Friday, July 9, 2010

Humble Comments on the Ego-Driven Internet

A few days ago I spotted this tweet from my “Twitmigo” Kathy Broniecki (aka @katbron):

I admit that, like most everyone, I gravitate to anything that tends to validate a point of view I already have. Sensing that was the case here, I clicked on the link.

For your convenience, here is the link without the shortened URL, so you can see the domain in advance:

The link leads to a blog post by Cory Treffiletti. And my expectations turned out to be completely wrong.

Based on the title of Cory's blog post, I was prepped and ready for some observations about how social media is turning out to be just high school writ large (like, globally), with an equivalent clique ecology. It turns out that the virtual manifestation of “social” is no different than the physical examples, be they social events, social circles, social networks or social stigmas: In all things social, there will be certain people who are gregarious, charming, amusing and persuasive…whose arrival will always be noticed and whose presence will dominate the conversation as the envious look on from the sidelines and murmur about what they said, what they did and where they’re going. And the rest pretty much go about their lives.

I was expecting to read about how the whole social media “guru” thing had produced an online community that resembled a giant digital cardboard box holding a very large litter of exuberant puppies, each one climbing all over the others in their individual attempts to get to the top of the pile and get our attention.

That title had me ready for Cory’s thoughts on how completely absorbed people have become with this notion of “thought leadership” and developing a “personal brand.” Quiz Time: Think of just about any product or service category and count how few brands hold significant market share. Think of most any field of endeavor or topic of interest and tally up how few people are widely regarded as real experts. Folks, the pyramid gets very narrow up near the top…and there’s just not room for all of you.

So, I guess those observations will have to be made by someone else.

All of which is not to say I didn’t appreciate Cory’s post. I was with him most of the way, in fact. I mean, no one I know would dismiss or even minimize the role of the ego in driving impulse purchases.

But here’s where I might part company (at least somewhat) with Cory:

The concept that "birds of a feather flock together" speaks directly to the fact that like-minded egos will likely engage in similar activities, and they want to know what everyone else is up to!...

…Sites like Blippy are simple and brilliant, because they project the ego of shopping from one consumer to another. People want to know what their friends are buying and why. It's a purely ego-driven experience, because everyone wants to be first!

If your friends are buying something, you tend to want to know what they're buying. This factor is also referred to as "keeping up with the Joneses." If they buy a nice car, you may want a nice car. If their Christmas lights are out of control but cool, yours will likely go big next year, too. It's simple human nature.

I’m not comfortable with how absolute these statements are. “Everyone wants to be first.” No, they don’t. The fabled “early adopters” all want to be first, yes…but waiting patiently behind them are millions of consumers who are quite comfortable with making a purchase only after a product is tested, refined…and the price has come down!

Not to be harsh here but...if someone is really all that wrapped up in what their peers are buying so they can run out and buy the same thing, I'm thinking the chances are pretty good they're in junior high.

Sure, “keeping up with the Joneses” has always been a factor with some (and always will be)....but I wonder how powerful that driver is today, two years into this Great Recession.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a long-standing and well-worn theory in marketing circles. But, rather conveniently, we tended to bend it just a little…and instead of showing a consumer moving on from basic needs to fulfill higher levels of need (self-esteem, creativity, morality) we used the model to explain that only after basic needs were met (which is to say, purchased) would the consumer consider buying something, well, optional.

There are many, many consumers out there who have taken a hard look at the way they used to spend money. Some are reacting out of concern for their future financial security. But for millions of others, the hard reality of a pay cut or a job loss has forced them to confront a very real situation in the present. Even those who are not tightening their belts have come to the conclusion that they’ve held a few too many yard sales over the years that were filled with items they simply had to have…and then rarely if ever used.

These folks are sitting in houses that are now worth much less than their mortgages, with garages full of vehicles that, through either leases or extended-length financing, are a category or two more upscale than they could really afford…and they’ve simply decided that their previous spending pattern—driven by ego—could not be sustained. Or even justified.

Many marketers have been saying the current conditions call for ad messages that focus on quality. But I’m not sure that’s the case here. While quality is an attribute that’s rarely off the mark (especially if, today, quality translates as long-lasting and reliable), my opinion is that in 2010 something can be of superb quality and still be seen by many to be frivolous. The way I see it, ad messages need to return to the basics of filling a need…and a real need, too, not a manufactured one (“Are you still using last year’s technology?”).

So I’m introducing Pool’s Corollary to Maslow’s Hierarchy:

In times of economic uncertainty and hardship, once basic material needs are met, a consumer is more likely to ask, “And isn’t that enough? Can't we stop? What else do I really need?”

