The Five W’s of Marketing

By Steve McKee

You’ve heard of the Five W’s: who, what, when, where, and why. They’re the elements of information needed to get the full story, whether it’s a journalist uncovering a scandal, a detective investigating a crime, or a customer service representative trying to resolve a complaint. There’s even an old PR formula that uses the Five W’s as a template for how to write a news release.

Most of the time it doesn’t matter in what order the information is gathered, as long as all five W’s are ultimately addressed. The customer service rep’s story may begin with who was offended, while the journalist may follow a lead based on what happened. The detective may start with where a crime was committed while details of who and what (not to mention when and why) are still sketchy.

The Five W’s are helpful in marketing planning as well. But unlike in other professions, the development of an effective marketing program requires that they be answered in a specific order: why, who, what, where, and when. The reasons may not be obvious, but by following this pathway you can avoid a great deal of confusion, trial and error, and blind alleys, preserving your company’s precious time and resources.

Many marketers instinctively begin with questions about what and where, as in “what” their advertising should say or “where” it should appear. That’s what gets them into trouble. They may have some success putting their plans together by relying on intuition and experience, but both can be misleading in a rapidly changing marketing world. These days it’s easy for anyone to become confused by (or fall prey to) the latest and greatest trends and tactics.

First, Why Marketing?

Smart companies begin by asking “why”—why are we expending our limited resources in marketing? Why do we believe they’re better invested here than in other aspects of our business? These questions, properly considered, force company leaders to clearly define their business and marketing objectives and confront their (often unrealized) assumptions before they get too far down the road.

In some cases they may have unrealistic expectations of their marketing efforts. In others, they may be looking to advertising to solve a non-advertising problem. In still others they may be reflexively reacting to a competitor’s moves, or to any one of a number of other marketplace or internal dynamics (see “Who’s to Blame When Growth Stalls?”). Beginning with the “why” can be challenging, but starting here is critical to ensuring that your subsequent efforts are on target.

The second question is “who”—who is essential to our achieving our goals? To whom should we be directing our message? Whose hearts and minds must we win in order to succeed? The answers to these questions should be derived from the business objectives identified above so that the target audience(s) for your effort are clearly related to them.

For example, a marketing plan meant to generate significant new top-line revenue would likely focus on new customer attraction. An effort that’s meant to enhance margins may concentrate on improving your brand’s value equation among existing customers. And a plan to enhance your company’s price/earnings ratio would focus on prospective investors and industry analysts as its primary target. The better any company defines its “who” – and the more it can know about their lifestyles, behaviors, attitudes, opinions, wants, and needs – the more effectively it can address the remaining three W’s.

Branding Issues

Next comes “what,” as in what it is you need to offer your target audiences in order to accomplish your objectives. This, of course, encompasses a host of business decisions, from product to pricing, policy to packaging, and everything in between. But it is also where key branding issues are addressed, including positioning, differentiation, and a determination of the personality dimensions that are appropriate for both the brand and the task.

To be sure, as market conditions and customer needs change, the “what” of your offering will be a continually evolving proposition. But by having a solid understanding of the “who” and “why” of your efforts, you’ll be more likely to get, and keep, the “what” right.

Finally, the last two W’s can be addressed as you dive into the specifics of campaign planning. The questions now revolve around where and when the best places and times are to communicate your “what” to your “who” in service of your “why.” At this stage you’ll be required to make many tactical decisions, but if you’ve effectively addressed the first three W’s you’ll have the context and perspective you need to make the final two work as hard as possible on your behalf.

In some ways the principles of marketing are simple, but their simplicity can be deceptive. Beneath them often lie hidden complexities that you ignore at your peril. The common way of citing the Five W’s – who, what, when, where, and why – rolls off the tongue and is a great mnemonic device. But if you want to optimize your marketing efforts, think why, who, what, where, and when. The order makes all the difference.

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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