what the fish like.

Did dad ever stick any of his ham-and-swiss sandwich on the hook? No way. Just because that was his favorite fishing-day lunch, he knew his wary underwater targets had their own lunchtime preferences. At one point, I was curious about what the squirmy pink worms would taste like, but fortunately not curious enough.

Over the years, I’ve known companies whose idea of marketing strategy was a focus on their mission statement, the company history, or the technical details of some new machine in the plant out back. These are important things…to employees. The buyer? She just wants a way to save time, money or hassle. She wants to look good, feel good and do good. Offer information online on how she can achieve her goals, and bait the hook with that.

4 Throw back the little ones.

Not sure if dad let the small fish go out of compassion. Or if he thought they’d make a better meal when they fattened up in a few weeks. But it made me think of marketing strategies for buyers who are not quite ready to buy.

Sending scheduled emails to nurture the relationship is a smart idea, though I don’t expect pop did that with the minors that he spared. But I think the lesson here is to not make a final pitch until the time is right. And that timing has more to do with the prey than the predator. Although CRM and tracking technologies can help us decide when to (try to) close, my fisherman could assess his catch from fifty yards away with just one squinting eye.

5 Remember that fish swim downstream.

Most fish, like most people, simply follow the path of least resistance. Knowing this enabled my father to position himself at a river bend, where the downstream flow of the water continually delivered trout to a small dead-end cove. Gotcha now, my little pretties!

If I imply that both fish and folks are lazy, consider it an observation rather than a judgement. But it often makes sense for a seller to somehow be the path of least resistance. I, like you, have at one time or another paid good cash money not for some shiny object, but simply to avoid working too hard at something. As marketing strategists, we snare those downstream swimmers by reminding them what arduous, boring, time-consuming chores they’d be facing if they didn’t buy exactly what we’re selling. If we’re really good, we can even convince them that further comparison shopping would be just exhausting and unnecessary drudgery.

6 Try different lures, at different spots, at different times of day.

The familiar guy in the plaid shirt was never fussed when last weekend’s record catch was followed by this weekend’s empty bucket. He’d just try another lure, another fishing place, or another time of the day. Eventually, he figured out which combinations were most fruitful. At least until they weren’t any more.

Of course in the marketing strategy world, we call that testing. We isolate one variable at a time and gather the data, until the most profitable combination is achieved. Then we test that against something else. And like fishermen, we can both succeed and fail without always understanding exactly why. But with a bit of a hunch and a body of data, we can usually achieve a conversion rate from swimming fish to seafood dinner that’s a step ahead of consistent humiliation.

It’s been a while since the ol’ man last flicked his wrist for the watery plop of a tiny weight smacking the surface. I never did inherit his love of the sport. But I cherish what I somehow learned about marketing strategy, from how he lured his fish-faced target audience to their final transaction.

What impresses me most, though, is how he could succeed by being so succinct. In fact, he’d usually make his numbers, weekend after weekend, without uttering a single word. It took me a thousand of them just to tell you about it.

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