Find me on Twitter

You’ll notice the content in this blog is a bit…well…aged?  Yes, guilty as charged. That’s because Twitter is the main place to hear me rant and rave now about all things marketing, education and healthcare. Pop on over and engage with me there @ChargeAheadMktg anytime.

Brands Produce Content — Whether You Like It Or Not

It’s been a while since an article really riled me up. I’ve been wondering when something would come along to stir up some angst.

Enter this ridiculous article on branded content written by Jonathan Salem Baskin for Ad Age’s CMO Strategy newsletter.

I’ll preface it by saying that Mr. Baskin is a global branding expert and has written some solid pieces for Ad Age that I like. Yet on this particular topic, he is way off base. It’s like hiring Charlie Sheen to teach a class on stability — it doesn’t make sense (now Mr. Baskin and I are tied at one apiece for in-article Sheen references).

Despite the fact that brands have been producing solid, credible content for years (which I’ve been writing in this blog about for years) — and that experienced journalists are leaving reputable media to cross over and create content for brands – it’s Baskin’s assertion that, by default, branded content is untrue. Apparently, that means all those reputable editors flocking to the brand side check all their credibility and integrity at the door. Apparently that means no brand can tell a story that’s credible, inform customers about truthful market aspects in a creative way, or create factual market context that a product or service fits into – without it being inherently untrue.

That’s ridiculous.

Take a good, long look at his statements about branded content below.

Branding is created by people who are speaking on behalf of the business operations that pay for their efforts. Brands are lenses, so the stuff you create is biased by purposed and practice, which isn’t a crime but certainly isn’t synonymous with news or truth…It’s people talking for the brand, and there’s no mechanism within your published content that makes it true.

Aaaahhhh, but there is. The same “open communities” he mentions in the same very article are the ultimate purveyors of truth. First-hand experience, real-time feedback, customers sharing product information, and access to people who represent brands has never been easier. I argue that never, ever before has it been easier to identify and distinguish truth from untruth – contrary to the very point Baskin makes when he says:

Open online communities are to truth what the Wild West was to justice.

Again, a ridiculous assertion. Sure, opinions and untruth are easier to find online than a fifth of vodka in Charlie Sheen’s nightstand (now I’m ahead 2 to 1). Yet guess what? So is truth. As a consumer of information, one always has to apply a personal filter to distinguish qualified source from unqualified, valid opinion from meaningless rant, veiled advertising from valuable insights. The same way social media and online communities have granted a megaphone to bias and untruth, they’ve also empowered a new era of reality and truth to spring forward from the first-hand perspective of people living it. We now have access to more people who know the truth on any topic better than anyone.

In many cases, Mr. Baskin, that is more valuable than any journalist writing about it. Like it or not.

Also like it or not is the fact that many people do want to talk “with” brands. They want to consume information and judge for themselves what’s true and untrue. Not everyone wants a journalist or blogger to sift through the facts and tell them what’s true. Are you trying to tell me that Tony Hsieh isn’t credible because he represents a brand? Or Richard Branson? Or my friend Tim Andrews at ASI, who transformed a company and a whole industry partially by telling truths and granting access that hadn’t been done before. These are executives who tell stories, share information, provide opinions, and grant access for customers to talk “with” them. Should everything they say inherently be labeled as untrue simply because they represent brands?

One more time I add, ridiculous.

There may not be a mechanism within published content that makes it true, yet there’s no mechanism that makes it untrue either. That’s a decision that customers and their communities can charge ahead make on their own now.

Yet brands still have a valid, credible place and a part in the discussion (when conducted credibly and correctly, of course).

Bad Marketing & Service Examples, March 2011 Edition

Well, it’s safe to say that no matter what the economy is like, what sales are like, or what the performance of your campaign is like, there’s always room to do better.

For some, there’s more room than others.

