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Author Archive » Kevin Flavin, Web Content Volunteer

The best way to spread holiday cheer is singing loud for all to hear. *

Saturday, December 20th, 2008

It seems like every day brings more depressing news from the papers, television, radio, blogs, and other outlets. Coupled with the recent ice storm here in northern New England, things appear pretty dire. Since my power is back on for now, I’m enjoying my third cup of hot cocoa, thinking about the things that make us happy in difficult weather, seasons, and this economy. The first thing that comes to mind is shopping, followed closely by getting a good value, and finally, getting a great value!

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted the message from marketers and advertisers that we are going to see more “feel-good” ads. The ads are effective during poor economic times for suspending the malaise of the customer, at least for the brief moment that the products and services are being introduced. Combining the thought of shopping, which feels good with all these “feel-good” ads and we have a confluence of imagery and sound that begs for action. So, imagine how grateful and pleased customers would be if they got a great value for very little or no cost to them.

A typical approach is to offer significant discounts on products, but this can backfire as it may appear that the firm is in financial difficulty and needs the cash flow. Lowering prices gives the appearance of desperation and can lead to backpedaling, or worse. Also, another risk is that current customers may resent both the firm and the new customers, and ultimately the product or service itself as it reminds them of their perceived bad decision. Only significant market strength and flawless execution in other areas can offset this type of mistake. A good example of this was Apple’s reduction of the cost of the iPhone after their most die-hard fans rushed to purchase it first.  Media outlets covered this extensively in the fall of 2007, here is an article from the Huffington Post discussing one reaction.

There are hundreds of little ways that a customer can feel great about their purchase, and more than a few are in the control of the vendor firm, to wit:

  1. Price – decreasing prices is very risky in a difficult economic environment
  2. Assumed or associated risks – including risk of adoption of a solution, risk of replacement, and a myriad of financial risks could be mitigated by vendor firms
  3. Additional or unexpected costs – costs of implementation, cost of carry or ownership, and cost of use are just a few, but each industry is unique and has its own nuances that can be researched and potentially reduced or removed entirely.

Of course, there are other stakeholders in business besides customers; employees are marketing channels “on the ground floor” as they talk to customers, potential customers, and even suppliers. Doing something special for employees pays dividends that multiply throughout the season but also into the New Year.

I mentioned suppliers in the previous paragraph and they should not be overlooked. If a supplier offers a discount for early payment, firms should take advantage of it, its good for the firm and its great for the supplier. In these tough economic times, giving suppliers liquidity can bank some goodwill for later if better payment terms are needed.

You never know, if enough firms actively give during this holiday season, maybe the economic environment will improve, and that will spread the holiday cheer for everyone.

*Apologies to the movie Elf. Copyright New Line Cinema (2003)

To leave a comment, please double-click on title.

Kevin Flavin has almost 20 years experience in the financial services industry. Balancing the first half of his career as a buyer, he has spent the last ten years as a vendor in a range of roles from sales, product management, but always marketing. He is based in the Boston area. He is also a monthly contributor for the AMA Boston blog.

It’s a Buyer’s Market

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

Today, the news raised the threat of deflation. While this is especially troubling to the cyclical and seasonal businesses, they have many options to counter the downturn including seeking bailouts. Smaller firms must look to other means to protect themselves. A natural reaction is to protect the home turf and marketing can be a powerful tool to accomplish that. While customers have been assaulted with a barrage of negative news and an outlook that it will continue at least through 2009, all businesses need is to look for ways to separate from the malaise.

Defense Wins Games

Protecting the business revenue is a primary goal in an economic downturn. However, not all revenue is equal – some revenue comes with so much expense, it’s almost not worth earning. Knowing the factors that make up great revenue helps to decide which activity to invest in – and market for new customers.

Marketing isn’t limited to reaching out to new customers. It should also consider the choices that the current customer base made at their point-of-purchase. Marketing can give current clients a sense that they’ve done something right, hopefully to the point that they’ll keep doing it again and drive more business.

Gathering information on customer sentiment and satisfaction is usually best accomplished through a market research firm. Many belong to the Marketing Research Association.

Results of market research can be leveraged into action items for current customers to improve satisfaction, but also to expand the relationships into new areas. Sometimes, new areas of growth can arise from marketing into existing customers for new products and services and is usually an easier prospect.

Growing Through a Downturn

The results of the market research can help determine the list of factors that the best customers have in common. These are the “sweet spot” factors for current customers and should form the baseline for any new customers.

In a tough market, new customers need to feel that they are making a smart choice when each decision may be scrutinized later. Successful firms take control of the messages to the market to ease the decision of the buyer. One way of doing this is to separate the business from the negativity in consumer sentiment by increasing demonstrations of financial strength and growth.

