December 11, 2017

Ned Hallowell is the country’s leading expert on all issues pertaining to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); and he is also the leading expert in what drives all of us, ADHD or no ADHD, to distraction.

He often says that there would be no entrepreneurs without ADHD being present in some form…and the key is how we control it and make it a strength rather than a weakness.

ADHD and its derivatives contribute to the clutter many entrepreneurs (and marketers) feel all the time; and it contributes to us not paying enough attention to the world around us as we plan our next dream project.

But it is also the key to discovering those big dreams too. Our “drive to distraction” is much more of a blessing than a curse.

Even if you don’t suffer from a form of ADHD, you definitely suffer from information overload in the world we live in today…and so do your customers (and potential customers).

They all have the same 500+ TV stations you do plus a smart phone that is a computer in their pocket…with “The Google” and “The Facebook” available 24/7 (which leads to what Ned calls lots of useless “screen sucking”).

Simply put, 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.

Many of you game changing entrepreneurs and inventors reading this right now don’t deserve to have your best ideas and launches ignored because of world events and things that are out of your control.

But not every distraction is out of your control.

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?

This week’s post is  inspired by a conversation I had last week with someone who said that their business has been so much better in 2017 than in 2016—and they couldn’t understand why their business tanked in the fourth quarter of 2016.

Specifically, they seemed surprised that response was so low to what they thought were some of their best promotions ever in October and November of last year.

Hmmmm…was there anything capturing their audience’s attention in October and November last year?

I always thought that “planning around distractions” was obvious to most marketers…but I have a feeling it might not be…so hopefully something here will be helpful to you as you map out your 2018 marketing plans…and beyond.

The fact is that major distractions in the marketplace can negatively (and sometimes positively) affect your results to the products and services you are promoting.

Regarding distractions:

1) Some are predictable and can be avoided.

2) Some are less predictable but even when you are surprised, there may be ways to make lemonade from lemons.

3) And some are just plain bummers all the way around (unpredictable and unavoidable leading to terrible results beyond your control). I can’t tell you how to avoid these but they are less tragic if you plan ahead and react quickly  to numbers 1 and 2 above.


Predictable and avoidable 

As I mentioned in the opening, marketing results (i.e. response, revenue and profit) preceding (and just after) the 2016 presidential election were lower than expected for so many folks in our world.

However, I don’t believe it was just about THIS past election (although this one had many more “drives to distraction” than most elections of the past).

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 does not only apply to direct mail.

The fact is that you know the dates well in advance…actually you can plan for decades ahead with this one since Election Day is always the first Tuesday after the first Monday every year in the U.S.

I also would bet that many foreign countries have dates set far in advance for national elections as well (and all national holidays and the like where people are doing other things than reading or watching your hot new promotion).

And pre-Internet (yes there was a time when there was no Internet), when direct mail was king, it was a lot harder to predict when the mail would land (which we called the “in home date”) than most media you are involved with today.

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 how much easier it is today to predict the equivalent of “in home dates” with most forms of online media…so planning ahead is easier too.

Regardless, we never mailed or advertised into any presidential election due to the “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 when 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 (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.

Even how we mailed around big holidays was strategic…for example, mid-December was always a terrible “mail date” since mail landing in a household right around Christmas Day would always have a lower response rate.

However, a mail date between Christmas and the New Year was considered one of our best with mail hitting the households just after the New Year when folks were no longer distracted with holidays and parties and they were looking forward to all of the new year’s resolutions they wanted to act on…or at least try to act on.

It’s no coincidence why you are bombarded with diet and fitness-related offers in January.

With direct mail, as I mentioned previously, it is very difficult to predict when the consumer will actually receive the piece. You don’t have that “excuse” when sending email or advertising online.

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 here:

Map out your promotion schedule at the beginning of the year and work around any events that are what I call “planned distractions.” 

Also, think about your specific, core audience in this context…since some audiences will be more distracted than others around certain holidays or events than other audiences.


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 literally in mail bags) during the troop buildup.

I remember meeting with my staff and with key consultants every day during that period trying to figure out 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 wanted 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 significantly reduced (early in 1991).

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

And we did OK although less than planned…but far from a disaster.

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.

Everyone really was glued to their television sets every night during Desert Shield.

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

When we were buying $250,000 to as much as $1 million a week in media on TV (infomercials) in the mid 2000’s, we actually tried to time some infomercial buys week to week (kind of like “day trading” on the time slots) to gauge news cycles and where eyeballs might be…or where they might not be.

For the record, I don’t recommend this. In retrospect, it was added stress we didn’t need.

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.


Which brings me to another example of taking control of something seemingly out of your control…another spin on mitigating disaster when you have a sense of impending doom.

The beauty of this next example is that it’s a situation that enabled us to not only take care of ourselves and our business but to also help others in need 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 pictured in my head the homes in South Carolina that might be swept away and the many lives that would be affected.

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

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 southeast coast of the United States.

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.

After scrambling to not mail all of those pieces, and after the storm hit,  I remember 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 here’s where my plan started feeling sort of lousy…

I told one of my mentors at the time in the list business about what I was doing and 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 given the circumstances…and buying it was not relevant to them.

But yes, it was also a good business decision not to lose money.

Next phase (after losing a 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/most responsive 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…darn 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.

Lemonade from lemons is the way we saw it…and we were able to change our planning in midstream since we had a little notice on a distraction that was out of our control.


Bummers you just can’t predict 

When Princess Diana tragically died in late August 1997, right before Labor Day weekend in the U.S., we could not cancel all of the space ads we had running that weekend in newspapers all over the country since Labor Day weekend is traditionally a very desirable weekend to advertise.

I think we received something like 50% (or less) of the responses we expected on close to a $1 million media spend.

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 (and vigilant) regarding what we could control and what we couldn’t control.


The overall theme here is that planning ahead (and having an accurate calendar at your side while planning) is always a good idea.

Also: Paying attention every day to what is going on in the world that may create a major distraction to those you want to communicate with is part of your job as a marketer…to protect your business…and that you can still do good for others while you are protecting yourself.

A shift in mindset can help on all of this 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” 






P.S. I sent a special Friday email this past week called “Never trust an email without a P.S.”  which was said a little tongue in cheek.

I firmly believe that you CAN trust an email without a P.S. (like mine when I don’t send a P.S.!)…despite the P.S. being a very effective tool.

The point I wanted to make is that sometimes it’s OK to go right when everyone is going left…and as I have said many times in the past, in the words of Pablo Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”

There are eternal truths of direct marketing that are “always do” like calculating Lifetime Value or focusing on your list before offer or copy…but “always have a P.S.?”…not as sure about that one.

Having a P.S. is more like a “mostly do” but it could depend on the situation…

However, today I wanted to send you a P.S. so please click here.

P.P.S. See the P.S.!

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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