Positioning Your Product Against Filters

You can have the best product in the world, but it could be getting filtered out the conversation without you even knowing it. You could be losing clients, losing sales and hurting your business because of factors that you’re not even aware of. How to combat this? Understand what filters your target market uses in their decision-making, and position your product to make sure it’s not getting filtered out too early.

Here’s a quick story to help illustrate how this works.

With tax season upon us I decided to hire some part time bookkeeping help. I’ve had a CPA to help with actual tax strategy and preparing filings, but the real tedious work comes with all of the bookkeeping, and this year I just wasn’t having it.

So I decide to look for someone online that’s reliable but inexpensive. Many have written about the values of a virtual assistant, but other than a short run with Task Rabbit1, I simply haven’t given the time to invest.

After a little research, I decided to try oDesk. Within two hours of posting the job I had more than 50 applicants. At this point I have little data about them, and since I’m not planning on making a huge investment, I really don’t have the time to read through every single applicant. So what to do? I relied on filters.

Hourly rate of less than $8? Gone. You may be the best value out there, but your price is sending signals that you won’t be a good fit. More than $15 an hour? Gone. I can find part time work right here locally for that rate. Now we’re down to 25 applicants.

What else? Less than 4.5 stars? Out. Less than 5 reviews? Seeya. Is this fair to newcomers? Of course not. Is it a totally reliable method that will always yield the best possible applicant? Nope. But the whole point of outsourcing this is to free up my time. The hour I spend finding someone to pay to do the work is an hour I could have used to just do the work. So I need the quickest way to find a few qualified applicants - not the most thorough way to find the absolute best candidate.

How We Use Filters

Like I described in my example, we use filters not to neccesarily find the best, but to rule out the worst. They reduce our cognitive load, freeing us up to spend more time on options that have more promise. They’re a mental shortcut that will let us process more options in a shorter amount of time.

But that filtering can lead us to miss out on a truly great option if it doesn’t conform to your prior ideas about what you’re looking for. This is where you need to understand your the filters of your target market, to ensure that your great option isn’t getting screened out from the conversation because it doesn’t conform to their prior beliefs.

A Few Examples

So what are a few common examples of how people can filter out your product before even giving it the light of day?

I’m not a techie

If they’ve struggled wih technology in the past, it can become a common filter to rule out future things that seem technical in nature. No amount of describing, explaining or selling will change their mind about this filter. Even if your product is dead-simple to use, you won’t get to that point of use if you’re sending any kind of “techy” signal.


WWMBT - also known as “What would my boss think?”. This is the phenomonem behind “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM equipment”. For example, if you’re selling to BigCo Enterprise Solutions and your website follows all of the latest startup design trends - you might be missing your mark. Your prospect is going to filter you out of the conversation without any consideration of actual features because you simply don’t look the part of a BigCo vendor.

I’m not the type of person who…

One of the most powerful psychological principals governing human behavior is the theory of cognitive dissonance. Put simply, we have internal beliefs about the type of people we are and values we subscribe to, and we become stressed when our actions or thoughts contradict these prior beliefs about ourselves. We actively work to avoid this stress, and filtering is a common method. If we perceive that something doesn’t align with our internal values, we’ll dismiss it out of hand, even if there is a clear, objective advantage to using it.

How does this work in practice? The small business owner that sees herself as cost-conscious will filter out paid solutions if there are free services on the market. It doesn’t matter if the paid solution will objectively improve her business and provide more value than she’s paying for it - it doesn’t confirm to her internal view of being cost-concious.

Positioning Against Filters

So when you’re positioning a product in the market, you need to be very concious of the filters that your target audience are employing. The hardest part is that few people talk about them explicitly - filtering is often a subconcious process, or it’ll be wrapped up and shrouded in other language about their decision-making process. During customer development you really have to do some digging. You need to listen to more than the surface-level language, but really attempt to understand the underlying mechanics at work. Once you understand those mechanics, you need to position against them correctly.

The truly hard part? This is just table-stakes. This type of positioning is just the bare-minimum you need to stay in the conversation from the get-go. Then you need to do the hard work of selling against everyone else who made it past the first round of filters. We’ll cover some theory about selling position in a later post. To be notified when we do, be sure to sign up for the newsletter below.

  1. Task Rabbit was a great service, and I’d recommend it if you have a steady flow of administrative work that you need done. Personally I found myself struggling to find enough work to hand out on a monthly basis, so I ended up cancelling my subscription. 

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