Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

Getting Engaged

Love is in the air. Or, maybe it’s pollen. I’ve been sneezing so much lately it’s difficult to see straight. But, like the nagging of an impatient mother, it’s difficult to ignore the persistent prodding: When are you going to get engaged?

Helpful advice on wooing that certain special someone is cheerfully, though not cheaply, offered by marketing and social media consultants everywhere. There are thousands of customers waiting to hear from you! Participate in meaningful conversations! Build an emotional connection! Be still my lonely heart.

A meaningful relationship
Do you know anyone who is eagerly pursuing a relationship with a brand? They may interact with, be loyal to, and be supportive of their favorites, but you’re largely dealing with an audience of confirmed bachelors and bachelorettes. People are not interested in committing to organizations or brands, they’re playing the field.

“Engagement marketing” is not an oxymoron on the order of an “open secret” or “exact estimate,” but more of a euphemism turned sideways. In an effort to make something unpleasant seem less so, we often use a velvet glove to soften the blow. You’re not getting fired, you’re being downsized. I’m not calling you a liar, I’m just questioning the credibility of your assertions. In marketing it seems we’re using pleasant concepts – engagement, dialogue, community – as cover for the more difficult things organizations need to address.

Such quibbling over semantics may seem petty – there’s nothing wrong with a concerted effort to be more engaging. In fact, it’s imperative in an age where the consumer undeniably has the upper hand. But, in implying that there’s a causal relationship between marketing (at least in the usual sense) and a customer’s desire to get engaged, consultants over-promise and under-deliver.

Making a promise
Much of what is encouraged in the social media sphere – listening, being responsive, participating in two-way communication – is less marketing and more customer service. Essentially, it’s acting like a good human being, treating others as you’d like to be treated.

In the book In Search of Excellence, a self-deprecating executive explains, “I’m not smart enough to know which things are most important, so I just treat everything as if it’s the most important thing.” The lesson is that excellence, by its very nature, is all-inclusive. An excellent organization must provide great products and service – an excellent experience throughout the enterprise. Always.

Building trust is easy. Just start by telling the truth, and then do as you promised. – Eric Karjaluoto

It’s the pervasive and permanent effort across an organization that can be underestimated by marketing folks and the people who hire them. You want your customers to love you? As Beyonce sings: If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it. Live up to your promise – engagement doesn’t happen in 140 characters.

What are you willing to do?
You can declare empathy for a social cause, or volunteer your time to help solve it. You can tell someone you’re funny, or actually make them laugh. Profess deep compassion for the environment, or make purchases that demonstrate your values. Actions speak louder than words.

The activities that drive personal connection with an organization are operational in nature – they have little to do with marketing. As someone who makes his living as a design and marketing consultant, I won’t tell you that marketing is unimportant. It’s not easy to do well. And it’s especially challenging when an organization can’t deliver on its promise. Before you start thinking about the next campaign, first consider how you can design a better experience for your customers.

Engagement cannot be broadcast or found on any media channel. It’s personally delivered every day, one at a time – like a love note.

Related content:

Speak Human by Eric Karjaluoto
It’s Not About Engagement

There Are No Shortcuts

Some problems are so common to the human condition that we’re predictably intrigued with promises of easy solutions. You’re telling me I can eat all the Oreos I want, and still lose 10 pounds in 30 days? Sign me up! Earn up to $5,000 working at home only a few hours per month? Sounds good!

Marketing professionals fall into a similar trap when they fixate on short-term tactics and the latest trends – things that often seem too promising to ignore – at the expense of a well-planned, long-term strategy.

Whether it’s social networks, QR codes, or online publications whose pages magically flip like their paper predecessors, none will ever be a substitute for the more difficult endeavor of creating high-quality, relevant content and delivering great experiences and service.

Maintain a balance
To clarify, this is not an anti-technology rant – everything new is bad – nor an argument in favor of foot-dragging on innovation. Heaven knows, there are more than enough committees perfectly capable of killing good ideas.

It’s just that the initial question often seems to be: How can we use [insert tactic/trend here]? When we should be asking: What are we trying to do? And what are the best ways to achieve those goals?

We need to balance the temptation to hop on the latest bandwagon against forces that delay decision-making or change. As John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, once said, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” In other words, execute without hesitation, but have a plan first.

