2021 Marketing Outlook: two possible scenarios for advertising’s near future

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As we’ve turned the calendar to a new year, and the leadership of the country has turned over to a new administration, we have to consider if there might be a new kind of marketing landscape to be formed in a (hopefully) post-COVID world.

There are two distinct possibilities that could feasibly materialize. One, that we are in for a boom time in advertising as the population wakes from its imposed hibernation. And the other, far more daunting, possibility is that advertising may be met with increased skepticism, or worse, not welcomed in the national commercial dialogue.

Possibility 1 – it could be the best of times. As more and more Americans receive a vaccine, it’s conceivable that life could return to what we would consider “normal,” perhaps even as early as the summer months. It could mean being allowed to gather again with friends, to travel again at will, to eat indoors at restaurants, and (oh please, dear sweet baby Jesus) to sit with 70,000 close friends at the home opener for your favorite football team.

With that, consumerism will likely not just be on the rise, but there’s very good reason to believe that we’ll see an elongated surge in consumer spending across numerous categories, built largely on pent up demand, and the sheer joy of having the “privilege” to once again participate in the analog retail experience.

And once those floodgates open, or it’s even hinted that they might, I would argue that we are likely going to see an equally giddy advertising crop burst out of every conceivable corner and category. Brands will trip all over each other for a share of the voracious consumer appetite, and media companies will feast at the table of “flexible” rates while the demand stays unusually high, and the competition is unusually fierce.

And the best part of this rosy prediction is that the tenor of the advertising itself is likely to be more positive, less serious, and almost joyous in nature. Simple messages like “we’re back!” or “we’re open” will lie at the core of most claims, and brands will be paying big money just to have the “privilege” to beg consumers to come back now that the pandemic has loosed its grip on the nation.

That’s a rosy outlook.

Possibility 2 – (okay, let’s go with the Tale of Two Cities theme,) it’s plausible that it could also be the worst of times.

It’s possible that consumer perceptions have changed significantly over the past 10 months, (and perhaps continue to do so for the next five or six months,) and that large demographic segments may be more guarded against brand messaging delivered across the typical media. This, as a result of first the shock therapy of nightly news with a drone of grim reports, and subsequently the drawn out solitary confinement of houses and apartments, living both professional and private lives in the same spaces.

Consumers may be in a kind of post-pandemic stress disorder, and it might last well beyond the days when it’s deemed safe to come back in the water. This bodes ominous for those sectors hardest hit: restaurants and hospitality, travel and tourism, the arts and entertainment, even healthcare.

And more importantly – and the reason this subject is being taken up on this blog – is that the normal receptivity to advertising messages may be affected in ways that has brands and their agencies re-thinking their strategies, and re-tooling their plans.

It wasn’t long ago (seriously, it was August 2019,) that we all reveled in the great Chicken Sandwich War between Popeye’s and Chik-Fil-A. Or watched like rabid MMA fans as Wendy’s and Burger King dealt death blows to each other via Twitter. It was fun. It was entertaining. And it was good for all the brands involved.

Mostly it was frivolous, and that’s what made it so much fun. Nobody got hurt, and we were just dishing abstract concepts and opinions that no one took THAT seriously. But here we are, perhaps about to come out of the year-plus-long fog that seems to have changed everything. Will American consumers have the patience for frivolous feuds? Will we tolerate the background noise of cola wars? Is it too soon?

Remember that brands (at least the ones with discretionary budgets,) scrambled to change the tonality of their advertising in the first few weeks and months after the pandemic took hold. Starting as early as St. Patrick’s Day 2020, we saw national brands releasing more heartfelt messages, saying things like “we’ll be here when this is over,” and heralding frontline workers. Somber. Serious. Considerate.

A few of the standouts: GUINNESS

UBER

DOVE

While those ads were all very good, (and I say this politely,) it was also almost too easy. When you do ads like that, you know you have about a 97 and a half% success rate, and you’d have to do something egregiously wrong to not curry favor with your target. The real challenge that faces brands and their agencies now is in striking the most appropriate first chord as the stage lights come on and everyone starts watching again.

It’s about to be morning in America once again. (Hat tip to Hal Riney.) And I’m just over here wondering if there will be Twitter feuds this afternoon.

