Richard Fouts

A member of the Gartner Blog Network

Richard Fouts
Research Vice President
2 years at Gartner
23 years IT industry

Richard Fouts guides digital marketers on best practices for evaluating and deploying emerging digital marketing techniques to ensure marketers make fully informed decisions about their marketing investments. With extensive experience in brand management and marketing communications ... Read Full Bio

What Can Retailers Do About Loyalty Fatigue?

by Richard Fouts  |  June 19, 2014  |  6 Comments

A Gartner consumer survey conducted across 10 countries revealed that 62% of respondents are members of one of more retail loyalty programs. But despite the high percentage of memberships, the participation and offer use remain relatively low. Over one-third of participants across retail sectors report never utilizing the programs in which they are enrolled (a trend most evident in specialty stores, for example sporting, office supply and retail furniture stores where purchases are less frequent).

By way of review, these programs consist of 

Loyalty cards Price reductions or special discounts to those that sign up for the retailer’s frequent purchase program.

Award programs Points which can be redeemed for gift cards, rebates or discounts on other merchandise. 

Point and partner models  Points for purchases which can be redeemed for gifts, savings vouchers and travel (through a network of partners). These programs are popular in the credit card (e.g., Amex) travel and hospitality industries.

But, transaction-based programs often disguise true loyalty

In the U.S. alone, loyalty membership is approaching the 3 billion mark. These programs have also proliferated with little differentiation – causing consumers to pick and choose offers from various retailers. Hence, the original intent of rewarding customers for being loyal to a particular retailer has eroded over time, producing a commoditized landscape for retail loyalty programs. Now, the primary benefit of loyalty programs for retailers — the ability to understand individual customer behavior — is rapidly eroding.

This lack of differentiation between retailer programs has, in some cases, compounded the issue with additional factors, such as complex redemption systems or mixed messages across channels. Both add confusion to the mix and cause customers to disengage. As a result, customers are alienated from the retailer, with retailers unable to build an actionable customer database from loyalty program data.

It is difficult, if not impossible to discern the differences between commoditized retail programs that use price discounts and coupons to encourage repeat purchases. This explosion of programs that look, feel and sound the same has created loyalty fatigue to the point where enrollment is on the decline.  Moreover, even many of those that do enroll, fail to participate.

True loyalists bring others with them

Transaction-based programs are also flawed indicators of true loyalty. For example, buyers readily admit they appear loyal to a particular retailer because of convenience, but also admit they would be less-than-enthusiastic in recommending the store to others. Hence, their value to the retailer, as a true loyal customer is limited because they aren’t “bringing others with them.” 

The need for change

Retail loyalty managers are starting to fundamentally shift their thinking to evolve loyalty from a program with points and rewards — to an opportunity to grow a long term relationship with customer, not as a member of a mass market segment, but as an individual with unique needs that change over time, due to predictable life events or circumstances that happen unexpectedly.

Hence, personalization that recognizes the buyer as a market of one should be a retailer’s priority investment.   Fifty percent of the customers surveyed either agreed or strongly agreed with the following statement: “When I receive personalized offers relevant to an upcoming purchase, I’ve used the offer to purchase the item from the retailer.”

Of the customers who reported receiving personalized offers, 82% said that continued, relevant offers from a retailer would increase their loyalty to that retailer over time. 

All of this new evidence doesn’t mean retailers should abandon loyalty programs that reward cusotmers with points, discounts and other quantifable rewards. These programs can work, and in many cases you simply have no choice given your competitive situation (can you imagine if an Airline retracted its mileage points program?).  But it does mean retailers need to get more creative in how they view loyalty. As Don Draper said in a recent episode of Mad Men, “it helps to have a good product.”

Look here for  other advice on how to innovate your retail loyalty program (Gartner subscription required).



Category: Digital Marketing Marketing Strategy     Tags: ,

Email as Brand Advertising? You bet.

by Richard Fouts  |  April 29, 2014  |  Submit a Comment

I fit perfectly within Jaguar’s segmentation model for its new F-TYPE sports car.

