Will Chatbots replace marketing experts?

Will AI chatbots replace marketing experts? Given the potential (and real) impact on our marketing agency it’s fair to say I am personally interested. I’ve been thinking of Generative AI as a possible tool in the toolbox. I had Chat-GPT generate an article from my question: Why hire a boutique marketing agency?

What I received back was passable at best and misleading in some ways. It brought to my mind that generative AI in a creative sense will deliver mediocre and boring content. Not to mention occasional inaccuracies. Under each paragraph (which is verbatim generated AI-created), are my thoughts on what makes the AI claims inaccurate and a bit boring. I don’t believe any of our clients past, present, and future. should find AI generated content to be ‘good enough’. You might notice that the AI copy is stilted and colorless. Even as AI generated content improves, it can’t ever be human. And when the humanity is absent from creativity, it can no longer BE creative. And if you think humans probably won’t notice you are mistaken. There’s real danger in assuming people are somewhat dumb.

Here’s what I got:

Why hire a boutique marketing agency?

AI: A boutique marketing agency is a specialized firm that offers tailored marketing solutions to meet the unique needs of your business. Here are a few reasons why you should consider hiring a boutique marketing agency for your marketing efforts:

Personalized attention: Boutique agencies typically work with a smaller number of clients, allowing them to provide more personalized attention and dedicated resources to your business. They take the time to understand your brand, target audience, and goals, and develop customized marketing strategies to help you stand out in the market.

Mark: While this is true overall and providing more personalized attention and dedicated resources appears to be a no-brainer, there’s no mention of how and in what ways the client will need to participate in the process. How much time will it take? It really doesn’t ‘say’ anything at all.

AI: Niche expertise: Boutique agencies often specialize in specific industries or market segments. This means they have in-depth knowledge and experience in your particular field, enabling them to bring valuable insights and industry-specific expertise to your marketing campaigns. Their specialized knowledge can help you stay ahead of the competition and make informed decisions.

Mark: This is true but so broad. While it might sound ok, in the real-world good marketers must be research hounds. Even if an agency is armed with category knowledge, most assignments that require deep understanding of the client’s place in the category and boutique agencies are by nature not equipped to have done and seen everything in all categories.

AI: Flexibility and agility: Boutique agencies are known for their flexibility and agility in adapting to changing market trends and client needs. They are not bound by rigid structures or bureaucratic processes, allowing them to quickly adjust their strategies and tactics to deliver effective results. This level of flexibility can be especially valuable in fast-paced industries where staying ahead requires constant innovation and adaptation.

Mark: BORING! But this is in general, true. Many engagements require time (months into years) for an agency to understand the nuances and challenges of a particular field and then as those challenges pertain to the client’s business. That knowledge must continue to evolve.

AI: Creative approach: Boutique agencies often foster a culture of creativity and innovation. With a smaller team, they can nurture a collaborative environment that encourages fresh ideas and unique approaches to marketing challenges. Their creative thinking can help your brand stand out and make a lasting impression on your target audience.

Mark: This is a nice feature and a nice thing to offer but the benefit to the client is only realized when measurable marketing success is achieved.

AI: Cost-effective solutions: Contrary to popular belief, boutique agencies can offer cost-effective solutions for your marketing needs. Since they operate with a smaller team and lower overhead costs compared to larger agencies, they can often provide high-quality services at a more affordable price. This can be particularly beneficial for small and medium-sized businesses with limited marketing budgets.

Mark: This is the most accurate of the statements. Yet often the competition is not with other marketing agencies in which high-quality services are delivered. We find that often it’s from within the company itself, and a desire to make try to make do with internal resources. That includes even hiring a student who went to art school and has a knack for ‘making things look good’. Bringing in a marketing partner can be less costly, and it can be tested on a project basis. We see it happen that going the internal route results in ‘you get what you paid for’ output. Most importantly is that there always needs to be a mutual understanding of what the goals are and what is the time frame for success measurement.

AI: Strong client relationships: With a focus on personalized attention, boutique agencies prioritize building strong client relationships. They strive to understand your business goals, communicate transparently, and keep you informed throughout the marketing process. This level of collaboration and partnership can lead to a deeper understanding of your brand and better alignment of marketing strategies with your overall business objectives.

Mark: The value in having agencies and clients maintain long and strong relationships is multi-fold. Deeper understanding is important only if it’s leveraged into reaching success more quickly. And, with a great deal less hassle since the agency understands the business and its challenges. This allows the client to focus on other aspects of its business.

