Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Recession Marketing

The age-old debate: to pull back or not to pull back. The PullBack advocates say why further hurt the bottom line with marketing expenses when no one is buying? The KeepGoing group argues that when sales go down, marketing has to go up, and besides, if you're in the game when the PullBackers are bailing out, you can steal market share.

I agree with Pat Strothers, who argues that this is a false question: the real question when faced with a recession is not how to change your marketing budget, but how to change your marketing focus, and the answer is contained in the title of his fine blog post: For now, focus on those ready to buy. I recommend it.

Changing your marketing focus means, of course, also changing your language focus. Even "ready to buy" customers are going to be feeling some resistance to pulling the trigger with a recession of unknown length and depth staring them in the face. Use your communications to help them get past the last hurdle: waiting until times get better.

1. Get specific about the benefits. Stressing the benefits, especially benefits they'll see right away, will help your buyers get past procrastination. Describe benefits in specific and practical terms - recessions, as Pat says, are not the time to do general brand-building.

2. Help with the pain. If you have ways of helping your buyers with the costs, announce them front and center in your communications. In normal times, free shipping is a nice benefit. In a recession, it might close the deal.

3. Make buying easy. In every communication, have a very clear and very easy-to-find call to action, and make that action as easy as possible. Don't send them to your "Contact" web page to find your phone number, have it right next to the words "Call now." Don't make them fill out long forms to send you an email; just one click, and pre-fill the subject line with your call to action. Let your language show that your door is wide open, and a friendly greeter is out there to meet you.

Perhaps above all, make sure your communications let your customers know that you appreciate the situation that they're in, and that you'll do whatever you can to make sure this buying experience doesn't add to their problems.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Two Tips for B2B “Green” Marketing

If you have a product or service that can help your business customers “go green” or “go greener,” here are two tips on crafting marketing messages that will get their attention:
  1. Focus on the business case. Definitely put something in the headline/intro that lets your audience know you’re talking about going green, but thereafter focus on the business case. First, everyone knows the societal reasons for going green by now. Second, most people know that there are ways to go green that make good business sense, so they’re not going to look at purchases that are green for their own sake. It is definitely okay, however, to remind them (in a postscript, say) that their smart purchasing decision is helping to save the planet too.

  2. Learn the lingo. This is always true in B2B marketing, but is especially important in green marketing. There are two reason for this:
    • Trust. Whenever there’s a bandwagon, everyone jumps on, including the scammers. There’s so much green hype out there that businesses have become increasingly wary of green sales pitches. A technical error in your marketing may well get your materials tossed into the circular file.
    • Effectiveness. Knowing what environmental categories your product or service falls into will steer you to the right target markets. Knowing that you can help your customers become more “energy efficient” will attract one set of prospects; if you help them convert entirely to “sustainable” energy, you’ll attract another.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A one-two punch for small business prospect communications

If you’re a sole proprietor or run a small business, there are two important things that are especially important to highlight in first-contact prospect communications such as your introductory brochure and web site.

First and uppermost (literally), benefits. What are the important or unique benefits a prospect will enjoy by contracting with you? What’s your Unique Selling Proposition? I know this is MarCom 101, but it’s amazing how often I have to dig through a brochure, flyer or web site to find this information. In this attention-deficit-disorder world, you have to get their attention right away, and nothing gets attention like benefits.

Second, follow up with assurances. Probably the number one obstacle to someone buying a product or service from a small business is fear: fear of losing money, fear of feeling “taken,” and/or fear of wasting time. So task number two is to remove the fear. Ways to reassure prospects that their buying experience with you will be a safe one include: offering a guarantee, presenting credentials, being liberal with your contact information (lack of same is a dead fly-by-night giveaway), providing a list of past customers, presenting robust customer testimonials, and offering to provide references.

Where to do it

In a printed piece, you can put both the benefit and the assurance in the top two headlines:
“Free your home of mice in two days!”
“Results guaranteed!”

Another approach is to have the benefits in the headline(s) and have the fear-removal language at the bottom of the page in prominent type. I like this approach better for B2B communications, because the audience tends to be a little more leery of businesses that feel the need to reassure right away.