Enter my two examples from today on some really poor practices in marketing and customer service. Let’s take a good, long look at what NOT to do for a moment. As I said in a recent post, the economic rebound and business growth has some companies at a point where their capability to deliver effective customer service is lacking, and it ends up hurting their future.

ManagementJobs.net
The first entry is a horrendous email from someplace called managementjobs.net. Now, you wouldn’t think the email below is actually from them. The From line is from a “jobsalertnow.com” domain, while the physical address in the email lists CareerPlannerNow in Columbus, OH. Good luck trying to find either one of those.

First let’s talk about how awful the email is. No context, no identification, no reason to click. I could go on, but it’s not even needed, you can see for yourself. Who’s gonna click on that email?

Really impactful, right? Um, wrong.

Well, I clicked, just for fun and for the purposes of this post — which, mind you, probably dooms me to a life of spam from these shady folks. You arrive at this lovely fly-by-night website called managementjobs.net. Seriously, is anyone using this site to search for a job? Do they really get enough traffic using shady email marketing tactics? Anyway, they have a blog — which is amazing. Are you going to take advice from someone who has to dupe you to actually get you to their website?

Finally, when you hit the opt-out screen, this is what you see below.

Here's when you get scared, as you ask "Who the hell are these people?"

Enough said about these folks. No clue what they’re doing. Actually they’re probably intentionally spamming people at best, and potentially pursuing much more criminal activities at worst. Not the way you want to market anything to your customers in any way.

Foursquare
The next entry comes from my lovely friends at Foursquare, who are about as responsive to customers as the chair you’re sitting in or the desk you’re leaning on. Actually, worse — because the chair will lean back, turn and do other things you ask it to, and the desk actually works as advertised.

The folks over at Foursquare — you know, that darling of media and market value — have a little issue being responsive to customers. As in NEVER responding to anyone. That is why I was surprised to get the email below in reply to one of my several performance issues with their performance-challenged-yet-popular app. I’m thought to myself “maybe they turned over a new leaf” when I saw the email appear in my inbox.

Well, we aren’t really that lucky just yet. The email itself leaves alot to be desired. Alot of fluffy copy and irrelevant links, no direct answer to anything resembling my question.

Heavy on irrelevant copy, light on relevant answers

Howver, let’s talk about the bigger picture here. When you scroll to the bottom of the email, you can see the original date that I submitted my initial question.

Thanks for the response, 11 months later!

Yes, that is correct — 11 months after the fact, Foursquare blessed me with a response. What adds to the hilarity in that is this subsequent dialogue:

  • Me: Ssssooooo, lemme get this straight. You’re replying to one of my support emails…..a YEAR later? Well, 11 months, technically. Are you serious?
  • Foursquare: I know it’s been a long time, but we thought it was better to respond late than never to respond at all! :)

At least they used a smiley face. Yet, kinda sad that they think waiting 11 months to respond to customers is funny. Also sad that a prominent brand has to be on my bad examples list.

Needless to say, what both of these companies do is not the way to treat your customers. In 2011, please make it a point to charge ahead with better customer service and marketing than these examples illustrate.

If you don’t, be aware that your customers are empowered with an arsenal of social tools, just like this blog. And they will take their story to their social networks.

It just doesn’t pay to be shady or be careless in responding to your customers any more.

Economic Rebound = Customer Service Falloff

It’s funny how “things are better” amounts to things actually being worse when it comes to customer service.

It makes sense, though, and with a good, long look you can already see it happening in businesses of all sizes and industries.

There are some companies that are always just historically bad when it comes to customer service – AT&T, Excite, the electric company, (United Illuminating here in CT…awful), the cable company. Add in your own favorites (or un-favorites, if you will). Yet combine a rebounding economy with a make-my-losses-back mentality and a shortage of resources and people, and you have historically bad customer service across the board.

