Caffeinated ideas and views on marketing communications

Marketing does not work if your operations aren’t up to the task

Marketing is not just about promotion, sales, or pricing. Marketing is also customer service and customer communication.  Marketing is about operations and logistics. In other words, can you fulfill the orders? If your operations are not working well, no amount of marketing is going to close a sale.

Where is my order?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend recommended some face masks (I am not going to give this company any other publicity, so I will refer to it as the company). She even had a promotional discount to share with me. I went to the company website, and I bought a set of three masks.

At 2:51 p.m., I got an email with my receipt.

At 3:01 p.m.  got another email confirming my order, which said there would be a one to three day processing time before shipping.

At 3:03 p.m. I got another email, this one thanking me for my order and asking me to submit a review to Facebook. Mind you, I don’t yet have the product.

At 3:05 p.m. I got an email with the subject line: “Deborah, You Forgot Your Filters!” (I didn’t forget the filters, I just chose not to order them.)

At 3:08 p.m., I got a fifth email with the subject line:  “You Forgot Your Filters.”

In the space of 15 minutes, I got FIVE emails. That’s too many.

The next day, I got two emails:

“Your Orders (sic) About To Ship Out…Don’t Forget Your Filters”


“Deborah, Your Orders (sic) About To Ship…Don’t Forget Your Filters.”

Now, I am getting very irritated. Clearly, they want me to order filters before they ship out my order, and they are not being subtle about it.

One week later, I still hadn’t gotten a shipment notification. I email the company asking where my order is. I get this email reply:

Greetings Deborah,

Thank you so much for taking the time to reach out to us 🙂

We would like to thank you for your patience and we sincerely apologize for any delays in delivering your order!

I will personally reach out to our fulfillment team and ensure that your order gets expedited and sent out for delivery ASAP.

Once your order has shipped, you will automatically receive an email containing the tracking information.

Thank you for being so patient with us, it has not gone unnoticed <3

If there is anything else we can ever help you with, please, just let us know — it would be our pleasure to serve you.


Okay. Nice enough email, but no answer to my query, “Where is my order?”

I replied telling the customer service agent that if my order was not shipping that day, I wanted it cancelled. The agent replied:

Hello Deborah,

Thank you so much for your reply and apologies for the inconvenience.

I have reached out to our fulfilment (sic) team and found that there are orders that haven’t been shipped due to courier delays affected by the pandemic. I’ve refunded your last order as requested.

Please allow 5-10 business days for the refund to be processed. Reimbursement of funds will be allocated back to the original form of payment used for purchase.

Again, we are truly sorry about the delays.

One full year into the pandemic, this company is blaming it for shipping delays!

Wow. If this were happening sometime in 2020, perhaps this excuse would ring true. Or even during the USPS breakdown in December. But in March of 2021? This is just a stupid excuse.

There are plenty of other mask providers

I got my refund, but then I went to another mask maker, where I ordered masks on Sunday, got a confirmation email (just one email, not five), and then on Tuesday, got an email saying my masks shipped. I got my new masks yesterday. No muss, no fuss. Just the way any other transaction should be. I have gotten no marketing emails. And actually, if I did get a promotional email now, I would most likely buy from this company, since I had a positive experience.

How to fail at marketing

The first company does not understand marketing.

Here’s just some of the issues:

  • Focusing on its needs or goals (in this case, selling filters), not the customer’s
  • Not delivering what it promised.
  • Blaming an external circumstance instead of taking responsibility.
  • Communicating aggressively to sell and not to service.

And how to succeed

The second company just did what anyone expects from any sales transaction: take an order and then fulfill it. It is that simple.

Bottom line

Before you blame your marketing efforts for lackluster sales, take a look at your operations. Are you fulfilling orders in a timely manner? Is customer service working well? Are you communicating any issues to your customers? Marketing can’t solve operational issues.





Success starts with being targeted

When you’re left shaking your head

The other day I got an email from someone who wanted to write a guest blog post (presumably for this website) about how to get better sleep. Do you know what I did with that email? I deleted it. Why? Because if you take even a cursory look at this blog/website, you will note that it is not about sleeping, or health, or wellness, or anything related to getting better sleep. Also of note is that I write all posts on the blog. I don’t have guest bloggers or any information on how to submit a guest blog.