For web sites, the place to highlight the benefits is on the home page, of course. The assurances can be alluded to in a side bar or low bar, and expanded upon on the About page. Again, for B2B communications, being indirect is better.

Attracting with benefits, and closing with assurances: a great one-two punch for all your small business prospect communications.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Business plan writing - start with the basics

Step one is three things: vision and mission statements for your business, and an elevator speech.

Vision statement: Your view or dream of what your world should look like. “World” in this case can be as small as your backyard, or as big as the universe. It’s your circle of concern. For Xerox, their world used to be copying. Now it’s documents.

Mission statement: A statement describing what your organization’s goal or role will be in contributing to the realization of that vision. Usually, but not always, the mission objective won’t achieve the entire vision. This is the 30 thousand foot version of what your organization does.

Elevator speech: This is the five thousand foot version. This is what you actually do every day to achieve your overarching goal. This is the answer to the question: okay, say I hire you/buy your product, what will you/it do for me?

Here’s an example: suppose your business idea is to make and market a new “Panic Button” system – a button that allows you to call 911 and give them your location from anywhere with the push of a button, and the button is worn on your clothing and glows so that it’s easily seen by would-be muggers.

Your vision might be “a world where you can walk the city streets safely.” You can’t accomplish that single-handedly, but you can “provide products and services that help deter street crimes against persons, and bring help swiftly when necessary.” That would be your mission, your part in the vision. The elevator speech is “provide our customers with a call-from-anywhere 911 device that actually deters criminals from attacking in the first place.”

With these three statements, you have created is a verbal framework to hang most of your business plan on. One way or another, every section of the business plan should support one of those three statements.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Get Ruthlessly Simple

I’m reading an excellent book on creativity in business called Juicing the Orange, written by local marketing gurus Pat Fallon and Fred Senn. While they are writing in business-scale terms, much of what they have to say also applies to good business writing.

One of their principles is “Demand a ruthlessly simple definition of the business problem.” This is advice familiar to any business plan writer and any serious networker – if you can’t say what you do in one or two sentences, you probably are still a little fuzzy on what it is.

This applies to the craft of business writing as well. Before you starting writing a piece, come up with a ruthlessly simple statement of what it is you’re trying to say or accomplish. This will keep your thinking focused during the writing process.

Bonus: convert that into an actual statement that says/accomplishes it. There’s your headline. There are the key words that should crop up consistently during the piece to keep it “on message.”

Get ruthlessly simple first. You can embellish later.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Successful Proposals

Look for a detailed article on this subject, coming soon (there will be a link on the right), but I wanted to touch on the most important element of responding successfully to RFPs:


Sounds obvious, but in my own experience, and in the experience of the many top execs on the issuing side of the desk I’ve worked with over the years, the most common reason that RFP responses fail is that the responding company didn’t read the document. In particular, companies incredibly seem to gloss over the narrative part of the RFP, jumping right to the Q & A part. I say incredibly, because the narrative part of the RFP always tells responding companies exactly what they need to do to win the bid! And a word to the wise: slapping a boilerplate on the front-end of your response just doesn’t cut it. Even if it does address issues from the RFP narrative, you are making the RFP review team work to find them, a definite no-no.

When structuring your response, read the narrative carefully looking for three key “how to win this bid” criteria:
  1. Their strategic goal: Repeat this back to them, showing you understand their big picture and how you are strongly positioned to help them reach this goal.
  2. Their “soft” requirements: Assist with brand positioning, promote stakeholder buy-in, ability to adapt to strategic changes – a good (and specific) response to this requirements can often seal the deal.
  3. Their preferred format: Again, seems obvious, but if they give you an outline, follow it closely. As often as not, the reviewing team will have a score sheet that matches the outline – if they have to go looking for your response to an item, they just may give you a zero.

    If, as is frequently the case, their outline doesn’t give you an obvious place to toot your horn the way you want to, use an “Introduction” section or do the tooting in an Executive Summary that precedes your formal response.

In short, make it easy on the RFP response reviewing team by first and foremost giving them what they ask for how they ask for it. There’s always a way to put in the answers to the questions you wish they’d asked.

Monday, March 31, 2008

It's Alive!

