Category Archives: Strategy

Rethinking Assumptions

Left-Brain-vs.-Right-Brain1I recently had the opportunity to visit with a couple data marketing gurus: Sean Callahan, Senior Manager of Content at LinkedIn, and Eric Schnabel, Director of Facebook’s North America Creative Shop. They were here for Ole Miss for Data Day.

It’s fascinating to hear how their companies – and many others – are using data to segment, target and build relationships with customers. The idea of segmentation and targeting is nothing new of course, but the amount of information available and the sophisticated ways of using it has changed the landscape of marketing.

And it makes me think.

I’ve always believed there are really two sides of the marketing profession. There’s the “creative” side, which involves right-brain things like imagination, emotion and intuition. Creatives are passionate people who write, design, position brands, think outside the box….their work is colorful, poetic, subjective. Think of Don Draper on Mad Men: Find emotional appeals, trust your gut, pitch ideas, the hell with research.

Then there’s the “analytical” side, which focuses on left-brain things like information, facts, logic. Left-brainers are driven by data and numbers; they seek patterns, correlations and explanations. Their work is rational, objective. Research drives everything. Think of Sergeant Joe Friday on Dragnet: “Just the facts ma’am.” (To those under 50:  Dragnet is an old TV show.)

I’m oversimplifying it, but I truly believe the profession has long consisted of people who focus on either the creative or the analytical. You’re either a dreamer or a data geek. Either or. One or the other.

That’s the world I’ve grown up in. I tell my students to know what side of their brain dominates as they ponder careers.

But the landscape is changing. When I hear people like Sean and Eric talk about how creative teams dive into data, or how data professionals think creatively, it makes me realize my assumption about “sides” of the profession is antiquated. As an example, Eric mentioned that some Facebook campaigns now have more than a thousand different versions of one ad, because there are a thousand ways to segment an audience. Success means that everyone involved needs to understand both creative and data.

Technology makes it easier too. I remember when people working on creative had to go to data analysts and request information, but desktop tools now put many of the queries and tables just a click away for anyone.

I think people themselves will always tilt one direction or the other — creative or analytical — simply because of how our brains are wired. But the idea that someone only needs to deal with one side is wrong.  Successful marketers today must think in terms of both.


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Filed under Segmentation, Strategy

When Research Becomes PR

VisaIn the market research classes I teach, we of course focus on how to conduct research: qualitative, quantitative, common research mistakes, how to use research to develop marketing insights and so on.

But another thing we discuss is how sometimes, the research itself can be used to build the brand.

For example, every year, Visa sponsors a “tooth fairy survey.” Among other things, the company learns the average amount American children receive from the tooth fairy ($3.19 in the 2015 survey – down 24 cents from last year); that moms leave more money under the pillow than dads; that kids in the northeast U.S. receive more than kids in the south, and other fun tidbits. Click here for their most recent findings.

But something else beside research is happening. This is a great public relations move for Visa, as it aligns its brand with a financial topic that generates quite a buzz. They conduct the research, find some interesting facts, and then issue a press release that gets picked up by countless media outlets. Simply Google “Visa tooth fairy survey” and see that the 2015 results were covered by Forbes, CNBC, USA Today, Huffington Post, many CBS, ABC and NBC news affiliates, Chicago Tribune – the list goes on and on. The resulting stories mention Visa, and viola! They get some nice publicity.

Visa also promotes a tooth fairy calculator app and does other things to leverage the findings.

This is a great way for companies to gain visibility and position themselves as credible experts on a certain subject.

U-Haul does this as well too. Each year they look at their data to determine where people rent their trucks and trailers, and where they drop them off. From this, they can deduce what cities and states Americans are moving from and to. They then promote this information, and news outlets all across the nation feature stories about America’s migration – giving credit to U-Haul for the insight.   Google “U-Haul relocation survey” to see for yourself.

While the point of market research is to learn something and solve a problem, it’s simply genius to leverage the information for public relations purposes. Visa, U-Haul and other companies often find the value of the resulting publicity far outweighs the cost of the research itself.

Smart marketing indeed!

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Filed under Market Research, Strategy

Chicken or Egg?

Chicken-EggThere’s something I’ve never quite figured out when it comes to the U.S. news media (the “mainstream media,” as some politicians and pundits like to call it).

Does the media set our agenda – meaning, our national discourse is because of the prominence given to certain topics that are broadcast, posted, printed or published?

