Some of the smartest people I have met freely admit to knowing the least. For example, a few years back I was fortunate enough to meet one of New Zealand's more wealthy souls – hundreds of millions in assets sort of wealthy. He had made all his money in the challenging local retail sector. Fortunately, he was a relation of a close friend who had done me a favour and weaseled me a few moments with him over a cup of coffee in the rather modest Auckland office. Permission was in its early stages of development and I was looking for as much guidance as I could get.

Anyway, during the short time we had together, he politely answered every question I posed. And, surprising to me, he shared freely on the many parts of his business that he had struggled to know all about. Product selection, in-store placement, store position – really big parts of his success, but still areas he admitted to not trusting his own judgment on. To fill this gap, he invested heavily in technology and conducted extensive research to find the best answers available. And even as his success grew – and with it his confidence – he still ensured that he remained true to his conviction and returned back to research and other types of statistically valid evidence to find the right decision. He knew exactly what he didn't know and found as much smart data as he could muster to seek a solution.

I think a passage of text from a book I read last month on investing goes a step further in supporting my thoughts here. In it the author mentioned how Warren Buffett, not surprisingly, neatly fitted into a similar method of decision-making as my retail mogul. Apparently, while others claim Mr. Buffett reached his mega wealth by knowing more than anyone else, he puts it down to knowing what he doesn't know.

"We have a ton of doubt on all kinds of things" says Buffett, "and we just forget about those". So he and his business partner Charlie Munger put all those things they don't know how to evaluate into the too hard' pile. Apparently this is where over 99% of the probable investing ideas that come their way end up.

I have a close friend who is starting a business and who I wish was more like these two in the way he approached his upcoming decisions. I care for his success, I really want him to achieve, but deep down I know that it's probably going to be a hard road ahead. I formed this opinion after meeting him for lunch the other week, a few days after he had left his job and kicked out alone. So just a few days in and his plans focused upon securing a nice premise to run his one-man operation from and ensuring he charged people what he was "willing to get out of bed for". So I sat there, stared at my tuna salad, and gradually got more and more confused.

It's a consulting business, so that means with today's technology all that's required is a laptop, a printer, a mobile phone and place to hog at Starbucks for too long, nursing a rather average coffee. (There wasn't a Starbucks nearby my home when Permission started so I was forced to move aside some boxes and turn the spare bedroom into an office.) Back then, I had a very long list of things I didn't know. They included big chunky things like: a) if there was a market for what I was offering; b) if people were willing to pay for the services; and c) how I could find prospects to present my wares to that very week before I had to return the laptop I had borrowed.

All this was very different to how my friend approached those first few weeks. As our lunchtime chat progressed I could see that there wasn't much he didn't seem to know about how to make it the success it was sure to be. So we ate and talked and I shared all the mistakes I have made – there have been quite a few. I left the restaurant hoping that some of it would prompt him to think that perhaps he don't know as much as he thought. But I was wrong – from what I hear nothing has changed and the lease is close to being signed.

Charles Darwin had a few words to say in his time. I think one or two fit neatly into this area, too. So, in defining how natural evolution works, Darwin proposed that it is not the strongest or the most intelligent of the species that survives but those that are the most adaptable. Now, surviving as a species is motivation enough to make most people adapt. Either change or die – now that would seriously get people used to making some alterations to their lives. However, when it comes to business and the changes that can affect you there – well, things tend to change as fast as the business owner is willing.

And in these situations it is perhaps those who expect that changes are going to occur and who are willing to implement them that are the ones with the real advantage. Therefore, if you set yourself up knowing that there are areas of your business that you will never know the full story on your own, then accepting change and dealing with it is just a natural process of uncovering more about what previously lay hidden. Here at Permission, we tend to meet a lot of people who know what they don't know. It's a common characteristic of the people who end up working with us. And it would be fair to say that the vast majority of them either own very successful businesses or are employed by those that do.

It's a rare case to have a struggling business turn up on our doorstep looking for help. But then it's probably just a reflection of how a reverse of this mindset works. I've met a few average business owners in my travels and, as a very general statement, they all tend to have a personality type that makes it very clear that there is very little they don't know about their business. Therefore, with this kind of view of life, the last thing they want to do is engage some help from some "expensive consultants" to tell them something that they "probably already know about their business". Which of course is the exact opposite of what would happen but, nevertheless, it's a mindset that reflects the reason why they are in the situation they are.

