Why are you sucking all the life out of your blog?

Don’t confuse ‘professional’ with ‘dull as ditchwater’.

boring blogs

(Image via this site.)

Michael Gass’s recent blog post, “Nobody Reads Ad Agency Blogs” has turned up in my Twitter stream a few times in the past couple of weeks, and I finally got around to reading it today.  It’s a decent summary of why ad agency blogs – and plenty of others – don’t get nearly the amount of traffic that their owners wish they would:  No strategy, no consistency, too much self-promotion, etc.  

He’s got some good points, but I think it’s simpler than that.

Why people read blogs

In my opinion, there are two reasons why people read your blog, keep reading your blog, and keep telling their friends to read your blog:

  1. Information
  2. Personality

Being a good, reliable source of information is definitely one of the best ways to get more traffic to your blog.  There’s a reason why the Drudge Report – which is one of the longest-running news aggregator sites out there – still drives enormous amounts of traffic even though it’s not visually appealing, doesn’t have a huge PR machine, and is basically run by 3 people in a small office. 

Why people read your blog

Here’s the thing:  Unless you’re spending your entire work life engaged in investigative journalism, university-endorsed research, or highly specialized content aggregation/development, people aren’t reading your blog for ‘information’.  You may be very proud of your pieces on “5 Tips for Making Yoga Part of Your Life” and “Better Ways to Implement IT Solutions”, but I promise you that there are already plenty of other blog posts and articles out there on the exact same subject.

If people are reading your blog, it’s because they like the personality of your blog:  They like your take on things, they like your writing style, they like the ‘you’ they think they’re getting to know through your posts.  Maybe you make them laugh, maybe you make them think, maybe they just think your life is a bit of a trainwreck and are tuning in for updates.

Penelope Trunk, who writes the ‘trainwreck’ blog example, makes $150k/year from blogging, by the way – and she’s not even doing it every day.  The woman behind Dooce.com says her revenue is upwards of $400k. HyperboleandaHalf has posted only 5 entries in the past 18 months – and still has good traffic stats and social media engagement.

These sites aren’t providing cutting-edge ‘information’, or incisive insight on the major problems of our times.  They’re popular because people love – or love to hate, in the case of Penelope Trunk – the personalities represented.

“But my blog is professional. There’s no room for personality!”

Ha!  Here’s what I have to say about that:

  1. Penelope Trunk will tell you that she ‘founded 2 startups’, blah blah blah, but the truth is that her professional success has been almost entirely predicated on the fact that she’s created an online ‘personality’ for herself that has very little to do with actually making money from those startups.  
  2. People without personalities are boring.  So are blogs.
  3. In the long-term, the most profitable client relationships are based on personal relationships, not on a strictly objective comparison of features/benefits/price.  You wouldn’t dream of trying to remove the ‘personal’ from those client relationships – why would you try to strip it out of your blog posts?
  4. Unless you have knowledge, contacts, or access than no one else in the world has (think, say, former US presidents), people aren’t choosing to work with you because of what you know or even who.  They’re choosing to work with you because of how you know.  That ‘how’ may manifest itself in the way you approach your work, the way you synthesize information and form opinions, or because you have a very particular perspective. 

In other words, if you’re stripping your personality out of your blog – leaving it devoid of a sense of humour, personal details, controversial opinions or even your passion for steampunk – you’re removing all the elements that go into your successful real-life business relationships.  

And that’s why no one’s reading it.

More Choice = Fewer Purchases

Lots of choice may seem like a good thing, but it won’t make people buy more of your stuff.

wilkin & sons jam choices marketing

Ten years ago, researchers at Columbia and Stanford Universities published the results of experiments in which they studied the effects of choice on action. They discovered that when people are given limited choices, they are more likely to take action (making purchases or writing essays, in the study) than they are if they are given an ‘overwhelming’ number of choices.

(The study has become a little famous as ‘The Jam Study’ – because the first experiment they did involved 24 different types of Wilkins & Sons jam – and you can read the full text here.)

