The Art of Conversation circa 44 BC

We keep talking about how marketing has changed and is changing. Fair enough. Maybe it’s time to take a look at what doesn’t change. Case in point: conversation.

All marketing is or should be conversation — ways to encourage it, make it more relevant and more comfortable for those engaged (your customers). There are rules, a kind of etiquette, that most follow and expect others to follow. Over the years, however, marketing has tended to ignore those rules; for example, ads shout at you, dominate the conversation and don’t let you get a word in edgewise… a bit like your mother-in-law.

Here’s the interesting part. The rules of conversation etiquette are universal; they cut across all cultural boundaries and have been in play for centuries. Centuries? Is that true?

Yes… have a look at Cicero’s rules for pleasant conversation, written in 44 BC. Still as fresh as a newborn babe and perhaps more relevant than ever in this technology age that allows for millions of conversations per second worldwide. Marketers — pay attention, these rules apply to you all the more, as the conversation you’re trying to start is often with a consumer who does not trust or know you.

Cicero’s Rules for Good Conversation

  • speak clearly
  • speak easily, but not too much, give others their turn
  • do not interrupt
  • be courteous
  • deal seriously with serious matters, gracefully with lighter ones
  • never criticize people behind their backs
  • stick to subjects of general interests
  • do not talk about yourself
  • never lose your temper

Vertical Marketing and the B2B Zen Puzzle: If You Meet Buddha on the Road What Should You Do?

Marketing is full or irony. Or maybe it’s just a Zen activity that lends itself to statements like, “If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him.” That’s a simple Zen puzzle which means, in essence, that if you see something you think to be Buddha, kill it (in your mind) because it is not Buddha (and it is keeping you from realizing the REAL Buddha essence that’s inside you – and certainly not outside on the road).

OK, enough with the puzzle. Here’s Vertical Marketing’s Zen/Marketing puzzle, ironic statement, of the day:

In anything you do vis a vis marketing and advertising, if the majority of people like the concept then it is not new enough and thus not good enough!

Chew on that for a minute or two and you’ll see the far reaching implications.

The wisdom of this statement flows from several ‘facts’ about consumers, be they B2B or B2C.

1.    Consumers only want what’s new and what’s hard to get, they rarely want anything else.
2.    New, by definition, is something unseen and unexpected… the first iPhone, for example.
3.    Now here’s the irony – while people want new they don’t like new, at least not at first. New is disconcerting by the fact of it not immediately understood.

It should be coming clear: when you present an idea for a marketing strategy or new ad, not everyone will like what’s truly new and different because of statements #2 and #3 above. Eventually they may love the idea, but at first they will not; and to support their dislike, the fear of the unknown, they will criticise and naysay to cover for the lack of insight and courage they are demonstrating. It’s human nature. We all do it more times than we care to admit.

So, any supposedly new concept that everyone likes is, by definition, not new enough… and thus given #1 above, it will fail to capture the consumer’s interest.

As the song says ‘Isn’t It Ironic?’ And I can tell you that from an agency point of view, it gets hard to keep presenting new idea after new idea only to have each shot down, or worse, watered down until everyone in the room likes it.

Again – if everyone likes it, it’s not new enough, not good enough. Have the courage to challenge your customers and your management with something that is truly new. The rewards will be great.

Here’s a true story. Many years ago we did a series of proposed ads for a client with a product that measured the temperature on a circuit board through various stages of a reflow oven to guarantee that necessary levels were met and not exceeded and components weren’t either toasted or ready to drop off.

Our headline (which I still recall almost 20 years later):

It’s board #16, 515 through the oven… how do you know it’s been soldered correctly?

This was the clear winner of the six ads we presented on the day. The guy looks at the ads, tapes them up on the wall and asks about a dozen employees to have a look… including, now get this, the woman who happened to pass by as she was sweeping the floors and dusting the offices. Honest to God!

Needless to say he went with the concept they all agreed was best… we vehemently argued our case, but the client gets what the client wants (and will pay for).

The ad did OK… covered the cost of running it. The superior ad, however, would have pushed sales and the company image off the charts (the technology was first rate and could live up to the claim). The company is still in business, still struggling in the middle of the pack… probably still afraid to kill Buddha unless the cleaning lady gives them the nod.