Hence, Jaguar marketers hope I’ll think of them when I venture out to buy a car in the F-TYPE category. Why?  Because they’ve shown their “our F-TYPE kicks BMW’s butt”  awareness ad with high frequency in markets that match its target audience (35-55 year old, affluent males in densely populated urban areas).  

High frequency within your target reach  – is effective even if your TV ads create negative sentiment. People that rank Progressive Insurance first in terms of awareness, are often the first to admit how annoying and oversaturated its television advertising has become. But marketers at Progressive don’t care, nor should they. They’ve achieved their goal. Buyers in Progressive’s target market are apt to think about them when an opportunity to buy or recommend auto insurance arises.

This is also known as the nudge effect - which influences buyer behavior without an initial direct response, also known as brand advertising (of which, television, is a prime carrier).  

Of course, television ads are expensive ($300,000 or more per minute, on prime time television, not including ad production costs). But the reach can equal several million.

But hold on. There’s another channel that achieves the same kind of awareness using high frequency, albeit at a far lower cost, namely email. Compare the cost of regularly emailing 1 million people who have already said they are interested in hearing more about sports cars – with the cost of an ad on Modern Family.

This alternate way of looking at email marketing is a topic explored by Alchemy Worx, a marketing agency with a 100 percent email focus.  Its research shows:

  • Regular view of a brand in an email inbox prompts subscribers to response via other channels (even if these emails are unopened)
  • A compelling subject line reminds subscribers of current offers across channels; it also reinforces brand values and benefits (even if these emails are unopened)
  • Regular emails keep a brand front-and-center in the subscriber’s mind, so that even if they don’t transact today, they may do so in the future (even if these emails are unopened).

These are all instances of the nudge effect.

Moreover, when a buyer doesn’t open an email, it doesn’t mean the brand isn’t registering. The simple sight of the brand in the subject line contributes to this powerful nudge effect, which marketers have traditionally assigned to the advertising medium, not the email medium.

When you assess buyer reaction to email marketing in this context –  you break out of email as a digital version of direct mail. The other good news:  email is the lowest-cost ad channel available.  And far more targetable than a mass medium such as television.

You can read more about the hidden benefits of email marketers in a paper by Dela Quist, the CEO of Alchemy Worx in the Journal of Digital and Social Media Marketing, Summer 2013.




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Category: Brand awareness Digital Marketing Marketing Strategy     Tags:

What Marketers Can Learn From “Game of Thrones”

by Richard Fouts  |  April 25, 2014  |  2 Comments

Picture this recent one-on-one with my manager.

  • Yvonne:  Any issues where you need help?
  • Richard:  Nope. Everything good.
  • Yvonne:  In that case, did you watch Game of Thrones last night?
  • Richard:  Yes, and speaking of issues ….

What followed was the usual frenzied conversation between two loyal fans of one of HBO’s best produced programs of all time (also known as GOT). 

GOT fans range from cult (one of my neighbors wants to name her children after GOT characters) to fans that simply appreciate what the producers of this show do really well:

Masterful storytelling.  Stories keep us engaged when its characters are put in situations that have impact on their lives and those around them. If there’s no impact, there’s no story. And – as any screenwriter will tell you – turn up the impact to turn up the drama.  GOT impact?  Sure you do. Your prospects face daily situations that impact a multitude of things, including their careers.  How does the business case for your product play into that impact? That’s a story.

Unpredictable plotlines. Even GOT’s most astute fans failed to predict the end of its lead character, Ned Stark. Unpredictable situations create more impact scenarios, which in turn drive new subplots. GOT writers develop wonderful subplots,  while sustaining the primary story (the eternal struggle amongst the seven kingdoms).   Brand managers do the same thing. As colleague Jennifer Beck reminds us all the time:  a brand should be timeless.  High performing brands accommodate unpredictable shifts in the marketplace while sustaining their eternal value proposition. 

