Business direct marketing Directed Advertising Online Advertising

I’m Being Stalked on the Internet

Did you ever have the feeling that you’re being followed?

I do. In fact I’m being stalked this very minute.

You know what I’m talking about:  you’re wandering around the internet, minding your own business, when suddenly, you see a banner ad you could swear you’ve seen before. But you think it’s just your imagination, and go on with your life.

And then there’s that banner ad again, and now you’re on the lookout. The advertiser has penetrated your banner blindness. You make a mental note to notice this particular ad again if it shows up, and go back to your life.

Soon enough you see the banner again… and again… and again.

What’s going on?

Well, in case you didn’t know, it’s a form of Behavioral Advertising called Retargeting, and it’s just one of the ways that advertisers get you to buy their products. It’s actually a pretty successful tactic, and one that our clients have used to great advantage.

The way it works is pretty simple, really. If you visit a website and then leave before making a purchase (or any other type of conversion), programming code on that website allows ad networks to tag you so that wherever you go throughout that ad network, they can reach out to you over and over and serve you ads. Retargeting doesn’t just have to target people who visited a site. You can retarget based on search engine results, or even if somebody merely saw your ad on a site within the ad network.

The reason it works is that advertisers have learned that frequency is a critical part of the formula for making a sale. The more times people are exposed to a message, the more likely it is that some of them will buy. And if someone has already come to your website, or searched for you, they have already expressed some interest, so it stands to reason that they might be more easily converted than a total stranger. Even if they’ve just seen your ad on some other website, retargeting to them is a way to ratchet up the frequency. You can even change the messaging so that the target sees different, even sequential messages, attempting to push them closer and closer to a conversion.

Now I don’t usually notice when I’m being retargeted. In fact, while I’m sure it’s happened more than once, the only two of these interactive stalkers I’ve ever really noticed are Trump University and The Trump retargeting went on for quite some time, but I can guess why:  Trump University was my client, and I kept visiting the website without buying anything, and I guess I kept retriggering the retargeting. (They must have really thought I was playing hard to get.)

But it’s different with I was doing research on social media success stories, and is an example of a company that used social media to decrease the cost of customer support and increase sales. They’re so good, they won the 2009 Groundswell Award for B2C Supporting. (Their online community members spend an average of 66% more on credit reports and products after joining the community. And thanks to the community, customer service inquiries declined by 1%, compared to the previous year when they increased 23%!)

I know the day I first went to from my work computer:  Tuesday, July 20th. I’d been there from my home computer the day before, but that was it. I didn’t go there because I wanted to buy anything. I went there for research, found what I needed, and left, happy and satisfied.

A few days later I started seeing banner ads from like this one: banner ad that's been following me for 3 weeks!

And I’ve been seeing them ever since. In fact, this morning, I saw these:

Are you following me? ads on

Now I’m not one of those people who has a problem with behavioral advertising, as long as it’s done ethically, which for the most part it is. I know there’s been a schism about it since the Wall St. Journal article the other weekend (and there’s an excellent post about it, and the reactions among the advertising community, here on Scott Rosenberg’s Wordyard blog).

If Behavioral Targeting has one weakness, though, it’s that it’s difficult to really know why someone comes to your website without actually asking them. If I go to a website that sells baby clothes, or even a dozen websites, did I go there because I am having a baby, or buying a gift for a friend who had a baby, or some other reason entirely. Intention makes all the difference here, and behavior can be misleading.

No, my problem has to do with the actual execution of the retargeting advertising campaign is running.

The way advertisers make sure that they don’t show the same person the same ad too many times is called Frequency Capping. There tends to be a sweet spot in terms of frequency: 3 times is probably too few, and 10 times is often a victim of diminishing returns. By then, if they’re not going to buy, they probably never will.  (BTW, if you had to guess, without testing into it, you could do worse than a frequency of 7. But you didn’t hear that from me.)

I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen these ads at least a dozen times over the last 3 weeks. Now maybe has tested it, and they’ve learned that their sweet spot is 13. Maybe they’ve learned that people keep saying no until the 13th time they see the ad, and then they magically click on it and buy a credit report.

But somehow I doubt it.

So can someone from or their ad agency please explain to me why I’m still being stalked by their ads, and how long this unhealthy relationship is going to drag on? Because no matter how many times they ask, or how nicely they put it, no matter how much money it costs them to keep retargeting me with their ads, my answer is still going to be the same: I like, but I just want to be friends.