What do you think? I’d love to know your thoughts. Please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

[Important note – We cannot overlook the seriousness of post traumatic stress disorder, including those struggling with the fallout of the pandemic. It’s real, and the people who face it are struggling in untold numbers and in myriad ways. For more information and resources on PTSD, visit www.ptsd.va.gov]

Playing through the pause: marketing never stops.

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There was a phrase that was popular in the late 20th century that advised “no one ever got fired for buying IBM.” It was a meme that implied you were making a prudent choice in your technology partner, because IBM was so ubiquitous and so darn reliable, you couldn’t possibly go wrong if you chose to pay the extra fees and engage with such an established leader. (And talk about a GREAT branding platform for IBM!)

Here in 2020, it appears there’s a new version of that old trope as it relates to marketing. It would read “no one ever got fired for being cautious during the COVID-19 crisis.” And if you look around, all you see are brands being cautious. Brands stepping back. Brands holding on to their marketing spend. Brands putting their agencies in lockdown “until further notice.” CMOs, VPs of marketing, brand managers, and other senior executives are in full wait-and-see mode, and some of them have quickly pivoted to warmer and fuzzier messaging platforms in the short term.

If you own or represent a brand right now, it’s likely that you or someone in your organization has ordered a “pause” on some or all of your marketing activity. After all, it’s expensive to “keep the lights on” an operation that isn’t (or can’t be) visibly returning results. And you’d be more than justified for being cautious and for demonstrating prudence with your precious budget.

However, you’d also be violating one of the immutable laws of marketing. And that is to find competitive strategic advantages over the other producers in your category. Hint: now is absolutely the time to do it.

While your competition is sitting on the sidelines, you gain zero ground by sitting on the opposite sideline. Competitive marketing never stops – even when it looks like all marketing has stopped.

Irrespective of your brand category, or what position you own in the category, here are six cornerstone marketing efforts you can put to work right now (without spending tons of money) to gain an edge on your competition:

Focus on or improve your core product/service
Can you add a key ingredient, or replace a less-than-desirable one in your product formulation? If you’re a more service-oriented business, is there a new policy you can put in place that would give you an edge over your competition? (Think longer warranty period, free upgrades, adding value in new or unorthodox ways.)  Put some structure on this.  Give it language.  Give it a name.  Start talking about it.

Add new products or extend your line
If you’ve ever thought about why you’re not gaining ground on your competitors, maybe it’s because you offer limited choices. Think about adding new flavors, new varieties, or new services to your practice. Hiring a new subject matter expert into your practice is almost the same as acquiring a new company, so consider how you can go “wider” in your business, and give consumers (existing or new targets) more opportunities  – and reasons – to interact with you.

Re-evaluate or re-negotiate your distribution deals
Following on the heels of having new products or an extended line, this is a great time to read the fine print on all your contracts. Especially your distribution deals. Can you get more lineal inches in your current deal? Maybe you can reduce costs in some way, since third-party resellers are taking it on the chin right now. They’d be hard-pressed to avoid losing your business, so take advantage of the opportunities while you can. It’s also a great time to hear proposals from new distributors or brokers or affiliates who are also innovating to stay relevant.

Do some research/learn more about what consumers really want (or who your consumers will actually be)
It’s very likely that consumer behavior will be altered in many ways as we either return to normalcy or forge whatever the “new normal” will look like. This is the crucible of competition – find out why consumers may have chosen a competitor over your brand, and see if you can accommodate their desires. Is it price? Is it a personal touch? Is it the ingredients? Is it your location? You’ll never know if you don’t ask, and paying people for their opinion right now makes you look magnanimous as well as appealingly curious.

Think about a new approach to your advertising
We’ve seen many brands pivot to a more “we’re with you” approach in the last several weeks, and it’s likely we’ll see even more message morphs in the coming months. But maybe it’s time for a new thousand-foot strategy. Maybe it’s time for a new tone. Or a new face. Or something classic and familiar. The point is to zig when the rest of your competitive set is zagging (or lagging. Or sagging.  Or gagging.  This is fun.) At the very least, you’ll get more attention, and that’s always a good thing.

