Is Sustainability Hazardous?

Recent studies have turned up a correlation between construction aimed at LEED certification and worker's injuries.  In an article in Engineering News Record Mountain States, Katie Frasier describes a pair of studies that found an increased number of injuries associated with certain construction activities often performed on LEED projects.

Some of the reported hazards included "perceived increased risks" of falls from roofs while installing photo-voltaic (PV) solar panels; falls due to installing or working on high reflectance white roofing materials; falls from installing skylights and atriums to meet daylighting requirements; and increased cuts, abrasions and lacerations from handling construction waste - specifically, from dumpster-diving to retrieve mistakenly-trashed recyclable materials.

When the initial study revealed the basic correlation between LEED certification in increased injuries, they did a follow-up study to identify specific risks and uncover the nature of the risk.  The study offers a list of risks, and recommends possible mitigations (quoted extensively in the article).  Many of the suggestions seem very sensible, but not necessarily obvious: they really needed to be pointed out.

This list of risks and mitigations - to my eye - also suggests that some of the increase is due to construction crews not yet being experienced at handling materials and working in the situations they encounter installing skylights and heavy PV panels.

 In that regard, manufacturers can help.  Makers of materials associated with these increased risks may well consider adding to their packaging precautions and safety suggestions based on this study (and others like it that are sure to follow).    Manufacturers might even consider doing some studies of their own, aimed at increasing workers' ability to install their products safely.

How Much Marketing is Too Much Marketing?

We live in an increasingly pushy world.  Since the collapse of the advertising media – broadcast TV commercials and any form of print – that dominated the latter half of the Twentieth Century, the big scramble for eyeballs is on.  Marketing has lost most of its known boundaries.  With that, many advertisers have lost their sense of proportion, as well.

If it seems as though every visible surface has become a potential advertising medium… it has.  Perhaps it goes hand in hand with the diminution of “public privacy” that has accompanied cell phones and ubiquitous digital cameras.  We all have equal access now, and that, perhaps, makes it seem more palatable (or less avoidable) for advertisers to have more equal access to us.

But there is such a thing as going to far.  I predict that people will, increasingly, react against marketing messages that invade every space.  People want a certain percentage of unbiased, pressure-free content in their environment.  Cell phone apps are already taking advantage of this effect by putting intrusive ads on their Free versions, so they can offer to take the ads away if you buy the Paid version.

So, the backlash is there.  You don’t want to be the Ugly Marketer, the company the potential customers resent because of a totally no-class M.O.  The new marketing media put many temptations in front of us.  They offer terrific reach, wonderful targeting options, great tracking and measuring tools.  But like any other tools, they must be used wisely.

The primary rule is, don’t market to people in places or ways that they don’t want to be marketed to.  The technologies provide potential, but you still have to apply some human taste and good sense.

Which brings us to the two little unobtrusive ads above, each about 1/2 inch high.  How could those offend anyone?

What if I told you that they are two sides of a slip of paper that came inside my ‘lunch special’ fortune cookie, instead of a fortune?

It offends my sensibility to have something as fun (and traditional) as a fortune cookie co-opted for commerce. When I pulled this out of my cookie, and turned it over in disappointment looking for the traditional bit psuedo-wisdom, one thought ran through my head: “Somebody at American just has no class whatever, and they ought to be discouraged from this sort of thing.”

American Airlines just gave me one more reason not to fly with them.  (I suppose that if I were a loyal American Airlines fan, it wouldn’t have mattered.  But for an airline I was not fond of to start with, this was a bad move.) I’m also seriously re-thinking whether I want to eat at that restaurant anymore.

Marketing in inappropriate places has another downside.  It will gradually train people not to look at those places anymore, and to turn down their sensitivity to random communications in general.

So, before you spam, tweet, or buy fortune cookie space, look beyond the effect on your metrics and consider the effect on the target’s day.  Be somebody they want to do business with.

The Birth of "Spam"

An Eyewitness Account

In the digital communications world, the last thing you want to be seen as is a spammer.  Spammers are pretty much universally despised, and provoke severe sales resistance in almost all sentient lifeforms.

To understand what “spammer” truly means, this historical vignette of the birth of the breed may be illuminating.  The origin of the term “spam,” as applied to email and similar communications, is much debated by those who do not know its true origin, and can only conjecture.

As an alternative to guesses, I offer this eye-witness account.

In the mid 80’s, before the debut of the World Wide Web (1994), internet access for most non-academics was a dial-up connection to a service like PeopleLink (colloquially known as Plink) or later America OnLine (AOL).  There was a popular chat room, a group of about a dozen online friends that hung out just about nightly, and perhaps a dozen more almost-regulars.  It originated on Plink and later migrated to AOL.  I was one of the almost-regulars, and even attended one of the parties where they all met face-to-face.

