Archive for the ‘marketing’ Category

One of the ironies of my life is that, although I am personally scornful of marketing, I’ve orchestrated two North American-wide campaigns and a dozen minor ones, including a couple of charities. This experience (which I can only say seemed like a good idea at the time), has made me sensitive to the mistakes that beginning marketers commonly make.

Read this list of strategies to avoid, and see how many you’ve done. I admit to having made all of them at one time or the other.

Avoid December to February product releases

In the month before Christmas, most people are distracted. They have a lot of demands on their income, including more requests from charities. After Christmas, they feel poor and depressed and are starting to think of putting whatever cash they have left over into retirement savings plans – all of which makes these three months the worst possible for starting a campaign. If you want people to buy for Christmas, you need to start by mid-October at the very latest. Otherwise, you’re almost guaranteed a lack of interest, no matter what you are promoting.

Don’t think that the second campaign is as easy as a first

When you first announce a product, you generally get a free ride. People are curious (with any luck), and they generally don’t know anything against the product, regardless of whether it’s a piece of merchandise, a service, or a cause.
But, the second time around, the product has a record. People have seen it before, and heard of the company or non-profit behind the product. Consequently, a successful followup campaign is much harder than a successful introductory campaign.

Don’t assume that what works once will work again

Just because a strategy or angle worked for you once doesn’t mean that it will work indefinitely. A clever campaign is a novelty the first time, and a bore the second time. You’ll do better with a different strategy for each campaign.

Don’t aim at the same audience continually

Members of an existing audience have already bought your product or donated to your cause. Appealing to them again makes you more likely to be ignored. You also risk losing what support you have built up. Instead, find a way to add to your audience.

Don’t assume that the value of your product is obvious

You may think that the value of what you are offering is obvious. By the time a campaign starts, the product’s value probably is obvious to you, especially if you are operating a non-profit or charity. But to your audience, which may not be paying close attention, that value is not obvious. Try to go beyond generalities and explain as concretely as possible the value of what you are offering.

Don’t shut out part of the audience

Understanding the demographics of a product is important to help you to understand the emphasis of the campaign. But don’t completely ignore other audiences. Just because your product mainly appeals to men doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pay some attention to women in the campaign, or the other way around. Otherwise, developing a larger audience becomes much more difficult.

Don’t over-saturate

Faced with a less than successful campaign, the impulse of many marketers is to try harder. They step up the tweets, increase the automatic phone dialing, and take out more ads in a panicked effort to stave off failure. However, the result of such tactics is likely to be the loss of your existing audience members because you’ve ignored them. Probably, by the time you notice problems with a campaign you can’t cancel it altogether, but look for creative ways to tweak or supplement it rather than speeding the train wreck by increasing its speed.

When I was learning how to market – usually on the fly, half a step ahead of necessity – a time came when I was so aware of these faults that I would keep count of how many examples of each mistake I found. Sanity has since prevailed, but, like anyone with special knowledge or expertise, I still notice frequent examples of all of them. Look around, and the chances are that you will, too – maybe even in your own efforts.


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Booth babes – promotional models – are a mainstay of many conferences and trade fairs. In fact, called to task for hiring booth babes, one business owner insisted that he would lose business without them. If that’s true, then I must be an unusual man, because I have always found them little other than irritating.

Oh, I notice that booth babes are attractive and revealingly dressed. I am, after all, a straight male who grew up in a modern industrial culture where sex is a given in advertising, and I’m constantly invited to stare. But their sexual come-on seems more of a distraction than an enticement to me. They’re like people who insist on interjecting jokes into a serious conversation – an irrelevancy to my main purposes at a conference.

At best, they might hand me schwag or a product sheet, or answer questions from a limited script. Otherwise, few of them can actually answer my questions.

To complicate this basic reaction, I happen to be a male feminist. I know that at least some booth babes receive models’ wages, so they’re not being exploited financially, but I can’t help feeling embarrassed on their behalf. Can’t they do something with a little more dignity? I keep thinking. What’s happened to their self-respect?

