This is the first in a series of point/counterpoint articles by Bill Babcock and Bill Rozier. Babcock is CEO of a direct and relationship marketing agency. Rozier is a no-nonsense senior director of global marketing, dealing with the realities of marketing in a large technology corporation.
Babcock: How long does it take to know you're going to like someone? How long to know someone is not telling the truth? For that matter, how long for you to know this article might have something important for you?
A second, maybe two. That's obviously not long enough to read it or even skim it. But you have an unconscious, intuitive ability to judge value.
And neither you nor I know how it works. We just know it does.
You don't agree? You think things are much more orderly and logical than that? You don't have to take my word for this. Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, wrote a book called Blink about how we make very complex assessments unconsciously. The book is certainly good reading, but for this brief article it's sufficient to accept that we DO have a highly effective, very automatic bullshit detector.
Why is this so important to marketing? Because your prospects will give your marketing messages about two seconds to resonate. They will be assessing importance, value, truth and, most important, personal relevance. And as they say about sincerity: If you can fake that, you've got it made.
Rozier: So how do we do that? I'll grant you that message relevance is critical for us. Focused marketing outperforms "clever" every time. The ROI on generalized customer messaging is so low it's almost irresponsible.
Our customers want communications from us in their vernacular. They reward a dialog delivered in their voice in almost perfect proportion to our ability to be relevant in their discovery process. But that's not easy to do, and it's not cheap to do. Are you saying there is a shortcut?
Babcock: Some very nifty shortcuts. Or at least ways to sidestep that instant judgment. I'll try not to stretch the metaphor too far, but it's like the delicate dance of meeting an attractive stranger. You can't start off with a relevant conversation—because you don't know enough about them. You start off with lightweight emotional cues that pique interest. Like the words at the beginning of this article—nothing heavy, just interesting and with a hint of truth and value. You can bypass the relevance issue if you have enough emotional interest. That won't last, but it gives you those two seconds to engage, and once you've done that you can start being relevant.
Part of establishing rapport is finding out what you should talk about. Having a series of conversations is critical to attracting and then converting a prospect to a customer. Each conversation must deliver value—which means it has to be important to the prospect. And if each conversation occurs in an interactive environment, it can set the stage for value and relevance in the next.
You can't jump from an introductory conversation to the purchase conversation. The funnel has steps, and the prospect decides when to take them. They make such decisions to move forward based on many things, and one if them is having enough information. You need to maintain engagement and deliver that information while they make those decisions.
Rozier: OK, I agree that's true, but it feels a little narrow. Our product portfolio is very expensive, with an average selling time of 18 months. Our customers never make a "single" buying decision. Rather, they make a series of buying decisions that cascade from discovery to demo.
More important, their discovery process is not limited to a single marketing touch. Our Web analytics prove that customers average almost four visits to our site before they "ping" us to have a salesperson contact them. In those visits, they quite methodically follow predictable page streams and will react to unique offers if we can anticipate vernacular and then craft intelligent, personalized offers.
We haven't projected it yet, but we've identified the guide pegs for success. Single touch, single message, single offer lead-generation strategies simply don't work for us.
Babcock: They rarely do for complicated products, but if you're going to drive demand you need to be able to initiate conversations and maintain them. How are you going to do that when each person has unique needs, and each is making a snap decision about the value of your communication?
You need some tricks to force the engagement. These aren't big theoretical concepts; in fact, they're really tactical, but they're part of that larger strategy. They don't work on their own—just as our emotional direct mail messages don't work unless there is a strong back end and a good strategy behind them. But these are tricks we've found that initiate conversations.
The first one we call Verbal Judo. It goes like this: Interest comes from conflict. Acceptance comes from forgiveness. That's why no good marketing ever came from a committee. When I use a word like "bullshit" in the fourth paragraph, it jolts you. You don't really like it, but if I'm reasonably charming and the information is good, you forgive me and move on.
And from that forgiveness comes acceptance and little closer relationship. I call things like this conflict keys, because they initiate interest that simply wouldn't exist if the marketing were pabulum—the conflict keys the interest.
Conflict keys confuse or delay the snap decision. It can be copy, design or even writing techniques like paragraphs that consist of one or two sentences, and sentences that consist of one or two words. Concepts that pull and push. Bold statements followed by humility. Look at the third paragraph of this article—"we don't know why this works." Verbal judo.
Rozier: Funny you should mention that. From a messaging perspective we believe the best marketing focuses on words first and paragraphs later.
