Archive for the 'Message Strategy, Creative Development, Copywriting, Web Design, Digital Marketing, Advertising' Category


What is a Creative Concept?

Considering how many years the advertising / marketing industry has been cranking out…whatever…you’d think this was a question that would receive a single unwavering answer from all quarters. And if the advertising / marketing industry were more like the sciences you might hope your expectations would
be fulfilled.

But, for good and ill, what we do is a lot closer to what happens on a cooking show. Ask a question like that and you might as well be asking “What is salad?”

It’s not so much that the question is too broad, but that the very idea of “defining salad” sounds absurd. The only way to know what a particular salad is, is to eat it.

That is, except in the current state of affairs, when it’s impossible to feel certain that if I say “creative concept,” your mind won’t immediately flood with images of a comped-up layout. And that’s the problem. A layout, whether sketchy or immaculate can only be the realization of a concept. One single realization, to
be exact.

Because a true concept is an all-pervasive thought process. That’s why every brainstorming session that begins with the phrase “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” is headed for disaster. It makes as much sense as mocking up a sleek body design for a car and then casting about for someone to invent the internal combustion engine.

Not that brainstorming sessions ever produce anything of value. At least, that is, until you’ve done the slow, silent work of crafting a concept based on an understanding of your audience’s needs and desires. Then a brainstorming session about how to realize a concept might make sense—even if it is, inevitably, more about the pizza and pasta salad than about creative strategy.

In any case, know that discovering a creative concept goes beyond deciding whether to sell the steak or the sizzle (obviously, you have to sell both). It starts with feeling and thinking your way into the mind of the people who want and need your brand the most.

And that means getting your head out of your spreadsheet and empathizing with your audience. You might even have to talk to people outside of the glassed-in booth, waist-deep in that gauzy, undefined area we’re still pleased to call the Real World.

Depending on the brand, it’s as simple as observing the people you know: What do they love about their cars? or How do they fuss over their pets?…and other aspects of human nature on display in 3D every day.

Then distill that observation into a few declarative sentences. You now have a backstory of psychological data out of which to weave a single distinctive thought process.

“Vroom and zoom conquers gloom and doom,” for example.


“More healthy nutrition for more wag time.”

Not that these are headlines, mind you. Instead, they’re background thoughts, an emotional environment out of which words and images can emerge.

Trouble is, many a creative team has neither the time nor the experience to nurture their concepts.
As often as not, absurd deadline pressures force creatives to present the mere seeds of a concept.
Unless, that is, they’re willing to grab for one of the industry’s immortal formulas:

Take 1 pop-cultural reference
Replace character/singer name with product name
Photoshop a Fender Telecaster into a standard product shot
Layer on a pun-laden headline including the phrase “Like a Rock Star”
Bake covered at 375 for 1 hr or until mildly offensive

Or to save time they may go with a kind of design-centric minimalism. For some people, a “cool image” and a three-word headline, carefully juxtaposed, is enough to create the illusion that an underlying thought is embedded somewhere within. It’s just too “honest” to come out and wave hello.

Probably the most popular variety of this creative ploy features images commonly referred to as “grainy, B&W photography,” as if the same alternative model would look any less alternative in glossy color. That fact that, regardless, the model still reads as a model never sinks in. This is the advertising world’s icon for Reality.

In real reality, all this subterfuge is much more work than talking to real people in real time. Besides, why should all that effort be lavished on everything else except what to say to consumers? For if there’s any reason at all to devise a creative concept, it’s because you believe said concept delivers a compelling message that makes people in your target universe click “Add to Cart.”


False Efficiency: The Legacy Copy Pick-up Shtick

One of the most time-consuming aspects of copywriting, especially on the digital end of the spectrum, is dealing with legacy copy.

That’s because digital marketing has been around just long enough to have a graveyard of abominably bad text “practice.” Unfortunately, many of the residents of that graveyard have a nasty habit of popping up when your agency acquires a new client.

No, not a client you’d actually want to boast about in an interview. I’m talking about the kind whose Web presence would do better in the acute care ward of the Hospital for Special Surgery than an ad agency. At its root, the problem with such copy is that it results from a process of random accretion—and the older the site, the deeper and thicker the layers of accretion go. You’ll find copy from:

• Print ads crammed border to border with mind-numbing detail
• Sales kits picked up almost verbatim
• Failed thought-leader essays “from the desk of…” a sainted company founder

…and that’s just the beginning. If your client offers a range of technology products, you’re sure to encounter a Who’s Who of clichéd marketing speak: All the greatest hits from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, including such memorable moments as

• Best in Class
• Best of Breed
• Top of the Line
• At Your Fingertips
• Innovative
• …in minutes
• …in seconds
• At the Flip of a Switch
• Scalable Solutions
• Customized
• Tailored
• Custom Tailored

And rest assured, this is the technology product you need to meet your technology product needs.