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Business direct marketing Directed Advertising Marketing

Trying to give credit where credit is due…

Sometimes, in the afternoon, between cups of coffee, when my eyes droop and I drift off, I daydream of a world where the roads are paved with golden bricks and I know exactly which advertising channel to credit for a sale or a site visit. Did the billboard with a URL lead to the sale, or the tweet with the short link, or the hyperlinked news story (press release) on the newspaper website, or the ad in the magazine, or the postcard, or the TV commercial telling you to “Text ‘Ruby Slippers’ to 526727”, or the natural search listing or the paid search ad or the dozens of mentions in the dozens of blogs or the lions and tigers and bears, oh my…

And then I wake up and remember that as the Director of Integrated Marketing at a direct marketing focused agency, (albeit in Connecticut, not Kansas) it’s my job to attempt to give credit where credit is due, and I smile because yesterday, thanks to Google, my job got easier.

Yesterday Google announced the beta testing of their AdWords Search Funnels. Currently, the last search ad clicked on gets credit for a conversion. But the fact is that many people perform more than one search before they finally click on an ad and then convert, sometimes over the course of days and even weeks. But with Search Funnels, Google can tell you which keywords contributed to the conversion, and which didn’t, for up to 30 days. It will show you how many clicks and impressions happened before the conversion, as well as time lag from first to last. I’m not part of the beta test, but when Google rolls out the product I’ll have a much better sense of which parts of my search campaigns are helping, and which aren’t. Who knows how many keywords I’ve paused erroneously, actually hurting my conversions, when I should have given them credit for an “assist.”

Google’s Search Funnels will help you go beyond the last click, but Microsoft’s Engagement Mapping is even more transformational. At a panel I attended at this year’s AdTechNY, Microsoft discussed their initiative to get beyond simply crediting the last click in order to help advertisers more properly attribute the impact of all advertising, not just search, on a conversion.  Engagement Mapping was developed by the Microsoft Advertising Institute, whose recent research showed that “searchers clicking on a result are 56 percent more likely to convert if they have been exposed to online display ads.”

I remember when DoubleClick (now owned by Google) first released “View Thru Conversion” statistics that showed that the impact of banner ads persisted well beyond their first impression, and that many people who didn’t click the ads converted later. DoubleClick could only do that because their ad serving technology and tracking mechanisms gave them a vast data pool to look at, and it breathed new life into online display advertising.

It’s important to know which advertising efforts should get the credit for the sale, because without it how can you truly determine ROI?

Think about it this way. A friend tells you about a movie. You read an interview with the director in Entertainment Weekly. You see the preview in a movie theater. And on a video rental. And online. You fan the movie on Facebook. Another friend tells you about the movie. Someone sends you a promotional clip from YouTube. And then your significant other says, “What movie do you want to go see tonight?” and you go to Google or Bing or Yahoo and type in NYC Movie Times and there’s the movie you heard about and then you check out real quick to make sure it’s not a dog and then go to Fandango and buy your tickets.

Who would you credit with influencing your choice? In the world of “last click gets the credit” the winner is a rotten tomato.

True direct marketers don’t know, they test. We try to base our decisions on data. We have so much more data than ever before, and the more we learn, the easier it becomes to fill in the gaps and make better assumptions. Better assumptions lead to more successful tests which lead to better results.

Sometimes, like with Search Funnels, the new data teaches us that we didn’t know what we thought we knew, or what we thought the data was telling us. And sometimes, when we look behind the curtain, the wizards dispensing that data turn out not to be wizards after all.

So can someone please explain to me why some people seem more eager to trust a wicked witch who promises them an unrealistic certainty over a good witch who only promises to do her best?

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Business CRM Directed Advertising

Costco Direct Mail Fail

I just received my membership renewal notice from Costco, and I was astounded by their blatant failure to apply one of the most basic rules of direct marketing:  give me a reason to buy!

There were at least 3 offers to upgrade my Gold Star (or Basic) Membership to an Executive Membership for an additional $50. The most prominent of these offers was a Yes! box on the reply “portion” (their lackluster word, not one my agency would ever use) of the renewal notice.

Since Gold Star Membership only costs $50, I was intrigued to know what extras I would get for double the price.

I looked on the front of the notice. Nothing. They spent a whole panel encouraging me to sign up for exclusive online offers and shop online, but not a single word about why I should upgrade my membership — at the exact moment in our relationship when I was about to take action to renew my membership!