I’ve read the study – so you don’t have to! – and while I think it has some limitations (small sample size, relatively trivial situations, and simplistic decision-making models), there are some other interesting conclusions:

  • People who were given no choice were less happy with what they were given than people who were permitted to make choices
  • Consumers’ stated preferences were for more choice.  However, when they were given more choices, they became less satisfied with their selection
  • People can find choosing among ‘too many’ alternatives to be both ‘enjoyable and overwhelming’ simultaneously

What this means for B2B marketing

I work with a lot of SMB (small/medium business) companies.  I’m often called in when they want to do a new (or first) website, and this coincides with a redefinition of their value proposition and service offerings. 

One of the biggest problems I encounter is that many SMBs – even the ones which have had some success – have a really hard time narrowing down the number of services they want to offer.  Even when they know that 85% of their business comes from one or two specific service offerings, they’re afraid that if they don’t throw in all the other things they can do (or could do, if only they found a client to offer them to), they’ll somehow miss out on a Big Opportunity and leave money on the table.

Except that when you try to put every possible service offering on your website, or try to make your value proposition too inclusive (“We help people”), you simply end up overwhelming your potential clients – and driving business away.

Things to keep in mind:

Limited choice is a positive influencer of action and satisfaction:  It’s a good idea to communicate that you can provide more than one service.  In a B2B SMB environment, I’d suggest that it’s probably very important to offer more than one service, or your potential customers might think that you’re too limited to become a strategic partner in the long term. 

Too much choice causes frustration:  The Jam Study saw a high correlation between ‘overwhelming choice’ and ‘frustration’, even when the consumers liked the products/options they were given. When it comes to B2B services, which involve products and services much less inherently enjoyable than the jam and chocolate used in the study, the potential for business-killing frustration becomes greater.  If you’re selling something that already tends to cause frustration or anxiety – photocopier maintenence, computer repair, financial services – you want to make your choices as simplified as possible.

More choice = less opportunity for the ‘Aha!’ moment:  When you’re creating marketing for any channel, you want the target to see the message and immediately say “Aha! This is the right product/service/company for me!”  When the consumer is instead faced with an interminable list of possible services, you reduce the chances that they’ll immediately see that you deliver the one they’re looking for.

Too much choice leads to a muddled message:  I’ve written before about the importance of clarity when it comes to your message.  The #1 barrier to a clear message is trying to accommodate 8 million service offerings in one value proposition or on a homepage. Concentrate on your core competency and you’ll do better at getting your message across.

Remember: There’s nothing to stop you from expanding the services you sell in the long run, but it’s easier to gradually introduce existing clients to new products and services over time than to try to hit them with everything you’ve got all at once and risk driving them away.

GM says its Facebook advertising didn’t work. So what?

Measuring marketing success is like quantum mechanics:
How long is a piece of string?

alan davies quantum mechanics marketing metrics

I have borrowed this image of Alan Davies tackling that old physics chestnut, “How long is a piece of string?”, from an interesting site called BrainPickings.org, which I encourage you to check out for all kinds of reasons.


With the Facebook IPO in full swing, it’s not surprising that when GM said they were pulling $10 million worth of advertising spend on Facebook, the financial press took note.  And of course there was no shortage of commentators ringing the alarm bells about the imminent demise of Facebook’s ability to monetize.

I can’t help but think of department store magnate John Wanamaker’s famous comment, circa 1912: “I know half my advertising dollars are wasted.  I just don’t know which half.”


Marketing works.
It’s just sometimes hard to know how or why, and social media is no exception.

The worst part about working in marketing is that 2+2 almost never adds up to 4.  Sometimes it adds up to 3, sometimes 10, sometimes a vivid shade of yellow.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is either naive or the kind of person who calls themself an ‘SEO Ninja’ and thinks everything can be measured in clickthroughs.

And therein lies the problem.  

Before the internet, we had to measure most advertising exposures in GRPs (gross ratings points), which is essentially a way to measure reach (how many people saw/heard your tv/radio ad, saw your billboard, etc.) and frequency (how many times they saw it).  You might spend $1 million buying 400 GRPs for 8 weeks for your billboard campaign, but you really had no way to determine whether all those people speeding past your billboard on the highway were actually looking at your billboard, registering the message, and then making a purchasing decision based on it. 