Know your audience
If you’re driving after dark on an unfamiliar road, you wouldn’t hesitate to use your car’s headlights. It would be crazy – and dangerous – to proceed otherwise. Yet, some  organizations recklessly steer their marketing based primarily on assumptions or scant anecdotal information. It’s always better to shine a little light on the situation, then budget time and resources accordingly.

Be remarkable
There is an oversupply of ordinary in the world. Honestly, what can you do that your competitors can’t or won’t do? What makes you so special? If you can answer that question – better yet if your customers can answer it for you – you’re well on your way.

Spending time only on what’s quantifiable (likes, clicks, followers) is the easy part. Having the vision and leadership to act on what’s important – more likely to be operational issues than your latest tweet – is significantly harder. Hey, if it was easy, everyone would be remarkable!

Earn trust
Staying attuned to your customers and continually rewarding them is a daily grind, not a quick fix. Done well, over time, you’ll earn their trust. And then we can start matching tactics to strategic goals.

Related content:

Death to the QR Code

Is Social Media a Waste of Time?

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An Interview with Stephen Olson of U7

Logo for U7In a tough economy, small businesses everywhere are struggling to survive. Add a multi-year light rail construction project on your front doorstep, and the future begins to look even bleaker. U7, an initiative of the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) in collaboration with six other non-profit organizations, was launched to support small businesses along the Central Corridor in Saint Paul, Minnesota – with design and marketing services playing a key role.

Recently, I spoke with Stephen Olson, the lead designer at U7.

How long has U7 been around? And what services do you offer?
We started in July 2009. We offer design, marketing and business consulting services, as well as help with financial projections, bookkeeping, and applying for grants. We’ll also provide referrals to consultants in areas beyond our expertise.

What is your criteria for working with area businesses?
The business must be affected by the light rail project, either on University Avenue or one block north or south of University, stretching from Lowertown in Saint Paul to Highway 280. For our purposes, a small business means $2 million or less in annual revenue with five or fewer locations. So far, we’ve worked with nearly 100 businesses.

How does U7 market its services in the community?
We started by going door-to-door, doing cold calls on University Avenue. A lot of the businesses haven’t traditionally sought design and marketing help, and there’s a huge amount of diversity along the avenue, so there’s a trust that has to be gained. It was a lot easier to show potential clients what we have to offer than to try and explain it over the phone.

Now, we get referrals from other agencies like the University Avenue Business Association (UABA), through social media and word-of-mouth – clients we’ve worked with tell their friends and neighbors. We also have a quarterly newsletter that is sent to our target audience.

Through the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), U7 provides all of these services for free. Was this made possible by a new revenue source, or a reassignment of existing funds?
These are all new revenues and come from a variety of funders: Saint Paul Foundation, Bigelow Foundation, Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, Federal Appropriations Awards, Living Cities, and the City of Saint Paul STAR grant. We are always looking for new funding sources to increase our manpower to help businesses faster!

How many people are currently on staff?
We have five full-time staff members: One project manager, two small business consultants, one loan officer, and me – the lead designer. As lead designer, I supervise a team of three design interns and a contract worker. It’s a struggle to keep up with the demand for our services, so we’re constantly tweaking how we staff and how we work.

What do businesses most often need when they come to U7?
It varies quite a bit. They usually know what they don’t want. We start by conducting interviews to assess where they’re at and determine what is needed. It can take some time to build the relationship and identify how best to help their business. We don’t want to just give them a business card and push them out the door.

Does the amount of help you offer each business vary as well? I’m guessing some businesses have more needs than you’re willing or able to take on.
We rarely turn them away, but we do try to keep a cap on project creep. We’ll usually design 3-4 pieces and then let the business run with it. We want to teach them how to update things, use social media and become more self-sufficient.

We have created marketing plans for a handful of clients: What they can do weekly, monthly, annually to continue marketing their business. Then we stay in contact with them monthly to see how things are going.

The best feeling is when clients call us up spontaneously, excited about seeing their efforts pay off.

Would you share a success story?
The Best Steak House has been around since 1991, and they’ve been very receptive to exploring new things. We did a whole brand refresh with a new logo, tagline, business cards, take-out menu, website, social media and small table tents telling their customers to find them on Facebook and Twitter.

