Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How Hellman-Chang breathed new life into print advertising

It's de rigeuer for marketers to roll their eyes at the mention of print advertising. Print seems prehistoric in an age of mobile. 

Except that furniture design firm Hellman-Chang has proven all us lemmings wrong with this breathtaking ad. Why it rocks:

The copy wisely holds back 

Coco Chanel once said, 'Elegance is refusal'. There was a lot of refusal with the ad copy -- a very astute decision. No superlatives, no explanations, just pretty much a caption.

The visual makes you take a second, then a third look 

We have two dudes in expensive-looking suits wielding sanders in a gritty workshop. Who wouldn't be intrigued? 

If you didn't know who these two men were, your eye would be traveling around the picture, looking for clues about their identity and story. There's lots of wood, sawdust on the floor, bolts of fabric above, and oh -- there's a chair frame at the corner. 

The proverbial light bulb goes off. They make furniture. In the USA. Pretty impressive in an age of Ikea.

It all makes sense now, except for one thing: Who on earth wears suits in a woodworking shop? Is it an affectation?

You're forgiven if you miss the tiny, tiny credit at the bottom right hand corner of the ad: 'Wardrobe provided by Canali'. 

And this is what's most striking about Hellman-Chang's ad:

The approach flies squarely into the face of current group think

This must be the quietest brand collaboration in the history of all collabs. No logos? What a waste of ad dollars!

But is it really?

True luxury -- what the Hellman-Chang ad communicates so eloquently -- is made-in-America artisanship being on par with the Canalis of this world. They're so in the same league there's absolutely no need to trumpet the collaboration; only those in the know would understand the connection. 

Key takeaways:

We've all been pummeled senseless by collaboration static. Restraint is actually refreshing, in the same sense that Lady Gaga can only shock now by turning up in conventional clothing.

The dated-ness of a medium is irrelevant if a brand has a strong sense of self. And Hellman-Chang has it in spades.

We need more ads, in fact more marketing like this. Don't you agree?

See more of Style and Sawdust, Hellman-Chang's campaign with Canali, here.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Marketing during a tragedy

Less than 24 hours after the Boston Marathon bombing, t-shirts are already up for sale. Some do not mention proceeds going to the victims

You've planned thoroughly for a campaign, event or launch on a specific day. Everything is well prepared.

You wake up on that day only to find out that an incident of mind-boggling horror has happened, and nobody is in the mood to be jolly.

What do you do?

If the tragedy was like tree rings, the outermost circle is a no-brainer in terms of action:

Kenneth Cole's tasteful tweet during the mass protests in Cairo

  • Cancel your auto-tweets. 
  • Don't be clever and use the incident as a chance to get your name out there.
  • Pull any ads that, in this situation, may be interpreted as tasteless.
  • Postpone any event the only purpose of which is raucous merrymaking and nothing more.
  • Push back your marketing campaign for later.
  • Put off your press release trilling about a new product launch. I assure you the press' attention is elsewhere.

Unfortunate ad placement for United Airlines on aftermath of 9-11

Working your way to the core of the tree gets increasingly tricky.

What may seem crass marketing to you is acceptable to others, and vice-versa.

Still, there is the golden rule:

If you're not going to be actively part of the solution, shut up.

Tweeting your prayers and thoughts out to victims adds to the noise and just makes eyes roll.

Is there anything your startup does that can be of true value? It doesn't have to be lavish; not everyone can fly in earthquake rescue workers and sniffer dogs. For example:

  1. If you sell software, products or services, donate all or part of the proceeds for that day to victims.
  2. Put a thoughtful tribute to survivors and victims on your home page.
  3. If you had a party scheduled for that day, turn it into a fundraising event with all donations going to the tragedy.
  4. Volunteer.
  5. Back off on the informative tweets, Facebook page posts and blog posts that you know very well are subtle marketing. 

Most importantly, don't use the tragedy as a PR opportunity to show what a good corporate citizen you are. It's self-serving and tasteless.

How soon can you go back to normal marketing? A good startup will be monitoring sentiment online, closely watching if sales are down or picking up, and connecting with customers and clients.

Exercise sensitivity, view your activities as part of a bigger picture, and respect the time for grieving. Only then can you make the judgment call that it's back to business as usual.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The 4 types of marketers you'll meet at startups

Maybe it's about time they had a regular Monday meeting

It's interesting that with the plethora of material on marketing, little is written about how to effectively work with marketers, especially in-house ones.