Or is the media mostly a reflection of the things we as a nation want to see and hear? Media is, after all, business. And the goal of business is sales and profit. That’s achieved by giving customers what they want, which is the very essence of marketing. So this theory says that the news we get is because it’s the news we want.

Think about news cycles when nearly every major outlet was intensely focused on the same thing (and I’m not counting natural disasters, plane crashes, celebrity deaths and the like): OJ.  Balloon boy. Octomom. Wikileaks. Trayvon Martin. Ebola. Polar Vortex. Penn State. Brian Williams. Gay marriage. Confederate flags.

I’m not minimizing any these subjects, but wonder if they were so prominent because the media sets the agenda and made it so, or because that’s what we wanted so we got what we asked for. Maybe it’s both, maybe the two theories can’t be separated and perhaps it’s academic to try to dissect it. To be sure, this seems like the intersection of journalism and marketing.

But I’m thinking about it again recently because of the coverage of Donald Trump. Clearly – for the moment at least – he is the big story of the 2016 presidential election. There are a bunch of other Republicans running but Trump is the one making headlines (see my July 27 post). One can ask: does he make headlines because he’s the guy voters want,  or do voters want him because he’s the guy in the headlines?

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Although I teach in a school of journalism and mass communications I’m not as much on the media side. My background is marketing. So my natural inclination is to believe that media doesn’t exist to inform, educate or persuade; I don’t think there’s any so-called “agenda.” Media is about money – that’s the agenda. And the way for that to happen is to deliver the content, the headlines, the pictures, the graphics, the anchors and the talking heads people want.   If not, the product won’t be consumed.

In short, Trump will remain the news until if and when people tire of the topic, and then the headlines will wane.

Still, sometimes I wonder if there’s more to it than that.

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Filed under Integrated Marketing Communications, Strategy

Catch 22

book-publishing1I was talking with an author yesterday. His name is Michael Henry; he’s got a new novel (his 8th) on the way. It’s called Murder in the Grove – the plot is rooted in the riots on the Ole Miss campus in October, 1962. It sounds great and I can’t wait to read it.

During our conversation, he mentioned that book publishing is a “Catch 22” these days: Publishers are hesitant to work with authors who haven’t already sold a lot of books, but how’s a new writer supposed to sell books if they can’t find a publisher?

He said it’s the same in the music business. Recording companies favor musicians who have previously sold a lot of music.

And I started thinking how that’s similar to what I hear from students all the time: To land a marketing job, they need experience on their resume. But how do they get experience if employers won’t ever hire someone without it?

Unfortunately I don’t have much advice for authors or musicians.

But when it comes to internships and jobs for my students, I tell them to grab something – anything – to get their first gig out of the way. Then build the resume from there. Sometimes students hesitate to take an internship because they don’t think the opportunity sounds exciting, of they feel the responsibilities might be menial.

But a dull internship is still an internship.

My first internship was at a marketing agency in London. Although that sounds great to say, the experience was anything but. On some days they’d send me to the store to buy more milk and tea for the break room. On other days, I’d sort through file cabinets and organize brochures. Although I got to meet a lot of nice people, the job was generally boring and lasted just a semester.  But from that point forward, I had a track record. Having that internship made getting the next (better) one easier.

Years later, it was a similar paradox when I left my corporate job and started consulting, I knew the hardest client to get would be the first one. How much would I have to tap dance when a prospect asked for references or wanted to know whom my other clients were? I was open to anything, and the first marketing project I landed involved creating display boards for a trade show for a small insurance company. I remember standing there with foam boards and Spray Mount wondering if I’d made a huge career mistake.  But that project led to a better one, and then a better one, and within a few months I had landed some nice projects with the corporate offices of Wells Fargo Mortgage, Farm Bureau, Nationwide, a few municipal governments and other entities.

There will always be Catch 22s. The trick is doing what you need to do to move past it.

For more information on Michael Henry’s books, click here

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Filed under Branding, General, Strategy

Skills Versus Theory

small biz toolboxOne of the things my colleagues and I discuss often is the balance between teaching “skills” versus “theory” courses.

Skills courses are those where students learn a specific, tangible thing – a “how to” – that can be applied immediately:  How to use a software program, how to write promotional copy, how to conduct a survey, how to shoot video, etc.   Theory courses are those where learning takes place, but the application of that knowledge is less specific, more situational, and requires critical and strategic thinking.  Examples are ethics courses, branding courses, sales courses, and so on.

