Why Your Marketing is Missing the Mark
(And How You Can Fix It)

image of fish chasing a hook

Picture this scenario: it’s Friday night, and you head out to a nice restaurant after a long week of work.

While you’re relaxing over a glass of wine, the waiter comes over and informs you of the special. “We have a delicious salmon risotto tonight,” he says.

That sounds perfect, you think, so you order the dish. The waiter jots it down and heads back toward the kitchen as you continue your wine and conversation.

So far, so good, right?

But then the chef comes out and walks over to your table.

“I understand you’ve ordered the salmon risotto,” she says as you nod in affirmation. “Well, risotto is a bit tricky, and it’s important we get the salmon right, too… have you ever made it before?”

Before you can respond, the chef turns around. “Tell you what, I’ll go ahead and get the olive oil started … you wash up and meet me back in the kitchen.”

I’m guessing this experience has never happened to you, and I’m also guessing that you probably wouldn’t enjoy it if it did. After getting past the initial surprise (does the chef really want me to come back in the kitchen and help prepare the food?), you’d probably find it very odd.

You know that the food in the restaurant costs much more than it would in the grocery store — you’re paying a big premium for atmosphere and service. If you wanted to make salmon risotto yourself, you would have done so. You didn’t go to the restaurant to learn to make a new dish; you went to relax and have people do everything for you.

What does this scenario have to do with running a business or plotting a course toward freedom?

Your customers don’t want to make their own dinner

Instead of offering people what they really want, too many business owners have this idea that it’s better to involve customers in the behind-the-scenes … because that’s what they think customers want.

We’ve become experts in telling people things they don’t want to hear about, and teaching people things they don’t want to learn.

It’s all the fault of the old parable:

Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.

This might be a good idea for homeless fishermen, but it’s often a terrible idea in business.

Try a better idea

A better idea is to give people what they actually want, and the answer to that lies in understanding something very simple about who we are. Get this point right, and a lot of other things become much easier.

Most of us don’t want to learn how to fish. We work all week and go to the restaurant so that someone can take care of everything for us. We don’t need to know the details of what goes on in the kitchen; in fact, we may not even want to know the details.

Instead, we want the fish brought to us on a plate, deboned, lightly breaded, and pan-fried with a slice of lemon.

To give people what they want, first you have to define value

What is value, exactly? Here’s a basic definition:

Something desirable and of worth, created through exchange or effort.

Perhaps an even easier way to think about it is: value means helping people.

If you’re trying to build a business and you begin your efforts by helping people, you’re on the right track. When you get stuck, ask yourself: how can I give more value? Or more simply: How can I help my customers more? 

Over the past two years, I’ve been traveling the world, interviewing “unexpected entrepreneurs” as part of the research for a book.

I learned to understand the clear value proposition that each person offered their customers. In most cases, there was a clear distinction between the actual product or service, and how it made the end-user feel.

Copywriters talk about getting to the real benefit of the product. The successful entrepreneurs I talked with had learned to market that real benefit — to “give their customers the fish.”

  • Jaden Hair provides recipes and stories about food from her popular website SteamyKitchen.com … but the real benefit is “spend quality time with your family.”
  • Megan Hunt makes custom dresses and wedding accessories from a co-working space in Omaha … but the real benefit for brides is “feel special on your big day.”
  • Ridlon “Sharkman” Kiphart takes clients on adventure tours to exotic destinations … and the benefit is “Live adventurously by joining us for the trip of a lifetime.”
  • Kelly Newsome left a high-paying job as a New York attorney to operate a private yoga practice in Washington, D.C … and the real benefit to her clients is “relax and prepare for the day through a personalized, guided practice.”

The stories go on and on, and you might be able to tell a similar story from your own experience. 

When it comes down to it, what people really, really want is pretty simple.

We want to be happy. We want to have our lives improved, either through the addition of something positive or the subtraction of something that causes stress and hassle. 

Are you doing that in your business?

Are you giving your customers what they really want?

About the Author: Chris Guillebeau’s upcoming book, The $100 Startup, launches on May 8th during the world’s first 7-continent book tour. He also writes for a small army of remarkable people at ChrisGuillebeau.com.

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Reader Comments (39)

  1. says

    Thank you for bringing this up Chris.

    I think the trouble people run into when they’re moving into the content marketing space is that they’re confusing “value” with “teaching a man to fish” and that’s why we default to giving it all away.

    The truth is, a lot of “value” can be delivered when you help your readers know what they didn’t know.

    For the most part, we know when something is wrong, but we can’t identify the “what” or the “why”.

    In the steamykitchen example, people might go there simply looking for recipes, but over time they find that when they have good food, the quality of their family life improves, extra bonus when it doesn’t take extra long to cook good food too.

    What it all comes down to is knowing the big problem your target market has, identifying with it, then offering a solution. Some people want to fish, some people want to pay for you to fish for them. But in either scenario, you have to get a read on them before you make that decision.