AI: In summary, hiring a boutique marketing agency can offer you personalized attention, niche expertise, flexibility, creative thinking, cost-effective solutions, and strong client relationships. Consider these advantages when deciding on the right marketing partner for your business.

Mark: Yawn.

There you have it. A chatbot written article that might be the springboard to something better with a great deal of spit and polish still yet to be done.

Using chatbots to create content is something marketers should consider only as a potential starting point. Can it perform the job of driving reader and consumer interest without the use of a professional’s creative approach? Well, try that at your own risk. We and our fellow marketing agency partners will take your call whenever you are finished trying everything else.

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The democratization of content distribution flattens things

Snapchat (SNAP) is sinking to the bottom of the bowl while Tik-Tok eats its lunch. There are always winners and losers when competing social media platforms (competing for both attention and $) attempt to hold their industry-leader position. When Snapchat was founded way back in 2011 by Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy and Reggie Brown, all former Stanford students, the whole concept of timely content that disappears had many people excited and dedicated. You might remember that the entire concept was revolutionary if not a bit strange. It all worked for a while until it didn’t. 

So how did Tik-Tok come to eat Snapchat’s lunch?  Well for one thing, it’s way harder to look away from Tik-Tok once you start compared to Snapchat. Both platforms enable user-generated content (UGC) to reach multitudes all at the same time. I think the coolest thing of all is also something we tend to take for granted, the ability to reach the world with one hand (or even one finger).  What not long ago seemed impossible, is now commonplace! Facebook (Meta), Instagram (Meta) & Twitter also offer significant audience reach but now lack the virality of Tik-Tok. That means we should expect that another yet-to-be-revealed platform is coming for Tik-Tok’s lunch. The mighty always eventually fall. It’s just the way of the world. 

What of Tik-Tok? Why and how is it dominating? One of my closest friends has been involved his entire career in what used to be called television. Today being in ‘television’ is much more than that as video content is decliningly viewed on a TV screen. When talking about Tik-Tok my friend expressed his appreciation of the platform and how incredibly great it is. There are probably not a whole bunch of 60+ year old men who feel that way. While I personally can’t say I’ve spent a lot of time watching Tik-Tok videos, (making me the only person apparently), what I have seen has been cool, funny, interesting, and never-ending to exhaustion. That last thing is the reason I shy away from Tik-Tok in general. I do not need to add yet another time suck in my life. For me it’s following sports professional and college.  I love that Tik-Tok exists because it allows for people all over the world to create something that if interesting – to other people – can be seen by millions all over the world. The algorithms that determine what I will see to keep me glued are for lack of a better word – creepy, but they clearly work amazingly well.

Having UGC makes content distribution way flatter than it was merely 30 years ago, and the genie is out of the bottle and will NEVER go back in.

Podcasts are another great example of UCG reaching untold amounts of potential listeners. The problem may be that there’s so much content that getting attention is getting more and more difficult. I’ve written before that my initial reaction to podcasts was ‘Huh?’ ‘What?’ Why would I want to listen to something when I could read it like 20 times faster? How incredibly wrong I was! But I didn’t know how wrong I was, until my son and I began our own baseball podcast. What began as a response to boredom and frustration due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, has become something much more. Almost 2 ½ years in with more than 100 episodes, we’re still at it and amazingly (to us at least) we’ve had almost (as of this writing) 16,000 downloads of a father and son podcast talking about baseball. We sometimes get letters from listeners thanking us, trying to help us, as well as ones correcting us on our mistakes, (we do make them often) but the letters are almost unfailingly positive and constructive.  We remind ourselves again and again that people are listening! Some even like us. 

Both my son and I have no idea on where we’re headed long-term with our Almost Cooperstown podcast. When you have listeners, you begin to feel as if you have a responsibility to deliver for them!  All creators feel that way. For all creators of UGC the idea that from our homes (or wherever) we’re able to create something every week to distribute to those who want to watch (or listen), is so cool and rewarding. With any luck creators can avoid being sucked into forgetting the joy of creating content itself.

It’s because of a flatter world when it comes to distribution, that the world can watch and listen to individual voices. And of course, it’s far from perfect, but I think it makes the world a little bit better than it was before.

