Good, Bad, and Ugly Marketing — All At the Same Time

Of course we all strive to send meaningful marketing messages to our customers that are, at best, helpful and welcome, and at least, not offensive or damaging. Sometimes, though, a mixed message slips through, such as the e-newsletter I received from my health insurance provider today.

First, I appreciate being able to choose an e-version of the newsletter — or no version at all — rather than automatically being sent an oversize paper version that I toss in the recycling pile within 5 minutes (at most) of perusal.

So the first impression was positive.

The Good: Letting customers choose how they wish to be communicated with, if at all.

One of the articles, dealing with Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), was of particular interest to me. I have an HSA and knew that my account would soon be handled by another bank — exasperatingly, the third HSA custodian since I opened the account only two years ago. So, I clicked the link in the email to read more. That I could easily scan the content to find what mattered to me was also positive.

The Good: Letting customers choose which messages are most important to them.

In reading the article, after learning about some improvements to simplify the claims process, I found this paragraph:

Additionally, as part of our spending account transition, the custodian of your [insurance]-sponsored HSA will change to [NEW BANK]. You should have received an important notice in February telling you how to easily transfer funds from your current HSA custodian ([OLD BANK]) to the new one. Your consent to transfer funds from the current to the new custodian will enable you to continue to access your HSA through your member website and allow you the continued convenience of paying providers directly from your HSA.

Suddenly, the message I was receiving was not so good. I did remember receiving the change notice mentioned (In December or January, however, not February), but didn’t think I had to do a thing to transfer funds to the new custodian. Now I was confused — was I supposed to do something? Did I have to give “consent to transfer funds”? Had I misunderstood? Was I screwed if I didn’t save that notice?

That sent me on a 10-minute hunt to find the notice, thinking, Well I guess I’ll have to call them if I can’t find it. My bad.

When I did find it, however, I saw that indeed, I was correct. If I did nothing, my HSA would automatically be transferred to the new custodian. Much ado (and much annoyance) about nothing — definitely a negative impression.

The Bad: Causing confusion (and frustration) through unclear or misleading messages.

Because I’m a professional communicator, these types of communication mishaps bother me a lot — probably more than the average reader. I wanted to email my insurance provider to point out the confusion (and, honestly, to vent a little).

How could I do that? Hmmm…no link either in the original email or on the article landing page for questions, comments, or feedback. I noted the sender’s email address, and thought I might just reply to that. But no, a closer look at the fine print revealed this message:

Please do not reply to this email as we are unable to respond to messages sent to this address.

Now I had an overwhelmingly negative impression — otherwise known as being pissed off.

The Ugly: Not giving customers an easy way to communicate with you to ask questions or offer feedback.

Note: Some of that feedback just *might* be good. So, my insurer is missing out on that opportunity as well.

I am not willing to devote any more of my time to this issue, such as calling an 800 number and attempting to find out who might be the right person in the “newsletter department” to talk to. So instead, I vent on paper — as writers are prone to doing.

It doesn’t take a lot for a good marketing effort to turn bad and ugly. In this case, the problem could have been avoided with more careful content review and editing. But assuming the confusing paragraph might still have slipped through, giving readers the opportunity to interact and share questions and concerns would have gone a long way to restoring goodwill and helping to correct misinformation.

The Bottom Line: Avoid pissing off your customers, but because you probably will at some point, give them an easy way to tell you about it so you can fix it.

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Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.
~ Bill Gates

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Did You Say “Dinosaur”? Or, Doing Business in a Way Customers Understand.

In a great old Twilight Zone episode coincidentally named “Wordplay” (the name of my business), a salesman wakes up to find himself in a world where familiar words have suddenly taken on new meanings. In the end, he’s forced to sit down and learn a whole new language, where “dinosaur” means “lunch” and a dog is a “Wednesday.” (Here’s a synopsis.)

This reminds me of what it’s like to work with a new client or start a new job. There’s so much to learn…the players, the lingo, how people interact, the systems and processes — everything that’s familiar to them is new to me. It can feel like everyone is talking jibberish. And it’s easy to see the oddities in the way things are said and done. (Customers have to do what to process an order? What’s this ‘taxonomy’ you keep talking about? You fill out a Z form to get a rebate?)

