D’oh! I forgot about communications

“We’re launching this program in two weeks and we need a website for it. I don’t really have a budget. I know something quick and cheap isn’t going to be the best, but we can make it better later,” the caller said, with a note of desperation. “Can you help?”

Sigh. There’s nothing more depressing (for all concerned) than a project that starts out rushed, underfunded, and ill-conceived, with the dream of better times ahead. Those times almost never arrive.

It’s best to avoid this no-win situation. Communications planning should start well before a program, product or service launch. You may not know exactly what you’ll be offering, but you know you’ll have to communicate about it, and you know which audiences you’ll need to reach. Carving out the time and budget to think through your strategy, messages and tactics ensures that you can deliver effective marketing. And remember: your audiences may not give you a second chance.

What’s Plan B?
OK, so what if you’re already at the dope-slap stage (“D’oh! I forgot about communications!”) or you’ve inherited a mess. What can you do?

Make time. See if you can squeeze more creative time from other points in your process. If other people got you into this situation, let them know they have to help you get out of it, with immediate vendor approvals, tight review times, whatever it takes. If you did this to yourself, beg for mercy.

Find some money. Look under the couch cushions if you have to, but don’t waste more time on the delusion that you’ll get something for nothing. Remember the rule: fast, cheap and good are all attainable qualities, but you almost never get more than two of them at once.

Think small and short term. Recognize that with a tight budget, short time frame and no planning, you are unlikely to create a website or anything else for the ages. Keep design and technical aspects simple and copy short but smart. Don’t spend an extra dime on features to build on—you don’t want to build on this; you just want to meet the immediate need.

Start fresh as soon as you can. We all have to go the down-and-dirty route at some time or another. The real mistake is trying to make the result serve your ongoing communications needs. All the swine-related clichés apply: you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, you can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig, etc. You’ll get far better results if you put the pig out in the pen and build new communication tools the right way.

Making a Content Strategy Work (Hint: You Have to Actually Do the Work)

I have to make a confession: this blog post was due last week.

I noodled around with a couple of ideas, but inspiration fled. I scanned Twitter, checked recent exhortations from the marketing punditry. Got depressed over the new IPCC report (we’re doomed). Pondered Dan Ariely’s recent post, “The 3 Costs of Multitasking.” (Yep, that’s me.)

One thing led to another and in no time I was far, far away from my original task: to write about content strategy. A couple of days later, fueled by strong coffee, I snapped back to reality. I had become Exhibit A for the fact that the best content strategy in the world does you no good if you don’t execute it per plan.

Without consistent execution, a content strategy will lose momentum, you won’t meet your goals, and the whole system backs up. It’s easy to get distracted, though, and other priorities sometimes take over. Here are a few tips for overcoming the ADD tendencies most of us share and sticking to your schedule.

Don’t try to do too much. A main challenge, particularly with so many channels and media, is staying focused. Make sure you have the time and resources to deliver on your strategy. One of our mantras: It’s better to do a few things well than a lot of things badly. If you’re lagging, adjust your execution plan rather than constantly struggling to keep up.

Give yourself room to act on inspiration. Build flexibility into your plan that allows you to tackle off-schedule topics without sacrificing scheduled content. Want to blog about that new IPCC report? Do it when inspiration strikes—but make sure your planned post gets done, too.

Don’t let perfection be the enemy. Often, “good” is good enough. You don’t always have to hit it out of the ballpark—just get to first base. Have a limited video budget? Do one well and leverage the heck out of it. Don’t have enough meaty content for your newsletter? Go with what you do have (maybe toss in an old favorite from the archive) and make sure your next issue has more substance.

Keep the larger goal in mind. Content marketing is about sharing your knowledge in ways that engage others with your company so they’ll work with you or buy from you when the time is right. Keep that conversation going, and you’ll be fine.

Now, I’m going to read Ariely’s newest post. It’s about procrastination…

For more on this topic, check out our guide, Content Marketing: Myth vs. Reality.

Why Sustainable Businesses Have a Brand-Building Advantage

Can you get gullible customers to buy increasingly craptastic products based purely on a fantastic brand? The answer just in: No, according to Absolute Value, a new book by Stanford marketing professor Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen. As New Yorker finance writer James Surowiecki puts it: “Brands have never been more fragile. The reason is simple: consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos.”

