Email Strategy for Soccer Fans

As I’ve written before, I volunteer as a referee in my kids’ soccer league.  Since I’m a pretty garbage referee, I like to add value by helping them communicate more clearly with the high volume of email they send out.  Since my fellow volunteers understand soccer well and email not-so-well, I thought I’d prepare this quick course in email strategy for them based on my admittedly limited soccer knowledge.

That’s my daughter.  If she were a SPAM blocker, there would be no such thing as SPAM.

We’re talking about community mailings, not a profit-seeking email marketing campaign.  However, the basics remain broadly the same.

First, think about goals.  Duh.

Just as soccer has a literal goal, community emails need to have a goal, too.  “Keeping the community informed” doesn’t give the email sender much of a clear goal.  Informed about what, exactly?  However, a goal such as “keeping the games civil” or “ensuring that games are safe, fun and fair” give the sender a better idea of what she needs to accomplish.  In my case, the league asked me to help them recruit more volunteers to the referee training class.  In soccer terms, that gives me a clear shot on goal.

No goals on Simon’s watch, either

Subject lines are like passes: have a target in mind

Once kids graduate from “swarmball,” passing the ball becomes a focus for coaches.  However, when they start passing, most kids just kick the ball in the general direction of the opposing goal.  Half the time, an opposing player will end up with it.

As with passes, subject lines need to have a target in mind.  Think of them as the opening of an offensive play.  Just as a midfielder would think about the positions of the players on the pitch, the email sender needs to think about where the recipients of the email are.

In my case of encouraging referee participation, I knew the email was going to parents who had expressed interest in volunteering as a referee, not simply every parent in the league.  As a result, I recommended a subject line of “Take the referee class so that no player has to miss a game.”  Poetry?  Not by a goal kick.  However, it does get the point across to a bunch of busy parents.

 

Hail to the Redskins!  I mean, nice pass, Leah!

Teamwork over star power

In the recreational league where I volunteer, each team usually has one athlete who plays head-and-shoulders above the others.  Once the other kids get ahold of passing, team offense usually consists of passing the ball to this star and letting her take a shot on goal.  Usually, the star roams the whole field, goal line to goal line, touchline to touchline.  However, once the opposing teams learn how to neutralize or isolate the star, her team suffers.

Just as a team can’t rely on a one player, the league shouldn’t rely on one email.  Over time, I’ve noted a tendency of volunteer-led organizations to stuff too much information into one email, such as asking for volunteers to bring the team snack, reminding parents to show up on time and to announce the date of picture day.

Instead of expecting one email to do it all, space out more focused emails and let each do its job.

Fortunately for Simon, someone got the snack memo

In the case of my referee class email, we had a goal narrow enough that we didn’t run a risk of overloading it with information.  However, we will need to plan run-of-the-mill emails sent during the course of the season around individual goals rather than as catch-alls.

So, in email as in soccer: keep your goal in mind, have a target for your passes and teamwork makes the dream work.  However, in email, you’re allowed to use your hands.  Play on.

I was right. Now I regret it. (Off topic; explicit politics)

After the Newtown, Conn. shootings in 2012, I addressed the deep despair that I felt the way I often do, by writing about it.  In a post on my old blog, I wrote that the National Rifle Association should shift the debate to mental health since they wouldn’t ever countenance any restriction on firearm ownership, no matter how common-sense.

I feel like an idiot now for writing that.

Several school shootings later, our country faces another seemingly intractable debate on guns and the NRA has chosen to cast the problem as a mental health problem.  They claim, not without some justification, that these mass shooters suffer from mental illness.  After all, no completely sane person would do that sort of thing.  Their argument muddies the waters a bit as plenty of people with mental illness wouldn’t do that sort of thing, either and lumping all mentally ill people together demonizes a population already fighting against shame.

Moreover, it’s total bullshit.

If you think arguing with gun enthusiasts over the definition of “assault rifle” seems intense, imagine arguing over what “mental illness” means.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the Bible of mental health professionals known as DSM, had just shy of 500 pages in 1980.  Now it has 947 pages, which speaks to ongoing learning about mental illness as well as disagreements in the mental health community.