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Major League Baseball’s new rules – A multivariate test that’s doomed to fail

Infield Shift
ARLINGTON, TX – SEPTEMBER 01: The Minnesota Twins outfield shifts when Joey Gallo of the Texas Rangers bats in the fourth inning of a baseball game at Globe Life Park in Arlington on September 1, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Direct marketers (a group of which I am a proud member) are very familiar with the concept of multivariate testing. For those who may not be completely familiar, multivariate testing is a process by which more than one component or offer associated with a promotion may be tested. I did a lot of this back when I was more deeply involved with direct mail. Today internet based multivariate testing is used constantly and in real time.  

The key thing with a multivariate test is being able to read attributable results with a high level of confidence. For example, if you offer an audience 25% off AND buy 1 get 1 free, and sales increase that’s great right?  Except how do you know if one or the other might have had the same result? Had you offered one segment of the audience one offer, a second audience segment the other offer, and a third BOTH offers, you’d be on your way to having a better understanding of what was really working as well as what was not.

Since my son and I host a baseball podcast at Almost Cooperstown we were both very interested in the proposed new rules Major League Baseball (MLB) was considering for the 2023 season. Three major changes have been implemented 1) a pitch clock, 2) banning the infield shift, and 3) allowing the pitcher only 2 throws to prevent a runner from stealing. The size of the bases will also be increased by three inches to make collisions at first base less likely as well as promote a higher amount of stolen base attempts.

We like the pitch clock, we’re not happy about the restriction on the infield shift, and the limit on throws to prevent a steal feels overly constricting. Overall, however we believe that due to these changes, fans can look forward to a faster-paced game with more stolen bases and a few more hard-hit balls finding holes through the infield. 

My question is – why make all the changes at the same time and consequently how will MLB know which one had the most impact?  Baseball has stumbled upon a classic multivariate test that it will conduct on the entire game at the same time. 

The pitch clock will require the pitcher to throw a pitch in either 15 or 20 seconds after receiving the baseball back from the catcher or fielder, dependent on if there are baserunners. By instituting a pitch clock (which has been tested at the Minor League (MiLB) level), game times were reduced by more than 25 minutes. Most Major League Baseball pitchers currently take longer than 15 or 20 seconds to deliver their pitches so it will be an adjustment for them as well as the hitters who now will need to be ready to hit more quickly.

There will be ramifications from instituting a pitch clock. But because of the new rules on infield shifting, we won’t really be able to read some of the results of instituting a pitch clock.  It’s clear baseball fans want more action and more scoring. The pitch clock immediately creates more action per minute since more pitches will be thrown in a shorter period. Great right? There are some current players who are not in favor, but in general the reaction from MLB players and managers has been positive. Today’s MLB pitchers throw harder than pitchers ever have. To be successful they need to go all out on nearly every pitch. If they don’t, they do not hang around long as MLB pitchers. Yet because pitchers will need to throw pitches at a faster pace, can they maintain that same level of effort? Even if they do will that be as effective as it has been recently? Will batting averages and scoring rise because pitchers will have to hold back to deliver pitches at a faster pace?  Or will it be due to the restrictions on the infield shift?

In 2022, MLB hitters are poised to have the lowest batting average for an entire season since 1968.  After the ’68 season the pitching mound was lowered from 15 to 10 inches and batting averages immediately improved. Of course, 1969 was also the first year of divisional play with the addition of 4 new teams.  As a result, the player pool was a bit more diluted by adding these 100 new MLB players.  Trying to evaluate the success of lowering the mound was not easy. Were the better averages and higher scoring attributable to the lowering of the pitching mound or the dilution of talent (allowing lesser pitchers to be on rosters since more pitchers were needed)? It seems MLB has a history of cloudy multivariate tests!

Should MLB batting averages rise next season, will it be due to the pitch clock? The restrictions on infield shifting?  If runs scored per game goes up next season, will it be because pitchers get tired more quickly having to throw pitches at a faster rate?  As with so many things, the answer is, it depends. But what’s most likely is that MLB and we probably will not know for sure. It goes my nature as a marketer to have to simply accept this.

Another new rule being instituted is the limitation of throws to first base by the pitcher.  It will limit the pitcher to two throws over to first base per batter. Again, in MiLB testing, stolen base totals immediately rose and rose substantially. There will be more stolen bases and consequently more runs scored almost guaranteed. And we think this is a good thing, but it also makes it hard to measure the impact of restrictions on the infield shift.  

