Don’t feel bad. It happens all the time. But for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to ask it next time.

Okay, here it is: are we selling competitively, i.e., against similar companies, to people who know they need our product? Or are we selling the category–in other words, are we promoting the “idea” of our type of product to people who haven’t considered using something like this? If this isn’t the core of marketing strategy, gosh, I don’t know what is.

An example: Let’s say your firm is in the business of backing up other people’s data in the now-ubiquitous cloud. So, is that a competitive sell, or a category sell? The answer, of course, is it depends. The same product can go either way, depending on the audience you’re targeting and the media you’re using.

On your website, it’s pointless to sell the “idea” of cloud back-ups, because if a tech-savvy visitor found you, that means they’re already convinced of the value of such a service, and they’re actively searching for a vendor. It may be a relatively small subset of the general public that’s coming to your site, but you know they’re a qualified audience because they’re making an unsolicited effort to solve a perceived need. So shout about your competitive advantage of, say, restoring their custom software settings as well as the software itself.

On the other hand, if you’re promoting via a purchased email or direct mail list, or even running a TV spot, you’re talking to a much bigger, but much less qualified group of regular folks. The percentage of those people who happen to be actively looking for such a product is going to be pretty small. So here’s where you sell the overall benefits of cloud back-ups. Sure, they could still buy from another vendor. But since you reached out to them, and they now have your contact info, you’ve got the inside track.

Once you’ve scared them about the risks of losing all their precious data–and made yourself the hero in the process–there’s no point in muddying that big, strong message with point-by-point details of why you’re better than competitors. Rather, deal with the anticipated objections by letting them know how easy and inexpensive your service is.

How you answer the competitive-vs-category marketing strategy question is up to you. But by neglecting to even ask the question, we see that even the transition to online marketing hasn’t saved some companies from throwing their marketing budget out the window.

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