These early, head-spinning stages  give me the opportunity to help my client see things as the customer might see them. Is some of their language odd or unclear? Is a customer-facing process a little wonky? Did I have a hard time understanding how something was done or why it was done a certain way? I can use my experience as a newbie to help my clients simplify and clarify what they present to the outside world. I try to take note of what seems odd or what I struggled to understand — chances are others less in-the-know struggle with the same thing.

It’s a small window of opportunity, though. Turns out you can teach an old dog new trumpets. Before long, what seemed unclear or odd will be familiar and “the way we’ve always done things” will make  sense. Before that happens, I try to capture my initial impressions and use those insights to improve my work, and ultimately, my client’s work.

What if you’re on the client side of the fence? You have the curse of knowledge, so your challenge is to put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Formal methods like focus groups, surveys, trial runs (just how does someone approach your website for the first time?), and direct marketing tests (half the list gets one version, the other half gets another version) are all good ways to understand your customers. So are informal methods, “Hey Aunt Meg (or Neighbor Sam or Vendor John), what do you think of this? (How would you fill this out? Does this make sense? Where would you start with this?) The answers you get may confirm what you knew all along or throw a bucket of cold reality in your face, but at least you won’t be basing your decisions and actions on assumptions.

Frankly, if you simply recognize that what’s clear to you may not be clear for your customers, you’ll be a lot farther ahead than many businesses. Use the insights of those new to your business — new employees, new customers, new vendors like me — to define a language that everybody can understand.

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His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.
~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Does What I Do Matter?

I started reading a new work-related book yesterday on the topic of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). The book’s author is highly successful; the book came recommended. Just a few pages into it, though, I was discouraged enough to put it down.

It really started in the third sentence, when the author writes about words, saying : “Spoken effectively, and they can build mighty empires….

What?

And in the fourth sentence: “Before the ink pen, printing press, typewriter and the Internet came along,….

What other kind of pen is there? And why the extra “the” before Internet? And how odd the book’s using AP style, with no serial commas (though later, of course, serial commas do occasionally appear).

Why in the next couple paragraphs does it mention “13 billion pages” but spell out “twelve to fourteen years”?

The book’s introduction goes on to explain how the author got involved in SEO and how he just loves writing. In fact, he says, “The one thing I knew I could do and do as well as the best out there, was write.”

Who  am I to disagree? After all, the book is published. People like me are buying it. The author has a successful writing business. And it doesn’t seem to matter one whit that the book is poorly edited and grammatical errors can be found on nearly every page (at least the 15 pages I’ve made it through).

Clearly, what I would have done (dotted every i and crossed every t) and what I bring to the table for my clients (good writing that’s also technically correct) isn’t the key. People are buying this book for the information it imparts about SEO, and maybe the average reader wouldn’t even notice the issues that bother me so much.

So, does what I do really matter?

Does what any “creative professional” does really matter? The graphic designer who brings order and elegance to information? The photographer who fusses over lighting and composition? The layout specialist concerned with kerning and leading and line breaks?

Clearly, creative professionals think it does. But the majority of the world? I’m not so sure.

Will a Web page get more hits if its beautifully designed and edited, or does it only matter that it has a big button “Click Here for Something Free!” or some metatags somewhere?

Painful though it will be, I plan to plow through my SEO book and see. In my head though, and maybe even with my “ink pen,” I’ll be proofreading and editing every step of the way. Because, paycheck aside, what I do at least has to matter to me.

Same for you?

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The books I haven’t written are better than the books other people have.
~ Cyril Connolly

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Why Experience Matters…and Doesn’t

Anyone in business knows what it means to compete for customers. You’ve had to put your goods, services, or know-how up against a competitor’s and strive to emerge the winner — the one the customer buys from or the client chooses to work with. Many times, prospects are looking for a vendor with experience doing the same type of project as theirs. But is that really the best evaluation method?

My take is, it’s one evaluation method, but not necessarily the best.

I recently talked with a woman looking to hire a writer to “fix” the copy for a Web site describing her newly organized and unconventional non-profit organization. She found me via a writer colleague of mine, who was too busy to take on this project for her, his longtime client, and recommended me instead.

The potential client wasn’t happy with the copy as it stood. I agreed — I found it not only didn’t clearly explain the new organization, it actually gave me the wrong idea. As I listened to her describe the organization, I asked many questions, trying to zero in on how I would describe it so it would make sense and convey the unique, creative nature of the organization.