In the meantime, of course, you were probably spending money on other initiatives like tv ads, print ads, direct mail, promotions – all of which have varying degrees of measurability when it comes to purchasing decisions.  The only way you could really know whether your efforts had been successful was to wait until the campaign was over and hope there’d been a demonstrable uptick in sales.

The people who say that social media marketing dollars are ‘wasted’ if they don’t generate the right clickthroughs – and there are lots of them – have forgotten that marketing success is generally a result of a complex alchemy that happens when you reach your target market in multiple ways, via multiple channels, over a (sometimes long) period of time.  

Why GM’s decision isn’t that momentous

Though the GM’s announcement made headline news, it really isn’t that significant in terms of Facebook’s long-term prospects or GM’s overall strategy, and here’s why:

It’s a drop in the bucket

Worldwide, GM spends $1.7 billion dollars in advertising every year.  They’re still spending $30 million on Facebook ‘marketing’ – they’re just not spending $10 million in paid ads. That sounds like a lot to us regular people, but it’s nothing for a big-budget advertiser like GM.

Clickthroughs aren’t everything

Much has been made of the stat that 83% of people say they don’t click through Facebook ads. I’d say the number is probably even higher, but it doesn’t matter: No one clicks through billboards or magazine ads, either, but that doesn’t mean they don’t drive brand awareness, equity or sales in the longer term.

You can’t get a ‘conversion rate’ on buying cars

People who advertise online like to talk about ‘conversion rates’: The percentage of people who clickthrough your ad, then make a purchase on your site.  This can be an excellent measure of success if you’re trying to sell something on, say, Amazon.  It’s never going to work for cars, because almost no one is going to buy a car via a website.

We don’t know enough about GM’s overall media mix

A senior marketing exec from McDonald’s once told me that it takes 4-7 ‘touchpoints’ (interactions with the brand via different channels) in order to get someone to buy an order of large fries.  If that’s what it takes to generate a $2 purchase, imagine what it takes to generate a $35k purchase of a car.  

GM themselves probably don’t entirely know what works

Once GM realized that its announcement had caused an uproar, they hastily released a statement about how they regularly review their marketing mix and make adjustments.  I believe them:  All large advertisers make changes to their media mix on an ongoing basis, based on new information or a change in focus or whatever.  GM isn’t abandoning Facebook altogether, and plenty of other carmakers are still spending money on Facebook ads.  

The bottom line

There’s a reason that advertisers are increasingly turning to neuroscience to understand buying behaviour:  95% of human decisions are made by the subconscious mind, so even when you ask people directly, they simply can’t tell you why they made a particular purchasing decision.  GM’s decision to pull a very tiny fraction of their budget from Facebook tells us almost nothing about the true efficacy of Facebook advertising.

Print production: Mystifying, expensive, and one headache after another

You think printing stuff is easy. It’s not.

print production is a headache

(I found this little rant kicking around in my files, and decided to share it with you, though I’ve given it a fresh edit. I first wrote it about 4 years ago, but it’s as true today as it was then.)

Print production is one of those marketing-related activities which most people think should be really easy, but which is, in fact, the most difficult part of any marketing person’s job. I know you probably find this hard to believe – after all, we’re surrounded by printed materials every single day of our lives: business cards, posters, shopping bags, the direct mail that keeps coming through our mailboxes…you’d think that printing stuff must be easy, right?

But it’s sort of like car repairs: Almost everyone has a car, you see thousands on the road every day, and your auto mechanic doesn’t seem like a quiet genius type – and yet somehow, every time you take your car in because it’s making a tiny little rattle, it always ends up costing you $1500 and 3 days in the shop.

Print media has long been the ugly cousin of what some people would call ‘real’ advertising, with the creatives who do tv, radio and Digital Evangelizing dismissing print specialists as ‘hacks’.  But I can assure you that no radio or tv commercial I was ever involved in (including that time we filmed turtles, rabbits, chimpanzees, white mice – one of which died on set – and a couple of cockatiels, all in the same day) has ever caused me anywhere near the kind of grief occasioned by, say, trying to get a custom cardboard box printed.

And this rant was triggered by…

A couple of years ago I was organizing a big event for a client, where the takeaway item was to be a customized cardboard box, sort of like this box they use for Timbits.  It was to be printed with the client’s logo and a catchy tagline, and then be filled with various promotional items from the client and their strategic partners.