While it’s always gratifying to see more support for our longtime obsession with credibility, what really strikes me about Surowiecki’s column is the case this makes for sustainable business. If your business—including your marketing—is operating on the principles of transparency, accountability, community benefit and environmental care, that’s good not only for the wider world but also for long-term revenues.

It’s not that sustainable operations guarantee quality products or services (though the need to consider issues like waste and social value certainly helps), but that adhering to principles like transparency and accountability means you can’t resort to smearing lipstick on pigs. If you’re a sustainable business, you won’t claim that fat customers are the cause of yoga pants that stretch to transparency (to cite the New Yorker piece’s primary example).

Sustainable business principles pretty much demand what has always been the hallmark of durably strong brands: they’re built from the inside out. That is, the brand’s image and marketing messages express a compelling combination of personality, values and mission that’s lived within company walls. If you’re not walking the talk, no brand strategy can hide that forever.

Get Messaging Out of the Marketing Ghetto

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but people often focus too much on the creative side of new messaging projects. By too much, I mean exclusively.

Yes, the messaging has to be compelling, flexible, and spot-on for the target audience. But all that development work is wasted if you don’t have a plan for making your messaging live beyond the first website revisions and a carefully crafted guidebook that no one reads. For messaging to succeed, everyone (not just the marketing team) needs to use it—in conversation, emails, presentations, wherever. Based on our experience working with a variety of clients on messaging projects, these are the keys to successful implementation:

Enthusiastic leadership. Driving adoption is not as simple as having the grand pooh-bah say “do it.” Leadership needs to embrace it, use it, model it—internally as well as to external audiences. Otherwise, messaging will be seen as optional.

Communicating the benefits. Good messaging solves problems. It provides easily grasped explanations of difficult concepts, clarifies key goals and values throughout the organization, and provides ready answers (even cut-and-paste options) to common questions. Let people know how the new messaging will help them talk about their work more comfortably, effectively, and consistently.

Training. Walking people through practical exercises for using the messaging in real-life situations is essential. This is especially true for sales teams and customer-facing staff: they’re primary message carriers and they need to feel comfortable with their approach. Facilitated role-playing sessions are ideal. It’s also a good idea to provide a refresher a few months down road.

Using new messaging will feel uncomfortable at first—even if it hits the authenticity mark and rings true to everyone throughout the organization—simply because it’s unfamiliar. Without ample reinforcement, people will revert to the words they’ve always used, even if those words inspire reactions like “Huh?” or “Excuse me, I have to go get another drink now.” Then your messaging platform breaks down—and I hate to see good creative go to waste.

Email: Still Here, Still Works—Just Keep It Fresh

Remember the time before Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest?

There was email.

There still is. For many companies—especially B2B firms—email rightfully remains a primary way to communicate with customers, prospects, partners, and other interested parties. But with the bright, shiny object of social media dangling before our eyes, it’s easy to lose focus on what makes boring old email effective. (Tip #1: don’t be boring.)

Much of getting email right involves getting the basics right, and it’s worth reviewing the following aspects of your email program on a regular basis to be sure you’re hitting the mark.

Sometimes clichés are true:  content really is king

If you don’t consistently give people something they find useful, funny or provocative, and that speaks to the reason they wanted to hear from you in the first place, they will tune out. In a heartbeat. And it has to be engagingly presented, in language your audience understands.

Nobody loves you that much: send selectively

Not even your mother wants to hear about everything you’re doing. (And do you want to tell her?) Segmentation is key to an active, effective email program. We’ve heard the argument that “people want to keep up with what we’re doing,” but it won’t wash. People want to keep up with what you’re doing only if it’s what they’re into. Chances are you’re into a number of things, and they appeal to different audiences. Send too many segment-specific messages to your entire list, and you’ll see people check out.

Garbage in, garbage out: manage your mailing list

It’s a drag. But if you don’t keep your list up-to-date and accurately segmented by target audience, your results will suffer, and it will be hard to figure out why. You won’t be reaching everyone who wants to hear from you, and the percentage of unresponsive addresses will increase. In these circumstances, a clickthrough rate may not tell you much about how effective your content is—a low rate could mean that no one’s interested in your latest missive, or that there’s so much deadwood on your list it only looks like no one’s interested, or that the people who are interested aren’t on your list.

Take a hard, honest look at your email program at regular intervals. This affordable workhorse can continue to serve you well, but only if you keep it fresh.