The room was often visited by guys looking for cybersex.  The regular crowd rated these loud interlopers as totally classless.  If they couldn’t take a hint to leave and they disrupted the flow of conversation, two of the regulars would perform an act to encourage them to depart.

They would rapid-fire post the text of the Monty Python “Spam” routine, trading line by line.

Man:Well, what've you got?
Waitress:Well, there's egg and bacon; egg sausage and bacon; egg and spam; egg bacon and spam; egg bacon sausage and spam; spam bacon sausage and spam; spam egg spam spam bacon and spam; spam sausage spam spam bacon spam tomato and spam;
Vikings:Spam spam spam spam...
Waitress:...spam spam spam egg and spam; spam spam spam spam spam spam baked beans spam spam spam...
Vikings:Spam! Lovely spam! Lovely spam!
Waitress:...or Lobster Thermidor a Crevette with a mornay sauce served in a Provencale manner with shallots and aubergines garnished with truffle pate, brandy and with a fried egg on top and spam.

Etc etc etc ad nauseum.  They would fill up the bandwidth with it, making all other conversation impossible to follow.

The “Spam” would flow, the regulars would wait patiently, the intruders would get bored and leave.  Then the Spammers desisted and the conversation resumed.  I saw this done on at least half a dozen occasions, and it is, to the best of my knowledge, the true birth of the modern usage of “spam.”

So, “spam” is unwanted, useless communication that chokes out real conversation.

The “spammer,” however, has changed from a defender of the sanctity of the communications channel, to the polluter of the channel.  (Alas, the noble and victorious spammers of legend are no more!)

Now, whether it’s e-mails, texts, tweets, blog posts… if you pump out communication that’s useless to anyone but you, and viewers have to wade through it, you’re a spammer.  You will attract the contempt that spammers now rate.

That doesn’t mean don’t communicate.  Marketing requires communication. But if you "only want one thing," everyone will be able to tell, and they won't be very interested in your pickup line.

The real lesson is, make your communications useful.  Give the reader valuable information to recompense his time for reading.  Be someone worth having a conversation with, not a spammer.

The Fifth "C" of Technical Literature

Marketing copy writers love literary flourishes -- a catchy headline, prose that elicits an emotional response, and even poetry. Yet building product literature is also a bastion for straight-forward technical elucidation.

Construction specification writers use a standard they call the "Four Cs" - a document should be:
  • Clear,
  • Concise,
  • Complete,
  • and Correct.
This is a good guideline to use when writing technical literature for building products. I would add, however, that sales collateral also needs a Fifth C:
  • Convincing.
I learned this from Bryan J. Varner, CSI, CCCA, LEED AP, an attorney in Santa Rosa, CA. Bryan says that his arguments in court, even on technical points of law or interpretation of documents, have to be convincing to win over a judge or jury. Similarly, the technical arguments in product literature have to be convincing if they are to win over a skeptical designer, builder, or building owner.

One does not need to resort to hyperbole or slogans to be convincing. Knowing what a designer or builder (or, a worst case scenario, a judge) needs to know, organizing your information thoughtfully, and using easy-to-understand prose can make a very convincing case. Good graphics - photos or technical illustrations that explain a technical point, can also help convince the skeptic.

If your literature does not satisfy these Five Cs - it makes your customer's job more difficult. This then, will require another C:
  • Caffine.
This point is made convincingly by a promotional mug used by Conspectus, an East-Coast construction consultant. I have another C to describe their mug:
  • Cute.

To go viral, online marketing also has to be
  • Contagious
if it is to achieve "word of mouse".

Looking Big

“He who has a thing to sell 
and goes and whispers in a well 
is not as apt to get the dollars 
as he who climbs a tree and hollers.”

I learned this doggerel from Brian Smith, CEO and Founder of Ecolite Concrete. Chusid Associates began collaborating with him while his business was being run out of the garage behind his house. He envisioned building wall panels that were over twenty feet long, yet his only prototype was just 12 inches square. And he needed either an investor or a large order that would enable him to get a loan to build a factory and begin production.

Brian had founded Ugg Boots, a breakthrough in the fashion industry, and was now working his magic in construction. His philosophy is "we have to look like we are big and successful" before anyone would be willing to take a chance on his disruptive technology. While still working on code approvals and R&D, he also insisted on investing in branding, sales collateral with high production value, and aggressive PR.

Another Chusid Associates' client has a nationwide presence selling coatings and chemicals for floor finishes. The company is run by its entrepreneur without staff. All manufacturing is by private label, warehousing is by distribution, and accounting and other backroom functions, including marketing, are outsourced. Even though there is only one person in the office, the phone answering system still says, "Press 1 for Sales, 2 for Customer Service, 3 for Technical Assistance, 4 for Directions to our Plant...," reinforcing the image that the company is a big brand.