Empathy. This is one of the oldest storytelling tactics of all time of course. Stories with no relatable characters won’t keep anyone engaged for long. The character doesn’t even have to represent something the audience has personally experienced or will ever experience. It just needs to be real.  One of IBM’s best 30 second spots shows us a French baker - whose use of predictive analytics tells her what to sell – and when. For example, when it rains, people buy more cake. When temperatures rise, bellini sales go up. Knowing what to sell and when -  has reduced her cost of unsold goods by the thousands (which in turn, has boosted the profitability of her European bakeries by 20%). At the end of the day, our baker gets an emotional rush at the sight of those empty shelves. It’s a great use of storytelling to quickly (and simply) communicate how predictive analytics work.

Conflict:  This is a “must have” attribute of any story. I learned this when I interviewed Hollywood screen writers for my research on how to craft memorable stories.  Conflict is plentiful in Game of Thrones. In fact there’s so much conflict, characters find themselves struggling to prioritize which conflicts must be addressed right now, which can wait (but not for long) and which just need to be carefully monitored.  It’s not unlike what your customers experience everyday.

Stunning visuals:  One of GOT’s biggest differentiators in today’s highly competitive lineup of television programming, is the visual extravaganza it presents every week. Visual storytelling is a powerful marketing technique, because your buyers think in pictures.  Buyers remember stories that are told in the same vein with how they process information. This doesn’t mean you need a multimillion dollar GOT budget to create good visuals. Often a simple infographic communicates your point far more effectively than fives pages of web copy.

I could draw more parallels between GOT producers and marketers  – but the single, most important commonality comes down to telling a good story, using techniques known to work (including fine writing). But try not to program your stories into a standard, predictable template. Exercise your own creativity to mix things up. Conflict can be introduced immediately, toward the middle or inserted at the end of the story to build a climatic, memorable finish. Empathy can be blatant or subtle. Many black and white visuals are as stunning as their color counterparts.  In fact, the creative part of storytelling is brainstorming how you’ll use these tools in unpredictable ways.

Game of Thrones’ Margaery  wondering how long her marriage to Joffrey will last …. GOT2






Category: Digital Marketing     Tags:

What is Marketing?

by Richard Fouts  |  April 23, 2014  |  Submit a Comment

The shortest definition?  “Meeting customer needs profitably.”  

  • Tesla (and now, BMW) have both discovered that people who crave luxury automobiles are also passionate about sustainability.
  • Uber responds to urban dwellers, stressed by the unreliability of hailing a cab when they need it most.
  • ZocDoc provides same-day doctor appointments to those requiring urgent medical care. 
  • When IKEA noticed that people wanted good furnishings at lower prices, it created knockdown furniture.
  • Ebay found a unique way to merchandise items buyers desire most (guaranteed LOL when you read how eBay started).

All of these examples illustrate how people with marketing savvy turned an unmet need into a profitable business opportunity.

Unmet needs, market gaps, white noise … whatever you wish to call it, it’s that hole in the market that opens the door to profitability. But, before you know it, fast followers find a way to deliver even more for less, especially in our current world of digital disruption, where emerging technologies and techniques have a way of trumping the value proposition that once led the market.

How can marketers avoid this scenario?

Don’t get comfortable.  Marketers that fill an unmet need, often relax, then enjoy the ride (thinking “they’re done”). This used to work, when product lifecycles lasted 10 years. But things started to change when those lifecycles, propelled mostly by the tech industry, became five years, then two, then one, then a few months.

It’s why you as a digital marketer — need to integrate innovation into the organization a process, not something you think about at the annual off-site or during some casual quarterly brainstorm.

Innovation as a process, is something Lisa Bodell explores in her compelling book, Kill the Company. Bodell’s treatise is a modern-day manifesto for companies that forgot to heed Peter Drucker’s famous advice, “better to reinvent yourself than have a competitor do it for you.” In her book, she describes a systematic way to reinvent yourself for the modern age. Bodell recognizes that this could be an overwhelming hill to climb, hence arms marketers with killer quick wins (my personal favorite is “Kill a Stupid Rule”).

When Nintendo designed its Wii game system, when Tesla introduced its electric cars, and when Apple launched its iPod, they all were swamped with orders – because they filled an unmet need through the right product.  And of course, each of these companies faced fast followers, eager to trump their value proposition.

All still lead, albeit with gaps not as wide as they once enjoyed. In an ironic twist, Bodell’s book helps you avoid the day when you discover that killing the company is the only path to survival. 



