Sending Customers Their Message

May 29, 2006
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The president of a New York-based company asked the marketing consultant about using radio advertising. "We want to reach business owners and managers; morning and afternoon drive time seems like a good way to go," he said.

The two other company officials at the table seemed less than enthusiastic, but didn't say anything. The consultant pointed out that 10 million people have their car radios on every day but rarely, if ever, hear a commercial. That's right - satellite radio. The two who had remained silent just nodded; they understood.

Where are Mr. & Mrs. America and all the ships at sea?

PICK AND BE CHOOSY

Everywhere, audiences want their entertainment "how they want it." It isn't just satellite radio that's eating away at the audience; a big chunk is also being devoured by iPods. At home, TiVo scrubs the TV commercials and 150 cable channels slice the per-channel viewing audience paper-thin.

In-Stat reports that one in five consumers with cell phones plans to cancel his or her landline service. We may want to reach out, but all we'll get is "no longer in service."

Broadcast TV watches while audiences continue to slip away. The Super Bowl has become its one annual payday, the one time a year when the 18-to-24 male audience is glued to the tube. No wonder the beer companies belly up for as many $2.5-million 30-second spots as they can guzzle.

HITTIN' THE INTERNET SUPER HIGHWAY

Unfortunately, sending the message doesn't mean it reaches someone. The painful decline of the use of the Yellow Pages is a prime example of that. The public has closed that book, replacing it with one or more of the countless free Internet sites offering the same information updated more frequently, not to mention the paid sites that offer the unpublished numbers the printed books don't carry.

That's only the tip of the Internet story. According to the Polk Center for Automotive Studies, the Internet is the single most important source of information for one-third of 18-30 year olds when buying their first cars. The Internet also has the unique ability to deliver TV programming to thousands, if not millions, of small audiences. "The next wave of media is to unleash the power of serving people's special interests," comments CEO John Hendricks of Discover Communications (New York Times, March 3, 2006).

E-mail marketing lingers, but the spam-induced outcries against having mailboxes stuffed with unsolicited messages brought that medium to its knees. It was a case of reaching out, but touching no one.

Now comes blogging with something like 80,000 new blogs a day. If anything, blogging is most akin to the iPod revolution. We demand the music we want the way we want it. In the same way, blogs let individuals participate in the news of the day. It's here to stay. And of course, more and more blogs now run advertising.

And then there's the great rushing sound that's perturbing the traditional advertising venues - Google. Billions of advertising dollars have migrated to its pages; Yahoo is doing it and Microsoft isn't far behind.

All this should make clear that reaching out and actually connecting with the desired audience is a challenge that is increasingly difficult, demanding, and at times, elusive.

SUCCESSFULLY CLIMBING THE SLIPPERY SLOPE

What may appear to be a pessimistic prognosis for companies that need to get their messages to the right buyers points out the need to take the marketing task more seriously than ever. Here are guidelines for reaching out and actually touching the right someone:

  • Never let a crisis drive your marketing decisions. Ironically, far too many marketing decisions take place when the participants are unprepared to make them. "We've got to do something to rev up business," demands the sales manager of a midsized company. In a crisis, reason is short-circuited and otherwise levelheaded, competent people take irrational action.

    For example, one particular sales manager ordered the staff to send out 50,000 e-mails a week to a particular prospect database that was touted to be buyers. In times of panic, we all want to believe and dream. However, after several weeks of these blasts, there were zero new sales.

  • Don't get stampeded into making a buying decision. As a tactic designed to get orders signed, a cable TV advertising salesman thought he could create buying urgency by telling prospective advertisers an upcoming month's time slots were sold out. Instead, astute buyers backed off fast.

    It's the same with sending out direct mail or planning a seminar. The key to marketing success is planning. When that is compromised in any way, the results are always disastrous. "I'm holding a seminar in three weeks," reported an experienced insurance salesperson. "The invitations will be going out shortly." Without knowing any of the details, the marketing executive predicted failure. He was right.

  • Forget about your personal opinions and those of anyone else. There are times to trust your gut, but only when you're an expert on the issue. The trouble is that CEOs, CFOs, directors of engineering, and everyone else often fancy themselves as experts on marketing. They trust their opinions in areas where they are competent - and in those where they aren't. At the top of that list is marketing.

    "I like postcards," said a company president, when speaking to a marketing consultant. "So what?" the consultant said to himself, wishing that he could blurt out the words.

    Personal opinion only clouds the issues, forces valid discussion off track, and precludes a sound marketing program from moving forward.

  • Focus on one customer. As elementary as it may seem to base marketing decisions on specific customers and prospects, more often than not it fails to happen in practice.

    It takes time to study circulation figures and drill down far enough to obtain a clear understanding of actual newspaper or magazine readers. It takes time to identify your top customers and then find sources that are capable of replicating them. But it takes even more time and effort to survey customers to make sure your message hits the target, so you'd better be able to deliver exactly what the customer expects once the marketing program commences.

    One manufacturer in the Upper Midwest spent tens of thousands of dollars to advertise its product in trade publications. The full-page, full-color ads were attractive, but they never mentioned how the product solved the problems facing the readers. Once the customer issues were identified, new ads focused on a series of customer concerns.

  • Harness success with a plan. A marketing plan is nothing more than a way of answering one crucial question: Who's going to do what to whom and when? When all the jargon and other marketing gobbledygook are stripped away, this is what a marketing plan is all about.

    A plan also suggests that a series of marketing activities are involved. Interestingly, this is where much of the breakdown occurs. Unable to bounce more than one ball at a time, many companies find it is impossible to perform multitask marketing. Yet, the successful marketing program demands that a series of activities occur concurrently so that the whole generates more impact than the sum of the parts.

    Even with a plan, companies can find it difficult - sometimes impossible - to keep it on track.

  • Stick with 'em. There should be a sign over the entrance to every business with a three-word marketing message: Persistence pays off.

    Unfortunately, there's too much misdirected persistence. For example, the salesperson that calls and calls or sends a half-dozen e-mails and then stops when there's no response isn't persistent. Stupid would be more accurate. Bombarding prospects and customers is something quite different than persistence. It sends the message that all the salesperson is interested in is getting the order.

    When that happens, it's over.

    Persistence is about planning. It recognizes that decisions are not made quickly and that other issues may require immediate attention. Persistence sets in motion marketing actions designed to get you acquainted with the customer, let them get acquainted with you, and build trust and confidence. Most importantly, it sends the message that persistence sets you apart from the competition.

    In spite of all the roadblocks and hurdles to reaching out and actually touching the right customer, there are tools and techniques that make it possible to connect with the customers you want to influence. There are more opportunities that not only reach the right person, but also connect with their interests, concerns, and goals. In other words, we can actually touch them with their message.

    Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He can be contacted at 617-328-0069 or at www.grahamcomm.com.

    Publication date: 05/29/2006

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