The client, gun-shy over having been burned once on the copy, kept expressing her desire to make sure the site had the right voice. That she hired the right writer who “got it.” She seemed uncomfortable with my probing questions, actually saying that many people she described it to just immediately understood what it was all about. (But obviously not the person who wrote the initial copy.) Along the way, she asked to see samples of my work (more than what’s on my Web site) and reiterated that the site needed the “right” writer.

In the end, she decided to let the agency who had designed the site handle the selection of a writer. By that time, I was a bit relieved — the project seemed to be more trouble than the 10 or so hours it would consume.

But it made me think, again, about the value of experience and the importance of “fit” when hiring a writer.  Here’s my take.

  1. Ask for recommendations — and believe the people you ask.
    Certainly, you should ask people whose opinions you value whom they would recommend and why they think that person is a good choice.  I believe any writer who comes recommended in such a way could do the job, particularly if both recommender and recommendee have been in business awhile.
  2. Ask if the writer has done just what you’re looking for — but don’t be afraid if he or she hasn’t.
    In many ways, commercial writing is a process. The writer studies the subject in advance, asks probing questions, gauges the appropriate tone and feel of the finished piece, produces a draft, and refines it based on feedback from subject matter experts and other reviewers. Whether the topic is product packaging or hedge fund fraud or why-my-law-firm-is-better-than-yours doesn’t matter. When it may matter is if your subject is highly technical or highly industry-specific; then it may make sense to hire a specialist in that area to avoid a steep learning curve. But even then, your subject matter experts can often inject the “insider” perspective your writer may lack, and a good writer will quickly learn the industry and lingo.
  3. Most importantly, trust your gut.
    Do you get a good feeling when you talk with the writer? Does he put you at ease that he understands what you’re looking for? Does she come recommended by someone you trust? Is she willing to meet your budget and schedule constraints? Does he ask smart questions that make you think? All of these are likely more important than seeing “your project” reflected in the writer’s portfolio.

My potential client, who decided to let someone else choose her Web site writer for her, probably didn’t get the gut feeling that I was right for the job. And that’s OK. Our interactions also convinced me we weren’t a good fit. Working together may have changed both our minds, or it may have been an exercise in frustration. More than I trust my 20 years of writing experience telling me I could do the job, I trust my40+-year-old  gut telling me it wasn’t meant to be. My advice is to trust yours, too — more important than whether your prospective writer’s experience matches your needs is your gut feeling that he or she is right for the job.

# # #

There is no need for the writer to eat a whole sheep
to be able to tell what mutton tastes like.
It is enough if he eats a cutlet.
~ W. Somerset Maugham

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Direct Marketing — The More Things Change…

When Julius the cat wants my attention, he jumps on my desk, situates himself between me and the screen, looks at me earnestly, and taps my face with his paw. It’s annoying and endearing at the same time. When his cohort, CC, wants my attention, he prefers to scratch at my leg. Annoying, yes. Endearing, no. While both of these direct communication approaches are effective at getting my attention, one is more likely to get the desired (food-related) result than the other. It’s the same with direct marketing.

While any number of approaches can get your audience’s attention, getting results hinges on finding the approach that appeals rather than repels.

Consider some options:

  • Direct mail is the granddaddy of direct marketing. In my previous job, 10 to 15 years ago, we did a ton of direct mail in the form of conference flyers, event invitations, new product announcements, newsletters, and general product marketing. We also did “3-D” mailers, where we’d target a certain group to receive a nicely packaged gift or gadget, cleverly tied to a product or service we were marketing. Considering printing, postage, mailing list purchases, any packaging and gifts, direct mail can get very expensive, and my clients use it less and less.
  • eMarketing became the next big thing, as people complained about being inundated with paper mail (that they mostly just threw away without reading). So came the slew of e-mail — some more sophisticated than others — and the rise of spam and spam filters. While still popular, eMarketing has its own challenge to reach the right audience, cut through the clutter, and avoid ending up in the trash.
  • Web 2.0 is the term coined for “next generation” uses of the Web to facilitate social interaction and communication, such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, and blogs. These tools have opened up a new avenue for businesses to market to potential customers, and the trail is still being blazed. Have you been asked to “Friend” a business? Has your company started a blog or do you follow another company’s blog? Have you Tweeted about your company or followed a link in another business’s Tweet? Are you marketing yourself on LinkedIn?