From experience with startup clients, once a candidate with good credentials and experience has been hired, the marketing problem is solved. 

Far from it: Hiring is just the start. Getting your new marketing person to provide maximum value to your business is a constant work in progress.

The chart below shows how startup marketers' behavior and performance are shaped by two specific factors: Responsibility vs authority, and the structure of the startup's internal communications.

The Apathetic Bystander has a never-ending list of responsibilities -- customer enquiries, database maintenance, publicity, marketing campaigns, events -- but little to no decision-making authority. 

We're not talking buying a multi-million company here. In the case of a junior exec, we're talking the power to choose social sharing buttons for the blog. Or to give a discretionary 10% discount to a disgruntled customer.

To make things worse, she is uninformed of what's going on in the business because internal communications systems are either broken or non-existent. Decisions are spread by osmosis. Conflicting instructions are often handed to her. Requests for meetings are pushed aside because the startup's priority is to ship.

With this combination -- high responsibility/low authority and absence of regular communication -- the marketer feels like she's pushing mud uphill. In no time, she learns to just keep her mouth shut and get on as best as she can. 

The marketer ceases to care. She just lives for the paycheck.

The Resigned Worker Bee has it slightly better. She knows the state of the business; whether targets are being reached or not; what is fine to share publicly and what isn't. These are all information that is essential to the marketer successfully planning and executing campaigns. 

Sounds great except for one thing: Only bacteria under a microscope are under more scrutiny than she is.

Anything written needs to be drafted and reviewed by the Big Boss(es). Time-sensitive client proposals are circulated endlessly for comments. Decisions over blog posts are made committee-style, with everyone having to agree. The time taken to 'get everyone on the same page' is long and agonizing. 

What you end up with is a marketer who won't take risks and prioritizes process and ass-covering so she doesn't get blamed for mistakes. A turgid layer of bureaucracy begins to spread, which is ironic, since startups have always sneered at big conglomerates for being bureaucratic.

The Lone Ranger is often told to hit the ground running without direction other than 'Do your stuff'. 

Unless he's skillfully plugged into the grapevine, he has little to no idea about what precise stuff he's supposed to come up with.

The absence of an organized communication structure means teams work independently, with little interaction, and the marketer finds himself doing his own thing, by himself, based on what he knows or on very tenuous guessing. The dangers here:

  • Over-promising and under-delivering to clients or customers
  • Wasting time and resources on initiatives that are incompatible with the startup's priorities, which can change all the time
  • Making costly mistakes that could've been avoided with timely information

A startup I knew hired a marketing contractor to cover everything from campaigns to media relations. She learned after she was hired that there was another marketing contractor located in the same city as the client. 

The former did her best to keep the lines of communication open with this new colleague but it was obvious that they would be competing, if not duplicating, efforts.

To make matters interesting, the startup's CEO would not give a heads-up or involve the marketing contractor when he had media interviews. 

The result? A pitch she made for the startup's new app was slammed by the CEO. 'I'd appreciate it if you don't pitch to the press that we're managing,' were his words. The lines had been drawn and she had no idea.

The Empowered Stakeholder has the enviable balance between information/trust to make the right decisions and the authority to make the call. 

Because there is a constant flow of communication, the marketer can easily adjust campaigns or activities according to the startup's current operational and financial status. He can spot opportunities and act on them quickly. 

Better yet, everyone else in the startup is familiar with the business positioning, marketing goals and activities. Everyone can talk confidently to clients or customers about the product, and know where or to whom to elevate more complex enquiries. 

Lo and behold, the marketer has inadvertently trained a marketing and sales force. Not bad for a business that has to watch its headcount.

Marketing will always be vital to you as a startup. And there are many talented marketers out there who would love to be part of building a business from the ground up. In fact, he or she may be working for you right now.

The question is whether you're providing the oxygen for them to do what they do best.

Photo by Anant N S ( via photopin cc

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Before and after: A case study in effective pitching

Forget all the guides to crafting a good pitch -- you'll learn more from seeing a makeover!

The picture above is of a real PR pitch drafted by my newest client, TypeEngine

This was marketing manager Debbie Lopes' first attempt at pitching Michael (not his real name), an experienced journalist who writes about micropublishing.

