When a comedy of errors doesn’t get the laughs

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When a comedy of errors doesn’t get the laughs

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Vice President

Recently, I received an invitation from an executive I know to attend a breakfast briefing co-sponsored by his company (I’ll call it Company A) and Company B. As the topic was relevant, and with “By Invitation Only” appearing prominently in the header, I registered, then notified the Company A executive that I would attend. He replied that he would see me there.

The next morning I received an email headed “Registration Pending”. It came from Company B. Reading it I learned that my registration was not on hold because the event was full. Rather, Company B was targeting a particular profile (not mine) and holding places open until it had first heard from everyone in that target group. If those seats could not be filled, I would be notified and could attend.

Would you like to go to the prom (maybe)?

Bemused and amazed at the audacity of the email, I replied that this was like Sally accepting Bill’s invitation to the prom, then being told by Bill not to buy a gown yet as he was still waiting to hear if Judy would accompany him instead. It’s hard to imagine Sally being amused.

I quickly received an apology for “the misunderstanding” in another email that effectively offered that if Judy did not accept the invitation within 72 hours of the prom, then Sally could definitely attend the prom.

It might have been funny if it were not so sad

I shot an email off to Company A’s executive to let him know how “Bill” was handling those “By Invitation Only” offers he had made. He was grateful, annoyed and embarrassed. I could only imagine whom else Company A had specially invited, only to have Company B tell them to wait patiently by the phone along with the rest of the Sally’s.

Company B saw a chagrined Sally as the price of doing business (I doubt it even knew whom Company A had invited) – a price it was prepared to pay rather than the price of having a second-tier prospect munching on ham and eggs at its (partial) expense.

Yet, as I told the Company A executive, each and every Sally receiving such an email will remember one thing for certain: the name of the company that extended the back-handed invitation. That carries a price far greater than that of ham and eggs.

Through a comedy of errors, I can imagine a few of Company A’s clients finding the episode off-putting. That is a negative and very real ROI that is unlikely to show up in the post-event stats.

Great marketing is hard to do, but …

I have been in marketing most of my life, managing campaigns in all parts of the world. Delivering a great marketing program in one satisfying stroke that pays off splendidly is hard to do. Really hard. The arrow only seldom finds the center of the bull’s eye.

Yet, as much effort and pristine execution that might go into crafting great marketing, it requires little effort – and only a little common sense – to avoid doing silly and at times damaging marketing.

Though Nordstrom targets a particular buyer profile, the retailer does not post lookouts by the door to steer suspected Sam’s Club cardholders towards the Walmart down the street. Nor does Tiffany’s ask if you carry a Platinum American Express Card, suspecting you might be better off shopping at Zales.

One of the truisms of marketing is that, no matter how deftly a target is defined, nor how well-directed and well-executed the marketing towards that target it aimed, there are potential buyers – all of whom lie outside the target market profile – who will be attracted by the message. They will window shop. They may buy. Some will eventually become loyal, repeat customers.

As an uncle once said …

“Smile whenever people come through the door; you never know what they carry inside their wallets and purses.”

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Written by Michael

Michael Douglas has held senior positions in sales, marketing and general management since 1980, and spent 20 years at Sun Microsystems, most recently as VP, Global Marketing. His experience includes start-ups, mid-market and enterprises. He's currently VP Enterprise Go-to-Market for NVIDIA.

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