Tag Archives: Advertising and Marketing

I’m Sick Of Scammers

Another year, another scammer surfaces. I’ve written many times in this space about marketers who try to take advantage of people’s limited attention spans and fear of all things “official”. The mail delivered another example of one to my doorstep the other day and I want to tell you about them. Admittedly, part of this is venting but another part is a very real concern that many marketers have lowered their standards to a point where they’ll do just about anything to drive business. It’s even worse when the business itself is a scam.

North Carolina, like many states, requires that all businesses file an annual report with the Secretary Of State. If you’ve never done that, it’s a very easy process that can be completed online in about 3 minutes. I had to do the same thing when my LLC was registered in Connecticut and the process was equally easy. You check a few boxes and pay the fee. Easy peasy.

In the mail the other day was an official-looking document – 2020 Annual Report Instructions Form.  The blanks in the form were already pre-populated with my LLC’s information. It also contained the language from the general statutes about having to file an annual report. I thought it was something the state had sent until I gave it more than a cursory look.

In a different typeface was a sentence that said this was being sent by a third-party who would file my report for me. Just send along the $292 fee and that would be that. Of course, the filing fee is only $202 – the other $90 was what this company was scamming me for. The grift IS the business – there is very little, if any, work involved otherwise.

My first thought when I saw the form was, oh, I’ll do this online, as I do pretty much everything. My next thought was “wait, this isn’t the state, this is a scam.” The thought after that was “some percentage of business owners are going to fall for this.” It has all the right information and it’s very official-looking. Of course, anyone can get that information on the state’s website and matching the state’s form and typeface isn’t exactly rocket science.

I admit there are a couple of disclaimers that the company is not affiliated with the state but why should anyone have to read very carefully to avoid being taken advantage of? Are they providing a service? I suppose so, but why not offer the service in a clear manner instead of trying to obfuscate that you’re charging $90 to save someone a few minutes’ work?

If you market a product or service, the road to profitability isn’t made easier by misleading or scamming your customers. Let’s not do that. Even better, let’s shine some sunlight on those scammers who do.

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Filed under Huh?, Thinking Aloud

We’re Not Stupid

I do quite a bit of headshaking these days. We won’t talk about the political stuff that causes me to do so but there are just as many things outside of politics to trigger the behavior. I’d like to talk about one of them today because it’s instructive for anyone in business.

One term that’s become en vogue is “alternative facts.” You know what I mean – the dissemination of pieces of information that are mostly or completely untrue. Orwell termed them “doublethink“. I term them lies.

What brought this on? I subscribe to a bunch of magazines – golf publications, cooking publications, and several others. This time of year, in particular, I get snail mail with offers to send a gift subscription. Some ask me to renew or extend my existing subscription and offer to send a free gift subscription to someone as a thank you. So far, so good. These offers are usually clear and only mildly annoying.

Then there is one publication that just doesn’t get it. It’s part of a larger family of magazines and I wonder if what I’m about to describe goes on at the other publications as well. An envelope shows up stamped first notice. I’m told my subscription is expiring and I should renew. A few weeks later comes the second notice. Last week, I got some mail marked THIRD NOTICE in large letters outside the envelope. Inside was the same notice I’d already received twice – my subscription was going to expire (aren’t we all?) and I need to renew ASAP for uninterrupted service.

Here’s the problem. I just renewed this subscription last year for several years. Just to be sure, I found the last issue and sure enough, there on the mailing label was the expiration date. It’s January alright. January 2021. I’ve got a year to go. I wanted to confirm this so I logged on to my account on the magazine’s website. My account lets me use the site’s “recipe box” which I do quite a bit but for some inexplicable reason, it’s not linked to my magazine subscription. When I click on the “manage account” link, up pops a new tab asking me to renew. Again, there’s an assumption that you’re dumb and will just renew because a very in-your-face page is telling you that you need to. In order to see your current account, you need to click through on the FAQ link at the foot of the page and scroll until you find a link to “log in to your account”. Of course, when I finally found this and did so, I confirmed that I had a year to go on my subscription.

Putting the awful user experience aside, what’s bugging me is that these publishers think their readers are dumb. They seem to believe that sending out misleading notices with “alternative facts” will lead to renewals. I wish I could say they were unique but they’re not. I’m sure you get the same kinds of “notices” that I get. My home warranty is expiring (I don’t have one), I can have a “free security system” (it’s far from free), and on and on.

Companies that think we’re stupid deserve to be out of business. I’m well aware of Mencken’s statement that “No one in this world, so far as I know … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people”. We need, instead, to think like David Ogilvy: “The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife”. Putting aside that deceptive marketing just might be illegal, doesn’t it bother you to be thought of as an idiot?

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Filed under Consulting, Huh?