Even if we consider the science of mental illness settled and even if Federal and state governments adequately fund mental health initiatives, it seems unlikely to me that the NRA and their conservative constituents would ever accept the consequences of increased vigilance.

Let’s imagine a scenario where a teacher, worried about a student’s mental health, or perhaps a well-meaning student who sees disturbing messages from a fellow student on a social network, asks the authorities to intervene.  I have to imagine that a protocol would include a home visit and family interview by a social worker or psychologist.  Here are some things that might happen:

AR-15 in the home

Let’s say the child shows signs that point to his becoming a mass shooter (again; let’s assume we can agree on what those signs are).  Now let’s say that the father keeps a registered and code-compliant AR-15 in an unlocked cabinet without a trigger lock and that these acts are legal in the jurisdiction.  Should the police take away the legal weapon, even though it doesn’t belong to the kid?  Can they require the father to lock the gun up?

Signs of abuse

It’s no secret that mass shooters often have a history of domestic abuse, either that they commit or that they had fallen victim to.  Let’s say the social worker uncovers signs of abuse by a family member or friend.  Should the police arrest the perpetrator, even though the evidence against him was uncovered for a different purpose?

What about other potential weapons?

Let’s stick with the NRA’s perennial “people kill people” argument.  Let’s say that everyone agrees that the child has a potential to become a killer.  Should he be hospitalized?  If not, can the authorities restrict his access to things that could be used as weapons, such as knives, baseball bats or motor vehicles?  If so, how?

I believe that any mental health-first solution to gun violence would result in junk legislation, laws with too many loopholes to allow what legislators expect them to do.  More to the point, I think we can overcome the semantic debate over what constitutes a dangerous firearm with a good faith effort by both sides.  As I’ve noted before, Congress has enacted effective and substantial limitations to the Second Amendment at least twice, permanently banning civilian ownership of both machine guns and cheap, imported pistols.  There’s no reason to believe that they can’t find common ground over issues like magazine capacities or gratuitous military features on civilian guns.

With that, I’m done giving free advice to the NRA.

The Marketer’s Argument for Political Correctness

This President’s day, I learned that at the time of his death, George Washington’s Mount Vernon farm had over 300 enslaved persons.

Not slaves.  Enslaved persons.  That little difference–the politically correct difference–makes all the difference.  And that difference matters not just for so-called snowflakes but also for marketers.  Marketers can’t live in their own world; they must live in the worlds of their customers.

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Making the Case for Platforms (Warning: Explicit Math)

In some recent posts, I’ve discussed the values of platforms over campaigns.   For those of you just joining us, platforms, or brand-owned spaces that foster long-term engagement with customers, offer an economical alternative to acquiring and re-acquiring customers via Facebook and Google.

Today, I’d like to discuss the economics.  There will be math.  I am not above putting pictures of puppies in this post to keep you engaged.

I will stop at nothing to get you to pay attention to numbers.

The basic equation shouldn’t hurt; you need to compare costs to build and maintain the platform against expected customer value over a relevant time period.  I have no hard-and-fast figures for any of the above.  As always, the devil is in the details.

Costs to build and maintain

Costs fall into two categories: costs to create the platform and costs to drive consumers to it.  Creative costs vary as widely as the forms they take.  These costs depend mostly on what the marketer intends the platform to do, which in turn depends on what’s right for the audience.  Figuring out platform functionality–and hence creative costs–will probably take up the lion’s share of strategy development time due to the open-ended nature of building a platform.

Driving customers to the platform, aka acquisition, also represents a substantial cost.  Yes, despite all I’ve written about turning away from campaigns, I will now discuss why platforms require campaigns.

Puppy reminds you to think about a cost per action model!

A platform won’t grow customers all by itself.  Just as with any other marketing tactic, marketers need to make sure their audience knows about it for it to succeed.  That said, bear in mind that the platform will have lower acquisition costs than, say, a campaign designed to sell something.  A relevant platform offers something useful or entertaining to the consumer, something of immediate value.  A timely article or a fun mini-game will have broader interest than a straight sell.

