Practical marketing information for small to midsize marketers from Nader Ashway in NYC

Posts tagged ‘marketing’

The “C” Word of Marketing

conversation_blog

No, no. Not that “C” word.

In the old days, (you know, as far back as the 1990’s,) marketing was largely a one-sided enterprise. Brands created campaigns that were directed outward to the consumers (large blocks of them) and then waited for the cash registers to ring. When that didn’t work, they just re-tooled the campaign, and tried it again. There was never any inclination to change the model.  Just a tweak in the creative, or a new account manager, or a line extension, and let’s tee it up again. Those days are over, for many reasons – but mostly because the “campaign-as-the-thing” approach stopped working.

The new word of the day in marketing has to be CONVERSATIONS. Because, more than ever, brands need to listen and respond in near-real-time in order to stay relevant. Consumers are in control of the messages they receive, when they receive them, and (Jeez, Louise!) on what devices they will be receiving them!

Is it the Internet’s fault? Yeah, probably. But the Internet just streamlined a distribution system for brands that brands always desperately wanted. Note to industry: be careful what you wish for. The system begets bugs. The system creates a new set and style of preferences.

And let’s be mindful that this is not a tipping of the scales – it’s actually a market correction. It’s only natural for the consumer to be in control when the basic DNA of marketing is choice. Because there’s competition – multiple entities vying for attention and striving to achieve the perception of superiority – the consumer is naturally in the driver’s seat…weighing benefits and making choices based on any number of criteria. (Whether they’re sound or not, mind you. With choice comes caprice.)

So, if you’re a brand, how do you have conversations?

Listen.
As with any conversation, listening is the best way to engage. You’ll learn, you’ll understand, and you’ll be able to exchange ideas with context. For brands, this new paradigm is an information gold mine. No more expensive focus groups, no more really expensive segmentations, no more super expensive risks. Today, you can publish content, and consumers will tell you in about 4 and a half minutes whether or not it’s crap. The brands that listen – and pay attention – seem to be the brands that excel.  Listening is why we have conversations – you already know what you are and what you know.  The goal, of course, is to hear other perspectives.

Inspire your audience to try something new/other.
Even if your audience is already buying your stuff on a regular basis, it’s worth deepening the relationship.  Ask them to try something new. Drive a new route. Try a new approach. Write an essay. Post a photo. Ask them to do ANYTHING but “buy our shit.” When you do that, you cheapen the opportunity to continue the conversation, and you make just about everything that follows suspect.

I’m not suggesting that marketers use diversionary tactics to engage audiences. I’m rather insisting that you find something ELSE to talk about than yourself.

Seed new conversations.
One of the “things” marketers can do is to seed new conversations. Sure, they can be contextual. They can even be categorically obvious. But let them be true, two-sided exchanges between parties where both parties participate, both parties are heard, and both parties have the opportunity to come out having learned something. (Here’s the dirty little secret: brands can do this over and over with zillions of people, and really really learn some things.)

Want to know what your next flavor should be? Want to know where to build your next location? Want to know what kind of features you should put into your next expensive piece of technology? Want to know whether you should wear those dopey throwback uniforms? Start a conversation, and listen. You’ll be amazed at what you find, especially if you’re in a position to act on that information.

Top Five Marketing Resolutions for 2014

As this year comes to a close, I’m reading a lot more posts and articles about the “best” this and the “most” that of 2013.  And yet, rather than reflecting on the astounding advances of the past year, I find myself looking forward.  And hoping.

With that in mind, here are my top 5 resolutions that marketers – of all sizes – might consider in the coming year.  If you’re a mom and pop shop that’s embraced marketing on any level, or a mega marketer that has a department full of b-school overachievers, or a business to business service provider that’s retooling…here are some idea-starters for moving your brand forward in the coming year.

The First Resolution:  I Will Get Integrated.
I know, you’ve heard this one before.  But I’m not talking about integrating digital with your current TV and radio campaign.  Or adding a url to your print ads.  I mean really integrating everything – reorienting everything you do – around your brand and the promise it carries.  And remember that can mean way more than advertising.  If your brand is about fun, then make sure your office is set up for FUN!  Or if your brand is all about design superiority, then pull that superiority into EVERY communication piece…even if it’s some mundane necessity, like an inter-office memo, or a fax cover sheet.  (Remember those?)

Integrating your brand means looking at EVERYTHING you do through a different lens…through YOUR lens.  Just having the conversations with your internal teams about what that might mean will be valuable indeed.