Outsourcing marketing can also be used by larger firms. Engelhard Corporation is a Fortune 500 business. Yet its MetaMax brand of a high-reactivity metakaolin, for use in concrete, was such a small part of its operations that it only merited a 1/4 time product manager. Yet by working with Chusid Associates, MetaMax was made to look like a large part of Engelhard's business by getting extensive publicity in the industry press, speaking at industry conferences, participating in standard's writing committees, taking the brand to trade shows, and creating a strong presence on the internet.

Of course, some of our clients want to stay below the radar. By looking like they are small businesses, they limit competition by keeping their competitors from knowing how profitable their market niche can be. But that is the subject for another blog post.

Use long-term cost benefits to your advantage

This is an encore presentation of an article Michael Chusid wrote about 20 years ago. It's message is still current.
I often encounter price resistance when selling my company’s top-of-the-line building products. Even though I explain that the product lasts longer and has lower operating costs, many customers can’t see past the initial costs. How can I overcome this sticker shock?—D. N. S. , sales manager

Developers and building owners think of their projects as an investment. In addition to construction costs, they analyze operating costs, potential income, and resale value. To overcome price resistance, present your product as an investment instead of an expense.

In some cases, this can be done by focusing on how your product adds value to a building. Developers recognize this principle when they spend extra on building finishes or fashionable interiors. Their investment is repaid by making it easier to sell the property or attract higher rental income.

Other products can be positioned as expenses necessary to protect a property’s income potential. A major hotel chain, for example, invests in backup air-conditioning equipment because they realize their inventory of rooms is worthless if they can’t guarantee comfort.

Tout up-front savings
Another approach is to emphasize the “first cost” of your product. In addition to purchase price, this includes the design, construction, and financing costs necessary to put your product into service. You can sell the first-cost benefits of your product if, for example, it costs less to install or enables faster completion of a project.

A still broader view of costs is a lifecycle cost analysis, which considers the cost of owning a product, not just purchasing it. This is significant because the total of a building’s maintenance, energy, insurance, tax, interest, and other ownership expenses usually exceed construction costs.

Life-cycle affordability is key
Life-cycle cost analysis has long been used by mechanical engineers; it is fairly simple to compare the cost of additional insulation or more-efficient equipment to projected energy savings. But in recent years, life-cycle affordability has become increasingly important. Environmental concerns, for example, have shifted attention from construction costs to issues such as energy consumption and building materials disposal. Institutions like the Army Corps of Engineers have begun to require life-cycle cost analyses of proposed projects. A recent publication from the American Society for Testing and Materials, ASTM Standards on Building Economics, establishes procedures for investigating the life-cycle costs of building materials. And computer programs have simplified the extensive number crunching required for life-cycle cost calculations.

Many manufacturers claim life-cycle benefits in their advertising, using bar charts to show how their products’ costs compare to competitors. Such claims have more impact if your customers can examine the supporting data. You can use computerized presentations to show them results for a specific product.

USG Interiors is one company that uses computerized life-cycle cost analyses to position its relocatable office partitions against lower priced conventional drywall partitions. The program considers such variables as the client’s tax bracket, material and labor costs, project size and complexity, mortgage terms, and the accelerated depreciation allowed to relocatable partitions. It also asks the customer how often remodeling will occur. The program then compares the life-cycle benefit of USG’s reusable partitions with the demolition costs of removing drywall partitions. This gives USG a powerful sales tool to use with financially oriented customers who may not perceive the product’s technical or aesthetic benefits. In addition, getting the customer to say yes to all the input data increases his acceptance of the program’s conclusions.
From a life-cycle cost analysis prepared by Chusid Associates.
Are your products priced right?
Conducting a life-cycle cost analysis for your product can be a fruitful marketing exercise. For example, do you know what factors most affect the affordability of your product and your competitors’ products? Can you substantiate product durability or quantify maintenance costs? Would your products be more affordable if there were more demand for salvaged or recycled components?

A life-cycle cost investigation I once conducted for a water-conserving plumbing system helped the manufacturer establish a competitive price for its product. Another time I compared the life-cycle costs of 12 roofing systems. Even though my client’s roofing system had outstanding durability, the study showed its high initial cost was not offset by low life-cycle maintenance costs. This insight helped clarify the manufacturer’s marketing alternatives.

While life-cycle costs can be an important sales tool, you must still tailor your presentation to each individual customer. Many price objections are simple requests for more information or reassurances. Other objections may be based on unquantifiable concerns about performance, appearance, or reliability. Bringing out a technical looking spreadsheet could confuse some customers or miss their main concerns.

For some customers, delivering a job for the lowest initial cost will always outweigh life-cycle considerations. But in other cases, a life-cycle cost argument may be just what is needed to close a sale. It can help customers justify to themselves or to their clients the decision to use a more expensive product. Or it can be a subtle way of pointing out a competitor’s shortcomings. Most importantly, it can change the focus of a sales presentation from the cost of your product to the value of your product.

