It’s Back to Messaging As Usual… Or Is It?

I’ve had a powerful feeling the past few weeks that notions of what content is appropriate in marketing and advertising have shifted, particularly in email marketing and e-newsletters.

No, I’m not talking about the widely used prefaces at the top of virtually every commercial email communication in the first few days after September 11, decrying the tragedy of so many lives lost. Those were appropriate and somehow reassuring.

Most marketers have dropped them by this point — and that seems OK. Perhaps some readers had limited tolerance for them. As appealingly outspoken publisher Anne Holland put it in her SherpaBlog, “OK already! If I get one more promotional email or ezine with prefacing remarks about our national tragedy, I’m going to scream.”

Anne’s reaction (she wrote this a couple of weeks ago) is a bit extreme. But she does make a point. Many of us want to get on with business as usual. “Work is an escape,” said Tricia Robertson, VP of marketing communications for Socketware’s Accucast. Reminders of the tragedy can jolt us out of work mode.

Still, Robertson added, she’s advising clients to approach their messaging carefully. “Content needs to be a little more humble,” she said. “Not so in your face.”

I consulted Robertson and several other marketing colleagues, as well as a few fellow ClickZ columnists, to get a reading on whether my feeling about messaging was shared by others. And to help me define more concretely for business-to-business (B2B) marketers what “appropriate” is. Tips on that at the end.

I ran across several articles that echoed my thoughts. iMarketing News last week quoted Dan Flack, interactive marketing program director for IBM, as saying, “We’re watching for symbols of aggressive action and looking at all metaphors. All emails are not to be sent out without review at the management level.”

Business 2.0 featured a thoughtful interview headlined, “The Day That Everything Changed: In the wake of the terrorist attacks, the advertising industry rethinks humor, violence, and taste in general.”

My sources said:

“I’m going to take a hard-line position and say that with clients, as opposed to with friends, you should refrain from political messages, which is different from acknowledgement of the events of September 11,” said Marcia Yudkin, marketing expert, author, and former ClickZ columnist.

“The media is beginning to settle back into its old complacency, wrapping the American brain in its comforting glow of reliability and sameness,” wrote Jim Meskauskas, in his ClickZ column last week. He goes on to point out that digital media has proven that “it can play a unique role in all of our lives on a daily basis.” Digital marketers and advertisers should “step up to the plate,” he writes, and create content that is “interesting and important.”

Veteran ClickZ columnist Dana Blankenhorn was more specific. “The tone of the pitch has to change,” he said. “It has to be more subdued, more circumspect… People’s motivation has changed. You have to prove value.” And in general, he said, when dealing with clients or partners, “Take a step back, go the extra mile, be less demanding. This is a different world… we’re all in this for a higher purpose.”

Which brings me to some tips for B2B marketing messages:

Politics are out.

Yudkin said it clearly.

Now is the time to find an authentic voice.

Cynicism is out. Authenticity and appealing to the humanity of your reader is in. Your message has to mean something. Particularly in B2B, prospects and customers respond to specifics and facts. Go back to the fundamentals. What is your unique selling proposition (USP)? What is the measurable return on investment (ROI) of your product or service? Now is not the time to impress your target audience with gee-whiz features.

If there’s an appropriate tie in, use it… carefully.

A marketing message from Accenture popped into my inbox last week. The subject line read: “Attention is gold; don’t waste it!” Visible in the preview function of Outlook was: “Managing your attention in the office is key to success. More so than ideas or even talent. Take our quick poll to find out where your attention goes…”

With my attention wandering more than usual of late (as I ponder “before September 11” and “after”), I was intrigued — and clicked. (Note to Accenture: use a better “From” line. This was from, which meant nothing to me.)

The body of the short message said I had a chance to win a global positioning system (GPS) tracker if I took the poll. It ended effectively: “The poll will tell you where your attention is. The tracker will show you where you are.”

Right on target. Oops, I take that back. That’s the kind of phrase that you might want to avoid (and I’m not joking). Bad taste is out — even if it’s inadvertent. Which brings me to…

Test your message before sending.

And, no, I don’t mean segmenting your list and testing different subject lines or copy angles. I mean run your copy by trusted colleagues and a few key customers. It’s too easy to strike the wrong note — or the wrong metaphor — if you are in a different place, emotionally or geographically, from your audience.

Finally, think long term.

Now is the time to start building relationships with your prospects and customers through your communications. After all, that’s what email marketing and e-newsletters are best at.

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