Posts Tagged ‘content development


The Dysconfusitorial Process of Tidy Marketing

Of all the ways a great creative concept can be watered down, debased or, often enough, eviscerated, there’s nothing more deadly than the threat of Tidy Marketing.

Tidy Marketing is the coming together of two things: an unrequited lust for mechanical consistency and the firm belief that no member of the human species is capable of rational thought. Or at most, if Tidy Marketers concede that if we do sometimes think, they believe it tends to give us a headache.

The products of Tidy Marketing are everywhere, but nowhere more evidently as when promotional headlines flatten both levels of the communication into one of which:

Your [LIFE_ACTIVITY] is complicated. Your [PRODUCT_OR_SERVICE] shouldn’t be.

…is a prime example. It’s tidy! That fact that it says absolutely nothing beyond “complicated,” is beside the point to a Tidy Marketer. After all, no one got confused.

Metaphor? Whatever for?
What image accompanies a Tidy headline? One, of course, that makes a tidy match between the action implied and the action seen. But wait, what about metaphors, with their ancient and venerable tradition of making things memorable?

You must be joking. Metaphors introduce ambiguity. That’s not tidy at all. What if someone thinks your metaphor about “your dreams taking flight” makes a consumer think a home improvement loan program also handles air travel? Yikes! Better to make things match. I know, how about this:

Get a great rate and celebrate your new gate!

…accompanied, of course by a homeowner smiling at a contractor over the newly installed front door. The homeowner lives in a gated community, so it’s OK to say “gate.” Phew.

Come on, Guys, everything has to match. We need a bullet-proof rationale for everything we do because what in the name of Best Practice would we do if the client didn’t like it?

Now, according to the hype spread everywhere in modern agency life, a good idea can come from anywhere. Anywhere, that is, except the creative department. To prove my point, try talking a gaggle Tidy Marketers down from their anxiety-drenched ledge.

Needing the guarantee of a guaranteed guarantee.
“How can you guarantee the consumer will [open the envelope, click the button, call the number]? Look, the call to action doesn’t even have a call to action to read the call to action. We’ll also need a call to action to alert consumers that there’s an action they’ll be called to and a call to action to call if they don’t understand the call to action. We also need this list of mandatory bullets. Otherwise, have fun with it!”

It’s an impenetrable wall of emotion that the entire U.S. pharmaceutical industry can’t make a dent in. And I have a sinking feeling I know why:

“What if we sold so many really great anti-anxiety drugs that we actually cured anxiety forever and then who would buy our anti-anxiety drugs? You have to look at this holistically. Sorry. Here’s a link to look up holistically. You may have to scroll, so I hope that’s OK.”

The pervasiveness of this particular form of insanity is so vast, I’m surprised I haven’t already seen more extreme manifestations.

This is a computer:


You will soon read a list of its benefits to you, the consumer. Below this sentence is the list. Read it now.

• Fast
• Easy
• Convenient
• Sends e-mails
• Gets e-mails
• Has a screen for reading
• Has a keyboard for typing and entering keyboard commands, which you enter with the keyboard

If you are now convinced, call 1-800-MORINFO for more information about buying it with your credit card. A credit card is that shiny plastic thing you have in your wallet with your name on it that’s not your driver’s license.

If you have questions, call 1-800-MORINFO to have them answered. Calling is that thing you do with your phone, where you tap numbers on the phone’s keypad and then a friendly voice comes out of the part next to your ear. Then you talk.

It’s that simple.

Computer Computers. Simply the best computers, period.

See? No confusing metaphors, no “concept” to make people wonder if you’re really talking about computers. And no people, so no one will think the computer is either only for men, only for women, only for children, only for more than one person at a time, or only for one person at a time.

It’s tidier this way. Otherwise, it gets confusing. Confusing is a word for something that makes you confused, like when you don’t understand something.


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.


Market Research: Railroading Their Train of Thought

Consider the following imaginary train of thought from an fictionalized character in an, as yet, unpublished novel about the advertising industry. The scene is a candle-lit table at a middle-brow bar in a major city:

The standard line about the value of market research? It’s been repeated so many times that…what’s that saying? Oh yeah, “it attains the status of truth.” And let me tell you, that’s in spite  of the fuzzy logic and waffley “results.” You ask me, any market research finding that can be found to be true can be teased out by common sense without spending thousands of dollars.

On the other hand, any finding that’s later proven wrong? Those guys will blame anything except their own so-called methodology. Trust me, they’ll blame the moderator, the media, the weather or, more often than not the “obvious” flaws in the creative. And this from a bunch of nerds who can’t write a headline to save their lives!