On our podcast we’ve shared that there’s not much evidence to support restricting the infield shift. In MiLB testing overall batting average and runs scored were relatively the same before and after restricting the shift. There is some evidence that shows batting averages on very hard-hit balls, those at higher than 95MPH exit velocities, have dropped more than 100 points since teams began shifting.  That’s something that fans (and MLB hitters) have noticed. When a player smashes one hard, and it goes right to the 2nd baseman standing in short right field leading to an easy groundout, the batter and fans are, well, let’s just say frustrated. 

But what isn’t noticed as readily, are the weakly hit grounders that end up being a single since the ball was hit to the side on which only one fielder was positioned, and that lone fielder could not get to the ball and throw out the runner in time. To the fan, that’s much less satisfying to watch but the hit still counts and there’s now a runner on base just the same. MLB is concerned with fan enjoyment – as it should be.  The objective is to have a better and more enjoyable game to watch.  The new rules overall seem to be designed to do that.

Testing changes that might lead to new rules and a better product is smart and should continue.  We would have preferred the pitch clock be tried for a season or two before considering restrictions on the infield shift. But that’s not the way it went and while overall MLB will likely be the better overall for the changes made, it’s unfortunate that we will not be able to accurately measure each’s impact.

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There’s a giant difference between professionals and high-level enthusiasts

Most people feel they have an idea of what good marketing looks like even if they aren’t actual professional marketers. As a marketing agency we have ample opportunities to hear from family, friends, and yes, even clients on what a good marketing idea they have for our marketing approach. When that occurs, we do our best to say thank you without rolling our collective eyes.

It’s not that a non-marketing person could never come up with a good marketing concept. It could happen as ideas come from many places and shutting out all outside contributions is never a smart path. But if a non-professional came up with a terrific marketing approach off the top of their head, it would be….incredibly lucky. But not impossible.

When I was quite a bit younger, I played tennis at a relatively high level. Some tournaments (never won any), and I played on teams of various types even after college. One time I played a younger guy (I was in my late 20’s and he was around 20) and beat him 6-0 6-0. He remarked that I was so good that I should play John McEnroe!  While this was indeed the highest praise I ever received and would ever receive) as a tennis player, I told him that the way I beat him that night would be the way McEnroe would beat me. I would have been lucky to win points much less a game or more. The level difference was so great, but to someone who had not played at higher levels it was not as clear.

There are some really accomplished amateur musicians who when they play, will knock your socks off.  But they are NOT professionals. The grind it takes to be a professional is underappreciated.  It’s hard enough to be proficient enough at anything to be an actual professional. Getting paid and making your living doing something you love in a field that has limited opportunities is just hard.  Maintaining being a professional requires continual improvement – another often overlooked aspect. It’s easy to fall back because hard work is a pain but always is necessary. There’s a bunch of somebodies who are itching to take your place. 

The same can be said of being a thought of as a good cook. I have a friend in the restaurant business who pointed out that people like me who enjoy food, ingredients, and cooking are ‘food enthusiasts’.  We have some level of kitchen skills and knowledge but and it’s a big but, we are not professionals, and are far from being such. He didn’t tell me this, I figured that out all on my own. Think about this way – What you would do if a professional chef came into your home was offered to cook after you had laid out all the ingredients for a meal.  Would you cook the meal anyway? Not likely. Professional techniques and knowledge matter in the production of the final product. You’d expect and count on the chef to impress and even delight you in ways you had not even considered. That’s the difference between a professional and someone who is smart, cares, and is enthusiastic, but is not a pro.

What goes into making a true professional is a lot more than meets the eye!

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Buy now pay later is better than a Christmas Club account

The hot marketing term this year has a memorable acronym – BNPL. Buy Now Pay later differs from a credit purchase since there’s zero interest charged whether by future monthly installments or future deferred payment of any type. Keep in mind that this is happening in an era of very low interest rates. Brands that offer a BNPL option are not giving up all that much in return for securing a payment today. My mind goes way back to the old ‘Popeye’ cartoon which at times featured a character named ‘Wimpy’ (remember this was the 1930’s). Wimpy was always asking “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”.  I don’t recall ever seeing Wimpy pay for anything.  Even if he did, it had to be very unsatisfying to pay that bill days after eating the spoils. Obviously, credit cards also offer BNPL, but with interest charged and often at very high interest rates. That makes BNPL better than credit cards for the consumer, at the very least. But like any immediate or more-immediate gratification vehicle – which is what BNPL really is, one of the big drawbacks is using/having something now and paying for it later when it’s no longer shiny and brand-new. 