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Why Writing for Business Ought to be Child's Play

With last weekend's Grand Opening of the Delaware Children's Museum, a 5-month period of involvement for me comes to a satisfying close. Working through Sparks Museums, GoConvergence and Cloud8 Design, I contributed the scripts for all of the videos and interactives in the museum, along with a considerable amount of written content for the graphic panels that accompany many of the exhibits there.

And with that experience (my second with a children's museum...the first was when I served in a similar role for one in Miami, Florida), I have come to the conclusion that anyone working in a corporate environment who holds a position in middle management or higher should have the opportunity (or maybe even be required)to develop content for a children's museum.

Corporate emails, presentations and reports would benefit immensely. And immediately.

What's the benefit? Well, it's not to encourage you to be condescending with your readers or your audience (and most of us know that you talk down to children at some risk). Rather, it's because the experience forces you to simplify your thoughts and write with greater clarity.

In a children's museum, you're not writing to impress....or to disguise lack of progress...or inflate disappointing results. You're writing to a way that can be comprehended quickly and easily. Why not the same in business?

Try this for a challenge: explain the basic concept of inflation (a topic that boggles even adults) to a target audience of kids ages 8-12...and do it in 85 words. Now write the same amount of copy on how to estimate healthy food serving sizes. Or the best way to choose a career. Start thinking like that and I guarantee your next memos will be rifle shots that are refreshingly clear, direct and devoid of a single extraneous thought.

For years, I've told clients (in the course of reviewing copy) that The New York Times is written to a 10th grade reading level for a reason. It turns out that was just scratching the surface. USA Today is also written to the same reading level...but many other newspapers and magazines aim one grade lower.

In1992, the National Center for Education Statistics, in cooperation with the Educational Testing Service (ETS), conducted a National Adult Literacy Survey. According to this survey, the average adult in the U.S. reads between the 8th and 9th grade reading levels.

And, in fact, such novelists as John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Steven King and Clive Cussler write at a 7th grade reading level. So did the late Michael Crichton.

While it could be argued from this that America's literacy level needs to improve, for the purposes of this post, the better take-away might be “don't write over the heads of your readers.”

Don't fill your emails, reports and presentations with technical terms or trade-specific phrases unless you are completely sure your audience is familiar with them. Worse yet is “corporate speak,” a vernacular that is specifically designed to say much but communicate nothing.

But be warned: the task of re-writing and editing is hard work. I'm reminded of a comment by French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (often incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain as well as others), which has been loosely translated as: “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

It does not take much time or effort to ramble on with extraneous information and side trips to nowhere. But the effectiveness of your message improves when you work at simplifying your thoughts and shortening your supporting information. You need to take the time, so your reader doesn't.

Shakespeare didn't tell us the whole story. Brevity, it turns out, is the soul of a lot more than wit.

** Additional Reading: (Many thanks to my good friend Barry Chudakov of @metalifestream and for the tip)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Writing Mission Statements: The Ultimate Make-work Task

Oh, how I could go on about the ridiculous process of writing a mission statement and, in many cases, their ultimate irrelevance in the actual operating environment of a company, division or department. But I won't. Because it can all be summed up in one story. A story with the added virtue of being absolutely true.

At the time, I was working for the internal communications department within a division of a major family entertainment company. Tied as my department was to HR, it was a business culture that contained exactly the kind of employees who would get completely spun up by the task of writing mission statements. Indeed, on this particular day, the team that focused on discipline-specific training was about to jump headlong into the challenge.

One of the members of this team had been with the company for a little more than a year, having come to us from an outdoors-oriented clothing chain. For me, he was an “internal client,” in the parlance of the business engineers, but in the course of that relationship he had become a good friend, too. Every time this group took a break from their day-long mission statement marathon, he would come by my cubicle with his head shaking.

I knew that the group was off the rails when, in his late morning update, he reported that many of them now had thesauruses (thesauri?) on their laps. Obviously, among some of them present, there was no longer any desire to be clear and succinct. No, the masters of memo obfuscation had put on their game faces and were ready to render polysyllabic nonsense, knowing that it would doubtless be greeted as profound thinking.

However, in a mid-afternoon update, my friend told me the group was stumped. They could not even agree on what to say, to say nothing of how to embellish it. But he thought he knew where to find the guidance they lacked.

He returned to his desk and went into his files. He pulled out a document, reviewed it, and began to take notes on his yellow legal pad. When the group re-assembled, he announced that he had spent the break “just jotting down some thoughts.” Showing evident modesty, he asked if he could share them.

As he read his tentative draft of their mission statement (he later told me), expressions of disbelief and wonder spread over the faces of his co-workers. “My God,” they exclaimed. “That’s it! You’ve captured our goals perfectly. And you wrote that just now?”

“No,” he replied. “This is the mission statement you had when I came here a year ago. You gave it to me during my first day on the job.”