Expected customer value

Acquisition costs nothwithstanding, platforms ultimately must drive some measurable value such as sales.  Direct brands and retailers have no problem here since they can usually connect a visitor to a sale easily.  Other brands in sectors such as consumer packaged goods, automotive or consumer durables have some more math to do, especially in terms of attribution.  The same goes for direct or B2B brands that don’t rely on digital channels to close the sale.

In short, how the hell do you correlate activity on a cleaning tips app to sales of a washing machine?

It’s not “attribute,” it’s “attri-cute!”

As Bob Dylan would have said had he gone into marketing, “the answer my friend, is proxies.”  Well, he might have said it, at any rate.  Marketers need to find good proxies for purchase behavior.  Let’s use the cleaning tips app and imagine our client is GE appliances (disclosure: they were a client of mine before GE sold them off).  GE appliances could push a coupon through the app or encourage new purchasers to register their new appliances via the app.  From this proxy, GE appliances could use the cost of the appliance or some derivation thereof as the yardstick for value.

Relevant time period

Marketers can’t measure a platform’s success in the same relatively short time period that they might use for a typical campaign.  Platforms engage consumers at different points of their journey, so results may not happen in the near-instant time frames associated with digital campaigns.

As a starting point, the time period for measuring platform success should correspond to the customer journey in some way.  On a recent platform project for an automotive brand, for instance, I used three years as a period of measurement because three years represents a typical (if short) ownership period for a car.  For the appliance example above, ownership periods represent too long a period to wait; people hang onto major appliances for more than a decade!  Instead, it might help to look at a length of time related to the purchase cycle.  A typical CPG, on the other hand, has the opposite problem.  People replenish their pantries and supply closets weekly.  As a result, the measurement period might represent a typical timeline for a customer to go from new customer to brand-loyal customer.

That wasn’t so bad, was it?  Now, let’s talk long-term lease depreciation.

I’ve sketched out the math for platforms in very broad terms.  Hopefully, you can use this math as a framework for evaluating ideas that will allow you to break your brand’s dependence on the digital duopoly.  If not, I hope you liked the puppy pictures.

Facebook’s Revised News Feed is a Hint-and-a-Half for Your Ass

Pundits have not yet finished the volley of thought pieces in the wake of The Zuck’s decree that his kingdom’s news feed will focus more on posts by your friends and families and less on posts from publishers and, more to the point for our purposes, brands.  This move reminds me of the advice of noted marketing guru Eddie Murphy to people in horror films: “that’s a hint-and-a-half for your ass to get out.”

OK, maybe I exaggerate a little by suggesting that brands get out of Facebook (hey, clickbaiters gonna bait), but I think they should stop relying too much on Facebook for engagement and start building their own platforms.

It’s not an ark.  It’s a species diversity platform.

First, let’s acknowledge that no one, maybe not even Zuck himself, knows what the news feed change really means.  On the face of it, the change seems to limit opportunities for brands to buy their way into Facebook users’ consciousness.  However, Zuck didn’t become a gajillionaire by ignoring marketers’ and publishers’ wants.  Based on my studies of the Mafia and OPEC, I suspect that the Hoodied One wants to drive up margins by artificially limiting supply.  Take that as someone who grew up in the home state of Tony Soprano and Exxon.

Regardless of Facebook’s endgame, marketers should take this moment to acknowledge the media duopoly.  Facebook and Google account for 77% of all digital ad dollars spent.

As an alternative, look to create platforms rather than campaigns.  Specifically, I mean digital platforms such as The Wirecutter, an e-commerce platform owned by the New York Times or American Express OPEN’s Forum platform.  While campaigns and platforms both engage consumers around a brand, platforms seek long-term engagement rather than a limited time capture of consumers’ attention.  To put it another way, platforms help engage consumers when they’re interested in something, not merely when marketers have something to say.

Over time, successful platforms reduce the need to rely on Facebook or Google to snag consumers’ attention.  They become self-sustaining.  Facebook can restrict its news feed to French bulldogs for all your brand cares.  As my friend and mentor Tim Suther likes to say, “why rent your customers when you can buy them?”

Take the hint.  Build a platform.