Also, in the ‘Way-back’ marketing machine are ‘Christmas Clubs.’ While long gone, they were essentially a self-induced forced savings plan in which you’d regularly put small amounts of money into in a low interest-bearing account (ok super-low) to be drawn on at Christmastime to pay for holiday gifts. Banks loved Christmas Clubs. All those deposits and so little interest paid out by the banks! Consumers did not love them as much but at the time there was an absence of more creative credit options of today. Thus, Christmas Clubs are no more. 

I think people became more accustomed to the concept of BNPL when buying new mobile phones. Buying a mobile phone with a monthly payment is not always a pure-BNPL since sometimes interest is charged. But most carriers do not charge interest. Consumers get it and like it. But what about as you get to month 20 of your 2-year contract to pay off your phone?  The phone isn’t as cool as when you bought it and yet you are still paying it off as if it were brand-new. Not all that satisfying for many of us, so we trade in our phones and have another 2 (or more) year contract to pay off our newer and more expensive phone. And the cycle continues.

The same is true of buying something now with zero interest but an agreed to monthly payback plan. It’s cool when you get to use it before paying for it. Yet some of those plans take long enough that you eventually can see a monthly charge on your credit card bill and not remember who or what it was for!  

BNPL can’t last long. In a low-interest rate environment BNPL makes sense for sellers as they get to book current business with less risk than in a higher interest environment. Count on the idea that as soon as interest rates begin to climb, BNPL offers will revert to good old-fashioned financing offers like ‘6 months zero interest’.   

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If you’re healthy does your GP doctor ever think about you?

Being in good health is a blessing.  People who are not in good health can have frequent encounters with a variety of doctors/specialists. And then there are many that are not able to afford consistent good quality health care.

I am lucky to be in relatively good health for a man in his early sixties.  Because of that I have (I am thankful for this) limited interaction with my primary care physician – a man I have come to know as much as you can know someone in a yearly 30-minute visit.  I like him. Yet I am pretty sure that the moment I walk out of the office, I am out-of-sight and out-of-mind unless I were to contact the doctor myself.

This kind of bothers me because as it happens this week there was an updated recommendation from the FDA that low-dose aspirin was no longer being recommended for people in their 60s and beyond.  Since I have been taking low-dose aspirin for a few years I was listening closely.  

I am also a healthcare marketer as well as a healthcare consumer, so I am keen to better understand among other things real patient experiences.

So here I am waiting to get some sort of message from my doctor regarding the recommendation. It’s not like they don’t have my email address or other information. I have to fill out the exact same sheet every single time I go to the see the doctor that has me list all the exact same information from my prior visit. That’s maddening in and of itself.  But that the doctor’s practice continues to struggle with electronic communication with patients like me is frustrating and unnecessary. I am still waiting to receive what should be a simple email from my doctor noting the change in aspirin recommendation since it pertains to my health and that I need to either a) do nothing until my next visit or b) stop taking low-dose aspirin immediately. Wouldn’t that show that my doctor cares a little bit and even ‘thinks’ about me? Forget for a second that it’s simply the right thing to do for a patient. 

It is not the same with all group practices (my doctor is part of a large group that has rolled up various practices in recent years). When I had my Covid-19 vaccines at a nearby hospital, my email was inundated with various things relating to my health in relation to the vaccine and health in general.  I was impressed with the regular communication from a provider that for me I might never tap again.  

When it comes to EHRs (Electronic Health Records), the concerns about patient privacy are both justified and important.  Perhaps it’s because I am in the ‘biz’ of healthcare that I expect more, not less, from healthcare providers when it comes to interacting with patients. There are ways to communicate with your patients that are secure so saying that it’s too complicated to contact patients individually through email or text is just wrong.  And unlike the vaccine provider (they were fine and dandy BTW), I would much more welcome relevant communications from my personal doctor. Wouldn’t you?

And before you say, change doctors, keep in mind that I like and respect my doctor when it comes to my health. I am not interested in changing due to substandard communication. I just want it to be better.

Patients should demand more AND they should get more.  Agree?

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Prepare your company for possible sale even if you never want to sell

I was a fortunate enough to be part of a Vistage Group for a number of years.  Vistage is comprised of business owners who want to participate in a non-binding peer group that is facilitated by an experienced chairperson. I learned a great deal from everyone, and being the only ‘marketing’ person in the group, it was extremely important and revealing to listen to the conversations carefully. How these business leaders processed issues in their own company as well as hearing their thoughts on what their peers were offering about their own businesses was a tremendous benefit that I took back to my own business. 