Both skills and theory are important, and both are taught here in our program at Ole Miss.  But the question becomes, what is the right mix?  When students graduate, what should be in their toolbox?

Chances are, students will land their first job after graduation because of a skill.  They’ll go to work for a marketing department, a PR department, an ad agency, a newspaper, a magazine, or a TV station or some other business.  There they will write, report, edit, take pictures, create websites, handle social media, conduct surveys, do a newsletter or whatever.

A recent graduate who now works at an ad agency in Atlanta told me he stood out from other new hires because he knew how to use Adobe Creative Suite 6 (a design software program).

But while a skill gets students their first job, it’s the ability to think critically, be strategic and understand the big picture that will lead to their advancement.

The trick is to make sure students are prepared for an immediate job, yet have knowledge that will last a lifetime.

And skills become obsolete.  If we focus too much on making sure students know how to create mobile apps today, how is that helpful in five years (or less) when the technology changes?

But yet it is.  In college, I took a Fortran class.  Fortran is a computer programming language that isn’t used much anymore, at least in my field.  I was good at it, but how important has that technical skill been in my career?  Well, I never once used it – haven’t done a thing with Fortran since I graduated.  However, surprisingly, the foundational knowledge it gave me about computer programming has been very helpful throughout the years.  I have worked with many companies to build marketing databases, and my ability to understand the process that the techies use – even though I couldn’t do it myself – has been invaluable.

The point is, the debate over skills versus theory isn’t all or nothing.  I’m not very musically inclined, but my hunch is someone who learns how to play the piano has an easier time learning another instrument because they already know how to read a music note.  In that way, specific skills do impart lasting knowledge.

There’s no magic answer as to what’s the right balance, at least in the marketing communication and journalism fields.   It’s more a matter of monitoring what’s going on in the marketplace, staying in touch with employers, and tweaking curriculum as needed.

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Filed under Integrated Marketing Communications, Strategy

Surprise! Customers still want choices.

ChoiceEarlier this week I attended a friendly debate sponsored by the Ole Miss student chapter of the American Marketing Association.

Two of our esteemed professors, Dr. Samir Husni (aka “Mr. Magazine”) and Darren Sanefski (our design guru) faced off on the topic of print versus electronic media.  The event was titled Is Print Dead?

This is a hot topic, of course, both in our school and within the media industry.

The consensus is that no, print isn’t dead, but it needs to evolve to survive.  (Husni is widely quoted as saying that print publications aren’t dying, although some are committing suicide.)   Click here to watch the full debate.

But it got me thinking about something I’ve been dealing with throughout my marketing communications career:  the concept of “customer choice.”  Customers (in this case readers and subscribers) want the best of both print and on-line – just like they want choice about other things.

I remember about 15 years ago, when I worked in the financial services industry, having discussions about whether the internet would kill retail branch banking.  “Customers won’t go to banks anymore, they’ll do everything on-line” was one sentiment.  But guess what?  It turns out that while customers like many aspects of on-line banking, they also like the option of a brick-and-mortar bank as well.  Drive through any suburban area and see all the bank branches still thriving.  Customers want both options – they want choice.

Amazon is the world’s largest on-line retailer, but guess what?  People still shop at Target and Walmart and Best Buy too.  To be sure, the internet has killed some traditional retailers and all have had to adapt, but the category isn’t dead and never will be.  It’s because in the end, customers want choices in how they shop.

Netflix is booming, but people still go to movie theaters.  They hunt for houses on, but they also work with real estate agents too.  A lot of greeting cards are sent electronically, but the card aisles haven’t shrunk at grocery stores and pharmacies.  And if everyone books their trip on Orbitz, Expedia and Priceline, then how come I just found listings for 16 travel agents here in Oxford, Mississippi (a town of 20,000 residents and a whole lot of students)?

It’s been my experience that it’s even hard to segment a population by those who do things on-line and those who want stuff the traditional way – because it’s the same people.  Those who shop at Amazon also shop at Target.  People who pay their bills on-line still line up at the bank on Saturday mornings.

And people who read on Kindle still have books lying on their coffee table and get magazines in the mail.  To think that print is dead just because electronic media has arrived is just as bone-headed as those who prophesied the the death of radio when TV caught on.  (I can almost hear the voices from the past; the naysayers wondering why anyone would want just plain old audio, when both audio and visual became available.)

It’s a multi-choice world.  That’s what consumers want.  And those organizations that get it — media and otherwise — are the ones best suited to survive.

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Filed under Customers, Strategy