I looked on the back of the notice, where they directed me to find instructions for upgrading to an Executive Membership. Sure enough, there were instructions… but no list of features and benefits or any kind of explanation of Executive Membership.

I looked at the inserts. There was one for Ameriprise Auto Insurance. Nothing there about Executive Membership.

There was an insert for the TrueEarnings Card from Costco and American Express Card. And miracle of miracles, it mentioned that with the TrueEarnings Card, you can earn 1% in addition to the 2% rewards “you’re already earning” with your Costco Executive Membership. But nothing else.

Just for fun, I went to the Costco website and looked up Executive Membership. Here’s what I found:

Executive Membership is our highest level of membership. Executive Members enjoy an annual 2% Reward on most Costco purchases, as well as additional values on member services, such as lower prices on check printing, auto loans and identity protection; larger Costco Cash card amounts for mortgage, real estate and home equity transactions; an account bonus for money market and online investing accounts; free roadside assistance for vehicles covered through the auto insurance program; and extra travel benefits.

That’s not a bad offer: Cash rewards, better benefits, extra features. At 2% cash back, I can even figure out my annual purchases and see that if I spend over $2,500 a year, the upgrade more than pays for itself. And that’s not even including the value of extras and account bonuses.

It’s a good story, one that might have convinced me to upgrade my membership, if it were anywhere at all on the Renewal Notice.

Direct mail isn’t rocket science. There’s a set of time-tested basic rules, a wider set of tested-into best practices, and some basic mindsets. A good direct marketing agency (like mine, Tanen Directed Advertising) knows how to apply these time after time to generate predictable, successful results.

But it doesn’t take a direct mail expert to know that if you want to upsell someone to a product or service that costs twice as much, you’ve got to give them a reason why.

Did they just forget? Were they trying to drive me to the website or the phone to get more info because they’ve tested into it and learned that they actually upgrade more memberships that way? Or did their lettershop screw up and fail to insert the buckslip extolling the features and benefits of upgrading to Executive Membership?

Since this blog is based on the premise that if we knew the reasons behind some seemingly incomprehensible choices those choices would make more sense, can someone please explain to me why Costco thought they could get me to fork over an extra $50 without telling me why? (And Costco, if there isn’t a good reason, give me a call. My agency can really improve your membership renewal mailings.)

Branding Business Directed Advertising Marketing Misleadership

What color is Havana? Or Gypsy?

Good catalog copy needs to immerse its reader in an experience of a product they can’t touch. It’s a lonely voice in the wilderness, tasked with selling a product in a few words, at a distance, sometimes with the help of a picture.

Sure, if you’re selling copier paper or a toner cartridge in an office supplies catalog, you can get by with just the basics. But if you’re selling hand-stitched honeymoon hammocks made by entrepreneurial Maragucho mothers in steamy Venezuelan villages around Lake Maracaibo, or a $239.95 wooden ship model of The U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” or the softest pillow you’ve ever laid your weary head upon, non-descriptive copy just won’t do.

Your catalog doesn’t need to show your products in photographs, or even in color. Years before Banana Republic had brick and mortar stores, the Zeiglers’ hand-drawn, monotone illustrations on rough-hewn, un-coated digest-size stock built a direct response kingdom based on romance, adventure, intrigue and promise.

So did J. Peterman. Long before Seinfeld satirized him, his first ad was a 1/6 page black and white with a line drawing that appeared in the New Yorker back in the mid 80’s for the Cowboy Duster.

I still remember the last lines of that ad: “Although I live in horse country, I wear this coat for other reasons. Because they don’t make Duesenbergs anymore.” (See this People Magazine article from 2000 for the full story, including the name of the copywriter, Don Staley.)

The instant I read that ad I picked up the phone and ordered two coats, one for myself and one for my friend, noted funny car designer and railroad artist par excellence Tom Daniel.

I was a catalog copywriter at the time, selling wooden ship models and car collectibles at Model Expo, and I learned how to romance and sell just about anything by reading catalogs like Banana Republic and J. Peterman. (My copy for the Navy Issue Coffee Mug in the Lion’s Share catalog — “0:300 hours… the windswept, raindrenched bridge of a ship on patrol in the Pacific…” —  broke all sales expectations for what was supposed to be an impulse item throwaway on an order form.)

I get offended by bad  catalog copy. And there’s nothing worse than catalog copy that doesn’t deliver.