The Second Resolution:  I Will Get Visible.
If you’re not advertising, please start.  We are far beyond the era of marketers who will be able to say “it’s amazing…we’ve gotten really far without advertising at all.”  The truth is, the brands that win are typically the brands that advertise (in some way.) Do you ever wonder why ad budgets go up every year for most companies that are advertising?  Usually because it’s WORKING.  Even if you have a modest presence, or you’re outspent by your competitors, being visible still creates opportunities that invisibility simply precludes.

The Third Resolution:  I Will Get More Social.
Just recently, I heard about a midsize company who refused to embrace social media, despite having a membership-based audience, because they were afraid that someone might hijack their feed with some negative commentary.  The category leader was social.  The flankers were social.  But this brand refused to get on board for fear of one potential dickhead who might take to the Twittersphere with some grade-school gripe.  Instead, they’re missing out on having any number of conversations that might lead to deeper brand involvement, or maybe even more sales.  But a fear of what might go wrong is preventing that brand from reaping all that might go right.

The Fourth Resolution:  I Will Get in Bed with Data.
There are so many amazing things evolving in the analytics realm, it’s hard to consider developing a program without talking about the various incarnations of data tracking that may result.  Just think of the audience data.  Just think of the site tracking.  Just think of the…wait, I’m going full geek.  Oh, hell.  I am a geek!  And I love data.

Think about setting marketing objectives.  Then start thinking about setting data objectives that run alongside those:  what do you want to LEARN today?  Build that into your next marketing program, and you’ll be surprised how fun it is to hang with the geeks.  PS – it’s also a great way to build accountability:  from your creative team, to your media buys to your ecommerce providers…a strong set of data objectives is where the feet meet the fire.

The Fifth Resolution:  I Will Get More Creative.
Despite the fact that data is driving the marketing bus these days, there is no better time than 2014 to get full-on creative. Give your agency or your in-house team or that freelancer you’ve been avoiding a little slack and let them run with an idea or two or three.  And the bigger the idea, the better.  Why not a rock tour?  Why not the side of a building?  Why not get a million people to sign up?

Sure, build in some responsibility markers, and don’t let them do anything that might be considered rude or insensitive, but let’s let ideas fly this year.  Write a jingle.  Listen to an idea from an unlikely source.  Just because you’ve been “doing it this way for years,” doesn’t mean you can’t try something new.  You might have an opportunity to become your very best.  And it might be this coming year.

What are YOUR marketing resolutions for 2014?
Leave your comments here, or better yet, Tweet them at #marketingresolutions

 

Marketing Matchmaking

Startups and smaller agencies:  marriages made in VC heaven

marketingthingy blog post image

I’ve been loitering in the VC galaxy lately, and it’s a funky neighborhood.  Private equity firms and their representatives are very active, especially in the technology space, looking for the next this or that, and betting millions on “neato” ideas.  And while figuring out which companies might get a shot at glory is a little bit like deconstructing Scientology, the real work begins after funding.

As it relates to marketing, startups (pre-money or post,) have challenges that established brands don’t.  A startup brand has to do more explaining, more demonstrating, more proving their worth – they’re fighting for a reliable spot in the minds of consumers.  And that’s in addition to duking it out and swiping some share from all the competitors out there, who are themselves both enjoying and defending their established positions.

So how does a startup go about the business of selecting an agency?  Since it’s not a typical discovery process, and likely not a standard RFP protocol, it can get a little dicey.  So let’s look at the basic DNA points of startup companies and their related marketing needs:

  • They need to move fast
  • They likely have a limited budget (being watched over like a hawk by the newly installed CFO or COO from the investment team)
  • They need to differentiate
  • They need to build credibility
  • They need to generate transactions
  • They need to build brand awareness
  • From the investor’s point of view, they need to LAST
  • They need good data, since they’re already working on version 2.0, (this is true whether the startup is a technology company, or a vacuum cleaner or a type of insurance.)

Small agencies are a fit for startups:
If you put your matchmaking hat on for just a moment, you see that these traits match up almost perfectly with a small (or smaller) agency.  Generally speaking, smaller agencies can produce appreciable results, quickly, and for less initial investment.  There are a number of reasons for this (and this is NOT a bash piece on larger agencies – they have their place, and we’ll get to that in a moment,) not the least of which is scale.  With less overhead and heft, smaller agencies can generate results for startups for less overall dollars.

Smaller agencies have a gift for seeing numerous finish lines that are attainable and help to motivate the internal staff.  For instance, a smaller agency might recommend a social media program for the startup.  And then it becomes a race to 10,000 likes.  Or 1,000 followers.  Or whatever.  These are simple, digestible goals for both the agency and the client…and it looks like progress. With larger agencies, success like this is just a daily occurrence, and it may have lost its luster.