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Category: Digital Marketing Marketing Strategy     Tags:

Delivering on the Oath of Privacy

by Richard Fouts  |  April 18, 2014  |  1 Comment

Buyers and sellers agree that sharing information produces value. They also agree that consumer privacy should be protected in such an exchange. Where disagreement arises is the degree to which the parties benefit.

In a Forbes study titled “The Promise of Privacy, Respecting Consumers’ Limits While Realizing the Marketing Benefits of Big Data” 60% of sellers said their buyers (both b2b and b2b) are willing to provide personal information if they perceive value from the exchange. The figure rises to 77% when survey data is statistically sliced to focus on those sellers that are the most sophisticated in their use of customer data in marketing programs.

The picture grows a tad less enthusiastic when buyers are surveyed.

53%  of b2c customers (and 45% of b2b customers) say they are willing to provide personal information when they perceive a benefit. And – this is the finding that shouldn’t surprise anyone – 55% buyers agree with the statement “companies who track my personal information owe me some form of commensurate benefit.”

So who benefits most?  The study goes on to show three out of five consumers readily admit that it’s the seller who benefits most from the sharing of information. Not a big surprise. But do buyers care?

The study concludes with findings that show – while consumers see a slight imbalance of benefit, they remain content with the exchange. And while a small subset of consumers care a lot about privacy, what most are concerned with is security.

This finding aligns strongly with marketers’ concern that a security breach has a huge negative impact on buyer trust (not to mention impact on brand and reputation).

Hence, marketers might be well advised to tell buyers precisely how their personal information will be secured along with their privacy policy.  Actions speak louder than words.


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Category: Digital Marketing Uncategorized     Tags:

How to Tell Stories Buyers Will Remember

by Richard Fouts  |  April 9, 2014  |  Submit a Comment

By the time you read this blog post, over 12 million people will have viewed The Big Leap on YouTube. Lacoste’s ad illustrates what consumer marketers often do so well:  tell stories that tap into emotionally-filled memories. 


Memory, after all, is the crux of brand awareness

Often, you remember a brand because a marketer told you a story that was interesting enough, moving enough, or startling enough … to create a memory.  Moreover, tales that bring a strong human emotion to the surface are the ones we remember (and share) the most.

But interestingly enough, emotions aren’t feelings.

Rita Carter, author of Mapping the Mind, writes, “Emotions are not feelings at all but a set of body-rooted survival mechanisms that have evolved to turn us away from danger and propel us forward to things that may be of benefit.”

Our navigation through life’s obstacle course – filled with danger and joy – can be a wild ride. For many, a deliberate ride into danger (e.g., speeding down the freeway in our new BMW) delivers a rush, by releasing chemicals such as dopamine into our brain.

Two proven memory makers

The brilliance of Lacoste is that it simultaneously weaves us in and out of two states we are likely to remember most: joy and danger.  Lacoste marketers employs a second technique, the metaphor, to seal the deal.

Hence, our star’s dangerous leap from a skyscraper interleaves with his leap across a table to kiss a young woman for the first time. The metaphor works beautifully. Our story’s hero throws caution to the wind. His first kiss creates a magnetic field so powerful it plunges the two of them into midair. Our lead character (actor, Paul Hamy) plays the sport of life and wins. And who doesn’t remember the first time they kissed someone they were attracted to, the first time? Along with the memory of the anxiety that likely preceded it?

Marketers love metaphors. When a marketer told me how many hackers exist in the world, it didn’t really register until he said “it’s the equivalent of New York City’s population.”  

When Marketo CEO Phil Fernandez (at Marketing Nation in San Francisco this week) noted that $135 Billion will be spent on digital marketing in the US alone, he followed it with, “that’s the size of many national economies.”  That created a memory (evidenced by subsequent tweets).

Tap into a familiar memory to create a new memory 

Lacoste creates a universal metaphor we can all relate to — through one of our own, highly personal memories. But the beauty of Lacoste’s story is its emotional ying-yang. Its metaphor, that “life is a beautiful sport” illustrates how determination can trump fear. How fight can trump flight. And how the reward of joy motivates us to take on danger. After all, playing it safe doesn’t deliver nirvana. Playing it safe delivers mediocrity. In life, it’s the contrasts we remember.

