SPAM takes center stage

…or, why annoy your audience?

I like music.  In America, you might as well say, “I like breathing,” or, “eating – that’s a nice way to get food into my body.”  However, I’m not a huge concert-goer.

So why is it that Ticketmaster decides to annoy me by automatically signing me up for e-mails I don’t want in the rare instances I buy a ticket? I try to keep my inbox as a safe haven for friends, business colleagues, and school.  Commercial e-mail?  Mostly, I just don’t want it.

It gets worse.  I’m at that threshold age where the eyes are not what they used to be.  So, scrolling to the bottom of a Ticketmaster e-mail to find that their unsubscribe link is embedded in a big wad of baby blue text on a dark blue background?  That’s just mean.

Anything wrong with this?

What is wrong with this picture?

Communications for retailers

I am a boringly “classic” dresser.  I say this not out of any confessional impulse, but to make a point.  When I find basics that fit both my body and my lifestyle, I will buy in multiples.  I am not alone in this, and many of the places I shop at will produce the same basic item in a few waves: month one will showcase colors that remind the shopper of the sea, month two will be a flower garden, and month three will bring autumnal shades.  Same basic shirt, completely different color palettes.

So, riddle me this: how hard would it be for retailers who cater to types like me to enable shoppers to “subscribe” to an item?  For instance, I am currently enamored of this tee:

Based on past experience, I am pretty sure this retailer is very likely to have this item in another set of colors in a month or two.  As a shopper, I could do one of two things: I stalk the retailer’s website to see if anything has changed (this does not sound like any fun at all, especially since the link is probably going to change,  and therefore stalking is not a good plan for me) or I tell myself to check in again in a month or two, completely forget about it, and then realize six months later that I probably missed my window.

But if the retailer realized that they had a built-in customer base for their basics, a customer base who would gladly click on a link to “tell me when this specific item comes out in additional colors,” I would click, the retailer could send me a nice note when additional colors are available, and I would buy.  Information that I want would be delivered to me in such a way that would benefit both me and the retailer: I get clothes that I like, they get a sale.

How hard is that, really?

A Modern/est Proposal

Scroobious has some excellent points about corporate “contact us” pages.

Don’t do this. Just don’t.

Hey e-mail marketers: do you have a long-term plan?  Does it include automatically sending rather generic messages to your clients?

You might want to review those seemingly innocuous messages on a regular basis – and also right before they are scheduled to be released.  Yes, this process is tedious.  Do it.  Or else, you will end up sending out things that are, well… just dumb.

Do I have an example?  I’m so glad you asked.  I sure do.

Today, I received a missive from an investment company that I do business with (or did do business with.  Re-evaluation is definitely in the cards, all things considered).  Here is the meat of the message:

You deserve a retirement that’s worth looking forward to. To some, it’s a time for travel and adventure. To others, it’s a time for relaxing at home. Whatever your dreams, most financial professionals estimate that you will need 70-95% of your pre-retirement income to maintain the lifestyle you enjoy today.

Following these steps can help you achieve the retirement you desire.

Maximize Your 401(k) or 403(b). Many employers offer matching contributions,
and pre-tax contributions may lower your taxable income.
Open and Fund a New IRA. Get valuable tax benefits. Plus, E*TRADE IRAs
have no annual fees and no minimums1, and a wide range of investment
choices. Open Your IRA.
Roll Over Old 401(k) Assets to an IRA. Make the most of your retirement
assets with stocks, bonds, and 7,000 mutual funds. Roll Over Now.
Build Additional Savings. Even if you max out on all your tax-advantaged
retirement saving options, you may need to build additional assets in a
taxable account. Open an account today.

(Links intentionally broken)

Nowhere in this cheery bit of advertising prose is there any mention of the fact that the worldwide financial markets are in a gobsmackingly awful tailspin, that current retirees are in a panic that their retirement funds may not cover their old age, that even people like me who have more than a few years to go before we even think about retirement are dreadfully uneasy about the state of affairs.  You may have read about this.  It has made one or two news reports lately.

