Who Pulled the Names?

Every time I get a wacky, mis-targeted email, in-stream ad, or direct mail, one thought goes through my mind.

Who pulled the names?

As an old-school (read that as “properly trained”) direct response marketer, that was one of the first questions we asked when we saw odd performance. That question is just professional shorthand for:

  1. Where was the source of the prospect list?
  2. Who vetted that the names are what the source held them out to be?
  3. Who looked at a sample of the records?
  4. Were the names compared to our customer, former, prospect, and INB files?
  5. Was step #4 done in the form of proper merge/purge?
  6. Who wrote the merge/purge logic?
  7. What was the select/suppress hierarchy?
  8. Who ran the merge/purge?
  9. Who reviewed the results of the merge/purge?
  10. Who eyeballed sample records from the merge/purge?
  11. Who did the names go to for preparation (splits, keys, sortation, etc.) for delivery?
  12. What procedures (select or suppress) were done on the names during the preparation?
  13. Who checked the output before the names went out the door?
  14. Who checked the seeds as the campaign was deployed?

There’s probably a few others. Nowadays some fancy algorithm lets you select and blast with one click.

And you get wackily-targeted advertising. And you wonder why it doesn’t work.

Takeaway: Always ask: “Who pulled the names?” And win.

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Creating a Narrative…

…to explain your numbers is a fool’s game. The story will usually suffer from logical holes that you’ll have to gloss over. (How many times have you heard “we’ll get to that later” to question about a story you’re being told?) The ratios over the time series won’t hang together under close examination. And on and on.

Say you survive the meeting. Then you’ll have to remember what you constructed last time when you do the next meeting. While hoping the two stories don’t contradict each other.

It takes longer and longer each time, and pretty soon you’ve got a towering pile of BS. It will eventually crash down on you, and everybody that surrounds you.

Takeaway: Why not just say what it is? It’s faster and easier to remember. Do less preparation, do less Powerpoint, be more credible, do more real work. And win.

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What are Your Principles?

One of my proudest moments as chair of the Board of Trustees of Utica College was when the entire community adopted our Statement of Principles.

We acknowledged that, as a member of the community, you’ll be exposed to ideas that might make you uncomfortable. But it’s only in the sharing of those ideas, and discourse and research around them, that we advance knowledge.

Here’s the principles in video form.

Takeaway: Avoid safe spaces. Tackle new and problematic ideas head-on. And win.

Disclosure: I am a graduate of Utica College, a board member since 2004, and have served as a chair of the Board of Trustees.

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Know and Value Your Customer: A Forgotten Rule

One of the hardest things to teach marketers is that our customers are everything and that our brands are–in the minds and lives of our customers–tiny, inconsequential things. That level of humility can be hard to achieve, but it’s necessary to be successful.

To start, which is easy if you have a properly-trained marketing team, is knowing who your customers are and the target audience from whence they come. Then, you have to understand the LTV of your customers and be able to assign the LTV by source. See my article from a few years ago about building a marketing whiffletree.

What happens if you don’t understand your customers and their value to your enterprise?


For example, you may start to focus on social media commenters1, full of grievances and bile. But they are short of the very necessary cash that enables your company to be a going concern. In turn, by focusing on the noise, we turn our focus away from the high LTV customer. Without the proper attention, they will shrug and send their custom elsewhere. Trading a focus on high LTV customers for a fixation on zero LTV social media trolls is an unpardonable sin. (Quick question: What is the real value of a social media follower? Do the math properly and you’ll get something that roughly rhymes with “hero.”)

And here’s the thing: Unless you are in FMCG, generally the better and more valuable your brand, the more polarizing it will be. Relatively few people like you and relatively more people either (mostly) ignore or hate you. If you really understand your customers and have de-averaged your LTV, it makes it easier to keep one’s eyes on the signal.

Somebody will always be outraged about what you do: Pricing, product assortment, promotional tactics, and so on will somewhere, someplace, drive a keyboard warrior crazy.

But if the LTV $0 keyboard warriors aren’t your customers, and your customers don’t care what they say, why should you?

Takeaway: Understand and focus on your target audience. Know where your LTV comes from. Ignore the rest. And win.

1 Internet rule #1, practiced by successful marketers: Never, ever, read the comments.

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Chumbox Your Users While Taboolaing Your Brand Equity

Avinash Kaushik created a (new to me) term the other day. In his email on Friday, he coined the term Taboolaing to refer to the use of the chumboxes offered by dreadful companies like Taboola to destroy one’s brand equity.

Yeah, you get a short-term–and very small–bump in revenue when you include a chumbox in your content. But what happens to all that carefully-created content above it? All the great writing and beautiful photography is negated when the reader gets to the bottom of the page and finds out how to best empty their bowels, see the two-faced kitten, or won’t believe it when…

Taboolaing isn’t just about chumboxing readers. It’s when you bend the rules to send that email, one more push notification, etc. You know all the tricks. You know how to do the LTV calculations.

But you have to say no. The loss of brand equity never shows up in the LTV calculations. The slight uptick in email unsubscribes or push notification opt-outs never seems to hurt. But it chips away at your credibility and authority. And, ultimately, as a publisher or a human, that’s all you have.

Takeaway: Respect yourself and your art. Say no to Taboolaing your users, even in these times. Respect them, and win.