When it came to marketing one thing was crystal clear. Almost all of the CEO’s had little desire or appetite for marketing.  This was within the past 10 years and while there was some level of marketing attribution, the ability to measure is better today. But I doubt those business owners have changed their opinion when it comes to marketing. From their point of view, they had already built their companies into successful enterprises mostly without doing much in the way of marketing. 

Some of the companies did participate in trade shows (that’s marketing right?) sending a salesperson to a show (remember trade shows before the pandemic?), perhaps even having a display booth with a couple of signs, a few brochures and giveaway premiums like pens and keychains or even a cool tech thing.  With any luck they would have garnered a few worthwhile new business prospects.  Did marketing work?  Maybe, maybe not. Without sufficient means to measure, it creates the attitude of ‘marketing is an expense’. 

Most of the companies were not overly interested in the sale of their company. There were different reasons but many of the companies were family-owned and legacies, which makes a potential sale all the more…complicated.  I did have multiple conversations with various members regarding the positioning of their company for future sale, even if it was not in their immediate or future plans.  Why?  Because if you run an attractive enough company, suitors will emerge which is not only good validation. It also means that you are doing many of the right things to have created a winning value proposition.  Even if you don’t want to go to the big dance, it’s always nice to be asked.  It was not about them hiring me or our company (this is frowned upon in the group anyway), it was about creating greater value for their company!

Within a company, marketing has many roles to play. Assisting the sales team is frequently a big role for the marketing team – or person. Yet the responsibility for the presentation of the company – i.e. the BRAND, is a side thought or worse, an afterthought.  The website and company logo of course should be up to date and yet seem to be ‘works in progress’ without clearly defining the company’s focus and direction. Frequently the company leader would offer that they had a web designer and or ‘marketing person’ who is the son or daughter of some connection.  That allowed them to keep the expense down. Smart right? I can’t think of one instance where that approach was the right one for any of them. Boiling marketing down to a website and logo is far too tactical and it is also far from being an integrated marketing strategy. 

So how can marketing help a company prepare for a sale they may never want?  When we’ve worked with companies who view marketing as an investment that is, a commitment to continuing activities over a period-of-time with defined goals and milestones, a better-looking version of the company invariably emerges.  Marketing should support sales with materials sales needs to win new business. This support is in the form of assets – whitepapers, charts, infographics, perhaps animated videos (explainer and otherwise), a regularly updated company blog (if one exists why no posts for years?), webinars and other types of content to always keep things fresh. We’ve been hired on more than one occasion for the specific purpose of helping improve the company’s overall image as it prepares itself for future sale.  When the time came that prospective buyers took a look at the company, what they found was a tight, in sync brand that had clearly defined value propositions which were supported by seamless integration between the sales and marketing teams. It looks good, it feels good, and adds to the overall company value. Even if the company never ever wants to sell wouldn’t it still be nice to be asked!

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Funnel marketing and low-cost distribution has created message assault!

As a longtime direct response marketer, I’ve often employed regression analysis in order to better understand prospect and customer behavior.  When printed magazines were in their heyday and reader renewal subscriptions were a lifeblood to advertising revenue, regression analysis allowed renewal efforts to be streamlined based on the reader’s previous renewal behavior. If it was known that a subscriber never renewed until the 5th, 6th, or 7th, renewal effort, why mail the first four? The cost of printing and mailing renewal efforts was expensive but necessary.

Our agency is deeply involved with funnel marketing on behalf of our clients. The strategy of generating a new customer or prospect lead and then nurturing that lead through any variety of touchpoints has fast become a marketing industry standard. It’s also the reason people like me (and you) are bombarded with offers for services.  In my particular case it’s most often from lead generation companies!  Along with a host of other business services.  Like a giant snowball rolling down a mountain, the amount of offers from lead-generation companies in my inbox is increasing exponentially.  One of the big reasons is the cheap or zero-cost of distribution when it comes to email communication. 

Here’s one of the frustrating things, we all get it. It’s done this way because it WORKS!  But it’s far from elegant since it’s all a numbers game.  We all do our best to entice and maintain prospect interest through content and engagement that we feel will interest the targeted audience.  Since you can’t capture and convert every single lead that comes into the funnel, the idea is to keep those that stay in the funnel interested enough to keep reading, maybe engaging and then hopefully converting from being a prospect to a customer. While that seems pretty easy in concept, in practice it’s more difficult to create and share continuing content that will be of interest to the target audience.  While at times a marketing funnel can last days or a week or two, sometimes marketing funnels can last months, even years in order to convert a highly valued prospect.