A friend was telling me just the other day how she got a call about her expired car warranty. Except she doesn’t even have a car.

And then there’s the gas company that calls about your gas bill, and you don’t even have gas at your house.

It probably is spam

Yes, these are all examples of spam. We know spammers don’t have time to research and target a message that is specific to you. That is why they are spammers. They send out the same message to everyone and hope that one hits the right target.

Effective marketing is not spam. It is targeted.

The opposite of spamming is targeting. If you target your message to the right audience, you have a much better chance of success.

How do you target?

To be targeted,  you have to start with definition. You must understand exactly who needs or wants your product or service, and be able to describe those people or organizations. Once you know who you are selling to, you know your target audience. For example, if you are selling extended car warranties,  your audience is people who own cars that are out of warranty. Perhaps you can further narrow it down by how old the car is and where these people are located.

Once you’ve defined your target audience, you have to figure out where you can find this group. Where does this group go to find information?

Bottom line

Send your message to the right audience and you will be much more effective.



Wishing for better communications in 2021

Count me in as one of the many who are glad that 2020 is over. I am optimistic about the year ahead, in spite of the horrendous and deadly insurrection last week at the U.S. Capitol.

There’s a lot to look forward to this year: a new administration, worldwide COVID vaccinations, and the subsequent return to normalcy. Maybe by the end of 2021 we’ll be back to attending in-person events!

As a communicator, I thought the biggest lesson of 2020 was the need to adapt and quickly. Events went from in-person to virtual. Many workers were no longer commuting to their offices (I wonder what happened to drive time radio costs!). There was (and continues to be) a lot of stress and anxiety. Those realities impacted marketing efforts.  We saw an increase in email marketing,  on-line presentations and events, and a general toning down of advertising.

Now that we are in a new year, I have five wishes to make 2021 the year for more effective, high-impact communications.

  1. Use email marketing more effectively

At the end of the year I got bombarded with donation pleas from many nonprofits—and I  mean several in just one day. On December 31, 2020 it was particularly bad, as I got emails from each and every organization I have supported, and one organization sent me four or five emails!  And then there’s, which sends at least an email every single day—one day offering me 12% off and the next 15%. The lesson here is: Don’t overwhelm your customer or donors. Be strategic and think of your recipient. And then there’s the many small groups who are still sending all-image emails. The problem here is that unless the received downloads the images, your email appears blank.  Follow some guidelines before you send out that next email. Jill Kurtz wrote a great Email Marketing Checklist, which is worth a read.

  1. Leverage your website

Your website is your reception desk to the world. If people have questions, chances are they will check your website before they call.  It follows your website should have all the information they need. Keep it updated, especially with any COVID protocols you are following. For many, the idea of spending money to update a website in these times may be anathema. However, an outdated website will result in customer frustration and maybe even lost business.

  1. Focus your social media efforts.

This is they year to choose your social media platforms and embrace them. The truth is that you can’t effectively manage too many platforms. You won’t be able to have meaningful engagement if you have to monitor too many streams. Choose the platforms that perform best for you, where you have the most traction and/or where the majority of your audience is. Do you really need to be on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, TikTok, etc? I am not saying that you can’t try out a new outlet, but if you do, and it works well, perhaps you replace instead of adding.  And if you are using multiple platforms, create content with each platform in mind. The post you use on LinkedIn should not be the same as the one you use on Twitter.

  1. Use Zoom or Livestream more effectively.

Check out my post about this. I’ve spent too much time having to hear people explain how to use Zoom, muting/unmuting, and just plain wasting time reading lengthy presenter bios.  People are spending much more time in front of computer screens, and want you to get to the point. I can read the bio myself if you send it in an email or provide a link to it during the presentation.

  1. Copy edit and proofread all your marketing materials, including (perhaps especially) social media posts.

The other day, my local police department posted about how a driver ended up with her car on the train tracks because she used the gas pedal instead of the “breaks.” And the local weather Twitter feed told me there would be “peaks” of sun. These are very small examples, but when you make these type of mistakes, you are showing a lack of care. So, proof everything before it goes live. And say what you mean clearly and concisely, and if you need help doing so, use a copy editor!