Between the two of us, the pitch was polished on Google Docs, but I wanted to show the Before version with my marks. The After that follows had a happy ending: Debbie submitted such a dazzling email that Michael responded. 

But first, let's break down the note and see what works and what doesn't.

The subject line must make the recipient absolutely itch to open your email

'Introducing TypeEngine' is accurate but in an inbox that's probably inundated by hundreds of pitches, it doesn't quite stand out.

Some ways to get your note noticed: Use the journalist's name. Ask a question (the brain is hard-wired to answer stuff with a question mark). Make the first few words compelling as these are the ones that show up in the preview.

Don't use Free!, Open Now or use ALL CAPS TO TELL THEM TO OPEN IT. Sounding like a ShamWow infomercial will quickly get you deleted, or spam filters will get your email sent to the junk folder.

There are lots of resources on the art and science of subject lines, such as Marketing Sherpa

A pitch should be personal, not a total cut-and-paste job

You're not expected to write a completely original pitch for each journalist, but it's extremely poor form to send a generic one. 

At the very least read the writer's work, which is the reason you're contacting him or her in the first place. Refer to his or her beat, past articles and industry news that are relevant and interesting. 

In this case, Debbie mentioned Michael's article. Two thumbs up. 

If you're thinking of peppering a canned note with the journalist's name, be careful with mail merge. 

It has happened that there were just quotation marks where a journalist's name should be because the First Name field wasn't filled properly. Or horror of horrors, someone else's name was there. Be maniacal when cleaning your database.

Avoid saying 'I' in the first paragraph

A pitch is about the recipient, not about you. 

Refrain from using 'I', at least in the first paragraph. If you can do it for the entire pitch, even better.

'Even if I'm just expressing my opinion?' you may be asking. Yes, even if it expresses your opinion. In fact, reserve your opinion unless it makes complete sense in the pitch. Usually it isn't relevant.

The golden rule is: Put 'you' each time you're tempted to say 'I'. Rework the sentence if necessary.

Don't faff about -- get on with it

This is another common error: Overdoing the context to why you're pitching. The journalist knows this is a pitch. You know it's a pitch. Get on with it!

Take a sentence like 'I thought I'd let you know'. 

If I'm the journalist you're pitching to, a) I don't care about your thoughts unless they are useful to me and b) I don't really need a linear, highly detailed account of your thought process that led to this email. It's boring.

Don't incorporate marketing straplines into your pitch

This is usually an unconscious habit. In Debbie's original note, she included TypeEngine's strapline -- it has to be repeated in communications for the line to be synonymous with the product. 

There is one exception: Pitching.

Go through your copy and get another pair of eyes to look it over with/for you, preferably someone who's an objective observer. Is there anything that could be misconstrued as puffery?

Words like 'innovative', 'thought leader' or 'game changing' should ideally not come from your own lips. It's more effective when other people attest to your awesomeness.

Break up paragraphs to make them shorter

Consider how your email will look if viewed in a mobile device, say a smart phone.

Will it look like this overwhelming block of text? Will the reader get a sore thumb from scrolling continuously as you get to the point?

Breaking up paragraphs entices the eye to search for the next sentence. It also gives it breathing room before it jumps to the next line.

Think of it as white space needed for a work of art to be seen in all its glory. You wouldn't hang it in a cluttered room, would you?

And here's a challenge: Try and keep your pitch to one screen. Respect your recipient's time in shoveling out his inbox everyday by communicating a clear objective and call to action without endless scrolling.

This doesn't mean being cryptic. It means stripping away all delaying tactics because let's face it: Pitching is intimidating. So we dance around the subject and get the recipient irritated.

Remember to link to useful and relevant information

When you mention your company for the first time, link it to your corporate website so the journalist can do a quick scan. If you're referring to an industry event or development, link to a relevant news story that talks about it. And so on.

Don't link unless it's necessary. And don't just put an entire list of links in the body of your pitch, preceded by what you think is a provocative lead-up to it, e.g. Michael, have you seen this? Michael doesn't have the time to piece together your treasure map.

So how does a good pitch look like? Here's Debbie's final copy:

Subject line: Michael, do you think micropublishing can democratize publishing?