Smaller agencies are also more likely to look for “under the radar” strategies.  And as it relates to the need to last, smaller agencies will typically put more legwork in setting up strategic partnerships (like distribution or sell-in) with other entrepreneurs in their small agency network.  In contrast, larger agencies see success in TRPs, and typically recommend advertising first, everything else after.

Smaller agencies are less of a risk:
Smaller agencies are also easier to fire, since the financial risk of their involvement is limited.  And that’s actually an advantage to the startup.  With less overall exposure, they’re not tied to overly long-term plans.  So if things aren’t going well after year 1, they may consider a reboot, either with another small agency, or perhaps a slightly larger marketing enterprise, if things are beginning to move.

Choose wisely – based on objectives:
It all depends on the objectives for the startup and their investment team.  If things are indeed progressing according to plan, a smaller agency may NOT be the partner to help that company expand globally, or to establish more high-profile partnerships.  In that case, it may be time to pass the ball.  And although smaller agencies match up with startup needs and their financial limitations, larger agencies do have more reach and more bodies to execute on multiple planes at once. For instance, if the play is to execute a truly integrated marketing outreach, a large agency can put experts on every channel in about a day and roll out the integrated plan next Tuesday across social, mobile, web, TV, radio, outdoor and even a cool experiential thing at a trade show next week. The little guys simply don’t have that kind of muscle.

In addition, larger agencies have advantages that smaller agencies cannot even comprehend. While a smaller agency might be able to do more with less, larger agencies have the ability to do EVEN more with more. Take media buying, for instance.  If a small agency is buying spot cable for a limited budget, they’re going to get only so far.  Mr. Big agency comes along and requests the same buy, and then smoothly reminds the station that they also buy tens of millions across the network, and they’re likely to get more points/exposure or better slots for the same outlay. It’s simply the law of scale and leverage.

Those advantages aside, however, small agencies and startups are clearly a match with big upside possibility – from the business side straight on through to intangibles, like personality, vibe, etc.  But it’s mostly because, in the best cases, the two companies help each other grow into their fullest potential.

Eat Marketing for Lunch

Looking for a fresh perspective on your business?
Start by consuming some of what you produce.

Here’s an interesting paradox. I’ve been in and around advertising for my entire 22-year career. And throughout that time, I’ve become increasingly desensitized to the type of work I produce… and that’s largely the result of a sort of self-imposed effort at OBJectivity.

However, over the past two years or so, I’ve been engaged in a new and evolving experiment to become more SUBjective to advertising messages. (In a really objective and observant way. Told you it was paradoxical.)

Since I’m involved in strategic brand activities and message development, I’m trying to avoid myopia. I’m trying to allow messages to sink in. I’m trying to see what strategies really break through, and which ones just get lost in the clutter and the noise. I’m trying to continually become better at what I do, and my competitors provide a mountain of useful information on the subject every day.  I’m consuming a LOT of advertising and marketing messages these days.

Marketers in any category can fall into these I’m-living-in-the-bubble-of-my-business patterns. If you’re a CMO of a large corporation, or the Chief Idea Girl in a lean startup, you’re focused on what’s right in front of you. You’ve got operational challenges. Staffing issues. You’re reviewing the plans. You’re considering hiring a shop to handle your social media. You’ve got a LOT going on. There’s simply not bandwidth to consume more stuff, or to consider more inputs.

But you must. Because it’s simply the only way to gain any real perspective on your own business-side matters. Here are a few simple steps that I’ve been taking that can help you gain some insights and ensure that you’re not operating – or investing in marketing your business – in a vacuum:

Go shopping (or searching) in your category.
This is the fun part. (Warning: it can also be a challenge for certain businesses, like orthodontia for example.) Be a browser. Be a consider-er. Look at your competitors first, and then look at anybody who does what you do. If you’re selling at retail, go to the stores you’re in and see who else is on the shelf. Better yet, go to the stores you WANT to be in and see what’s going on there.

One cool thing I do is pick specific markets far from NYC (where I’m headquartered) and then do online searches there. Why’s the restaurant scene rocking in Reno? Whose hand-made jeans are jumping off the shelves in Joplin? Is there somebody is Topeka who’s peddling test prep? Whatever your category, (b-to-b or consumer,) engage in the art of careful consideration.

Take note of what made you notice: was it the packaging? A promise embedded in the brand? Did you look at the ads?

Consume your competitor’s stuff. And some of your own.
Next, take it a step further. It may seem like sacrilege, but open up your wallet (virtual or otherwise) and buy some stuff made by your competitors, and some stuff made by your company. This is the ONLY way to truly immerse yourself in how your customers might feel when they buy your (or their) products or services. Follow the process from start to finish. Take note of everything, from the customer service if that applies, to the shipping, to the packaging when it arrives. Put it on or boot it up.