What’s interesting is that as direct marketing evolves, the basic tenets remain the same:

  • Address your audience in a personal way, which means knowing enough about them to gauge their interests and what messages may resonate with them. The more you know about the people you market to, the greater your chance of success.
  • Push benefits.  Don’t tell me about your product or service, tell me what it will do for me and why I can’t live without it.
  • Measure your effectiveness, make adjustments, and measure again. What response did your direct mail letter generate? How many responded to the e-mail version? (You did both, right?) How many hits on your Web site or blog? How does that change if you vary something in your approach — doing a mailer instead of a letter, adding a coupon or other offer, Tweeting about it? Throwing something out there and hoping it works has never been the recipe for successful direct marketing. Make “test and tune” your mantra.
  • Be realistic about response rates. I remember being shocked when I first learned about typical direct marketing response rates — 1 percent, 3 percent, fractions of a percent. That low? Yes, that low. Know your break-even point so you can decide whether a particular direct marketing avenue is even worth the cost.

And of course,

  • Be endearing, not annoying. I can point to the most endearing direct mail solicitation out of the hundreds I’ve received. It was nearly 20 years ago, promoting a literary magazine I had never heard of. But it was so well written, so targeted to capture a young writer’s (and avid reader’s) imagination and dreams of glory, I just had to subscribe. (Turns out, the magazine was way too erudite for me, but I still liked the idea of subscribing to it.)

This piece lives on in my head as the hallmark of effective direct marketing, in stark contrast to the endless (annoying) solicitations for mega-cable/ mega-phone plans that clog my mailbox (and soon my recycling bin) or the spam that slips through my filter.

Can you point to a particularly effective direct marketing solicitation you received? (Maybe the earnest young student telemarketing for your alma mater. Or that preview of a new magazine you couldn’t resist. Or the e-mail pushing an industry conference that was just what you needed.)

Think about why it worked for you, then incorporate some of those qualities into your own marketing efforts. And remember…research your audience, talk up benefits, test and tune, be realistic about results and, above all, aim for an endearing tap on the face rather than an annoying scratch on the leg.

# # #

Make it simple. Make it memorable.
Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read.
~ Leo Burnett

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Jargon or Plain English? Weigh in.

A while back, wrapping up a conference call, I told the other meeting participants I would “ping” someone after the meeting. I immediately felt foolish.

Pinging someone is one of those buzzwords I had heard often, but never used. Originally it was a technical computer term — to ping someone’s IP address to check an Internet connection. Now it’s a generic term for e-mailing or IMing or texting someone — “I’ll ping Erika after the meeting and let her know what you need.” I could have said, “I’ll e-mail Erika” or “I’ll call Erika,” or simply, “I’ll let Erika know.” Instead, I pinged her.

I doubt the other guys gave it a second thought, but jargon is one of those things that writers are taught to be acutely aware of. Particularly with this client, who has a whole initiative around what they call “Straight Talk” and what has been around for years as the Plain English movement. Basically, it’s the idea that you simplify writing, removing complexity (like legalese — the party of the first part, and all that) and often meaningless jargon (business-speak like bandwidth, net-net, leverage, value-added) to write more clearly.

It’s true, particularly in Marketing, that you can do an awful lot of writing that says nothing (it’s a lot like blogging). Not doing it is hard because it forces you to think about what you really mean and demands a deeper understanding of the subject. Frequently, I don’t have that deep understanding, nor do I always need it. I just need to bang out something that sounds semi-intelligent and let the SMEs sort it out. When they insert their knowledge, I can go back and “plain up” the language.

People talk to each other in terms they understand. In business, everyone knows what you mean by the bottom line, by scope creep, by taking something offline. It really was OK that I pinged someone, even though I felt hesitant because I’d never put it that way before. I just wanted to fit in (sniff) — and using the common language does that. It’s saying what sounds and feels right for the audience and gets your point across.

In other (better) words: When in Rome…

After many years and many meetings, I’m comfortable in that business world. But many of my business clients — even though their clients are businesspeople as well — are uncomfortable using that sort of language in marketing materials, even though they talk to clients that way in person.

I’m torn: Clearly some informal terms are inappropriate for formal business writing. (A few years ago, a game even sprung up to make fun of the way the business world talks — Meeting Bingo or Bullshit Bingo. You can be sure “ping” is on the newest release.) But at times, I think “speaking the language,” whether jargon or not, is just fine. It’s part of the business culture, the lingua franca. Every profession has its way of talking, whether medical or construction or manufacturing or retail. (Or writing…SMEs [smees] = subject matter experts. Writers have lingo too.)

