Monday, May 18, 2009

plain language

so i've been thinking lately, amid all the grousing about obama's notre dame speech in which he didn't really say he was a pro-choice advocate, and people's lack of understanding of the word "pandemic," and a cool thing that i just saw today on rohit's blog .... it was time for a monica-style rant on the value of plain language.

it's true. a few posts ago, i was the one arguing for more attention to product naming, and now i'm the one arguing for less attention to language, especially if that means you're going to go out of your way to try to sanitize, spiff-ify (that's prounounced "spiff-if-eye," not "spiff-iffy") or otherwise take a perfectly good, simple, clear message and muck it up with words or phrases that sound like they were written by your pr department -- or worse, your lawyer.

look at the simple difference between a paragraph from GE and a paragraph from Apple talking about their technology innovations:

GE: Advanced technology – Model ES44C4 delivers sophisticated traction control technology with its patented Dynamic Weight Management System that continuously monitors traction at the axles and automatically adapts to maximize performance on heavy trains. This system – similar to traction control on an automobile – limits wheel slip at start up, on inclines and in adverse weather conditions, ensuring optimum performance and less wasted energy. In addition, this latest Evolution locomotive has a higher top speed than traditional DC-powered locomotives.

ok, well... i used to have to write about this kind of stuff and actually, this is not bad as far as B2B news releases are concerned. an analogy to traction controls in cars, which we all know and understand. features and benefits, differentiation... it's all here. everything they taught you in pr101.

now, Apple's: The iTunes Store is the world’s most popular online music, TV and movie store with a catalog of over 10 million songs, over 40,000 TV episodes, and over 5,000 movies including over 1,200 in stunning high definition video for rent. With Apple’s legendary ease of use, pioneering features such as iTunes Movie Rentals, integrated podcasting support, the ability to turn previously purchased tracks into complete albums at a reduced price, and seamless integration with iPod and iPhone, the iTunes Store is the best way for Mac and PC users to legally discover, purchase and download music and video online.

what's the difference? the same things are true as in GEs; there are features, advantages and benefits ... but additionally, apple's words give me a very clear sense of scale because there aren't just words -- there are numbers, too. GE's "maximizing performance" perhaps should have been made more specific to deliver this kind of scale -- e.g,., "22% more efficient," or instead of "optimum" and "less wasted energy," they could have really made me understand the magnitude of their offering by putting some quantitative detail behind it. plus "maximizing performance" just makes you think of various ED products, doesn't it?

the B2B people are screaming at the computer now, saying things that all start with "yabbit" ('yeah, but').

"yabbit, apple has a cool consumer product and GE's talking about a train."

"yabbit, GE's audience understands what they're saying and that's all that's important."

"yabbit, it's just a news release. GE talks differently on its website." (and they do, by the way.)

ok, i do fault apple for the use of the tech-speak "seamless integration," mostly because it's overly techy and also because i was among the first people to use that phrase commercially, and it pisses me off that i didn't do something more to ensure i got a royalty everytime someone else used it.

"yabbit".... indeed.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

when all else fails, try puppy eyes....

hi, folks .. it's me, willy the yellow lab, serving as your guest blogger today. my mom has been avoiding a ton of stuff and says she's too busy to bother with you, her loyal fans. i keep telling her seth godin and other marketing experts say this is a serious marketing error, and how can she ever expect to have more than 14 followers if this is how she behaves .... but now she's waving me off and telling me to get lost. i know that's impossible 'coz she put one of those damn GPS chips in my neck and now i can't even sneak out with my friends like a normal, self-respecting dog.

anyway, as you all know, my considerable expertise in marketing comes from watching hours of animal planet, and even more hours of sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always interesting human behavior. here are some things you may want to think about as you construct your next marketing program:

1) have a clear objective. and i don't mean something vague like "drive sales." to me, a clear objective is something very specific -- like, "get that piece of chicken shaped like a triangle."

2) have a clear strategy. a while back, my mom was pretty interested in a linkedin forum where some people didn't know the difference between objectives, strategies and tactics. to me (and her), strategies are pretty easy to discern from objectives and tactics. strategies are approaches, the general means by which objectives are accomplished. some people go right to tactics, which is a mistake because it doesn't allow you to fully consider all the alternatives that you have at your disposal when it comes to achievement of a goal. for example, in the case of the chicken triangle, my strategy is going to be to get her to give it to me willingly. there are a number of alternate approaches i could use, such as jumping up and nabbing it off the plate, or by creating a diversion say, taking a leak on the sofa and subtly stealing the chicken while she races off to get the upholstery cleaner. those 2 latter strategies, however, are likely to get me a big doggy spanking, while the first approach is much easier and devoid of pain.