Now, surely, the previous two paragraphs sum up an outrageously distorted POV about the profession of market research, as dished out by a curmudgeonly personality who perhaps exhibits the classic symptoms of Oppositional Defianct Disorder. I’m told the character comes to a bad end in Chapter 27.

And yet, as I listen to the literal way market research data are often interpreted, I can’t help wondering if that same urge to generalize at all costs—just for the sake of achieving a tidy assessment—is the sole provenance of cranky nut cases with an axe to grind about scientific marketing methods. Hang out in the more data-driven agencies and you’ll hear some variation of the follow phrase at least once a week:

“This [headline, message, photo, illustration style] tested very well in research.”

…dripping with the unstated assumption that, of course, the element in question should appear word-for-word or pixel-for-pixel in each and every audience outreach from here on out. That is, of course, until the next round of market research yields a different response.

Definitions gone wild.
The problem with such a literal approach to interpreting market research data? Let’s start with the unexamined premise that information collected in a focus group meets the definition of “data” used by, say chemists, astrophysicists or even the current generation of science-savvy chefs. The data of hard science is numerical, measurable, repeatable.

By contrast, the survey responses and focus group voting we’re pleased to call data in market research is subjective—not only at a fundamental level, but also because we have no basis for knowing whether respondents are sharing their true feelings, or merely spitting out an answer that supports a cherished self-image. Market research methodology, we’re told, works around this issue by asking the same question from different angles and then checking for discrepancies.

Trouble is, people just aren’t so stupid that they can’t see this coming. Nor can we be scientifically certain that a question asked in a different way isn’t, essentially a different question, the answer to which has no relation to any quantifiable norm.

Truth, like fire. Heartwarming, handle with care.
No matter how you slice it, market research data is therefore interpreted for you, before you receive it—once by the participants and once by the researchers.

All the more reason not to treat it literally, but to continue the process of interpretation within the scope of your own discipline. Much as I value learning that consumers value products and services that give them a balance of freedom and control, I would never recommend a headline dominated by the words “Freedom” and “Control”—as I was required to produce early in my career— for two reasons.

First, the words themselves are generic, capable of almost universal application and, as such, brand neutral. Second, doing so ignores an important aspect about human nature: the need to save face. There are, in fact, many things about ourselves we know to be true, many of them are not things we’re ready to acknowledge out in the open. Instead, we need a buffer zone which, in the case of advertising, or PR or, dare I say, guerrilla marketing, means an approach that evokes our self-knowledge rather than slaps us in the face with it.

Contrary to the cowboy marketer’s mandate to put “the point” on stilts and showcase it in the most lurid colors available, my own unscientific research tells me thousands of people are turned off by unrelenting sales pressure. All the more so by unrelenting sales pressure that so obviously seeks to manipulate them by dragging their innermost thoughts into the spotlight.

Rather like the phrase “you know you want to” in a very different context, this kind of literal use of even the most spot-on observational analysis is doomed to failure.


Context as Conduit for Branded Communication

In many ways, reaching people with a motivating message has as much to do with the context you create as with the substance or the medium of your talking points. That’s not to say that “the context is the message”— merely that context has an inseparable impact on how you’re received by your audience.

A case in point, perhaps, is the user experience Whole Foods creates for its hungry, quality-conscious shoppers. Created, I assume, with an eye toward evoking the breezy, offhand style of Pinterest or Tumblr, the focus is on  the experience of delicious, well-prepared high-quality foods, rather than on price, discount-shopping or numerical measures of value.

Rather, the market’s sales, specials etc. are integrated into the total picture, in a section called “The Whole Deal.” In general, the site is an exemplar of the difference between marketing by bullet vs. marketing by message.

Nav floats free of restraints.
A  major contributor to the site’s successful UX is a subnav that appears as a link-filled pop-up instead of a cluttered accordion drop-down. You get the overview fast. This approach also seems to free navigation design from the straight jacket of grid formations and mindless “consistency.”

And in a telling decision, the first nav item is “Healthy Eating,” which appears before either the redundant “About Our Products” or the doubly redundant “Mission and Values” section. That decision begs the question: Why, even here, on a site so clearly organized to deliver brand value, the specter of Marketing Anxiety still looms large, demanding the explicit, mechanical statement of that value in literal terms.

Anxiety’s sway.
Apparently, some worried soul feared that people informed enough to absorb the points expressed elsewhere in the site need aggressive hand-holding to get the message. As with most discussions of user experience, at issue is the native intelligence of an imaginary subset of the American population known as “The Average Person.” It’s the same subset, I’m often told, who “won’t get” the simplest of digital interfaces without a 500-page guide book.

