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Advertising’s creativity and cost problem

Every so often a story comes along that makes me feel like I know what I’m doing. The New York Times has one of those stories on advertising’s biggest problem: people hate ads

“It’s harder to reach audiences, the cost of marketing is going up, the number of channels has exponentially proliferated and the cost to cover all of those channels has proliferated,” Jay Pattisall, the lead author of the report, said in an interview. “It’s a continual pressure for marketers — we’re no longer just creating advertising campaigns three or four times a year and running them across a few networks and print.”

The whole thing is worth a read, but here’s a few salient pieces of advice:

Recognize it’s expensive to be on every platform. It’ll cost you too much in time, money, or both. I see insurance agents trying to be competitive on Instagram. And no, this is not some “opportunity” where no one else is doing something so you can. If you’re an insurance agent there is nearly nothing you’re going to do to maintain Instagram and a YouTube channel with any long-term success.

Beware of “impressions”. “Impressions” is a fancy technical word that means “your ad was shown to someone”. You know those posts that skim by your face when you’re bored and you scroll really fast down Facebook. All those were “impressed” upon you. Which is not at all impressive.

More emails or more posts does not equal more success. Quite the opposite, usually. This is the thing I quarrel with people over the most. Sending an email every day is not going to increase sales or donors or whatever. Unless you’re Amazon and have every product on the planet, it’s just not variable enough. All you’re doing is training people to swipe right on your email in their inbox.

Follow the 70/20/10 rule for the channels you are in. 70% of your blogs/tweets/emails/whatever should be helpful and educate or entertain people. It should solve a problem or be highly interesting. A lot of businesses struggle with this. This is “core mission” stuff, often given away freely. Like this blog post you’re reading right now.

20% should be things you share from other sources, like a retweet or a news story.

10% should be promotional ads. Or, “We have this thing, you should buy it.”

I see a lot of businesses totally upside down here. They have 70%+ of their stuff about how awesome they are, with no links to purchase or do anything, and the rest is just random photos of a cat or whatever.

Ask yourself this: “If you had no connection to your business, would you follow what you’re throwing at people’s faces?” The answer is likely “No” if you’re being honest.

And this begets the crux of this NY Times story: there is no creativity in advertising anymore. No one views their Facebook feed or their email list as “advertising”. Everything’s “marketing” and it’s always “brand marketing”. Basically, “Look at me, we exist, we’re great and you should buy our stuff”.

This is a recipe for frustration. A few loyal die-hard fans will always be interested in that stuff. But most people aren’t that excited about laundry detergent or shampoo.

I’ve been trying to shift the work we do into this more “creative-focused” mindset and it’s hard. A lot of times things fall flat, go nowhere, and clients are not on board. And that’s frustrating for us, but we charge ahead because we’d rather be the frustrated ones than them, or their customers.

John Gruber wrote yesterday about Facebook in relation to media presence and said, “The best websites these days aren’t from web publishers — they’re from mailing list publishers with websites.”

About a year ago I realized the guys who used to sell via mailing lists, catalogs, and by sales letters were doing some seriously creative work. Everyone else was just putting their name on a sign.

We have to get back to creativity. Creativity in display, message, copywriting, visuals, and how it solves problems for people day-to-day. IT costs more in time and staff. But it’s better than yelling at an empty room.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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