Why am I telling you this? Because I was just reading the black and white, line illustrated  Campmor catalog, my favorite outdoor adventure catalog, and came across the following available colors for hiking boots:  Havana, Jupiter, Gypsy and Brindle.

Now, to be sure, some color names are getting more intriguing, playful and engaging. I can figure out what color Butter is, especially when paired with Cordovan. Mint Green is easy, as is Dark Chocolate. Mud is a bit less clear – after all, wet dirt can come in a variety of hues. I’m pretty sure Limonata will look something like the liquid in those tiny Italian bottles of soda that cost way too much and never taste that good anyway.

But what about Beluga? Is it describing the whale, which is white, or the caviar, which is smoky black? Then there’s Moonstruck, Picante, London Fog, Andorra, Fossil, and Elephant (They don’t say whether they mean African, Indian or Pink. Hey, it matters!). Then there are the blues:  Pearl Blue, Turkish Blue, Brushed Metal Blue, and Goblin Blue. (I’ve played D&D for decades and never once heard of Goblin Blue.)

It’s not just one company. These colors describe boots by Columbia, Merrell, Vasque and North Face. I breathed a sigh of relief when I got to New Balance’s color palate:  Blue, Red, Brown, Black and Grey.

But my absolute favorite obfuscated colors are Havana, Jupiter, Gypsy and Brindle.

I looked at a Google Earth and for the life of me couldn’t figure out what color Havana is. (Unless they were making a sideways reference to skin color, but even then, Cuban skin color varies in the extreme from light to dark.)

I looked at a picture of Jupiter on Google. Do they mean the spot or the bands? And are they looking at the red-tinged color enhanced photos, the washed out grey ones, or what?

Gypsy — I don’t even know where to start, given that traditional Gypsy garb is very colorful and almost never monotone.

The best of all is Brindle. According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Brindle is defined as “Having obscure dark streaks or flecks on a gray or tawny background.” Mmm, I want a pair of those to go with my Roan pants and Harlequin shirt. (What, no dog lovers out there?)

Look, I love when copywriters romance their descriptions. And I get the problem of making your product stand out from the next when they’re all colored Brown. But what’s wrong with using words that simultaneously describe and romance? Nobody was ever left wondering what color Mocha is, or whether Apricot would look better on your feet than Desert Sand.

I guess I could just go to the Campmor website and look at the pictures to find out what color these colors really are. But doesn’t that defeat the purpose of a printed mail order catalog in the first place?

So, since I’m clearly too stubborn to find out on my own, can someone please explain to me what color Havana is?

Business Directed Advertising Marketing Media Misleadership PR and News

What does global warming have in common with junk mail?

To a direct marketer, testing is vital. But it’s important to know exactly what you’re testing. If you’re not careful, what you think your test is telling you may not be what it’s saying at all.

It’s not just in direct marketing and business that testing matters, as you’ll see in a minute.

Evan Jones, my good friend and ex-Partner-in-Crime at our old game company, QED Games, Inc., is beginning to make a name for himself in an entirely new field, Climate Change. He’s about to be the “et al” in two scientific papers and was a key researcher in a current report to Congress.

Evan is part of a group led by meteorologist Anthony Watts (who writes a very popular blog, Watts Up With That, aTechnorati Top 5K blog with a ranking of 2083!) that is focused on a major aspect of Global Warming:  not whether it’s happening, but whether we know whether it is or not.

Evan and his colleagues have been examining the over 1200 U.S Historical Climate Network (USHCN) surface stations in the US that measure temperature. And what they’ve found is surprising. Nearly 89% of these stations are located in situations that render their data suspect or flawed according to the government’s own standards. Most of these stations were once fine, but encroaching urbanization has frequently turned an isolated station into one surrounded by heat sources. Add to this the fact that temperatures are recorded by citizen volunteers and are roughly 30% incomplete.

There’s more, of course. You can read about it here in this article from WBZ TV in Boston.  Better yet, WBZ did an interview with Evan while he was up in Boston assessing some of the surface stations there. You can watch the report here. And be sure to check out Anthony’s blog for even more examples of questionable data.

In the end it all adds up to one thing: the data doesn’t add up. It is, for the most part, not telling us what we think it’s telling us. For instance, when a station formerly situated in the middle of a field registers a temperature increase over the last decade but that station is now situated in a blacktop parking lot with an air conditioning exhaust unit nearby, is the planet getting warmer, or just the station’s readings?