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By Michael Chusid. Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright © 1994

Creating New Words

Construction is a field where new technologies and practices often justify the invention of a new term. As an example, I coined the phrase, "studcast" to describe a new type of wall panel that consisted of a hybrid of prefabricated light-gage steel frame with a thin precast concrete veneer. I offered the term to all the manufacturers of this type of product, and most of them now use it to as a standardized, simple, and descriptive term.

However, some invented terms are unnecessary and can lead to confusion.  A case in point is the recently coined term, "civionics".

I first encountered the term in the article "New civionics technologies for structural health monitoring" in the November 2010 issue of CE News. While the article shares valuable information about the evolving science of structural health monitoring. I question whether the use of the term "civionics" was equally valuable.

The author, Nathan Yang, defines the term as "the synergistic combination of civil engineering, electrical engineering, computer engineering, photonics, and other disciplines for [structural health monitoring]. This definition suggests that "civionics" is an equivalent term for "structural health monitoring", a field that already encompasses a variety of disciplines. Indeed, electrical and computer engineering are already integrated into the practice of civil engineering. In this case, "civionics" is a word of of questionable value in a field already cluttered with jargon.

A search of the CE News website reviews that "civionic" has not previously been used in the publication. Similarly, a search of the internet reveals that the term has few users -- most of its occurrences on the internet result from one site quoting another. A similar concern has been raised by a commentator on Google Talk who opines, "All of the references describe [civionics] as an emerging field, yet they seem to point in a circular manner as to establishing the notability of this term. Wikipedia is not a place to establish notability. So if this term is not widely used in the engineering field, it should not have an article here." Nor, in my opinion, should notability be established by an oblique reference in a magazine article.

But marketing is marketing, and I note that the author of the CE News article works for a company that sells electronics to the Civil Engineering community. Maybe he feels his company will benefit from embracing new term. How ironic, then, that the term "civionic" does not appear in his website, either.

If You Want to Sell Internationally, Look International

Here’s a tip for any US business seeking to sell on an international scale: revise your phone number.

At World of Concrete, I offered my client’s press kit to an Australian journalist.  He said, “Oh, I saw that on the table, but I didn’t bother because they’re not international.” 

I asked how he figured that out (since my client was adamant that he would sell anywhere in the world).  The journalist pointed to the telephone contact number at the bottom of every page of the press kit.  “They only have an 800-number.  Those don't work internationally.  If this company ever got or wanted international customers, they’d show the international calling code.”

An 800-number is great for your North American customers, prospects, etc., However, if it’s your only contact number, it’s a quick tip-off that you don’t have foreign customers and don't have experience doing business overseas.  An international caller to the US would expect the international calling prefix “1” to dial North America, sometimes referred to as a “plus code.” 

Thus, the international-friendly number for Chusid Associates would be shown as +1 818 774 0003. 

Go over your sales literature, press materials, website, letterhead, etc, and see if you’re projecting the international image you desire.

Truth in Merchandising

The point of purchase display at Home Depot read:

"Adding mouldings is a simple, affordable way to
increase your investment in your kitchen."

That is true. Installing gold-plated faucets would increase the investment even more.
Perhaps they meant to suggest the the home improvement project would increase the "value" of a home, or that mouldings offer a good "return on investment."

The Rewards of Construction Writing

I like what I do.  Writing about construction materials is a quest.  I’m lucky to make my living dong something that’s a quest, because it keeps the work interesting.  And the quest is no minor thing: it’s the quest for the future.

One of the enduring constants of the construction industry is its resistance to change, due in large part to the high risks and liabilities attached to construction.  Designers and contractors are dis-incentivized by our system to try new or innovative techniques and materials: if anything goes wrong, the financial and career damage can be severe.  So there is a tendency to avoid anything new until the risk has been run and avoided by somebody else – that is, until it’s not new anymore.  If everyone follows that M.O., nothing can ever change or improve.

In other industries, a material or technique that costs less, is easier to use, and improves performance over the existing choices would be adopted quickly.  In construction, the rare material that meets those criteria still has a huge hurdle of credibility to overcome.  The spectre of failure, and the liabilities accompanying it, looms large.

It is, therefore, one of the prime missions of the construction journalism, not only to report on the arrival of new technologies and ideas, but to explain them.  A new technology’s potential for progress will only be realized if designers, contractors and owners are given the opportunity to understand current methods and the issues they raise, as well as how a new solution meets old needs in a better way.  Just giving a prose version of the sale pitch is not enough.  Simply explaining “what it does” is not enough. A real evaluation of a new option requires knowing “how it does it.”  Claims need proofs, and limitations need to be defined. The actors in the construction drama must develop confidence in anything new before they’ll leave the safety of the tried and true, and confidence comes only from knowledge and understanding.

