A practical approach to modern marketing.

The Serial Abuse Of The Word “Brand” — And How To Avoid The Branding Trap

In a recent interview, Silicon Valley PR legend Regis McKenna touched on a marketing issue that’s pulled more than a few organizations off course.

The lack of understanding, overuse, and serial abuse of the word “brand.”

Mr. McKenna: I spend a lot of my time meeting with startups, and it usually takes three or four long meetings just to explain what marketing is all about. They start out with a fundamental question — should we be advertising more? — and they use the word “brand” very loosely.

I always say don’t use that word, because brands are built. They don’t just exist because you run an ad or because you create a nifty logo. The brand comes from the consumer’s view. How do you build innovation into your product? How do you design the product in a way so that it sells itself?

Like any word endlessly repeated, the “brand” buzzword has begun to lose all meaning.

In fact, my first act with clients is often to pull them back from the lip of the branding abyss — especially those who have been told a couple of social media accounts, a consistent logo color, a vague, “fuzzy” approach to marketing and hours of online time are all that’s needed to define a “brand.”

It simply isn’t true.

From a marketing perspective, consistent branding is wonderful stuff and worth a little effort, but outside of the basics (define a message and be consistent about it), small organizations typically can’t afford to get too devoted to it.

More importantly, a great brand is an outgrowth of great products or services. Just ask San Francisco ad guy and author Bob Hoffman:

Where I diverge from most of my colleagues is in how you build a brand. In most cases I believe the best way to build a brand is with convincing product advertising, not “branding.”

To me, a strong brand is a by-product. It comes from doing other things well.

Which sounds about right to me.

Especially in the context of small and medium-sized organizations. You don’t have time to hold one-sided “brand conversations.” You’ve got products to build, designs to improve and goods to sell. Maybe a distribution channel or two to manage. And some customer service issues to fix.

And all the other projects that will assert a far bigger effect on your brand than the color of your logo or the time spent on Facebook.

In an age when you’re facing literally thousands of media channels, it’s important to focus on those that deliver real results — and to stop wasting time on ineffective channels that distract you from your other, more-critical “brand building” job.

In simple terms, make sure you’re delivering a clear message, your marketing is effective, and you’re differentiating yourself.

And that you’re creating, selling and servicing great products.

Market smart, Tom Chandler.

One Reason Social Network Numbers Are Hard To Believe (Hint: They’re Not Real)

Run more than a couple “old school” direct response programs (especially print, which costs real money), and you very quickly become focused on the hard numbers.

Which is why so many traditional marketers regard social network numbers with some suspicion; they aren’t verified, and those generating the numbers (Facebook, Twitter, etc) have a vested interest in inflating them.

Turns out the go-slow folks may have been right (from ZDNet):

The numbers of users reported by Facebook, Twitter, Google, and many other sites, are closely watched. They reveal trends in adoption and they are one of the few public metrics available to analysts trying to assign value to companies preparing an initial public offering.

But how accurate are these numbers?

In some anecdotal cases, the number of users, active and actual, could be as small as one-third. And nearly one-half of user accounts could be fake or contain no user profiles.

How large is this problem of fake and empty user profiles?

Here is an analysis performed by Kevin Kelly, a former editor of Wired magazine and a book author, on 560,000 people that have him in their G+ “circles.”

Where did these half million people come from? And who are they?

With the help of my research assistant Camille Cloutier, we randomly sampled my great circle…

Conclusion: Most of the half million people following me on Google+ are ciphers. They have signed up, but have not made a single public post, or posted their own image or a profile, or made a comment.

He and his assistant discovered that only 30% published anything on G+ and only 6% were “outright spammers.” But the largest group he classed as,

Ghosts. 36% had not even filled out a profile.

Mr Kelly pointed to a study by two journalists at Popular Mechanics that only 25% of their Twitter followers were real, and 49% were fake or spam.

I’ve long suspected social media — despite all the promises of tailored audiences and covert data collection — required a mass-marketing mindset. Marketing in social media channels often has an untargeted feel, and the value of some of the commonly counted outcomes (likes, etc) are hard to measure.

The commercial value of social media isn’t in doubt, but in terms of raw marketing power — and in the experiences reported to me by clients — its short-term potential is probably overblown.

Social media ad clickthrough rates remain dismal, and my small business clients report far better conversion rates from email than social media (which is why I suggest they convert social media contacts into email — a better marketing asset — whenever possible).

There are probably a host of reasons for the above, but one is likely the fact that better than half the accounts being marketed at don’t reflect active members.

My Take

I’ve witnessed new media “experts” talking local businesses into abandoning their traditional marketing channels in favor of daily social media work, and in at least two of the cases, the results were disastrous.

For many, the Return on Invesment (ROI) of social media channels has been uncertain, especially once you consider the opportunity costs of the time investment.

Some clients — especially those making timely offers to local audiences — are seeing good results from social media, but others are pulling back and focusing on channels that continue to produce (blogging, email, cold calling, etc).

The questions I ask are simple; could my clients do better investing more time in email and traditional marketing channels (cold calls, direct response, etc)? Many are saying yes, automating their still-valuable social media as much as possible, and focusing on their most profitable channels.

Are overblown social media numbers one reason the marketing ROI of social media remains low for small and medium-sized businesses?

Probably. There are other factors, and I’ll look at those in an upcoming article.

Market smart, Tom Chandler.

Email Pronounced Dead Yet Again (So Why Is It Still Making So Much Money?)

