Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Fun" is Serious Business

One of the most enduring images of "marketing" among engineers is that of people who play for a living. I have seen several Dilbert cartoons portraying the Marketing Department as a group of revelers partying like a frat house. When engineers move into marketing, there is a tendency to misunderstand the nature of "fun" as a marketer sees it. "Fun" is actually a pretty serious business. It is not free. It is not even cheap. Early in my marketing career, I was totally astonished at how much giveaway items cost. I made the half serious statement that it would be much cheaper to staple a product brochure to a dollar bill as a giveaway. I was obviously not the first person to think that because I was told that trade shows had rules prohibiting exactly that.

"Fun" is actually a marketing tool. There must be a strategy behind everything the marketing department does and there must be a measurable return on investment. The ROI can be hard to measure at times, but it must be defined, tracked, reported, and evaluated. It was always about this point in the discussion of trade show giveaways that I saw a new marketer start to get the idea that marketing is actually work. It may be fun work, but it is work all the same.

In the late 90s, I left TI for two years to work for Philips Semiconductors. About half way through my time at Philips, I was attending a 1394 developers conference to give a presentation and to work in the demo gallery. TI was also there, of course, and the marketing team I left behind had grown significantly. In the TI demo area, I saw a lot of new faces; people who'd been engineers when I worked there.

As I approached the TI demo area to say "Hello" to everyone, I could see they were eager to see me. It was more than eagerness to see an old friend. They were eager to show me something. There is always a strong sense of competition when meeting someone who has gone to work for the competition. They wanted to show me "the best giveaway ever." They were very pleased with themselves and they were sure I would feel very much bested. They certainly had my interest.

I was pretty pleased with my giveaway. It was a small water pistol with the Philips Logo and web page on it. Tied to it was a little note card with information on the Philips semiconductor products on the back side and on the front side were the words "We shoot straight. Others blow smoke." I knew that TI had been promising a 200 Megabit Phy for months and was unable to deliver it. They were having similar problems with one of their other 1394 chips. Promises made and broken. Philips, on the other hand, was quietly debugging their chips and waiting until they were ready for release before they publicized them. I was painting Philips as the dependable supplier.

TI fished a box out from under a table and produced a small, very colorful TI calculator. That was the giveaway. It was certainly fun (purple, green, orange...very colorful) and the sort of practical giveaway that everyone likes and will use. It would probably go back to the office, but it might go home. A giveaway that goes home (rather than to the office) is a second rate giveaway, in my opinion. You want the giveaway to go to the office and sell your product to others in the office. Certainly, TI's leadership in calculators was a nice selling point to reinforce the image of TI as a leader. This was a pretty great giveaway, but there was just one problem. There was nothing printed on the calculator about 1394 silicon. Once the calculator left the event, it was just a calculator. It was not a sales tool. Once it made it to home or office, there was nothing about the calculator to remind the recipient that they should buy TI 1394 silicon. It was just a calculator.

I asked them "You didn't put a URL and anything about 1394 silicon on the calculator?" Their faces registered the realization that they'd missed something important. They had focused entirely on what would be the coolest giveaway at the show without any thought as to why they were giving something away and how it could be a sales tool. This is a very common mistake among entry level marketers.

Concerning my giveaway (the water pistol), 99% of the people thought it was amusing. We were able to use the information on the back of the card as our talking points. However, there was that 1% who were offended by our giving any sort of gun away. One or two people tore off the tag and handed the gun back to us and one person would not even touch the gun but asked me to tear off the tag and give it to him.

I guess my plan was not bullet proof either.

Snider is an international marketing professional specializing in the high tech market. He has 15 years of marketing experience with 7 years in a "for profit" company and 8 years in a "non-profit."

Snider is currently looking for new opportunities:

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