Pro Bono Advice: Be Like the Watermelon

Marketers often turn to pro-bono or charity work to give back to the community, to use their skills for good or even just to get experience they can parlay into paying work.  I can’t tell you why you should volunteer.  However, if you do volunteer, I advise you to be like a watermelon: develop a thick but porous skin.

I am not even remotely above using pictures of babies to get you to read my blog

The watermelon analogy stems (sorry) from the realities of charities and not-for-profits.  Most often, people work or volunteer in this sector because they have strong feelings about the subject, whether it’s the environment, religion, an illness or civil rights.  Moreover, these people often have a difficult connection to that subject.  This connection both makes the work more meaningful and more difficult.

You need a thick skin to take on some of the more uncomfortable issues, yet you still need to let some of that discomfort in to remind you of why you take on the work.

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So You’ve Painted Yourself into a Corner

Some articles by marketing strategists expand your horizons and render your giddy over the endless possibilities of our craft with soaring language and sparkling analogies.

This is not one of those articles.

Instead, this article focuses on one of the more grind-it-out aspects of our trade: what to do when you’ve got to provide strategic input for a purely executional project.

Rise and grind, kids.  Rise and grind.

You know the type: you have to direct your creative team to complete a very prescribed set of display ads, emails or social posts to meet a specific set of objectives, which usually boil down to clickthroughs, even if objective focuses on branding.  More often than not, someone else, perhaps at a different agency, has finalized the brand strategy and creative idea, aka “the fun part.”  More to the point, this project may not actually make sense to you.  For instance, in the above example about objectives, clickthroughs do not serve as an effective proxy for branding.

Or the task may involve picking existing creative assets to fill a role they weren’t designed for.  You’ve got the proverbial hammer all right, but none of the problems looks like a nail.

I liken this situation to the proverbial “painting oneself into a corner.”  It doesn’t matter what color you’ve used; you’re stuck.

Here’s the secret: don’t think of it as a chore, think of it as…ah, who am I kidding?  It’s a chore all right.  However, that doesn’t mean you can’t stretch your strategy muscles and make something as good as can be.  Hell, maybe you can even make it fun, as long as you have a flexible definition of fun.

Let’s assume “do something else” isn’t an option.  I’ll admit that I’ve often taken “no” for an answer when I could have pushed back a bit.  Mea culpa, but mea cupla minima as I’ve learned the hard way that pushing back ends badly more often than not.

Instead, try this approach:

    1. Clarify objectives and metrics.  Go over both thoroughly with the client or client manager.  As the strategist, you have to be clear about them even if the powers-that-be aren’t.  Pay close attention to any disparity between objective and metric, such as the branding/clickthrough inconsistency.  You better believe that when it comes down between the two, the metric will matter more than the objective.
    2. Find the most likely key.  Here’s where you earn your kibble.  Use whatever you can to establish which factors drive the metric that matters most.  In the best case scenario, you have previous results that you can parse for clues.  Fire up Excel and look for anything that you might compare.  These comparisons might include the basics (segment, offer) and any and all creative factors (headline/subject line length, call to action copy, image content).
      Unless you have really huge audiences, you’ll probably end up with anecdotal evidence.  But that’s better than nothing.  By the way, if you do have nothing, raid whatever you can for insight, including the overall brand brief, customer research or even insights pulled from competitive or desk research.
    3. Build your brief around the factors that emerge.  Present those factors to the creative team as puzzle pieces.  Encourage them to think of themselves as beating the brief; finding the tricks that will make the whole thing work.  Then let ’em rip.

 

While we pride ourselves as strategists and planners by our ability to weave together the whole cloth of new brands and platforms from the frayed threads of consumer insight, business requirements and cultural trends, we still have to pay the bills.  In this case, paying the bills means writing the quotidian briefs and offering the quotidian feedback on the long tail of client relationships.  Rise and grind.

How Soon is “Too Soon?”

How soon is “too soon” for promoting tourism after a terror event? Three weeks seems to be the norm.

While it may feel unseemly to talk of commerce in the wake of a murderous event, the question bears asking. For one, tourism drives the economies of many cities, meaning that people depend on it to make a living. For another, terror attacks show no sign of stopping.