Have an Extra £299? Concerned About the Future of Advertising?

Please, please have a look at this offer I received.

It’s an ad sent to marketers enticing us to come to a seminar, or should I say a ‘War of Words’ related to the future of advertising and the crisis we are now facing about lack of credibility, consumer skepticism, I might even call it consumer HATRED for ads.


A few of things to notice:

  1.  We at Vertical aren’t the only ones who have recognised this crisis. A few readers of this blog have commented on how pessimistic we/I am. Well, I’m not alone. Remember the old saying: If you think you’re being followed, you’re paranoid: BUT if indeed, you are being followed, then you’re very smart to worry.
  2. You have to love the ‘young turks’ reference. C’mon, it’s mostly older people who are familiar with that term… and, if memory serves, when I was a young turk I never thought of myself as one… it’s not a phrase I would have used. So, to whom is this message being directed? I suspect it’s to older marketers who the sponsors figure want to get hip real fast.
  3. These young turks who will debate the future of advertising have used nothing but words and  typography to convey their message! No pictures, no moving images… words. Doesn’t that surprise you? These prophets of the future have decided to spread their advertising message through words alone! And this from the generation that always seems to be reminding us that no one reads.

Frankly, this shouldn’t come as a shock as (and we’ve been saying this to customers) the nature of social media has helped to reinforce the power of words.

Again, have a look at the ad. The format on the day is cheesy – stolen from cheap TV cooking shows and the constant need for competition (they’re actually going to vote for a winner) – and the cost is too high. But for 50 quid, I’d take a flutter (is that the phrase?).

Effective Advertising? It's All in the Headline!

Arguably the best book on advertising is “Ogilvy on Advertising,” from the 1970s. Back then he said something that has certainly come true: that all advertising would one day become direct response advertising. What does that mean? Well, direct response, which agency types see as somehow ‘dirty’ (and they have some good reasons for this belief) aims at getting people to do something NOW: get up off the sofa, pick up the phone, give us a call (now it’s visit our site or send us an email). Most ads, unfortunately, try to be branding, which is agency talk for they didn’t sell a thing but they look good.

Ogilvy foresaw that advertising was getting expensive, consumers were jaded and there would not be enough ROI for those nice, pretty “we love the environment and we love our customer” ads. If you had the courage to advertise then have the courage to ask for the sale.

So how does this relate to headlines? Very simple: anyone who has ever written a direct response ad knows that the headline is the single most important factor in the ad’s success. As much as 70% of the response can be attributed to the headline (in a way, like 70% of a cigar’s flavour is in the wrapper… the filling, the bulk of the cigar plays a very minor role).

Which is why it can take weeks to write a 10 word headline, then two hours to write the rest of the ad.

So what makes a good headline? It’s an art and a gut feeling. Successful DR writers have handed down a few rules.

1. Don’t be too cute! How many B2B ads have you seen that work with a play on words? You know: “Columbus Widgets Can Help You Discover a New World of Savings.” Mostly, these are terrible; although when a good one comes along like, “Probably the best lager in the world,” it can work. But most are not that good and are too clever by half.

2. Questions work a lot of the time. The most successful cosmetics ad of the past decade asked a simple question: “Better Than Botox?” and women responded to the tune of half a billion USD. If you can ask a ‘real’ question, something your customers are asking themselves, you could be on to something.

3. FREE always works, always, always, always.

4. The headline to your next press release, or ad or the opening screen of your PowerPoint can make or break your efforts. You’ve got to standout without screaming… make a point that your audience is worried about, curious about, struggling with and offer the promise of a solution or some information people don’t already know.

Whatever you do, spend a lot more time on the headline and opening paragraph than you are used to spending. We all usually jump at the first cute headline that we think of (and if the headline seems cute, it probably is so forget it) or we listen to some engineer whose solution is to “just say what it is.”

C’mon who wants to sit and listen to a lecture entitled “BGAs and Effective Soldering Techniques” when you can listen to one called “Solder Balls Aren’t As Bad As You Think… They’re Worse”?

We All Need Strong Leaders – Now More Than Ever

A few months back, I found an interesting article from IBM about business leadership and the qualities that employees most admire in a boss.

