My Fish Bowl Story of Marketing Mistakes

Here’s a mistake I made that taught me a lot and helped me teach others.

The Mistake


Many years ago, I took a new product – early business planning software – to its first trade show. We did the standard booth thing, brought along products, and sell sheets, business cards, and so forth. And we put a plastic fishbowl on top of our main table, in front of a large sign that said “Free Drawing. Drop your business card here for a free business planning software.”

Each of the three days, at the end of the day, we drew a card from the bowl. Later we sent the winners their software. And when the trade show was done, we ended up with four fishbowls full of business cards; in fact we had more than 500 cards.

And those cards were completely useless to us. The people who left them weren’t really leads for us. They didn’t actually want business planning software. They had brought cards to the trade show and they dropped those cards into every box, hat, or bowl that offered them something free. The leads were way more expensive to follow up than what they yielded in sales when we did. Thank heavens we had the sense to test a few dozen first, before we went to the expense of getting them all typed into an accessible list.

The Correction

The following year we took the same product to the same trade show and the same fish bowl too. That second year, however, we put a sign by the bowl that said: “For more information about Business Plan Pro, drop your business card here.”

After that trade show we ended up with a few dozen good leads – dozens, not hundreds. Those people were actually interested in what we were selling. Calling them back was worth the effort.

The Lesson

I’ve used this story often in teaching and seminars and managing my own company because to me it illustrates the importance of target marketing and focus. In this example, quality of leads is much more important than quantity. Hundreds of bad leads are worth nothing, while a few dozen good leads have real value.

What distinguishes the good leads from the bad leads is their interest. People walking the aisles at a trade show drop their business cards in any fish bowl offering something free, whether they are interested or not in what that exhibitor is selling. We didn’t want a lot of cards. We wanted cards from people interested in our specific product, business planning software, and not cards from anybody (via lucica at dress head).  The marketing follow-up was expensive , whether it was inputting data from business cards or mailing information, and the marketing yield was good with well-targeted prospects and bad with generalized prospects.

Some businesses depend more on targeting than others. Think about that for your business. Do you sell to everybody? Or do you sell to a specialized group? What kind of fishbowl do you want?


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