Strangely, despite mushrooming sales in smart phones, tablets, despite the coming new generation of wearable tech, the myth of a large, technologically clueless sector of the population persists. Makes you wonder why some brands even bother to build a digital presence—considering how hard it is for Imaginary Bob Neanderthal to put down his stone tools and lumber over to the Kompoodoor.

That it’s to everyone’s benefit to bury this myth is everywhere in evidence on a site that includes not one single instance of “Click Here.” For, as it should be obvious to everyone, users who can’t identify a text link on a Web page without a sign post are users who can’t navigate the Web, period.

Any part of your audience in that category needs to be addressed through Direct Mail—assuming, you can verify they grasp the function of an envelope. Of course, considering the number of times I’ve been directed to add the phrase “See inside for details” to a #10 OE, I wonder how many marketers are willing to take the risk.

Better play it safe then, and revert to door-to-door sales-mongering, even if arriving with a truckload of organically grown produce proves a tad awkward.

A victory for honest, human emotion.
Ironically, one of the major achievements of the Whole Foods user experience is a feeling of genial intimacy—exactly the sort of thing you used to get from a well-trained sales rep, in the days when a brand’s business model involved more than a series of stratagems for raiding your wallet. It’s a welcome relief from the smarmy, self-absorbed tone adopted by so many “this changes everything” marketing campaigns.

For if anyone’s looking for a model of what “thinking different” looks like, it starts here with a communications strategy that takes as its first principle that consumers deserve to be sold on the merits, not manipulated into co-dependency by “you-can’t-be-cool-without-it” toxic branding.

In this instance, the site itself refutes the need for the anxious steps it takes to make clarity clear and communication communicate. That it does so by creating a distinct, ownable and evocative context for its message, points the way, as I see it, to a refreshed definition of what branding means in the post-iPad era.


Beefy Big Data & A Question of Substance

The phrase “data-driven advertising” refers to the use of data gleaned from consumers’ online activity to deliver customized content to Web sites they are known to visit. Such content can take any number of forms, including advertorials, banners, interactive polling—some content staying constant, some swapped out for increased relevance to a particular user’s interests.

At issue, however, is whether the result is a message that actually targets a user or simply syncs with “what’s relevant” in a statistical sense. So if my cookies show I’m interested in glassware, you’ll go ahead and zap glassware-relevant content to my browser. But what will ensure you’ll sell me on the idea of buying yourChardonnay Value Packnow?

While data-driving is a recent phenomenon, claims for its effectiveness reach cult status in some circles. Results for data-driven ads are compared favorably by its supporters to results for “static ads.” But, as always, my question is, “Which static ads?” After all, the vast majority of static ads are so inadequate that any well-conceived alternative is bound to perform better.

Considering how complex data-driving mechanisms are, it’s easy to see how a confusion of cause and effect got started. But let’s be clear: it’s not data itself that turns the tide, but good campaign strategy delivered affectingly through data-driven means. Your data-driving strategy is of no consequence unless the thinking behind the delivery method actually connects with consumers.

Factvertising? Show me the money.
Obscuring the discussion of data-driven advertising is the term itself. Advertising has always been driven by data—in the form of observations made by creative talent. If the classic “Where’s the Beef?” campaign struck a chord in 1984, it had everything to do with the creative team’s ability to capture a previously observed personality type.

The consumer outrage expressed in the campaign is on display everywhere, no more so now than in the 1980s. But it took a creative imagination to repurpose this observation about human nature to support Wendy’s brand-value claims.

Essentially, the only thing that’s changed in the new paradigm is the source and detail of the data. Added to that, of course is the extra baggage of ideology, the idea that data-driven advertising is inherently better. But, as I see it, if Big Data is to have the predicted impact on consumers, we’ll need less mechanical applications than the “poll and comment” model on display at a microsite near you.

Synonymous with insight? Not so much.
One tenet of data-driven advertising is a commitment to develop creative concepts based on carefully- mined data. While that may make intuitive sense, the crux of the matter is what you mean by “based-on.” Should a data-driven headline contain a direct quote from a focus group attendee, or should the campaign’s creative environment capture the spirit, the atmosphere and emotional climate of the comment?

I vote for the latter. What matters is not what someone says, but the place their statement holds in their inner world. A consumer who says “I love Oreos” has something much more specific in mind than the statement itself suggests. Even the statement, “I love Oreos because they remind me of my childhood,” is only slightly less vague. We need to drill deeper to grasp the implications of that cookie. Was it the crunch, the filling—or the smile on Grandpa’s face as he sneaked you an extra one when Mom wasn’t looking?