It starts at the local level, with service companies from landscapers to oil companies to snow removers. These were services that a lot of out-of-work and cost-conscious consumers eliminated or scaled back on during the tough times of the past few years. Now that things are doing better economically, some consumers are opening the wallets back up, and those companies are more than happy to take the work again. And on the surface, certainly taking on alot of customers helps these companies bounce back from revenue and sales declines of the past few years. Yet for many of them, going for quantity over quality means delivering subpar service to a wider group of customers — including those who may have stuck by them during the tough times. Ultimately that’s not good business.

These are also businesses who haven’t invested in technology or equipment or infrastructure during the down times, so now they’re taking on added customer volume without the resources in place to provide good service. The first symptom is long wait times on the phone and for service delivery. Online contact doesn’t make it easier either, as someone already stretched too thin manages the online channel. Then, when service is delivered it’s frequently subpar since stretched resources are trying to service more customers in the same amount of time. That extra care they gave you as a loyal customer during the hard times is gone. And new customers immediately have low expectations from less-than-optimal service delivery.

The same goes for big brands. Many of them outsourced customer service overseas, for example, and are now getting hammered by higher volume hitting under-trained staff. And many of them still use social media as a mouthpiece, rather than a means for engagement.

None of this leads to long-term success – customers are unhappy from Day One, so it makes your business a commodity. There’s no loyalty based on price, experience, brand…nothing.

My recommendation? As a business that depends on customers, you have to invest in things that make your business unique. And while tough economic times make it difficult to invest in capital costs – like technology – it shouldn’t prevent you from charging ahead with low-cost investments in training, creativity, and other things that make businesses succeed. And ultimately, it means delivering consistent, high-quality service and experience. If that means taking on less customers now so you can build stronger relationships in the long term, that’s a cost of doing business. You have to realize that if take on too much and deliver bad service, you’re going to spend more on sales and marketing costs in the long run trying to replace customers who leave.

Stay tuned for my next post, which outlines three things you can do to avoid these pitfalls.

I hope this post trickles down to the snow removal service that takes care of (or doesn’t) my building. If you do quick, hasty, low-quality work because you’re trying to make it to as many customers as you can, you’re only pulling a snow job on yourself.

Another Look at Personal Branding

We’ve been talking about personal branding and Brand Y-O-U for some time now (even the legal implications), and undoubtedly you’ve invested some time already in it.

Right?

No matter what your profession is, I certainly hope so. Need some more convincing? If you’re in healthcare, hop on over to my latest blog post for Oncology Times and learn about why personal branding is valuable for oncology clinicians.

Even if you’re not in healthcare, take a good, long look at it anyway, since many of the same priniciples apply to building your value as an expert in what you do. Need guidance on how to get there? Take a look at these posts:

It’s important to charge ahead with crafting a personal brand that establishes your expertise, builds social capital and your social network, and carries you through tough times and good times alike.

How to Reform an Enewsletter

There’s so much to stay up-to-speed on nowadays, it’s easy to get passed by.

That’s what happened to me at one point last year, when one of my email campaigns got stale real quick.

Something can always fall through the cracks, even if you put alot of time into planning and strategy. So when you’re stuck in a bad email situation, get refocused quickly, take a good, long look at best practices, and make some changes to your email program to turn a bad campaign into an opportunity to re-engage customers quickly.

I just wrote the following article for Chief Marketer (access the original piece right here) that summarizes how I switched up the sitch and turned that stale campaign into a winner again.

Healthcare Enewsletter Reform Perks Up Response

With email marketing, there’s more to stay up-to-date on than ever before: integrating social and email, reactivating inactive customers, personalization, accounting for mobile users, deliverability challenges, testing, using content and relevance to drive engagement. Add all that to the day-to-day tasks of your job, and it’s inevitable that something may fall through the cracks.

That was the case for one healthcare client I worked with. I certainly spent a lot of time on testing and solid planning, yet a period came up where work volume skyrocketed and I lost sight of performance on one of our email campaigns. So what had started out as a great member newsletter turned into a stale email that lacked engaging content, with increasingly poor metrics as a result.

