Category Archives: A Writer’s Perspective

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.


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….


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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