Possibly, booth babes themselves would laugh at this reaction, and maybe claim that they’re the ones with the power. But, then, I would respond that they are only rationalizing to avoid thinking too much about their current gig.

If I’m being honest, though, I have to admit that my main reaction is personal. Basically, to me, a company that hires booth babes is saying to me, “You’re a man. You’re easily manipulated by your sexuality.” To me, that implication is so insulting as demolish any appeal that the booth babes might have.

I realize of course, that many women – seriously or half-seriously – like to say that men think of nothing but sex. Many men, too, like to believe that they are helpless to control their sexual instincts.

Yet, personally, I’ve always counted myself a person first and a man second. I hold myself to high levels of responsibility, and I’ve never cared for feeling manipulated. Consequently, when a company imagines that I’m going to be swayed by booth babes – as though I’m a boy just a few minutes into puberty who knows nothing about his own sexuality – I’m insulted. While the insult may not be aimed at me specifically, it’s no less strong for being general.

For all these reasons, far from being lured into lingering around the booth babes so that a real company representative can pounce on me, I keep walking. Any literature or freebies I might have already collected from the company with booth babes gets tossed. Unless the company is too big to ignore, I don’t write any stories about it – and, even then, I try not to. If a company can be so contemptuous of me, I don’t see why I shouldn’t be equally contemptuous of it.

To be honest, I’m surprised that booth babes have survived into the present era. They seem more a relic of the 1960s, when the end of repression confused people into thinking that all forms of sexuality should be encouraged.

But, for me, today, they have the opposite effect than what’s intended. Nor, I suspect, am I the only male who feels that way. Add we dissenting males to the growing number of women at conferences, and booth babes must be well on their way to becoming a liability.

At least, I hope so.

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When the news came that Vancouver would be hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, I was jogging down from the Stadium-Chinatown Skytrain station to the Yaletown office where I was working. I didn’t hear the announcement, but I heard a cheer go up from the offices on all sounds of me.

Personally, I was surprised. At that point, I had no strong feelings about the Olympics one way or the other. But I had thought that the logistical problems of keeping people moving along the road between Vancouver and Whistler would prevent the bid from being successful. Even more importantly, my own contact with the bid committee hadn’t impressed me much.

About six months earlier, I had applied for a job as a writer on the bid. It wasn’t a position that strongly interested me, but I thought it worth a hour or two of my time to satisfy my curiosity. So, I duly strapped myself into my interview suit, stripped any obvious signs of eccentricity from my person, and presented myself at the Gastown office of the bid committee.

I was interviewed by two women who I quickly classified as marketing and communication workers. That isn’t prejudice; I’ve done similar work myself, after all. But, after a while, you get to know the signs. The two women talked in generalities, and displayed an artificial optimism and enthusiasm at all times. Somehow, I couldn’t imagine them taking part in a casual Friday.

Mostly, the conversation went well enough, so far as conversations during a job interview can ever be said to go well. But when I asked about how the logistical problems might be overcome, the women’s reply boiled down to, “Somehow, everything will work out..” I could also see that, in their minds (and probably on their clipboards), I had set a black mark against my name. That was all right; their replies had cost them points with me, too.

However, two other points were what really disturbed me. First, they said that working on the bid committee would be no guarantee of a continued job if the bid was successful. Since I was sure that the leaders of the committee would land jobs in Vanoc, that seems a lack of loyalty to staff members.

Secondly, as part of the interview, they asked me to go home and write seven or eight pages on how I would promote the Olympics. That is a considerable effort to ask someone to do on spec. Combined with the lack of a guarantee of continuation, I concluded that the request showed a cavalier attitude towards employees. I thought for a couple of days, then phoned the interviewers to say that I would not be responding to their request and that the job no longer interested me.

