Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The truth about one-page letters

Imagine this. You’re meeting with your lawyer to review an important business contract and she hands you one page. You ask, “Where is the rest of the contract?” and she replies, “We have a rule in our office that contracts can only be one page. I couldn’t get all of the clauses in, but I got the most important ones.”

Absurd, right? Who could possibly imagine that the length of a contract determines its effectiveness? When it comes to contracts, we clearly choose completeness over brevity.

Why is it then that when it comes to letters, we are convinced of the opposite? I can’t tell you how many times clients have asked me to draft a letter with the overriding instruction being it has to be one page.

I’m well aware of the many famous quotations that say it’s harder to write a short letter than a longer one. And as a writer, I know that my first draft will almost always be too long. But that just says that three pages might be better than four and yes, that one might be better than two. It doesn’t mean that a one-page letter is a necessarily superior form of communication.

To be clear, I’m not talking about perfunctory letters that are simply designed to convey a small amount of information. The letter letting me know that my electricity is about to be disconnected for non-payment doesn’t need to be more than one page.

But if your letter is intended to have impact, to shape opinion or to influence decision-making, imposing a one-page limit is counter-productive. In discussing clarity v. impact, Seth Godin says, “…often, being crystal clear about categorization, topic sentences and the deliverable get in the way of actually making an impact.”

It seems to me that if you are bothering to write in the first place, you might as well do the best possible job of communicating. You demonstrate your respect for your customers by not sacrificing form over function. You are saying to the reader that you are so important to our organization that we are prepared to take the time to fully explain what it is we have to say.

On top of that, multi-page letters deliver greater results. For example, in the fundraising world, they have been proven to result in more donations.

Let’s turn this around. The real question isn’t whether a one-page letter is superior. Rather, it’s why your customers or constituents won’t read a multi-page letter from your organization. The answers to that question may reveal deeper, more important issues. Here are some possibilities.

Your letters aren’t well written. The insistence on brevity is often an admission of ineptitude. People read columns, articles and books every day. They all exceed one page. If a letter is well written – with an effective hook to interest the reader – and with content and style that is compelling, people will make it through that extra page or two.

It’s not important to them. If people aren’t reading your letters, it may indicate that you have lost touch with them. What you are writing about isn’t important to them. Or, apropos to the point above, you have in the first paragraph or two failed to establish why the reader should continue on. In either case, you need to spend a little more time re-connecting with your reader.

They are not engaged. If your customers don’t perceive there to be any value in their association with your company, they are not going to be interested in your letters – whether they are one page or four. Any communication with a constituent is only as good as the experience that has preceded it. You may have a much larger problem on your hands that has more to do with branding than letter-writing.

The reality is that when someone says, “People will never read more than one page” it’s not an assessment of the inclination or ability of the reader. It’s an admission that there’s something lacking in the relationship with the customer to whom the letter is being written.

So, the one-page letter becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Providing less information and context diminishes the possibility of engagement and makes it even less likely that the constituent will read a longer letter in the future. Unless you break the cycle, you will be doomed to a future of brief but ineffective communication.

What do you think?
Do you insist on one-page letters? Are people just too rushed to be bothered to read multi-page letters? Do you have any experience or data to shed light on the question?

Monday, September 8, 2014

How are you unboxing your school?

You may never have heard of it, but "unboxing" is not only all over YouTube, it may be a great way of achieving marketing success at your independent school.

There’s a video on YouTube that shows a pair of hands unpacking five cartoon branded plastic eggs each with a toy surprise inside. No big deal. There are billions of videos on You Tube. But get this. This video has over 93 million views. Now that’s a big deal.

It’s all part of a phenomenon called “unboxing” that I recently discovered after listening to an interview with Mireille Silcoff who wrote an article about it for the New York Times. There are thousands of unboxing videos on YouTube. You can watch people unpacking everything from high tech gadgets to cosmetics to toys. Wikipedia even has an entry for unboxing.

What’s going on here? Why would millions of people watch someone else unpack something?