I could see the potential for an investment marketing claim that now is, in fact, the time to step in and put your money on the table since the markets are so bad and things are so cheap, but that argument isn’t made here.  Instead, the reader is treated to the same old “common sense investing” messages, without any acknowledgment of the catastrophic global crisis in the financial world.

The kindest interpretation of the subtext to all of this business-as-usualspeak is that the company that sent this e-mail marketing message is colossally clueless.  That’s not the kind of message any business wants to send at the best of times – and nobody (with the possible exception of the company in question) needs to be told that right now is emphatically not the best of times.

Everything in moderation: fly coach

Last month, the chiefs of the big three automakers flew to Washington in three different private jets to make the case before Congress that their companies could not continue to exist without government assistance. In the annals of “let them eat cake” executive hubris, I’m not sure I know of an example that ranks higher.

So, having been handed their… hats and told, “go away and come back with a plan, not a plea,” one auto chief will make that second trip from Detroit to Washington by driving himself in a hybrid.

Pardon me for being rude, but this is just stupid.

Why is it stupid?  It shines a big, shiny spotlight on the executive’s former egregious act by indulging in a theatrical bit of penance.  It reminds me of the old saying we had when I was waiting tables: If you screw up, apologize once.  If you apologize once, they remember the apology.  If you apologize multiple times, they remember what you did that required an apology. This is silly enough that it rivals Monty Python’s “Restaurant Sketch:”

It also makes any even vaguely colorable reasons the executive might have had for indulging in the private jet in the first place all the more laughable.  Your time is so valuable that you just had to take the G4?  That notion is pretty much shot if you spend almost nine hours behind the wheel (actually, probably more – watch 66 at rush hour. It’s a bear) ostentatiously flagellating yourself in an all-too obvious PR stunt.

The executives in question were called out for acting out of touch with reality, for not understanding the consequences of their actions. In communications terms, the Great Hybrid Drive comes across as reactionary and petulant – and illustrates a continued lack of understanding of what is at stake and why people cringe when executive perqs are preserved at the same time as real people, not numbers like “fifty thousand” lose their jobs.

Here’s a bit of free advice: next time you are called to be humble, do it for real. Fly coach, cope with crying babies and nervous seatmates, and when someone asks you how your flight was, say, “Uneventful. The best kind.”

It’s what real real people do.

ETA: Now they’re all doing it. And they’re also proving my point: the articles that talk about their big drives are also talking about the jets, further cementing the auto chiefs’ earlier stupidity in the public’s memory.


I am currently employed (not as a freelancer) and also in school part time. I intend to continue to opine on communications issues as the opportunity presents itself, but right now is not the time. If you have ideas, feel free to write to me – I can be reached via e-mail as Jill at this domain. Pretty obvious, though redundant. I would love to hear from you.

More topical communications examples from the Olympics

Yesterday evening, Nastia Liukin of the United States and He Kexin of China received tie scores in the uneven parallel bars Olympic final. Even as the identical scores were posted, Liukin’s name immediately went into the second-place slot.

The people who were immediately baffled by this included: Liukin, her coach (and father – former Olympian Valeri Liukin), the Olympic commentators on NBC, and probably several million viewers. The tie-breaking mechanism was arcane and automatic, causing outrage from some and suspicion from others. Tim Daggett, NBC commentator and an Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast himself, could only say later in the broadcast that “the computer” had an automatic tiebreaking mechanism, and he seemed unfamiliar with the specifics. The impression that it left with many was that the system was arbitrary, and gymnastics is a subjective enough sport without opening the door any further to suggestions of arbitrariness or caprice.