I suggest we all re-read this news item (… here’s why.

In a recent interview, a well-respected editor of an iconic American business magazine said something that makes perfect sense and gives you an ‘a-ha’ moment of clarity.

When speaking about the lack of progress on the jobs front, he said this: “What’s missing in America are strong leaders… look, in good times strong leaders aren’t that important, but you see their necessity in bad times.”

How simple, how elegant, how correct.

And how applicable to just about all that we do. Whether you’re a parent trying to take care of your family or an IBM-style exec leading an international conglomerate, tough times demand strong, forceful leadership. Again, recalling the IBM report, strong leaders are those who use available data, come up with a unique plan and then move ahead: they don’t wait for another piece of information or another study or approval, for that matter. Coupled with the trite, but still accurate idea of ‘out-of-the-box thinking,’ strong leaders take a risk – calculated, for sure –  and employees admire the leaders who accept the responsibility and take, perhaps, a greater chance than most.

In difficult circumstances, ‘time is of the essence.’ Standing still is not an option… people respect, admire and need vision, direction and courage, as do companies if they’re meant to prosper in this day and age.

From Connection to Engagement

While some in B2B still argue about the value of social connections (a term which I prefer to social media), the movers and shakers at Facebook have already pushed on to what they see as the next phase, which is improving the kind of engagements available to users.

As Zuckerberg said, the acceptance of social connections is no longer in question… their use is, in his words, ubiquitous worldwide. (He points to the fact that one afternoon last month, 1/2 billion people were on FB.) Simply put, social connections/media are now a given. Full stop.

But here’s the rub for Facebook and, by extension, B2B and B2C marketers: the kind of engagements (experiences) we now have are quickly becoming boring and tedious: we check Facebook because we feel we have to, not because we want to. The ‘fun’ and ‘novelty’ of FB are gone – meaning it could become the next MySpace if left untended.

Zuckerberg is no fool and remembers what he did to MySpace… so enter the new Facebook, which will add what’s missing in today’s social connections and, in my opinion, today’s B2B marketing: immediacy and authenticity.

B2B marketing and advertising have been cursed with a tradition of cold, flat efforts that barely connect with customers. There has been little immediacy, something that engages the customer now, and precious little authenticity, unless you think the usual fare (championed by the likes of Siemens and the boringly audacious “We’re Siemens, We Can Do That” style of marketing) is still viable in this day and age.

Zuckerberg might seem to be full of himself, maybe even a bit of a jerk, but he’s not stupid. He saw what happened to My Space, it got boring and users left in droves, and he won’t let FB have the same fate.

For B2B, we should learn this same lesson: consumers, your customers, will jump ship if your marketing efforts are boring, cold, and me-too.  A bored customer is ripe for the competition’s picking. Everything we do as marketers now comes down to immediacy and authenticity.

Keywords, Google and What's Fair

Once bureaucrats gain a foothold, they are driven to expand their power: one restriction leads to two, then four, it’s exponential. And we all understand that governments worldwide were slow to react to the Internet, allowing years without any supervision, taxes, etc. How easy would it have been for the Royal Mail to charge, say, one pence per email? Had they done that in 1996 the current budget crisis might have been solved. The long and short of it is that governments would like to catch up and gain a strong foothold in Net commerce.

At any rate, the recent challenge to Google and the use of a trade mark as a keyword might be the exception: that is, a wise use of government regulation. The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that purchasing another party’s trade mark as a keyword could infringe the trade mark proprietor’s rights (in the case between Marks & Spencer and Interflora).

The Court ruled that infringement occurs if the keyword’s use affects the original trade mark in two of its key functions: its ability to identify the origin of goods or services and its ability to preserve the proprietor’s reputation, which attracts customers.

So, for example, ‘Bob’s Marketing’ can’t use ‘Vertical Marketing’ in its ad words campaign as a way to come out on top when someone searches for Vertical.

In legal terms, proprietors of a trade mark with a reputation can prevent a competitor from such advertising where the competitor’s use of the keyword is free riding on the trade mark’s reputation.