  2. says

    Thanks Chris for this very insightful post.

    To bring slightly more clarity to the subject, I would distinguish between knowing and doing. People love knowing. They hate doing. People love how to learn to fish. They just hate getting up early in the morning to go fishing.

    Learnt this from Krespe Kreme. The more you tell, the more you sell. They revolutionized the doughnut industry by opening “factory stores” and showing folks how everything is done. Taking customers behind the scenes is powerful. Thats what Hollywood does too – creates behind the scenes special editions. Because these things make the best sales pitches.

    • Dougal Jackson says

      Spot on Ankesh. Knowing and doing are two completely different things. Knowledge isn’t just about being able to DIY, it gives you the ability to make better choices. To use the dining out example – yes, some patrons are there to relax and have a night off cooking. Others because they want to eat something beyond their talents. But, there are others who do want to be involved – chefs tables exist for that reason. Different strokes for different folks.

      Another example: Websites. There are so many small businesses being ripped off by web designers because they don’t KNOW that you can have a website built that’s easily updatable for the same price. For some businesses this knowledge allows them to cost effectively manage small updates quickly and cheaply inhouse. Others see their time as better spent on their expertise and will still outsource updates. But knowledge gives them that choice.

  3. says

    It is true that customers want their problems solved but that can sometimes be myopic to their present problems and not what the future may hold.

    This happens a lot in technology heavy companies where listening to the customer won’t give you the next big innovation — it will just get you the incremental improvements they want now.

    There is still a lot of value in incremental because it will give you plenty of insights into the problems your customers need to solve next.

  4. says

    “in fact, we may not even want to know the details. ”
    I think you made a great point. Most people don’t want to know what goes on behind the scenes, they just want their product and they want it to work. If I wanted to learn how to do whatever service your company is offering, I wouldn’t be hiring you in the first place!

  5. says

    Wonderful post Chris!

    You are absolutely right about saying that we should offer things that are of value to our readers or customers, and something that they come looking for to our blog. I guess most bloggers like sharing what they want to share, without really thinking about what readers would like to read. I think it would make a major difference if they thought of the readers instead. :)

    Thanks for the wonderful reminder :)

  6. says

    I agree – mostly; however, I know there are times when I have to explain to my customers why a certain approach is appropriate and valuable for their company, and that requires me to explain a lot of those “behind the scenes” processes. This is especially true for clients who are unfamiliar with my industry. What would you say is the proper balance in that situation?

  7. Stacy Strunk says

    Isn’t the parable: “Give a man a fish he EATS for a day. Teach a man to fish and he EATS for a lifetime?” I mean it’s supposed to be about becoming self sufficient, not developing a new hobby. :/ (And, no, I’m not missing the point of the article, it’s just really hard to read past this. It totally blew the flow of the article.)

  8. Derek Berndt says


    We constantly struggle with demonstrating our value. I think the challenge is striking a balance between educating your clients and keeping them informed while at the same time showing them results. Clients don’t necessarily want to learn how to make the meal; however, I think they enjoy watching someone else cook it. :-)

    I think that showing clients some of the behind the scenes details can further make the case for the value you bring to the table. To continue with the food analogy, if you have two cooks – one working in fast food and the other in a 5-star restaurant – and watch how they prepare the food and take the time to present it, you’ll get a better understanding why one hamburger is 99 cents and the other is $30. Of course, your always going to have someone who doesn’t care about the value. :-)

  9. says

    Great point. I would feel very uncomfortable at that restaurant. I mean, what the hell man, I’m here to eat, not cook. I see exactly what you mean by some marketers missing the mark. When people pay, give them what they expect to get.

    However.. I think there’s a difference between sharing the stuff “behind-the-scenes” and having the clients do the work. I mean, I love the fact that Copyblogger shares what they do as far as marketing and copywriting and I would even be interested in learning about what goes into product development – but I would hate to pay for let’s say “Premise” and then get asked to provide some CODE to finalize the product.

    The expectations are that when a customers pays, they should get what they paid for. The extra value would be the hours of educational materials that Premise users get (thanks guys).

    So as far as the restaurant, I feel that providing a recipe for that very special Salmon would’ve blown the customer away. That’s how you create a lasting impression and that’s how you ensure that customers tell their friends about you.

    Just my 2 cents.. I could be way off …Lol

  10. says

    Thanks for the reminder. My blog is about insurance. I need to remember to remind myself whenever I write a post that people do not buy insurance because of the money it pays them. They buy insurance because they want to know that their will be enough money when they actually need it to preserve their life or life-style. When I forget that, I tend to write about statistics and odds of people having health problems.

  11. says

    I love that quote “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” – really worthy for me.

