When to Go Negative

“Focus on what you do for them. Show how you solve their problem. Benefits, benefits, benefits.” We—and pretty much every other marketing communications consultant—say that all the time. Perhaps too often, and without enough caveats, recent conversations with a client lead me to believe.

If your audience doesn’t believe they have a problem, for example, they’re unlikely to be moved by your solution.  And if you’re trying to create a sense of urgency, you’re unlikely to succeed with a single-minded focus on benefits. Ample research in behavioral economics shows that fear of loss is a much stronger motivator than desire for gain.

What this means: sometimes you have to go negative. Selling water conservation technologies in a rainy region? Your first task is to convince people that wasting water is a problem. Want people to act now? Talk about what they’ll lose if they don’t—in the strongest terms you can support.

Don’t Tempt Me

“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it … I can resist everything but temptation.” —Oscar Wilde

It’s tempting to cram everything that can be said about your product, program, or service into every communication about it. That way, you can satisfy all the internal agendas and answer any question that might occur to anyone.

But yielding to temptation ultimately didn’t work out well for Oscar Wilde, and it probably won’t for you either. Asking your audience to wade through a river of detail to find the bit they want (not to mention the bit you want them to get) is making them work, and people generally expect to get paid for that.

Make it easy for people to understand what you’re offering and how it will benefit them: address them directly and clearly, and don’t let extraneous bits obscure your message. That means resisting the engineer or other detail-obsessed insider who insists that everything is important, and leaders who can’t see that, frankly, your target audience doesn’t give a damn about their hobbyhorses.

It doesn’t mean paring your pitch down to lofty generalities (a sure way to raise greenwashing suspicions). The trick is to isolate essential and powerful details and let them shine. How do you do that? Find out what your target audience cares about and speak directly to that, with verifiable claims. Anything more will tempt them to tune out.

Does Quality Really Matter?

We’ve spent our careers championing quality—and we’ll continue to do so, despite the sometimes quixotic nature of the quest. Why? For starters, the quality of your communications reflects the quality of your work. It sends the message that you’re credible and trustworthy.

Quality content, in particular, is important if you’re addressing new technologies, emerging markets, or skeptical audiences (the clean tech sector faces all three challenges).

First-rate content delivers crystal-clear information about your services or products, your values, and why you’re different or better—and backs up those claims with facts and concrete examples. This is critical in a website, organization brochure, or other materi­als that introduce you to key audiences. People aren’t going to buy your pitch just because you say it’s so.

Homework: Not Just for Kids
That’s why, when developing critical communications for clients, we make sure everyone does their homework, so we have the information needed to clearly convey benefits and value and provide substantive information rather than vague claims. We also make sure the design serves the information and reflects the personality and values of the organization.

Getting Away With Good Enough
Can you ever get away with “good enough”? Even we have to admit that sometimes, the answer is yes. With a one-time handout or a simple, event-specific website, for instance, you don’t need to add to your workload with elaborate planning and complex execution. Just know what you need to say and the results you need, and cre­ate only what you need to accomplish the task—no more.

One organization, for instance, recently sent an HTML e-mail an­nouncing a few upcoming teleconfer­ences. The design wasn’t great and the copy had a first-draft feel. But they didn’t need more. They’re a pretty ca­sual group, the message was sent to people who already knew them, and the content was fundamentally sound: the class descriptions were engaging and the message clear. On the other hand, the teleclass message probably did nothing to raise anyone’s esteem for the group. And if this were the first contact we had with the organization, we wouldn’t think too highly of it.

When You Care Enough …
Good-quality design, active writing (free from errors), and substantive content send the message that you care about your audience and you care about what you do. Quality communications are compelling because they speak clearly to your target audience and reflect what your company is all about. Sloppy copy, weak content, and poor design convey exactly the opposite.

So, if you want to attract discerning customers, educate skeptics, or win converts to your cause, it pays to put your best foot forward. First published in Words That Work, October 2007.  

Think Outside the Hallway

It’s tempting to structure websites and other substantive communications based on your organization’s internal categories. You get a head start on the project groundwork. You don’t have to create content to suit a new approach. You don’t have to worry about stirring up internal political struggles.

It just makes sense—to you. But to an external audience, maybe not so much. Internal categories that are useful to insiders are often opaque and frustrating to outsiders. Using them can lead you to promote your work from a process perspective, when your audience cares about results and benefits. And internally framed communications may send the message that you’re insular and bureaucratic.

If you want results (and who doesn’t?), don’t take the easy way out: ask yourself the following questions.

How does this structure shape my content? Make sure your structure lets you present information in a way that’s both logical to your audience and appropriate to the type of communication. Organizing content by your program or service areas sometimes makes sense on a website or in a brochure, but it’s rarely a good idea for newsletters or reports, which should focus on results and actions.

Whose interests am I serving? Sometimes organizations structure their communications to cover every program, service, or department because it satisfies internal needs for recognition. But readers want to hear about what’s important to them—how you can help them solve a problem, say, or how you’re advancing the cause.

Of course your colleagues should have a say in what’s important, but if their concerns are irrelevant to your audience—or to your communications goals—they don’t belong in your external communications.

What does my audience know? If your programs or services are highly technical or unfamiliar to most people, you might want to avoid using them as an organizing framework even in cases where it would normally make sense. If you’re working on a website, for example, it can be useful to pull together a model user group (four or five people will often do) and ask where they’d expect to find various types of information, what they expect to see under the categories you’re using, and what they most want to know about what you’re doing. It may make the most sense to organize pages by benefits or needs.

There’s no avoiding a certain insularity in the way you think about things within your organization; just don’t let that perspective guide your communications strategy. If you do, you may find that you and your colleagues are only talking to each other. First published in the March 2008 issue of Words That Work.

Got a Pig? Save the Lipstick

The call came with a note of desperation: “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 fix it later. Can you help?”

The answer was no. Not because we didn’t want to help, but because we just can’t summon the creative energy for lost causes. 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. The hard truth is, you can’t build a mansion on the foundation for a shack.

Prevention Beats Treatment
Our best advice is, avoid this no-win situation. Communications planning should start at the beginning of 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. Carve out the time and budget to think through your strategy, messages, and tactics so that you can produce materials that spur success and make you look good.

Need motivation? Remember what we all know about first impressions—your audiences may not give you a chance to make it better later.

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

Make time. See if you can squeeze the administrative end for more creative time. 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 usually can’t 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 not going 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
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 your new communication tools the right way.
 Originally published in Words That Work, July 2007.