How do you FEEL? That’s the ethos you want to capture. There are deep emotional bonds being formed between brands and consumers every day. You must choose and manage the emotions you want to convey and the way you want them conveyed very carefully indeed.

Be brutally honest about your assessments.
One of the things we all like to do is assume superiority. “Their stuff is inferior to our stuff” is a common collective agreement at virtually every organization. (Seriously, don’t try to deny it.) So now, you have to shake that tribal mentality off and really observe what’s going on for you when you consume other products in your category. Is the ride smoother? Does it work better? Are there fun features you didn’t know about? Were you SURPRISED beyond your expectations? Make notes. Make lots of notes. Was it the marketing? What did you experience when you browsed the website? How did you feel when you bought your own stuff? Did you measure up?

Leverage your learning. Hard.
Now that you’ve done this, it’s time to take a good hard look at your own stuff and your own processes for delivering it to customers. If you can honestly you say you kick everyone else’s ass, (and your name is not already Musk, or Zuckerberg, or Brin,) then congratulations. You’ve outwitted, out-efforted and have come to dominate your market. But for the rest of us, you have an opportunity to thrust your organization forward on objectivity. Take the things you learned and put them to work. You’ll be surprised at the ancillary ideas that are sparked. A competitor’s label might jar your memory about a data capture form on your website. A competitor’s ad might help you formulate some platforms for your next product innovations. Your own ideals about your own products might be improved or elevated in some way.

Engage your team (or your partners, or your cat) with your new ideas. If you’ve got one employee or 10,000, your newly found observations can have a profound impact on how things go. They may be threatened at first, but they’ll likely be inspired to go above and beyond and really start to wow people.

Use what you’ve experienced, purchased and learned – on a first-hand, completely subjective basis – about your competitors as a starting point for positioning against and amongst them. Ultimately, you’ll find new ways to move your organization forward in a much more objective and holistic manner. Plus you’ll have a bunch of new stuff to play with in your office.

Distribution: The Inconvenient Truth for Brands

marketing thingy blog image - distribution

I was having a conversation recently with a woman who is SERIOUS about fashion. She dresses impeccably, and cares pretty deeply about the name on the tag inside every skirt, blouse and shoe she wears. I posed a question: “what if you could get (insert uber brand here, like Christian Louboutin, for instance) at a discount retail outlet like Costco? Would you do it?”

She shot back: “NO WAY.”

Now, pardon the “focus group of one” here, but this seemed to shed some light on an interesting sub-topic of marketing, which seems especially important considering it also impacts one of the four cornerstones of our entire industry.

As our conversation went on, it turned out that even a significant savings of 10-15% wouldn’t be enough to convince her to go to a discount retailer for the toppermost brands she so covets. She also believed that most people (men AND women) who are serious about fashion would agree.

As it turns out, “where” may be as equally important as “what” when it comes to the experience of brands, and not just fashion brands. Distribution strategies (also known as “Place” in marketing 101) help consumer brands reach customers, typically creating a factor of convenience or an experience of excellence, depending on the brand and the target audience. But this paradox seems to touch so many aspects of marketing, such as price, product, place, brand ethos and even consumer perceptions. Let’s examine.

The Price Question
Many brands are sold at retail outlets and also online through many e-tailers, which may include the brand’s own website. (This is true in almost every category: fashion, appliances, electronics, home goods, food and beverage, health and beauty, etc.) In some cases, price shopping is a driving factor. In other cases, it’s not. Some brands don’t discount because they built their brand to own the high price position, or (with a case like Apple) the prices are simply non-negotiable. (You can’t get a “cheaper” iPod anywhere – the prices are fixed.) So unless the price is steeply discounted for a brand at one outlet over another, the consumer will likely choose to shop at a distribution point (online or offline) that is either a.) convenient or b.) preferred.
So, regarding price, the distribution strategy matters.

Brand and Perception
For a high-end brand (like Louboutin,) there is a perception that it can’t possibly be sold at places other than the most selective boutiques. That’s part of the brand’s equity. But for mass market brands, and even discount brands, the locations still have to match up with the brand personality. The distribution center, then, becomes a very important aspect of building the brand. (You won’t hear THAT much from your agency!) It’s just as weird to find Louboutin in Costco as it is to find Wrangler or Lee jeans at Nordstrom. It’s just a disconnect that can impact the brand, and for that matter, the brand perception of the retailer, too!

Note: In other cases, the brand and the distribution center are inextricably linked to cement the brand and its perception. Think Old Navy.
So, regarding brand perception, the distribution strategy matters.