I have no idea whether those particular women found work with Vanoc. I no longer even remember their names. But it seems to me that their attitudes are echoed in everything I’ve heard from Vanoc ever since, from the feeling that problems would work themselves out to the assumption that local residents will put their lives on hold for the duration of the games next month.

It is not an echo that promotes happy thoughts about how the games will be organized and what the after-effects will be. Frankly, it has kept me from supporting the games ever since. I might talk about the financial and social costs, but behind them is an emotional core of distrust based on this one brief encounter.

This attitude puzzles people from outside the Vancouver area. When I was in Calgary last spring, people were surprised by my lack of enthusiasm. Remembering the Calgary games twenty years and the very different social attitudes in which they took place, everyone assumed that I must be looking forward to the occasion. They were surprised by my lack of enthusiasm, even when I explained my reasons. I’m not sure they ever did understand.

However, I don’t think my attitude is unique in anything other than its origins. No doubt it’s the company I keep, but I’ve found that only one in four – or thereabouts – actually supports the upcoming games. The intial cheering at the news of the bid just doesn’t seem to have lasted.

In fact, I’ve only found one person who defended the games with any passion, and her criticisms were bizarre – she argued that nobody who objected or even questioned the games should use the newly improved highway to Whistler (never mind that she also insisted on the official line that such improvements were not part of the costs of the games). But of eight or nine people in the store, nobody felt like taking her side in the discussion.

Maybe more people will show enthusiasm as the games approach, but, I don’t expect that most people will. The average person in the Vancouver region seems resigned to the games, largely indifferent and if anything mildly hostile, although you wouldn’t know that from the media.

You might say that, for most of us, 2010 will be divided into two parts: enduring the preparations and the games themselves, and the rest of the year. And, like most people, I find myself looking forward to the rest of the year far more than the preparations and the games. If I became dubious earlier than others, it is because I was exposed to the spirit of the games earlier than others.

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“You’re an English major? You must be planning a career in fast food.” Comments like this haunted me from the moment I declared my major in university. But hearing the sentiment recently, I realized that it was far from accurate. The truth is, people who have a way with words can make a comfortable living in all sorts of ways, so long as they don’t limit their possibilities to the obvious.

The worst mistake that anybody with an English degree – or, in fact, any Arts degree – can make is to hang about on the fringes of academia, hoping for a tenure track position. Ever since my undergraduate days, I’ve been hearing about all the tenured positions that are going to become available as their current incumbents retire, but, between budget cuts and the increasing tendency to hire non-tenured staff or sessionals, the positions are unlikely to materialize. People who were hoping for those positions when I left academia over a decade ago are still waiting for those tenured positions. Meanwhile, they endure semester by semester contracts, last minute hires, and doing the same work as tenured faculty for half the money. That’s fine for a few years, but it’s no way to live in the long-term.

The same is true of editing piece work. Just like academia, the publishing industry depends on having a constant pool of cheap work-for-hire editors. You may be one of the lucky exceptions, but the odds are against you, no matter how talented. Those who run the industry are careful not to employ you so much that they become obliged to offer you benefits.

Instead of lingering in limbo, waiting for the academic or literary job you used to dreamed of, English majors should explore the possibilities in business. Not only is the power of self-expression in demand there, but the competition is far less fierce than in academia – partly because of the greater need, and partly because many English majors seem to consider that taking a job in business is beneath them. Often, too, they make the mistake of thinking that their writing skills are all they need, and are slow to learn the subject matter expertise they need to do the work properly.

But, if you can get beyond the idea that you are dirtying your hands and are willing to learn what you don’t know, then the jobs are there. As a technical writer, you need to write clearly and organize information for conciseness and accuracy; in many ways, the job is writing stripped to the basics. As a communications and marketing manager, writing news releases or blogs, you take on the responsibility of being the voice of the company. As a product manager, you decide how to present a product or line, and you’ll find your skills with textural analysis serve you well when you come to deal with end user license agreements and other legal documents. As an instructor, you are reprising your role as a teaching assistant while you were in grad school, the only difference being is that you are teaching software or policies and procedures, rather literature or criticism.