The value of words.
Tied inevitably to the creative misery this kind of copy imposes is the general lack of understanding of what’s required to overhaul it. All those who speak blithely of “picking it up with a few tweaks” are either completely misinformed or cynically indifferent to inherent realities.

Because the simple truth is that the vast majority of those huge catalog sites contain copy that is utterly unusable online. Writing, for example:

This innovative, best of breed solution is easily scalable to keep pace with your growing business

…tells me absolutely nothing and gives me no reason to add your product to MyCart.

Innovation? You can count the number of true innovations on your fingers and toes. The wheel comes to mind, as does the light bulb or the telephone. Even the combustion engine was merely an evolution out of existing tech.

But OK, let’s include that too—on the condition that when we reach the level of, say, the tumblers in a combination lock, or the plastic on the outside of a tablet computer, we recognize that they hardly count as innovation in a global sense.

More to the point, misusing a word lessens its value. Why does that matter? Because advertising with words means having respect for the value of words. It’s respect that involves refusing to casually exaggerate your brand’s attributes. Does your wireless translation tower do a pretty good job of keeping the signal constant? That’s great—but once you assert it towers above the competition, you’ve degraded your credibility.

After all, are you seriously claiming your competition doesn’t buy its circuit boards, chips, dials and readouts from the same technology vendors you do? If not, you might have the beginnings of a valid brand narrative.

The wages of acquiescence.
Regardless, creating good copy starts with realizing that it has nothing to do with selecting the right words. It is, rather, the reflection of a coherent train of thought. It’s not how many times you say “innovative” but how cogently you demonstrate that this innovation benefits your audience.

Now, I have no doubt I’m not the first person to deliver some version of this advice to brand managers. But the persistence of pointlessly verbose sales copy tells me it hasn’t been said often enough. More inexcusable is the willingness of ad agency denizens to “find efficiencies” by using legacy copy—without asking the Creative team to evaluate it for viability.

Because the laws of the advertising universe are singularly perverse in this regard. From the moment you agree to pick up the client’s copy, it becomes yours—subject to criticism and ripe for multiple rounds of scope-creep revisions.

“I don’t think the copy’s customer focused enough,” you’ll hear, from the very person who insisted you use it. Far better to reject that legacy copy and start from scratch. Because by the time your client is finished demanding changes, your “found efficiencies” won’t have saved one dime. Far more likely, the retrofitting process will result in cost overruns, and guess who’ll be expected to pay for them? Worse still, that eaten cost will only serve to undermine the brand.


Writing the Big Bold Blah

No matter what branch of advertising a creative settles into, at various times the call will go out for a “big campaign theme.”

Always ready to oblige! For what creative doesn’t relish a real challenge, as opposed, say, to the unending iterative stream of “corrections” they receive from clients who A.) have no idea what they want and B.) have no idea what advertising can and cannot achieve.

Trouble is, in most instances, the basic ingredients for baking up that big theme are missing. That is, the creative team is faced with a brand or product line that:

• Has no unique attributes
• Delivers only highly qualified benefits
• Is heavily burdened by legal or regulatory requirements

And yet, in the back of most brand managers’ minds is the model of the iconic, freewheeling, fun-loving campaigns of the early 1960s. Not that any of them has the courage to get behind a message like “We’re No. 2, so we have to try harder.” Even something as generic as “Frosted Flakes are Grrreat” is way too audacious for our litigious times. And it’s easy to see why. Use a line like that and you’d actually be asserting that your brand consistently delivered a measurable result.

Naturally, a classic line like “Come up. Come all the way up to Kool,” would evoke such a flurry of air quotes, you’d have half the advertising strategists in the country in the ER with advanced carpal tunnel syndrome within five minutes of proposing it.

Of course, the real secret behind the success of the classic campaigns that a typical client likes to shame us with, is that they had nothing to do with taglines, photographic styles or celebrity endorsements. On the contrary, they succeeded because the brand delivered something of value—directly, effortlessly and with none of those niggling qualifications that are the buzz-kill of today’s marketing.

Real reasons to believe
More to the point, they got people to believe, simply because their products “kept it real” as we say now, in an era when so little is what it’s cut out to be. The Avis people, initially, not only claimed to try harder, they actually brought a new level of service to car-rental—that is, until the bean-counting revolution of the 80s ensured the only thing an American corporation would ever deliver was money to its shareholders.