The Grocery Store

The topic for this Foodie Friday is the grocery store. Think for a minute about where you do the bulk of your grocery shopping. Is the merchandise that it carries substantially different from one of its competitors? My guess is that it probably isn’t. All the national brands are there and the same person who stocks the snack or bread aisle at your store might have left a competitor twenty minutes earlier. So why do you go?

We had a Wegman’s open here. The lines to get in were HOURS long. I’ve never shopped at a Wegman’s but those who have proclaimed their undying loyalty. There’s been a rumor floating around my neighborhood (since confirmed!) that a Publix will be opening in the not too distant future. People who’ve missed their sandwiches and service are swooning. In the case of these two stores, they separate themselves from everyone else in very clever ways; Wegman’s via setting themselves up to feel like a European marketplace and Publix via their signature subs.

Some of it is just smart branding. While my local Harris Teeter and Lowe’s Foods both make various types of sausages in-house, Lowe’s brands the entire operation as The Sausage Works and gives each type of sausage a clever name. They even sell “My Sauageworks” tee-shirts (and you can imagine the looks I get when I wear mine in public). They pride themselves as being the Best Of The Wurst and are constantly inventing new flavors such as their newest, The #63 Philly, which they describe as a brotherly love blend of chicken sausage, mozzarella, green peppers, onions, mushrooms, and spices. No commodities here but while both stores sell the same basic sausages, Lowe’s goes the extra mile and can market behind it.

I think may business sectors have become quite commoditized. When I was running a sports site, we would often remind ourselves that people can get a game score or most statistics anywhere. The only way we could compete was to provide something unique, better, and in-demand. I think every business needs to think of itself in terms similar to that, even if you really do have unique aspects baked in. It won’t be long before someone has what you have and maybe is offering it on better terms.

Why do you shop where you shop? If “better prices” is the only answer, that store might have trouble the minute a competitor decides to price match.  It’s much harder to match a better experience or unique merchandise, no matter what business you’re in. Don’t you agree?

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Who’s Calling?

If you carry a smartphone, and nearly everyone does, you’ve probably had the experience of your caller ID showing a fake number that’s calling, often with a fake name or organization displaying. You might think it would require a great deal of technical knowledge to be able to spoof a number or generate a fake caller ID, but you’d be wrong. There are several apps available in the Android or Apple stores that will do just that for you. They’ll even change your voice and add fake, location-specific background noise. I’m not clear what the legitimate purpose of these apps is but for $8, you can set yourself up to run any number of scams if you’re so inclined.

It dawns on me, though, that many folks do exactly the same thing with their social media posts. Their food is picture-perfect. They’re always smiling and having fun, often in some unusual locale. Their party never stops. They never mention that they’re short on cash, their job is unfulfilling, and they’re slowing sinking into depression. I mean, what’s the point of being happy if you can’t post it? As with the phone apps, everything is not as it seems.

I think businesses can learn from this. I’m not suggesting that they use social media to bum us all out, but I am saying that being authentic and transparent will win the day. People appreciate being made spoof-proof, and that happens when they know the businesses they follow aren’t posting visual checks that their real-world business can’t cash. Are they using “influencers” to say nice things about their business when that person has never been in the place or used the product? Have they generated some FOMO by purchasing fake followers?

Don’t believe every number that pops up on your phone. The IRS isn’t calling you. Neither is the Social Security Administration. I’ve had my bank call me but I’ve never had them ask me for account information over the phone. Don’t believe that everything you see on social media is the whole story. It might have been the only good day in a month. And if you run a business, there are very few people who will patronize you based solely on some pretty Instagram photos. Dozens of review sites will keep you honest. People like to know who is calling for real. So be real.

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Filed under digital media, Helpful Hints, Reality checks

Something For Nothing

I went to one of the warehouse club stores yesterday to make some bulk purchases. If you’ve ever been in one of them – Costco, BJ’s, Sam’s Club, etc. – you know that one feature of walking around the place is that there are usually free samples. You can taste the latest and greatest in meats, cheeses, and frozen things to cook while you’re too busy to make something yourself. That got me thinking about the fact that you really don’t see a lot of sampling elsewhere.

I’m a fan of the free trial. It gets customers walking through your door and using your product. What I don’t particularly like are those “free” trials that require you to fork over your credit card. Free means without strings, right? In particular, if you’re a business that is built around what I think is the gold standard – recurring revenues – you ought to be spending a good chunk of your marketing dollars on free trials.

It’s relatively simple math, right? What’s the lifetime value of a customer? What does it cost you to offer up a free trial – a visit, a free month, whatever? What is the conversion rate of those freebies – how many of the trials become regular customers? Recurring revenues are predictable and generally pretty stable. I bet you’ve signed up for subscriptions of some sort and forgotten you’ve done so or don’t use them as often as you thought you would. For a business, that’s a customer without costs, and that’s a nice margin!

