May 21, 2023

I almost fell off my chair while sitting in a mastermind in early 2017 where some of the best online marketers in the world were complaining about how badly their launches and marketing campaigns performed in late 2016, from September through November.

As you may or may not recall, there was a presidential election in the fall of 2016 (like there is every four years before and since) …and the heavyweight battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was shaping up to be one of the most controversial and confrontational elections in history…and it did not “disappoint.”

Most importantly, it was predictable based on the events of the year leading up to it.

But many ignored it…as noise or something less than noise…and many paid a huge price.

In chapter eight of my book, Overdeliver, I make the case for customer service being a marketing function…and that paying close attention to this least sexy part of marketing is critical so you don’t become a “Director of Sales Prevention.” 🙂

Many of the most dynamic entrepreneurs, inventors and marketers run the risk (regularly) of having their best stuff ignored…by ignoring major distractions in the marketplace.

I’ve put them into three categories:

  1. Distractions which are predictable and can be avoided.
  2. Distractions which are less predictable…but by staying vigilant and nimble, you can always make lemonade from lemons.
  3. Distractions that become “marketing bummers” (a very scientific term I just coined) …which are unpredictable and unavoidable. This one is also called, “sh*t happens.” But even the sh*tiest bummers are learning experiences.

Read last week’s post here for a reminder about “winning or learning” (if you missed it).

Let’s explore all three in the context of customer service.

And if you think this post is about common sense, you’re right.

But anyone who markets into a presidential campaign with blinders on when they don’t need to, for example, might need this dose of common sense more than they think. 🙂

Predictable and avoidable distractions

Those marketers who ignored the potential land mines and went full steam ahead during the 2016 presidential election should have known better.

And it’s not just about 2016 or national elections.

Every presidential election is worth avoiding as a launch date, mail date, or promotion period.

As are other “predictable” dates during the year.

It’s one of the many uses of what we call a “calendar” …which is printed before the year begins…and as far as I am aware, it’s readily available and accessible.

I think it may also be available on The Google for those of you who don’t “do paper.”

I encourage you to check it out, whether in print or digitally. 🙂

This is not an American phenomenon either…there are parallel events in countries outside the U.S. that could lead to distraction in the marketplace and diminished results.

In fact, I heard about a disastrous (losing) campaign run by one of the best marketers in Brazil (just last year) …because he created a launch and an offer during the most recent presidential campaign there…which was even more chaotic than the one in the U.S. in 2016 (which is hard to believe).

Some marketers can survive the distraction gauntlet unscathed…and even create opportunities from those same distractions (read more on this below regarding “Operation Desert Shield”) …but most do not.

The severity of their wounds has less to do with the level of controversy and more to do with the level of distraction among their potential buyers.

Over many years doing large direct mail programs, we always avoided the time immediately before and after the vote which I believe is a good practice, independent of marketing channel.

And we avoided mail being delivered around certain holidays and preplanned special events (e.g., the Olympics when the Olympics seemed to matter more).

This advice of avoiding marketing into distractions goes well beyond elections.

More to come on that in this post (open loop).

With direct mail, it was difficult to predict when the mail would land (which we called the in-home date).

You can’t rely on all mailmen to deliver at the same pace, I guess. 🙂

While predicting in-home (in-InBox?) dates is easier in the world of online, real time marketing, that is not a license to ignore what is going on in the world.

The research is always worth doing…which might entail simply buying a calendar.

David Ogilvy said it well:

“Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals”

We never mailed or advertised around any major event we were aware of in advance, due to the potential distraction factor, no matter how large or small.

We wanted to reduce risk whenever we could…and there is always another “mail” date.

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

Read on for ways to work around some of those “acts of God” too.

Pro tip: I recommend you make planning for predictable and avoidable events part of your standard marketing operating procedure at the beginning of every year…with the ability to “plan” for the unpredictable as much as possible.

The example of the 2016 election is an obvious case, but there are many others (and as I said previously, this is not just an American phenomenon).

In my years of planning promotions in various media—direct mail, print, inserts, TV, radio, e-mail, online launches—we mapped out our mailing and promotion schedule at the beginning of each year, avoiding as many planned major world events as we could, such as the Olympics, World Cup, elections, major historical anniversaries and so on.

