December 19, 2016

The world doesn’t stop when you launch a product or send out your next promotion…no matter how much you are changing the world.

And I am not making light here since I know so many game changing entrepreneurs and inventors that don’t deserve to have their best stuff ignored because of world events and things that are out of their control, decreasing interest in whatever their life’s mission might be.

One such distraction could be a doozy of a presidential election.

Not sure when that will ever happen in our country but you never know, right?

I want to talk today about how major distractions in the marketplace can negatively (and sometimes positively) affect your results to the products and services you are promoting.

Some are predictable and can be avoided.

Some are less predictable but even then there may be ways to make lemonade from lemons.

And some are just plain bummers all the way around (unpredictable and unavoidable leading to terrible results beyond your control).

I will explore all three with you today.

Predictable and avoidable

I have heard from some folks that their marketing results (i.e. response, revenue and profit) preceding (and just after) the recent presidential election were lower than expected.

I don’t believe it was just about THIS election (although this one was a doozy as far as interest and that more people were paying closer attention to it than most elections).

I know it’s easy to be an armchair quarterback…but EVERY presidential election is worth avoiding as a “launch date/mail date/promotion period” (as it has been throughout my career).

In my days doing large direct mail programs, the time immediately before and after presidential elections were always avoided…and this is not only a good idea for direct mail.

Direct mail was a lot harder to predict when the mail would land (which we called the “in home date”). You couldn’t always rely on the mailman to deliver at the same rate or pace…although we were pretty good at predicting in home dates.

But I hope you see that it is easier to predict the equivalent of “in home dates” with most forms of online media…so the planning should be easier too.

Regardless, we never mailed or advertised into any presidential election due to this “distraction factor.”

We always wanted to reduce risk whenever we could.

A presidential election is one you can work around…unlike war, horrific world events and weather disasters…or just unexpected news.

I’ll talk about those in a minute and will show you how you can sometimes even deal with unpredictable occurrences if you have at least a little warning.

But talking about “predictable and avoidable,” I would recommend that you make this kind of planning part of your standard operating procedure.

For example, during my 30+ years planning promotions in all media for Boardroom (direct mail, print, inserts, TV, radio, email), we mapped out our mailing schedule at the beginning of each year and took as many “planned” major world events into account as we could (Olympics, Presidential Elections were two biggies)…and we always worked around them.

With direct mail, as I mentioned previously, it is very difficult to predict when the consumer would actually receive the piece.

We had mailings going out every week in some years…and we never had fewer than 40+ mailings a year, all of which were over a million pieces (for the most part) and some were multi-million name mailings.

I remember one year when we had over 50 mailings and had to “double up” a couple of weeks (while de-duping the names we mailed) to avoid some other weeks.

Unfortunately, even in a leap year, you only get 52 weeks to choose from…

But if I can leave you with one tip/lesson, map out your promotion schedule at the beginning of the year and work around any events that are what I call “planned distractions.”

Less predictable but still avoiding disaster

Do you remember Operation Desert Shield in late 1990?

The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq took everyone by surprise…and if you recall that very tense period in our history, we had troops in Saudi Arabia literally waiting for marching orders…and every night we were glued to our TV’s waiting to see how the situation would unfold.

Not that anyone cared…nor should they…but we had 5 million pieces of direct mail ready to go out ( it was in mail bags) during the troop buildup.

I remember meeting with my staff and with key consultants every day regarding what to do.

We wanted to time the mailing as best as we could without diminishing the responsiveness/recency of the lists we had rented—that is, we tried to find the sweet spot of getting the mailing to be successful while not having our mail landing in homes just as our troops invaded Kuwait.

We waited a while during the troop buildup in Saudi Arabia and eventually timed the mailing when the distraction was reduced (early in 1991).

We traded off some responsiveness (because the names “aged” a bit) vs. mailing into “total distraction.”

And we did OK but less than planned…however the waiting period also gave us time to revise our budgets, figuring we would not do as well as planned once we held the mail for so many weeks.

Side note (and how situations like this became an “advertising opportunity” for some):

During that period, I heard from some industry sources that CNN was able to increase their advertising rates…one medium’s distraction was another medium’s attraction.

