marketing strategies for dummies ... or for marketing VPs?
July 12, 2011 11:56 AM   Subscribe

How can I prove to my marketing VP that his approach to marketing is grossly ineffective? (I am not a marketing pro.)

I was brought on to a small credit union as copy writer/internal communications person about 6 months ago. I've been a writer/editor forever and although I have worked with my marketing departments at other companies, I am not a marketing pro. My boss is definitely a marketing pro/MBA who has been with the company 7+ years. Most of those years saw the company grow (along with the economy), but it's been limping along the past 2 years (along with the economy). I have a professional understanding as a communicator and an instinctive understanding as a consumer what works, but I do not speak marketing-ese and do not have a business background.

Here's the thing: pretty much everything my VP puts out is crap. There's no branding strategy, no online/social media presence, and everything I write ends up being cut/stripped until it's a regurgitation of what's already on the website. Our newsletter is an ugly jumble of ads and redundant website copy, each campaign is its own collection of products that bear no resemblance to anything else we've done or are doing, and he pretty much only wants me to update fb/tw when the branches are going to be closed for a holiday. He shoots down every idea anyone else ever has, never visits the branches or talks with people (except in meetings, he loves meetings), does those little neg hits to everyone no matter their position in the company. We spend a ton of money and see very little return (although he keeps pretty tight reins on the ROI numbers, so I don't know much except our retail products are really doing poorly).

Overall he doesn't seem interested in building brand awareness (which is surprising to me because whenever we go to events, people are always saying "Oh are you guys with X Credit Union downtown?" when we're actually with Y Credit Union uptown -- X Credit Union has a GREAT marketing strategy! People do think they're the only CU in town). Our CU is really committed to community development in a big way, but he doesn't seem interested in leveraging that (don't want people to think we're all about po'folks). (This award-winning community connection stuff is a huge strength IMO, and we could leverage it in a big way. It's also one of the main reasons I chose to work here.)

The dept. is him, me, and our graphics person, who is talented but has been here 3 years and he's turned down every creative idea she's had (and not acknowledged her work to others even once) so she just glumly does what she's told and dreams of moving back to the midwest. It's the weirdest marketing group I've ever encountered, kind of depressing actually.

Now he's decided he wants to get into email marketing. A good number of our members are older and it's an opt-in email list, so we could see a decent return if we do this right, but he wants me to slap together some copy that mirrors the website (but rewritten in yet a new way, of course). Gah, not more of the same! So I gently asked him what the overall strategy was for email marketing ... what does he hope to gain from it, how will he measure success, how will he want to leverage that success, etc. Got a noncommittal nonanswer in response (that's his way; I don't think he has a strategy, I think email marketing is just something else to check off on a list of products). I did get him to accept the idea that providing useful, non-salesy information would be a good way to establish us as a non-spammy email worth reading, with click-throughs to the website being a way to measure success. But I still don't know how this will tie in to any branding or specific campaigns we have.

tl;dr version, my boss is wrong about everything! I know (instinctively) how to do everything right! What can I do/say/learn/study/master in order to redirect our marketing efforts?
posted by headnsouth to Work & Money (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You're never going to convince a stupid person that they're being stupid. You have two choices here.

A> Keep your head down, keep pulling paychecks.

B> Find a different job. This isn't a fun option right now.

C> Be a squeaky wheel, be further marginalized at your job and eventually squeezed out.
posted by dunkadunc at 12:05 PM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

And by that I mean you have three choices! Aargh.
posted by dunkadunc at 12:06 PM on July 12, 2011

It's the weirdest marketing group I've ever encountered, kind of depressing actually.

Actually, it sounds like every small-business marketing department I've ever worked in. Especially the graphics position.

Anyway...You are never going to change this person. You will have to leave if you aspire to do better work. Otherwise, do as the graphics person does and churn-out the crap for the sake of a paycheck.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:09 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Who is his boss? Have you approached that person? If not, why not? That seems like the best option.