More than twenty years ago the U.S. Postal Service recognized that email was eating its lunch (i.e. first class mail), so they conjured up the idea that everyone should have a USPS email address and that for marketers to reach that address there would be a per email distribution charge. Nice try but no cigar.

In my personal life I’d never approach family and friend relationships with quantity over quality. I think most people feel that way. However, in the professional world those holds are not barred, and message inundation and repetitive efforts have become the standard.  I do think about overall recipient message fatigue, arguably making it even more difficult to cut through, creating MORE messages and MORE prospect touchpoint efforts.

To be clear, I am not advocating charging for electronic communication any more than is the case now. Yet on our own behalf we will continue to refine our approach to create a more streamlined and elegant approach to funnel marketing wherever and whenever possible. The future should yield fewer overall prospect messages and touchpoints, not more.  

If things continue along the same route isn’t it inevitable that people (these would be those prospects!), will simply tune those messages out?  Then what?   

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The U.S. – China Syndrome today

When I think about the interesting and good times I spent traveling in and around China, I have fond memories of the people I met and the places I went.  Admittedly, as a business endeavor, my efforts to help Chinese companies with their U.S. based business was marginally successful at best. I categorize it as ‘you can’t possibly score on the shots you never take’.  It turned out that (with a few exceptions) Chinese companies were not nearly as interested in succeeding in the U.S as I had assumed.

But the overall feeling I got in China in 2015, was that the Chinese people I met did not concern themselves with the U.S. nearly as much as people in the U.S. think. Since that was the last time I was in China, I don’t personally have any pulse on the way Chinese people feel today but my sense is they don’t feel as positively as I thought they felt in 2015 and for the 6 years prior when I was traveling to China regularly.

Smart and insightful writers who I’ve met like Shaun Rein of China Market Research (the author of books such as “The End of Cheap China” and ‘The War for China’s Wallet”), and Michael Zakkour of Tompkins International (co-author of “New Retail Born in China Going Global”) talk and write about the fast-changing behaviors of Chinese citizens.  If you are interested in a deeper dive on Chinese behavior both governmentally and individually, these books are recommended reading.

The U.S. and China have had an on and off adversarial relationship for over 70 years. Over that time China has seen the largest number of citizens rise from poverty than any other nation on earth. This is a source of great pride to the Chinese people. The Chinese people, as does the rest of the world, also sees the news coming out of the U.S. about Covid-19, civil unrest due to repeated incidents of awful behavior by some policemen, and the recent U.S. Presidential election. From the perspective of a Chinese citizen, it can appear that the U.S. and its democratic government are on the decline and China is rising to reclaim its place as a leader – perhaps THE leader, of the world. Chinese citizens don’t fool themselves into thinking that their government is without fail.  The everyday restrictions that are a part of Chinese life don’t seem as onerous when the people take stock of the gains, they, their family and friends have made over the past twenty years. A giant lockdown such as what occurred this year after the onset of Covid-19 would never work in the U.S. where many people feel being made to wear a mask is a violation of their personal liberty.  

If the 20th century was ‘The American Century’, then what will be the story written about the 21st century?  There are still eighty years to go and without a doubt China is off to a good start. Yet China is also not without its own problems. A rapidly aging population will be enormous stress on the government. One thing to think about is all the one child families and the idea of that one child taking care of two aging parents.  As I often say, with a population 4x bigger than the U.S, some of the problems will be magnified just as have some of the successes. 

The political rhetoric in the U.S. regarding China will be a little different with the incoming administration, but that difference will be more in style than in substance.  Continued acknowledgement that China is the chief competitor of the U.S. paints the relationship into corners of winners and losers.  U.S. citizens are yet unaccustomed to a world in which the U.S. is not viewed as the leader and paragon of what is the right way to do things.  But that world is here and being a leader in the world community looks different than it did thirty years ago or more.

The trend clearly shows that China will overtake the United States to have the world’s largest economy.  Whether or not that takes 8, 10, or 12 years, it’s inevitable. That in and of itself would not constitute China being considered the winner and the U.S. is some sort of also-ran. But there are many (mostly older) Americans that will never be able to accept the U.S. being anything other than #1 – even when that’s not the case.