Hi Michael,

Just read your article “Is Micropublishing the Final Nail in the Coffin for Print?”  Your discussion with Ian Mackintosh about anyone becoming a publisher is particularly relevant given the platforms and resources available today. Which brings me to the next question:

Has TypeEngine come across your screen?  If not, and you haven’t deleted this note yet, here’s a quick description:

TypeEngine creates magazine apps that are designed from the ground up for Apple’s iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Publishers own their apps, release magazines under their own names and get subscription fees paid directly to them from Apple. TypeEngine will also submit apps for Apple’s approval on behalf of publishers, removing an important barrier to entry for independent publishers.

We have signed up 13 launch partners that were announced last week as TypeEngine beta testers. Publishers are located in the US, Thailand, Australia and Brazil. Their magazines will be launched when TypeEngine rolls out in Q2.

The Smyth Group, which is creating TypeEngine, is based out of Seattle, Washington.  If you would be interested in talking to the founders, Jamie Smyth and Daniel Genser, I can arrange a meeting between you. Alternatively I can also provide more information. 

Debbie Lopes

Was the pitch good enough? Michael responded with this note below:

Hi Debbie, great pitch, by the way. For a journalist, familiarity
(even just a little bit of it) with his work, or his publication,
breeds just the opposite of contempt.

I guess a couple of questions first, and I guess my first question is,
what's the input? If it's not HTML5, then probably there's a lot of
additional work at the publisher's end to get content into the app.
Then I guess there's the question of how it interacts with CMSes (or
K4 -- at which point in the production process does the tablet content
typically get spun off?)

Which is exactly the response Debbie wanted. Hopefully this case study inspires or helps you make better and more effective pitches.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Oops you've got foreign customers. Now what?

McDonald's fare across the world recognizes local tastes

With the Internet, nothing is local. Everything is global.

Startups in America are often slow to come to this realization until their first overseas customers pop up. Chaos ensue. Nobody is prepared for this.

But you should.

International customers are often more intent on buying. They've done their research and decided that the goods and services they want are not available in their market. You're providing what they want, and they can't wait to open their wallets.

Help make their experience better -- and the buying process easier -- by thinking international. Not everything we do in America is understood or an established practice in the rest of the world.

Some points to consider when dealing with overseas customers:

Postal systems can be pretty bad
Let's say you're making electronic gadgets and think international delivery is a breeze. You just pop it into a mailbox, you know?

In some countries the mail arrives three months later or not at all. Sometimes parcels need to be ransomed by paying a customs fee. Sometimes you have to pay the postman to deliver the mail untouched.

Never assume that mailing overseas is a straightforward affair. Always offer FedEx or other international tracking services. Consider customs, duties and delivery times when quoting prices.

They don't talk American
By American I mean terms or situations that are unique to America mostly or alone, and unintelligible to the rest of the world.

Time zones like EST, CST and PST make no sense to anyone outside the US, barring expatriates. Adding clever phone numbers like 1-800-LETTERS, amounts to gibberish. And not everyone measures in inches or weighs stuff in pounds.

Perhaps the most overlooked are the fields in online forms. Not every country has a state, a zip code and a three-digit area code. Don't make these mandatory fields to fill. It drives foreign buyers nuts.

Think through your international payment system
Foreign exchange fluctuations are a fact of life. $5 to us is $5. To international buyers it depends on when they have to pay.

Do you sell subscriptions? To overseas customers it could mean their subscription can lurch from $5 per month in local currency to $10 if their currency is weak. Investigate the option of offering a locked-in price for a year with a substantial discount to allay their fears.

And then there's the matter of paying itself. Even if it's a one-time purchase, be aware that the rest of the world don't have PayPal. Not everyone can, or wants to wire money because of the bank charges involved. Besides, you'll need a US dollar account to send US dollars.

These are just three situations that can make a huge difference in going global. You can't cover everything but you can a) determine where your biggest international markets are and b) study up on arrangements that make sense to them.

Be knowledgeable about the barriers to buying from you. Do your best to address, if not eliminate, them.

Calibrating your communications and systems for international customers demonstrates a global perspective, and may even lead to revenue streams that you never knew existed.

photo credit: ekkun via photopin cc

Sunday, December 30, 2012

What do marketers really do?

An excellent question if you're hiring marketing staff for the first time. What do they really do anyway?

There are different answers to this seemingly simple query, all varying in complexity depending on who you ask, but here's the most functional one, the superficial layer:

Marketers create the most conducive environment for a sale to take place. 

If you liken your startup to a restaurant, marketing is responsible for setting the stage. Everything experienced by diners, from the way they are welcomed to how the cutlery is spotless, falls within their sphere. You are the chef; marketing is the head waiter.

