Expert's Corner

This article written in 2009


This Month's Haiku

Strategy is for 
amateurs.  Logistics is 
for professionals.
     -General Norman Schwarzkopf

Last month, we looked at the tricky strategic situations where it doesn't matter if you execute better or push harder.  Because you're focused on the wrong objective, doing the wrong thing.  As shown on the cover of Merrill Chapman's fun book, you're simply on the wrong track.  Looking the wrong way.

This month, we're assuming the strategy is fine.  The product makes sense for the target market, the business model works, and your company isn't fighting an impossible competitive environment.  But still, things aren't working.

Idiot Marketing, Part 2:  Tactics

Tight execution and follow through of tactics are the core of effective marketing.  If you want to find prospects quickly and have them not fall off the train as they mature into customers, precise execution is essential. 

Continuity and style of marketing execution really matter.  Look no further than Apple for evidence of this.  Even if you have plenty of marketing effort and spending, uncoordinated, incongruous, or sloppy marketing tactics get in the way of results.  Ads may have a clear message, but don't seem to achieve much beyond "brand impressions."  Lead generation may produces inquiries, but they don't mature into new business.  

So let's examine the top three issues when marketing tactics go wrong.

Beating a Dead Horse:  Stale Messaging

Messaging -- what you're trying to communicate to the target audience -- is perishable.  To be effective, messaging must be relevant to your target audience.  So messaging must start from the customer's perceptions and needs...and evolve when the customer's world is undergoing dramatic change.  It's not enough to know that things are changing:  you have to capitalize on that change, use it to your advantage with prospects.

Watch out for messaging that is hackneyed, is just a response to a competitor's campaign, or is no longer on target.  If your message fails the cocktail-party test (if saying the words causes peoples' eyes to glaze over...or worse, makes you yawn), it's unlikely to be attractive to new business.

Classic Symptoms:  messages that are highly abstract, way too wordy, or fail the "so what" test. 

Caveat:  Don't change messages too rapidly!  Message continuity is important to credibility, and it takes a year for messages to really take root.  Consequently, spend the time to refine and test messages before you use you'll have to keep with them for a while.

Beating a Dead Horse, revisited:  Outdated Tactics

Campaigns -- the events or activities used to attract new leads -- have a shelf-life.  Specific tactics inevitably lose effectiveness over time, and can be quickly burned out by overuse.  Unfortunately, sometimes upper management will mandate the use of a tactic that is hard work, expensive, and ineffective.  Overturning these mandates may be politically tricky, but is one of the highest-leverage things you can do.  Avoiding marketing waste is important.

Let me give some examples I've seen (but not contributed to!) recently, as several real-world issues show up: 

  • A software firm held a 10-city seminar series showing off upgrades to its product line.  The hotel, travel, and logistical costs were easily $500K, let alone the time involved for speakers, marketers, and sales reps.  While the events were a nice way to re-kindle old relationships, not a single productive new prospect meeting occurred.  Nothing was wrong with the execution of the campaign, it was just the wrong idea and shouldn't have even been proposed for this company's situation.
  • A firm exhibited at the Gartner Group's ITexpo to highlight its security products.  The show had plenty of traffic from the target companies, but almost none of the individuals had the correct titles.  No sales calls resulted.  Even though the reps got some names to cold-call, those names could have been produced with a few hours on Google.  Even though there were no problems in the execution, this particular tradeshow was the wrong place to be for this vendor.  (I have to say that for most computer hardware and software vendors, the big tradeshows have been completely burned out.) 
  • A small applications company recently held a two-hour event hosted at a office.  Leveraging their partnerships with SFDC and local integrators, the firm was able to get 50 people to show up.  While the mechanics of the event were well executed, it was a total waste of time and money because there was no message control.  There were five different VP presenters -- some from competing companies -- painting a chaotic picture.  The pitches were all hard-sell, badly recycled sales pitches.  The slides were incredibly wordy, with no graphics.  The "demos" showed off features but portrayed no benefits.   While the event generated a couple of meetings, a better result could have come at much lower cost (including at least a full day of 5 VPs' time).
  • A middleware firm ran ad campaigns in online and print media.  The ads generated tens of thousands of impressions, thousands of click-throughs, and hundreds of registrations.  Sales felt good about the numbers, but wasn't so sure about lead quality, or whether any  business was generated.  Although the ads had some execution problems at the detail level, the real issue here was no model.  There has to be a clear understanding of how or why a prospect would go from impressions (awareness) to interest (searching around the product category) to desire (researching and comparing your product) to action (taking a sales call).  Even with Google and the best analytics, the old saw is right:  "half the money I spend on advertising is wasted -- I just don't know which half."  This firm would have done much better spending on targeted PR.