So they next time you market your product through a story, try creating a new memory through a metaphor — that taps into  a familiar memory.  And remember: stories that illustrate why a difficult path to joy was worth the risk, are the ones we remember most.

And, it you check out Why Campaigns Go Viral, (Gartner subscription required) you’ll see more evidence of these techniques at work.

For a look behind the scenes of Lacoste’s Life is a Beautiful Sport, directed by Seb Edwards (with BETC Paris) and actors Paul Hamy and Anna Brewster, go here.




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Category: Brand awareness Digital Marketing Marketing communications     Tags:

When Your Competitor Delivers More for Less

by Richard Fouts  |  April 7, 2014  |  1 Comment

At the heart of value, lies the price/performance ratio, a measure of how much performance you offer for each unit of price. If you deliver more performance, at a similar or lower price than your competitor, you become the value leader. Similarly, if a competitor drops its price, with no diluation in performance, it has the opportunity to take the lead. 

Of course, price/performance can become an unending game of cat-and-mouse, as competitors one-up each other through unending twists of the price and performance levers (the wireless industry is famous for this).

Few marketers find this game fun to play. Kmart’s disastrous attempt  to overtake Walmart on price illustrates the challenge of trying to win this game on the value leader’s terms.

To effectively compete, marketers may instead downplay or even abandon some market segments.  British Airways for example, when challenged by low cost providers, easyJet and Ryanair, put more emphasis on its long-haul routes, where lower-cost players don’t compete; less on the short haul routes where they thrive.

If you’re in a British Airways type of situation, you can follow the same strategy.

This course of action doesn’t preclude you however, from competing on price.  But – if you decide to do this, do it through a subbranded, low-cost operation, but only if it makes your existing business more competitive.  Also, the new business should derive a distinct advantage through its association with your primary brand. Examples include ING (and ING Direct), Royal Bank of Scotland (Direct Line Insurance), Mercedes (C Class).  In these examples, the low-cost option was designed and launched as a moneymaker in its own right (albeit, bolstered through brand association), not just as a defensive play.

Read more about this type of strategy in Nirmalya Kumar’s HBR piece: Strategies to Fight Low Cost Rivals.

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Category: Digital Marketing     Tags:

Should You Launch an Internal Startup?

by Richard Fouts  |  April 3, 2014  |  3 Comments

Gartner expects digital business disruption to heat up over the next 2 to 3 years. If your organization’s legacy model is being aggressively challenged by nimble startups – you need to act now.

But, you can’t summarily abandon your legacy business model

….in favor of one altered for a digital world, overnight (although many stakeholders, especially board members, may apply this type of pressure). An all-out replacement may be tempting, especially if a disruption is causing losses in revenue and share. But premature abandonment is sure to dilute the value proposition you’ve taken years to build and refine.

Think of transformation as two efforts happening in parallel tracks.

The first track realigns your legacy model to an altered marketplace leveraging the value proposition that has worked for you. The second track works to develop new sources of growth through a new startup business unit or service line.

This dual-track approach was used by Xerox, the New York Times, NBC, FedEx and Nike.Launching a startup business inside a traditional business challenges old ways of doing things, but it also leverages legacy values, strengths and resources that can add value and insight to any new business,

These resources, particularly marketing, HR and product management, are readily available to support an internal startup through your existing shared services models. But keep in mind, the extra load can be stressful. Hence, leadership is the key to helping people set priorities. Most companies engaged in this dual-track approach use the CEO to drive tough decisions when resource tradeoffs must be made, causing legacy businesses to wait a bit longer for support they typically get faster.

Looks outside your industry for inspiration

My coverage of consulting firms reveals several instances where this approach is being used to generate new growth. For example, Razorfish is working with Delta Airlines, Peet’s Coffee and Audi. SapientNitro with Target, Ralph Lauren and the Boston Red Sox.

If you follow their lead, you’ll likely insist your consultant staff people that deeply understand your sector. You’re not wrong to insist this, but you also need to give consultants the freedom to reframe business problems and opportunities in completely new ways.