Many of the most progressive strides in construction today are towards sustainable methods and materials.  An honest discussion of sustainability often entails demystifying science that’s well outside the immediate concerns of the industry.  It sometimes means unraveling popular misconceptions.  It means avoiding greenwashing, and sometimes calling out greenwashing that’s being done in that area of business.  One of the welcome aspects of writing about sustainable technologies is repeated discovery that the aspects that make them sustainable are frequently the same aspects that make them more affordable or higher-performing.

If, and only if, we explain new ideas accurately and comprehensively, they can be evaluated on their merits and not on the basis of ignorance and fear.

One of the services that construction journalism provides to the design community is a better understanding of conditions and practices on the jobsite.  Case Studies become a conduit for sharing lessons learned.  By closing the gap between studio and field, between theory and practice, we may be helping reduce the frictions and misunderstandings that make construction more difficult and risky. We like to think that spreading knowledge of what is being done, and what can be done, across the construction industry helps make it more of a community.

Worst Marketing Communication of the Week

Messaging - the noun - is a popular term in marketing. It is, indeed, important to "get your messaging right," but this includes more than just the words you choose. It's not just what you say, it's the way that you say it. Everything you offer in a marketing communication becomes part of your messaging, like it or not.

Case in Point:

This sign - freehanded in magic marker on a piece of corrugated plastic - was stuck among the weeds alongside a freeway entrance ramp that serves two of the most upscale neighborhoods in Los Angeles. During my first, brief impression of it, I was not filled with confidence that the advertiser knew anything about making big money. Even if I had been able to stop laughing before the car behind me started honking, I would not have written down the phone number.

The advertiser chose the right audience: plenty of people using that entrance ramp have money to invest.

However, a crucial piece of his messaging goes counter to his message.

Getting all the pieces right requires both insight and wide vision. It's easy to get wrapped up in crafting the message and get seduced into any of a number of pitfalls: publicity articles that strike the wrong tone because they're selling too hard; ads that try to be clever for a product that really needs to convey honesty and transparency; and websites so carefully designed to control User experience that they make access to information difficult or irritating.

Professional marketing people have to develop the ability to stand outside the work occasionally and see how it looks to the target. Unless they know how to make Big Money In Real Estate.

Ads with Long Copy

There is a common perception that customers won't read advertising with long copy. In my experience, that is not always the case. If you can get prospect interested, they will read extended copy, and the more they read, the more likely they are to buy.

Here is a great case in point. Lots of words, but lots of punch. (click on image to enlarge).

Email List Servers for Building Product Marketing

Word-of-mouth is a powerful marketing medium. This is also true in the online world; there are many places where the issues of your market segment are being discussed and where people are sharing their experience with or opinions about building products and manufacturers.

While new platforms such as Facebook and Twitter get more notice these days, the "automated mail list server," a concept first developed in the 1980s, is still an important medium. Google Groups and Yahoo Groups are types of list servers, and they exist in many other formats as well. When an email is addressed to a list serve mailing list, the email is automatically sent to everyone on the list. The result is similar to a newsgroup or forum, except that messages are transmitted as emails and are therefore available only to individuals on the list. The owner of the particular list server can determine whether inclusion in the list is open to anyone that subscribes or to only a controlled list.

EXAMPLE: I have subscribed to the ArtConcrete list server for many years.
Most of the subscribers are artists or artisans that use concrete in their work: sculptures, landscape installations, furnishings, and even jewelry. The moderator of the group, Andrew Goss, is the author of the seminal book, Concrete Handbook for Artists, making him an important figure at the nexus of art and concrete.

I joined because several of my clients make products for decorative concrete. While the total amount of material actually purchased by concrete artists is minuscule compared to the tonnage consumed in building or civil engineering construction, monitoring the group has provided valuable information and opportunities. I have:
  • Identified prospects for my clients.
  • Gotten early market intelligence about new products.
  • Learned about technologies and products not used in the US.
  • Heard concerns and about experiments that have stimulated new products, market niches, and distribution channels for my clients.
  • Discovered new uses for existing products.
  • Corrected misrepresentations about my clients' products, and provided an alternative perspective about competitors.
  • Found examples of "artistic" uses of my clients products that provided unique case studies and illustrations for our clients' sales collateral.
  • Gotten my clients' brands discussed by a global audience of "early adopters" and innovators.
RECOMMENDATIONS: Monitoring sites like this is an increasingly important part of an overall social media marketing strategy. I recommend you identify and monitor list servers that relate to your market sectors. Postings come right to your email box, so they are easily accessible. Depending on the amount of traffic on the list server, it may take only a few minutes a day to follow; if necessary, assign the task to someone on your team or to a marketing consultant.

List servers, generally, are not the place to be overtly commercial -- for example, don't post press releases here. Etiquette calls for peer-to-peer sharing. Within this guideline, however, I can join discussions about my clients' products, suggest solutions, refer people to information that is posted on my clients' websites.