At a recent global event, we decided to get away from the traditional display of technical graphics and acronym soup in our trade show booth and just display "wisdoms," which are very provocative short sentences of the halo values we bring to customers.
Our executive team was nervous. Our customers loved it. It was so well received that we designed an entirely new corporate brochure around the "wisdom" concept. And our booth was voted "best of show," using nothing more than a handful of very carefully selected words.
Babcock: Exactly. We can grab your attention with something powerfully emotional and pull you online. Once you're there, if we know a little bit about you—perhaps just some navigation choices or a single question response that reveals you are analytical rather than emotional and creative—we can simply shuffle the presentation order.
For this article, if I knew you were analytical, I could take the sixth and seventh paragraphs and made them the first two. Suddenly the article is written for you. With just the barest profile I can make any interactive conversation more relevant.
Rozier: Now you're worrying me. Maybe we're overcomplicating it, but automated personalization remains the Promised Land in our marketing department. No topic we address as a team will ever sell more beer or generate more conversation than Perfect Personalization. No one is left out.
Marketing sees one-off brochures and print on demand. Sales people see a "cloning" process that extends their presentations. IT sees an entirely new infrastructure and wants to hire two FTE's tomorrow. The Web team sees personalized landing pages for everyone on earth.
And, at the end of the day, nothing much seems to happen. The complication of the technology and demand for enormous content resources stall it before it ever gets serious consideration. I love the idea, but it's still an idea.
Babcock: I guarantee that you are overcomplicating it. We've been doing it for seven years. When we started out, we were using extensive profiles and building highly personalized content from modules according to expressed needs and interests. A ton of work, and not many clients were willing to pay for it, but the results were good.
Ever walk into a store and immediately KNOW you're in the right place? That you'll find a shirt you'll really like? We've searched for words to describe this critical quality, and the best we've come up with is "scent" (and we stole that from the Eisenberg brothers). Images, words, tone, placement, environment.
Sounds mystical, and it can be. But it can be simple too.
If the profile tells you that your prospect is in the early stages of consideration, you should offer them a case study on how someone in their business succeeded with your product. If they are starting to narrow the consideration set, you should show them implementation case studies.
Rozier: I might be unique in this, but I don't have any problem with what you're saying about scent and instinct—we've found it to be absolutely true. We have an individual dedicated to Strategic Communication who is really our version of a Director of Instinct Marketing. He's tasked with reviewing everything that is passed into the marketplace to ensure that the images and messaging build a holistic impression of the company and don't disconnect at the customer level. The results of his work with our Web team on just keyword and organic search strategy pay for his salary.
Babcock: Well, since you agree with that, let's try something a little tougher for a large company: Stick with what wins. I think the most deadly phrase in advertising is "we don't like the creative." By the time everyone likes the creative, the communication sucks. Creative that works is great creative, and that's critical to the kind of approach we're talking about. Like it or not, the first step is testing, and you MUST test big variations. If the first criterion is that you must like the creative, then the testing range is too narrow.
Once you have approaches that work, don't throw them away just because you're bored with them or never did like them. The unconscious processes that make people pay attention, that gets them to respond, that moves them down the sales funnel, are far too subtle for so simple and arbitrary a filter. Try stuff you don't like. If it works, keep it and test against it.
Rozier: I know that's true, but it almost doesn't matter. First I'll tell you why I know it's true. When I was in college not so awfully long ago, I saw an offer from Orvis for fishing flies. They'd sell me a dozen of their best flies in a cool case for next to nothing. I bought them and was delighted. Over the years, I've invested enough in Orvis gear to almost rate as my own retail outlet. I saw that same offer for at least the next 10 years, and it was identical to the one I acted on. I've learned the "repeat offer" lesson and have become a practitioner. It's not old until it no longer works.
Now I'll tell you why it doesn't matter: If the CEO hates green, you can't do green ads. Inside a corporation your marketing has to do two things: work, and not get you fired. I know that ugly direct marketing ads work sometimes, but I can't do them.
I believe what you've told me, Bill, about your "emotional" lead-generation pieces. But I'm going to have to take baby steps to get there, because this company is neck deep in engineers. I can't force through creative that people here hate. We're making progress, but if people here say "we don't like the creative," I have to listen to them and find some middle ground that works.
Babcock: We'll keep working on it. Truth is that we've had to take baby steps in every company, even our own. But I know I have to push hard and be a little radical so we can try these new things and show how they work. It's simply amazing to me that a company can say, "I know it got 20 percent response, but we don't like it." But they have and probably still will.
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