Happy New Year 2021! Let’s work on making it better for our communications. If you have a 2021 communications wishes, share them with me in the comments.


What helps businesses thrive during COVID-19?

While many businesses, especially restaurants and small retailers, have seen their revenue drop because of COVID-19, others have thrived.

Some business failures are due to circumstance and public health regulations, such as lock down orders and capacity restrictions.  But in some cases, businesses failed because they were unable to respond to the new situation.

Not adapting to the situation:

I know  a small, local gift store carries an item I was shopping for. I went to Google and found the store has no website. According to the Google business information, this store opens weekdays at 10:00 a.m. I headed out to the store on a Wednesday around 2 p.m.  I found a handwritten note on the door listing the shop’s (reduced) hours, which said the store opens Monday through Thursday noon to 4:00 p.m. However,  the lights were off and the store was closed, and I was not able to buy what I needed.

To recap, this store has:

  • No website (and thus no way to shop online)
  • No updated Google business information
  • No social media

Making the best of the situation:

Then, because I still needed this item, I checked out a larger gift store within 10 miles of the small store. This other store does have a website, with online ordering, so I was able to determine  whether they carry what I am looking for. It also has updated its Google information, which reflects that it provides curbside pickup. I explore the website, and I find out exactly what COVID measures the store is taking (i.e., requiring masks, providing sanitizer, restricting the number of people in store, widening the aisles to allow for social distancing, and increasing the air circulation).

This second store has:

  • Updated website that includes COVID-specific information and the ability to order online
  • Updated Google business information
  • Social media, with a robust Facebook presence that includes videos and special deals.

How do businesses thrive during COVID? Here are three must-dos:

Embrace digital more than ever. Restaurants and small retailers embraced online ordering (just as the big box stores have done for years). My local library switched to an online ordering and appointments-based way to get books. Successful organizations use all types of digital presence:—social media,  websites,  Google profiles, e-newsletters, etc.—to communicate with customers, clients, or donors.  With many people choosing to stay home or working from home, the internet has become even more important.

Be aware of the situation and explain how you are responding. Do you understand how your customers feel? Are they anxious about getting the virus? Do they want to shop safely? Do they want to save money? COVID has changed the reality for everyone. You have to make changes, and more importantly, you have to make sure your customers know what you are doing to respond to the situation.

Go virtual and like it. Many organizations and businesses use events to drum up support and sales. In 2020, events went from being in person to being virtual. Using a virtual format is not the same as being in person, but to succeed, organizations need to embrace this reality and adapt to it. Churches and synagogues started using Zoom and other livestreaming software to provide religious services to their congregants. Associations moved their annual meetings to be virtual. Some stores, such as the second example above, switched their product demonstrations to platforms such as Facebook Live.

The bottom line is that to thrive during COVID, businesses have to adapt. Failure to adapt will also mean failure to thrive.

Have you seen good examples of adaptation? Please share in the comments.



Desperate times call for desperate measures?

Among the COVID economic downturn, some companies are getting desperate for business,  as I wrote in my last post.

If you are desperate for business, does this mean you should do desperate things or act in a desperate manner? In one word, the answer is no. Appearing desperate or doing desperate things will backfire, guaranteed.

Jane Doe thought that she would reach out

Take for example the case of Jane Doe (using this name to protect this person’s privacy). Jane Doe attended an online business presentation a couple of weeks ago, as did I. There was a networking component to the presentation, but I did not participate. After the event, the organizers sent a follow up email that included a list of all who attended. Several days later, I got an email from Jane Doe. This is what it said, in part:

It was great meeting you at the virtual event last week.

I am passionate about travel, having traveled to over 80 countries and 60 cruises on 5 continents. At award-winning [our company], we create amazing customized travel experiences for you, your friends, family, colleagues and clients, saving you a lot of money, time and stress, on your “ideal vacation”, all with risk-free booking guarantees!

I would like to know more about you and your business and see how we can help grow each other’s businesses. Are you open to a 15 minute phone call? What is a good day/time/phone number?