Develop at least three strategic marketing plans for your brand
It must be said that no marketing strategist is ever right 100% of the time. So make contingency plans. The marketplace will be different, so make sure you have plans to address whatever those differences might be. For instance, it’s possible one or more of your competitors may fold. So have a talk with your bank (or investor group) and be ready to acquire at a favorable cost (if that makes sense,) or to at least swoop in and grab the lion’s share of that brand’s customer base. It may not be so rosy, so consider what some worse-case scenarios might look like, and script responses to those as well. With so many unknown variables, you can keep your team focused and motivated by creating pre-coordinated plans and putting them in place for virtually any outcome.

Stay in touch with all stakeholders
Speaking of all of this, it’s a great time to have renewed and refreshed conversations with all your stakeholders. Let them know that you’re thinking ahead, and thinking positively. Let them know that they may be called on to think outside the boxes of convention. And most importantly, let them know that they will play a role in kicking the competition in the teeth, and getting ahead when all this uncertainty is behind.

 

Coronavirus CMO Checklist

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As we’ve turned the calendar to another month of dealing with the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of brands and agencies are wondering what’s next.  While many brands have pivoted to pandemic-related messaging (see a regularly updated list here,) most are taking a breath, and working hard to plan their next move(s.)

Believe it or not, this forced time-out can be an incredibly useful opportunity on many levels.  Whether you’re the CMO of a global brand that spends millions or an owner/manager of a small to medium-sized business that’s trying to edge out your competition on a regional level, this may be the best time to evaluate your brand and make structural moves to re-position it for success when the world wakes from its medically-induced commercial slumber.

Here’s a quick dos and don’ts checklist of items to consider while we’re all waiting for the refs to say it’s time to get back in the game:

ON POSITIONING

DO reinforce your strategic position, whatever it might be. If you’re the low-cost leader, then now is the time to forage for ways to maintain and even strengthen that position, perhaps by having new discussions with suppliers and distribution agents.  More importantly, if you don’t have a strategic position (or perhaps don’t know exactly what yours is,) you’ve now been given the gift of several weeks and even months to figure one out.  Huddle with your team – or better yet, a consultant or agency – and learn how to articulate who you really are in ways maybe you haven’t before.

DON’T waver.  If you do have a position and it helps the consumer/customer understand what makes you different, do not veer from your course.  You might hear of brands trying to “strategically pivot” into new areas and try to replicate what competitors do in an effort to grab short-term revenue gains or “narrow their gap.”  We’ll probably see a LOT of price manipulation once the markets begin to wake as competition for consumer attention will spike – but don’t be tempted.  If your position is built on quality, or prestige, or speed, or technology, or safety, or any other attribute that you can effectively “own” in the mind of the market, stay the course.  The consumer segment that desires your position will be more motivated than ever to seek it out when this is all over.

ON STAYING IN TOUCH

DO stay in touch with consumers/customers and stakeholders of all kinds. Be a friend in some way.  Be a lifeline if you can.  One of the most compelling aspects of this pandemic is the psychological toll it’s taking on people from all walks of life.  Routines are disrupted.  Rituals interrupted.  And we cannot forget that brands represent constancy and normalcy for so many Americans – perhaps the only two commodities that are in shorter supply than toilet paper. As long as your brand is reminding consumers that you’re still there, and will continue to be there to support them with what they expect of you, you should come out of this national hibernation in pretty good shape.

DON’T brag.  Even if you’re doing the most amazing things right now in your community or in your industry, no one wants to hear how great you are.  Do what you can to serve in this crucial time, but do those things quietly and let the results speak for themselves. Grandstanding is not a good look in a crisis.

ON ADVERTISING AND STAYING VISIBLE

DO advertise if it makes sense and you have something valuable to say. In my last post, I advocated strongly for advertising, and provided several reasons why it’s more important than ever.  I continue to recommend that you stay visible and adjust your messaging to take the current consumer environment into account.

DON’T disappear.  Find ways to stay relevant, even if you’re conserving major expenditures (like media costs.) This is a great time to get more social, expand or enhance your app, send timely email updates and so on.  AND DEFINITELY DO NOT use your advertising presence to take shots at competitors.  You should notice that there’s no “feuding” going on now, even among the largest brands.  No cola wars.  No chicken sandwich smackdowns.  Competitive advertising in the current climate is not only a waste of valuable ad dollars, it’s in poor taste. Consumers are paying rapt attention right now, so behave with your brand as though momma was watching you.  ‘Cause she kinda is.