The process of unpacking something you have just bought is a very visceral experience.  It’s pure emotion – excitement, expectation, pride of ownership. There is great anticipation. That first look at or feel of whatever is in the box can be a “oh wow!” kind of moment. And it’s so powerful that people love to watch other people unpack things. Think about birthdays or Christmas and watching someone unwrap a gift. There aren’t many other events that can provide such vicarious enjoyment.

From a marketing perspective, it’s one more reminder that sales is a transfer of emotion and that people don’t just want to buy a product – they want to have an experience. The best marketers meticulously consider those first moments that a customer spends with a product to ensure that the unboxing experience is not only fantastic but is consistent with the overall brand experience of the company.

So, here’s the question. Can the unboxing experience be replicated in independent schools? Are there interaction points and special moments or milestones that can effectively be unboxed?

Here’s one. When a student is accepted, the package that is sent to parents is an obvious unboxing opportunity. What does the envelope look like? Does it have to be an envelope? What’s the first thing that is visible when the package is opened and how does that shape the experience you are trying to create? Does it create a sense of excitement, pride and maybe even accomplishment? Is there something in the package for the student? Perhaps there should be a separate student package. If you don’t have a formal acceptance package, maybe you should create one just for the purpose of creating an experience. If your acceptance process is finalized online, there are ways of creating a web-based or email based unboxing experience. Acceptance is a key moment in the sales process. You want to completely validate the choice that parents have made and align it with your school’s brand.

Another possibility. A child’s first day of school is a watershed moment for parents. Tapping into that emotion and making it an essential part of their experience with their new school can be very powerful. How can you unbox that experience? Perhaps parents with first-time school goers can receive a kit in advance with helpful information and useful things like labels or tags as well as something for kids like stickers. Maybe it comes in a box or a special folder that identifies it as something the school has specially created for first-time school parents.

Here’s a related possibility. Every moment of a child’s first day of school is a real-time unboxing experience filled with awe and wonder. What if you use video to capture some of those moments and send it to parents. I saw a news segment the other day about a parent that had strapped a GoPro camera to her child’s chest so that she could experience her daughter’s first day of school. It’s a little extreme but there’s no question that it reflects one parent’s desire to vicariously be part of her child’s first-day unboxing experience.

Once you get comfortable with the premise, I’ll bet there are dozens of unboxing experiences that you can create in your schools – from things as momentous as grade 1 graduation to those as mundane as tuition packages.

The key is to always think about parents as customers and look for the ways in which you can create validating experiences that reinforce your school’s brand. 

What do you think?

Is it possible to create unboxing experiences? Have you created unboxing experiences in your school? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Big data for not-so-big organizations

Read any business, marketing or management publication these days and you're almost certain to find an article about Big Data. The natural conclusion is that big data is for big organizations. That could be because just the term "big data" will leave those responsible for smaller organizations either terror-stricken or in a boredom induced coma. But concluding that not-so-big organizations have nothing to learn from the lessons of big data is a big mistake.

First, let's deal with this big name, "big data." While its true that there are companies that are combing terabytes of data to develop the algorithm that will predict the buying patterns of consumers in Wichita, those organizations represent the vast minority. Don't be intimidated by references to big data. Rather, consider how increased use of data can help you make better decisions.

Quoted in a CNN Money post, Sheryl Pattek, a principal at Forrester Research said, "It's not really a question of big data as much as it's a question of the right data. It's about turning data into insights that you can act on to drive business."

In other words, when it comes to data, size doesn't matter. However the value of data is irrefutable. As a recent report from Teradata concludes, "The evidence is proving that companies that act quickly based on data-driven decisions are succeeding over their peers."

This is particularly the case with marketing efforts. As the same report says, "data-driven marketing bridges the gap between what you do and what customers want."

So, where to begin? What data should you be sure to be assembling and how can you use it?