I would like to add you to our email list where you will receive travel deals and travel tips. If you do not wish to receive these emails, kindly let us know via this email address at your earliest convenience.

I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.

Right off, I am irritated by this email. First, we didn’t meet. Second, this email is not personalized.  And third, she says she will add me to her email list unless I opt out. And last, she says (twice) she needs to hear from me at my “earliest convenience.” Apparently, Jane repeated it because she meant immediately as she added me to her list and sent me a marketing email just two days later.

Jane Doe became a spammer to her email marketing company

Once I got her marketing email, I immediately unsubscribed. When asked why, I said I had never requested being on this list. That response will most likely categorize Jane Doe as a spammer, since she didn’t follow CAN-SPAM rules. People should opt in to your email, not opt out.

Is there a less desperate way?

You don’t have to take desperate or even illegal measures just because things are grim. Jane Doe could have reached out and said something like this:

Hello [name of person],

I got your name from the [event name] list, since we both attended the presentation by [presenter]. I enjoyed the presentation and wanted to reach out to attendees to introduce myself and my business.

My travel company, [name of business] specializes in customized travel experiences. For example, we recently created an unforgettable business retreat for a small company, in which we [insert salient details of special trip].

Is customized travel something you’d be interested in? If so, I’d love to chat with you. Please email me at [insert email] and we can set up a phone appointment. In the meantime, I invite you to visit my website at [insert website address and link] and view some of the many customized experiences we have created. Learn more about our other services, and take a moment to sign up for our weekly newsletter, which is chock full of travel specials and other great information. You can also click here [insert newsletter sign up] to sign up.

I look forward to staying in touch.

The bottom line and three better business tips

There’s a difference between wanting to get more business and being desperate to get new business. Here are my for non-desperate, best business and email marketing practices:

  • Don’t spam people. Know the CAN-SPAM rules and remember you need audiences to opt in, not opt out.
  • Customize outreach emails  and personalize when possible.
  • Write a compelling introductory email.  Think about your audience—what’s in it for them?





Don’t let pandemic cause pandemonium in your business practices

The pandemic has left many desperate for business. These are tough economic times and lot of people around the globe are hurting.  I get it.  But the need to grow your business  doesn’t mean you can overlook best practices. In fact, doing things in a slipshod manner may even backfire.

Do I know you?

A couple weeks ago, I started receiving emails from “Debra” with no last name and no affiliation. The subject line had something to do with yoga classes. I figured it was spam from a company that knew I had signed up for a yoga event. I kept deleting these emails.

But on Monday, the subject line said something about outdoor yoga this week. I opened the email and found it was from a yoga studio in Washington, DC. I have never attended this studio. And I don’t recall signing up for its emails. I unsubscribed because it is highly unlikely I will ever go in to Washington for a yoga class.

Email marketing best practices

1.) Introduce yourself

Bad: Adding people without permission; sending emails to a new list without introduction or buy-in.

Best practices: It’s best to requiring consent, but if you are building your email marketing list, and you have new names, always end an introductory email explaining who you are and what you want, and then ask whether those people want to be on your list. You achieve this by segmenting your list.

2.) Use your business name

Bad:  Not having a professional/identifying sender name on your emails.

Best practice: Use your business name in the return email unless you are the business, and then you should use first and last names. Think about how emails show up in your inbox. Would you open an email from someone you don’t know?

3.) Use your subject line to inform

Bad: Uninformative or vague subject lines that don’t provide any specifics or needed details.

Best practice: No need to be clever, but don’t be obtuse. Be clear as to what your email contains. If I don’t know you, your subject line has to provide enough information for me to open your email.

Bottom line:

The pandemic is no excuse for forgetting your best business practices. By letting desperation for new business lead you to doing things thoughtlessly you are bound to hurt yourself more than help yourself.


Avoid Zooming and frustrating your audience

We’ve all become Zoom pros, or have we?

Sure, we know what Zoom is, and we’ve probably used it dozens of times in the past few months, but are we really pros at it? Based on my recent experiences with Zoom presentations, I would say no.

Just yesterday, I was on two different online meetings. In the first meeting, one of the presenters was having audio difficulties (her talk was garbled). She went on for several minutes and the audience could not make out what she was saying. Then several minutes more were wasted in telling her to call in, etc. In the second meeting, somebody “forgot” to turn off his/her mic and we could hear cooking sounds in the background, and then chewing as this person settled down with the dinner he/she had prepared. It was immensely distracting and annoying.

Wasting time and making it hard to hear a speaker adds up to audience frustration.  So, if your organization uses online video conferencing to engage with your audience/conduct meetings/host events, it is time to lay out some ground rules so that you can avoid chaos and a have a smooth online experience.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Select the correct online video conferencing provider and package

Although Zoom has become the most popular platform, there are other video conferencing providers, including GotoMeeting, Webex and others. Read more about the best alternatives to Zoom in ZDNet and Wired. 

To select the proper platform, you’ll need to determine what will suit your needs best. Questions to ask yourself include:

  • What will you be using the videoconferencing for? Staff meetings, presentations, online conferences
  • What functionality do you need? Recording capability, audience interaction, question and answer, breakout sessions, ability to share screens/videos/slides, etc.
  • What’s your budget?

Map out your online event.

Your meeting or presentation should be planned out, with time allocating to each participant/speaker, and with a written agenda if possible. Mapping out how an event will go, will make it easier to keep it on track.

But, build in time and plan for technical difficulties

There will be glitches. Your presenter may not have strong enough internet signal, or the provider could be experiencing problems. Know beforehand what you will do if a presenter can’t log on, or the video software is not working. Have a Plan B, which could include a reschedule date, alternative presenter, alternative software, etc.

Have a moderator and make sure he or she sets up ground rules

Do not start any meeting or presentation without making sure everybody is following some ground rules. Perhaps everybody’s mic is muted, or everybody’s video is on (or off).  Tell your audience who to contact if there are technical difficulties, and how. Make sure to let people know if you are recording, and when/whether the recording will be available.  If this event is public, you could sent participants an email explaining the ground rules, and also make sure your moderator repeats them at the beginning of the event.

Understand Zoom fatigue is real

Online video conferencing has been a godsend, but it is not the same as an in-person event. When we’ve convened people in person, we probably have given them comfy seats, or provided snacks and drinks, and time to schmooze. But when we present online, people are sitting where they always have,  in an environment that is probably the same day after day. Dispense with the long introductions, and the long lists of thank yous. Send those in an email. Get to the point. People have limited patience for you.

The bottom line

Cut down the distractions, and make the screen time worthwhile for your audience.



Are you asking the right questions?

No doubt, you’ve heard that Congress is looking into  new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s handling of the USPS. In the last few weeks since DeJoy took his post, the mail has slowed down, sorting machines have been removed and the post office has told the states to be aware of these issues in planning for mail-in ballots. DeJoy was asked to appear before the Senate on Friday, and the House on Monday.

Representative Katie Porter is very good at asking questions

On Monday, Representative Katie Porter (D-CA), used her questioning skills to establish just how little DeJoy knows about the agency that he is leading.  Rep. Porter asked DeJoy if he knew the cost of postcard stamp (he didn’t) or how many people vote by mail (he didn’t). You can read more about it in this Rolling Stone article or  this one in Vox.

Rep. Porter knew what information she wanted to obtain from DeJoy to expose how unqualified he is to lead this agency, let alone reform it, and she asked the right questions to get what she wanted.

Asking the right questions is crucial to getting what you want.

If you ask the wrong questions or not enough questions, you are not going to get the information you need.

Over the weekend, I reviewed a promotional  article for a small nonprofit. The article was long and did not get to the point until the last paragraph. I re-organized the paragraphs, and added some crucial information. The nonprofit hadn’t known enough to ask the right questions.

What questions do you need answers to?

When you are writing any communication materials, you need to ask the right questions. These include:

  • Who is the intended audience for this piece?
  • What do I want the audience to know?
  • What does the audience need to know in order to act?
  • What is the most relevant information that I need to communicate?

If you don’t ask these questions, you are not going to produce the right information or what you produce is not going to be effective.

Bottom line: To produce effective communications, you must start with asking yourself the right questions.




Yes, there’s still value in blogging

It’s been a while

I haven’t written a blog post in months. It’s been hard to concentrate, and it’s been even harder to find something to talk about when we are all consumed by the pandemic and its effects. But this morning I got a comment on a blog post I wrote well over a year ago. The post was about bad email marketing practices, and the comment came from Eddie in New Zealand, who’d been targeted by the same spam marketer I referenced in the post. Eddie wanted to share his similar experience, and how he dealt with it. I assume he did a search about that particular spammer, and found my post, and then found the post to be relevant to him.

So thanks Eddie, for sharing your thoughts, but also for giving me an idea for a new blog post: the value of blogging.

Blogging = being found

Blogging consistently about the stuff you know best results in your website (and, by extension, you or your organization) being found when someone is looking for information on a specific topic. This is the theory behind inbound marketing.

Why I blog

I have been writing this blog for nearly twelve years  for two main reasons:

  • It provides an outlet for my thoughts on marketing communications
  • It helps me to be found (and may lead to business)

Two things you absolutely must have to be found

Writing a blog is one of the most effective ways to boost your ability to be found, and to establish your particular expertise. There’s almost no need for tinkering with your SEO if you are writing about you know, using appropriate tags, and including specific keywords.  However, to really reap the benefits of blogging, you have to fulfill two things:

  1. House your blog on your own website. Do not outsource it to Medium or any other third party.
  2. Write what you know, and/or what you think (in other words, be original and authentic by providing something from your own perspective and experience).

Bottom line:

If you’ve ever doubted the value of having a blog, don’t.


What works and what doesn’t in our COVID-19 times

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post has been updated to reflect AP Stylebook guidance on how to write COVID-19.

Marketing and communications go on, but as discussed in the last blog post, not everything is the same in the world where COVID-19 has sickened many, scared more, and generally, upended what we consider normality. That said, some marketing works better than others.

Let’s start with what doesn’t work.

Here’s an email that I received from a real estate agent (someone I met at a networking event and added me to her list without my express consent, but that is another story).


Your health and safety are important to me. That’s why I’m reaching out to let you know that we’re doing what we can to provide the best service possible during this time, and that means being here for you.

Please reach out with any questions that you may have, or if I can be helpful in any way.

We will get through this together.

If you want to keep up to date on COVID-19, visit the CDC’s website.

Stay well,


Why is this so bad? First, the sender claims that my health and safety are important, but provides no specifics about what she is doing. Second, she is placing the onus on me to contact her. And third, she says I can visit the CDC website, and she doesn’t even provide a link in her email. To me, this email shows that this real estate agent does not have any type of communication strategy or understanding, and to make matter worse, she doesn’t know  how to use communication tools effectively.

What does work?

1. Specificity and relevance

What is your company or organization doing specifically because of or in response to COVID-19.

This full page ad from LIDL is exactly right: it tells you what specific actions its stores are taking to deal with the virus and the associated issues.

2. Segmentation

If you have an email marketing strategy, it should include the ability to segment your list into different audience types. The idea is to not send the same email to everybody on your list, but to be more targeted. For example, Boston University (where I went to grad school) keeps sending me updates, including updates about campus being closed. Well, as an alum, this is not exactly relevant to me. I am not a parent of a student or a student, so why do I need multiple emails about campus operations?

3. News/real updates

I got an email from a local bookstore that tells me that it has established a partnership with a national service in order to be able to deliver nationwide. That’s news. On the other hand, Delta has sent me the same version of an email regarding how its handling COVID-19. Nothing new, no reason to keep sending me the same email. If Delta were to add or delete flights or routes, then yes, tell me.  But telling me its hard on Delta’s bottom line, over and over, is really self-serving, which brings me to the next point.

4. Audience-centered

What does your audience need or want right now? My undergrad university, Brandeis, did something really smart. Brandeis figured out that its audience is probably getting a bit bored being inside, so it sent out an email with suggestions for movies and television shows to watch, all featuring an alumni connection. There was no other reason for the email but to provide some relief to its audience. That is how you put your audience first.

What have you seen that works and that doesn’t work? Please share in the comments.






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