In the 1980s and 1990s, we had mailings going out almost every week…all of which were over a million pieces…sometimes in excess of five million pieces…all with unpredictable (i.e., non-precise) in-home dates.

This involved some serious planning.

There was even one year when we had over 52 mailings scheduled and had to double up a couple of weeks (while not mailing the same names more than once for different offers on the same mail date).

Note: In the world of direct mail, even though you rent names for a one-time mailing on a particular date, if names appear on more than one list, you are allowed to mail duplicates on a future date using the same offer or a different, pre-approved offer.

And there were some weeks (or days) we avoided every calendar year, since we kept accurate records on periods when responsiveness was very low for certain kinds of offers.

For example, a perfect mail date for a newsletter about tax preparation in America is probably not April 16th (or immediately after your prospects file their taxes).

Although it is contrarian so who knows? 🙂

Regardless, you are planning and not guessing.

Avoiding predictable distractions and potential irrelevance both pertain to marketing and customer service because they both pertain to showing respect for your customers.

Less predictable, but still avoidable, distractions

Do you remember Operation Desert Shield in 1990 and 1991?

In August of 1990, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait took everyone by surprise. If you look back at that very tense period, America had troops in Saudi Arabia, literally waiting for their marching orders, while everyone at home in the U.S. was anxiously watching the news, waiting to see how the situation would unfold.

Not that anyone cared (nor should they), during the troop buildup, we had millions of pieces of direct mail in mail bags on “hold,” ready to deploy from our lettershop (a warehouse where the mailing was being staged).

I remember meeting with my staff and being in close communication with key consultants every day regarding what our next steps might be.

We wanted to time the mailing as best we could without diminishing the responsiveness (i.e., the recency) of the lists in those mail bags.

That is, we were looking for a sweet spot: Mailing while avoiding the promotion hit mailboxes just as our troops invaded Kuwait (the distraction on top of the distraction).

We had recency issues (since the names were getting older by the day…remember the R from RFM?) …colliding with a severe distraction factor.

We also wanted to be sensitive to what our potential customers were going through at the time.

Finally, there was a lull in the standoff and we mailed, early in 1991.

We traded off some responsiveness (because the names aged a bit) while avoiding mailing into total distraction.

We generated less revenue on that promotion than budgeted, but the waiting period also gave us time to revise those budgets, reducing expected profit.

The mailing was far from a disaster, and thankfully the United States avoided an all-out war…temporarily.

We did not have to write off the promotion—and we did not go broke.

We didn’t compromise the goodwill we had with our audience by bugging them when they had other things on their minds and on their TV sets.

A quick side note on how “Desert Shield” became an advertising opportunity for some…I guess one marketer’s distraction is another’s windfall?

And what we learned and adapted this potential opportunity (temporarily) as it applied to our infomercial media buying in the mid 2000’s.

I heard from industry sources during “Desert Shield” that CNN was able to increase their advertising rates significantly, with the increase in eyeballs.

This was something we experienced firsthand once we got into TV advertising, although this “opportunity” is hard to recommend broadly.

In different periods of the mid-2000s, I believe we were spending as much as any marketer advertising with infomercials at that time (between $500,000 and $1 million a week).

At times we experimented with timing some ad buys week to week, trying to calculate when we could get the most eyeballs on a particular promotion, by day-part or station, based on the news cycle.

Kind of like day trading in the stock market, which created more anxiety than it was worth among my staff…especially me.

Like I said, I don’t recommend this kind of thing. But it is indicative of challenges becoming opportunities in the blink of an eye.

Eventually, the risk (and stress) outweighed the reward, and it all felt a bit exploitative too.

Here’s another example of pivoting in real time when “sh*t happens” …

When something unpredictable happens, you need to take care of yourself and your business first; but at the same time, you can look for ways to help others too.

This hit home for me in September of 1989 when the devastation of Hurricane Hugo led to the deaths of at least 60 people.

Hugo was a category-five storm and was responsible for an estimated $10 billion in damage, mostly in the Southeastern United States and the Caribbean.

It was one of the worst storms ever to hit the United States.

One thing was for sure: It was meaningless to send the millions of pieces of mail we had ready to go out that week as we watched homes in South Carolina swept away…and lives destroyed.