I tried to plan:

7 weeks pre-event:  I asked the printer for an estimate, providing them with the Timbits box for reference

6 weeks pre-event:  I reminded the printer I was still waiting for the estimate

5 weeks pre-event:  I approved the estimate, which had finally arrived, and asked for dielines to give to the designer

4 weeks pre-event:  I lost my shizzle at the printer, who still hadn’t provided dielines

3 weeks pre-event:  The printer advised that maybe I should just make my own dielines, since he didn’t know where to get any

2 week pre-event:  I lost my shizzle with the designer, who didn’t know any more about the dielines than the printer did, even though I suggested she just copy the Timbits box

1 week pre-event:  The design arrived, full of mistakes; the printer, faced with the design, said he couldn’t actually print it as he said he could, which meant an incremental $2500 (for 500 boxes!)

6 days pre-event:  The designer had fixed the design, but had sent the wrong version to the printer.  Of course, this all happened at 5pm on a Friday, which left me losing my marbles while the designer and printer took off for a stress-free weekend of bliss, and I spent the weekend wondering how quickly I could find a new job, given that the imminent non-production of the boxes was probably going to get me fired for incompetence.  And, to add insult to injury, the implication that I probably hadn’t had my ducks in a row from the get-go. 

The boxes arrived, in the end – about 2 hours before the event started.  

I wish I could tell you that this was an isolated incident. It’s not.  I’ve had misprinted, mission-critical items turn up on Christmas Eve; discovered spelling mistakes in $50,000 print jobs that are in a truck on their way to the client; waited 12 weeks for business cards because no one could agree on the card stock; packaging materials that got printed with ‘lorem ipsum’ copy because someone used the wrong version; and had printers tell me that it’s my fault that the client’s official red colour has somehow become pink when printed on banners. 

What’s the real problem?

Print production has changed a lot in the past 10-15 years – digital print options have made it much easier (and cheaper) to print in small quantities and you no longer have to wrestle with 2-colour, 4-colour, or 6-colour printing the way you used to.  

One problem is that the person in my position – the project manager, as it were – is the only one who ever has to face the client and tell them that there’s going to be a delay or a cost increase or a complete failure.  The other people in the process – the printer, the print broker, the designer, the traffic manager, to name a few – don’t have to have that difficult conversation, so it’s easier for them to assume that someone else will double-check their work, and absolve themselves of responsibility for a perfect final product.

However, I think the bigger problem is that print production really does seem like it should be so easy that it’s just not taught or addressed adequately.  I know when I first started in marketing, there were plenty of people who were happy to give me instruction in client management, strategy, media planning and writing creative briefs – but no one ever outlined the basics of print production.  Maybe they didn’t know; maybe print production is something you can only learn through traumatic experience.  Maybe I just started learning before there was a website for every subject imaginable.

I did get one very valuable piece of advice: When you’re talking about print production, it’s “Fast, cheap, good – pick two.”

[end rant here]

No clue how to get the website you need? Here’s some help.

A step-by-step guide for SMEs who need a new website but aren’t sure how to get there.

confused about website design

How clearly I remember the disaster that was my very first website project, back in 1997.  I was the junior on a team of people who were convinced that putting up a website must be easy, but who had no actual knowledge of how one got a website from a Photoshop design to a computer screen with clickable buttons.  They made many promises to the client, and because they figured it must be easy – “I mean, this html stuff can’t be that hard, can it? The people who do it don’t dress very well, you know” – the whole buck got passed right on down from C-suite to VP to Director until it eventually landed in my lap.

At which time I discovered that, in the entire 350-person company, there was one person who had any knowledge of how to build a website. Not only was he fully booked for the next 6 months, but the price given to the client was about 1/3 of what it was going to cost to deliver the site as conceived by people who were still getting to grips with email.

Website development has gotten a lot easier in the 15 years since then, but there is still a huge knowledge gap between people who know how to build (or project manage the build of) a website and those who don’t.  More importantly, knowing how to get a website built does not make you morally superior, smarter or cooler than people who don’t – I know plenty of cardiovascular surgeons who can transplant a heart but have no idea how to get themselves a website.