I remain hopeful that for the world and for the United States in particular, better days are ahead. I keep in mind that despite the foibles of democracy and the recent past in the U.S., it is still a country that draws people to want to come here from all over the world. Perhaps not quite as much as in the past, which is a bad thing in my view. Still, as an American I believe in democracy (“the worst form of government except for all the others” – Winston Churchill), and would not trade it away.  My sense is that most Chinese citizens would like their country to be less restrictive (sic more free) but are willing to live with restrictions in a country that is still on the rise since it’s been better for them. 

For now, the best that can be assumed is that a jittery détente will exist between the U.S. and China. It sure beats the alternative. 

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Let’s help save restaurants but restaurants can also help themselves

We’re more than 8 months into the Covid-19 pandemic, and owner-operated as well as chain restaurants like California Pizza Kitchen and Le Pain Quotidien,have gone bankrupt or out of business altogether. Many other chains are on the brink or worse.

For the entirety of the pandemic, people have been encouraged to support their local restaurants first by ordering take-out, and then visiting the restaurant itself when restrictions were lifted. While the second surge of Covid-19 is coursing through the U.S.,many of the restaurants that have been able to survive have managed to adapt to new behaviors on the part of their customers.

It’s impressive for the ones that have made it this far but there’s much more that restaurants can do. One thing that is endemic of restaurants has been a pet peeve of mine for years.  Why is the price of a take-out meal the same as what it costs when dining in the restaurant?  Even if the portions are similar, (they are sometimes and sometimes they are not), the experience eating in the restaurant has to be a higher value one, right? 

At the restaurant you get …served! And the dishes are picked up by other people and washed by other people. There are often cloth napkins and tablecloths.  Complimentary bread service (although that is slowly dying away) is offered and your water glass is filled and re-filled. On the few occasions I’ve dined out since March (less than 5), the experience of eating out has been special, a treat, and I’ve enjoyed it very much.

When the pandemic began and we all knew restaurants were seriously in trouble, when ordering take-out meals, tipping the restaurant seemed to be a way to help people that were really just trying to hang on. Paying the same price for take-out did seem unfair to me and I rationalized it as just another way to help.  Eight months after the real start of the pandemic there are restaurants that have adapted their menus and pricing to reflect the new reality.  Yet too many are doing the same old thing. They appear to just be counting on the customers to keep on supporting them out of the goodness of their collective hearts. 

There are some restaurants that have actually flourished during the pandemic. Particularly those that were primarily take-out oriented before the pandemic began.  Think small Chinese restaurants, pizzerias and even taquerias.  Coincidentally, there are full-service restaurants who’ve been able to survive on the combination of take-out as well as restricted dine-in establishments.  Some of these restaurants have seen their share of revenue in take-out climb to 30% or even more.  Take-out will be essential to their future prospects as people will going forward eat more take-out meals from ‘sit-down’ restaurants at home.  Take-out is still overall less expensive for the customers since buying alcoholic drinks from the restaurant is less prevalent.  But now all the focus is on the food quality if repeat visits is the goal (it is).  So why not have a take-out menu that has different prices than in the restaurant?  Why not be straight-up about portion sizes on the take-out menu (how many people does an entrée serve?).  Fancy bound menus are not being printed nearly as much anymore (finally a use for QR codes!), and if menus are online they should be dynamic, updated constantly, and…interesting!  There are brand stories available to tell.  Why not tell them?  It’s not like you are going to run out of space!

The other development that I’ve anticipated and has started to occur with the renewed restrictions is the increase in restaurant ‘seating’ times.  If we all really want to support restaurants, we might not all get to eat at the same time. I’m not referring to the times between 5:30 and 9:30.  (Why is it that popular restaurants when you used to call for a reservation would only have time at 5:30 or 9:30?. I am not usually hungry at either of those times.)  But in the age of a pandemic, I, like so many people, don’t do anything the way that I used to and that includes when I have my meals. Since social distancing is paramount how about having dinner with friends at 3:30?  Or 4:30?  The few experiences I have had going out to eat with real other people (besides my lovely wife), have been nearly exhilarating since we are not seeing many people other than in passing while we walk.  We can adapt and should since there’s still six to nine months left before vaccines will be available to enough people to make going-out to eat feel completely safe again.

Having seating times and limiting the time you can spend there (2 hours maximum and maybe less than that), will help restaurants serve more people safely. It also may serve to change the way people think about going out to eat at restaurants once this pandemic has passed.  One thing I am fairly certain of, things will not go back to being exactly the way they were before the pandemic began.  But I am a big fan of eating out in restaurants and only wish them success. Doing things the same old way is unlikely to contribute to future success for restaurants. 

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