Isn’t Plain English all about writing in terms the audience understands?

What’s your take? Answer the poll to weigh in.

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Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves,
spits on its hands, and goes to work.
~ Carl Sandburg

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Make Your Writing Dollars Count

Not everyone has worked with a professional writer. Some small businesses are used to handling everything themselves; some subject matter experts haven’t been involved in developing marketing materials or writing byline articles. If you’re new to working with a writer, here are some ways to make the most of your writer’s time and skill, stretch your budget, and ultimately create a polished, professional finished product.

1. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions. “I’m not sure how this works,” some of my new clients confess. “What do you need from me? Where do we start?”

I almost always start in the same place, whether the goal is to write a fact sheet about a product, develop a brochure or Web site, ghost-write an article, or create a presentation: I start by asking a lot of questions. If I had a dollar for every time a client told me “That’s a great question,” I’d probably have…I dunno….a thousand dollars? (I once worked with a client who was a former Navy fighter pilot — he told me I could have had a great career in Naval Intelligence interrogating people. I was highly flattered.) The goal is to get what’s in your head about the topic into your writer’s head. He or she will likely never have the knowledge you do about the subject, but needs to absorb enough to put together a credible draft.

If your writer isn’t asking enough questions or the right questions, take charge and cover the points you feel are important.

2. Gather source material in advance. Source material is gold to a writer, and you can save time (time = money) by pulling it together for your first meeting. What, if anything, have you already written about the topic? What have others (colleagues, competitors, the media) written? What do you like or dislike about what’s been done? Do you have samples of other pieces you like, even on unrelated topics? Is there a template or “house style” the writer should follow? Writers appreciate any and all such information as we take a crash course in the topic and gauge your needs and preferences.

3. Follow up on to-do’s. Often the first meeting will result in some assignments. You might need to let a colleague know the writer will be calling to gather info, or you might have to track down answers to questions that came up. Your prompt follow-through will again save time and money.

4. Review with care. Depending on how involved the project is, your writer may come back to you with an outline, or move directly to a first draft. Your keen eye and subject matter knowledge is critical to see if the work is on track and to offer your insights. It’s quite a time-waster (and I’ve had this happen) to approve an outline you haven’t really read and then find the draft isn’t organized the way you want.

Direct, specific feedback is most helpful (think, “I’d like to include more product features here and discuss maintenance tasks before service procedures.” rather than “I don’t really like how this flows.”) I also like it when my clients dive in and use Microsoft Word’s “track changes” feature to make edits.

In many cases, a first draft will have gaps where further information is needed, or might include questions from the writer.  Obviously, you’ll need to address these. If multiple people are reviewing, appoint one person to be the gatekeeper who will consolidate feedback and make the call on conflicting requests.

5. Share drafts as early as appropriate. You may not want to share a first draft with your boss or another higher-up approver, but it’s important not to wait too long before gaining that person’s input and buy-in. Waiting until you feel the piece is “done” can backfire into considerable rework if the power-that-be doesn’t agree with the direction or content.

6. Be persistent. You deserve to be satisfied with the finished product, so don’t hesitate to question areas of concern or to ask for rewrites when something doesn’t suit. A certain amount of back-and-forth is expected and should have been factored (and preferably specified)  in the writer’s estimate.

7. Be open. At the same time, take advantage of the fresh perspective your writer brings to the topic as well as his or her experience writing for various audiences. While something might not be worded “the way we always say it” (or even the way you’d say it), that might be a good thing.

6. Close the loop. When the draft is final, it’s time for your graphic or Web designer to take over and turn the raw copy into a finished piece. (Unless, of course, you are simply submitting an article for publication.) It may be tempting to take your writer out of the loop at this point. But keeping your writer involved in reviewing the layout helps assure the information is presented to best advantage and heads off general proofreading and typographical issues.

I’m sorry to say I’ve written many pieces that I will not include in my portfolio (no matter how much I like the writing) because layout or proofreading problems weren’t corrected before the piece was published. I don’t like sloppy work, and I’m always surprised when clients are willing to accept it for their business. A thorough review and proofing — if not by the writer, then at least by someone with good editorial skills and fresh eyes — is a small but crucial step to presenting the polished, professional image your business deserves. And isn’t that why you hired a writer in the first place?

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When something can be read without effort,
great effort has gone into its writing.
~ Enrique Jardiel Poncela

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