When we stopped in for a follow-up visit, we found out they needed 1,000 signatures in order to qualify for a façade grant. We jokingly said, “Let’s make an Uncle Sam poster with Mike’s (the owner) face on it.” They hung the posters in the windows and bathrooms and got over 1,000 signatures in three days.

Are businesses required to put up any capital or show an ability to implement your design ideas?
When we start working with a business, we explain that all production costs are their responsibility. We ballpark a price for them depending on what they want – usually $100–$400. In a few instances, when a client was unable to pay, we have helped with loans and even done some printing in-house.

Does U7 have a future beyond the construction of the Central Corridor light rail line?
The life span of U7 is tied to the construction, which is scheduled to be completed in 2013. We’ve talked in general terms about possibly offering these services under the NDC banner. There are a handful of other non-profit organizations that serve small businesses, but I haven’t seen any of them doing what we’re doing.

What’s your favorite part of this job?
At my first internship, I worked on projects with some huge corporations. Now I’m working on a very intimate level. These are mom-and-pop stores whose family livelihood depends on the success of the business. It’s pretty fulfilling.

It sounds like a great program. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Steve. I wish you and U7 continued success.

Related content:
Central Corridor Businesses Prepare for Disruption
University Seven website

Just Be Yourself

Nothing is so commonplace as to wish to be remarkable. – Oliver Wendell Holmes

We hear it all the time when it comes to marketing: Be authentic. Savvy consumers have high expectations of the brands they’ll reward with patronage and loyalty. They can spot a pretender from miles away.

If you conduct an internet search for “how to succeed in marketing,” among the 20 million results you’ll find useless statistics on social networks, implausible promises that there’s one true way to achieve success, and pithy advice like this: You have to be awesome.

So, how awesome is your organization?

  • Are you recognized for being an innovative leader?
  • Are you a trendsetter known for regularly taking calculated risks?
  • Are you doing things none of your competitors can match?

Ever noticed there’s a lot less “awesome” in the middle of the bell curve? We simply can’t all be above average. Or, as Judge Smails suggests to Danny, a brown-nosing law school hopeful in the classic film comedy Caddyshack: “The world needs ditch diggers too.”

Hopeful copycats
Many organizations, rather than risk being truly authentic (e.g., We’re understaffed and our customer service suffers for it!) or delivering meaningful differences in their products or services, spend a lot of effort chasing others’ trendy tactics. We need a website, a Facebook page, an iPhone app!

Faced with a moving target of so-called best practices, tactics-focused marketers are perpetually behind – a guaranteed path to the vast undifferentiated middle ground.

Redirect your efforts
A better approach is to invest budget, time and staff resources in identifying ways to deliver a remarkable experience. Marketing driven by a strategic goal is not a quick fix, but a much more valuable one.

In the children’s book, Three Questions, based on story by Leo Tolstoy, a wise old turtle helps a boy discover answers to the following questions:

  1. When is the best time to do things?
  2. Who is the most important one?
  3. What is the right thing to do?

Answers: 1. Now  2. The one you are with  3. Do good for the one you are with

Being authentic in your marketing requires adherence to similar principles. If you know your target audience, and can consistently deliver what they need most when they need it, you’ll develop a truly remarkable reputation.

Related Content:

Online Personas Rarely Match Real-life Behavior
Authenticity Is King Because Branding Bores Everyone

Day Traders

Be fearful when others are greedy. Be greedy when others are fearful. – Warren Buffett

At the turn of the century, as technology granted ambitious individuals opportunity to compete with institutional investors, we witnessed the growth of day trading in the stock market. Day traders obsessively buy and sell positions, attempting to profit from market volatility. Unfortunately, around 80% of all day traders lose money.

Flash forward to 2010, a year in which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was recognized as TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year.” In his commentary on the social network’s influence, Facebook Puts All Brands on Notice, branding consultant Simon Mainwaring writes:

The power of Facebook is the relationships it fosters and how that gives individuals and brands influence over their fans and friends. Variously called social capital or influence, this ability to exercise influence means that brands become day traders in social emotion and continually manage their reputations.

Facebook’s unmatched ability to instantly connect millions of people has changed the way we do business – of that there is no question. Where I take issue with Mr. Mainwaring is in his assessment of what that means for marketers. Do we really want or need to influence our customer’s “social emotions” on a daily basis?