I can also post requests for feedback, for example: "My company makes [is considering] a new product. We think it has X, Y, and Z benefits, but we don't have much experience in this regard. If you have any thoughts, I would love to hear from you, either via the list server or directly at my email."

Does Publicity Work?

On the tradeshow floor at world of Concrete, I was talking to a sales executive of a product manufacturing company, exploring the possibility of my doing some publicity work for them.  He was very polite and patient, but finally asked me point blank, “Does publicity actually lead to sales?”

I had to tell him, “Honestly, it’s hard to be sure.  We occasionally get word that during a sales inquiry, there was mention of having read an article.  We sometimes even get email to the authors.  But it’s not often.  I have the impression publicity helps, but I honestly couldn’t prove it.”

I left that booth and went to see one of my clients, who was exhibiting two aisles over.  They were having a fantastic show.  He told me that the business they did on the first day of World of Concrete alone would have more than justified the expense of coming to the show.  The same thing for the second day, and the third.  They had written one immense order, about two containers of a material that’s generally sold in 5 gallon buckets.  They had a verbal commitment for another container, and hint that it would lead to about 20 more containers over the coming year.  They were giddy with their success, after exactly one year in business.

And then my client said, “If you’d like me to write a testimonial letter for you, I’d be happy to.  We know very well the impact of what you’ve been doing.  I have guys come in here and say, I read about this stuff, and then I went to your website, and then…”

I went back to the first booth and told him what I’d heard.  He said he wanted to visit our office and meet with us.  I was grateful.

The harder the times, the more minutely the budget is scrutinized, and every dollar spent has to be justified.  Often the bottom-line value of marketing is difficult to track.  This may be why marketing is typically the first budget cut when there’s a downturn in the industry.

When articles about your product get published, it’s difficult to track who actually reads them.  Being able ton trace a sale back to an article usual only happens by luck.  But it happens  enough that I believe Publicity works, even though its effect is not instantaneous and is hard to measure. 

But don’t expect Publicity to be a replacement for Sales.  It’s support for Sales.  They work together.  Publicity, advertising and other forms of promotion generate interest, which may become leads.  They help create the critical mass of awareness and product knowledge. Then Sales has a chance to do its job.

If Sales is all about closing, Marketing is about opening.  It’s a way of getting customers into the door of the store, so that Sales can do its stuff.

Steel Industry Greenwash

The American Iron and Steel Institute and other steel industry groups fill their websites with statements about how much they have reduced their carbon dioxide emissions in recent years, and to brag about the research being done that may result in further reductions. These are notable claims. But they are also useless to the architect or builder trying to make informed decisions about building systems today. What is needed is clear information about the current CO2 emissions.

The Art of Explanation Explained

Every product has a story, the story of why it’s the best choice for the job. That story is most difficult to tell when it involves new or advanced technology, because often a wealth of new information has to be conveyed in order to make the case. But those are the cases where explanation is most crucial.

We recently got word that a professor of Engineering requested permission to use an article we wrote in his course. The article concerned Hydrogen Assisted Stress Corrosion Cracking – a serious and dangerous problem that most people don’t know they have – and fasteners that resist it. (The Construction Specifier, Aug. 2008, page 64) Explaining HASCC was especially tricky, because it is a byproduct of another slightly better-known process, galvanic corrosion, but only occurs under certain circumstances and only affects certain types of fasteners. There was a great deal of ‘informational foundation’ to be laid before the real subject could be discussed.

When approaching the most complex stories, we apply a simple rule:

You can explain anything to anybody
if you can figure out what they don’t know.

How far back into basics do you need to go for a specific audience? What knowledge can you safely assume? Building an explanation becomes a bit like constructing a building, and you start by examining the soil to determine what foundation you have to lay.

It is worth the effort, too. The more unfamiliar or novel a technology, the more it will benefit from being explained, demystified. One of the key factors in getting products specified or purchased by contractors is confidence in the product. Understanding how something works enhances confidence in it.

Once you know where to start explaining, you just build the informational blocks. I once explained quantum physics to a six-year-old, but I spent the first half of the explanation figuring out what he knew and didn’t know.

In the case of HASCC, we had to explain galvanic corrosion, fastener fabrication, case hardening, hydrogen embrittlement, and HASCC before we could get to the solution to the problem that was the subject of the article. It seemed like a very long journey. We were keenly aware that holding our audience meant keeping all the pieces tied together as we went along, and keeping alive the reader’s hope that we would reach the goal.

Apparently we succeeded. Shortly after the article was published, we got the aforementioned request from a professor of engineering at Florida International University. He said it was the best explanation of galvanic corrosion that he’d come across. That’s our idea of “news you can use.”

How NOT to Advertise a Green Product

How NOT to Advertise a "green" building product.