If you do it, do not frame it as "everything my VP puts out is crap." Rather, "I have some ideas for expanding and improving our efforts, and my boss does not seem to want to build on past efforts. It's awkward to have to do this, but I believe that there are ways to really help the business and I wanted to make sure that they are seriously considered."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:12 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

The hard truth is that you are never going to get your boss to say "OMG you're right! I was wrong about everything!" That frame for your interactions is a total non-starter.

I think the best you could hope for is to get him to let you develop and manage a program or project that demonstrates strategic thinking. But there would be no overarching strategy, you would always feel unsupported, and worst case this guy will view you as a threat, if he doesn't already.

In addition to the options dunkadunc identifies, I would add D>: learn everything you can, keep your head down, and start working to take over his job. Only you know whether you have the political acumen and above all patience to pull that one off.
posted by ottereroticist at 12:13 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I actually agree that your two practical choices are to suck it up or move on, but if you are planning on moving on, how about writing a detailed memo to him that spells out what you would do with your marketing plan and find a way for him to take credit for the ideas.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:14 PM on July 12, 2011

The nice thing about any kind of online marketing (email included) is the amount of data you can get out of it. You can look at details like open rates, click rates, and opt-out rates to get a good feel for the success or failure of a campaign. You can also find some online metrics so you can benchmark your rates against others.

But then again, I'm assuming having data will help your position.
posted by fremen at 12:14 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you have any other allies in the firm?
posted by brainwane at 12:27 PM on July 12, 2011

There is an art to leading from behind. In brief it's:

1. Make him believe that every good idea is his, even if they are yours.
2. Encourage every action that aligns with your ultimate goal.
3. Volunteer to act on his requests, and extend them to provide additional metrics that support success.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:32 PM on July 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

You're not going to win this fight and I say that as someone working in marketing, because that MBA and experience is going to allow him to conjure up a blizzard of buzzwords that counters anything you might say. If you want to try the battle, rely on data. Slowly start tracking what works and what doesn't (email is great for this because it's got numbers out the wazoo) and you may be able to start dragging him around to your point of view. Or start taking over programs from him (email is also good for this because it's easy to specialize in) and you'll have a way to demonstrate your approach versus his with actual evidence. You could run that social media/online component you're talking about, slowly produce better results than he is...and in all likelihood, nothing will change, but you'll gain experience running email and social media programs (both hot right now).

But you're best off learning whatever you can, maybe taking the moment to get an MBA like him, and finding another job if you want to do that level of strategic thinking.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:57 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I do think he's a smart guy, just not a communicator. I think he's coming at it from a number-crunching MBA point of view rather than a communicating with other human beings point of view. His strategies worked in the past because the economy was doing well, then the anti-big-bank sentiment tided us over during the recession. I don't think his marketing efforts had much to do with it.

What I'd really like is help learning how to speak the language of marketing so that I can make myself understood. I'm boning up on excel (I've always been the end-user of excel data, making sure it made sense to the audience, etc.; if I'm going to get into marketing strategy I need to be able to manipulate that data better), I subscribe to marketing blogs, etc. What else should I be doing? The company will pay for training to a certain extent, but I can do more on my own.

I am being careful not to step on his toes (I didn't say his newsletter looks like crap but I did point out that having a masthead might help our members recognize it as a publication rather than an advertising insert). I am the first person he's had in this position; it was an admin position before. (The graphics person is ticked off that she's had to take on more admin duties as a result. Yes I am making friends here haha.)

I am loving the comments and suggestions, please keep them coming, esp. from marketing types who can help me develop my skill set in that area.
posted by headnsouth at 1:01 PM on July 12, 2011

Best answer: If you want to start getting into analytics and numbers and whatnot, here's some reading for you.

Data-Driven Marketing: The 15 Metrics Everyone in Marketing Should Know
Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning
Analytics at Work: Smarter Decisions, Better Results
Marketing Metrics: The Definitive Guide to Measuring Marketing Performance
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:14 PM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Sounds like a classic case of the Peter Principal in action. (Or in lack of action.)