"You cannot bore someone into buying your product." - David Ogilvy

That quote is how copywriting guru Steve Slaunwhite, author of The Everything Guide to Writing Copy, introduces the core copywriting task of making your product/services' benefits come to life for the prospect. Benefits sell better than features, and tangible, fleshed-out benefits sell best of all.

Consider those TV ads for the OnStar system. They don’t just talk about the benefit of having a system that can detect when you’ve been in an accident and call for help. They bring it to life with a dramatic picture of a person sitting stunned in a car after an accident hearing a reassuring voice addressing her by name and saying, “don’t worry, help is on the way, and I’ll stay with you.”

That’s how to bring the benefit to life: create a scenario or tell a story with the benefit in the starring role. You can do it in the third person, as above, or in the first person, by using customer testimonials that highlight in a practical way how the benefit improved their lives. Similarly, you can use poignant before-and-after scenes to show the benefit in action.

These techniques are especially effective, of course, if they evoke an appropriately strong emotional chord in the prospect - fear, pride, embarrassment. These emotions can be elicited on the flip side, too, as consequences of NOT buying the product or service. Just be careful not to overdo it - if you evoke too much fear, for example, the emotional backlash can negate the story’s message.

Talking about benefits rather than features is something all good copywriters do. The best copywriters make those benefits come to life.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Don't Make Me Think!

That is the title of a terrific book on web usability by Steve Krug. He argues a pretty common sense approach to web usability that I find pretty compelling.

Take his First Law of Web Usability: Don't Make Me Think! His contention is that web users are scanners not readers (not unlike ad readers, IMHO), and each page, and the elements in it, have to be as self-evident as possible. Web visitors should be able to grasp instantly (and thoughtlessly) what the page is for and why they should care to stop there. It starts with design (bad design will usually obscure great language), but the language is the "closer." The design steers the visitor to the words, and the words have to be simple, self-evident and compelling enough to entice the visitor to take the action you want.

His Third Law is, from a copy point of view, a close corollary of the First: Get rid of half the words on each page. Then get rid of half of what's left. Think "Scanners, not readers." Think "Short and Sweet." Many of the least user-friendly web sites out there are those where the company thinks of their site as an online brochure or, worst-case, an online direct mail piece. Here's where, if I might be permitted a short plug, professional copywriters are worth their weight in gold. A good copywriter should be able to cut the first 50% of the words in their sleep while maintaining, and often enhancing, the message.

Both of which reflect Kelberer's First Law of Good Business Writing: Given a choice between clever and clear, choose clear every time. Fewer awards, but you'll laugh all the way to the bank.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Can we talk?

Most business communications succeed best when they establish a rapport with their intended audience. Many things go into establishing that rapport, but perhaps the most fundamental is this: getting the audience to feel like they are in a conversation. Not talked "at" or "down to", not lectured, not sold, not even "hail fellow well met"-ed. Just plain talked to.
  • That's why the best "style" for a communications piece is usually "conversational."
  • That's why the best "content" for a communications piece is usually "information."
  • That's why the best "emphasis" for a communications piece is usually "helpful."
You wouldn't go into a long-winded speech if you were trying to tell a friend about something they'd find interesting. Just talk to your audience simply (they are friends - no need for pushiness or hype) and confidently (you're telling them something you're sure they'd want to know), and you'll go a long way toward holding their attention.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Teach a prospect to fish . . .

The old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” has applicability to the attraction and retention of customers through your marketing communications. Instead of selling a fish, education your prospect about fishing. Instead of pushing for a transaction, offer a relationship.

Communications aimed at “selling a man a fish” are often based on hype, hyperbole and focused on the fish at hand. He gets his fish, and when he wants another one, he’ll get it from the nearest pond.

Communications aimed at “teaching a man to fish” are based on solid information, offer to give something to the man first, and are focused on building a relationship.

  • Putting an unbiased “How To Shop for Widgets” section on your website
  • Offering a free booklet on the Bahamas with your travel business mailing
  • Offering a first-time-buyer discount

Working a communications program of attraction rather than promotion invites your prospects into a relationship rather than a drive-by purchase.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Just the facts, ma'am

Marketing guru David Ogilvy once said, "The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be." This applies to pretty much any form of persuasive communications, and is the antidote to two very common errors in business-to-business communications.