ON PLAYING THE LONG GAME

DO be prepared (financially and otherwise,) to ride this situation out well into 2021.  It’s clear that some brands will falter during this time as consumers are also re-evaluating their priorities and allegiances.  Staying true to your brand ethos (and reinforcing/refining your position, see above,) can a.) cement the relationships you’ve already worked so hard to forge and b.) make you look darn attractive to those defecting from other brands.

DON’T rush your expectations.  Although confidence is virtually nonexistent at the moment, consumer motivation will be high and will likely surge for many months as the commercial rebound begins.  Expect a tentative but large wave of consumers re-entering the market with fresh perspectives and open minds.  Rushing to grab profits and short-term gains (in an attempt to recoup some recent losses) may preclude your brand from the much more substantial rewards of sustained success and new fans.

20 for ’20

20_for_20Okay, it’s a new year. Some say it’s a new decade (we’ll argue that later, since it’s technically the last year of the 2010’s, but we can all agree it’s the start of the 2020’s.) And while the “resolutions” ship has already sailed, we do want to get the year off to a strong start.

With that in mind, here are 20 ideas, both strategic and tactical, that you can use to kickstart your brand into the new year. Whether you’re a consumer brand, a consultancy, a business-to-business brand, or a non-profit, just giving these a good think should help you improve your marketing efficiency, clarify your plans, and get you in motion.

1. Give your SEO a refresh.
While we all know the value of SEO, a lot of brands tend to “set it and forget it.” And unfortunately, that can actually hurt your long-term chances for optimization. Search engines like to see activity on your site, and this is a great time to reevaluate your keyword plan, write some new (and rewrite some old) content, and add or update both internal and outbound links.

2. Get more interested in data.
Especially your website analytics. Find out who’s visiting, when they’re visiting, and from where they visit. It may give you some good new promotional ideas, or better yet, it may help you reconnect with some customers you haven’t heard from in a while.

3. Reconnect with prospects – even the ones that seem “cool.”
Got a form on your website? Use a call center?  Send something interesting to every person who called or filled out a form last year. They may just be waiting to hear from you again!

4. Get more social.
Sure, everyone says this every year. But for good reason. And it doesn’t have to be agonizing to create relevant posts or content strategies. Try advertising on social, too. The targeting parameters keep getting better, and Your. Prospects. Are. There. All. The. Time.

5. Advertise!
It’s time to stop sitting on the sidelines, or waiting for some magic “perfect moment” to come around for when you’re going to run that “magical” campaign. The truth is, prospects tend to remember the brands who tend to advertise. Start by evaluating your core positioning, and then articulating it simply in a series of adverts.

6. Serve your community in some way.
We all live somewhere, even those of us who are remote service providers. Is there a way you can serve your local community this week, or this month? Perhaps a way you can devote a little of what you do this entire year to a worthy cause? It doesn’t have to be monetary donations. Volunteer your time, or your talents, or organize a board who can tackle an issue. It’s what all the cool kids are doing now.

7. Try a strategic partnership.
Of course, this depends on your brand and what it does. But think about partnering with another (non-competitive) brand. How can your COMBINED offering serve your consumers in a way that you can’t now? And look for a partner who can benefit from what your brand does, too. Hint: think across categories for the really cool partnership opportunities.

8. Do a customer survey.
Do you know what your current customers/consumers think of your brand right now? Ever wonder what they would ask for if they could just get in front of the CEO? Just ask them. It may help you recognize some holes in your offering, and it may help your consumers form a stronger opinion of your brand, too.

9. Refresh your packaging.
Even if you’re not a “packaged good,” your brand is packaged in some way. What you call it, how you dress it, and how it gets delivered – all of these are “saying” something about your brand to the world. And if you haven’t done a refresh in at least five years, definitely give this some thought. It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic, like a full identity refresh, but maybe something simple that speaks to the times, like a typography refresh, or the addition of an icon. Maybe add some color.

