CNGVC Newsletter Earns Marketing Kudos

The e-newsletter Thinkshift produces for the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition made the Q2 2010 Vertical Response 500 list, at number 264.

The quarterly e-mail marketing award recognizes top-performing Vertical Response customers. To qualify, customers must send four or more e-mails and achieve average open rates above 20 percent and click rates above 4 percent. The newsletter typically gets open rates in the mid to high 20 percent range, and clickthrough rates in the mid 20 percent to high 30 percent range. The exception: the July 12 issue had an incredible 85.25 percent clickthrough rate.

I wish I knew how to repeat that. What I do know is that the consistently high open and click rates for this newsletter are driven by rigorously targeting content (including original reporting) to audience interests.

Accuracy Is Essential (That’s Not As Obvious As You’d Think)

Accuracy is essential to credibility. Duh, right? Yet organizations miss the accuracy boat all the time. And even one or two innocuous slip-ups can cast doubt on everything you say.

Just look at the “climategate” kerfuffle, where a few questionable (stolen) e-mails between scientists were taken to indicate rot at the heart of all their work. Or at how the inclusion of an unsubstantiated speculation on the melting rate of Himalayan glaciers in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report brought forth a barrage of claims that all climate science is bunk.

Sure, these reactions came from people who are climate science skeptics (at best)—but that’s the point. Every business making a benefit claim for its products or services and any advocacy group promoting a policy solution faces skeptics. Inaccuracy encourages doubt to spread.

So why is there so much inaccuracy in communications of all kinds? Anyone who’s not actively trying to deceive realizes that factual statements should be correct; when they’re not, speed and sloppiness are usually the culprits. The rule: check every statement. Then check it again.

The more slippery (and common) problem is claims that are inaccurate by implication—for example, packaging that can be recycled only at rare, specialized facilities but is simply  labeled “recyclable” with no explanation. Companies that do this may earn greenie points from the uninformed, but once people find out their recycling can’t actually be recycled, they tend to get peeved—and massively distrustful. Credible claims are realistically correct, not just technically correct. The rule: if you’re implying something untrue, then you’re not telling the truth.

Tips for Writing Better Bios

We’ve been working with clients lately on bios/profiles for websites and backgrounders, and it’s reminded me of how difficult it is for most people to write about themselves—or even get comfortable with what someone else writes about them.

Faced with a bio request, people often retreat to the safe familiarity of resume-style recitations: jobs,  accomplishments, education. That’s not wrong; it’s just not great—especially for networking via social media. Ideally, a bio will evoke a real human (not some kind of business bot) and will communicate something about how you approach your work and what makes you stand out (note to modest types: there’s always something).

A few tips that can make it easier:

  • Have someone interview you (or your team)— it’s often easier to talk about we do than to put it in writing.
  • Develop a list of questions for bios (our colleague Kelly Parkinson has a great one here) and answer them stream-of-consciousness style. People often have a hard time writing because they try to edit while they write. Write first, then edit.
  • Think about (and write about) the ultimate results you deliver—not just what you know how to do.
  • Talk about why you do what you do.
  • Having a hard time pinning down that extra something you bring? Think about what others have said about  you—friends, a former boss, your mom.
  • Include something about what you like to do in your off time—it gives people a way to relate to you. And be specific: “I walk dogs for the SPCA,” not “I like animals”; “I’m addicted to gritty crime novels,” not “I like to read.”

In general, think about what you like to know about others; they want to know that about you, too. And try not stress about it. You may never get comfortable with your bio, but that doesn’t matter—you don’t have to read again until it’s update time.

World’s Best Opinion, Right Here

Sometimes I imagine all the companies claiming to be the “the world leader,” “best,” “greenest,” and most whatever having a smackdown in some sort of marketing Thunderdome to see who’s really on top. OK, so I’m a communications geek. But the point remains: almost certainly, none of these companies is the ultimate, and if any of them are, they can’t prove it.

What of it? Some would say (and I’ve heard some green gurus say) that these kinds of claims are “just marketing”—people know it’s hype. True, and that’s how companies that make unprovable claims start teaching their customers that they are untrustworthy and their marketing is B.S.

Probably not a huge problem if you’re selling diet snack cakes (your customer has agreed not to question the implausible), but if you’re selling sustainability, think again. This kind of marketing can undermine a great product by inspiring skepticism and overshadowing claims that are well-supported. It can also raise the suspicions of greenwash monitors (see Carolyn’s earlier post on spotting greenwash).

To be credible, claims first have to be provable (that’s why this is a highly rated factor in the Thinkshift Credibility Quotient™). And provable claims are both specific and verifiable. Make the strongest statement you can support, be specific, and back it up. Then you’ll have some support when you get challenged for a smackdown.

How Sloppy Presentation Kills Credibility

Organizations tend to extremes when it comes to the presentation aspect of marketing communications. Some obsess on it to the point of overlooking other important needs—like having something compelling to present. But many others seem to believe, like the woman who went to an executive job interview in flip-flops (true story), that people will dig for the diamond beneath the rough. That sounds nice and egalitarian—substance over style and all; trouble is, it’s delusional.

Presentation is one of the key components of credibility (and thus, one of 10 factors we analyze for the Thinkshift Credibility Quotient™). Ample research with website users, for example, shows that people make snap judgments about a company’s credibility based on its site’s design and usability. Note “usability”; people often get caught up in how something looks, but that’s only one aspect of presentation. A credible communication gets all these things right:

  • An aesthetic that’s appropriate for your industry and market.
  • Accessible information. If I’m looking for information about sustainability, or about a particular product’s qualities, can I find it easily?
  • Appropriate materials. If the communication is making sustainability claims, does it use appropriate materials? Any print collateral, for example, should use the lowest-impact materials and processes possible. This applies to packaging, too. Excess or high-impact packaging on a sustainable product undermines the product.
  • Writing quality. Overall, is the communication clear? Do individual statements make sense? Was it proofread? (Yes, I do need to make this point; see “flip-flops” above.)

Sloppy presentation communicates a sloppy approach overall; strong presentation lays a foundation for trust.