The Consumer Experience
Finally, in some cases, the consumer experience gets folded into the overall brand offering. If you’re a high end fashion brand, you want to manage the entire experience of how the consumer goes about acquiring their next piece of your clothing: the way the store looks, the way the salesperson greets and works with the consumer, the fitting room experience, the checkout and most certainly the bag or packaging she’ll walk out of the store with. (Note, this is different than product packaging, which is a discipline unto itself.)
So, as it turns out, where DOES matter to consumers, across almost all points of concern.

It’s time for more marketers and agencies to get with this inconvenient truth, and start building brands to include the distribution ecosystem as a key brand building block and cornerstone of brand maturity.

Curation: The Magic Word for Marketers

Marcel Duchamp Cubist Painting 1912

I recently attended CES in Las Vegas to do some research for a client.  CES was huge and hyperactive and I hated it. My resistance was not due to the size or number or quality of exhibits, but rather the show’s inability to navigate me through any of it.

We live in a consumer-centric world, powered by immediacy and universality of choice (otherwise known as the Internet.) Today, we can shop for anything online, customize the features, and dictate how it’s delivered. Everything from clothing to cars to medicines to media.

And that’s pretty peachy. We all love choice. We all love control. But the surprising truth in many of our brand interactions is that we’re not all very good at it. Especially when the choices are overwhelming.

At CES, I longed for a GUIDE of some sort. I wished there was a handbook that outlined what I wanted to see if, for instance, I only had 2 hours to spend there. Or if I was only interested in “small, cool audio stuff.” Or if I just wanted to knock around and see celebrities. (There were many in attendance. I passed on Snooki and 50 Cent and took a front row seat at Earth, Wind & Fire. Call me old school.)

Such a guide would have still afforded me choice, but those choices would have been curated for me. And curation is the magic word for the new consumer world.

Curation is the antidote for a world of infinite choices. It relates to both content and the methods of its consumption. Those marketers who can provide guides or maps or recommendations for their consumers will have a much more fruitful relationship with them as a result. This is true in both the consumer and business-to-business galaxies. Some examples:

Museums curate exhibits. Of all the Duchamp cubist paintings, a certain museum might choose 30 of them. They would then arrange them in a distinct order, put them on certain walls, make you stand in directed spots to view them. Remember, content and the mode of consumption. The subtext here is “the museum strongly suggests you view Duchamp this way.” It’s a very specific experience. If I want some other experience, I can gladly seek it elsewhere.

Restaurants curate food experiences. The menu, by definition, is a curated presentation of food. The chef took all the ingredients available that day and culled them to eight appetizers, eight entrees and five desserts to choose from. Would going to a restaurant and just seeing a big buffet of basic ingredients (vegetables, fish, lettuces, meats, sweets) be the same? Not a chance. Here’s exactly where I DON’T want to have too much choice. (Sidebar: this was how the original “Craft” restaurant in New York started. Chef Tom Colicchio just presented the menu items, and left the pairing decisions to guests. In the June 2001 review of Craft,  New York Times Restaurant Reviewer William Grimes stated “…(the culinary arts,) function more efficiently as dictatorships.”)

Brands in virtually all categories curate personal experiences. Whether it’s how your clothes smell, or what your ringtone is, or what color the dashboard lights are in your vehicle or the editors of your favorite business magazine – we, as consumers or business customers, are seeking features and experiences that enrich our lives in some way. But for goodness sake, we want someone ELSE to tell us what those are.

We want Amazon to tell us it has “recommendations” for us. We want Google to auto-fill our search terms. We want the Gap to recommend a sweet belt to go with that sweater we just purchased. Sure, we ultimately want to make the buying choice, but what we need brands to do is present the pathways to making them.

Marketers, take note. Curate an experience for us. Stand for something. Deliver something specific, that no one else can deliver. Or deliver something that lots of other people can deliver, but do it in a way that’s unique, or cool, or fun, or hip or technologically cool or convenient. Because we all want choices…we’re just not all very good at making them.

This article first appeared on Technorati.

Give the Gift of Anything: Three Keys to Overachieving with Customers

So, it’s the holiday season, and naturally, our thoughts turn to spending time with loved ones, eating (or over-eating in my case,) and the best part: sharing gifts. Whatever holiday you share, exchanging gifts is typically a part of it, and it adds an absolute level of joy, intrigue and excitement as we count down to the big day (or days, or geological phenomena, or whatever you celebrate.)

But what is it about gift-giving and gift-receiving that’s so special? Why do we bother with the fancy wrapping and the bows and the bags and the pomp and the circumstance?  As it turns out, there’s a marketing lesson in this process that’s worth evaluating.  I’ve found three keys that help keep my clients focused on delivering – and in some cases, overdelivering – on value.

