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The Best Marketing Can't Save A Bad Decision

Published: August 31, 2007

Author: David Rodnitzky

Last night I checked into the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago. At the check-in desk, a glossy piece of collateral was prominently propped on the counter. Here’s the basic messaging:

Business Benefit Package
For our valued business customers, we’ve created a special package of savings. For only $17.95 a day, you get: In-room high-speed Internet access ($12.95 value); Fitness center admission ($10 value); Two bottles of water in your room ($9 value); Free local calls ($1.25 per call value). That’s more than 50% off normal rates.

I saw this message and I was insulted. Here I am at an allegedly high-end hotel and they are giving me a “discount” on services that should actually be free in the first place. I was waiting for the special “Sleeping Traveller’s Special”, which included discounts on pillows, towels, and electricity.

All of this made me think about the vital connection between what we do as marketers and what we actually market. Too often, marketers are blamed (or perhaps scapegoated) when a company does poorly. The blessing and the curse of online marketing is that it is so darn quantifiable. It’s easy for non-marketers to pour over marketing statistics and pull out red herrings that prove the point that it was the marketing that caused a business failure (why didn’t you drive enough traffic? Why do I see our competitors showing up on this placement and not us? Why aren’t you driving higher ROI on your campaigns?)

Marketers, of course, are sometimes to blame. For example, it’s hard to look at the Pets.com fiasco (millions of dollars of brand marketing at a time when consumers were still hesitant to even use email online, much less enter in credit card info) and not think that some over-zealous marketer spent the company into bankruptcy.

But – at least in the direct marketing world – when a business fails, I am willing to wager that the root cause of the failure is more often than not that the business just didn’t execute as well as it should have.

I’ll give you a concrete example. Let’s say that you are working for a mortgage lead generation company (as I once did) and you purchase the keyword “san francisco jumbo refinance quotes.” You create highly-targeted ad text for this keyword, you restrict your purchase to Google-only (the best quality), you add tons of negative keywords, you add geo-targeting (only show it in the bay area), you send it to the most-targeted landing page you can muster, and you even day-part it so that the ad shows up when you have customer service people that can answer phone calls.

Over the course of a week, you get 200 clicks on your targeted campaign and zero conversions. A senior executive team member comes into your office and reads you the riot act – don’t buy keywords unless they convert, he says!

In a situation like the one described above, anyone in the company who blames the marketing team for bad advertising should join the flat-earth society. The real problem is not that the ad was bad, but rather that there is a fundamental flaw in either the company’s business model or the company’s Web site.

In such a situation, as a marketer you have three choices: 1) panic and try to redouble your efforts to make your ads work; 2) leave the company in frustration; or 3) help the flat-earthers escape the Middle Ages.

In most cases, I’d advocate the third choice. It’s important to avoid becoming silo-ed into just “the marketing guy.” Successful online companies understand that marketing, merchandising, usability, fulfillment, and technology are all inter-connected and as such require true partnerships across the organization to drive improvement.

In the mortgage case above, the worst thing you can do is throw up your hands and exclaim “the site is too slow” or “our landing page is terrible” or “our privacy policy sucks.” You have to be proactive about helping your teammates improve whatever it is that is preventing you from hitting your marketing objectives.

To put it another way, you have to actively participate in and take ownership of the entire conversion funnel – getting people to the site, getting people to transact with the site, fulfilling the transaction, and creating repeat customers.

By the same token, you’ve got to actively seek out advice from your peers who are the leaders of other parts of the conversion funnel. What products are they promoting this week? Are there days when there are expected site outages or slowness? Is there seasonality that you should be preparing for? At the end of the day, you are the expert in online marketing, but they may be the experts in a particular product or Web site – don’t be afraid to use their expertise.

In the case of the Palmer House Hotel, I’m guessing that the ‘business traveller’s insult special’ was almost certainly a directive from senior management. Looking to squeeze a few dollars out of their guests, management decided that charging for otherwise free services could really boost the bottom line. And so the decision was handed-down to marketing: here, go make up some collateral or something so that we can sell more Internet access.

Forget about brand, forget about repeat business, let’s make those numbers! Remember what I said above – as a marketer, you either have to panic, leave, or help. In this case, it looks to me like the choice was “panic.” Inevitably, when businesspeople stop coming to the Palmer House, some poor marketer will have to redouble his work all over again. I wish the Palmer House marketing staff had opted for the helping-path. It would have saved me $17, and I just might have stayed here the next time I’m in the Windy City.

25 E Washington Street
Suite 420

Chicago, IL 60602(650) 539-4124


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