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You’re Probably Laundering Oligarch Bucks

It seems the ad fraud perpetrated by the adtech industry on advertisers (by design) might help some other folks out. Like Russian oligarchs with their stolen loot. It is way easier to setup advertising networks to launder one’s stolen dollars than via buying and selling real estate in Trump gaudy, overpriced buildings.

Check out this article from MarTechSeries to learn how. Now how much of your advertising budget is being funneled into the pockets of Russian or Chinese gangsters?

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Killing the Paywall

Tom Goodwin’s recent article, “Why making content on the internet free was our biggest mistake… and how to fix it” is required reading for all marketers in publishing. I’ve felt this way for a long time. Mr. Goodwin only wrote it far more eloquently than I could have.

In the late ’90s I was working for a publishing company running a ~$100 million line of business. I got the task of speaking to all the Dotcom 1.0 folks (remember PointCast?) who were trying to convince us to give our content away for free. Because of “eyeballs, man.” Their plan was to get their COGS down to zero, by fooling us into giving them the raw material for their business.

My company could never figure out a business model in giving away our valuable content. So we never played the dotcom game. But we were fascinated by all the companies, including venerable names such as the New York Times, which were giving away their content. We wondered why anybody would pay if they could get it for free on the internet.

It turns out that, to date, we were right.

The outcome was worse than any of us could have predicted. We’ve built a system that’s gutted our society of proper journalists and editors. We’ve replaced those journalists with rooms full of algorithm-driven galley slaves, serving up clickbait, listicles, and low-rent junk appealing to our most base instincts. And the Silicon Valley crew has spread the propaganda that digital advertising (whatever that is) is somehow better than wasteful public media.

As expected, the marketing industry–one of magpies–bought into the delusion, dragging the big spenders in the advertising world into the digital delusion. As a result, two industries were damaged and possibly mortally wounded: publishing, and advertising.

There might be a glimmer of hope, as Mr. Goodwin suggests.

The first part of that is killing the term “paywall.”  The term implies that you’re blocking something. In reality, the payment is a sign of quality. That the content is indeed worth something. That it was created by somebody who did the hard work of creating something worthwhile.

I don’t have a term to replace “paywall” that I’m willing to share yet. But it’s going to be the marketers to do the work of convincing a lost generation that information doesn’t want to be free. (Only Zuckerberg wants to get it for free, to sell your attention to the highest, shadiest bidder.) Proper marketing will explain the value of quality content to a lost generation and build the business models that will make it work financially.

I know it can work. There are glimmers of hope. The New York Times added 197K new customers last quarter, a 81% YoY increase. 3.8 million people pay for their digital products now, including me.

It seems some people are peeking out of their social media-induced rabbit holes, looking for something more than a Buzzfeed list or celebrity toe fungus articles. Take the opportunity to build something better, before we lose journalism and publishing forever to the likes of PewDiePie.

Marketers: If the Times can do it, you can do it. You just have to try, because it won’t be easy.

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It’s pitch black, 00:16 hours and you’ve just crash-landed near Caen. You’re in hostile territory, lost, and some of your comrades are already dead and wounded. You’re just 20 years old and have never been in combat.

So began D-Day 75 years ago.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like.

Over 180,000 young men jumped, landed, or waded into Europe to remove the evil and tyranny that gripped much of the continent for so many years.

Those young men didn’t consider themselves heroes. They were there to do a job that needed to be done. They hoped that when the job was done, they would go home to begin their lives.

Some never made it.

We should never forget this day, nor those who did their job. I won’t.

The post above is a slightly edited version of the one I published on D-Day in 2014.

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USPS 3685 and the State of Marketing

Sometimes reading the USPS-required Statement of Ownership, Management, and Circulation (form 3685) can reveal a lot about the state of one’s industry.

As a direct marketing and postal junkie, I find USPS forms fascinating. (I don’t get out much.)

I was looking up something about Net Promoter Score recently, and re-read Byron Sharp’s takedown of Fred Reichheld’s shoddy work behind NPS from the Winter 2008 issue of Marketing Research. The most recent form 3685 was printed on page 28. Note the the total distribution of 4,164 copies. I think the circulation has only gotten smaller.

Imagine how many people read research publications–full of boring math–versus those that watch GaryVee videos, which are supposedly about marketing. Any wonder our industry is in its current state?

Takeaway: Be the former and read primary research. Ignore charlatans like GaryVee and Shingy.  And win.

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First Mile Problems

I was recently interviewed by Tim Furey, CEO of MarketBridge, on The Last Mile Podcast. Among our discussion of SAC, CAC, LTV, ROI, other three-letter acronyms, we also spent time on “first mile” marketing problems.

As a practicing performance/direct response marketer, I’ve always first asked myself or my clients a few strategic, or “first mile” questions. Questions like:

  • Who is your target audience?
  • What is your allowable?
  • What is your objective with this campaign, product launch, etc?
  • What does success look like?

I’ve had senior product managers, or product marketing leads respond with blank stares when I ask these questions. As a classically-­trained direct mail (OK–I’m a “junk mail” guy), I learned to start with the allowable. Knowing unit economics and fixed or overhead costs, won’t guarantee a winning campaign or new channel test. But at least you won’t be in the situation of losing money on every sale, but making it up in volume.

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