You don’t have to know how to do the coding.
You just need to know the steps involved.

Last week I was speaking to the management team of a small consulting firm.  Their annual revenue is about $11 million, but they’re growing fast and they know they need a new website in order to compete in their marketplace.  However, without a dedicated marketing or IT department, they aren’t sure how to proceed.  To add to the confusion, they’ve received estimates for website development ranging from $15,000 to $80,000.  How do they figure out what they need to do?

This is what I told them.


Before you start talking to website designers, it’s important to get internal consensus among key stakeholders about the purpose and function of the website.  Is the website mostly for credibility/branding purposes?  What kind of information will it need to contain?  Who is the target audience?  Will you be selling products or services via the site?  Does it need to have complex back-end functionality, like connecting to a payroll database?  

You don’t have to have every detail mapped out at this stage, but getting key team members in agreement about what the site is supposed to accomplish will save you a lot of headache later.


It’s best to establish core messages for the site as early as possible, even if it’s only in ‘internal’ language.  This includes the 3 Ps: Proposition (what you offer to clients); Positioning (how you’re unique within the marketplace); and Personality (how you do what you do differently or better).


For many companies, building a new website is also the time when they refresh the look and feel of their brand identity. Creating a style guide – a document which defines the logo, colour palette, fonts, imagery and other visual elements of the brand – will ensure that the website, and all the other marketing materials, are consistent.  Creating a style guide before you embark on the website design helps prevent ‘design drift’ based on personal opinion (“I don’t like that green colour – can we just add some purple dots in the corner?”), too.


‘Website architecture’ sounds complex, but really isn’t: It’s just the term we use to describe the map of what information the site will contain, and how it will be organized. Architecture can be complex, but for most companies it will be quite simple.  (I personally found this step to be the most difficult part of learning to put together websites, mostly because I like to think in sentences and paragraphs rather than boxes, but the best way to get started is simply to find a website you like and see how they’ve organized their information.)


A scoping document is an outline of the parameters/elements of the site, which can be used to solicit estimates from website developers.  It includes things like the site architecture, functionality of the site (i.e. what you need the site to do), the number of design concepts and revisions you’d like, the timeline you want to work with, etc.  

If you don’t have an internal designer or marketing person, you may want to create a scoping document at the end of STEP 1 and include things like messaging and the style guide.  But it’s an important part of the process because it will allow you to compare apples to apples when you’re assessing the estimates you get from suppliers.


15 years ago, you needed to have all your content written before you started working on the site, because changing content later was often time-consuming and expensive.  These days, you really just need headlines and homepage copy to start with – body copy can be written and uploaded later. (And for many people, it’s easier to figure out copy once you’ve seen a basic idea of how the site will actually look.)


This is where the website developer/company you’ve engaged will put everything together, typically as follows:

  • Website development team uses the style guide + architecture + primary content to develop 2-3 draft design concepts
  • You (the client) provide feedback
  • Development team provides revisions which incorporate feedback
  • You provide second-round feedback
  • Development team provides close-to-final design in a functional environment
  • Final revisions are made to design
  • You approve it
  • Remainder of site is developed

If you’ve tried to jump to this stage without getting agreement on messaging, architecture and style guide, this step will be painful. But if you’ve done all the preceding steps, this stage will go surprisingly smoothly.


Now that the site framework is up and has some basic functionality, it’s easy to plug in the secondary and tertiary content – all those information pages explaining your services, your approach, etc.  You can either provide copy to your website developer to upload for you, or you can get them to teach you how to use the content management system (these days, uploading website content is as easy as using Word) and you can play around with it yourself.


At this stage, all links and social media feeds on the site are tested across a variety of browsers and operating systems, to ensure consistent, bug-free functionality.


The site is transferred to the host server and goes live.  You can tell all your friends, colleagues and clients you have a new website!


It’s always a good idea to get your website development team to hand over all your files and passwords at this stage, and to take you on a tour of your back-end systems.  In an ideal world, you will continue a relationship with your website development partner for a long time to come, but on the off-chance that they suddenly move to another continent, it’s best to know how to access the site if you ever need to.