Contact information. This may sound ridiculously obvious but an e-marketer report on big data (ironically titled, Using Big Data Still a Challenge for Marketers) concluded that contact data was the most important for marketing success. Do you have an email address, or better yet, the most current email address for every customer or constituent? Do you have a program in place that makes it easy and encourages people to update their contact info? Once you've dealt with those questions, shift the analysis to prospective customers or donors and ensure that you have complete information for them. For example, do you have a first and last name to go with every prospect email address? Without that info, you eliminate the possibility of email personalization and the chances of converting that prospect into a buyer become slim.

The e-marketer report also presented the most valuable data that execs said was unavailable to them. Those data categories are essential to organizations. These are some of them and what you can do about them.

Web behavior. You better have Google Analytics running on your site. If not, stop reading this post and immediately contact the person responsible for your site. There is a ton of information that Google Analytics makes available to you that in turn will give you insight into the behavior of visitors to your site. Some examples: Where are they coming from? Is it from searches in a browser and if so what are the keywords that are delivering them? Alternatively, is there an external link that is responsible for referrals? What pages are people looking at on your site? Are they the ones that are important to purchases or donations? Should you re-jig content to increase conversions? The list of questions and resultant actions is endless. Google even provides a bevy of success stories that you can learn from.

Demographics. Hopefully you have lots of information about the people you engage with - whether as prospects or buyers. This includes age, income, location, maybe even marital status, number of children and other data that might be uniquely important to your organization. For example an independent school may want to know what schools siblings attend or attended. You should be able to construct the profile or profiles of your archetypical buyers. Then the question becomes where do you find more just like them.

Purchase (or donation) history. If you can track not only what people have committed to but the path they took getting there, you have powerful information. Combine this with demographic data and you could build powerful personas that you you can use to target marketing and messaging. For example if you discover that people with a particular combination of demographic markers are more likely to buy (donate/apply) when presented with certain information, you can target that segment and get them that information sooner or exclusively.

You can see that the same big data that C-level execs are looking at can benefit any organization - even those that aren't so big. The CNN post referenced above said that big data "seems to mean everything and nothing at the same time." That may be true but there is no denying that, as I said in a previous post, the discipline of data is the foundation for marketing innovation. No matter how large your organization don't dismiss the big ideas behind big data.

What do you think? 
How are using the premise of big data to further the success of your organization? What did I miss? What advice do you have?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Save your marketing dollars. Focus on fundamentals.

My suggestion to most schools is to stop whatever marketing you are doing and re-consider everything.

The impetus for this unusual advice was the plethora of independent school radio ads I heard this year. It seemed to me that twice as many schools as last year were running radio spots. They weren't very effective but there were lots of them and they were undoubtedly very expensive.

Of all people, I understand that the independent school marketplace is incredibly and increasingly competitive. That in turn, drives schools - almost desperately - to ratchet up marketing efforts using as many channels as they can think of or afford. The result is ads on buses, bus shelters, national newspapers, billboards and yes, radio. It's an ad rep's dream but do they really do anything? After all, these are wide-net advertising vehicles being used for narrow target markets.

In addition, there are now more "education guide" type publications than ever before. Here in Toronto, there are four or five of these. This has created two other dynamics. First, schools are scrambling to get their ads in these publications – in many cases for fear of being notable by their absence. That produces the second effect which is the need for pithy headlines and taglines. These gems of copywriting may keep some of my colleagues in business but they do nothing to differentiate. Here are some examples:

  • Be yourself. Be great. 
  • Be remarkable 
  • I am limitless 
  • Dedicated to Developing the Whole Child 
  • Become. Go Beyond. 
  • Confidence. It's Who We Are 
  • Igniting A Passion for the Art of Learning 
  • Learning for Life. Creating the Future. 
  • Education with Balance 

Let's be honest. Each of those could apply to any one of about 50 schools. They become meaningless – as does much of the marketing effort I've described above.

All of this marketing activity – with its accompanying expense – is more mystifying when every piece of market research that I have ever done or read clearly indicates that word of mouth is the principal driver of the decision to choose any independent school.