Do you have enough design skills yourself to put together a thumbnail version of a branding campaign? (Or would the graphics person help you?) Perhaps you can put together a sample of what a cohesive branding campaign looks like: newsletter, business card, flyer, web ad, etc. Lay out all your materials in a group, next to all his materials in a group, and let him see the difference. Obviously this takes some diplomacy, and you have to be prepared to just let it go if he doesn't want to do anything with it. Bonus: perhaps you can also get together a grouping of a competitors materials. Maybe there is also a way the big boss can "accidentally" be exposed to it as well.

I'm pretty diplomatic, and I've used a similar approach several times with supervisors and clients. Approach it from the standpoint of "I've been thinking about how we can freshen up our branding and make things more cohesive," as opposed to "Everything we have now sucks, and we need to change it!"

Good luck, it's a tough spot to be in. On the positive side, he did listen to you about the e-mail marketing, so there is a tiny bit of hope.
posted by The Deej at 1:17 PM on July 12, 2011

Get into the metrics side of stuff. Go in and set up link tracking and everything so that you both can review the numbers and see if his email campaign truly does fail when he sends it out. I am guessing that since he's an MBA guy, your opinion on what works and what doesn't won't matter, but the numbers will.
posted by TheBones at 1:23 PM on July 12, 2011

(This award-winning community connection stuff is a huge strength IMO, and we could leverage it in a big way. It's also one of the main reasons I chose to work here.)

This is really where you're wrong. No one wants to hear about the kind of community development loans your CU is giving out when they decide where to put their money or where to go for a car loan. So I think you're starting off on the wrong foot.

Listen to the people telling you to focus on metrics. Show how the email marketing campaign is not resulting in any tangible benefits. See if you can work on a trial branding campaigning and then see if you can show that there was a quantitative improvement because of the trial.
posted by deanc at 1:34 PM on July 12, 2011

Coremetrics and Unica, both bought by IBM, are amazing tools for exactly this. Google has google metrics. I have used all 3 successfully for multiple companies. I would suggest that you bring this up before the email campaign starts along with some research in how to use the tools and what exactly you are going to be looking at/for and how this will benefit the credit union.
posted by TheBones at 1:47 PM on July 12, 2011

Best answer: Just beware that if you attempt to take charge, you may find yourself getting blamed for the lackluster performance of the business, even if none of your ideas are being implemented. What you describe - shooting down every idea, neg hits, etc - are the qualities of an insecure manager. If he starts to see you as a threat, you'll get forced out.

Sorry to be a downer, but I've seen it happen a lot. Even to MBAs. There are reasons mediocre organizations stay mediocre, and one of those reasons is that smart, innovative people get forced out by the defenders of the status quo.
posted by jetsetlag at 1:58 PM on July 12, 2011

As a marketing person myself, I've often opined about my dislike of non-marketing people wading in to do marketing. It seems self-evident that he's not doing a good job (your account of the results speak to that), and it's a fair question (indeed, it's the question that's all too often not asked) you raise as to what his strategy is.

I'll also concede that if your background is writing and communications, you're highly trained in an area that intersects with marketing, so you're more likely to have good instincts than someone from accounting. I'm not trying to sound snooty here; the situation would be the same thing in reverse if I worked with you and I questioned your copy writing: I might see that your writing is hard to understand and full of typos and errors; what's less obvious is whether I could fix it.

Those caveats aside, my advice would be to grit your teeth and do your role. My concern for you is that you'd find yourself bumping into a corporate culture that has apparently tolerated this presumed idiot for quite a while; you might find yourself broken on the wheel of a system for no real gain. I'd put my energy into finding a better gig.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:31 PM on July 12, 2011

Best answer: Can you pull together a marketing plan (or a document outlining "strategic opportunities" as you see them) and present it directly to either your bosses boss, or to others in the company (i.e. don't let you boss block it). You could send around an "hey these are some ideas i have about marketing strategy, do any of you have feedback or would like to contribute ideas of your own?"

As a marketing strategist, i start all projects by doing "stakeholder interviews" - ie i talk to all the people who are affected by the marketing. So, product managers, operations managers, etc. Go talk to them - even informally, to seed the idea that you have ideas for change. It'll be MUCH harder for your boss to shut you down if the rest of the organisation is aware of (and eagerly awaiting) the results of your efforts.