Whether you’re building an online research survey, setting up a 16-cell direct mail testing matrix, optimizing a paid search campaign or collecting temperature data to prove or disprove global warming, you need to check your inputs, check your confidence in the amount and clarity of the data, and structure the test to actually answer the questions you’re asking.

It’s critical that your testing framework not be flawed or all of your results could be useless. It’s equally important that you analyze the testing results accurately. And if you go ahead and act on bad information, whether it’s a new product launch or an attempt to save the planet, you could be doomed to failure before you start.

And speaking of global warming and saving the planet, can someone please explain to me how anyone can be so certain of the truth when the tests themselves are flawed?

Business Directed Advertising Misleadership PR and News

Special Report, Breaking News or Scam?

Have you seen the new commercials that look and feel like cable news programming?

I’ve seen at least three different variations for three different advertisers. The one I see the most is the most innocuous:  it’s for the “Mucho Money” show, a Jim Cramer “Mad Money” rip-off selling Optimum Online and related services. I say innocuous because nobody with half a brain could mistake it for a real news show. Not with the stock ticker at the bottom of the ad tracking the price of Mango Chutney and Waffle Irons.

But then there’s the “Breaking News from the TMU FHA Hotline” commercial that I think  sets dangerous precedents and needs to be taken off the air.

At the start of the commercial, the screen shouts “TMU” in huge type, then “Breaking News” in slightly smaller type. This is on for a a while, and then, in tiny print at the bottom of the screen for all of maybe 2 seconds, it says “The following is a Paid Advertisement brought to you by Topdot Mortgage.”

The rest of the commercial plays out just like a breaking news story on a cable news station. The ticker at the bottom of the screen says “Breaking News – Federal Government raises FHA Loan Limits…” and continues with newsspeak about loan rates, limits, etc.

The commercial ends with the “newscaster” saying “We’ll have more on this story and other developments on the next edition of the TopDot Mortgage Update.” This is followed by a screen that features TMU and a phone number and half a screen of incredibly fine print that’s up for all of maybe 5 seconds.

This isn’t the worst of these I’ve seen. The worst was one I saw on CNN one day while I was working out on the exercise bike in my gym. It started with the words “Special Report” and looked in every way like a cable news show and had absolutely no mention of an advertisement whatsoever. Unlike the comedic “Mucho Money” it was a serious attempt to come across as real news.

Having forgotten to stuff a fountain pen in my shorts, I couldn’t write down the name,  and I’ve been unable to find it since. (I think it said Investor Link Special Report, but I’m just not sure. If you’ve seen it, please let me know.)

I don’t do TV, so I don’t know whether these DRTV (Direct Response TV) ads are actionable or not. But I do create direct marketing print advertisements, so I have a standard to compare them to.

When we create print ads that take on an editorial look and feel, we add a slug to the ad that says “Advertisement” or “Advertorial” or “Paid Advertisement.” Even if we didn’t want to, the publications demand it or they won’t accept our ads. Some publications won’t accept an ad like that even if it does say advertisement clearly, just to avoid any potential confusion on the part of their readers.

But where was CNN when the “Special Report” ad ran? Don’t they bear some responsibility for airing a misleading ad that attempted to fool their viewers into thinking it was a CNN Special Report? Did USA think that the cursory notifications on the TMU “Breaking News” ad was enough to avoid confusion or worse in the minds of their viewers?

And more importantly, what was going on in the minds of the ad agencies that created these ads? Are they proud of their work? Did they beg their clients to clearly identify that these were ads, but failed to convince them?

Or did they tell their client, “Don’t worry, we’ll run it until we get caught, if we even get caught, then pay the minor fine and laugh all the way to the bank?”

We’re pretty safe in assuming that their clients don’t have a problem with taking advantage of gullible or vulnerable consumers. The greed and lack of moral responsibility exhibited by mortgage lenders and financial institutions is a big part of the reason the entire world economy is tanking right now. As one of the victims of the mortgage meltdown said on CNBC’s “House of Cards” said, “I may be stupid, but they’re guilty.”

But I really do want to know what the creatives were thinking. Can someone from the agency that created these ads please explain to me what you were hoping to achieve by running these misleading ads, and more importantly, how you sleep at night?