How relevant? It’s relative.
Finally, let’s think carefully about the concept of Relevance. No matter how you slice it, relevance can only be defined contextually. So if data-diving tells you that a.) I like science fiction and b.) I’m looking to refinance my mortgage, you should think twice before sending me a message about mortgage rates while I’m trying to enjoy an episode of Battle Star Galactica on Hulu.

I mean, come on, I’m watching the show to relax; I’m not in the mood to think about interest rates or points, not to mention the hassle of fussing with the paperwork. Talking to me about refinancing in that context is like shouting into the wind. It is, in a word, irrelevant.

Ultimately, our current fascination with Big Data must be tempered with humanism, the sensitive, home-grown observations about human nature that creative artists have made for centuries. What motivates people? Look up from the spreadsheet, they’d tell you, and glance into the mirror. What you see there is the answer to every question about what drives people to respond to marketing stimuli.


On the Front Lines of World War C

In the first five minutes after the Internet Big Bang, the impulse to build a Web portal and create a personalized mini-net probably made some kind of sense. In today’s context, on the other hand, that impulse is absurd. Now that digital space is on a course for infinite expansion, filtering Web content through a portal is like trying to repackage the Pacific Ocean as a series of labeled pickle jars.

In its current incarnation, the typical Web portal is a surreal amalgam of local news reporting, soft-core porn and reruns of America’s Funniest Home Videos. As such, it amounts to nothing less than the Springerization of digital space, at a time when that venerable precursor of Reality TV has been completely eclipsed by outrageous goings on in Congress.

Of course, there’s plenty more than to make you shake your head at your screen. But why should corporate entities, purporting to uphold Standards, continually dish out recycled material their audiences can post on their own? Or am I to assume that an article entitled 5 Regional Burger Chains We Wish Were National is rife with entertainment value because, obviously, the average consumer has only a limited opportunity to see fast food vendors up close?

Tour bus to Nowhere.
While I get the idea that users might enjoy having a guided tour of the Web, what’s missing is any discernible sense of direction, let alone selection. At Yahoo on 7-19-13, a story about Satanists vies for attention with a voyeuristic account of a grieving mother and rumors about Brad and Angelina because, again, users have no other access to rumors about famous couples rumored not to be rumors.

If I seem unaccountably irritated by this phenomenon, that’s only because it’s just as much a form of environmental pollution as the industrial smog that threatens to dissolve the city of Beijing by 2014.

By serving up a non-stop diet of drivel, portal Web sites of this stripe cloud the issues we need to confront as a global society. The more we’re supersized with infauxmation, the harder it is to see everyday life clearly, let alone topics like education, climate change, healthcare reform or, excuse me, social justice.

Seen from that perspective I can’t justify the persistence of sites managed by AOL, AT&T, Verizon, Excite or MSN, to name only American examples, that contribute to a peculiarly 21st century form of mental illness. That is, the inability to distinguish between reality and Reality.

I watch, therefore I am.
Look no farther than the 2010 Tyler Clementi tragedy to see this phenomenon in action. While the sociopathic cruelty exhibited in this case has many roots, one of them is surely the incessant viewing of dehumanized, contextless news stories.

I have no doubt that the person who “shared a video” of an intensely private moment saw it as nothing more than a valued contribution to Reality. In today’s world, he may even have seen it as a creative act, as the start of a brilliant film career in an age when “everyone’s a publisher.”

Sure, I know there’s more to it than that.

But if you’re not appalled by the proliferation of mental sludge in digital space, consider the impact of this schlock-n-shock pollution on the ecosystem your branded content inhabits. Ask yourself this: If you wouldn’t park your car within two feet of a toxic slag heap, why would you post your advertorial within two clicks of “Jennifer Lawrence reunites with ex-beaux?”

Trouble is, with the explosive mania driving the shared content trend, you have no idea what consumers have seen by the time they click through to your Web presence, not to mention what might appear right next to your rollover banner.

Brand-eating content.
In light of that, you’d think AT&T, for example, would recognize a simple truth: The same logo that appears on its Official Site also appears on its portal—creating a direct link between “Can you name these freaky stars?” and “The Nation’s Fastest 4GLTE Network.”

And it gets worse. When you consider how often a newsertainment story gets followed, retweeted, and Digged, it’s clearly the onset of “World War C”—as zombie content threatens to devour the last shreds of brand differentiation. After all, when everything consumers encounter online gets tossed into the same value-neutral bin, you can hardly expect them to know the difference between your latest cross-promotion and “Snoop Lion teams up with Chelsea Handler.”

Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY



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