Classic symptoms:  everybody's working hard, but just going through the motions without a clear idea of how the marketing campaign is going to yield business.

Caveat:  Don't be just a copy-cat.  If all you do is imitate the tactics of close competitors, you'll never be perceived as a leader.


If, as the Cluetrain Manifesto states, commerce is a conversation, then you need to make sure your company doesn't suffer from Tourette's syndrome.  Nothing is as jarring to the progress of commerce than discontinuities in communication. 

Let's start with the fun, simple stuff in emails and snailmail:

  • Get the contents right.  If you're mailing to a list of dentists, send the dental content...not the medical stuff.
  • Get the contents right, part II:  Don't inundate.  Brevity is everything -- people only have 30 seconds of time to give you, so make it count.
  • Get the contents right, part III:  Stop pushing so hard.   Lose the self-involved promotional noise.  Communication only happens when it's relevant to (dare I say, welcomed by) the recipient. Stop pushing and start pulling -- with things that interest your community (3 links there).
  • Be careful in the mail merge, particularly the personalization elements.  In the last 18 months, I've been the lucky recipient of emails with an opening of "Dear NULL" and "Dear Darryn."  These mails came from vendors trying to sell me their email marketing tools!
  • Be careful in the mail merge, part II.  Get the subject line right, particularly if you're sending to mobile devices.  I recently got an email with this subject line:
    =?iso-8859-1?Q?Profile of the New Buyer: Chapter from Steven Woods' New eBook?=
    Aside from violating every rule of a good subject line, it was gibberish and generated only enough attention for me to laugh as I deleted the mail, unread.

While entire books have been written about the art of email marketing, the real issue here is consistently maintaining the coherence of communications.  To do this means treating the prospect as an individual, rather than a member of a target audience.  Think threads.  As communication evolves, track each person's interactions with your firm.  Email sequences and website content should be adapted to match the responses and implied interests of prospects.  Early on in the cycle, this can efficiently be done only via "vertical campaigns" in a marketing automation system such as Eloqua or Marketo.  You can also use social media and community-of-interest marketing tools to shepherd the most promising conversations.

Later on, the flow of communications is done by phone or in person, and it is essential to use your CRM system to track the "state of play" for each individual.  This gets more important as the person's interests get more focused and the company moves closer to a buying decision. 

Classic Symptoms:  Too many "customer conversations" die off.

Caveat:  Don't become obsessive-compulsive about microscopic details.  Every once in a while an "error" leads to serendipity, and discovery of something new that works better.  It's more important to maintain natural communication than to be mechanistically "correct."


Sometimes, idiot marketing is the result of hiring idiots.  More often, the people are fine but are overworked and stressed because company leaders haven't set priorities and clear, achievable goals.  

If you sense idiot tactics going on, step back and look at what you're doing.  Get out of execution mode long enough to examine:

  • Would this tactic -- even if perfectly executed -- really be able to produce the desired result in today's market? 
  • Is the tactic producing results for your competitive peers?
  • Are you measuring the right things, or are the metrics focused mainly on "how busy we are" or some easy-but-inappropriate milestones?
  • From the prospect's perspective, are you providing a relevant message with a smooth evolution from awareness to interest to desire to action (AIDA)?

If you find problems here, you'll need to change what your team is doing.  And it won't feel comfortable at first.  But the goal of marketing isn't the comfort level of the marketing 
team -- it's the speed and power of attracting customers.

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