Friday, December 4, 2009

Storytelling, Part 2 - You Must BE the Story

On the same day that I posted my thoughts about how storytelling alone was not enough in an advertising message, I spotted the following tweet from Gennefer Snowfield (@Gennefer), one of the people I enjoy following on Twitter:

After pointing her to my post (in a completely self-serving gesture) we had a brief but stimulating chat about the issue. She concluded: “At the core, I think we're saying similar things. Even a good story needs a strategy. Let's call them advertising parables!”

In that exchange, Gennefer also made a reference to the late-80s TV campaign for Nescafe Gold Blend as being an example of spots that both entertained and sold. I remembered those spots…and I remembered the buzz they created at the time. News coverage at the time reported that they had totally captivated the U.K. And here in the U.S. – within ad agency circles at least – they were for a time the hot topic (topics never stay hot for long within ad agency circles).

Revisiting some of the commercials in the campaign ( I was struck by the one key ingredient to the mix that I had left out of my earlier post (in which I did not say storytelling didn’t work, just that it was not enough – you have to sell, too): the product was inextricably tied to the story.

And that led me to remember an article I'd once read about the legendary radio advertising team of Dick & Bert. Through the late '70s and early '80s, Dick Orkin and Bert Berdis brought fresh creative thinking to radio commercials for a long roster of clients, not the least of which was Time magazine.

They were playing on another level entirely. Note this story from The New York Times of June 11, 1981, noting that Dick & Bert had won Clios in 5 product categories when no other agency or production company had won more than two. >>

Anyway, I've always remembered one point Dick Orkin made in one of the many articles written about them at the time. He explained the first rule of their approach to writing a script: the humor had to spring from the product and the situation (today I believe we would say that's being “organic”). You couldn't simply through in a bunch of jokes and have a spot.

In fact, Orkin said, if you could remove the product from the script and have the jokes remain intact, you had failed.

What could easily happen today with the surge of interest in storytelling is to have stories in which the product is simply a bit player. I can easily imagine a spot where two older men, feeling marginalized by today's world, take off to the woods and lakes of Minnesota for a weekend of fishing. There they ponder their respective roads not taken, reflect on the days of their youth and ultimately agree that life is still pretty great. And when it's over, we see the logo for a manufacturer of aluminum fishing boats.

Taking that approach is nothing more than a glorified product placement. But instead of giving your product a cameo in a movie or a TV show, you've done it in your own advertising!

So, following Dick Orkin's rule, if you can take the product or service out of your story and still have a's time to start over.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Storytelling is a great thing. For stories.

These days, I read and hear a lot about the value of storytelling. Some would have you believe that today's consumers are just too smart for anything as overt as advertising. Instead, they must be engaged by a story. I remain unconvinced.

When I first started out in advertising, as a copywriter with a degree in Radio/TV/Film, one of the first things I was taught was: Yes, a commercial must be memorable...but the most important thing the viewer needs to remember is the name of the product.

Back then, it was said that the Curse of Creative was to have a TV spot that consumers could recount almost shot for shot, re-telling it in amazing detail...and then not be able to remember what product or service the commercial was for. That spot, I learned, had failed in the most basic and fundamental way.

Fast forward, oh…let's just say a good number of years. One morning my wife came into my home office to tell me that she'd just seen a commercial with a tag line she really liked. “It said, 'Inner Space. Outer Beauty.' It was for a car.”

“A car.” Think that’s close enough for Lincoln? (It's for the Lincoln MKT)

Around the same time, we were visiting friends and the conversation turned to TV commercials. One of them, her face brightening as she spoke, just had to tell us about her current favorite. “It's the one where the car drives by and all the colorful flowers and trees turn into people. I don't know what car it was for, though.” I suspect most of you will recognize it as one for the Toyota Prius. But she loved that spot.

Then, lest you think all I care about is cars and car commercials (which is only partially true), there was another visit with friends during which one of them went positively rhapsodic about a TV spot broadcast locally here in Albuquerque.

I won't “name names” but it had to do with a new home community. And this commercial was truly a story, though somewhat subtle in approach (indeed, on my first viewing I wondered if the attention level it required wasn't unrealistically high). She retold the story, right down to the meaning of the flashback and the symbolic device in it. The commercial had obviously made a strong impression on our friend and she was quite moved by the story it told.

You know what's coming, don't you? Right. Beyond the category, she couldn’t remember anything about the advertiser.

And it's not just “ordinary consumers” either. In this next example, I will name names...because the “consumer” happened to be a business journalist. I witnessed this as I watched a recent episode of John McElroy's excellent webcast, “Autoline After Hours.”

John threw out to his regular guests this question from a viewer:

“Why are car manufacturer’s commercials on TV today so awful? And why are tire manufacturers making more exciting TV commercials?”