So, as I said, it's time to stop and re-discover the fundamentals. How? For that I turn to a great social fresh post from the beginning of the year that presented tips for 2014 from marketing pros. Here are the ones that make the most sense for independent schools.

1. Focus on the product. I always tell the educators with whom I work that my job is to take their great work and put in on a pedestal. But there has to be great work. The social fresh post goes even farther. "90% of companies would see more “marketing” success if they focused that energy NOT on marketing, but rather on improving the product or the service. Doing something worth talking about is more difficult."

2. Create and sustain buzz. Fuel and enable word of mouth through effective ambassador and communication programs. The marketing tip puts it this way: "Nurture advocacy! And instead of creating marketing campaigns, build movements around your brand. Only brands that focus deeply on building and nurturing long-term relationships with their true advocates will see sustainable business results."

3. Treat your parents like customers. My previous blog post provided some advice on how do that but here's what social fresh says. "Focus on customer experience. Brands like USAA, Amazon, Apple, and Google don’t succeed in social media because they have better content or social strategies, but because they offer great experiences and let customers do the talking for them."

4. Make social media a two-way channel. It's your opportunity to learn, listen and really be able to empathize. Or as the experts say, "social Media is not just a news broadcasting tool. Engage with your fan base: it is a blessing to have fans and customers, so treat them as such."

5. Stop, take a breath and do a reality check. Then, create (or re-create) a plan. The expert advice goes like this: "Re-evaluate everything. Do you think you know who your customers are, what they need, and how they are getting their information about your products?"

The irony is that sometimes it's harder to stop what you're doing and re-evaluate its effectiveness. It's easy to get caught up in the vortex of needing more marketing – and more marketing dollars. Smart school marketers will find a way to stop the cycle and re-focus on fundamentals.

What do you think? 
Is independent school marketing out of control? What are you doing to stay focused on effectiveness? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

How to personalize the parent experience

A recent Huffington Post article asks the question, “Is 2014 the year of personalization?” Examples of personalization in marketing abound from the sublime of Virgin America's Chatter initiative that will use video screens to deliver a personalized travel experience to the ridiculous of Nordstrom's personalized panties.

For any business or organization, personalization is an important, and maybe even essential way to differentiate and build strong customer relationships. So, how do independent schools jump on the bandwagon and begin to offer their customers a personalized experience?

Let's start with the obvious. Parents expect that their children are going to receive individualized attention and that any interaction related to their child's progress will be uniquely focused. But let's face it - meeting the individual needs of diverse learners isn't exactly groundbreaking in 2014. You are more likely be notable by the absence of differentiation, than by its presence.

Also, let's be clear about who the customer is. Parents pay for the education their children receive. From a customer relations perspective, students are essentially a proxy. If you want to impress the customer, it's the parent that must be the focus.

First, let’s deal with the prerequisites to personalization.

Data is the foundation of personalization. It starts with basics – contact info, names of other family members like siblings or grandparents. Beyond that good data could include birthdays and other milestone dates. However, the real crux of useful data is that the details of every meaningful interaction a parent has with the school must be recorded whether its a meeting with a principal or a negotiation with the tuition office. That leads to the next point.

Data discipline and consistency are vital to personalization. Every staff member must understand the importance of recording the details of interactions and effective data conventions must be in place. Something as simple as recording a date as 3/5/14 as opposed to 5/3/14 can yield disastrous results. This also means using the right tools. Schools need a database that provides necessary structured data fields as well as the ability to create specialized areas in which to record information that is particular to the school.

What can you do with all this data? Here are a few basic ideas that share one common theme. Parents want to know that you know who they are.

Personalize the personal meeting. Any time a head of school, a principal, an educational consultant or someone from the business office meets with a parent, it’s essential that they access to detailed information and ideally have familiarized themselves with it. It’s both impressive and comforting to a parent when the person with whom they are meeting can ask about other family members, knows about unique circumstances and the details of previous meetings or calls.