I remember watching a news report where there was a mailbox floating down a street and feeling so impacted by it . . . it emphasized to me that despite being my livelihood, direct mail became instantly insignificant.

But I had a business to run and my team’s livelihoods to protect as well.

After a restless night, I called the mailing facility where we had that huge campaign ready to go out…and had them re-sort the mail at an additional and significant expense.

We had time before it went out, so I asked them to remove all the mailing pieces set to go out, by zip code, within a 100-mile radius around Hugo’s path (as it came up the southeastern coast of the U.S.).

My logic was soooo logical:

If someone’s mailbox (maybe even their house) was floating down the street, the odds that they would want to buy a copy of The Book of Inside Information were low. 🙂

It was wasteful and even more disrespectful to the folks who were suffering.

It also seemed ridiculous that the postal workers in the affected region would also have to handle and store all that undeliverable mail (and save it for delivery on a sunny day, mailbox or no mailbox).

After deciding not to mail to this swath of people, I decided that wasn’t enough.

We could do more.

We reached out to every charitable fundraiser who had used our lists over the years.

The subscriber and buyer list we owned were some of the most responsive names 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—for any fundraising effort related to Hurricane Hugo.

At the time, our lists sold for over $100 per thousand names, so this was a big donation—and we made an additional monetary donation to each of those charities who took free names from us (as long as our money would be targeted to “Hugo mailing costs.”

We ended up shipping hundreds of thousands of names to a variety of fundraisers and donated a significant amount of cash too.

Those mailing efforts raised much needed funds for people who needed it most; later we made this standard operating procedure for any disaster where direct mail (and our responsive lists) could be used to help.

All of this is to say that even when things go wrong—and you have some warning—you can protect yourself more than you think…while making a difference and turning a disaster into something positive.

Bummers you can’t predict or avoid

Over Labor Day weekend in the United States (in early September), response rates for many kinds of print advertising are traditionally very high, as they are for many other 3-day weekends throughout the year.

In 1997, we scheduled a large newspaper advertising campaign which we were very excited about for our rapidly growing consumer newsletter, Bottom Line/Personal.

There was no way we could have predicted that Princess Diana would die tragically just days before Labor Day weekend in 1997, in highly publicized circumstances.

Everyone was devastated by the news…and then became glued to their TV sets.

Newspapers were not the medium of choice that weekend.

And it was no surprise that everyone’s Labor Day campaigns tanked that year.

I guess misery loved company…that’s the advertisers along with the Princesses’ loyal following. 🙁

“Misery” for us equated to less than 50% of the expected revenue (accompanied by a huge loss of profit) for a one-day, million-dollar buy.

There was no time to pull or hold the advertising like we did in the examples above, where we had at least some warning.

Sometimes you just need to be prepared to take a hit when everything is out of your control.

Regardless, this is a critical reason to have your media buys diversified…and to never be reliant on just one medium for the lion’s share of your revenue and profit.

Even for a 3-day weekend. 🙂

Multichannel marketing is not just a neat sounding term…it is a mantra for all of us.

I believe situations like the ones discussed above made us more sensitive to what we could control and what we couldn’t…and ultimately made us better marketers.

We were already pretty good at planning for distractions where we had some control, as indicated by our actions around Desert Shield and Hurricane Hugo.

And we were always on our guard, and encouraged others to do the same, and became extremely proactive and extra sensitive how we approach our customers in volatile times…and non-volatile times as well.

Takeaways from these examples:

  • Be constructively paranoid all the time…it’s a good thing.
  • Be alert and pay attention to the world around you…no matter how self-absorbed you are with your marketing genius and creativity. 🙂
  • Be in control of as much as you can with your campaigns…through planning an annual promotion calendar at a minimum…and predicting based on what already exists…so you can prevent disasters further upstream.
  • Be peaceful…by staying diversified…while not leaving things to chance…but “chance” (i.e, sh*t) happens…and then you will need to let the chips fall where they may while avoiding an ultimate disaster.
  • Be respectful of your customers and honor their intelligence—especially in situations where people are just not interested in what you have to offer…disaster or no disaster.

Marty Edelston, my partner (and mentor) on all of these adventures in marketing, once had T-shirts made quoting venture capitalist Frederick Adler…which we quoted often and wore proudly:

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

I couldn’t have said it better myself. 🙂



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About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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