Affirming this as a goal seems a bit self-serving for the social marketer, as it gives license to remain ever busy providing up-to-the-minute (or second) brand management. There’s another emotion at play here as well – fear. What if I’m not doing enough? What if my competition is tweeting while I’m sleeping? How come no one “liked” our latest Facebook post? To me, this behavior seems unhealthy.

The question should really be: Do our customers want to have “relationships” with us? Based on consumer trends toward self-service, evidence seems to be mounting that customers aren’t seeking a dialogue. Here’s a sobering thought: Is it possible your customers are “just not that in to you?”

Being responsive to your customers is always good business, whether face-to-face or online. Investing in social media will keep you plenty busy, but removing daily obstacles to self-service may do more for your customer relationships than all the tweets in China.

Related Content:
Why Your Customers Don’t Want to Talk to You
Ads in the Age of Hysteria

Branding From The Inside Out

You’ve got a great new logo and website, brand guidelines, a presence on multiple social media channels, and some soon-to-be-award-winning marketing materials. You’ve got this branding thing whipped, no? Well … um … no.

Think of your printed or online materials as the scaffolding around new construction. It is necessary and useful, but of little value on its own. Until the brand has been built from the inside out, you may remove the scaffolding only to discover there’s nothing there.

It’s a team sport
Successful managers are adept at putting their people in a position to succeed. Unlike Bugs Bunny, forced to play every position against the Gashouse Gorillas, a brand manager can’t succeed unless everyone on the team plays a role.

Because authenticity is the name of the game, it’s important to provide training, support, and incentives for coworkers so that your new branding effort won’t ring hollow.

Winning buy-in
From curmudgeons to the terminally shy, not everyone will proudly sing from your brand hymnal. Though uniform enthusiasm may be unrealistic, it’s not too much to ask for understanding and acceptance.

Dilbert.com

For a large, nonprofit client, we insisted on scheduling several voluntary, one-hour workshops as part of the brand launch. Each session was designed to provide participants with an overview of project goals, key messages and graphics, and practical tips for putting the brand to work. With a drawing for a free weekend getaway trip and other prizes as incentive, the internal training effort reached over two thirds of all employees.

Additionally, we encouraged the sharing of stories, regularly recognizing “brand champions” through internal communications after the workshops were a distant memory.

Training days
To keep everyone in tune with the institution’s brand, Virginia Tech developed a comprehensive, two-phase Brand Ambassador Certification Program. Since its inception, they’ve identified several best practices, including:

  • Recruit executive-level supporters who believe in the program.
  • Solicit feedback on everything – program content, presentation style, overall value.
  • Offer each class at least twice to accommodate scheduling conflicts.
  • Ask participants to recommend the program to peers.
  • Award participants with official recognition.

Actions speak louder than words
A brand is not what you say, it’s what you do – the sum total of all your actions. The better prepared your organization is to live its brand, the more vivid and indelible an impression you will make.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Like the very proper announcer who provided transitions between outlandish scenes in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, colleges and universities would like to promise that they are completely different from their competitors. Unfortunately, most schools’ marketing boldly goes where everyone has gone before:

  • Where Success Begins With You!
  • From Here You Can Go Anywhere!
  • What College Should Be!

Though one might fault marketers for a lack of imagination, the truth is a little more painful: most schools just aren’t that different. And that spells trouble.

Warning signs
Books, magazines, newspapers, and music have all seen dominant business models rendered obsolete in recent years. Higher education is ripe for the same kind of disruption witnessed in other information industries.

Earlier this year, technology observer Clay Shirky argued that “complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond.” Notice any stress in higher ed recently?

Trying to be all things to all people can prevent institutions from responding to the challenge of doing things differently.

No one said this was going to be easy
As difficult as it might be for some institutions to undertake a new branding or marketing effort, it pales in comparison to taking a cold hard look in the mirror and deciding “We’re this, not that.”

The fact that this kind of systemic review hasn’t happened on a broad scale only points to the opportunity waiting for those institutions able to move more urgently. As Anya Kamenetz notes in her book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, if institutions are unable or unwilling to change, others will fill the void.

Different is as different does
What might this new world of higher education look like? It could be college that’s no longer campus-based. It could come from a realization that all students are “non-traditional.” Maybe some schools will entirely forsake athletics. The point is that a higher education monoculture is both unacceptable and unhealthy.