1. Use a jumbo size envelope to mail two pieces of paper:

2. Enclude a fullsize piece of paper for a cover letter so dull that not even a specifier will read it (no offense meant towards specifiers):

3. And then tell your prospect how GREEN your product is:

4. For good measure, make sure it is printed with bleeds (requiring the paper to be trimmed to generate waste), varnished (more chemicals), and without using paper and printing certified by an environmental rating group such as FSC.

In advertising, the medium must fit the message. If your message is about the environmental benefits of your product, make sure the advertising "talks the walk."

This unsolicited direct mail would have been greener (and possibly more effective) if it was sent in a standard #10 business envelope, the cover letter was more to the point and printed on a half sized sheet, and greater sensitivity used to the production values of the flyer.

P.S. - Less cluttered graphic design would help, too.

Classic Viral: "You Have A Very Bad Hotel"

A colleague sent this to me today; it's one of the classic examples of what a few unhappy customers with a web connection can do.

You Have A Very Bad Hotel (Use Internet Explorer to view)

I found an interview with the writers, and found a few of their answers very insightful:
Q: Why did you spread it all over the Internet?

In truth, we sent it initially to the hotel; two clients/friends in downtown Houston, and Shane's mother-in-law. That was it. Yes, the last screen says: "And we hope they send it to THEIR friends!" Call us naïve, but we figured that meant perhaps twenty or thirty people. We never dreamed it would get passed around like this. Trust us. We had NO IDEA. The website postings, including the one at urban legend clearinghouse, was done by others without our permission or approval.

Q: How far has it gone?

Well, we've heard from five continents. Most hospitality professionals seem amused and sympathetic (though one former hotel manager suggested we get psychological counseling). We have had a couple of stern lectures from fellow road warriors/"civilians", though, who explain how out of line we were to expect our "guaranteed" rooms held for us. About 2 percent of correspondents call us jerks and worse.

Q: So... what's it all mean?

Hopefully, that while $#!@& happens, service matters — and hand-to-hand email has power...Perhaps, now that "Yours Is a Very Bad Hotel" has attracted attention in corporate offices of many hospitality providers, managers and customers alike will be a little more aware of the power customers wield.
There are over 130,000 pages that mention this slide show, in several different languages. Several print articles were run in small outlets like the Wall Street Journal. It's not clear how many people have viewed it because the original site got so much traffic they had to take it down; all the current sites are fans who reposted it, articles written, and aggregation sites such as Digg or Slashdot.

This was written and published in 2001. Imagine how much bigger the response could be today.

Monitoring Your Online Brand

What are people saying about your brand? Your products? Here is an example of why its so important to monitor your online brand:

We have search engine set up to alert us when our clients are mentioned online. We monitor for trends, positive and negative mentions, and especially for inaccurate information. In the construction industry, inaccurate information can be a safety and liability issue, not just a marketing one. 

A few days ago we got a hit on one of our clients, an engineered stone manufacturer. Here’s what we found (company names have been removed, but you know how to search for the quote if you want to):
“As a kitchen and bath designer do I continue to recommend or specify man made stone counter tops to my clients? Has a manufacturer like XXXXX or XXXXX been linked to the inclusion of coal ash in their product. I wrote to XXXXX but I doubt I'll get an honest reply. I can see the manufacturers of man made stone products ducking and covering as I type.”

This type of post creates several kinds of hazards. First, by naming specific companies it impacts search engine results, especially if the story it’s linked to becomes popular. 

Second, it attacks the companies named on two fronts, implying the presence of harmful materials as well as poor customer service. Either of these attacks could be damaging individually; combining them increases the impact.

The third major issue is the forum’s anonymity. We don’t know who is behind the user name; I suspect the poster is a shill for a competing company or industry. Reading through the comments, only one other poster mentioned counter tops – as part of a larger list of products – and no one else mentioned “man made stone products” at all. The fact that this post specifies material, product, and company – and does so vehemently – makes it suspect. 

An anonymous, inaccurate “whisper campaign” such as this can be incredibly detrimental to a company, especially since people tend to base purchasing decisions on word-of-mouth and online reviews. If a story becomes popular, millions of people could be exposed to the comment, tainting their opinions, and you would never know it was happening. We only found this one because we had set the alert. 

We cannot prevent postings like this, but it does give us and our clients the chance to respond immediately.

Marketing 101

Part 3: What Advertising Does Best

If the 50’s was the Nuclear Age and the early 60’s the Space Age, then the current era may well be the Information Overload Age. The competition for Other People’s Consciousnesses has never been more crowded, and the trend is expected to continue.

Those ‘other people’ are, of course, potential customers. To reiterate a concept from the first segment of this series, “If sales is all about closing, marketing is about opening: opening the door to the figurative store, opening the conversation, opening the potential customer’s curiosity.” The problem is to get the attention of those potential customers while they are being snowed-under by information overload.

The arena of marketing communications is, more than ever, like a room full of people shouting, trying to be heard over all the other people shouting. Simply shouting the loudest is probably not enough. The message you’re shouting has to somehow cut through the clutter.

