Thursday, March 11, 2010


We've gotten used to seeing ads that are targeted directly at us. When we use Google to search the web we see text ads related to the content of our search. When we use Google's Gmail online mail system, as many of us now do for business as well as personal email, we see ads generated from the content of our own messages. Ten years ago that would have seemed creepy; now it seems like nothing.

There's another kind of targeting going on, one that looks not at you and me as individuals, but at what we can call, for want of a better term, human nature. Of course, that's pretty much the definition of marketing - but this is a closer and more scientific look than ever, using MRI scans.

That's right, magnetic resonance imaging. Psychologist Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, is talking about what he and Gregory S. Burns call "neuromarketing." "The most promising application of neuroimaging methods to marketing," they say, "may come before a product is even released — when it is just an idea being developed."

So, no more sitting around a conference table shooting around ideas on what might make a product appealing to this type of person or that type of person. No more guesswork. Now we'll design and position the product based on intricate knowledge of our map of the human brain. Not limited to designing products, the analysis could lend itself to "gauging people's reactions to food, entertainment, buildings and more," say the researchers.

Presented with a product or service developed this way, we wouldn't likely know that. We'd just find the product appealing, because it was designed to be. It would fit us, like a puzzle piece precisely cut to interlock perfectly with its neighbor.

Here's the downside I can see: we're already hardwired to be attracted to things that are bad for us (or for society, or both). Things like sweets; addictive drugs like opiates, painkillers, sleep medications, crack; even underage sex partners. Making it even easier for marketers to appeal to our natural (including our baser) instincts could well push us even harder towards things people want to sell us even though we ought not to have them or do them.

The upside? Positive goals could be aimed at in the same way: for example, getting people to eat healthy foods that they normally would find less appealing than unhealthy ones, or designing an energy-efficient light source with a "warmer," more pleasant color.

The possibilities are almost as myriad as the neurons in our brains. The question is, how much more manipulation do we want to accept?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

William Shawn Never Had To Worry About SEO

That's right—the legendary editor of the New Yorker surely had plenty of concerns, from circulation and fact-checking to ornery writers and deadlines. But whether Google would find, index, and prioritize the articles he published wasn't one of them.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a slippery thing. Google and other search engines zealously and jealously guard their search algorithms so people can't game them. Yet a whole industry has arisen around trying to do just that, and whether you avail yourself of such professional services or not, you have to think seriously about SEO if you want your website to appear near the top in a list of search results.

In a world where we're all under the SEO yoke, marketing people and editorial folks have to work together more closely than ever before. We've left the age of articles and stories behind, and entered the era of "content." The impersonality of that word is enough to show what's going on: with written "content," imagination has become subject to a new slavemaster, the search term. While writers have always had to submit to editorial decisions about how their work is cut, augmented, twisted, and (sometimes in the writer's view) demolished, that dynamic has generally centered around one of two factors:

1. Good English (as the editor understands it)

2. Style (the editor's struggle to preserve #1 above while retaining the author's "voice")

Now we must add a third: making sure the essential SEO term or terms are in the right spots in the text itself, whether it's an article, a product description page, a mission statement, a blog entry, or what have you. Is the term in the title? Is it in the first sentence? Should it be at the end too? How many times is too many times? (You don't want to get penalized for overloading.) How do we get it just right? And while doing so, how do we get it smoothly into the text? Turning our "content" awkward or even garbled won't get us anywhere—there's no use getting people to your site if when they get there, they find it reads like a monkey wrote it (or a machine).

This column can't give you the answers, because no one can (however much they think they can charge you for advice). But coming up with some answers which work for you is essential. So is adhering to the practices you establish, and so is testing, adjusting, and keeping up with current thinking on SEO.

Old William Shawn doesn't know what he's missing. Lucky him.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

March Madness: Crazy Like a Fox

March Madness. The very name conjures up images of out-of-control competition—emotional, insane. Even before the big NCAA basketball tournament begins, we have (drum roll, please...) Judgment Week. And when the preliminary rounds are over, it's down to the Final Four.

Over-the-top drama is the modern way to market big-time sports. Professional wrestling with its oversized, made-up characters, screaming matches, and in-and-out-of-the-ring histrionics showed the way. But the NFL picked up the baton in the late '60s with the creation of the Super Bowl and its accouterments. The half-time show. The heavily promoted debut of new commercials (oh, the excitement!) Even the coin toss to see who receives on the first play is freighted with anticipation and its own broadcast segment. Bud Bowl, anyone?