Pity the poor email.

It’s been pronounced “dead” a half-dozen times since spam almost killed it for real in the mid-90s, and today you’ll find it trampled underfoot by hordes of inexperienced marketers eager for the Next Big Thing.

For businesses — even small ones — that’s a shame.

One longtime small business client knew their email program made the phones ring, but didn’t know the extent until we spent a year measuring their results — and discovered their four quarterly emails accounted for better than 40% of their annual revenue. (They’ve since gone monthly.)

Email marketing; not dead yet...

Email refuses to die, and for good reason

In fact, email might just be the single most effective, highest-ROI online marketing channel for businesses and nonprofits alike.

When the recession landed on the economy, large marketers cut advertising and promotion budgets to the bone — yet spending on email marketing (alone among the traditional marketing channels) actually increased. [Read more…]

Shasta Mountain Guides Streamline Their Operation

Shasta Mountain Guides wanted a website that showcased the drama inherent in their mountain guiding/skiing business — one they could update without need for a webmaster.

We delivered (great photographs make it easy), and also found and implemented a hosted online booking system that they said “revolutionized their business.”

(Always happy to help.)

The Shasta Mountain Guides website

Organizations have different goals (and business goals drive marketing). Shasta Guides not only wanted to engage with website visitors and convey their message, they also wanted to streamline their office processes.

Which we did.

Proof that we provide more than websites and words.


  • Front-Page Slideshow
  • Online booking integration
  • Embedded (inactive for now) email
  • Social media integration

California Trout’s Online Makeover

California Trout needed a makeover; their static website was hard to navigate, and this membership organization wasn’t keeping in touch with their members — via email, website or social media.

They didn’t simply need a new website. CalTrout needed an online presence.

The CalTrout website

My web partner and I built them a sophisticated WordPress-based website — one that integrated with their donor management, email and social media programs. We also created a new social media program and completely remodeled their email channel.

What emerged was a powerful new communications framework — just in time for the organization’s 40th anniversary. Today, information flows through CalTrout’s website and into its active email and social media programs.

We automated much of the process, and continue to upgrade the technology.

I’m also writing for CalTrout and providing online presence management on a contract basis.

This overhaul represents a huge success for a membership-driven organization like CalTrout, but change like this can only come from the top of a committed organization.


  • WordPress-based website (easy for staff to update)
  • Donor management, email & social media integration
  • Advanced analytics (integrated with email and social media metrics)
  • Onsite gear shop (ecommerce)
  • Powerful event scheduling/calendaring
  • Multiple slide shows
  • Tabbed front-page widget featuring live feed updates

Fall River Conservancy

The Fall River Conservancy wanted an online presence — a website designed largely to deliver information about their restoration efforts, yet one sophisticated enough to make it clear this fledgling organization was for real.

The client used words like “clean” and “credible” to describe his vision, and we delivered just that:

Fall River Conservancy website

The WordPress CMS delivered the perfect mix of features — including client access to content, so they can update the site’s information without a webmaster. We also provided copywriting during the initial project.

The client is happy, and retained us to build their email program as well as periodically update the site and update the software.

Features include:

  • News feed (blog)
  • Front page slide show
  • Integration with hosted membership/donation management program
  • Mailchimp email integration

Visit Siskiyou Tourism Website

Siskiyou County’s tourism website had grown stale and disjointed, and the remote, rural county — which depends heavily on tourism — wanted a contemporary web presence.

Thinking Man Marketing was chosen by the primary contractor to architect the new website, which was designed to mimic the features of high-end websites, but do so cost-effectively. Features included:

  • Blog
  • On-demand videos (rotated seasonally)
  • Seasonal front-page slideshow
  • Event calendar
  • Business directory (which dynamically displayed biz listings on pages based on category)
  • Rotating live weather & road condition updates
  • Email program
  • Integrated social media

Unfortunately, California’s budget crisis hit Siskiyou County hard, and they largely eliminated funding for the ongoing portions of the project (email, social media, etc).

The VisitSiskiyou.org website


Joomla CMS (main site)

WordPress CMS (blog site)

Why Marketers Shouldn’t Overinvest in Social Media (and, Six Tips To Avoid Getting Burned)

For an online marketing consultant, I’m remarkably conservative when it comes to social media marketing.

It’s not as if I ignore it; it’s just that urging clients to invest large amounts of time in media platforms they don’t own or control raises a few red flags.

Or at least it should. There are plenty of opportunities and just as many potholes; maximizing the former and avoiding the latter should be your goal.

So what should you avoid?

You’re Not The Customer, You’re The Product

Too many marketers have simply handed themselves over to proprietary social media platforms, ceding control to platforms that are trying very, very hard to monetize themselves.

Wordyard’s Scott Rosenberg touches on this when he speaks to the dangers journalists face when indulging an over-reliance on Facebook (to the detriment of their organization’s own website): [Read more…]

Congratulations! Your Bakery Just Became A Media Company

The Technology Trickle-Down Theory of Modern Marketing

When I started my marketing career 25 years ago, simply piping a marketing message to the market presented some serious problems; good “creative” work was only an (inexpensive) starting point to a drawn-out process.

Ad production was hugely expensive, and lead times were horrendous.

Online marketing was hardly any better; as recently as a decade ago, building corporate websites and firing even simple email programs required cumbersome, expensive and inflexible technology.

Even simple campaign data was hard to come by.

By today’s standards, it was hardly marketing at all. [Read more…]