That’s what advertising does best. Advertising is at its strongest getting the customer’s attention, cutting through the clutter. While advertising can be put to many other uses, the job it does most effectively – more effectively than other marketing tools - is focusing the customer’s attention and burning a new neural path in his brain in the shape of your brand information. The ad campaign reinforces this neural path at each exposure, and creates an attachment-site in the customer’s consciousness where all your other information can adhere. This is called creating awareness.

Cutting Through The Clutter

In the advertising world, it is generally held that the best way to do this job is by keeping the ad message itself very tightly focused:

Pick one idea to sell, and make an ad that puts that idea front and center.

The most stark example of this technique has traditionally been outdoor advertising: billboards, bus shelters, bus sides. Conventional wisdom has always been that a headline on an outdoor ad can’t be more than about nine words. Some people even say seven is too many. The imagery must be equally simple and direct. It is about the fast read, the drive-by impression.

It is my personal belief that all advertising in the current environment depends on drive-by impressions. Everybody’s too busy and they’ve got too many messages impinging on them. They’re driving through a magazine at 20 mph over the limit. They’re surfing the web looking for 16 foot curls. They’re fast on their way to some other content… unless you give them a reason to slow down and look you over.

This is why headlines and big graphics were invented. They must make an impression before the customer drives past, so they speak with an immediacy to match the passerby’s speed.

Instinct VS. Strategy

Many building product manufacturers have difficulty embracing this single-message, fast-read advertising strategy. Being experts on their products, they know every single sales-point. Very often, they have done a lot of sales personally, and their instinct is to pile on the sales points. They want to include all this information in an ad, because they know it is convincing.

This temptation must be resisted. Piling on the arguments may be a very effective sales technique - that is, effective for closing - but it’s not effective for opening. Sorry, it makes bad ads.

In fact, it is my belief that the more major messages you put in an ad, the less effective it is. More is less. Don’t give me seven reasons to buy your product, give me one reason that sticks in my mind, that really makes me want to learn more about it. Don’t put your catalogue in the ad, put in your salesman’s contact info or your web address.

Leaf through a construction trade magazine and look at the ads. How many do you have to read all the way through before you find out why you should read it at all? How many of them are cluttered with tons of (useful) information, yet fail to engage your interest? How many of them make you put on the brakes while you’re leafing through?

Think about it: if putting all your sales points into an ad could close a sale, you wouldn’t need salesmen. In your heart, you already know that. So, if you know the ad is not going to close the sale, leave that job to your sales force and let the ad do what it does best: get customers in the door.

Three Steps, One Message

One simple but effective ad structure works in three steps:

  1. Made You Look.
  2. Made You Think.
  3. Made You Curious

Step 1: The headline and/or primary image does the “Made you Look.” It gets attention, it slows down the drive-by. There are many ways to do it, but not all of them are relevant. That is, you can get a customer’s attention by showing someone sexy and half-naked, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into the customer remembering a brand of cement. Most effective is one that is on-message, that opens the conversation about the ad’s overall.

Step 2: The body copy and supplementary imagery is responsible for “Made You Think.” It takes the attention you grabbed in Step 1, and focuses it on the problem that your product is going to solve.

Step 3: The payoff is about “Made You Curious,” and the thing it makes the customer curious about is your brand or your product. Your product is the hero that solves the problem, the happy ending to the story. Hopefully, that makes the customer curious about how the product it might be a happy ending for his own story.

This isn’t the only way to structure an ad, just one example. But try to be aware of your own reactions when you see an effective ad.

Do It Yourself?

Given this knowledge of the basics of advertising, could you do it yourself?

You certainly could. But should you?

I believe working with advertising professionals is more effective, and therefore more cost-effective, than doing it yourself. I’ll explain why in a moment, but I first want to stress the phrase “working with.” Even if you use professional’s creative services, you play a big part in the process of creating the ad. As the expert on your product and your market, you bring the ad people the vital information for shaping a campaign. The more you can explain your understanding of your place in the market, the better ammunition they’ve got.

Ad professionals – and this could include your in-house marketing staff, a marketing consultant, ad boutique, or full-service ad agency - are experts in selecting a message from that information, and crafting communications that hit a moving target, your customer. I think the professional is more likely to craft the message to optimal impact, hence, more effective than doing it yourself.

I believe the professional’s creative fee is cost-effective, because it lowers the risk of your advertising investment. Generally, your major expense is the page-space or air-time, and the creative fees are small by comparison. Yet the success of the whole investment rests on the impact of the ad. You might hit the target on your first try, but I’d give the pros better odds.

So to recap: Ads are about getting attention and creating awareness of your product and your brand. Ads do this best by communicating a single, powerful message. The ad doesn’t have to sell the product, it just has to bring the customer to your salesman.

Next Time: Marketing Gone Wild