David Welch, Detroit bureau chief for Business Week, agreed with the viewer’s opinion of tire company commercials and made this observation:

“One of the tire companies has those Mr. Potato Head commercials that are kind of funny. And there’s another one – I can’t remember who does it – but there’s another one…I remember seeing it…but it’s a great performance commercial…I forget which tire company.”

Folks, this is a man who covers the automobile industry. I’d like to think that if anyone was going to be attuned to the commercials in that category, it would be someone like David Welch.

Now, I’m not criticizing Mr. Welch. Rather, my point is that too often the creators of TV commercials still fall down on the fundamentals, even when the story they have to tell is powerful and the audience is already interested and “leaning their way.”

Of course, this is all anecdotal. None of what I’ve shared here is statistically valid. But I’m inclined to believe that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. This is simply money not well spent. It accomplishes nothing if you’ve entertained your audience and given them all something to ooh and ahh about with their families, friends and co-workers…but you couldn’t even get your client’s name to register.

A great story? Fine. But…what? Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t get your name.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Social Media Users Confirm What I Just Said!

Update: Just one day after I originally posted the entry below this one, Advertising Age ran a story on the results of a survey taken of social media users by Anderson Analytics .

One of the questions they asked was: "Would you like more communication from brands?" Now, mind you, these were social media users...the folks so many brands are reaching out to in an attempt to build relationships...the folks who, arguable, would be the most receptive to brand messages in the social media environment.

The results: 45% were neutral, while 20% said yes and 35% said no. The way I read that, 80% were either negative or ambivalent about getting a higher volume of communications from brands...80% said "That's plenty, thanks."

Not every marketing effort needs to focus on building a relationship with the customer. That door may be closed and locked from the inside.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Why I Can't Commit to Brand Relationships

Not long ago, I saw this tweet posted by Mark Hamilton (@gmarkham):

>> Dear marketers: I will never have a relationship with things I buy. It's just stuff I use. May like it or not, but that's not a relationship. <<

Mark teaches journalism. And even though I follow Mark, I've never met him. In fact, I'm not sure if I've ever tweeted him directly. But from his comment above, I can tell I like him!

I don't know that I would never have a relationship with the brand behind something I buy, but I understand what Mark is saying. For me, it's just not a necessary part of the transaction. And, as I move along through the demographic age groups, I think I know why:

At this point in my life, brands don't define me.

Looking back, I can see that when I was younger I was much more caught up in brands, their images and personalities. In my 20s and 30s, I more closely fit the mold of the kind of young consumer that has been institutionalized as the target of media buyers: trendy, fashion-conscious and, thanks to media myopia, always in the public eye (creating a vicious circle of covering those assumed to be “hip,” thereby establishing them as “hip.”)

At the risk of engaging in a little pop psych, I would suggest that this “brand brandishing” happens when one's own identity is still in flux. You're still trying on different projections of who you are to see how they fit. Brand personality and brand associations are the fastest route to that image. “Oh, yeah...that’s me. I’m that kind of guy.” To borrow a phrase from a vintage Subaru radio commercial (which was a wicked parody of other car commercials, including Ricardo Montalban for the Cordoba), “The Caballero is a car for the man who knows who...I am.”

I can definitely remember when it was oh-so-important who had on the Calvins, who was wearing the OP shirts, drinking the Stoli, listening to their Walkman (“It’s a Sony!”), watching movies on HBO, taping music on Memorex, shopping at Crate & Barrel, taking photographs (on film) with an Olympus OM-1, playing video games on the Atari and reciting gags from the past weekend’s SNL episode. In another time, another region or another social circle, the brands would be different. But the story would be the same.

But that was then. Somewhere along the line....I dunno, I stopped auditioning all those other identities. I settled on a “me.” My consumer purchases were no longer “facing outward” to make some sort of statement. Today...yes, my purchases provide satisfaction for the psyche. But often they simply fill a need. They’re only what they need to be, and no more. As Mike Hamilton noted in his tweet, they’re stuff I use. And I probably like them. But that doesn’t mean I want to have a relationship with the company. It’s not like I want to start picking out curtains or anything. Right now, the relationships I value are not with the things I buy.

For the longest time (and apparently more out of habit than because of any data that supported it) media buyers were convinced that consumers 50 and over are set in their ways, with entrenched brand loyalties and will not try something new. In the last few years, that belief came to be seen as pretty shaky if not completely shattered:

Is 18-49 Passé As Top Demographic?

Boomers Hope To Break Age-Old Ad Myth

So, maybe the real reason why advertisers should be chasing the younger demos is not because that’s the trend-driven age when brand preferences are set for life but, instead, because those younger consumers are the ones who still see a brand as a tribe. A shared brand experience reflects membership in that tribe. And a social relationship with that brand puts them “on the inside,” tight with that brand image. Consequently, they’re more receptive to continuous interaction with a brand.