Happy diners spend more. Happy diners tell all their friends that your restaurant is great. Happy diners come back. 

Is marketing a senior or junior role? For most startups, the ideal is halfway between both. You want someone who thinks and anticipates on behalf of your business, but can do the fiddly stuff without complaining. The scope can grow as your business evolves.

If it's your first time to hire a marketer, look for the following skills and traits:
  • Comfort in pitching, whether it's to the media or to customers
  • Writing ability, since the role involves a lot of writing
  • Problem solving, since there are/will be many
  • Interest in/passion for your business and industry
  • Zeal in building relationships

Everything else, including press contacts, are secondary requirements. They can be developed as long as the attitude and drive are there.

Whenever I interviewed candidates for a marketing position, I'd ask my Sheep Question. More than their resume or portfolio, their answers spoke volumes of how they'd perform.

'If your biggest client rang you up one day asking for a live sheep for a photo shoot, what would you do?'

Those who replied, 'I'd say sorry we don't have any' are not hired.

Those who had answers like 'I'd borrow my sister's Afghan and use a curling iron on his hair' went on to become some of the best marketers on the team. Nothing fazed them. Every day was a new adventure. They couldn't imagine doing anything else.

And that's what you ultimately want from a marketer: Someone who loves what he or she does, and shines that love on your startup. I can assure you that person is out there.

Good marketers, like good head waiters, are constantly on their toes. Photo by Wei Bunn/Flickr

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The perils of poor timing

There are lots of infographics about timing that get marketers' panties in a twist. 

The best times to post on Facebook and Twitter. The optimal time of the day to email promotions. When to schedule PPC advertising so your customers see it. 

Apparently half the job is looking at clocks and calendars while sweating. Until the next expert's article on timing gets released.

The below are some truths about timing learnt by yours truly the hard way, i.e. spectacular fails because I forgot or didn't factor in timing. 

And since there are a zillion articles about timing in social media and digital, I won't touch those. There's more to marketing than Facebook, after all.

Feng shui is a lousy way to schedule a webinar 

I was invited to be a speaker at a webinar series and the organisers slotted me in for September. So what day did I want to do it?

Hmm, let's see. I'm part Chinese and 8 is a lucky number. I chose September 8th.

BZZZZZZZT. Wrong answer. 

I conveniently forgot that Labour Day falls on September 1st in the US. And since America has only 10 public holidays, people use these to take off for a few days, if not the entire week.

Did I have an audience? Yes, barely. This after the organisers tweeted the event at least 16 times a day, possibly annoying the hell out of people.

Lesson learned: Scheduling an event a week before or after a public holiday is going to end in tears. 

Stop peddling when the planets aren't aligned

Before you breathlessly email that contract to be signed, is the timing right?

After undergoing an eight month-long courtship of a company looking to change its marketing, I thought I had the contract in the bag. 

The main decision-maker had asked all the right questions and seemed keen. Our conversation was moving along as it should, and we'd met up several times to discuss a kick-off date. All that was needed was an email to confirm the project's start. 

Then one day the emails dried up and I was automatically sent to voice mail each time I rang. 

After two weeks of me perkily -- oh all right, doggedly following up, I got a note that basically said sorry for leading you on, but the timing's not right.


After we had too many apple martinis together and you had spilled all your company woes? After we'd become friends on Facebook and I dutifully liked all your vacation pictures? After eight months?

Turns out that the my now non-client's performance was being reviewed by the new CEO and a search for her replacement had quietly started.

Er, what new CEO?

Lesson learned: Read the Wall Street Journal and the trades everyday.

Nothing will ever be ready

The polar opposite of jumping in too soon is putting things off forever because things are not quite right.

You know, the database isn't big or clean enough. Or we really need to get the opinion of person no. 225 before we print business cards. Or the product is not totally ready and we may not be able to cope with demand.

My own fail: While I was busy dithering about my website's menu bar, two companies launched offering services that closely resembled mine. And they got press too. Oh ugh.

Life is rarely neat and clean, and the same goes for marketing. Nothing you plan will ever be 100% the way you want it. But that's okay as long as you can anticipate what to do when things go wrong and solve the odd problem that crops up.

Lesson learned: Shut your door and just get on with it.

A false start can set you back. Photo from Little Dog Diaries.