Acknowledge important events. This should include personal letters recognizing a birth or a death in a parent's family. Personal birthday wishes for students are commonplace. Take that to the next level and send each parent a birthday greeting. What if you sent birthday cards to siblings not yet at the school? You can also recognize significant achievements in parents’ lives, whether those are in business or in communal efforts.

Personalize the business experience. Think about your last call to a local utility or financial services company. It makes a huge difference when the person with whom you are speaking can access notes about your individual circumstances and previous interactions. A parent’s communication with the school’s business is no different. When a parent calls, the person on the line should be able to call up a database record and speak knowledgably about that parent’s circumstances. In addition, every form that a parent is required to fill out, whether online or on paper, could have the name, address and contact info fields already completed.

Tailor the web. A school that I work with recently introduced a personalized parent dashboard that upon login, presents essential links for each child including teacher names and contact info, class lists and parent resources. Using cookies would make it possible for a parent visiting the website to be presented with the items he or she viewed most often.

While these may all sound like common sense, in a busy school environment, it takes forethought and discipline to make any of these happen on a routine basis. Think about all the ways a parent interacts with the school and be vigilant about finding ways to personalize the parent experience.

What do you think?
Is personalization a key to independent school success? How are you personalizing the parent experience in your school? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

4 ways to change your customer relationships forever

Forget about customer satisfaction. Your real goal ought to be customer transformation.

Every now and then you come across an idea that is just brilliant. Do yourself a favour and read a Harvard Business Review post from a couple of years ago called, "Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become?" In it, Michael Schrage a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, argues that just meeting the needs of customers or even addressing their pain points, isn't good enough.

His assertion is that most business owners see customers only as a means to the end goal of growth or profitability. True success however comes from making the customer the raison d'etre of all business activity and asking the question, who do you want your customers to become? Shrage turns the classic approach to innovation on its head. Instead of asking how can we design better products and services, the more powerful question is how can we design better customers. Think about Apple. Ten years ago, their customers never imagined the ways in which a smartphone would impact their lives.

It's a powerful idea. But does it have practical application for the 99.9% of businesses that lack the god-like aura of Apple? Can a manufacturing company or a professional services firm really transform the lives of its customers? The answer is a resounding yes but it demands that you answer an incredibly challenging question. For my business, what do I want my customers to become? Do you want them to use products differently or implement new processes or take a more sophisticated view of an industry? Another way of looking at it is what is the intersection point of a better state of being for my customers and improved business performance for me?

The path to changing the reality of your customers begins with a very practical question. How can you  begin to transform the lives of customers today? Here are 4 ways.

Engage. You can't begin to think about making customers' lives better without knowing who and what your customers are today. Give them tons of opportunities to tell you about what they want and need. That can be done using social media or various forms of market research. Or better yet, go out and meet with your customers. In person. Nothing can replace the power of a face to face conversation.

Inform. Make sure your customers are up to date with the latest trends and best practices. Yes, they should be subscribed to your blog and receiving of all your case studies. But you can also point them to other sources of information – industry sites and newsletters, conferences and webinars for example.

Connect. Create communities for your customers. Give them the opportunity to talk to others in the same industry or those from different industries with similar challenges. How? You can create online forums or social media communities. But the low tech approach may be the best. Introduce your customers to other customers – one-on-one or in gatherings. Enable them to develop the relationships that will make a difference to their business.

Inspire. Help customers set the bar higher. Empower your customers to see beyond their current realities and imagine something better - whether its a new product, process or ultimately better results. Provide your customers with white papers that detail the cutting edge of the industry. Connect them to inspiring people. Talk to them about – or better yet introduce them to – businesspeople who dared to dream. Share your own aspirations.

The reality is that by making your customers both the means and the end goal of business success – by putting them at the very centre of what you do, you not only have the potential to transform your customers, but you will create a truly powerful relationship with them. No pricing strategy, customer satisfaction plan or quality assurance program can match the impact of transforming the lives of customers.

What do you think?

Is the goal of customer transformation reasonable and attainable? How would you achieve it? I'd love to hear your thoughts.