I also had firsthand experience on this sort of thing once we got into TV advertising:

When we were buying $250K to as much as $1 million a week on TV (infomercials) in the mid 2000’s, we actually tried to time some infomercial buys week to week (kind of like “day trading” which gave me a lot of anxiety) to gauge news cycles and where eyeballs might be…or where they might not be.

I don’t recommend this, for the record.

Not only does the risk outweigh the reward (in my experience), it also has a feeling of being a bit “exploitative.”

That is, it feels like we are taking advantage of other’s misfortune for fun and profit…something I am not comfortable with at all.

I would like to share with you another spin on mitigating disaster when you have a sense of impending doom…where you not only take care of yourself and your business, but you can also look for ways to help others at the same time:

In September of 1989 Hurricane Hugo, a category 5 storm, ended up killing over 60 people and was responsible for an estimated $10 billion in damage, mostly in the U.S. and Puerto Rico—it was one of the worst storms ever to hit the U.S.

The millions of pieces of mail I had ready to go out a week before the storm hit seemed sort of meaningless at the time…as I watched homes in South Carolina swept away (and lives destroyed).

I remember actually watching a news report where there was a MAILBOX floating down a street and being impacted by it (and why I am sharing this story with you here)…it emphasized to me how insignificant direct mail was despite being my livelihood.

But I had a business to run and protect as well.

What did I do after losing a night of sleep?

I called the letter shop (i.e. mailing facility) where we had that huge mailing ready to go out. I had them re-sort the mail–since I had time before it went out (at an additional cost)–and I had them remove all of the mailing pieces set to go out within a 100 mile (maybe it was 200 miles?) around Hugo’s path as it came up the U.S. southeast coast.

In direct mail, it was easy to omit by zip codes and sectional centers (SCF’s—the first 3 digits of a zip code).

My logic was that if someone’s mailbox was floating down the street, the odds that they would want to buy a copy of “The Book of Inside Information” was were sort of low.

And when I told one of my mentors at the time in the list business about what I was doing, she thought negatively on this practice, saying that, “…all I cared about was not losing money.”

That bugged me…since that was NOT my number one motivation.

I saw it as wasteful and disrespectful to the folks who were suffering to try to send them mail; and it seemed ridiculous that the postal workers in the affected region would also have to put that mail somewhere and store it.

Not to mention that selling them my silly book was not a high priority for me…and buying it was not relevant to them.

Next phase (after losing another night of sleep):

I reached out to every charitable fundraiser who used our lists at Boardroom over the years (the subscriber and buyer lists we owned were some of the most responsive names around for fundraisers) and I told every one of them (including The American Red Cross, Save The Children, Habitat for Humanity and others) that they could have as many of our “best names” as they wanted for free (our lists sold for over $100 per thousand names at the time) for ANY fundraising effort related to Hurricane Hugo.

And…we made an additional monetary donation to each of those mailers who took free names from us (as long as our money would be targeted to Hugo) to help with their mailing costs (yes, they still had to pay for printing and postage…damn that terrible medium called direct mail)!

We ended up shipping a few hundred thousand names to a variety of fundraisers and donated thousands of dollars too. My guess is those efforts (and others) raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And then we made this standard operating procedure for any disaster where direct mail could be used to help.

Bummers you just can’t predict

When Princess Diana tragically died on 8/31/97 right before Labor Day weekend, we could not cancel all of the space ads we had running that weekend in newspapers all over the country (it was traditionally a fantastic weekend to advertise).

I think we got something like 50% (or less) of the responses expected on something like a $1 million media buy.

No way could we have predicted that…nor was there time to pull the advertising like in the examples above.

Sometimes you just have to chalk one up as a learning experience…one that is out of your control…but I believe it was situations like this that made us even more sensitive to what we could control and what we couldn’t.

And we were already pretty good at stuff like this as indicated by our actions around Desert Shield and Hurricane Hugo.

Our mindset helped too.

My mentor and partner on all of these “adventures in marketing,” Marty Edelston (the founder of the company I loved so much), once had T-shirts made up quoting the great venture capitalist Frederick Adler:

“Paranoia is not a psychosis…it’s survival”



About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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