What could have saved this situation? Proactive, transparent communication from the Olympic gymnastics organization. Even if the tiebreaking rules are available (and I’m sure that researchers at news organizations worldwide were sent scrambling for the IOC Gymnastics rulebook), the situation was unusual enough that someone in the Olympic gymnastics organization should have been able to make an immediate, on-the-floor statement to explain what had happened and why. When even the experts in the field react in puzzlement, you have a communications problem. Only transparency will fix it.

“Drawing the sting”

When I was in law school, a trial practice professor of mine discussed a technique called “drawing the sting.” It referred to the strategic revelation of negative information about your client so the other side couldn’t stage a dramatic uncovering of the same information. The logic was simple: if it’s going to come out, let it come out in a way that allows the home team to retain some control over how the information is presented. This technique, when done well, also has the collateral effect of making you look frank and forthright instead of dishonest and sneaky.

The effect of drawing the sting can ripple outward from the disclosure, having impact far beyond the moment when the information is given. Therefore, whenever possible, the information has to be given in a straightforward, undramatic manner in an atmosphere lacking in emotional charge. The less emotional freight you load on to the revelation, the less it will travel.

As a topical example, consider the following scenario:

  1. Benjamin Boukpeti is the only member of the Olympic Togolese whitewater kayak team.
  2. M. Boukpeti was not considered to be a medal contender, both before the event and after the first run.
  3. M. Boukpeti’s last two runs had the kind of speed, strength, and athleticism that cause sports journalists to write things like, “heroic,” “epic,” and “fairy-tale.”
  4. M. Boukpeti won the bronze.
  5. This is the first ever Olympic medal for Togo.

Taken together, these pieces of information make a stirring, emotional story. Now add one more piece of information to that mix: M. Boukpeti has been to Togo once in his life. He was born in Lagny, France, and makes his home in Toulouse. His mother is French, his father is from Togo and Boukpeti himself holds dual citizenship. He trains with the French national team, but could not have qualified for the French Olympic team. Since he qualifies under Olympic rules to paddle for Togo, he paddled for Togo.

As I watched the coverage of his accomplishment on television, it was plain to me that this last paragraph of facts were all well known to the journalists covering the event, as they mentioned them in a matter-of-fact manner. When M. Boukpeti was interviewed afterward, he was frank and open about his background. As a result, many articles on him concentrate on his achievement rather than his nationality.

Contrast that with this report, which makes Boukpeti’s past and his representation of Togo look clandestine and shady, and imputes cynical motives to his representation of Togo. It acknowledges that his choice of nationality is within the letter of the Olympic regulations, but implies a violation of the spirit. It also implies that the facts of M. Boukpeti’s nationality are not well known and readily obtainable. (I can’t speak to the British television coverage of the event, but the information available on the Internet indicates that you don’t need a “former England & Great Britain kayaker…[and] something of an expert on the sport of canoe slalom” to “reveal… the real story behind a would-be fairytale.”)

If you mentally rearrange the order of the facts above to put the discussion of his nationality second in the numbered ranking, it probably lessens the emotional freight of M. Boukpeti’s accomplishment. The story becomes a bit less of a “fairy tale,” but no less of an athletic accomplishment. It is also how Boukpeti actually handled the facts, which seemed to smooth the ripples of most journalists’ stories about him as well. Now imagine what would have happened if those facts had somehow been concealed – the story discussed in the last paragraph would have been written everywhere, and it wouldn’t have mattered how legal his choice of nationality was: the focus would have been off the bronze and into the dirt.

“Let’s make some noise.”

News releases: they are great tools for communicating important information. Whether you’re letting important constituencies know about a new product launch, a regulatory approval, a big new customer or contract, or some other reason for saying, “Yay, us!” a news release is often the basic means of communication.

When you release good news, often even more good can flow out of that announcement. Additional customers might become interested in your product. Potential corporate partners may come out of the woodwork. If you’re publicly traded, your stock might rise. Success can beget even more success.