I needed to change the system and implement some real healthcare reform to get this email program back on track. Three simple steps led the way:

  • reducing frequency
  • investing saved time in creating better content
  • refreshing the template to align with best practices.

The problem
The client was Massachusetts General Hospital, for whom I managed marketing strategy for its live and online educational programs directed to clinicians in mental health, oncology, and other specialties. As I mentioned in an earlier article, a big challenge in the healthcare market is the huge number of critically important emails that healthcare professionals receive every day—emails about patients, medications, procedures, new research, all of which take priority over marketing messages. And then, of course, healthcare providers are also affected by the other issues regarding email marketing, such as inbox clutter and deliverability.

Last year, a bimonthly newsletter for the Massachusetts General Hospital Academy went from average open and click rates in January (based on all my email campaigns for that client) to open rates of less than 5% in August and click rates of…well, you don’t want to know. It was that low.

Part of the reason was content. During that busy time I mentioned, there was less time to dedicate to content development for a biweekly newsletter. So copy blocks became longer, the content became less informative, and some of the articles and announcements mirrored what we sent in our more marketing-oriented emails. Without unique content, the newsletter no longer compelled recipients to open or read it.

Mass General Newsletter Before

Mass General newsletter before reform

The solution
The first step in the solution was to pull back on frequency from bimonthly to monthly. We did have other email campaigns, and the target audience receives all those other important emails I mentioned above. So I believed that sending fewer emails—at our highest-performing send times—would create a greater impact and help our emails stand out amid the clutter.

The second step was to take the time saved by sending fewer emails and invest it in developing better content. With more time I was able to better leverage content that was already created by the hospital’s various service lines and treatment centers. Because it hadn’t appeared in the other newsletters that subscribers received, this content was new to them.

Indeed, you don’t have to create all-new content for your newsletters. It can be just as valuable to link to important content already out there that your audience may not know about or to provide your own analysis on important news and research.

Third, I had someone on my internal marketing team redesign our HTML template. We moved away from the image-heavy header area to a small, HTML text header with a right-column logo as the only image. We include “Massachusetts General Hospital Academy” in the from line, because it lifts open rates, so we no longer needed the logo to occupy valuable upper-left real estate.

We added a brief table of contents in the top 300 pixels that linked down to short copy blocks. The copy was written to entice clicks rather than tell too much of the story, and we used small images to liven up the template and create visual points of interest. We ensured that the images, however, would not damage the integrity of the layout if a recipient’s email client blocked them. We fit key links in an unobtrusive location opposite the table of contents and in the upper right, and added in a few profiles of key hospital thought leaders in the right column opposite the copy blocks.

Mass General Newsletter After

Mass General newsletter after reform

Overall the redesigned template was much easier to skim and engage with—and was exactly what the doctor ordered in terms of results. In just the first email, sent out in September, the open rate went up 13%. Further subject-line testing and content testing increased the open rate by 30% by the end of the year. Click rates also jumped significantly, and while they were certainly skewed toward the most interesting content, they were also spread out across the entire template, which clearly showed users were reading past the scroll.

Based on these results, when it comes to refreshing a stale campaign, here’s a prescription for the problem:

  • Consider decreasing volume, even if for a short time. Give your customers a minute to breathe. You’ll find that less is more when the message is right.
  • Make sure those fewer messages have better-quality content. Spend the extra time you have on creating relevance and personalization that matter.
  • Ensure your templates are optimized for today’s email clients and user habits. Rely less on images, use HTML text for key action points, optimize for the mobile channel, etc.
  • Provide numerous ways to engage, by leveraging interactivity, linking to video content, and integrating with social media, among other ways.
  • Sanitize your data. Subsequently we scrubbed out some long-inactive records that depressed metrics and messaged those users separately to reactivate them.

So don’t panic if you get distracted and your email campaign comes down with a case of bad metrics. Refresh your strategy, optimize your design and your approach to content, and in a very short time your emails will be healthy again.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.