Be open to staffing your initiative with an expert who may have a moderate understanding of your sector, with a high degree of empathy and expertise in the piece of the value chain you want to impact; e.g., customer service, delivery, loyalty or the user experience. Immerse this person in what a satisfied customer in your business looks like versus the existing process and structure currently in place to deliver it.

For example, marketers at B2B publishing giant Thomson Reuters adopted the mindset of P&G (a company known for following its customers around stores and observing them in their kitchens) to understand precisely how brokers and bond traders use its products to make investment recommendations, resulting in several changes to how products are now developed, priced and distributed.

Conduct the “worst nightmare” exercise

….where the team imagines how a new competitor, from an adjacent market, with no legacy to manage, would challenge your existing customer value proposition. What is this new competitor providing that your existing customer base finds irresistible? What does it do faster, with more accuracy, and with more relevance due to insightful customer context? Use your imagination to craft as many scenarios as you can. Then vote on them to create a prioritized list of competitive attributes you want to instill in your own organization. Lead this exercise with one of Peter Drucker’s famous quotes, “It is cheaper and more profitable to obsolete yourself than have your competitor do it for you.”




Category: Digital Marketing Marketing Strategy Strategic Planning     Tags:

How Real is Real Time Marketing?

by Richard Fouts  |  March 26, 2014  |  5 Comments

Carl Sandburg once described a foggy day from the perspective of “a little cat” who peered through the harbor fog on its silent haunches before moving on.  A few years ago, real time marketing was like Sandburg’s cat. Its aspirational, illusive promise sounded misty and futuristic – causing a wait-and-see attitude. Meantime, our cat has been moving on, in real time, but in subtle ways that don’t always make for flashy headlines.

Why? Because using data (much of it unavailable, until now) to make decisions in real time is becoming the new norm. 

Consider the following product use cases, promoted not as real time marketing solutions, rather applications with real time attributes:

Getting instant advice from a peer. An innovative company in Salt Lake City, Needle, tracks a buyer’s shopping experience in real time; then invites another buyer to join in (who already owns the product).  The solution is careful not to disrupt those who will probably buy anyway, or those that are just passing by, rather those who are struggling to make a decision – and want to talk to a peer in real time. 

Like many innovative companies, Needle was born from the personal experience of its founder (in this case, a guy named Morgan Lynch, who needed help buying a triathlon wetsuit). After hours of scouring through forums and product reviews, Morgan realized what he really wanted was a credible peer to talk to; one that could help him decide which wetsuit would give him a competitive edge.  And Needle was born. 

Making a same-day doctor’s appointment. Former McKinsey consultant  Cyrus Moussoumi, needed immediate medical attention after returning from vacation with a painful ear infection.  Four days later he finally got in to see a doctor. The experience got him thinking that there must be a better solution for patients requiring immediate care (other than an emergency room, which is often anything but quick).  He was right. It turns out up to 20% of appointments made with physicians are cancelled.

Cyrus went on to found ZocDoc, which makes these last minute cancellations available to patients requiring same-day appointments.  Today, four million people use the service in nearly 2,000 cities.

Pitching the right product to the right buyer at the right time. Another innovative vendor, Gagein (also known as Google alerts on steroids), helps sales teams double, even triple their conversion rates using sales intelligence they gather, in real and near time. The CMO of a large retailer for example, says to the press, “Revamping our digital commerce systems will be one of our leading priorities this year.”  That intelligence goes straight to the sales team of an eCommerce vendor. And as we all know, showing up first (armed with relevant knowledge) gives any sales team an advantage.

Serving the right ad to the right buyer at the right time. Then there’s programmatic ad buying (fueled by real time bidding). This solution is akin to programmatic stock trading. In this case, ad buying happens as the result of a computational proxy bidding on behalf of humans. This is a true, real time application where ads are served up in microseconds, based on information gathered immediately. Vendors in this space, such as Rocket Fuel, [X+1], Infectious Media, MediaMath and Turn are all growing. 