The first key:  Surprise
Unless you’re one of those kids who makes a list and then GETS what you asked for, (and ewww if you do,) gifts, as we know them, are something typically UNEXPECTED.  At the very least, there’s a surprise element in the DNA of gifts that make them so enjoyable to receive.  (And as we get older, to give, too.)  In some cases, outside of the holiday construct, giving a gift can be an unexpected circumstance altogether.  Like when flowers arrive, or someone sends you a heartfelt greeting card or surprises you with something like a special dinner.

The second key:  Value
Another important ingredient that makes gifts so juicy is that they’re usually VALUABLE.  It’s not to say that they must be expensive, as much as having real value to the recipient.  That value could be monetary, could be sentimental, could be utilitarian, could be intellectual, could be sexy.

The third key:  Context
Finally, and this is the key, the cornerstone of a great gift experience is correlated to the level of CONTEXT on the part of the recipient.  When you give a gift that someone genuinely wants or really likes, there’s no limit to the value that can be put on it whatsoever.  Sure, unexpected and valuable gifts are nice, but give me something I really want, or have been searching for, or mentioned months ago, or is in a category I have enthusiasm for – that’s a gift I’ll always remember.

Now, let’s think like marketers.  When was the last time you created a structure where you could give a GIFT to your customer?  No, I’m not talking about a little box with a bow, but rather, when was the last time you gave something unexpected to your customer?  When was the last time you added real value to a transaction beyond what was agreed or expected?  When was the last time you took the time to find out what your customers really like, and then over-delivered it, or created a conversation around it that they could participate in or created an event based on that thing for them to attend?

This is what smart marketers do, on every level.  They first agree what the structure of the relationship is going to be:  I’m going to sell you gourmet food and wine in a fine dining atmosphere; I’m going to provide insightful television programming; I’m going to design clothes that you’ll want to wear; whatever.  But once that structure is set up, the smart marketer looks to add these three key ingredients:  surprise, value, context.  So the attentive marketer needs to watch his or her customers carefully, learn what they like, learn what they value, and then surprise them with something perfectly timed and perfectly tuned.

How can you add these three elements into your future marketing?  Whether you’re a small, local business or a multi-national corporation with thousands of employees, give your customers a gift every now and then, and you’ll find they give them right back in the form of deeper relationships, more referrals, maybe even brand loyalty.

The Law of Failure

Illustration:  Bruce Crilly

It’s been noted in many places that Thomas Edison [caricatured above] may have failed as many as 1,000 times at inventing an electric-powered light bulb, and when asked about his string of failures, he turned the tables by saying (and I’m paraphrasing,) “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. I succeeded at inventing a light bulb, and it took 1,000 steps to arrive at it.”

A recent New York Times article asked the question “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” when discussing education and character among school-age children. Do a search on “failure,” and you’ll find inspiring stories of heroes of history who have failed mightily on the way to great successes: Churchill, Einstein, Darwin, Pasteur, Ford and on and on.

And at the recent DMA International Conference in Boston, Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, turned failure on its head relative to social media, stating “if someone posts a negative comment about your product, it demonstrates a level of investment and passion about your brand.”

Okay, that’s a lot of fluffy and warm and puppies. But in business – and particularly in marketing – we’re trained otherwise. For most of us, “failure is not an option” for our next product rollout, or our next advertising plan, or our next event. However, if we embrace The Law of Failure, we might find that failing helps to reveal what success really looks like.

In almost every business, professionals fail their way into success, typically in a process of elimination continuum: try › fail › tweak › repeat until try ultimately leads to success. At which point, you test the snot out of that success to ensure repeatability and reliability. This is true in engineering; in medicine; in sports; in fashion; in entertainment; in technology; in a zillion other categories.

In marketing and advertising, (direct, media, creative,) we call it “testing.” But testing is simply an accepted euphemism for “financing failure to yield better strategies.” Why else would almost every big campaign be run through focus groups first?  Why test your spots on samples of your target demographic? It’s not so much that you can see what WORKS, but rather that you can reveal what DOESN’T.

My theory on why it is so vehemently avoided in the marketing/advertising arena is simply because of the money flow. When doing medical testing, for instance, the medical company has an R&D budget to cobble away in a lab for sometimes years at a time. In engineering or technology, all the sunk costs are stacked upfront – sometimes financed by venture capitalists – and millions or tens or hundreds of millions of dollars might be spent to arrive at a new design/product/solution that then gets recouped upon selling/distributing/launching.

But in advertising, the money flow is different. The typical relationship is an outsourcing model (company x hires agency y to develop the marketing program) that puts the pressure on the marketer to justify that spend and that agency choice. It’s our money, so you better spend it wisely. No marketer I’ve ever met wants to hear in the pitch “yeah, we’re gonna spend a percentage of the budget on failing.”