But once you join other tribes...once you start to define the complexity of “you” through other interests and passions...those brand identities become less important.

It’s pretty well established by now that older consumers are not “set in their ways” and are, in fact, quite receptive to new products and new brands. What’s different about the “over 50s” might be that, even when we’re happy with a brand, we’re no longer as likely to carry it as a banner of personal identity. Nor do we necessarily want constant engagement from them.

To my favorite brands: "Love ya. Mean it. Now get outta here."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In an Era of "Authentic," We're Still Talking Bullspeak

To my ear, people who lace their conversations with “marketing bullshit” sound about as impressive as Cliff Clavin, the bar know-it-all on the TV show, Cheers.  If you doubt for a second how pervasive this is (Perhaps because you’ve adsorbed it into your own business vocabulary?  Just askin’), do a Google search for that phrase. It will return almost a quarter of a million hits. 

While many of those pages will contain dismissive references to any number of advertising claims, some of the highest ranking results will include links to the popular Marketing Bullshit Generator, a diverting little tool that will likely create more than a few squirms due to the fact that the phrases it creates sound altogether plausible, if not actually familiar to you.

Search again, this time for “marketing bingo” and you’ll find many examples of this popular conferennce room game. Heck, there’s even a bingo version for social media (a field where there are, quite possibly, more gurus than users).

Now, certainly, marketers are not alone in exhibiting this condition.  We’ve all seen classic examples of obfuscation and “fuzzy language” coming from the federal government – hunger veiled as “food insecurity” and suicides by those held captive glossed over as “self-injurious behavior incidents.”

Indeed, much of the dialogue of corporate America is built around buzzwords.  There is such a rapid churn to this lingo that it almost calls for a “use by” date on them, lest we all sound hopelessly out of touch.  For instance, how very 1995 do “paradigm,” “benchmark,” “the 30,000-foot view” and the beyond-tiresome “think outside the box” sound to us today?

But those in marketing and the digital media seem embrace this kind of verbal embellishment with particular zeal.  We just love our long tails, our consumer touch points, and our immersive experiences.

If you’d like to see how a journalist and PR consultant reacts to this language in a press release, check out Scott Baradell’s “Eight Telltale Signs That Your Press Release Is Bullshit.”

And why do we do this? 

Can we be honest enough to admit that one possible reason is to compensate for the fact that we secretly realize that what we do remains, even today, more art than science and we’re tying to validate it with lofty language? We still work with high doses of emotion, instinct, hunch and “gut,” yet we seem to fall all over ourselves trying to make it all sound so rational and predictive.

We’re trying to elevate our efforts with terms that sound important, even if they often have no real meaning.  Because if we can continue to dazzle those who aren’t “in the know,” then we can sustain our hold on the role of wizard. 

But even the Great and Powerful Oz couldn’t keep the charade going forever. “Pay no attention to the man behind the green curtain!”

Here’s my take: If you build your presentations around Marketing Bullshit, keep in mind there are only three kinds of potential clients and three likely scenarios:

At one end of the spectrum are those business people who are, for whatever reasons, new to the game or still learning.  What they actually need is a trusted guide. Those buzzwords will only intimidate.  You’ll probably lose them.

At the other end of the spectrum (in the largest group of all) are those potential clients who have the minimum level of marketing knowledge needed to see right through the smokescreen.  Your credibility will be tarnished and you’ll be seen as the furthest thing from the “thought leader” you're trying to be.  You’ll probably lose them.

In the middle there somewhere will be a small percentage of prospects who have just come from a conference where they learned those same buzz words and phrases, and felt so delightfully “inside.” They will be so thrilled to discover that you’re both members of that exclusive club that truly “gets it.”

You probably deserve each other.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Yes, I'm a Satisfied Customer -- No, I Won't Recommend You

It was all started by Peter McCabe. And what he did was reported by Business Week in their January 30, 2006 issue:

In the fall of 2004, McCabe, chief quality officer for General Electric Co.'s health-care business, read a Harvard Business Review article recommended by a colleague. It suggested companies measure customer loyalty by asking one simple question rather than relying on lengthy satisfaction surveys: "On a scale of zero to 10, how likely is it that you would recommend us to your friends or colleagues?"

At that moment, thousands of marketing executives across the country, most of whom must have had Business Week on their short list of must-reads, all knew what their next sales pitch to the boss would be.

Now, I completely understood the value of this exercise…when it’s applied B2B. Basically, you’ve got one business asking another business “So, how’d we do? Do you think we can do more business together?” And, more important, “Would you feel comfortable putting your good name and reputation behind a recommendation of us?”

