Marketing Tactics Stolen from CIA and MI5 Operatives

Brian Frankel explains what you can learn from experts in espionage to grow your business

December 4, 2017

From Cold War Spy culture to modern day hackers, you can steal lessons from real-life espionage artists to improve your marketing. What I hope you will take away from this article was inspired by a panel at the New Yorker Festival in October 2013 made up of experts in clandestine operations, counter-espionage, and hacking. My goal is to reveal how their tactics can improve your marketing strategies and increase sales. After all, a captivating marketer embodies Bond’s romance, Le Carre’s adventuresome spirit, and the creative management problems.

I will begin with a master of disguise and former CIA agent, Antonio Mendez. He is an exfiltration expert, in charge of getting people out of hostile situations. Remember the movie Argo? It was based on his mission to Tehran, Iran in 1979. Mendez’s expertise is identity transformation and creating foreign personas. His system to infiltrate borders starts with “creating recipes”—a list of scenarios and practical problems likely to occur during a mission. Mendez starts with a surveillanced checkpoint and works backward, imagining the interactions his agents will encounter. Following in Mendez’s footsteps, you can forecast the steps your target market will take leading up to a purchase.

[To read more of Brian Frankel’s thought leadership click here]

The marketing version of “recipes” is known as the consumer purchase process. This is made up of five steps: 1) Need recognition; 2) Information search; 3) Evaluation of alternatives; 4) Purchase; and 5) Post-purchase dissonance.

Consumers start their mission when a desire is sparked or when recognizing they have a problem. Then they use Google to find a solution. You can buy search advertising to target phrases the consumer would query. Clicking on your ad should direct the user to a landing page with a comparison chart that does their evaluation homework for them. This chart should weigh your benefits against your direct and indirect competition. Finally, create a post-purchase gratitude video with directions on how to best use the product.

Mendez’s disguises are created according to his recipes, and mastered through a process called “stage management.” Think of a round theater, with thousands of people moving in all directions, interacting according to their societal role. Spies practice mastering their character and persona before their mission. As business owners, you can use stage management for efficient advertising spending. If you have a $20,000 budget, then you should spend the first 35% testing different audiences, phrases, and verticals. Once you master a high-yielding combination, you should proceed spending the remaining budget for your mission.

Stella Remington is a former spy and the first woman to run MI5. Her specialty is counter espionage and counter subversion—playing hide-and-seek with guys like Mendez—catching secret agents in action. Remington teaches you how to understand people and their mindset. She does this by trying to understand what makes them tick—in her world these driving factors were money, ideology, compromise, or ego. Your job as a marketer is to find the consumers’ problems by using extreme empathy and compassion, so you can serve their greatest needs and deliver more value. You can ask yourself questions like, “What is the consumer doing before and after making a purchase?” The most important lesson Remington can teach you is to start with studying your target market’s needs. From there, an effective practice would be to work your way back into a solution, rather than building and trying to make your customer find it valuable.

Further, you can qualify prospects in sales meetings by asking questions like, “How many of these products have you looked at? And out of those, what did you like?” or “What is your number one concern regarding this service and what would satisfy that concern?” In email campaigns, you can retrieve similar information with surveys. A postmortem analysis on what worked in a successful sales cycle will help close others. Just like Remington would do with her hand-written notes, you can use CRM platforms to keep detailed records and benchmark what you have learned over time.

Modern espionage often takes place online but still co-exists with ground operations. Enter Jeff Moss (a.k.a. Dark Tangent). Moss is an American hacker, formerly with US Homeland Security, who specializes in finding vulnerabilities in computer systems. Whether spying on the ground or in the cloud, there is a clear need to create an identity and build relationships for a successful mission. Moss notes that building trust through virtual networks is equally important. He would invest time and energy into building his identity and fostering relationships with people who could vouch for him. And vice versa—when new hackers came on the radar, Moss would immediately turn to his network for intel and determine if the person was trustworthy.

Business referrals and word-of-mouth marketing is a foolproof tactic to quickly build trust. In my experience, referrals are for some reason often left to chance. The more people who can vouch for you, the larger your reach. You can establish credibility during sales calls by bringing a current customer on the line to share their experience. The prospect will have no choice but to think, “if it worked for this company, then it will work for me.” You can also ask your clients to write you a LinkedIn recommendation and website testimonial. My personal favorite way to build credibility—and one that has proven successful for me—is by establishing thought leadership in your field, done by writing content using your expertise.

The espionage experiences of Mendez, Remington, and Moss provide some specific lessons and concrete data for effective marketing, giving you a way to think about a process-oriented approach. You learn to better serve your customers by listening and understanding their intentions. Your target market’s needs and purchase process reveal how you can deliver value, where you should spend your advertising budget, and what copy to use. Tactics like asking probing questions can help you find use-cases you never would have thought of on your own. Digitally, you can monitor query volume and click-through-rates to influence how and where you spend your budget. Trust can be earned with thought leadership and credibility. Finally, constantly update your tactics based on an ever-evolving environment.

Until next time, you can catch me at a CSQ event with a martini in hand—shaken but not stirred.

[For more on Frankel Consulting’s approach to Marketing click here]

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