Giving buyers choices, right now. Augmented Reality provider, Metaio, just released its free augmented reality browser (for Android and iOS devices) which combines GPS, image recognition, and visual search to attach digital descriptors to one’s physical environment.  Metaio is one of dozens of vendors that augments our physical world with digital information obtained in real time. 

What do these cases have in common? 

These use cases illustrate how vendors are making money from data that we never had before, or at least never had in a timely, scalable manner. Sure, that cancelled appointment was known, but only to the receptionist and the doctor. The peers we needed to advise our purchases were out there, but we had no way of finding them, let alone chat with them. 

And in all of these cases, the scenario feels so natural that it’s not promoted as a real time marketing solution, rather an application with real time attributes, that gets people what they want, when they want it.

If you’re like me, the last thing marketing needs is another adjective, mostly because such an overuse of qualifiers to describe marketing has a way of giving birth to new silos (digital, email, social, mobile, data, real time, near time – have all headlined the latest marketing strategies).  I suspect we’ll slowly drop all these adjectives some day and just get back to marketing.







Category: Digital Marketing     Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

How to Pitch a Creative Idea

by Richard Fouts  |  March 18, 2014  |  1 Comment

As marketers and salespeople we are good at generating ideas. Where we often fail is pitching them. Why does this happen?

According to University of California business professor Kimberly Elsbach, it comes from preconceived notions about us (the pitchers) and our audience (the catchers).  Elsbach says:

“Before you know it, your audience has placed you in a neat little box, defined by stereotypical biases and images of what they think you represent.”

Knowing how you’ll be stereotyped gives you a leg up in how to control the pitch.  Elsbach came to this conclusion by observing the pitches of both Hollywood screen writers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, which as it turns out  – have a lot in common.

Both are strong stereotypes – that pitch highly creative, high stakes ideas – along with requests for piles of money in order to execute the idea. Money and risk always create a drama-packed, emotional situation that has the potential to blow up if not managed. The requisite step to cooling things off, says Elsbach, is to identify which stereotype your catcher will likely place you (which allows you to play to – and control – the catcher’s expectations).

Elsbach’s research identifies three pitcher stereotypes:

The Showrunner, the seasoned business leader, combines charisma with an implementation track record to win people over. Catchers often see showrunners as good politicians that know how to sell and navigate organizations. They don’t however – expect showrunners to pitch the most creative idea possible, rather to pitch what’s workable and practical.

The Artist, often possesses the showrunner’s charisma, but is less slick and far less conformist. Artists really don’t care about implementation; they are passionate (and highly possessive) about their idea. They sell by commanding the catcher’s imagination.

The Neophyte turns youth and inexperience into a strength – to illustrate what’s really possible if we’ll just let go of old baggage.  Sure, neophytes are naïve, but they use this as a way to come off as refreshing. Unlike the artist, who fiercely identifies with the idea, the neophyte is almost detached from the idea, laying it out as a gift to anyone who wants it, using their selflessness to charm the pitcher.

Armed with this information, marketers can position their idea relative to what their audience is really looking for: a wildly new, brilliant idea that breaks old norms and convention, a great idea that will likely encounter resistance, but will use convention to succeed, or a good idea that will improve what’s already in place without threatening anyone.  

Where pitches fail is lack of alignment. For example, a Showrunner pitches an idea to a catcher that’s expecting a highly imaginative idea (something you’d get from an artist).  Artists of course, shouldn’t be used when time, money and risk mitigation are the catcher’s priorities. Neophytes are great when the catcher is looking for some fresh thinking from someone who is not invested in old norms (because they have not personally experienced them).

So, it all comes back to Walter Cronkite’s sage advice: know your audience.

Given what you know about the perceived weaknesses of these stereotypes, you can complement your pitcher with his or her opposite to fill in any gaps. There’s a lot more to Elsbach’s research, including some good scenarios of all three pitcher types – along with other insight from people who have studied creativity.

You can read a summary of her research, titled “How to Pitch a Brilliant Idea” in the Harvard Business Review. It’s a great read and will leave you with lots of ways to improve your pitch success rate.

Another great resource is a company called Second Story (now part of SapientNitro), which approaches marketing through a storytelling lens.


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Category: Digital Marketing Marketing communications Personal selling     Tags: