One of the things most small business struggle with mightily is differentiation. And yet, it’s probably the number one factor in the success of one business over another.

If you can’t demonstrate how your business is significantly different than every other business that says it does what you do, you are doomed to compete on price.


Being different is the first step in building a business that people care about. In some cases, this step alone can allow you to create some distance from the pack of completion.

But, and here’s where it gets truly interesting, if you really want to carve out success you must also understand that it’s often not enough to simply be different. You’ve got to be different in a way that boldly addresses the greatest unmet needs of your market.

You’ve got to uncover a way to solve the problems that no one else is even talking about solving.

See, everyone in your industry is addressing the same problems, but what if they’re the wrong problems, or at least not the most pressing problems?

Think about you industry, your business, aren’t you simply trying to meet the same needs as everyone else? My guess is that even if you’ve come up with a powerful new way to package, price, deliver and differentiate your products and services, you’re still essentially attacking the same problems and challenges with the same proven approach as everyone else.

So let me ask you this. Do you know the number one unmet need in your marketplace? Do you understand the biggest problem your customers struggle with? Do you know the thing they can’t get anyone to solve? The answer they’ve looked high and low for? The topic no one seems to have any advice on? The question they would gladly pay to have answered?
The answers to those questions are where the true secret to marketing success resides.

Great copywriters, Internet marketers and AdWords experts get this. It’s how they push psychological hot buttons and find hungry niche markets already queued up to click on tiny ads buried deep in long tail searches.

But it’s also one of the most powerful ways to position an entire business and dominate an entire industry.

Remember, it’s not enough to simply be different; you’ve got to be different in a way that offers extreme value and solves problems people are ready to pay for.

Your research starts by sitting down with your customers or some segment of your market and asking some tough questions.

I’ve written about this numerous times, but often your customers know what you do that differentiates your more precisely than you do.

In addition to asking your clients what you do that’s unique, you’ve also got to start asking, probing and digging for unmet needs. You’ve got to try to figure out what they can’t get and how badly they want it.

The secret to success is to solve the problems nobody else is solving, even if you don’t yet know how to that.

Starting today, ask your customers some variation of the following five questions and start to look for patterns, unmet needs and opportunities to change how you approach your business.

Your unmet needs survey questions:

  1. What is the biggest challenge you are facing in your business?
  2. Why is it important that you find a solution to this challenge now?
  3. How hard have you worked to try to solve this challenge in the past?
  4. What about this challenge makes it so hard to solve or answer?
  5. How hard has it been to find an answer to your challenge?

Ultimately, you’re looking for patterns of unmet needs that people are motivated to solve, but have had a very difficult time finding solutions to.

I have to credit former psychologist turned Internet marketing Dr. Glenn Livingstone for the basis of these questions. Livingstone uses sophisticated research techniques to uncover problems people are desperately seeking answers to in order to create information products, AdWords tactics and sales copy that address these niche needs.

The approach, however, has powerful implications for any business. Every market has gaps of unmet needs and the business that figures these out, addresses and solves the hard problems that exist, can differentiate in ways that others won’t even consider.

This path is the surest route to success but it isn’t the easy route. The research you uncover from taking this approach seriously may greatly alter your business model, products, approach and positioning.

The secret to success in business is to differentiate. The secret to unparalleled success is to differentiate by solving the greatest unmet needs of a market.

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John Jantsch

John Jantsch is a marketing consultant, speaker and author of Duct Tape Marketing, Duct Tape Selling, The Commitment Engine and The Referral Engine and the founder of the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network.
  • Looks like we are on the same page today John… Thank you for sharing these important, and relevant “5 Questions…” to solve “…unmet needs…”!

  • True words John.

    In my industry everyone one does the same thing. Same sales pitch, same aircraft, same blah, blah, blah. How boring is that!!

    This can also be seen with airlines, pizza delivery, department stores but the true leaders are the ones who do it a little different but fulfill the greatest needs of their clients. As you stated.

    This of course depends on what industry your in, but for my company we differentiate by being human. I know it sounds so cliche, but by building deep relationships our clients are willing to spend millions for their aircraft maintenance because we’ve built trust in an industry full of sell and ignore the client once order is closed.

    We first meet their individual needs and then move up to their organizational needs. By differentiating you stand out among the crowd and say we’re here to serve you.

  • gwen morrison

    Excellent read! And so true! I liken it to the “cart before the horse” way of doing business. Often, with new business ventures, it takes some time to really get a good grip on what your customers REALLY need… and then you tweak your services to meet those needs. Rinse. Repeat. 🙂

  • Russell Davies

    Great article, really good advice but what approach do you recommend to finding out the answers to these questions?

  • Hey John,
    I had almost forgotten how smart and beneficial reading your blog can be. A fellow curator of mine happened to give this piece some commentary on our platform, which is why I popped back over. I am happy to say I enjoyed reading it. Cheers!

  • Great questions. I know I can tend to focus on “working harder” to make a difference, but this is more effective (and a lot smarter) by a long shot. Thanks, John.

  • Thank you! for the lead! very great questions it may helped in our business this type of questions.I really get into it, it gives me knowledged to work out my future businesses.Great job John!

  • I love how you put it: “The secret to unparalleled success is to differentiate by solving the greatest unmet needs of a market.” It’s very true, particularly in today’s dynamic and fiercely competitive online world. Thanks for sharing!

  • Great questions!

  • Hi John,

    Great post. Do you have examples of companies which have done this successfully?

  • KenSchmitt

    As the president and founder of a boutique executive career management and recruiting firm, I try to focus on setting us apart by following the same advice I tell my clients: Know your value. Knowing what you are worth, what you have to give and what makes you different and often better, is key to standing out. Many companies as well as clients fight to “keep up” with the best. However, as you stated the way to stand out is to “solve the greatest unmet needs of a market.” If you are keeping up, you are trying to meet the same needs as those around you.
    Ken Schmitt

  • InnoFuture


    Fantastic work. This is probably the best definition of ‘what is innovation’: “The secret to unparalleled success is to differentiate by solving the greatest unmet needs of a market.” I work with businesses to help them build business Culture around their Competitive Advantage: total focus on what we do differently (that matters) and how to continually find new ways to solve customers problems better. I can now add this magic (but obvious) word ‘unmet needs’. The biggest problem, which takes a great communicator, is to make people realize they have a problem and help them find ‘courage’ to ask for help.

    Thank you for your thoughts. MM

  • Nobody asked for the car. Or the airplane. Or the radio. Or the internet. And yet these offerings changed the world. Questioning people on what they want takes a far backseat on the bus compared to understanding this: Customers have unspoken needs they cannot yet articulate. That means we must behave as anthropologists – observing, studying and analyzing their behaviors and intent – and then applying creative and critical thinking to design new offerings that the customer would never have conceived. Therefore, I disagree with the article. Customers are incapable of telling you that which they cannot articulate. If it was as easy as this article suggests, everyone would be doing it. INNOVATE. (and being different means nothing – just like “strengths” … all that matters is real competitive advantage)

    • Sean – it’s easy to poke holes in one blog post – I happen to agree fervently with what you’ve suggested as part of the puzzle and have said as much for years, but even what you suggest has a danger if taken alone – the world is littered with the empty shell of companies that created things that the market should want desperately. Not every company is on a mission to create the car, but innovation comes out of solving problems – the car, airplane, radio and Internet all addressed problems that people knew existed – people wanted to get places faster – the innovation came from people who figured out how to meet that need.

      This can and does apply to a client who tells you something inane like they wish they could remember when to change the oil in their car and someone then comes up with a process or maybe even a humble sticker that reminds them. It is as easy as this article suggests to uncover profitable unmet needs, but then it takes innovation or maybe more importantly execution to address the need creatively.

      Thanks for your input.

  • The excellent is one in every of several interesting articles I’ve study. I congratulate each an individual and I hope you keep writing articles as interesting because this. Read on your posts and as such you