College football is no slouch, with its many colorfully named Bowls, each of which is, like the Super Bowl, in point of fact just a football game. But that system, which points up the lack of a real NCAA college football tournament, is faintly ridiculous, as fans can easily sense, however much they enjoy Thanksgivings in front of the TV.

March Madness, though, is really something special. It's a real tournament, highly organized, but with just enough subjectivity (as with seedings) to generate publicity through controversy. There's ample opportunity for a Cinderella team to push into the late rounds. A small industry has grown up around simply helping people print materials for an office pool. Mathletes calculate the odds of a perfect bracket. (What's a quintillion or three among office-mates?)

It all seems somewhat childish, in a way. But sports are designed to appeal to the child in us, especially men. Ultimately, it's just boys playing with a ball on a field. And that's exactly the feeling the geniuses of sports promotion know how to tap into. The lesson? Know your core customers. Or even just the relevant parts of them. Mo-o-o-m!!! He stepped over the line! No fair! Foul! Foul!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Success Through Excess

Jon Sobel writes:

"Over the top" is a phrase heard most often in theatrical circles. But marketing campaigns often go over the top too. And why not? Marketing is a kind of performance, after all, and in performance going over the top isn't always a bad thing. An exaggerated turn in an otherwise tasteful or modest production may be off-putting and unlikable. But where appropriate, it's amusing and effective. Drag queens delight audiences by exaggerating the iconic traits of legendary performers of the past. Heavy metal and rock bands, from Kiss to Twisted Sister to Gwar, make excess and kitsch their stock in trade. By good-humoredly "offending" what's commonly considered to be good taste, they have a pleasing and memorable effect.

Call it the joy of being manipulated. When you're pulling people's strings in such an obvious way that they feel like they're in on the joke, you've made a connection, whether you're channeling Barbra Streisand or selling lottery tickets. The New York State Lottery has a commercial out now that features cute bunnies dressed in adorable little outfits on miniature candy-colored amusement park rides, accompanied by a fluffy-sweet little song. Every time the commercial comes on my wife drops whatever she's doing and stares at the screen like an idiot. It's a marvelous example of success through excess:

Finnish heavy metal band Lordi won a Eurovision contest through excess. True, they had a catchy song too – but videos like this haven't hurt them at all:

Finally, American TV watchers are all too familiar with Pizza Hut's penchant for finding ever more creative ways to do excessive things with pizza dough. The chain's interest in baking things right into the crust got silly enough that it became fodder for a Mad TV parody:

Of course, a memorable marketing campaign doesn't guarantee a big sales boost. The flip side of feeling like you're in on a joke is feeling smart enough not to be seriously manipulated. Having a good product remains key. Further, a commercial's very inventiveness can outshine the product it's meant to promote, especially if the product isn't that remarkable. But all things being equal, the old adage rings true: there's no such thing as bad publicity. And going over the top can be a great way to be so bad you're good.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bios and Press Releases

Elisa Peimer writes:

While creating both a bio and a press
release for a client recently, I was asked, "Why do I need both?" Good question! If a press release is about something a person is doing or has accomplished, isn't biographical information going to be part of the press release?

Sure. But while a bio and a press release share some information, their purposes are different.

A bio – or biography – tells the whole story of the person it's about. A bio of an executive, author, or musician, for example, talks about that person's background, influences, and career path. It discusses their early work, and what they did in order to create their newest work. It touches upon the choices they made in their lives that led them to where they currently are. It also goes into depth about their current creation – their thoughts about it, what they're trying to accomplish, what they hope their company, customers, or public will get out of it.

In writing a bio, I'll always (if possible) interview the subject to get a sense of what they're about. I'll ask them about their childhood and their early influences, as well as specifics about their newest project – what inspired them, who they worked with, what they hope to achieve. The ultimate goal of the bio is to draw readers in and get them interested in the subject. It's ultimately a marketing piece, something to give the reader a reason to want to find out more about the subject and his or her work.

A press release, on the other hand, is built around a specific piece of news – a product release or event, for example. It pulls information from the bio, such as general background about the person or people involved. The main purpose, however, is to promote a thing – a merger or acquisition, a new deal, a record release party, a new book or CD, a new strategic partnership. The press release is sent out to the media for the purpose of advertising the event. Sometimes publications reprint the press release as is, and sometimes the press release is the instigation for further editorial coverage of the event. A press release should have all the relevant information clearly on the page: what, where, when, who. It should also provide web addresses for where to buy the product, where to RSVP for the event, etc. And it shouldn't be too long – one page is usually best. Publications have limited room to reprint content, and you don't want to give them something they can't fit in their available space.