Sadly, it pays to be prepared.  I would argue that a tourism-dependent business not thinking about this issue would be like an citrus grower not having a contingency for frost.

Times Square, Veteran’s Day 2014

This week’s cowardly attacks about five miles from my home and hard by my nephew’s high school (he graduated in 2016) prompted an article in the New York Times about how terror attacks have affected New York.

However, I also happen to have my own experience with this grim calculus.

On a recent assignment for a client who conducts large-scale event marketing, I had to ask–and answer–the “how soon?” question. The client had planned an event in a large U.S. city that they would promote in email and other digital channels.  It’s telling that I can maintain client anonymity due to the prevalence of terror activity.  So, while police combed the crime scene, I felt a duty to advise the client on the go/no-go decision.

In the absence of a social listening tool to measure consumer sentiment,  I used Google Trends.  If you’re unfamiliar, Google Trends tracks the popularity of a search term according to an index where 100 is the high water mark.  Researchers can filter results by location down to the city, by time and by other factors.

Specifically, I looked at search trends for terms that included “[city name] travel” and “what to do in [city name] this weekend” for several large worldwide cities over the past several years, before and after terror attacks.  I found some interesting things:

  1. Travel interest drops after an attack but returns to seasonal normal after about three weeks on the outside.  While the number of terror attacks hasn’t reached a robust sample size, I feel confident saying that the length of time before returning to normal roughly reflects the severity of the attack.  Interest in London travel rebounded more quickly after the Westminster and London Bridge attacks than interest in Paris travel after the Bataclan attacks.  As the kids say, YMMV.
  2. Counter-intuitively, interest in travel searches increases during and immediately after the attack.  I suspect the spike comes from people en route or about to travel who want to change plans or simply determine prosaic details such as whether the airport remains open.  I would call this more of a “huh” than a marketing opportunity, of course.
  3. Locals rebound faster.  Again, sample sizes preclude me from making broad promises, but weekend-related search terms get back up to normal within a week or so.  Speaking as a jaded New Yorker, I suspect that after the initial shock wears off, people still gotta get out of the house.

In the end, I recommended that the client go ahead with the promotion as the earliest mail date would come a month after the attack.  Without a doubt, I’ve never made a sobering recommendation.

(Non) Humblebrag

Hey, pals & gals!  I got someone else to publish my drivel for once.

Check out my article in Gamechangers, a publication of the Troyanos Group.

It’s my take on how rideshare companies like Uber and autonomous cars will create a passenger economy sooner rather than later.  Moreover, that passenger economy will have profound impact on retail, entertainment and even health and wellness brands.

Enjoy and tell your friends!

Tom Petty’s Death Signals Radio’s Approaching Sign-off

I don’t usually post about entertainment figures, because I don’t work in the industry.  However, the passing of Tom Petty brings up a salient point about marketing: he’s one of the last musicians from the era when radio mattered.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Commercially and critically successful, Tom Petty earned some scorn from rock cognoscenti because, they felt, radio had made him more popular than he deserved to be.  Whatever that means.

However, this criticism (fair or not), points to a conspicuous absence: radio can’t do that anymore.  Radio will no longer crown pop princesses like Madonna or Britney.  It will no longer unleash the Monsters of Rock.  Hip hop seems to have maintained a local radio tradition and maybe country has, too.

Sure, mass distribution of a sort exists in the form of YouTube and music streaming, not to mention satellite radio and alternate channels such as movie and TV soundtracks.  However, these channels have fragmented.  You never have to hear Tom Petty even if you like a lot of similar acts such as the Allman Brothers or Bruce Springsteen.  A high schooler today could live out the old joke of not realizing that Paul McCartney had been in a band before Wings.

We no longer have the social contract that radio wrote: you listen to music that someone else chooses and, every once in a while, you’ll be exposed to something new that you’ll like.  As marketers, Tom Petty’s death reminds us of a channel that offered distinctly emotional human connections for brands.

I offer apologies if this post comes off more as a Jeremiad than the usual “Everything Is Awesome” posts on LinkedIn (and, yes, I realize that in the world of “The Lego Movie,” that song was a radio hit).  I just want to call something out that we, as music lovers and marketers, have lost.