Branding Business CRM Directed Advertising Marketing Relationship Marketing

Don’t turn your customers into quitters

The other morning on my way to work I was listening to CBS-AM, and Joe Connolly of the Wall Street Journal told the story of someone who had gotten a collections letter from their bank that sounded more like it had come from a repo man. (Or maybe it was the Sopranos… sorry if I’m misquoting, Joe.)

I’ve been seeing a lot of collections letters recently, and not because I’m up to my eyeballs in debt.

It turns out my agency, Tanen Directed Advertising, is pretty good at writing collections letters. And not the kind Joe was talking about.

For the most part, collections letters tend to fit into a few basic molds.

There’s the impersonal, computer-generated type that remove all humanity from the equation… and from the recipient. (You’d be surprised how many of them aren’t written by computers.)

There’s the escalating, threatening letter that’s meant to scare the recipient into compliance but frequently just pummels them into paralyzed inaction.

And there’s the sickeningly sweet, fake “we know what it’s like and we want to help” letters that allow the sender to hide behind feigned consideration without presenting any real options and just serve to drive the recipient further away.

We don’t write those kind of letters. You see, we look at collections letters as CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tools.

After all, the recipients are your customers. They bought a car from you. They took out a mortgage with you — or with a bank thrice removed, but they’re your customers now. They get their electricity from your utility. They’re your patients and you’re their doctor.

Every time you communicate with your customer, you have the chance to deepen or damage your relationship with them. Which outcome would you prefer?

Sure, you can beat them into the ground to get your money, and you’ll get it. Maybe all of it, maybe just some of it. Maybe you’ll be the last straw that breaks them, but you’ll get your money.  And unless you’re a monopoly, it’s probably the last money you’ll ever get from them.

What if it turned out that by simply communicating with your customers, by treating them like valuable human beings who have feelings and brains and are integral components of your company, and by going the extra mile to give them some options, you can actually get more of the money they owe you?

We’ve written collections letters that have gotten 400% more of our client’s customers to call in to discuss repayments than did their previous best performing letters (known as controls in direct marketing). We’ve increased the amounts collected by our clients time and time again.

If you know anything about collections, you know that you usually have to hunt down your customers to talk to them. Our letters get your customers to pick up the phone and call you. Willingly. Because we explain their options to them, we empower them to take control of what felt like an out of control situation.

If you keep a customer, their lifetime value to you continues to increase, rather than bottoming out. If you show faith in your customer, and work with them to come up with a solution, they tend to respond with something every business desires:  loyalty.

Last night our President reminded us that we’re not a nation of quitters. That given a chance, Americans will do what it takes to rise from the depths of despair and work their way back to the top.

I’ve heard our current economic situation described in part as a crisis of faith, and that not until we all have faith in the future and start spending and lending again will we come out of it.

I’d like to add that as businesses, if we have faith in our customers and help them through these tough times, the rewards can be far greater than can be gotten through threats and intimidation.

I’m not arguing for charity — I’m making a case for a more successful business strategy. I’ve seen it work for our clients.

So can someone please explain to me why there are so many short-sighted businesses out there who would rather turn their customers into quitters today than do what it takes to earn their loyalty for years to come?

Branding Business Directed Advertising Integrated Marketing Marketing

Admit it — you love the ShamWow! commercial

Normally when I’m watching TV with my wife, we DVR the shows we want to watch and fast forward through the commercials. (Alone, I’m more likely to indulge in a few guilty pleasures, like the “We are the champions” Wal-Mart “game day” ad.)

The other day, though, we were skipping the ads when a ShamWow! commercial came on. I rewound it because I wanted her to watch it.

The ShamWow! DRTV ad is a masterpiece of the genre. If someone asked me what direct response TV ads were, I would show them ShamWow! as an example of the best of them.

I could go into the reasons why it’s good:  classic, clean demonstration format; compelling, snappy dialogue; believable offer that really does seem too good to pass up; low production cost; high replay value to support frequency… the list goes on and on.

But here’s how I know it’s good: every time I see it — and I watch it every time it comes my way — I want to pick up the phone and fork over $19.95 for the special offer, not available in stores, of 4 large and 4 mini Sham Wows. (I don’t, mind you… because then I’d have to clean something, and homey don’t play that. Also, there is the teensy-tiny possibility that it doesn’t actually work quite as well as the ad claims.)