And these are only the most obvious career paths. Writing and teaching skills aren’t a bad foundation for going on to law school, for example. Best of all, the first thing you’ll notice when taking these positions if you’ve been vying for scraps of work around academia, your yearly income will increase by over fifty percent or more.

Admittedly, some of these positions aren’t on the express way to the top. Technical writers, for instance, may rise to supervise other technical writers at a large company, but they aren’t likely to become CEOs. But they can serve as entry positions, and, if you’re interested in climbing the corporation, you can always expand your skill set later on. Meanwhile, you can reasonably expect a salary that puts you solidly in the upper middle class, to say nothing of responsible and often rewarding work.

Really, the only thing holding you back with an English degree is your own lack of imagination or initiative. Just because those who prefer an education they should be getting at a technical college choose to belittle your liberal education is no reason for you to believe them.

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Recently, I’ve been struggling with the suspicion that my distaste for marketing is hypocrisy.

I’ve been a marketer in a past career incarnation, and a moderately good one, if I say so myself. At Stormix Technologies, I developed the idea of ad campaigns based on different idioms that used the word “storm,” such as storm warning and eye of the storm. Later, at Progeny Linux Systems, I developed a campaign based on the use of a large animal to represent the company, such as a macaw, and a small one to represent the competition, such as a budgie. In the last version of the ad, we used a bull elephant and a toy elephant, under the slogan, “Some companies just toy with open source.”

Even in retrospect, I’m proud of these campaigns, although to be honest the Progeny campaign owed much of its effectiveness to the graphics work done by Rebecca Blake at Lara Kisielewska’s Optimum Design and Consulting in New York. Both campaigns handily accomplished the aim of giving new companies name recognition across North America.

However, it’s nearing five years since I’ve worked as a marketer. At first, I had difficulty finding marketing work in the high-tech recession, and later I found direction as a journalist and stopped looking for marketing work.

Still, given my past, I’m surprised to find myself viewing marketing with increasing distaste. Last year, when I noticed an ex-schoolmate using crudely obvious means to market her company, I told myself that her tactics were reasons to distance myself. More recently, I found myself shaking my head over local bloggers writing about products for money or goods. And when I spent an evening listening to a case study of a guerilla marketing campaign, I found myself thinking the whole idea a waste of creativity. I had a similar reaction when I read a friend’s recent blog enthusing over marketers who organized live roleplaying games to promote their products. I am all for play, since I believe it is important to creativity, but I wondered if marketing wouldn’t sully the whole experience.

The thing is, given my past, what right do I have to look down at marketing? Considering the recession when I tried unsuccessfully to find marketing work, is my reaction just sour grapes? At the very least, I am being inconsistent, and that troubles me, because such inconsistency points to unexamined complexity.

Moreover, I notice that very few people share my attitudes. Many people found the case study I heard clever, and were excited by the possibilities of using real-life games to sell products. I’m next to unique in my moral outrage. That’s fairly common, since I have a strong Puritan streak in me (by which I mean that I’m obsessive about ethics, not that I’m prudish), but righteous outrage, like inconsistency, suggests a complex reaction.

So, what is happening? To answer, I have to fish blindly into the mirky depths of my unconscious, and see what I happen to land.

Part of my reaction, I think, is a reversion to earlier attitudes. I was an academic before I was a marketer, and such dismissals are common to those who have never worked in business. In the last couple of years, I’ve been at a stage in my life when I’ve been reassessing my past through various means – including through this blog – and very likely I’ve made a reconnection that I didn’t realize until now.

