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Selling to Middle America

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Jump Ramp Games founders Alex Betancur and Tony Vartanian are teaching a class on Selling to Middle America at General Assembly next week. I don’t typically blog about GA classes, but I think this is one that everyone should take. Not only are Alex and Tony great guys, but they have a rare understanding of how to craft products and marketing campaigns to appeal to Middle America. At one point, this class’s working title was simply “Schlock”, which should give you a good idea of what it’s about.

We’re teaching this for a few reasons. First, selling to Normals isn’t easy. Lots of startup folks think that appealing to Middle America is intuitive, which is totally untrue for most of us. Rather, the people who do get it typically come out of the offline direct response world — think bulk mail and magazine subscriptions. Traditionally, these have been the things that have gotten Middle America to open its wallets. But as online products get better and faster, it remains an open question to see which startups can get Middle America to buy in.

Some examples of companies that have done this well on the web include Zynga and PCH, both of which make compelling use of games to engage. And let’s not forget NYC’s least well-known successful consumer web company, PlasmaNet (where are you, Adrienne Jeffries and Alyson Shontell?)

Second, the payoffs from building a rapport with Middle America are overwhelmingly larger than serving the tech niche. Not only is the market much bigger, but it is often more willing to pull out its wallet while asking fewer questions and demanding less. It’s shocking what can work on the web with normal Americans — I was certainly blown away when I first saw the success of a coreg path from the publisher’s side.

And it’s important to note that Middle America is a diverse place with lots of different markets and psychographics. It’s easy to lump all of “Middle America” into one group — which I’ve been doing for most of this post — but even the most jaded hipster wouldn’t confuse a Hot Topic with a TJ Maxx. Understanding psychographic-specific marketing and what tactics work with what groups are critical parts of growing a mainstream business.

As a final word of warning, don’t confuse poor aesthetics with poor design. Lots of sites — such as PlasmaNet’s FreeLotto — are ugly and challenging to navigate. But they don’t look like that for want of trained designers — rather, they are compulsively driven by analytics and build what works. And in many cases, schlocky-looking stuff plays with Middle America in a way that sleek, intuitive design doesn’t.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

June 29th, 2011 at 10:32 am