I’ve only had this reaction once before in my life — over 20 years ago, the first time I read one of the most famous and compelling ads ever written:  “They laughed when I sat down at the piano. But when I started to play…”

John Caples' seminal 1925 ad, "They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano But When I Started to Play!--
John Caples' seminal 1925 ad, "They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano But When I Started to Play!--

There I was, a newly-minted direct marketing copywriter at my first job, reading an ad that was written in 1925, and I was trying to figure out how to respond to the ad so I too could learn how to play the piano and impress my friends.

That ad was written by a man named John Caples, and it happened to be one of the first ads that he ever wrote. For those of you who don’t know the name, maybe this will put him into context: the most prestigious direct marketing award in the world is named after him. In 1932 he wrote the book, “Tested Advertising Methods”  that basically laid the groundwork for all direct marketing.  Ad Age named him number 21 of their 100 People of the Century.

Both the ShamWow! ad and the Caples ad have one thing in common: they understand that selling is storytelling.

Good storytelling doesn’t have to be as long as a Caples ad — the classic Volkswagen “Lemon” ad told just as compelling a story in far fewer words. And it doesn’t have to be as pushy as a ShamWow! commercial — Blendtec’s “Will It Blend” videos on YouTube barely sell at all, and yet the powerful story they tell has made the product a superstar.

Too often today good storytelling is overshadowed by shiny new technology and savy media buying, both of which have their place.

But as I watch the ShamWow! commercial, which is basically nothing but a guy, a towel and a puddle, I wonder if we’ve lost sight of what really sells product:  a compelling story, delivered to the right audience, in a cost effective way.

Which brings me to the upcoming Super Bowl. On average, advertisers will pay $3 million for a 30-second spot, according to this article on And despite a tough economy and shrinking ad budgets, NBC is 90% sold out for the game.

How many of those advertisers will spend their 30 seconds telling a compelling story? How many of them will get more value out of those ads than they would out of the same money spent in targeted direct marketing? How many of them will even remember to integrate the ad with a search engine presence — a notorious  missed opportunity repeated annually by most advertisers!

And don’t trot out the old “We’re buying reach” argument. You can buy more reach for less money in plenty of other places.

Can you imagine ShamWow! or John Caples wasting $3 million on a Super Bowl ad?

So can someone please explain to me how anyone can justify spending $3 million dollars on a 30-second commercial these days, when there are so many other tested, trackable, profitable ways to spend their client’s money?

Business Directed Advertising Integrated Marketing Marketing

The Most Sexy, Surprising and Shocking Marketing Numbers of 2008

It’s the end of the year, and that means it’s time for bloggers everywhere to do one of two things:  an annual recap, or predictions for next year. I’d like to examine some marketing numbers that are in turn sexy, surprising and shocking.


Let’s start with my favorite number of the whole year, and it’s about as sexy as a marketing number gets:  52% of  women 39-44 would rather give up sex for 2 weeks than internet access for the same period of time. It’s part of a new survey by Harris Interactive sponsored by Intel that finds that most Americans feel Internet access is essential to their lives. The survey also says that 82% say having internet enabled devices help them stay current on the economy and 87% say it’s helped them save money by:  price comparison research before buying (84%), simply shopping online (66%), or by finding coupons, discounts, or special internet-only promotions (65%).

With numbers like that, combined with the retail meltdown, rising costs of commercial space and inventory, and the uncertain cost of energy, can we as marketers continue to look at internet retailing as an ugly stepchild, with a mere fraction of advertising and marketing spending?


Now my second favorite numbers: 23% and 36%. They’re the number of adults over 65 who play games, and the percentage of those who play every day. Why are they surprising? The 36% is higher than any other age group except teens.  That’s right — according to the Pew Internet Project’s Annual Gadget Survey, people over 65 play games more frequently than any other adults. A few other interesting numbers from this survey:   53% and 21%.  It’s the number of adults (18+) who play video games and the number who play every day! And of course, no surprise here:  97% of teens and 81.9% of 18-29-year olds play games.

With numbers like that, can most of us continue to ignore gaming platforms as marketing mediums any longer, or avoid figuring out an effective and hopefully respectful way to communicate with consumers using this medium?


My third and final number is 16%. It’s the number of high school and college students who actually pay attention to marketing emails, according to an eROI survey reported on Marketing Charts.  And it’s shocking given that these are email super users. On average, they’ve been sending emails since they were 13, had email addresses for 8 years and have 2.4 email addresses each. They love email:  26% say it’s their favorite form of communication. (Of course, 37% choose texting.) 55% of them check their email more than 3 times a day.