10. Add or develop a new product or service, and then market it.
You already know a lot about marketing. But sometimes, things just are the way they are with your current brand, for various reasons. Why not launch something new? Even if it’s a spinoff, or a subsidiary, or a new variety, or a specialization of what you already do. Think about it as a brand, position it carefully, give it a great name, package the snot out of it, and then promote it. You get the added bonus of measuring your success from a zero baseline. It might even get you excited enough to try new products beyond that.

11. Hire a professional to review your marketing.
This is a tough one for a lot of companies. It’s like going to the dentist when everything is fine with your teeth. But if things aren’t going great, and they’re not going terribly, it may mean you’re just standing still. And eventually, that’s going to turn sour. It could be any kind of professional – a branding expert, a media pro, a designer. Just have someone tell you what they see from an objective point of view. Bonus: you don’t have to act on their advice if you don’t approve.

12. Hire an intern.
Even if you don’t need one. There’s a student out there who is desperate for some real-world experience, and they might just get it at your place of business. You get the added bonus of helping/mentoring someone, if that’s your thing. And if it’s not, you may be challenged just to explain your business, and how and why you do things, to someone who has never heard of you. (Hint: that can be very good for your brand in the long run, too.)

13. Expand your geography into a new/specific area.
If you’ve been saying to yourself, “boy we could kill in Topeka,” well, maybe it’s time to take a first step. Explore the competitive set, and see if your brand/service/organization could thrive in a new area, or with a new location. Besides, rents are great in Topeka.

14. Create some new (and valuable) content.
You can always use new, up-to-date content. Even if it’s something simple, like your instruction manual, or your how-to video. Technology is always changing, and techniques are always evolving. If your video is outdated, think about re-shooting for a 2020 look and feel. Take that intern you hired, and have him or her try to put together a valuable infographic that represents your business in some way. Then use your new content to help in your SEO refresh strategy. (Item #1 in this list.)

15. Do something face-to-face.
Put on an event. Run a seminar. Not sure how to serve your community (item #6 in this list?) Organize a charity golf outing, or a run, or a motorcycle ride to raise money for those in need. Find a way to contextualize your brand in a personalized way. Invite everyone – even your competitors.

16. Review your policies.
If you’ve got any kind of policy (payment structures, privacy statements, rules, etc.,) give it a refresh. These are the kinds of things that often get overlooked, because we think no one pays attention to them. But remember – everything about your brand is contributing to what people think of you. Every. Thing. Also, this is a great job for an intern!

17. Get rid of something that’s holding you back.
Maybe it’s that outdated policy. Or an old piece of equipment that you keep delaying to update. Maybe it’s your office space. Heck, maybe it’s your partner(s.) But it’s a new year, and you’re determined to take control of your marketing. So find the thing that keeps “getting in the way,” of your success, and get rid of it. Even if it means doing things in a new way, or changing some core componentry of your business. It might be “the thing” that pushes you forward this year.

18. Add a dash of technology to your business.
What could you automate, or integrate, in some way, to streamline your operations? Do you have an app? Could you increase productivity by moving software to the cloud? Could you use software to predict future needs or expenses to help you account more efficiently? Even if it’s as simple using software to schedule your social posts, adding technology into your day-to-day goings on can help your brand move forward.

19. Decentralize.
If you’ve ever said to yourself, “boy we could sure use more talent in this office,” you might be a candidate for decentralizing. While we all love the idea of personal interaction, the truth is that you can find amazing talent just about anywhere. Why wait for the perfect bookkeeper to move into your ZIP code, when he or she might be looking for work in Topeka? And since you’ve already decided to add technology to your business in some way, setting up your business to enable remote workers is a great way to start.

20. Review (or actually create) your marketing budget.
We love to talk about marketing, but we often hit the brakes right at the starting line, because “that’ll cost too much.”  Too many brands fail to budget for marketing in their strategic planning, and so every marketing opportunity seems like an “expense.” It’s not an expense.  It’s part of doing business.  Decide now that you’ll invest (a minimum of) 5% of your gross revenues to marketing.  You’ll be amazed at what you can buy with that.

Here’s wishing you a great, well-positioned, clearly articulated, successful year in 2020!