But what I don’t understand is how anyone thought this could be ported over to every freakin’ B2C relationship in the land.

Within months of this story I was invited to take an online survey from Chili’s. It ended with “Would you recommend us to your friends?” I answered “No.” And yet, I like Chili’s a lot. I would eat there today. As I recall, the survey gave me a chance to explain why I couldn’t recommend Chili’s.

My reason was simple: everyone I know already knows about Chili’s, has already eaten there and already knows how frequently they’ll continue to dine there. A recommendation seemed unnecessary and would almost certainly produce a lot of arched eyebrows. “Uh, Dave…we’ve gone to Chili’s together, remember? We already know you like it there and you already know we like it there.”

But it wasn’t over. Soon I was receiving surveys from all kinds of well-known, high-profile, national consumer brands….and they all wanted to know if I would recommend them. But no matter how high I scored my personal satisfaction with their product or the quality of my last experience with them, I answered “no” to the recommendation…for the same reason I gave Chili’s.

I could just picture the puzzled looks that would come my way were I to recommend such visible brands. As if I was some amnesiac just now discovering all of the products that were both common and familiar to everyone else.

But the topper was when the same question appeared at the end of a survey from Wal-Mart. I had to ask myself the hard question: was I embarrassed by the de classe notion of coming off like some Wal-Mart zealot to my friends and family? Was I uncomfortable with appearing to convey to others that a trip to Wal-Mart was a pinnacle moment in my simple life?

Ultimately, I decided that my reasons for not wanting to recommend were pretty consistent across the board. The way I see it, you make a recommendation when you have information about a person or a place that others might not have been able to acquire on their own.

Perhaps it’s a newcomer to town or a visitor to your city. Or maybe it’s someone who’s about to travel somewhere for the first time…but it’s a familiar destination for you. You would also make a recommendation about a business that is so small or so new (or both) that it very likely hasn’t been discovered yet. Or the classic: the recommendation of a specific applicant for a job – when the hiring company wouldn’t know the person as well as you do.

But when the subject is a company, a product or a service that is already top-of-mind with everyone…and maybe even a major component in our country’s economy….the idea that you might make a recommendation for it seems akin to telling someone that you’re a big fan of water.

So, if all these companies will just get off this recommendation bandwagon, I’ll be happy to tell them how satisfied I am to be their customer.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Perfect Banner Ad - Envisioned Before the Web Existed

In my first posting here, I addressed how “banner blindness” was neither new nor confined to advertising on the web. Now I’d like to propose that the creative thinking behind what makes an effective banner ad is also not new.

Hard to believe, perhaps, but the perfect banner ad was described about 25 or 30 years ago, a good 15 years before the earliest adopters tip-toed onto the World Wide Web.

At least that's my belief. I wish I could remember when it was, exactly, but sometime in the late '70s or early '80s (which would make it even earlier than Max Headroom and the cloak-and-dagger secrecy behind the life-threatening blipvert) a feature story appeared in Advertising Age in which a creative executive from J. Walter Thompson attempted to get out ahead of the trend to ever-shorter TV commercials.

At the time, 60-second spots had already given way to 30-second spots and there was growing use of the 10-second spot. This story tried to anticipate what a 3-second commercial might be like.

Using then-JWT client Monroe shock absorbers as the example advertiser, the prototype 3-second spot consisted of a continuous image with three distinct “moments.”

In the opening second, a toy car enters from frame left, bouncing harshly on its suspension and heading for a box emblazoned in the Monroe logo.

In the next second, the car is inside the box and we get a strong look at the logo.

In the third and final second, the car emerges from the right end of the box and glides oh-so-smoothly toward frame right.

Three seconds. Message delivered.

Now, wouldn't that be an awesome banner ad? No click-through required (no need...the message is in the banner), enough movement to catch your eye (without resorting to frantic dancers or other cheap devices) and a message that's clear enough to be obvious to anyone who might give it no more than a peripheral glance.

Like my good friend and strategic marketer Curt Westlake says in his blog, we may have fancy new tools to use, but it's still all about the basics.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Part III - Ultimately, "Banner Blindness" Leads Us to Search

During the mid-'90s, in the middle of my “Disney days,” I was a writer/producer in Cast Communications (if you don't know, Disney doesn't have employees...they have cast members), part of the Disney University. During that time, I attended a conference in San Francisco on employee communication...and got a great insight into how advertising messages are received!

One of the speakers had a presentation about how companies fail so abysmally when they write employee manuals. The reason is: they’re thinking like a company and not like an employee. And the example he cited was the medical insurance manual.