A few good examples are:

  1. Announcing new wins to the customers in some manner. Showing success regardless of the economy turmoil in providing services that are important now is important to both new customers, but also for existing customers. It shows the business has stayed relevant and forward-thinking. The important thing is that the customer receives the knowledge of the new member to the family, the delivery mechanism must work for both types of customers and may take the form of email, printed newsletters, lunch with sales, a roadside bulletin board, or all of the above.
  2. Actively introducing new products or services increases the “buzz” and may slide into a viral marketing situation. Some media outlets are looking for positive news to counter the negative news. One method is to offer limited-time trials or samples to buzz-makers. A public relations firm can help manage the message, especially in advance of holiday shopping, even if the product isn’t seasonal as this recent launch of the new Blackberry.
  3. Publishing a case study of a customer highlighting the factors referenced above adds credibility and practicality to the messaging, such as this study by Akamai measuring the ROI.
  4. Starting a loyalty program can also galvanize best customers against competitor products, especially the types of competition that isn’t obvious, i.e. energy drinks vs. coffee. Starbucks recently introduced the Gold Card.

These programs should accomplish two things: they can remind customers why they made the original choice and create buzz for new customers of the products and services The over-arching objective is to capture the best customers while looking for “like-best” new customers.

What new ideas do you have to manage your message to the market?

To leave a comment, please double-click on title.

Kevin Flavin has almost 20 years experience in the financial services industry. Balancing the first half of his career as a buyer, he has spent the last ten years as a vendor in a range of roles from sales, product management, but always marketing. He is based in the Boston area. He is also a monthly contributor for the AMA Boston blog.

The Holidays Are Great Opportunities For Reaching Out to Customers

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

“The headline is the ‘ticket on the meat.’ Use it to flag down readers who are prospects for the kind of product you are advertising.  On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.” - David Ogilvy

Halloween and the U.S. Election have passed, it’s time to start thinking about the burst of activity surrounding the holidays. For those in the U.S., it begins now. I was perusing the 75% off display at a local retailer of left-over Halloween decorations and fall harvest motifs when I noticed that the Christmas trees were already on display. I realized that as more and more retailers bend to the will of seasonal shopping instead of being consistent providers of general goods, consumers look to other avenues to find what they need. Unfortunately for me, the mop bucket was not to be found at this store. Apparently, I’m not the type of customer this retail outlet is catering to, the new displays were telling me that.

Whether you’re preparing for that shopping extravanganza that occurs every fall through January or just preparing for next year’s activity, your mind must be focused on your customers and what level of sales you can expect. I know in my industry, the financial services firms are taking a beating, both in the markets and in the press. While this is worrisome the inclination to “hunker down” may be too powerful to resist. The more aggressive competitors see this as an opportunity like no other; this is a time to take market share, build a better brand, and introduce new products and services while the weakest industry players cut back.

Make an assessment of your messaging methods and look for improvements
While most of the world is focusing on the issues and problems of the economy, get your message in front of them, too. Your customers are plugged into their favorite news outlet, and are more receptive to hearing what you have to say - take advantage of the heightened awareness of the new President, faltering economy, and international response to the U.S. elections. Put yourself in their minds and look back at your company’s marketing messages. You may find that your message is off the mark, or worse, there isn’t enough to see.

Traditional Methods Still Work…
It doesn’t take more than a moment to realize that anything that can be purchased can be Googled. As time passes, more and more of your customers are doing the same thing to find you - what does your website and press releases say to them? It’s time to review and update your message to reflect the new economy.

For many years, the Direct Mail/Direct Marketing approach was arguably the best method. With the introduction of email, the cost and timeliness of your DM efforts have improved. However, many companies are simply applying the same concepts to the new platform, not adjusting to the platform. Many firms start with a strategy of creating an email campaign, maybe even a corporate blog, but few are consistent and thorough in utilizing the strategy to its fullest. Many corporate blogs start to wither and die from inactivity. Think about what a stale corporate blog says to your customers. Stick with the strategies long enough to see if they work; if they don’t, kill them quickly.

New Methods for New Customers
It’s natural to think about your current customers, but what about your next customers? Have you reviewed your messages to them? Do they need updating? Are you moving into new areas, both product and service, as well as geographical?

As email and websites have changed your marketing, you need to continuously look for the next movement. Twitter comes to mind as the potential next wave. It’s hard to believe, but Twitter is just two years old! At first glance, it can appear as a toy for the Web 2.0 generation. On the other hand, if Twitter is applied in the appropriate manner, it can be a powerful tool to reach out to new, younger customers, build brand awareness, capture ideas, and even open new opportunities. Try your company in these measurement tools designed just for Twitter: Twist and Tweetlater. There are thousands of tools available to make your messages heard.

What does the “ticket” say on your company?

1. Is your message on target for what your company does?

2. Is it reaching your customers; are you leveraging enough outlets to reach them?

3. Are you doing enough to attract new potential customers; do they see your value to them?

Tell us what you’ve done differently using old tools or new tools to manage your message to your customers?

To leave a comment, please double-click on title.

