Exit Strategies for a Fizzled Impression


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When Bank of America sent out an internal memo touting an upcoming corporate promotion that was faxed to several East Coast branches of Bank of America, it got an unexpected response. When the fax machine at the BofA in Ashland, Massachusetts, broke down during transmission, it printed only part of the memo’s attention-getter: an illustration of a lit match about to touch off a bomb fuse. Explanatory captions were lost in transmission. Worried that this might be a bomb threat, authorities evacuated the bank, as well as some 15 surrounding businesses.

In the land of communications, this is what’s known as a bad first impression.

The “bomb threat” was simply a “time is running short” reminder—for the bank employees. For us, this partial communication serves as another sort of reminder: Don’t assume that people receiving your communications know the full story. Don’t confuse them—or annoy, amuse or even frighten them—with unintended first and possibly only impressions.

For example, when I sort my mail at home and see stuffy typography and the words “law office” or “court” in a return address, my knee jerks and I immediately think of a summons or a lawsuit, even though the letter always contains something innocuous like an administrative copy or an invitation to participate in a community event.

Another example, one more pertinent to this conversation, comes from mailings stamped “Second Notice.” My knee jerks once more, because bill collectors send dunning second notices. Magazines send nagging renewal second notices. Spammers send emails saying, “Second notice! We’ve been trying to reach you to deliver 45 billion dollars” (or pounds or yen or quatloos or whatever the currency of the day is). “Second notice” means “Hey, you screwed up, and you’d better start watching out for the non-innocuous stuffy typography arriving intimidatingly in a mailbox near you!”

What’s in these “second notice” mailings I receive? Cheery messages from businesses I’ve dealt with comfortably for years, saying things like, “Hey, Mr. Brohaugh, we see you didn’t take advantage of that great offer we told you about in a mailing a couple of weeks ago. Why don’t you take advantage of it now?” Well, perhaps because I’m annoyed by your approach, for these reasons (both as customer and marketer):

Such an approach is confusing. Rousing curiosity is a common attention-getting device. All well and good, but curiosity and confusion are two quite different things.

It’s not relevant—or even accurate. The next time I received notice that I hadn’t taken advantage of the self-same offer, the envelope was again stamped “Second Notice.”

It misses the opportunity for positive communication. Besides being somewhat imperious and implicitly insulting, such phrasing precludes the chance to say, “We hope you won’t miss the chance to allow us to say thanks to you in a special way.”

To avoid delivering potentially misinterpreted “bomb threats,” examine individual elements of any campaign or mailing with a fresh eye, and in isolation. Strive to take them out of context. Employ outside reviewers to interpret unrelated campaign elements: your first contact mailing without benefit of seeing any follow-up; third-stage mailings without benefit of seeing stages one, two and four; and so on. Make sure that internal people are the only ones who ever see what we’ll metaphorically call partially-printed faxes. Because, after all, your communications must light enthusiasm, not fuses.

Bill Brohaugh
As managing editor, Bill Brohaugh is responsible for the day-to-day management and editorial for the COLLOQUY magazine and colloquy.com, the most comprehensive loyalty marketing web site in the world. In addition to writing many of the feature articles, Bill develops the editorial calendar, hires and manages outside writers and researchers and oversees print and online production. He also contributes to COLLOQUY's weekly email Market Alert and the COLLOQUYTalk series of white papers.


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