Judging Kansas City

Let me start off by saying that I’m not one to judge…unless someone actually asks me to.

And so it was earlier this month, when I was contacted by the Kansas City Business Marketing Association (KS BMA) to help judge entries in the 2014 BMA Fountain Awards. When Marketing Duty calls, we have no choice but to say, “Of course I will!”

fountainThis was a particularly easy decision, because only last year, I’d had a rewarding stint as a judge for three categories of the national BMA B2 Awards. I anticipated an equally exciting opportunity at the Fountain Awards.

NOTE TO SELF: Before continuing, I must thank Lori for supporting my involvement, despite the short notice, and Marilee, the ED of the Colorado BMA, for recommending me. Team Larry in full force. Thank you both!

So, back to my Midwest adventure. I departed on a Thursday afternoon and arrived in Missouri, or maybe Kansas. As the BMA team shuttled me hither and yon, over state lines and back, I was geographically baffled but in very good hands. Everyone I met was amazingly nice, thoroughly professional, and always on task. In my book, the Midwestern reputation for hospitality remains firmly intact.

Starting early the next morning, I worked alongside two other judges to individually grade over 150 entries in 13 categories, from integrated campaigns to display marketing to digital marketing to live events. A few of the categories had only a single entry, which was not a guarantee of a win, while others (e.g., logos, print ads) were brimming over with submissions, requiring far more concentration to discern a winner.

After nine straight hours, we’d completed our work and selected a final “Best in Show.” Drained and numb, but pleased with my contribution, I returned to Denver late the same night. The awards will be given out on Monday, March 24.

SO, WHAT DID I LEARN?

The trick to judging so many disparate entries in often unrelated categories is to set your criteria, carefully read the submissions, and compare how closely the objectives matched the results. Some observations worth sharing:

  1. Complete the form like you mean it. If you’re going through the lengthy process of entering your campaign or logo or video, make sure to offer as much detail as possible on your submission form, because that’s the judges’ only window into your world! Strong creative means nothing without context. Be witty. Be informative. Show your passion. And if you’re vying in multiple categories, don’t reuse copy. It’s boring for the judges and shows a lack of initiative.
  2. Always measure on your objectives. In casual conversations, we three judges all expressed general frustration over entries that failed to measure or did not think creatively about measuring results. Some campaigns were spot on for their objectives but withered away on performance. We now live in an age of data-driven marketing, and if you use a URL or QR code or call to action on an ad, it’s so much easier to track results. Otherwise, why market at all?
  3. Good marketing is still hard and not common. Our mandate was to judge on four criteria: creative, production, objective / strategy and results. I read quite a few submissions that fumbled painfully on their promise in one or more of these categories. Was it lack of focus? Lack of planning? Hard to say. The best submissions were clearly those that showed a distinct understanding of the target market, enough originality to make an impression, and proven results.

The bi-state Greater Kansas City area is indeed home to a vibrant marketing community. It was a distinct honor to serve as a judge of the Fountain Awards. My thanks to the team there for the privilege of viewing so many real world marketing case studies.

Picklefest 2013

The timer just went off, signifying the wind down of my fourth annual Picklefest, the summer tradition wherein I convert tens of pounds of gherkins to sweet and dill pickles. This year I canned 22 quarts, just shy of my 2012 record of 26 quarts. Whew!

You ask: why labor away in a sweltering kitchen in the hot summer?

picklesFirst, because I can. My contacts at Miller Farms, our CSA (that’s Community Supported Agriculture, or farm share), are kind enough to give me a crate of gherkins each year. I sweeten the deal by slipping them a couple of quarts as payoff at the end of the season. Keep that between us.

Second, the task satisfies four urges: creative (honey, I made something!), technical (canning requires tools and a process), conservatory (thou shalt not waste foodstuffs), and philanthropic (pickles make great gifts). I relish the feel-good satisfaction it brings, a emotional uptick that far outlasts the nicks and burns of production.

But today, as I draw the last quarts from the steaming water bath, it dawns on me that canning is a great metaphor for marketing as well. Here are four connections:

1. Start by finding a mentor.

Botulism is never appreciated in a house gift. Proper, non-lethal canning requires that you truly understand food prep and sterilization. So seek out a pro like great aunt Betty Sue or your retro-hippie friend Paisley Windstorm. Then spend a day assisting her latest project, sponging up the “knuckles & know-how” learned through years of mistakes and success. You’ll probably even score a share of the final product. Sweeeeeet.

I’d say the same for any new marketing campaign, automation tool, or content format. The surefire path to avoiding rookie mistakes is to find that expert at or outside of work who can guide you. Suck up your pride, become the student again, and then stand on the  shoulders of giants.

2. Act as the opportunity presents itself.

Fresh produce makes the best preserves but is short lived. When it lands in your hands, you have to act quickly. At the first Picklefest, I waited too long to start canning and woke one morning to a partly moldering crate of pale green veggies. Imagine how much fun it was sorting the remaining decent gherkins from the semi-liquid white ones. Ugh.

Same goes for marketing leads. Research shows that the longer a lead sits without action, the staler it gets. Forrester Research suggests that companies that nurture leads generate 50% more sales ready leads at 33% lower cost (from the Marketo Web site). So…entice them with your newsletter, ask them to subscribe to your Tip of the Week, or send them the piece of content that advances their work. Interact and connect. Just don’t leave them sitting alone, getting old, fuzzy and unusable.

3. Document the entire process.

Unlike baking, canning requires only rudimentary equipment: a large pot, small strainers, a lifter, and lots of jars, lids and screw caps. But just as crucial is a notebook to write down your ideas, mistakes, and insights as they occur. Canning is seasonal, and without notes, you’re likely to forget the best lessons by the time the next crate appears in your kitchen a year hence.

In my experience, marketers rarely make time to document a campaign process or even perform a decent post-mortem beyond a simple ROI analysis. It may seem like overkill, but if you create and complete a standard work template, no one forgets the details and everyone benefits. Add as much color commentary as you can while you remember. Do it for yourself, your team, and those who will one day inherit your role.

4. Know your customer, even if it isn’t you.

Truth be told, I’m ambivalent about pickled foods. I prefer half sours, but I seem to be alone in this; when I survey my family and friends, they tell me they’re most passionate about other varieties. So I am not my customer, and since I can mostly for others (re: the philanthropic urge), I take time to suss out who likes the dills and who likes the sweets, who likes them whole and who likes them sliced. Then I deliver what I know they want.

Before getting too deep into marketing, always remember you must first understand the customers’ needs. My agency friends are experts at this when working with new clients. Don’t (1) fool yourself into thinking that you are the customer, or (2) make assumptions you can’t back up with data. If at any time you begin to be too confident in your assertions, stop yourself, ring a few of your best customers and reconnect with their stories and their language. Then use that knowledge – not your own preferences or predilections – to pitch your prospects.

Otherwise, you may end up with a cellar full of unwanted pickles. Which hasn’t happened to me yet.

Do You Suffer from “Vicarious Goal Fulfillment?”

A few weeks ago, the Sunday New York Times featured a fascinating article: “Why Healthy Eaters Fall for Fries.” I say fascinating because it opened my eyes to exactly why I seem to regularly sabotage my own intent for a healthy diet. Apparently, like most every other human on the planet, I am susceptible to a phenomenon referred to informally as “vicarious goal fulfillment.”

Here’s what happens: You go to a restaurant intending to make a healthy choice, say a garden salad. When you find the item on the menu, you recognize this option as desirable and healthy, and your brain delivers a blissful feeling of goal fulfillment. But…while you’re all pumped up on that wave of positive reinforcement (nice decision!), you then allow yourself to select a double cheeseburger and fries for your actual meal. Your biochemistry has duped you into justifying the worst choice.

This phenomenon of vicarious goal fulfillment (let’s call it VCF) has been verified in several recent studies where fast food restaurants attempted (vainly it seems) to offer more nutritional options. Receipts show that calorie counts and healthy menus made customers’ choices worse, not better. One scary conclusion: “health-conscious eaters are the most susceptible to picking unhealthy items when the menu also has healthy ones.”

At least now I know why, following a healthy breakfast of oatmeal with fruit, health-conscious Larry actually feels fine skipping over the veggies, brown rice, and hummus and choosing a meal of leftover mac & cheese and frozen birthday cake. I justify my bad lunch choice by having already made a good one. Thanks for nothing, VCF.

Sadly, the NYTimes article offered no solutions to vicarious goal fulfillment. Perhaps the first, best step is to simply acknowledge its existence. I wager that we can also finger VCF as responsible for other, less-than-salutary habits. Ever contemplate a refreshing jog, then end up watching “The Shawshank Redemption” for the umpteenth time? Pull out that Nabokov novel, only to find yourself watching cat videos on YouTube?

I thought so….