  12. says

    My business is telling stories through electronic media: websites, print, film, corporate video, audio. Much skill, training, investment, and work-hours can be seen in my work.
    I find that the most frustrating thing is having to deal with the “half-information” my clients already have, and, as a result, their thinking that they know more than they do. The net result in their mind is that I — as a vendor — have far less to offer, and am not worth the price I am asking.
    How do I convince them that I am worth every penny that I am charging? I usually think that — contrary to your story — showing them the complexity of the work that I do will help them understand the price. But maybe I am barking up the wrong tree…

    • says

      In that case, I do think it’s often useful to delve into those details.

      I agree that there are sometimes very good reasons to show the complexity of your work, and one of those reasons is often to justify the price point.

  13. Archan Mehta says


    Thank you for contributing this insightful post. We appreciate your ideas here.

    It depends.

    All customers are not the same. Some may actually want to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. They may like to work behind the scenes and discover how things really work. Or just learn new cooking skills. They are curious like children and have the fire in the belly to make it happen. Reality shows are full of such examples.

    In other words, one size does not fit all. For every customers that wants to eat his or her dinner, you will find scores of others who want more participation in their foodie experience. This can apply to other areas of lives too. That is why customers now want a tailor-made and customized experience. They want to be delighted by companies. Cheers.

  14. says

    Perhaps I’m merely too goal-oriented, but this post makes perfect sense to me… Figure out what the end value is, and reverse engineer your work / copy / strategy to achieve the desired end. It’s also a matter of being able to distinguish between what people want and what they THINK they want.
    Insightful post.

  15. says

    Great post, Chris, and I really like the analogy. At risk of going off topic, it occurred to me that there just might be a new business model in a restaurant that allows you to cook your own dinner (with expert help). The expectation would be different: more of an adventure than a dining/service experience (which given the expectation, would be in align with the spirit of your post). This might work well with celebrity chefs and reservations of course, would be required in advance.

  16. says

    I offer both scenarios to my clients – the “Done For You” and the “Do It Yourself”. Obviously, the price points are very different. This to be very beneficial in my business and to those I serve. I have found that many people want the premium service but can only afford the less expensive version that still gets the job done.

  17. says

    I like the main idea in this article! Your examples seem to raise another good point. How people want to feel while they receive your services (or afterwards) is just as important as how much they want your actual service or item. Good post!

  18. says

    “Give customers what they want, not what they ask for.” Your customer doesn’t want to stop a leaky faucet, he wants his wife to stop nagging him. Help him stop the leak and save his marriage.

  19. says


    This has actually crossed my mind several times and I’ve found it hard to choose. To me it comes natural to “Teach a man how to fish” but I realize that’s not the way to go.

    Thanks for confirming it.

  20. says

    Hey Chris,

    great article & nice analogy.

    A good analogy always sells a concept for me. I would probably be entertained the first time that happened but I get your point 😉

    There’s a famous Chinese restaurant in London known for it’s rude waiters, people go there just for the experience (the food’s not bad either) but no-one would like it if all restaurants were like that. A girlfriend of mine said ‘I thought they were quite nice, I don’t see what all the fuss is about, so she tipped them and then they threw her money back at us!!). I digress.

    The question I’m always struggling with is – long post (pillar article?) or short post. I love short, simple, practical concepts which can have a big impact. Also because today people are reading on smaller devices and have less time it feels like the way to go, however somehow such ‘tips’ maybe aren’t taken as seriously as more comprehensive posts. At the moment I’m thinking to just have a mix of both.

    That being said, you’re article above was fairly short and I loved it. Are all of your articles that kind of length?


  21. says

    Hi Chris
    You have put a great spin on a hot subject of discussion. I think my view on this is reflected by some of the other comments – the customer is not always the same.

    Some want to sit in a restaurant and get their meal, end of story. Others may want to know whay the food costs a certain price. Yet others may be hobby chefs and want to know how they can recreate the dishes at home. Then you might have the gourmet restaurant critic, who has dined at the best restaurants in town and knows the intricacies of fine dining. Satisfying each of these requires a different approach, there’s no “one size fits all”. Maybe knowing who your customer is gives your Marketer the knowledge needed to hit the mark.

    As a quick anecdote – I was once at a great Italian restaurant I have often frequented, but in a bit of a rush and so wanted to get my meal to go. The chef gave me a box with all the seperate ingredients and cooking instructions – his high quality pasta dish would suffer it it was sat in a container for too long. Definitely a case of the marketer knowing the target audience, in this case the chef knowing me!

  22. says

    I do this all the time. I’ve tried all sorts of ways to point out to clients that they are doing something wrong in managing people. Sometimes it is just best to do it for them and they can learn by example if they chose to learn.

  23. says

    Thanks for this Chris. In the end, it’s still all about value and how you can be of service to the people. Understanding the needs of your customers. I like that.

  24. says

    Very good point Chris – I try to provide clients with information on doing things themselves so that they have control if they want it later, but the ‘IF’ is very important. I may be more sensitive to what they want or be more specific about what kind of service I offer, that its for people who want to get their hands dirty!

    The book sounds very interesting and I’ll keep an eye out for it.

    Thanks again

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