Kevin Flavin has almost 20 years experience in the financial services industry. Balancing the first half of his career as a buyer, he has spent the last ten years as a vendor in a range of roles from sales, product management, but always marketing. He is based in the Boston area. He is also a monthly AMA Boston contributor.

Economic Crisis can be Opportunities with the Right Planning

Monday, October 20th, 2008

It’s that time of year again, the leaves are changing, the nights are cooler, the school buses are rolling, and, if you’re lucky, senior management wants to know what and where you want to spend next year. They aren’t making any promises, but it looks like the current financial crisis means that you should think long and hard about what to spend at all. On the other hand, those that have the resources may come out aggressive and try to take your market share. Everyone is looking hungry, including your clients. Should you go for broke or pace for the marathon? Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya?

A well-thought-out, or even a mediocre-thought-out, strategy involves a lot of thinking and a lot of ideas. Sometimes that takes time, sometimes that takes effort, usually it takes both. I’m right in the middle of our annual planning sessions for the upcoming year, but I have an advantage. I have a fuzzy idea of where we’re going to be in the future. Knowing that helps to plan for the next year because I have a benchmark that I can shift-up or shift-down throughout the year depending on industry issues and opportunities.

At the very beginning, you need to know what do you do, how do you do it, how well do you do it. This involves some internal analysis and navel-gazing. In addition, include external things that impact you, like regulations, customers, even the potential ones, technology, best practices, and finally competitors. Knowing the long term trends in your industry will help you allocate to the right initiatives and helps to plan on where to put your resources to the best effect.

As you begin to plan, you can use a pre-made system, and there are many, many out there, just check your favorite search engine. Here’s one that I don’t endorse, but I liked their web url: Bplans.com. As a note of caution, it is unusual to find an exact pre-made format for everyone’s needs, so take a flexible approach, glean what you can and discard the rest.

One thing to remember, and this has a lot to do with your audience and your role in an organization, I’m focusing on Marketing plans, not business plans. Business plans address financials and other non-marketing topics that marketing doesn’t have responsibility for. If you find a business plan you like, cut those sections out rather than comment that it doesn’t apply. A good place to get the right perspective is to check out the SBA. They have some good plans, at least to get you thinking about how to write your plan.

Finally, spend the balance of the strategy explaining how you’re going to get there. Feel free to borrow other resources in the plan. Let some other departments do some of the heavy lifting - they’ll reap the benefits with you as you succeed. If you have metrics, detail them; proof is better than benefits, which is better than features.

I try to break mine down into three sections:
1. Initiatives - goals, objectives, industry initiatives (client, regulator and competitor), corporate initiatives.
2. Product, services, solution - a description of positioning is the important part as it makes sure everyone is in agreement, or you know who isn’t. I recommend that you discuss market segmentation here, with backup in an appendix. You can also, if there is relevance, talk about changes in distribution, changes in pricing or value, and the other Ps. Use your best judgement when discussing People…
3. Influences - these include external factors such as regulations, competitors, etc. If your products are so mutually exclusive that it makes more sense to discuss these topics in the prior section, go for it. But most firms, and I state this rhetorically, have products that are extensions, complementary, or otherwise tied together, and so a separate section is easier to read than re-stating the same points in each product strategy.

I hold a few sites out on a small list to remind myself of topics I may have forgotten, or new issues that need to be addressed. A very good place to look after you’ve finished your first draft, is the wiki on marketing plans. If you’re like me, I update the plan once a year with notes from the past year, new ideas that we’ve been bouncing around, and any other chaff that comes my way. Since the wiki is updated constantly by donated content from global sources, you can get some good fodder for new ideas or threats to your firm that you may not have thought of or seen yet.

Four additional tips for a lasting strategy (and have learned the hard way):
1. Write it for beyond your known audience, including the timing. I’ve found old strategies that I’ve written switch the e-mail referred to at other companies.
2. Condense the executive summary, the current state, and the future state onto the first page of the document. If you find yourself defining, explaining, rationalizing, and proposing, start again. Finally, the Executive Summary should state any significant change to the current process, like a creation of a cross-departmental-strategy-execution team.
3. Use appendices for tables of data, include expense by product, by intitiative, market move segmentations, etc.
4. Don’t define the obvious. It’ll make your document a dull read and lose its efficacy. If you’ve always sold through VARs, or direct sales into prospects, and continue to do so - then, so what? Don’t waste type, space and reader’s attention span with the mundane.

Finally, be creative, have fun, but make sure it’s professional. This document has your name on it, make it good enough to look at next year as the foundation of your next one. It should be a pleasure to read. It’s a stake in the ground and you’re holding the sledge hammer - wear your best shoes.

To leave a comment, please double-click on title.

Kevin Flavin has almost 20 years experience in the financial services industry. Balancing the first half of his career as a buyer, he has spent the last ten years as a vendor in a range of roles from sales, product management, but always marketing. He is based in the Boston area. He is also a monthly contributor for the AMA Boston blog.

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