The first error, and the advertising and marketing pros are often more guilty of this than anyone, is relying on clever language rather than clear, straightforward language to get the audience’s attention. Studies have shown that cleverness sometimes works, but clarity always does (other things being equal).

The second mistake is to substitute hype and hyperbole for actual information. This is especially problematic in today’s information age, when advertising claims will be Googled to check for accuracy, and the second generation of TV watchers is generally wise to misleading advertising tactics (think of the “Target Market” campaign).

The clear vs. clever rule is especially applicable to headlines, where the temptation to be clever is strongest. Nothing will get your audience to continue reading that a clear headline that allows them to self-identify and anticipate a benefit (see my earlier posting on “Ad Headlines”).

Use clear statements of fact (or opinion, for that matter, as long as its clear) to describe your products or services and you’ll do a lot better in the long run.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ad Headlines

To paraphrase our real estate friends, the three most important things in advertising are the headline, the headline, and the headline. Studies have shown that if the headline doesn’t grab them, people overwhelmingly move on. The best writing and graphical design in the world can’t save an ad with an ineffective headline.

Effective headlines accomplish the following for the prospect:
  • Self-identification: The prospect understands this message is meant for them specifically.
  • Self-interest: Prospects are motivated to keep reading. Note that in many cases, stating specific benefits will automatically accomplish the self-identification goal.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Attract with benefits

Probably the biggest single flaw in most sales communications that I see is that they promote the (no-doubt) amazing features of a product or service. It seems like a natural way to go - after all, the R&D folks spent of ton of time and money pimping that better mousetrap; why not brag about the whiz-bangs?

The reason is simple - customers could care less about the mousetrap whiz-bangs themselves. What they care about is getting rid of mice as quickly and painlessly as possible.

So while touting your mousetrap’s highly superior bait-action and completely enclosed trap might seem like the way to address these concerns, its still indirect: in effect, you are making the prospect translate from “superior bait-action” to “gets rid of mice quickly” and from “enclosed trap” to “disposal is a breeze”.

Instead, tout the benefits directly: "Works quickly, and disposal is a breeze."

Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Why should I believe you??"

Since, at heart, nearly every business communication is trying to persuade its audience of something, a major consideration is whether you expect your audience to believe what you’re saying. If you think the basic trust is there, fine. Just make your case and move on.

If this is a concern, however, there are several ways to enhance the piece’s credibility. Here is a sampling:
  • Tell the truth. Seems obvious, but people today have pretty good b.s. detectors: don’t trigger them. Related: don't exaggerate.
  • Quote someone who they will believe. Recognized experts, for example, or testimonials from people who your audience will identify with.
  • Offer a guarantee. A dime-a-dozen these days, so if you don’t have one, it will hurt your credibility. It's best if the guarantee is simple to understand and as unconditional as possible.
  • Offer a free trial. They don’t have to believe you – they can see for themselves.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

3 keys to a successful home page

The short attention span of web surfers is legendary, and that means that your home page has to capture and hold their attention very quickly. Whether you’re trying to pitch a product, sell a service, offer an opinion, or raise a response, there are three crucial elements to capturing and holding that atttention:

Who: The first thing is to be sure your target audience knows that the web site is meant for them. The more specific the language that you use to help the target group identify, the stronger the identification will be, and the more likely that they will stay with you rather than surf on. "New for athletes" is good; "New for Runners" is better.

What: Clearly state what you’re offering, and again, the more specific the better. "Hydration Systems" is good; "Hydration Systems for Runners" is better (in fact, with the latter you've got the "Who" and "What" in one phrase).

Why: Now that they know it’s for them, why should they care? Get a clear and specific benefit into the pitch as soon as possible. "New" is good; "New design is easier to use" is better.

The mistake a lot of web sites make is trying to cast a wide net at first ("Athletes") figuring the more visitors the better, no matter who they are. This usually fails because there’s so much out there on the web that people will just cruise by anything that doesn’t scream “Hey, this is just for you!” Another common mistake is to skip right to the product pitches ("New hydration system") without the “who” and/or the “why”.

Having a clear Who, What and Why on your home page will go a long way to turn surf-bys into prospects.