Another reason is that I’ve switched sides. Instead of trying to persuade journalists, I am a journalist now. In the last few years, I’ve seen many inept marketers – not least of all those who borrow spammers’ techniques and keep sending information about Windows products to an address that is clearly about GNU/Linux. Because I get forty or more such emails every day, developing a jaundiced view of the marketing profession is only natural. I’ve seen too much of it at its worst.

However, I think the main reason for my disdain is to justify the path I’ve taken. While I could always return to marketing if I was desperate to earn a living, it’s slipped several rankings down in the possibilities. Most likely, I could probably find another gig in free software journalism if I had to. But, as a generalist who believes that “all of the above” is usually the correct choice, I’m obscurely bothered by committing to a single career choice. So, to quieten my misgivings, perhaps I’m hunting for ways of repudiating the possibilities I’ve more or less ruled out.

In other words, my reactions are less about the ethics of marketing in the abstract than about my own decisions about my life. And, having come up with this line of reasoning, I imagine that I can already feel my reaction diminishing. Examining hypocrisy can lead to insights – or so I’ve found in this case.

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Spam techniques have now become standard in public relations. I’ve come to this realization over the last couple of years as I’ve watched the dozens of emails from communication managers that arrive daily in my mailbox. Probably, the senders don’t think of what they are doing as spamming. Very likely, some even imagine that they are doing their jobs efficiently. Yet they might as well be spammers, for all the effectiveness they have. An increasing majority seem to think they’ve done their job if they’ve sent their news to every remotely possible recipient.

This attitude frequently has ludicrous results. For instance, you might think that one look at the free software sites for which I write would tell PR hacks what the sites are interested in: Free and open source software, and the GNU/Linux operating system especially. Yet out of an average of maybe sixty news releases that I receive daily, at least two-thirds of them on any given day are likely to contain news about the Windows or Mac platforms or proprietary software – often both. Either the PR people don’t know enough about technology to know that the editors don’t want this news, or they don’t care.

Even more surprisingly, some releases aren’t about computer technology at all. Probably the senders are working from a general list of news outlets, and haven’t bothered to figure out which ones might want their news.

Then, just to make matters worse, they don’t just send the initial release. Some of them send exactly the same release the next day. Others send “just a note to see if you got my news yesterday.” A few repeat the process several times with every release.

Some, having picked up the idea that they should target a name, address their news directly to a person who works for the site. The only trouble is, they never bother updating their contact lists. I know at least one site that regularly gets email addressed to people who haven’t worked there for several years – sometimes in addition to the general ones sent to the editors’ mailing list.

All in all, it’s getting so bad that my little finger is getting repetitive stress injuries from hitting the delete key so many times in a day.

Admittedly, the sender don’t conceal their names or use malware to send email from other people’s computers, but, if what they’re doing isn’t spamming, the difference is hard to distinguish.

In particular — and what really should concern the senders – the results they get are the same as those from spam. Before long, their emails are added to everyone’s spam filters, so if they ever do have news the site can use, nobody is every going to read it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some writers and editors resist using information from certain PR agencies or people, simply because they’ve become so annoyed by them.

Yet when someone – usually out of cynicism or a wicked sense of amusement – lets the senders know that they’re wasting their time, most of them don’t change their behavior. They’ll apologize, express their gratitude for the correction – and then, at the very next opportunity, do exactly the same thing. I sometimes wonder whether the effectiveness of PR these days is being judged by the number of outlets it’s sent to.

When a news release is sent out, the ideal situation is that the news is used. The company gets the publicity it wants, and the news outlet gets the material it needs. But, when spamming techniques are used, nobody wins. The PR hack gets unofficially blacklisted, the company fails to get its publicity, and the journalists get angry and look for copy elsewhere. And why? Because too many PR hacks are too lazy or ignorant to do their jobs properly.

Needless to say, not every communications manager uses spam techniques. I know several who carefully target their news releases, and work hard to make sure that everyone on both ends of a release wins. These are the real pros of communications, and I am always grateful for their competence – if only because of its increasing rarity.

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