Working in an environment where there are known areas of unknown work seems a natural thing to talk about when you relate it to the arts. The author JK Rowling has mentioned how the Harry Potter characters she wrote about seemed to take on their own life as they interacted with each other – all this while she scrambled to keep up with them in her writing. How this would play out through her chapters she had no idea. But still she planned diligently, wrapping a structure of sorts around each chapter, detailing what it should do and when it would be completed. All these bits she knows – she can control them, they are the known bits of her process. To see this in action, look at the image to follow of one of her plans on how one of her books would play out. It's all in longhand, just as she wrote her books.

So what does all this mean for online marketing? Well, quite a bit surprisingly enough. There are a few big chunky areas of this marketing space that at the start of any project are totally unknown to both us and our clients. Here are just three areas that come to mind:

The keywords your best prospects will type into Google when searching for what you offer. You may think you know what they are, Google may even tell you in its research tools the alternative ones that are used each month – but you will need to research which specific keywords actually have behind them people who will arrive on your website and buy your stuff.

The most aggravating problems your prospects want solved by buying what you offer. The old features and benefits sales message tells the tale that people don't buy a drill – they buy the hole the drill will create. But that's just part of the reason – they need a hole so they can hang that shelf, so their partner will finally see them as being the handy person they told them they were when they first started dating. That's the real reason they are browsing along the aisles of Bunnings. Now, that's one very deep problem that I don't expect your average Bunnings' sales person to find out, but hey, it could well be the real reason behind that purchase of the full set of drills they end up walking out of the store with.

Naturally, some problems people will tell you about; others are just too deep and without some serious psycho-analysis you will never uncover them. ( I have read that all our purchases apparently resolve back to the same problem we all want to solve – improving our own level of self-esteem – but that's too deep a rabbit hole to go down in this article.) Anyway, just for now, think about problems rather than colours, sizes and product range. And put the discovery of what they really are into the I don't know' bucket for you to find out all you can. Just to mix it up a bit while doing this work, also be aware that we are dealing with humans here, whose problems wax and wane with changes to their age, lifestyle and other outside forces.

Nevertheless, as clarity comes in this problem area' you will start to look at the words and pictures used on your website in a very different light. Is it all about you and not about them? Most websites fit into this group. Is there a place where you mention the problems your ideal customers could be facing? And do you show them how good you are at solving these problems with some social proof to back up your case (think customer testimonials)?

So, to finish this list of three unknown' areas of online marketing, I'm going to add in one big catch all' – the profile and needs of your ideal customer. Hopefully, we all know what we do and how we do it. That's what we live and breathe in business; we have process documents and strategic plans for this stuff. But what about having the same level of understanding and clarity of our ideal prospect audience? Rarely does this carry as much detail.

For example, last week I sat down with a prospect who sells a business-to-business service and asked him to tell me who his ideal customers were to help me better target them online and grow his operation. "They all are," he replied. "Every business in New Zealand should be our customer – what we offer is valuable to them all." Which, strictly speaking, is true but not that accurate.

So the Chris Price level of polite interrogation continued until we found out their current customer base was skewed towards a certain business category. They also had trouble selling to professional service businesses and struggled to collect debts from one particular industry segment. Then we looked into how the following could positively influence a prospect purchasing – age of business, gender of owner, stage of growth (high, flat or decline), mindset of buyer (stressed, relaxed, busy) and more – all to help define exactly who the best target prospects were.

This process frustrated the hell out of my customer. He wanted to sell to everyone, and not leave anyone out with our marketing message. All this talk about defining a group sounded to him like limiting the marketing success of the business. Things became a bit heated so we broke for coffee and came back once some of the emotion had left the issue. Then I took him through some examples of marketing messages and images that were written with their sell to all' strategy in mind. They were bland, boring and lacked any position or market focus. Very similar in fact to the advertising we received lately in Auckland from our prospective mayoral candidates. No one wanted to upset anyone in what they said or did – it was all very grey, bland and boring.

So the options as I see it are – go after all the market and get hardly anything with your bland advertising, or segment your market and produce messages that talk to their specific needs and achieve more – take your pick. Yes, the latter is the harder of the two, but then who said making a business work effectively was easy!

So to wrap up, knowing more about these three areas will put you in good stead when competing for your customers online. And, by working with Permission, we can help you bridge these points as quickly as possible. Part of our solution comes from some very smart ways to gather the necessary market intelligence to make the unknown more known but, still, when we start there is usually more grey than black. And this is a good thing.