Saving Face(book): three lessons from the Cambridge Analytica scandal

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The recent news that’s still in the news about the Cambridge Analytica scandal on the Facebook platform is making the rounds in marketing circles, and for very good reason. In many ways, and across virtually every category, calls will be made for heads in data and analytics departments nationwide, just as they were (initially) for the head of Mark Zuckerberg. “How could this happen?” the world seemed to ask. More accurately, the throngs pleaded, “how could YOU LET this happen?”

The harsh – and probably less titillating – reality, however, is that neither Zuckerberg nor Facebook are culpable of even a misdemeanor as far as this story goes. The folks at Cambridge were undertaking some very underhanded activities, and OF COURSE they did it out of sight of Facebook’s developer guidelines.

A quick review of what transpired: Cambridge Analytica (through a developer company called GSR,) created and then convinced 270,000 people to download an app called “thisisyourdigitallife” where users shared profile data and answered questions about themselves in exchange for a payment. That part is totally legal and fine.

What’s not legal, and very much not fine, is that the app those users agreed to have access their post data was also accessing data of their extended networks through Facebook. Unknowingly, friends and associates of those initial 270,000 had their profile data accessed too, and without consent. Some estimates put the digital swipe at about 50 million profiles (about a 20X reach.) A new report issued last week, raises the estimate to 87 million.  The algorithm GSR built used that data to create (according to some reporting) 30 million unique “profiles” that then helped in the design of highly targeted political ads.

There are numerous ways to unpack this. But for the sake of the practitioner who may be leveraging data (that’s everyone,) or thinking about it, let’s look at the basic but extremely important lessons this offers us.

Lesson 1: It’s NOT Facebook’s fault.
Let’s leave Facebook out of it (mostly) in terms of blame. Facebook was neither complicit in nor aware of the underhanded swiping of data, or the duping of unwitting consumers to grab information. They have clear policies, and those were blatantly violated by a business on the prowl. [To be clear, “data-scraping” tactics were allowed at one point for academic purposes, but have since been altogether forbidden on the platform.]

Facebook has the odd misfortune of being the central place where two billion+ people go and share information. That Cambridge Analytica stole from them is the issue, but so many of the news stories were focused on the idea that people had their data stolen ON FACEBOOK. That’s not fair, and it’s certainly not indicative of the platform’s policies and guidelines regarding third party developers.

Even if (and this is fiction,) there were some way for Facebook to oversee or even closely monitor every interaction that every third party developer has with any user while on the platform, then said third party developer with dubious intentions would first write an evasive script to keep their real intentions hidden. That’s Hacker 101.

Lesson 2:  This doesn’t make ALL data collection “bad.”
One story, even an egregious one like this, is not indicative of an obvious trend or an impending sign of where the digital marketplace is headed. So let’s not jump to conclusions about the use or misuse of data in marketing. Although it seems like the reflexive idea du jour, now is not the time to “re-evaluate every data collection activity, provider, or service” and start lobbying to pull data – or at least data collection – out of marketing. Data makes life infinitely better for the majority of consumers, whether they are clear about how or not.

Virtually every advance in marketing (from a digital point of view,) has been made infinitely more appealing because of the use of broad arrays of interoperative data sets. From programmatic advertising and retargeting to contextualized offers and recommendations that are algorithmically derived, the average online consumer is treated to a platter of timely propositions that make sense based on their online behaviors.

This is also a good time to remind everyone that maybe seeing your face squished like a funhouse mirror isn’t worth compromising the last seven years of your profile data. And that when you see that “you are now leaving Facebook” warning, it’s because You. Are. Now. Leaving. Facebook.

Lesson 3: Make it a teaching moment.  Evaluate your partners today.
This is an excellent opportunity for careful evaluation and timely introspection. Let’s take a good hard look at ALL our partners, data collection, data storage, data transfer, database, or otherwise – and give them a thorough once-over. Make sure their collection methods are sound. Make sure their statistics are sound. Make sure their conclusions are rooted in strong discipline and rigor. Make sure they’re collecting information that YOUR BRAND can actually use for YOUR objectives. (Not using your customer data pool for information your partners can sell to, say, your competitors, eh?)

As a paying customer, you have the right to ask what sample sizes your data and/or research partners will tolerate before making general conclusions, and so on. This way, when someone calls you on a “you are the company you keep” claim, you can be assured of (and even write policy around) your vetting methods. And here’s a handy little secret: you can brag about it to your clients, too.