Monday, August 16, 2010

The danger of "Online Marketing Tools"

I was wading through Twitter this morning, coffee cup in hand, when I saw a post from Ann Handley. She had been quoted in the Wall Street Journal! Being a fan, I decided to see what she had to say. Although I'm still happy that Ann got quoted by such an important source, the article itself left me deeply troubled. Titled "A Guide to Online Marketing Tools," the article essentially is a "cheat sheet" for people who are starting their own companies and want to "easily design fliers, stationery, and business cards," etc. Some might see the article as an invaluable resource, and others might see it as a sign of the times. My own perspective, as an agency person and as a believer in the highest quality work and the most integrated, cohesive marketing campaigns possible, is that the article represents numerous potential pitfalls that today's companies, start-up or otherwise, could easily avoid with some guidance.

In order to explain my point of view a bit, let me review some of the points that the author, Shara Tibken, details.

"Get It On Paper"

Ms. Tibken begins by explaining how companies can use online templates to create stationery, fliers, and business cards. These websites are certainly no secret. Companies like Office Max, Staples, and FedEx have been touting these services for awhile. I won't lie either - most of the time, you'll get a serviceable product. Serviceable. How does this differ from what a marketing firm or agency can do for you, however?

Fliers: I'm not sure if the reference here is to sell sheets or something else, but let's assume we're talking about a single-sided sell sheet. Can you plug an image and some copy into a template? Sure, of course. Here is my concern for companies that take this route, however.
     • Are you integrating important keywords and phrases into your copy?
     • Is someone proofreading your copy?
     • Are you making sure that the images used will translate well in print as well as online?
     • Are you using a stock of paper that speaks to high quality, or is the stock kind of thin?
     • How are you going to use the flier? Are you going to post it to your website for download?

Stationery and Business Cards: It's really easy to take things like stationery and business cards for granted. However, when we work on these projects, we refer to the entire project as "corporate identity." This tends to lend a little more gravity to the situation. The article notes that creating stationery and business cards is as easy as point and click, but there are other considerations that are not as intuitive. For example, if you are a start-up, what is your logo? What is your corporate tagline? Do you want or need one? What is the most important information to include on your business cards? These are all things that marketing and agency folks think about. If done correctly, creating a corporate identity for yourself (which could also include an email signature convention, packaging, and more) is much more than simply plugging in your contact information.

"Making Pictures Perfect"

Next, the article talks about photography. Ms. Tibken begins this section with an indisputable truth. A good photo can be a real key to success for any kind of campaign, or even for just getting a company off the ground.

The first thing that is a bit misleading about this section is that Ms. Tibken mentions all of the various sources a person can use to "clean up" a photo  if it's not ready to go from the start. You can remove red eye, you can add a background. Again, these things are not secrets. I knew about photoshop before I joined the business. The thing is, the kind of touch-ups that really show quality are things the article does not mention. How do you strip out an image, for example? Why do you need to do that? What is a hi-res versus a low-res image, and when do you need to use one or the other? What is the difference between a .jpg file and a .tif file? Which one, for example, would you upload to create your flier?

Next, the article discusses professional websites where you can purchase images. Again, nothing mind boggling here. These sites have been around for quite some time. Again, though, the issue is more complex than simply carrying with you a willingness to purchase a professional picture. One important thing the article does not mention is that because everyone has access to these sites, the chances for two companies in the same line of business to end up using the same stock photo are extremely high. Without the guidance of a marketing firm or agency, the burden will be on you to research what your competitors and peers are doing with their marketing materials. They may gravitate towards the same images you do. Do you want your ad or website to meld with your competitors in peoples' minds?

Less philosophical is the problem of usage. Many photo stock sites offer low resolution, high resolution, and different sizes. Different sizes have different prices. How do you know, without professional knowledge, which you will need? If you guess incorrectly, that is more money out of your pocket.

"Don't Go It Alone"

Interestingly, I thought this section was going to encourage readers to at least seek out consultation from marketing experts. Instead, however, this section details sites like crowdSpring LLC, which Bob Garfield talks about in The Chaos Scenario. The jist is that you don't have to create all of your work yourself.

Well,  you can probably guess what I'm going to say.

Yes, it's true that all kinds of work can be generated by all kinds of people. Let's use this hypothetical situation. You are launching a new product that you think is going to put your start-up company on the map. You know that you want a website, a sell sheet or brochure, a product-specific logo, and some ads. It is 100% possible to go to a crowdsourcing site for each of those products. However, without the proper guidance behind each project brief, you are very likely to end up with projects that bear no relation to each other. This is problematic for several reasons. It's difficult to build a brand without recognizable features. It's hard to stand out in a crowd without a cohesive campaign. It's hard to translate your corporate and product mission to 20 different people, most especially if you don't have that information at hand yourself.

Can crowdsourcing sites work? Oh, absolutely. But if you are trying to create an entire campaign, it is quite dangerous to think that using this methodology will save you time and money with a positive ROI in the end.

The ending of the article, which is where Ann Handley's quote appears, does mention some good points. Make sure you have a call to action. Don't just create content to do it. My concern is that if you begin to rely on these open source solutions for the execution of your work, you may miss some of the background thought, research and strategy that will make all of those separate pieces come together as one giant, successful jigsaw puzzle.

Will working with an agency represent more of an investment than some of these "online tools"? The answer may not be as black-and-white as you may think. Although some of these online tools look cheap or free, the costs can add up if there are mistakes, constant changes, or updates made necessary by a lack of planning. Something to consider.

1st Image by Hector Landaeta.
2nd Image by ilker.

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