This book, he noted, is always carefully organized around all kinds of complex categories of coverage that satisfies the corporate insurer and has the blessing of the corner offices. However, once the employees look inside, their eyes glaze over. They take this book home where, invariably, it goes straight into their desk drawers, never to be read.

That is, until little Johnny falls and breaks his leg. Then mom or dad will rush to the desk, remove the manual from the very back of the drawer and open the book to search for information about the topic that’s top-of-mind at that moment – broken legs.

As the speaker noted, the odds that the Table of Contents or even the Index would have such an entry were very small. The book wasn’t written that way. Consequently, it was of no help to the employee at that crucial moment.

This, I came to realize, was also the way that lots of people regard advertising. At the moment that consumers are presented with a message, their minds are usually occupied with other things. The walls are up. Interest runs to zero, zip, squat, nada.

“I really don’t want to hear about a can of paint right now”

“Please, don’t expect me to be concerned with car insurance at this minute.”

“Hey, wireless provider....I'm still within my two-year contract, which I am NOT going to break.”

However, when they're ready to repaint their bathrooms, that’s when they'll be interested in all those designer paint colors. The next time they pay a car insurance premium – or have to deal with their insurance companies' claims process – that’s when they’ll be wondering if they could do better. And at the end of that two-year wireless contract, that's when they'll consider switching services.

Yes, this is the basis of the classic push/pull argument. Many consumers reject (or at least resist) messages being pushed at them but they will embrace opportunities to pull the information they want.

However, that just covers the “when” and “where” of delivering marketing messages – the “timing factor,” if you will. The point of the story about the medical benefits guide tells us we can add the factors of “what," "how” and “how much” to the messaging process. This represents the depth of the content and its accessibility.

When consumers are ready to buy, that's when the walls come down and the antennae go out. But they don't want just the high-level brand message. They want information: features, warranties, dealer locations, customer satisfaction scores. And they don't want to hear from only the advertiser. There are other, more trusted voices they can turn to.

In other words, these consumers are turning to the internet...where “pull” ends up meaning “search.” No, not pay-per-click. And not even organic search for an advertiser's own site. Instead, it's the cast-a-wide-net search for all of those independent reviews, reports, forum comments, blog postings and unsolicited personal experiences with a product or service (and here’s the kicker) over which the advertiser usually has no direct control.

In fact, in this recent article by Peter Hershberg in Advertising Age, he describes a possible next step in search as social media inquiries produce a more focused (and likely more trusted) response containing leads, links and referrals.

And check out this item from the Frugal Traveler in the New York Times.

One way or another, some form of internet search will provide consumers with the most effective kind of marketing message there is...the one that's actually wanted, because they're ready to receive it. They'll get the type of “medical benefits manual” they want to have at hand, providing the information they need...organized in a way that's useful…at the very moment when it's important to them.

Search has started to establish true interactivity in communication where there once was none. The traditional media are not going to die. There will always be a place for them. But communication doesn't happen simply because a message is sent. It has to be received and valued by the recipient. That's where search is already taking us.

For lots of great thinking along these lines, I recommend John Battelle's Searchblog.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Part II: "Banner Blindness" to In-Store Video

Does “banner blindness” extend to other visual displays of advertising? It can...and does, when the timing of the encounter is not controlled by the consumer.

In my first posting, I suggested that because computer displays (and, more to the point, web pages) are flat, there might not be much difference between “banner blindness” on the web and the way consumers look at print ads in newspapers or magazines (or don’t).

But what if that screen was much larger...and sitting in the retail environment? What if, instead of holding a tiny banner ad, the entire expanse of that screen was devoted to bold, colorful point-of-sale marketing messages? Or what if the screen was showing private channel video programs, thoughtfully brought to me by the store I’m in at that moment?

Consumers have already spoken. It’s just more clutter. More noise. Something else to avoid.

Reports indicate that most consumers claim in-store digital signage and TV screens have little impact on their purchases and, in fact, they say that it tends to blend into the background. That’s “filtering” in action. What they’re describing is the video version of “banner blindness” or reading around the ads.

Yet, I can vividly remember the moment about 5-6 years ago when an associate regaled a potential client with predictions that the day was not far off when every end-cap in every store would have a video display, updated overnight with fresh new graphics and images.

My immediate mental image of that scenario, based on what I had witnessed every time I was in a retail environment, was of hundreds of shoppers disregarding every one of those displays. Their minds were someplace else. Or they were deep in conversation with someone. But they were “filtering”…because it was not the right time to impose on them with an(other) intrusive message.

The fact that, 5-6 years later, aisle end-caps have still not been converted en masse to video displays means we can probably conclude that retailers chose to stick with the simpler, cheaper (and no doubt more effective) “analog” version.