But that’s essentially what’s happening. Sure we do research, we do cluster analyses, we create predictive models. My colleague David Adelman at OCD Media is a media planner who creates predictive models in order to yield what he calls the most “testable propositions.”

The only problem (in advertising and marketing) is that those propositions are tested out in the marketplace, and failure is seen as a scarlet letter on the breast of the marketer (and in many high-profile cases, the agency, too.)

But I propose that failure is not a sad end to high hopes, but rather an intelligent investment in future successes.

When you fail at strategy X, you now have saved an innumerable amount of money because you KNOW that strategy X won’t work (under the current conditions.) You can instead pursue strategies Y and Z. And if they fail, you save proportional amounts, and so on. KNOWING is powerful.  Failure leads to knowing, whereas success is sometimes an intoxicating mix of planned well, guessed right, timed it right, chose a good director, etc.

This might not fly at your company if you’re a slave to the quarterly conference call with the board and have to explain that you’re failing. But if you’re a small to midsize marketer – you’ll never spend money any more wisely than by failing and KNOWING what to avoid in the future.

Point/Counterpoint: Who should set the marketing budget – the client or the agency?

Nader Ashway marketingthingy blog post image - who sets the marketing budget

Okay, so I’m borrowing from Saturday Night Live’s classic sub-skit featuring Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd.  But it’s the only way I think we can easily platform this complex topic for debate.  For you legal eagles out there, copyrights appear at the end of this post.

Who should set the marketing budget – the agency or the marketer?  This seems to be the question that plagues marketing relationships – especially between small and midsize marketers and smaller agencies.  On the broader scale, it’s pretty easy…larger marketers (and/or public companies) tend to stipulate their budgets way out front, and use previous years’ spend as a barometer, which can be tracked on resources like Adviews, a subscription-based tool from Nielsen. Generally, most of that spend is earmarked for media anyway.

But with smaller/midsize companies and smaller/midsize agencies, it seems that the budget dance is a tricky little two-step, and no one seems to know who should lead.  Let’s explore both scenarios and see which one makes the most sense for you.  Your opinions are invited!

Jane:  The agency should set the budget.
Buying marketing services is similar to buying any other services from any other vendor.  That being the case, you want to get the most bang for the buck.  So you invite a couple of agencies in, set up the goals for the upcoming year (or the project or initiative) and ask them to come back with a proposal that sets out a budget, a timeline, and what they expect they’ll achieve.

The agencies come back with proposals about what they think the marketer should be doing (building a microsite, running an outdoor campaign, running a sweepstakes, maybe,) and what they want to charge you for that. So the benefit is that you – the marketer –  do get to see a variety of thoughtful approaches to your marketing, as each agency will make different types of suggestions and usually prepare very fancy presentation materials!

As far as costs, an agency will typically include management fees, creative fees and expenses for out-of-pocket costs, like media, some third party add-ons, printing, postage, web development, etc.

This is the best way to do it.  I’m not telling what the agency to spend – they can tell me what they want, and I’ll choose from there. Agencies know what things cost, they know what they need to make to be profitable, and they know what I want.  Why should I tell them I have $100,000 to spend this quarter if they can deliver it at $75,000?  I have to be responsible with my budget.

Dan:  The marketer should set the budget.
Jane, you ignorant slut.  Everyone knows that if you ask an agency to set the budget, they’ll come back with a number you can’t afford, that includes every possible marketing incarnation from social to mobile to telepathic or whatever.

Or worse, they’ll suggest an over-inflated, over-reaching grandiose plan that includes tons of media that they can commission at double digits, and tons of dopey ideas like flash mobs and street teams and who knows what else.  [Not that these are bad ideas, but when there are no boundaries, some agencies like to frolic in the fields on your dime.]

If marketers want to get an equal assessment of how an agency can perform, the best way to do that is to quantify specific parameters:

using X dollars, and in Y time frame, what do you suggest to help us meet objective Z? 

Using this simple formula, or expanding it to a more detailed RFP, you will get presentations from agencies that are focused, that demonstrate their core capabilities and that usually have an ROI component attached.  But without stipulating dollars, you’ll never quite be comparing the presentations on an equal footing.

Marketers, YOU know what your goals are.
Not the agency.
You know what your operational expenses are to sell a product or service.
Not the agency.
You know what your board of directors or shareholders want to accomplish.
Not the agency.
You know what you have to spend to get there.
So why ask the agency to tell you?

So.  What do YOU think?  Should the agency tell you what to spend, or should you ask an agency what they’ll do with your budget? 