But what if you’re in a fallow period? What if you’re working hard on the next new product or service offering but aren’t ready to talk about it yet? There are lots of good reasons to stay silent. Perhaps you are a small organization and giving a progress report on a new product could give a bigger competitor the ability to leapfrog ahead of you into the market. Maybe there are too many variables at present to talk about when your project will be complete. Possibly this is a risky project that you might not want to trumpet to the rest of the world until you’re sure enough it’s going to be a success.

In those fallow periods, there is often a lot of pressure from internal and external constituencies to put out some news. A reporter wants to produce a follow-up to a glowing profile she’s written about your company. A shareholder is getting agitated about what’s going on behind the scenes at his favorite investment. An internal manager, having seen the positive collateral benefits of good news, encourages the communications staff to “make some noise” about a relatively minor accomplishment.

What to do when there’s nothing to say and lots of pressure to say it as loudly as possible? Always remembering that every situation is unique and recognizing any regulatory requirements that might exist for your company, here are a few tips to help manage lean information times:

  1. Manage expectations. When possible, telegraph the potential lack of imminent news to important constituencies. If you can give a range of dates when you may have news, give it – but you will have to have news to give by the end of your date range, so be sure you can deliver. Be sure that you’re clear about the length of time it takes to make it to the next milestone and why it will take that long.
  2. Don’t cry wolf. The manager who wants you to “make some noise” about that minor accomplishment is not doing the company any favors. If the company gets the reputation for putting out news releases about trivia, after a while the company’s news isn’t going to get read.
  3. Where possible, bundle. While a single release about one small accomplishment can be a letdown, a release that notes several smaller accomplishments can possibly slake your audience’s thirst for information.
  4. Update your website. When the news bites are too small to bundle, consider whether or not they can be added to your website. Flag these items on the homepage so your audience members know where to go. Better yet, if you have a reasonably steady stream of smaller news bites, consider starting a blog, complete with RSS feed. While you’re at it, flag larger news items here. That way, RSS-savvy audience members can get their complete news picture from a single source and your company remains top-of-mind.

One last piece of advice: when you get to the end of your news drought and are ready to talk again, there will be a lot of temptation to trumpet the news loudly. Maintain a sense of perspective, not just about your company, but about how your news will play in the context of what is going on in your industry as well. Since employees of a company often have a hard time maintaining that perspective, outside advice can help. Contact me if you would like to discuss how I can help you with your communications planning and implementation.

Location, Location, Location

I’m going to apologize right up front here, because what I have to say is not particularly new. Unfortunately, it keeps getting repeated in different forms because people just keep getting it wrong. It’s about where you say something and how you say it. In this, the realtor’s essential mantra is also that of the good communicator:

Location, location, location.

You have a complicated story – perhaps it is technical or scientific. It is important that people understand what you’re bringing to the marketplace. So many people worry about the technical nature of their product that there are a million slide decks out there that have some version of this:

Some slide decks contain about ten versions of this type of slide. And just about anyone looking at someone else’s deck will say, “You need something different here. There are too many words, too many bullets, not enough white space in that slide.”

But the owner of that slide – he or she knows just exactly how complicated the story is, and that person is terrified of leaving something crucial out. There’s just one problem: if the story is that complicated, you are not going to explain it in a typical slide presentation. There is too much to absorb. There is certainly too much to read in the limited time available.

That’s where the realtor’s mantra comes in:

Location, location, location.

In other words: where can you put supplemental information that fills in the detail? The typical presentation is 20 minutes to a half hour. That’s an informational gatehouse with no indoor plumbing. You can’t house your weekend party of 12 guests in that kind of a venue. So what sort of communications real estate is appropriate for that 7-bedroom, 5-bath mansion of information and how are you going to direct your guests there?

White papers, journal articles, abstracts, federal filings, patents: all of these are structures where you can house those big informational galas. And the acreage you need is generally right there on your website. So do yourself and those sitting in your presentation a favor and use the presentation as a gatehouse to give out maps of the grounds and direct your listeners further up the driveway to your mansion on the web.