When I talk to people who are looking at franchise opportunities and who don’t have a particular brand or industry in mind, I usually talk to them about the businesses with recurring revenue models. Things like cleaning services. Not a sexy business, but very profitable and that, in part, is because of the recurring revenues. Same thing with spa businesses or some hair salons that feature memberships. Are those businesses that can offer a free trial? Maybe if you’re an out-of-the-box thinker. Giving a converted customer the ability to give away a free trial to a friend is another great way to expand your base at very little cost.

Here is the thing about free trials leading to recurring revenues. As with any business, you have to maintain a high level of customer service. After all, when someone’s credit card is getting dinged each month and your business appears on their statement, it’s an opportunity for them to reconsider.  If they walk away, no amount of free sampling will get them back most of the time. Everyone loves something for nothing. The opposite – nothing for something – is very much NOT true!

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Filed under Consulting, Franchises

McRib And You

The big news this Foodie Friday is the return of the McRib sandwich. It’s only going to be around for a limited time and only at select McDonald’s stores (which is about 10,000 of them). If you’ve never had one of these babies, it’s a pork patty formed to look like pork ribs (but boneless) on a bun with pickles and onions and a fair amount fo a sweet barbeque sauce.

I’d be very dishonest if I said this concoction appalls me since I’m a fan of the thing, or at least I was before I both quit eating a lot of carbs (45g in this baby) and lived in a place where real BBQ pork sandwiches are easier to find than a decent deli. When it hit the market back in 1981, it was a dud. It’s been released every so often since into a limited number of outlets and it sells out.

There is something any business can learn from the McRib or the pumpkin spice craze at Starbucks or Dunkin’. It’s the smart tactic of giving customers a reason to come back. There is a restaurant here in town that I patronize on a regular basis. The food is quite good but there are rarely any specials. It gets boring, frankly. I’ve tried pretty much everything on the menu. Something special might get me to make a special trip as opposed to the every 10 days or so when I want a really good burger.

There is something else. Here is a quote from a marketing professor at Northwestern:

For fast-food chains in particular, which rely on familiarity, holiday items can offer consumers some variety. “You need consistency because that’s the brand mantra,” said Chernev. “But no matter how much you like something, consuming something different … increases the enjoyment of what you consumed before.” Chernev says it’s a neat marketing ploy: Although a specialty item may be exciting on its own, it can also remind consumers how much they like the basics.
In my mind, it’s like how being on vacation often reminds you of how much you like being home if that makes any sense. In any event, every business needs to think about how a special product promotion (vs. a sale price promotion) can provide an overall lift to the business.  Got it?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, What's Going On

Living For The Likes

I’ve been meaning to mention the thing that Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are all either testing or have deployed outside of the USA: killing the like count. They’re not eliminating the positive feedback (or any other kind) that people reading your content provide. What they’re doing is deemphasizing it by not showing total like counts. I, for one, am a fan and I’ll tell you why.

Actually, I won’t tell you. I’ll instead quote a Wired piece on the subject of living for the like and tailoring your message and tactic accordingly:

These tactics are attracting increased scrutiny, about their impact on the health of the internet and on society at large. Publicly measurable indicators—including views, retweets, or likes—are “one of the driving forces in radicalization,” says Whitney Phillips, a media manipulation researcher and associate professor at Syracuse University. It works both ways, she says. A user can be radicalized by consuming content and a creator can be radicalized by users’ reactions to their content, as they tailor their behavior around what garners the most interest from their audience.

Unfortunately for marketers, it also eliminates a metric that many marketers use to guide both their spending and their own content. While a minor disturbance in the marketing Force, they’ll get over it and move on to something else. My hope is that it destroys the “influencer” world. I’ve never been a fan and if this hastens its demise, I’m all for it. These are vanity metrics and not real measures of engagement which can be tracked in other ways. It’s also the final solution to those scam artists that sell fake “likes”.

The real issue for me is that many people – especially young ones – seem to develop feelings of inadequacy if they can’t generate sufficient “likes.” Maybe it even deters them from sharing anything in the first place and withdrawing.  For those of us that were there when all of this social stuff began, it’s been hard to watch it go from a great way to stay in touch with your friends and family to a weaponized space where trolls proliferate and it’s often hard to tell what’s real and what’s not.

I’m sure there are some selfish business reasons behind these moves while remaining hopeful that it’s really the start of the social media company’s coming to grips with all of the downsides of their worlds. When you like these screeds, do I see the counts? Sure. Do I change what I have written? In broad strokes, yes, but not based on the likes as much as on the overall readership and responses. In the 11 years I’ve been writing the screed, things such as a regular post on music (TunesDay!) and blogs about research (only rarely now) have gone because you don’t read them. Would I still write on those topics if I thought I could produce something that would interest you? Of course, likes be damned.

Live for today, not for the like.  You with me?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?