“Point/Counterpoint” is intellectual property:  a sub-skit of “Weekend Update.” “Weekend Update” is part of a comedy program called “Saturday Night Live,” created by Lorne Michaels; originally written by Chevy Chase and Herb Sargent. © 1975 Broadway Video/SNL Studios.

The Four Cornerstones of Driving Traffic

I recently held a garage sale (how suburban of me, eh?) and, while it was a success, it could have been much better. Definition:  I didn’t sell everything I would have liked to sell.

The issue, I have surmised, was not a question of our inventory or our location or our quality level – it was simply a matter of driving the appropriate traffic. [Note:  a follow-up report from the garage sale indicated that we converted sales at approximately a 25% ratio:  for every four people that came by, one made a purchase.  Not bad.]

While I covered all the requisite bases, there was a lot more I could have done.  It reminded me that small and midsize brands face the same traffic issues every day.  Whether you’re a website, a local retail shop, a restaurant or even a midsize b-to-b service provider, driving and sustaining traffic is central to your survival.

Irrespective of the media you choose, or the vertical you’re in, or the market(s) in which you operate, here are four critical cornerstones to understanding and driving traffic that I’ve branded as the “TMX2” approach.  These are in no certain order, and in many respects, have to be considered simultaneously.

The first cornerstone:  Targeting
Driving traffic begins with a clear understanding of the prospects you WANT.  If you’re working with a media company who’s doing planning for you, you can probably get to a very decisive target.  But if you’re not (maybe you’re small, maybe you’re not sure,) you can ask yourself important questions:  who is the “ideal” customer?  What is the ideal “deal” for that customer?  How can I provide that structure?

Two important targeting sub-themes here:  think virally and think in segments.
First, in the age of social media, ask yourself another targeting question:  Who will be likely to “spread” my message post-purchase?  Second, don’t be afraid to segment.  You can’t be all things to all people, but you can be one valuable thing to one segment, another valuable thing to another segment and so on.  For more information on segmentation, check out the VALS Framework, pioneered by SRI.

The second cornerstone:  Timing
Two facets of timing are essential.  First, give your offer or your brand or your new product launch ample time to sink in and make the requisite impressions.  So often, marketers have great ideas and fantastic solutions to offer, but we bail when we don’t think it’s happening quite quickly enough.  We already know that the American consumer (or business owner) is inundated with zillions of marketing messages every day.  Sure, you have to cut through the clutter with good messaging and solid creative, but you also have to allow for the message to seep in…there’s a reason “frequency” is a cornerstone of every media plan.

The second facet of timing is more delicate – you have to offer your consumer what they’re looking for, at a price he or she is willing to pay, at the right moment.  Not quarter.  Not month.  MOMENT.  This is why the term “real-time” is being bandied about so often in marketing seminars and business conferences around the world.  See articles on real-time marketing on Mashable.

The third cornerstone:  Message
While it’s impossible to cover everything about messaging in an overview, be clear about this:  you can target the right customer, deliver your communications over the right medium, time it perfectly and still not influence or stimulate demand if your message doesn’t resonate with your customer.  So how do you make that happen?

It’s not simple, but make sure you cover at least the following:  Claim the highest possible emotional benefits that speak to your audience (or segment.) Add rational support for choosing your product or service.  Be absolutely relevant.  And don’t be afraid to be a little unexpected – a little cooky.  As long as those other aspects are covered, cooky can work and usually does because it’s more memorable and more entertaining and more differentiating.

The fourth cornerstone:  Mission
Here’s a cornerstone of driving traffic that can easily get overlooked.  Very often, we achieve results when we undertake a marketing effort.  But sometimes, the early returns can influence our perceptions about what we’re trying to achieve.  If things are going great in the first month of a new campaign, everybody starts to project HUGE numbers for the program, and forgets that you had an objective to only move the needle by 10%.  If things start out slow, we may assume that “this is never going to work,” and we forget that we only want to move the needle by 10%, so we crush the program before it has time to sink in.

The best way to avoid abandoning the mission is to document it.  Write it down where EVERYONE involved can see it.   That’s right.  Everyone.  The client.  The agency.  The vendors.  The investors.  Everyone.  “WE WANT TO SELL 22 MILLION WIDGETS AT 19¢ IN THE NEXT YEAR.”  Or “WE WANT TO INCREASE WEB TRAFFIC TO 100,000 UNIQUES PER MONTH IN THE NEXT TWO QUARTERS.”  Whatever it is, keep it sacred and don’t abandon it.  You’ll find that it absolutely aligns every stakeholder and, if you build on the other cornerstones, you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised at the traffic jam just up ahead.

Article first published as The Four Cornerstones of Driving Traffic on Technorati.

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