Oh, and of course, try and make all your communications with the rest of the organisation as being "from the marketing team", so that later on your boss can claim it was a team effort. (Seems crazy unfair, but your life will be miserable if you make a concerted effort to make him look bad. Bosses always win those fights.)
posted by Kololo at 2:32 PM on July 12, 2011

Read this Praise him for anything effective he does. Be silent about things that don't work. See if he'll let you have any area that you can own, and then implement some of your own ideas, always crediting him with the vision and direction that he gives you. People get wigged about having the perfect logo, but having a consistent logo is a big deal, so try hard to implement brand consistency wherever you can. Also, try to slip in useful copy like "The uptown Credit Union with member loyalty" or whatever will help people find you.

Learn what you can from him, and be clear with him that you think he has a lot that you can learn from. If there's a tuition plan, take marketing classes, as you clearly enjoy this area.
posted by theora55 at 2:55 PM on July 12, 2011

blue_beetle has it exactly right. I've worked for a boss who was similar and in order to get anything "good" done, you essentially had to convince him that it was his idea.

It sounds like this strategy will work well with your boss.

It kind of sucks, because you don't receive credit for the things you've done, but if you want to continue to work at that particular credit union, this is probably what will work best.
posted by asnider at 4:05 PM on July 12, 2011

headnsouth: "tl;dr version, my boss is wrong about everything! I know (instinctively) how to do everything right! What can I do/say/learn/study/master in order to redirect our marketing efforts?"

The first thing to recognize is that you have a legitimate dispute, and that neither you nor your boss have a monopoly on the truth. You're eager to jump into social media and other electronic systems, but I half suspect a credit union skews computer illiterate, and competition is fierce for the "internet savvy, needs savings and lending services" demographic. Using role power is a crappy way to make decisions, but simply arguing that new and modern is better also makes a number of assumptions.

I'm going to suggest A/B experiments. The idea is that instead of arguments about rounded corners and flash animations, you infer your customer's preferences from trying two options (or more if you've got a strong quant background) and seeing which one results in more customers, happier customers, more profitable customers etc. I plan to slog through Google's Conversion University next month to try this stuff out. The concepts should work the same for email: randomly assign people into two pools, vary their treatments intentionally (different copy) and control the rest then track their results.

If you go the scientific management route, you must be prepared for two depressing possibilities:
A) the data contradicts your intuition. Depressing if you feel writing demands professional authority, instincts and intuition. But at least your customers are directing you instead of your boss.
B) the data shows nothing you do matters, no matter how wild & crazy. We both know there are many factors beyond your control. The economy is doing poorly and housing prices keep falling.
posted by pwnguin at 9:45 PM on July 12, 2011

Just beware that if you attempt to take charge, you may find yourself getting blamed for the lackluster performance of the business, even if none of your ideas are being implemented.

This times infinity.

Having ideas, even if no one does anything with them, means that everything ends up being your fault with a certain type of manager.
posted by winna at 7:25 AM on July 13, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for your input everyone. I actually ended up talking to my HR VP about this, sort of, at the tail end of an unrelated conversation. It was an overall discussion about the direction of the company and the department, and she was probing about whether I felt I was doing what I was hired to do, and whether I was happy. Very, very carefully, I talked about how it was a new position for the company and I understood it was still evolving but that I felt I could so more good if the process had a few tweaks here and there. She essentially told me to circumvent my VP and get things done. "Let me assure you, you will never get in trouble for putting the credit union first." Repeated a few different ways throughout the conversation.

Also, a restructuring is in the works and my VP will have a COO to report to, whereas up to now he hasn't had to answer to anyone. So things might change. But in the meantime I am plugging along, responding to every other team's request for products with cheer & speed, making sure they know that the marketing TEAM is happy to meet their deadlines & fulfill their requests, regardless of whether the marketing VP is.

Thanks everyone!
posted by headnsouth at 12:33 PM on July 27, 2011

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