Customer value? Quality? They survive only as mechanical claims or, just as bad, as the exclusive purview of brands charging outrageously inflated prices for services that used to be taken for granted.
Now to get the kind of service everyone used to get from the travel industry, for example, you have to be a Super Black Onyx Titanium Elite Plus Member with annual billings in the seven figures. Everyone else gets wait-listed for the cattle car.

And it’s within this environment of decidedly lowered expectations that a creative team is routinely asked to conceive a Big Idea campaign that will open the flood gates and storm the barricades. Sometimes they even succeed—and sometimes, with unexpected consequences.

As long as I live, I’ll never forget the day a brand manager for a major national brand told me he couldn’t use the campaign idea we’d come up with because it would be too successful and they wouldn’t be able to handle the call volume.

Pause for a moment and let that sink in.

Auto-mat marketing
The fact that we were asked to go back and deliver something less effective is beside the point, as poignantly absurd as it sounds. For my purposes, what it illustrates is the futility of so much best-practice saber-rattling, including that infinite series of top ten lists purporting to guarantee success.

For in a marketing/advertising environment governed by ignorance, anxiety and petty whims, why should anyone attempt to raise the bar, move the needle, push the envelope or use any other quaint metaphor for creative achievement? My message to clients? If you want a great campaign, become a great company. Then we’ll have something to say that grows naturally out of real brand attributes. If not, there’s a wealth of automated headline-generating software available online for a reasonable fee.

You just plug in your brand attributes and in a few moments, your campaign theme is ready. No squelchy conference call phones, no pesky creative presentations, and no perky account people asking about your personal life. Best of all, you’ll have the campaign you deserve, which is all any brand can ask for.


Consistency: Mythical Beast, Real-world Tyrant

When it comes to messaging, the word “consistency” is the consistent favorite, as a way to describe the messaging goals of many a brand. It consistently wins the prize for the most overused word in the business.

Not that I don’t understand the impulse. With today’s top-heavy staffing, it takes so many hours to reach common ground on the simplest decisions that there’s little incentive to evolve consumer messaging once the latest tagline passes in committee.

It’s so bad that the very idea of a consistent style of communication is too radical to contemplate. In a know-nothing world dominated by the best-practice undead, being consistent means saying exactly the same thing over and over and over and over and…

While this phenomenon is disturbing enough, the origin of the consistency bug is, as I see it, far more troubling. It stems from a deep-seated fear, born of deep-seated ignorance: The horrifying realization that one has neither the training, instinct, or talent to approach advertising and marketing creatively.

Of the many excuses for this decidedly aberrant behavior, none is less convincing than the all-time favorite, “The client made me do it.” Let me go on record as the first person in the history of advertising to assert that the client can’t make you do anything.

Occult powers.
If I’m not the first, I see no evidence of that principle at work anywhere I look.

  • Your CEO might “make you,” for no other reason than that your
    agency’s market niche is only one notch over from Upstairs Maid
  • Your creative director might “make you,” because it means less
    fuss and bother with image searches and font choices
  • Or your Account Supervisor might “make you,” because it’s
    scientifically proven to guarantee getting to Pilates class on time

But never the client, no matter how many implied client directives you choose to divine, using the mind-reading skills you learned in your MBA program.

To the client, one can always say “no.”

Not flat-out no, by the way. Not scary, lose-the-account no, I’m talking about a no that’s demonstrated, taught, presented and, most important, accompanied by alternatives.

Why is this worth the bother? Because, like any sane person, you’d like your 60-hour work week to add up to something—as opposed to a pile of conventionalized drivel that will one day be cranked out by a Google subroutine.

Myth making vs….
As I see it, the Myth of Consistency also has its origins in a misunderstanding of Brand Identity. At one end of the spectrum are people who believe any ad-like object with the “approved logo lock up, font and color palette” is branded. At the other end are a large group of brand managers who believe nothing is branded unless it conveys exactly the same message each time, word-for-word like a parrot and pixel-for-pixel like a child’s paint-by-numbers book.

But none of this micro consistency is real branding. That’s because branding is a promise of value. Not a promise, mind you, that the headline of every print ad will have 5 words and be in 24-point type. Not a promise that that the logo lock up will never appear on a colored background or that gradient color washes will anchor every background.

And, for heaven’s sake, branding does not mean using the same stock art everyone else is using, the same grinning, proto-orgasmic customers enjoying the same perfect day. Or their opposite, the sad sack, frowny-faced types who telegraph “Before [PRODUCT_NAME].”

…real brand building.
Branding, to the extent that consistency is involved at all, is bound up with the idea of trust. A branded message is a promise to deliver service or function reliably. And contrary to today’s obsessive practice, there is—yes there is—more than one way to make that promise, keep it alive and make your audience’s perception of its value grow.

Because that’s the mistake consistency hawks continue to make. If your message isn’t constantly evolving to reveal more and more of your value to consumers, your branding efforts are all for naught.
You become like that annoying friend we’ve all had at one point who does one tiny favor for you and never stops reminding you, word-for-word, of that favor every time you run into them.

Branding, then, is not about piddling details. It’s about being consistently engaging, enlivening and most of all interesting. If Apple is America’s most valuable company, it has everything to do with its ability to capture the Thought Leader title over and over again on a variety of issues. The apple logo, the color white, those annoying, cloying, smarmy, smug and grotesquely self-congratulatory voiceovers they crank out “consistently”? Not so much.


Walking Away From Marketing Pseudoscience

By now the concept of Engagement has burrowed deep into the consciousness of nearly everyone involved with digital marketing. It has gone beyond buzz worthiness and graduated to the status of a topic most people take for granted. Of course you’ll develop an engagement strategy for your Web presence. Of course you will.

Trouble is, the very ubiquity of the concept has led a large swath of the industry to see engagement as a generic, quantifiable thing that you can lock into your site—if only you follow best practices. Hence, we have Information Architects and User Experience Designers everywhere you look, each with his or her proprietary rule book. That the rules in each book are distillations from a patchwork of usability studies should give us no comfort. Here’s why:

Over the last five years, I’ve noticed increasing rigidity about “what works.” If something pops out of a usability study, it’s taken word-for-word as gospel. Try to discuss a flexible application of this decidedly non-scientific data and all you get is a one way ticket to

You can’t even get the words out of your mouth without being interrupted by an incantation worthy of Harry Potter (or rather Hermione Granger):


Now, I have nothing against academic research. But even if I were to concede that a random assortment of people “reacting” to a Web site constituted research—I’d still expect anyone with a true scientific outlook to know that data needs to be interpreted to be meaningful.

And that’s doubly true in a categorically unscientific field like advertising.

I know, the trend is to reassure clients that our methodology is based on concrete entities like data and research and that great results can be engineered as accurately as can a bridge. But how scientific can a process be when it’s subject to the inscrutable whims of anxious clients? Imagine what would have happened to the Brooklyn bridge if John A. Roebling had allowed the Mayor’s Office to say “I’m just not crazy about those load-bearing pillars?”

Engagement model or Chucky doll?
So when it comes to discussing “what works” as an engagement strategy, I can’t get behind prescriptive models. Look at it this way. Assuming you do know a lot about your target audience, you still have to realize that not everyone within that group looks at the world in exactly the same way—and certainly not on different days of the same week.

People are variable. Need proof? Draw on your lifetime research into the problem of getting along with them. Can you seriously tell me that, among the people you know, the same conversational gambits work in every context? By the same token when we talk about “engagement,” we’re talking about a nuanced, specific, time-sensitive and intimate thing. Any other approach kills engagement in the long run, by teaching consumers to expect that a certain percentage of any branded Web site will be formulaic dreck.

Vampire vendors.
Sure, there are rafts of consultants who will tell you—and you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced it — that there are a precise number of characters per headline, a precise set of dimensions for a graphic, a precise color for a background, and on and on, in the hope that you’ll cede not only your creative instincts but also your paycheck to them, right there over the phone.

To that I say, my dear vendor, your job is to listen and offer solutions that meet my creative goals. Your job is not to chide me with “obstacles,” whose only solution is the prophylactic avoidance of human emotion. Especially if the latter involves the use of your patented, proprietary templates.

As useful as it may be to survey a landscape of “findings,” nothing can replace a creative insight that grows out of a well-developed grasp of human nature. If that sounds subjective to you, you’re on the right track. Because…wait for it…engagement is subjective, too. To draw people in, you need the instincts of a street performer, a stand-up comic, or a charismatic preacher, not those of a spreadsheet jockey. Engagement is something that touches a nerve. You can’t quantify it—and that’s its most essential quality.

It’s hard to understand the persistence of pseudoscience in our industry as anything other than a mirror reflection of our clients’ anxiety. As I see it, the sooner we stop pandering to that anxiety, stop advocating mechanical engagement strategies based on suspect data, the better.

By refusing to see real people as phony abstractions, we might come up with something more involving than an online poll or a Web page with nothing on it but a laundry list of rectangular boxes enslaved to the “one click rule.” And that’s just one of the benefits of walking away from marketing pseudoscience. You might even have a fighting chance of enjoying your craft again.


Verbophobia & the Dearth of Meaning

post-it 4

Taking into account the huge volume of written communication generated by marketers and spewed out at consumers every year, you might imagine the average brand assumes the average American actually knows the meaning of common, everyday words.

But spend just one week in the advertising industry and you’ll discover how incorrect that assumption is.

Granted, one of the greatest strengths of human language is its flexibility of interpretation. I’d venture to say that’s the secret behind the survival of literature many people still appreciate today, even though it’s hundreds of years old. While we’ll never know precisely what those works meant to their first audiences, they’re rich enough, taken as a whole, that we continue to find meanings of our own, new interpretations in every generation.

Trouble is, that same glorious richness, that same triumph of human evolution, drives the average marketing manager bat-guano crazy. At each turn of phrase, Marketing Anxiety rears up and devours another quavering soul who wants one thing and one thing only:

A perfectly unambiguous statement deflecting any but the most narrow possible interpretation.


It’s a quixotic quest that makes unicorn-hunting sound like a trip to the grocery store. Mythical beasts? Aisle 12, right next to Perfect Birthday Gifts.

But it’s a quest that nevertheless dominates the creation of all marketing communications, regardless of medium. Hence the endless rewrites, the frantic, last-minute hairpin revisions, and the constant struggle to define “clarity,” which, I’m sorry to report, is the hardest word in the English language to nail down.

Why? Because, like it or not, its meaning is culturally determined. Some people believe clarity lies in short sentences. Some people believe it lies in simple words.

OK, hold it. Try to define “simple” and we’ll be here all night.

Yet even if we walk away from an abstract discussion of the topic, the issues to be resolved are no easier to tackle. Take for example, a comment I heard years ago when I wished to refer to songs in a music catalog as “memorable.”

“Can’t say that,” said the tough-minded marketer I was dealing with. “Someone who doesn’t know those songs can’t remember them, so they won’t be memorable.”

And more recently, the phrase, “This research concerns itself with the study of…” also raised an eyebrow. In the mind of my colleague, “concern,” is inherently negative. Forget the context, forget the fact that words, even simple words often have more than one meaning. My colleague was worried that any use of the word “concern” anywhere in the document would be tantamount to saying there was “reason for concern” about the product in question.

“Presto, change-o.”

Now, on one level, if you were to ask me,

“What’s the difference? Isn’t there always another way to say something?”

…I could partially agree with you. Yes, there is always a way to edit, rephrase, restructure, etc. And you’d have to have lived your life in an isolation booth not to realize that, even among people from different regions of the same country, cultural differences have to be taken into account. Regardless of the absolute meaning of your words, your collaborators may be, for various reasons, incapable of interpreting your text the same way you do.
So yes, compromise in these matters is essential.

My concern—look out now—is the limiting impact of mindless fear on the tools available for reaching your audience. Even if you don’t share the dim view that the average American is too illiterate, too impatient, too much of a diva to actually read a text carefully, the chances are you still don’t need to stumble over even the most idiomatic phrases simply because they’re idiomatic.

And I hope I can assume that if you’ve chosen a text-based communication medium, it’s because you believe your audience is literate. Otherwise, why bother?

So if I were to write about a technology product:

Now that you’ve learned the ropes, you’re ready to discover the TabPadFire’s advanced features.

…you wouldn’t wake up screaming, in a cold sweat, out of fear that someone, somewhere, might think your spiffy new smartphone is really a sailboat.

Would you?

Or would you bury your fears in a clumsy attempt at creative evaluation and call that sentence “confusing.”

Rhetoric aside, what matters here are not the acrobatics writers go through to function as Valium for an entire roster of agency clients—a grossly under-compensated aspect of the job description—but the damaging effects of chronic word-phobia on the final result.

Because time and again, as the clock ticks and the dickering mounts, words are saved and the message is lost. Fuss and fuss and fuss some more, but remember this: The longer it takes to finalize the copy, the farther it will be from actually saying anything.


Oh, Those Poppy, Snappy, Smart-mouthed, Rim-shot Headlines

Despite the myriad changes in the advertising world—and the world in general—since the glory days of the early 60s, many creatives still cling to a heroic model of the headline. They yearn for a slam-bam, one-shot, no-nonsense, short-and-sweet, straight-and-to-the-point summation of brand value that’s also provocative, a tad naughty and—of course—cast in the form of a pun.

Now, I have no arbitrary bias against traditional headlines. If a headline works, no one should care what ideo-theoretico-politico bandwagon it jumps on. But to assert that one and only one type of headline is essential to engage your audience is the purest form of nonsense I know.

Just pick your head up from the One Show annual and look around. You’re liable to notice that, aside from a very few universal truths, everybody’s not the same. Even if you could prove that snappy, humorous headlines were the most effective, you’d face a major hurdle: There’s no universal consensus on what’s funny.

It’s hard enough, as many a broadcast TV executive knows, to tap a vein of humor that resonates as well in Camden, NJ as it does in Carmel, CA. Trying to get a rise out of a global audience? Forgetaboutit.

That’s because humor is an outgrowth of a worldview. The ethnic jokes that once dominated stand-up routines in the last century succeeded solely on the basis a shared perspective: Anyone outside the mainstream was considered inherently funny.

Nowadays, even the concept of Mainstream itself has outlived its shelf life as more people recognize how vulnerable the Big Tent is to the winds of change. In light of that, can you seriously assert that only one headline style works?

Formula 10.
And yet it takes very little effort to find advertising and marketing pundits ready to assert they know the Top Ten Ways to grab attention with punchy headlines.

As I see it, the place to start in crafting headlines is the mindset of consumers. Yet, despite today’s insistent rhetoric about “audience engagement,” a copywriter often finds his or her real target is an ideologically-crazed creative director or a box-checking brand manager, whose only business goal is the attainment of plausible deniability.

“Hey, I followed best practice,” says the arrogant fool. “If it didn’t work, you must have targeted the wrong list or screwed up the body copy. But let’s have a breakdown session and figure out where you went wrong so you’ll know for next time.”

And yet, to reach an audience, you must ignore the static and dig out a nugget of truth from your own observations or from the pale wisps of insight that waft in from market research. Brace yourself—you might need to summon the courage to write a headline in plain language, simply because your audience perceives the topic in plain terms.

Needless to say, another factor that ought to enter into the equation is the realization that times change.  The “attitude” humor of the 70s and 80s has long since entered its geriatric phase. If Louis CK can still pull it off, it’s only because he tempers his jibes with a ring of self-deprecating awareness.

Formula zero.
In a related category, in the sense that they’re also the product of mechanical thinking, are headlines cut to fit a familiar template. You know them when you see them:

• Your [life process] is tough. Your [practical function] shouldn’t be
• The [first attribute]-est, [second-attribute]-est [service] just got [first attribute]-er & [second attribute]-er
• Looking for a [positive adjective] [positive noun] without all the [negative noun]?
• The-I-never-thought-[item]-could-[verb phrase]-so-good [same item]
• Why do 4-out-of-5 [practitioner or gender-specific role]s prefer [product or service]?

…and there are many more.

At issue is not templates  themselves, rather that 4-out-of-5 creatives who use them have little regard for the specific people they’re trying to reach. As in, anyone over 40 who has heard these gambits often enough to mistrust them—or anyone under 40 who’s already over you before you can get to the punch line.

That’s because the only way to connect is to look your audience in the eye. Only then do you have a chance to send the most important message of all:

I feel your pain and I’m here to help you relieve it.

If you can do that with a touch of drama or a dash of humor, so be it. Mind you, “pain” can be anything from a medical necessity to the need for a status-enhancing smartphone upgrade. But know that when the metrics come in, success won’t be measured in chuckles or tears, but in how many people empathized with your message, trusted you because of it—and acted on the basis of that trust.


Steering Away from Omnibus Web Sites

One of the strengths of American culture is the large number of associations and foundations devoted to major causes. They serve a vital function and we should be proud of them all. In our digital/mobile era it’s only natural that these organizations would want to increase the scope and extend the reach of their efforts by creating a Web presence.

Particularly in the case of organizations dedicated to health-related causes, however, the results are by-in-large dysfunctional.

That’s not to say that these sites “don’t work.” You can visit any of the following…

American Diabetes Foundation
American Heart Association
American Liver Foundation
American Lung Association
National Kidney Foundation

…and click through to dozens upon dozens of pages of information on a wide variety of topics directly and indirectly related to a particular illness or condition.

And that’s the problem.

What you’ll find is an overwhelming mass of words encased in a labyrinthine site architecture that would test the limits of the NORAD targeting system to find its way around.

The problem begins with the unbridled proliferation of links:


Each site outlined above has between 12-17 navigation points on the home page alone. What’s more, each link leads to a page linking to an average of 4-5 subpages.

Now, I have no doubt that the impetus behind such comprehensive coverage is a desire to provide as much help, information, encouragement and advocacy as possible. The question is whether, in its current format, this encyclopedic approach works against those lofty aims. As I see it, the answer is “Yes.”

At the heart of the problem is the assumption that the aim of every site visitor is to gather as much information as possible right away. People being the variable creatures they are, however, the only thing we can assume is that each visitor has a different goal each and every time—and that no two visitors can be guaranteed to pursue the same path through the site.

Plus, whether I choose to visit because my aunt won’t stop smoking, because I feel a little wheezy or because I wish to make a donation, I have a limited amount of time set aside to find answers. As a result, the first question this site needs to answer is:

“Where do I begin?”

That’s me, a specific user, not an abstract audience model. And, confronted with a home page studded with 17 navigational links, arrayed in an irregular grid that gives equal weight to each, I may find the answer to that question a tad elusive. If I’m like many users, I’ll putter around until I’m exhausted, or—just as I’m running out of time—finally identify the sections of the site that matter to me.

I could try again later but, fact is, all that clutter is guaranteed to discourage repeat visits. Site design like this is analogous to gathering an audience in an auditorium and asking it to listen to 8-10 speakers discuss divergent topics all at the same time. They’re not bloody likely to retain much information.

What’s needed is a reimagined site architecture—whose first goal should be to help users identify the most efficient route to the information they need. Keep in mind that such identification is necessary precisely because of the depth of information cause-related sites rightly seek to convey.

One solution is a self-selection menu enabling users to identify key areas of interest at the outset. After all, a care provider, physician, newly diagnosed patient, or benefactor all need something different from the site. Clicking an identifying link would call up a submenu of related links that would streamline the process by eliminating the need to “stumble through.”

Another solution is the one adopted by It gives users recommendations based on their initial choices. “People who selected Section X also selected the following Sections.” While these and other post-hypertext strategies require more programming expertise, if your goal is to build an omnibus site for your cause, they offer effective remedies to the dismally flat, dehumanizing clutter that dominates the cause-marketing digital landscape.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from recognizing the limits of human endurance. In that sense, the best alternative to “” is diversification. Instead of one massive site, you might consider building a network of smaller sites, each limited to a single theme or pair of themes. Users interested in a `medical overview, would go to Users hoping to be care providers would go to and so on. That way, each user’s experience would be more rewarding, more purposeful and more memorable.

Because no matter how you look at “user engagement,” “advocacy,” or “empowerment,” all the theory in the universe is worthless if users must struggle to get what they need from your site.


Facebook Marketing: Revolution Meh

It has been several years since the first wave of enthusiastic gushing began for Facebook’s integration of advertising into the flow of its service to members. Today, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting somebody ready to tout its virtues. I’ve been told to expect a revolution in marketing at least once a month since, let’s say 2009, and I figured it’s about time I checked in to see what I’ve been missing.

Because, strangely, nothing seems to have changed.

That is, nothing beyond what the evolution of digital space itself has created since the late 1990s. Exhibit A is a collection of sidebar ads from my own universe as of 6-28-14, which at a single glance belies the hype and reinforces my concerns about current trends in marketing theory. Or rather, current trends in the ideology of marketing theory.

facebook ads

For I’m meant to believe that the mere presence of a tiny data-driven space ad in a consumer’s personal electronic village will make him or her more eager. That must be what brands are counting on because, on the face of it, these ads are as ordinary as any I’ve ever seen. Seriously, I’ve eaten vanilla ice cream with way more energy, character—not to say taste.

But in theoretical terms, what’s absent is meaningful targeting. For example, to the extent that I already have Verizon service, a Verizon ad that doesn’t offer me new value—say, a free upgrade—isn’t truly targeted, because it does nothing for me in real time. The same goes for the appeal from, coming on the heels of the countless e-mails I’ve received after buying a couple of e-books 3 months ago.

Irrelevant relevance.
Besides, what is there about my visit to Facebook that implies I’m thinking about Kindles? I visited my personal electronic village to see if anyone there had a life changing experience or a goofy photo or a goofy photo of a life changing experience.

In that context, the only way to convince me to click through would be to offer something exclusive—exclusive to me, an offer I alone can take advantage of. After all, you’ve walked into my personal electronic village uninvited, crashed the wedding, eaten all the shrimp at the wake, nudged your way next to my best friend’s baby pictures and all you have to offer is “ACT NOW”?

Worse, I’m amazed to see that, despite the huge cottage industry in internet-guru-mentoring services, these are ads that would rest comfortably between the covers of any standard-issue consumer magazine.

“Have a lovely NYC home?”

…reads the headline for a home-swapping service. The creaky, two- to three-step process this lead-in asks of me to grasp its message follows a tired formula dating back at least 60 years. Sure, on November 5th, 1955, question headlines were the bleeding edge of a new wave of  “conversational” copy.

In our time, leading with a question in Facebook is as uninteresting as it would be anywhere else. “Have a lovely NYC home?” Well, mine’s a wreck at the moment, but if your message is that someone might be interested in swapping homes anyway, just to simplify their NYC vacation, that’s another issue. I could probably tidy up the place to show off its “character.” But you’ll never get me there with that question.

Vision unenvisioned.
Hand in glove with the inadequacy of the ads goes the amorphous, inarticulate Facebook design environment, with its white background, tiny thumbnails, and unweighted snippets of text arrayed so there’s no visual cue to distinguish a list from a comment from an ad from a bit of directional copy.

I mean, focus, anyone? I doubt I would have noticed the sidebar ads if I hadn’t been seeking them out and it’s here that the revolution seems especially stalled. For this, brands have only to blame themselves. By mimicking the look and feel of true Facebook entries—in a phony bid for “authenticity”— these ads fail to even call attention to themselves. And that, after all, is their first job: to get noticed.

So, as always, in evaluating “what works,” the true test is not the rationale that brought you to your methodology, but the real-time impact of the conduit you’ve chosen for your branded message. A sad, creaky remnant of campaigns from long ago, no matter where its placed, can’t be transmogrified into a revolutionary recasting of consumer engagement, just by jamming it right up next your customer’s latest cute cat/puppy/baby/car/home/vacation/wedding update. That’s why, as I see it, the only thing Facebook marketing revolves around is the status quo.


Marketing Anxiety & “The Half That’s Wasted”

An occupational hazard of the agency business is its cussed subjectivity. No matter how many theories you expound over how many years, regardless of qualitative or quantitative research and in spite of your best (and worst) efforts to codify success in tidy packets of best practice, the quest for “what works” remains stubbornly elusive.

It’s a state of affairs that leads many a brand to the brink of despair and, from time to time, even major brands succumb to a “try anything” mindset that has engendered some remarkably silly marketing solutions. That the persistence of the phenomenon is entirely in keeping with the lazy, thoughtless way American culture has systematically replaced coherent analysis with soundbyte and meme juggling  should surprise no one. Today, this is  simply the way of the world.

Case in point is the arrival of Yahoo Motion Ads, a gimmicky, one-note graphic treatment Yahoo would like to promote as a major innovation in audience engagement. Here’s how Yahoo triumphantly announced its newest offering on March 17 of this year:

“Today, we are excited to introduce Yahoo Motion Ads, a new ad format that brings images to life, helping brands tell more engaging stories and drive greater awareness with their target audiences.”

Featured on the announcement is a partially animated GIF of a rather membranal-looking slab of a grilled cheese sandwich—out of which steam appears to rise. Leaving aside the sample ad’s poor production values (I’d certainly never eat anything that looked like that), only the full force of a complex delusional system could convince a rational person, or even a hungry person, that such an ad is “engaging.”

In the first place, the partial animation GIF is not an innovative graphic device in 2014. An unscientific survey seems to place its origin as far back as 2009, with many subsequent examples turning up on arty and not-so-arty sites ever since. Random examples include:


…and there are thousands more.

But this is not to imply that innovation or its lack is in any sense a hallmark of success of failure in consumer engagement. What’s really startling here is the leap a major brand like Kraft is willing to make between a rather humdrum technical gimmick and its signature brand message-of-the-moment. Here’s what the venerable cheese-maker’s brand manager has to say about its partnership with Yahoo:

“Kraft Cheese is proud to partner with Yahoo on the brand new Kraft Singles Motion Ad. We are always looking for opportunities to engage our consumers in unique and innovative ways that deliver our news—Kraft Singles are now made with no artificial preservatives. Yahoo brought forward a great executional idea and we are excited to be the first brand to launch it.”

I promised myself I wouldn’t say “WTF” so I won’t. But I have to confess that, the current session of Congress excepted, I’ve never seen a more thorough-going case of ideological delusion than the assertion that fake steam rising off a fake sandwich can convey Kraft’s commitment to authenticity—as exemplified by its preservative-free products.

Astonishingly, after decades of hawking its wares, Kraft still has so little faith in its own brand value that it chooses to bury a powerful message strategy—involving any number of ways to demonstrate the benefits of preservative-free foods or to become the thought leader in the ongoing debate about the impact of Big Food on American health—under ridiculous claims of marketing innovation.

If there was ever any answer to the conundrum “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half”—this is it. The other half is the money you spent in desperation—when a rage for certainty in an uncertain universe clouded your judgement and made you forget everything you should have learned about motivating consumers to act.

Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY



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