And yet only 16% read marketing emails and 66% of them say that even if they read an email, they never take action afterward. (I know what you’re thinking:  a 16% open rate and a 34% conversion rate would be great, if it was your email. But that’s not an open rate, it’s an avoidance rate and it’s a nightmare for student marketers.)

With numbers like these, can we continue sending messages that are innocuous at best and spam at worst, rather than looking to use new technologies to make more engaging connections with the lucrative teenage consumer?

So, what are my predictions for next year? Sorry, my crystal ball is cracked and my prognostic abilities are more willful than prescient. For instance, some look at Twitter’s 600% growth in 2008 and the $1 Million in revenue Dell attributes to Twitter and see the next big marketing tool. I’m not sure what I see, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets overwhelmed with poorly conceived and executed marketing messages and become less use-worthy than it is now. (See, willful — I really don’t want to have to learn how to use Twitter.)

With sexy, surprising and shocking numbers like these concerning critical demographic groups like women, seniors and students, what I will do is leave you with one question to ponder as we enter 2009:

Can someone please explain to me how any marketers can even think of doing any business as usual in 2009?

Directed Advertising Integrated Marketing

In Praise of the Lowly Yellow Pages

If you asked my clients and colleagues whether I’m a lo-tech or hi-tech kind of marketer, they’d all say the latter.  It’s a rare strategy session that I don’t find some way to suggest search, or content syndication, or blogging, or widgets, or behavioral, or email, or… well, you get the picture.

But the fact is, like my agency, Tanen Directed Advertising, I am actually channel neutral.  If a tactic works, I say, use it.  Not blindly — you need a strategy, and the tactic has to have a measurable chance at achieving your strategic goals, but if it does, I say, go for it.

And that’s why I’m writing about Yellow Page Directory advertising. And no, not the online local search kind. I’m talking yellow cardstock cover, dead tree, “pile three of them on a chair so your 4-year old can see the monitor” kind of yellow pages.

You see, it seems that the lowly, lo-tech yellow pages has a ridiculous click thru rate.  According to a recent study, 78% of directory users contact an average of 2 businesses after referencing a directory.  The most popular action taken is picking up the phone, which happens 93% of the time.  But it’s not limited to a phone call: 31% show up in person, 10% go online, and 1% get in touch through the mail.

Those are monster numbers.  And when you consider that for many categories, there is far less noise and competition than Google, they’re even more compelling.

We all love search because we know that anyone who is in the act of searching is in some stage of the buying cycle.  (According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 81% of all internet users “look online for information about a product or service they are thinking of buying.”)

Local search is growing because it turns out that people who search online sometimes shop locally. (The increasing adoption and use of mobile phones and the growing utility and quality of mobile search isn’t hurting, either.)

Unlike most other forms of advertising, both types of search are non-intrusive and non-interruptive.  They are, in fact, requested and highly desired services.

The same logic holds true with yellow pages.  In fact, didn’t search really start with the yellow pages?  (This reminds me a little of how television advertising is beginning to return to it’s sponsor-driven, branded content and product placement roots)

The study was conducted by Knowledge Networks for the Association of Directory Publishers, so it’s lucky for them that the numbers came out as positive as they did.  But I don’t doubt their findings.  After all, how many times have you reached for the yellow pages in the last few months?  Not many, perhaps.  But, when you did, what did you do next?  See what I mean.

That’s the point.  We all still use the yellow pages sometimes, some of us more than others.  And when we do, we take action.  (Of course, that action isn’t always positive.  I’ve never thrown my computer across the room while cursing Google the way I have my local yellow pages because I can’t figure out in which poorly defined and barely indexed category my local movie 10-Plex is to be found.  Hint: It’s not movie theaters or cinemas, which aren’t mentioned at all.  And if you’re silly enough to look up  “Movies” you’ll be rewarded with “See: CDs, Records and Tapes, Retail; Video Tapes & DVDs Rental & Sales.”  Nope, it’s under Theatres, along with the Downtown Cabaret Theatre, Greenwich Shakespeare Co. , New Canaan Playhouse, Stamford Center for the Arts, etc.)

Now, I’m not suggesting we shift our entire budgets out of AdWords and into printed yellow pages directories.  But given the ridiculously low comparative cost of yellow pages advertisements, the extremely long ad life/placement persistence and the comparatively high level of response surrounding their use, can someone please explain to me why more businesses aren’t including them in their media mix?