As you can see, a press release is time-sensitive, while a bio is not. A press release is created to promote something, gets sent out, and that's it. When a new event or piece of news is in the works, a new press release should be written and distributed. A bio, while it can and should be updated over time, is a perpetual tool that should be posted on the subject's website, and on social networking sites and e-commerce sites, as an additional tool for the press. Both are necessary parts of a good marketing and press plan.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Twitter: The New Customer Service

Elisa Peimer writes:

A few months ago I wrote about Twitter as a means of business-to-customer communication. I had been intrigued by reading about what happened to a guy who had been stranded at the airport after his JetBlue flight was delayed. I found it really interesting that the whole customer service process – JetBlue trying to figure out what the problem was, Southwest stepping in and trying to get the guy on one of their flights – represented a fundamentally new way of business-to-customer communication. All instantaneous, all public. It broadened the perception that Twitter was about more than just letting people know what you were doing at any given moment.

One of my favorite bloggers,, recently posted her own highly entertaining story of a customer service issue resolved via Twitter with Maytag. After a long bout of poor customer service regarding a broken washing machine, she tweeted her frustration in no uncertain terms. The result? A call from a manager at Whirlpool, Maytag's parent company; quick service; and even an offer of a free machine from another manufacturer.

I recently had one of my own customer relations issue resolved via Twitter. It happened after a certain amount of frustration. I’m currently working with a wonderful Indian singer named Chandrika Tandon and I was in the process of getting her new album up on popular online music distributor CD Baby. Due to a misunderstanding at the printer, I needed a UPC number from CD Baby, stat. I emailed. No response. I called. No one picked up the phone. I continued to email and call for days, to no avail. Meanwhile, the printer was waiting on the project until a UPC number could be procured. In desperation, I posted a tweet to CD Baby’s Twitter page – Hello? Is anybody out there? Why aren’t you responding to emails or picking up your phone?

Apparently, someone at the company watches their Twitter feed – within 5 minutes I got a response. “Sorry you’ve been having trouble getting through – what’s up?” After going back and forth on Twitter a few times, my UPC code problem was resolved within hours. I was glad I was able to get my client what she needed, but I couldn’t help but be annoyed that I had had to resort to a public calling out of bad customer service before I could get a response. At the same time, thank goodness for Twitter – if I hadn’t had the option of using that method to get in touch with the company, who knows when I would have been able to get the help I needed?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Marketing: A Matter of Life and Death?

Marketing goes far beyond selling shoes and filling theater seats. It dramatically affects people's lives and livelihoods, even alters the directions of nations. "Army Strong," anyone? How about "USO: Until Every One Comes Home"? Harry and Louise? Slogans and characters like these are parts of marketing campaigns for intangibles like services, charities, and political opinions. They want something from you, but in these cases it's often not money; it's your opinion, your vote, your actions, or your time.

The same principles apply in the political world as in the commercial: you have to make what you're selling visible and appealing to enough "consumers" that they give you what you need to succeed, whether it's profit or votes, cash or cachet. It's not for nothing that we talk about President Obama "selling" his health care plan and the public deciding whether to "buy" it.

Marketing can influence segments of the American public to support or oppose any big societal change. Remember when President Bush wanted to privatize Social Security? The idea seemed to align with the nation's capitalist, anti-big-government plurarity. Yet a large majority of the public wouldn't buy it.

But Americans didn't reject that plan purely on its merits. They rejected it, in part, because the President didn't sell it well. The plan was seen as threatening an entitlement to which the public had become accustomed. Only a very stong, sharp marketing plan could have made such a change seem wise, or even palatable, and President Bush did not have one.

Now a Democratic President wants to introduce a new public option into the health care system. Ideologically, this move leans in the opposite direction from Bush's Social Security plan. Yet President Obama is having almost as hard a time selling his leftish plan as Bush had with his rightish one. Why? Ineffective marketing on Obama's part, which has left the field open for strong marketing from his opponents.

And their disruptive and provocative tactics are working. In addition to placing emphasis on the Republicans' talking points about deficits, they divert attention away from the issues and towards the political theatrics. The result: polls find more Americans expressing caution and suspicion about health care reform. To counter this, the Democrats must find good marketing strategies of their own: painting the Republicans as do-nothings (a cynical tactic but potentially effective), or suggesting their pockets are being lined by big, private insurance companies.

To do battle, the two sides arm themselves with time-honored marketing techniques: appealing to the heart over the head, saturating the media, simplifying the message, and so on. In cases like this, however, the better marketers will earn something other than bigger profits (although drug companies, insurance providers, and the like are certainly stakeholders too). They will earn the power to determine the well-being of the citizenry.

A bit more important than selling shoes, wouldn't you say?