As reported on, Kirsten Gilbert, partner at Marks & Clerk Solicitors, said, “Brand owners will be encouraged that their competitors no longer have a completely free rein over use of their trade mark as a keyword. But, the practice of purchasing rivals’ trade marks as keywords is widespread, and marketers may now have to think of other creative ways to advertise their brands on the web.

The key phrase there, no pun intended, is ‘creative ways’. Marketing is about creativity and not riding the coat tails of someone else’s smart marketing idea. There is something inherently immoral and unfair about that, and it’s surprising that Google did nothing to prohibit this practice. Well, not surprising, given the amount of revenue keyword advertising generates.

Internet or Social Media: Which Has More B2B Impact?

Think about this: in, say, 1998 my company offers high tech widgets using product datasheets and a corporate brochure. Then the internet comes along, and voila… I am using the same materials, the same brochure and product info, only now they’ve been HTML coded and are online. Same words, different format.

Now it’s 2011 and social media hits B2B… guess what? My materials have to change… from sell sheets to blogs, brochures to videos, technical papers to online problem solving for customers, from advertising to information that engages, teaches, inspires confidence and builds trust.

Yes, the internet has changed the way customers find my company and has made it easier for them to research my widgets. These are monumental changes, no doubt.

But social media has changed the essence of what I say to customers, which means the very fibre of how I market and sell. The self-serving corporate brochure (now turned website) and ‘we’re the greatest’ datasheets are mostly meaningless these days.

For companies and marketers, the logical effects of this watershed change are just being realised; but it’s not hard to see that the complete restructuring of the relationship among company/distributor/customers that social media has fostered will continue to have revolutonary implications in just about every aspect of B2B marketing.

Is B2B Advertising Dead? Not Really

“While everyone is saying advertising is dead, what they mean is that advertising the way it used to be done is dead. Giving people something they believe in, in a way that they can’t help but notice, is where the action really is.”

So said Jason Korman, CEO of And while the site is about marketing, in general, at first blush you wouldn’t think he’s much concerned about B2B… but you’d be wrong in this case.

The ‘death’ of advertising is a reality that both B2B and B2C marketers face each day. Whether it’s ‘dead’ print ads or television spots or press releases or trade shows. The question is, what are the alternatives?

Korman has given us the succinct answer: a great product with an authentic story that you present to customers in clever, unexpected ways and in unexpected places.

Why, then, does such a ‘simple’ thing take so much courage to carry out? Because while consumers want what’s new, marketers feel safe and sound with what’s old.

And one more thing: the difference between B2B and B2C advertising is that ‘traditional’ platforms have more life in the B2B world. It would be a mistake to completely abandon print ads, for example, in certain industries. The question for B2B marketers becomes one of proportion. Increasingly, social media is the primary focus of marketing activities with traditional outlets ‘filling in the gaps’, so to speak. As mentioned above, marketers who like safe and sound continue to pour money and resources into what should be secondary efforts and that is a big, costly mistake.

LinkedIn Statistics Show Growing Importance as B2B Tool

Found these interesting stats on about LinkedIn use, broken down by career level.
  • Top level executives primarily use LinkedIn for industry networking (22%) and promoting their businesses (20%).
  • Middle management professionals primarily use LinkedIn to keep in touch with other people (24%) and industry networking (20%).
  • Entry level employees primarily use LinkedIn for job searches (24%) and co-worker networking (23%).

Overall, the top activities on LinkedIn are industry networking (61%), keeping in touch (61%), and co-worker networking (55%). As a social networking site for professionals, LinkedIn seems to be delivering on its brand promise.

LinkedIn Usage Frequency Rates

In terms of how frequently LinkedIn users log in and actively use the site, 2 out of 3 members use the site at least a few times per week or more. Specifically, 35% of users access LinkedIn daily and 32% access the site a few times per week. Another 16% log into LinkedIn a few times per month while 8% log in whenever they get an email from LinkedIn.

Compare that to the 2% of users who log in monthly or the 6% of users who access LinkedIn less than once per month, and it’s clear that LinkedIn users are satisfied enough with the user experience that they actively return and want more. Just 1% of respondents to the Lab42 survey indicated that they never access LinkedIn. That’s a rate that a site like Twitter would love to have!