Some schools already maintain distinct models that serve them well:

  • At St. John’s College in Maryland, there are no majors or departments. All classes are discussion-based and no textbooks are used. Now that’s different!
  • At Berea College all students receive a full, four-year scholarship, putting real action behind the school’s mission to provide opportunity to academically promising students who have limited financial resources.
  • Missouri University of Science & Technology, formerly the University of Missouri-Rolla, changed its named to better reflect the school’s academic focus.

Different is good
Cynically, one could look at marketing simply as a way to raise the perceived value of what colleges offer so that regular cost increases are more acceptable. Ideally, however, a marketing campaign helps a school draw distinctions that attract students who are the right fit. The better an organization can differentiate its operations and offerings, not just its tagline, the more successful its marketing will be.

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Navigating Brand Success

Launching a new product or service is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. Launching a brand is an even more perilous proposition requiring ample doses of skill, planning, and the coordinated efforts of an entire organization.

Why does one effort fail and another succeed? Though good fortune can never be underestimated, successful branding is not a game of chance. As the architect Mies van der Rohe once said, “God is in the details.”

Get support from the top.
Visible endorsement and budget commitment from the boss is essential. The director of marketing or communications cannot successfully launch a brand without it. Everyone in the organization needs to understand that branding is a priority.

Process matters as much as product.
The success of any branding effort depends as much on internal adoption as any new logo or tagline. Listen to your staff and existing customers, not to water down recommendations, but to understand how this change will affect them.

Include the right people at the right time.
Gathering broad input is valuable early in the process and disastrous late. But it’s not enough to be inclusive, you have to ask the right kinds of questions. Don’t ask loaded, open-ended questions such as: Do you like this? Frame your inquiry around well-defined project goals, for example: Which option better captures our brand position?

Centralize control.
As Charles Kettering warned, “If you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it.” Democracy is a wonderful thing, but everyone’s opinion cannot be treated equally here. Project leaders need the authority to lead – and permission to use it.

Branding is a marathon, not a sprint.
The brand is launched! Everyone’s excited! Now what? Guide expectations with regular updates and results so internal audiences understand that effective brand execution is an ongoing effort – and the day-to-day delivery of that brand will determine its success.

Have you seen – or launched – a successful nonprofit brand campaign? What were the keys to its success?

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Tropicana Packaging Blunder

Brand Success Stories
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American University: The American Wonk
North Dakota: RU Legendary?

The Perfect Storm

Today’s forecast calls for heavy rain accompanied by thunder and lightning. Maybe I should climb on the office roof and point a golf club to the sky.

Why attempt such foolishness? I’ll certainly get wet, but even taking extreme measures the chances of getting struck by lightning are remote. Yet marketing departments frequently appear to be pursuing a similar strategy – choreographing (sometimes literally) elaborate efforts in hopes of becoming the next internet sensation.

Is it contagious?
By now everyone has probably heard of or enjoyed a campaign or video that produced a groundswell of publicity. The Blair Witch Project, fueled by a promotional campaign that blurred fiction and reality, was a viral marketing phenomenon. Canadian blogger Kyle MacDonald, in a series of online trades, successfully bartered his way from one red paperclip to a house. And Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College, attracted widespread acclaim for his star turn in the school’s lighthearted video parody.

Manufacturing buzz
Understandably, marketers dream of capturing the attention of ad-saturated consumers and generating free media coverage. But there’s no formula that can be taken from these examples and consistently applied to duplicate their success. When asked how his project received so much publicity, MacDonald replied: “I have no idea.”

In fact, gaining traction is harder than ever with the explosion of content available online. And consumers are savvy enough to sniff out – and savage – a contrived attempt to win their affection. The best advice is to consistently give people something of value that is true to your brand.

Happy accidents
Don’t get me wrong. Trying new ideas, even non-traditional ones, increases your chances of being in the right place at the right time. Be happy if one of your ideas is wildly successful, just don’t gamble all your hopes, or your annual budget, on a fleeting chance. Because if your goal is to capture lightning in a bottle – to “go viral” – you’re not marketing, you’re just playing the lottery.

Related Content:

Through Non-profit Eyes: Christian Haas (The More Donors Blog)

Down the Rabbit Hole: Meet the Puppet Masters of Viral Marketing (Fast Company)

What I Learned from YouTube (Chronicle of Higher Education)