Have you ever walked through a Wal-Mart (Come on, we’re friends here…and no one else is looking. You can admit you’ve gone to Wal-Mart.) and noticed how many consumers actually look up at the overhead monitors of the Wal-Mart TV Network. I can pretty well assure you that if you count them all with one hand, you won’t run out of fingers during your visit.

Wal-Mart and its vendors would say (and have said in press releases) that this $10 million project has produced results.

Says Kim Miller, vice president of marketing at Kellogg, “advertising at the point-of-sale will become increasingly important to win the market. The results we’ve seen during tests of the new Wal-Mart Smart Network have been impressive.”

“We’ve built a network tailored to the way consumers shop our stores--delivering helpful, custom, [sic] content closest to the point of decision--that helps them shop smarter,” says Stephen Quinn, CMO, Wal-Mart Stores, U.S. “We will be analyzing point-of-sale data on an ongoing basis to deliver a shopper-centric communications platform.”

“Shopper-centric.” Eek. But I digress.

Now, I don't have the statistics. All I know is what I see in the stores. Anecdotal and subjective, to be sure, but what I see is (to borrow a phrase from auto journalist Peter DeLorenzo) “a heaping bowl of Not Good.”

Heck, what I see these days is a lot of shoppers with their noses either in their own list or the store’s circular. They’re trying to cut costs. They’re looking for bargains. The spontaneous purchase of a carpet shampooer just doesn’t seem likely to happen.

Everything in these initial posts is simply meant to underscore the incredible challenge that advertising copywriters and designers face in trying to craft a message that people will even notice, much less permit some level of engagement. As Steve Cosmopulos, Creative Director at what was then Arnold & Company in Boston, told his teams, “Consumers are not out there just waiting to read your ad or watch your commercial. They have plenty of other things to do.”

The issue, then, is timing. When — and under what circumstances — is the consumer most receptive to your advertising message? That's next time.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Banners Might Be New, But Not the Blindness

As a child, I was an avid reader of the Peanuts comic strip. Years later I would come to realize that one particular strip had provided me with an early lesson in how many consumers respond to print ads (and, today, web ads). I hope I can do the strip justice in the retelling here.

Charlie Brown and Linus were on Christmas Vacation (that’s what it was called then) and their class had been given the assignment of reading The Brothers Karamozov during the two-week break. Of course, Linus tackled the task head-on while Charlie Brown procrastinated.

One day, as Linus was deep in his reading (and the end of vacation nearing), Charlie Brown asked him how he managed to deal with all of those unpronounceable names. Linus replied something like, “When I come to the names, I just ‘bleep’ over them.”

Recently, while reviewing a business website assessment that had been prepared by an independent search engine marketing company, I read something that I found remarkable, if for no other reason than it identified one of my own behaviors:

"Eye tracking studies have confirmed that users almost never look at anything that looks like an advertisement. This is referred to as 'banner blindness.'"

Wow, ya think? This revelation came as no surprise to me at all. Because I don't look at banner ads either. I have no difficulty at all in “reading around” banner ads, no matter what their shape or where they are placed on the screen.

Now, I might make a slight exception for those silhouettes of kinetic dancers or the faux home video of the young woman caught on camera. But I give those advertisers credit only for knowing that our species is hard-wired to detect sudden movement. After my first exposure to these "Ha! Made ya look!" ads, it was simply a case of once burned, twice shy.

But there’s nothing new about “banner blindness” except maybe the name. Lots of people don’t look at ads in any of the print media either. And haven’t for generations.

Again, I hold myself up as a shining example (though a statistically invalid sample). I have never found it particularly challenging to read only the editorial content and deftly navigate around the ads. And, though it’s true that I’ve spent many years in advertising, I’m a consumer, too. (But just one consumer. I’m not my own focus group.)

Over the years, I’ve heard and read print media reps explain how editorial content can “lead” readers into the ads...that three columns of text above a half-page magazine ad provide three opportunities to draw eyes down into the ad. Well, gosh, my eyes know exactly when they’ve arrived at the end of a column of text. They know where the border of the ad begins. And they dutifully stop at the border, turn around and go back.

New as the web might be, consumers simply extend the behaviors and abilities they’ve developed with read over, around and right past ads they are meant to see.

I don’t think it helps the cause at all to create a web page layout that ropes off the ads into one area (allowing your mental cop-on-patrol to scowl, “Move along! Move along! Nothing to see over here!”). And we all appreciate “Story continues below” as a public service.

Just this past weekend I participated in an online chat on the site. After every few replies from the hosts, up would come a little box right in the text flow that identified itself as an ad. Maybe I’ve been under a rock but I had never seen that before.

But now that I’ve seen these mid-chat ads in use, the next time — just like with those convulsing silhouettes — I’ll just “bleep” over them.

What does this point to? Indulge me a few more thoughts, coming soon.