3) select appropriate tactics. now that i've decided on the "willing" strategy, i have to find specific actions that align. i have a huge arsenal of tools i can use, everything from double-barreled drool strands (my personal best: 8"!!) guaranteed to make a mess on the floor, to doing a little circle dance i know she loves ... or even telepathy, which hasn't yet actually worked but which i continue to pursue by staring fixedly at the chicken or whatever in hopes that my brain will actually compel movement of the food to my anxiously awaiting gullet. again, tactics like nabbing or barking or peeing are not well aligned with this strategy and so i won't pursue them. however ... puppy dog eyes are guaranteed to work in nearly every situation and in this case will be the primary, and quite possibly only, tactic required.

why puppy eyes work for dogs - and how they can work for you

here's the thing -- the most effective brand and marketing efforts are built on emotional connections, not on rational arguments. features, advantages and benefits -- all that stuff you learned about early in your career -- it's all still really important, but you've got to move on and understand this at a higher level. if FABs were all that mattered, all salt would be the same price (remember chemistry? all salt is NaCL. it's as much a commodity as any product i can think of, although my mom also likes to use toothpaste as an example.) next time you're at your local grocery, compare the price of morton's to the store brand.

anyway, i digress. the reason why puppy eyes work for dogs is that they inspire 2 very important emotions -- guilt and fear -- which most humans are completely inept at handling. when i fix her with that look, my mom feels guilty because she knows she blew off my walk today, yesterday or last october. it doesn't matter which date -- what matters is that she knows she doesn't do as much for me as she thinks she should (note, i didn't say as much as I think she should. i know i'm getting a pretty sweet deal, but that's for another post). the second emotion is fear --she's afraid that if she doesn't give me the chicken, i might eat something else outside that's not good for me and hurt myself. and then she'd have a giant vet bill, in addition to the guilt. not a good combo.

these emotions can work for you, too, especially if you're in cause marketing. i've seen this work brilliantly on my mom. when the local charities send their people around collecting door-to-door, she gives them money; when the people come collecting on a bitterly cold day, or in the rain, she gives them 2x whatever she usually gives them.

fear is a little trickier ... but still very effective. my mom has a friend who says fear is an essential element of ANY sale. the customer has to, deep down, somehow believe that whatever the other alternatives are aren't going to be as good, or deliver as much value, or be available under the same circumstances, as whatever it is you're offering. when mom finds our food on sale and isn't sure it'll still be available next time, woo wee! we get lots!!

so, when all else fails, try puppy eyes. (it works for me).

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"when people get paid to do a thing...

... you should pay them to do it." it's become a favorite motto of mine, having made all kinds of home improvement mistakes over the years.

there was the time i tried to fix the slow leak in the pipe under the kitchen sink, which resulted in water collecting in the crawl space underneath the house. of course, i didn't find that out until about 2 years later, when it was far too late to do anything other than call the guy i should have called the first time, and pay him about 10x what it would have cost if i HAD called him the first time.

then there was the other time when i sat on my sofa in the living room with a glass of wine after dinner and thought, "hey, i could paint this place in about 3 hours." it seemed like a good evening activity. three weeks later, after 3 - 4 hours of painting virtually every night, i was no longer removing hardware from the walls, deciding that i would just stick my finger in the paint can and draw around lighting fixtures, hinges, pictures, etc. that house also had a vaulted ceiling and i had only my god-given 5'0 of height and a 6'0" ladder. when i sold the place, i had to take the cost of repainting it out of the proceeds.

i mention all this as background to my latest excuse for ignoring you, dear readers, as my husband mike and i decided that we would stain and seal our 10' x 50' deck ourselves. it should be noted that the 50' length includes a post-and-rail fence, and that each of those silly rails has 4 sides. it also turns out, which i did not know in advance, that one has to apply stain/sealant in a certain way (i.e., with a brush ... or if you use a roller and or sprayer, you STILL have to use a brush, which is ridiculous but true).

after what seems like an eternity, we're about half-done, having managed to apply the stain to the deck and the insides of the rails and the stairs. unfortunately, like most objects in real life, the deck exists in 3 dimensions, and that means that the entire rear of the thing, including the back sides of the stupid aforementioned rails, is still bare-assed ugly pine. to be fair, i should point out that willy and hoover, from the beginning, knew this was an ill-conceived venture, and studiously avoided my attempts to attach brushes to their tails.

the quality of our work is ... um ... crappy. there are blotches, little circle marks where small drops of stain fell and solidified, places where we stopped and then started again that are darker than the rest of the boards, uneven finishes, etc. we're thinking about starting a new business, tentatively called "distance decking." our slogan would be: "it looks ok from far away." our target market would be people who don't really care what their decks look like up close -- so for example, sitcom characters, movie prop people, and the folks making brochures and videos for google earth. i realize it's a pretty niche market ... but i bet it's a niche that's somewhat under-served.

the point -- and as is sometimes the case, i do have one -- is that marketing, advertising and communications are fields in which professional people grow and develop their expertise. i've noted that often small businesses (and even large ones, on occasion) try to do this work themselves rather than paying people who know what they're doing. what they get in return is similar to our deck -- it looks ok from far away -- but upon closer inspection, doesn't have the impact or quality or effectiveness or ANYTHING, really, that the end product is supposed to have. it's just ... there, kind of like our deck, waiting for us to come out and look at it and wish we'd had the sense to hire a professional.

but the consequences for those businesses are somewhat more severe. why? because in the end, we'll sell this place (i hope!) and we might have to pay the new buyer something to get the deck fixed. the deck, by itself, is not serving as an attractant to potential buyers. but the business that relies on cheap, shoddy marketing to attract new customers or reinforce its value to existing ones does itself a disservice that can ultimately result in people ignoring it, or staying away, or taking advantage of a well-presented offer by a competitor. net net: do it right the first time!