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The Story

July 2011

“The customer’s viewpoint on Marketing and Selling” 

We visited the Marketing Live trade exhibition and seminars at Olympia, and as usual at exhibitions, found numerous examples of the difficulty marketers and sales people have in seeing their communications from the customer’s perspective. We saw, and heard, a series of ‘obvious’ communications errors, even by the ‘experts’ in marketing. But none of the exhibitors were aware of these errors, until we pointed them out.

This Story runs through a few of these errors and delusions to highlight the need for (and value of) Communications Quality Assurance. Methodical, objective pre-testing of communications by someone who has no involvement with either the communication or the communicating organisation.

Key points of the Story

Communications Errors everywhere we looked and listened

We visited the Marketing Live exhibition at Olympia that showcased services to the marketing industry. Our aim was to see if we had any competitors for one of our services, AdQA Communications Quality Assurance. However, the experience demonstrated yet again our theory that nobody can test the effectiveness of their own communications, even those directly involved in marketing and selling.

We found literally dozens of ‘obvious’ (to us) communications errors that could easily have been avoided by objective analysis from the customer’s perspective. From the visitor registration form, to stand designs, brochures, presentations, selling, business cards, even the messages on plastic bags. We saw and heard simple errors that would seriously affect the effectiveness of communications – even by marketing experts (ad agencies and the Chartered Institute of Marketing).

95% of delegates were worried about their marketing

One seminar speaker asked delegates to raise their hands if they were concerned about their marketing. To our surprise, virtually everybody put their hands up, about 150 marketers. And this, despite legions of focus group test services on the market. This, we believe, lends much weight to our claim that conventional pre-testing is highly unreliable. See end of this Story.


Analysis and Lessons

Even experts make simple comms errors …
Three classic delusions by communicators …
Barrett’s Law of Subjectivity … Perceptions of Meaning … ‘Walk by’ Test

The Visitor Registration Form 

This is almost a standard form, yet somehow the organisers ‘forgot’ to include two key bits of data: the visitor’s company name and job title. An amazing ‘glaring’ error that nobody spotted. Except, of course, the ladies who enter the details and print out the badges. Too late to make changes.
Highly embarrassing. “Sorry, how do you spell that?”

Brochure designed NOT to be read

One brochure particularly caught our attention (solely because we are communications analysts). Its front and back covers were totally black. Even the barely-visible text was black, a very slightly different shade of black. At an exhibition, very few normal customers would have bothered to pick this up and look at it.

We flicked through the pages and were struck by another ‘obvious’ error. On one set of pages the text was all white, reversed-out, on a highly textured photographic image background. The net effect was that anyone attempting to read the text would have suffered severe eye-strain in seconds.

To cap it all, we realised that this brochure was intended to showcase the work of designers in brand communications. Experts in design!!!

 Inexpert Presentations, even by experts

We attended two presentations. In one, one of the speakers shocked us by reading his speech from notes – a cardinal sin. Even if you are asked to make a presentation in a hurry it is preferable to improvise at least some of the time rather than just read out a script.

In the other, the slides shown by the Chartered Institute of Marketing had large sections of text that would be readable only by the front third of the audience. The speaker said “I hope everybody can see these slides” but of course nobody said anything. This is a classic communications error, by experts in communications.

Another simple error: in both presentations there were no signs indicating the title of the talks near the podiums. The result was that people came in late, sat near the front, then after a few minutes some realised they’d got the wrong room and got up and left. Very disturbing for all. Simply fixed.

Even Ad Agency experts made mistakes


One ad agency stand had the clever idea of offering free advice. Unfortunately this led to their sales staff being tied up too long with a small number of (possibly) potential customers, and missing others who found no sales staff available. We waited a while but gave up. There were no promotional materials available either.

This idea may sound good, and no doubt produced some new business, but in general the purpose of an exhibition is to attract as many new (qualified) leads as possible. The selling can be done later.

One Ad Agency stand was hard to find

We looked for another ad agency listed but somehow its stand was missed off the ‘Floor Plan’. We were told roughly where the stand was located, but realised later that we had walked passed it without seeing it. When we did find the stand we realised why we’d missed it. The company name was in the same style as the other text – it didn’t stand out.

But, more importantly, the name was only noticeable to visitors walking in one direction. The name was only on one wall of a corner stand. This is another classic error – by communications experts. Again, no marketing material.

 The “Everybody knows us” delusion

The messages on a stand for a market research company comprised the company name and very little else we recall. It had no meaningful marketing materials. We stopped to point out that new potential customers would see no ‘answers’ to their core customer questions such as “What’s being sold, by whom …?” The response was “Oh, if people don’t know who we are then they are of no interest to us.”

This is a classic delusion. One of the key reasons to have a stand at an exhibition is to attract new potential customers, and at least to develop awareness of your brand in the minds of future potential customers. This stand design did neither.

 “Er, what are you selling?”


Yet another stand failed this basic customer question test. We stood in the aisle and examined all the numerous messages on the walls for about two minutes. We could not work out what was being sold. Plenty of obscure features and ‘benefits’, but without knowing what the product/service was these words had no context, and therefore no meaning for visitors. Most potential customers would have walked on by.

We asked one of their salesmen this simple, core question “What are you selling?” It took him a full 10 minutes before we grasped the basic answer. Nine minutes of peripheral explanation which had little ‘meaning’ until we found out the core product. We were able to encapsulate his ‘explanation’ into a few short phrases that would take less than a minute to say. They should also be the main message on his stand. 

 More classic delusions

On average, about 20% to 25% of stands we see fail these core customer questions. When we stop and tell sales staff that we can’t see what they are selling the most common responses we get are either: “But surely, it is obvious?” or “Well that’s why we are here, to tell you.”  

And most business people mistakenly believe that their business card says it all. These classic delusions are explored below. 

 Barrett’s Law of Subjectivity

The first ‘delusion’ highlights a law we propounded, Barrett’s Law of Subjectivity: “Nobody can judge the effectiveness of their own communications; they’re too involved to be objective.” What seems perfectly clear to the communicator might be virtually meaningless to the target. The reason is simple: the communicator puts a specific meaning to his/her words and images, but the target may take a completely different meaning to that intended.

Gerald Ratner’s infamous speech to the IoD where he ‘joked’ about the ‘crap’ quality of his decanters is one of the most expensive outcomes of this Law. But we see examples every day of this delusion. And most people are convinced they are right about their meaning: “It means what I say it means …” 

 “We’re here to tell you”


 This delusion is the amazingly arrogant presumption that, even if potential customers are too stupid to understand ‘what’s being sold’, the stand design is so appealing or intriguing that customers will stop and ask this basic question. In reality, most potential customers have very little spare time. They will just walk on by any stand where they can’t see the ‘answers’ to their core questions in the time it takes to stroll by (about 5 -10 seconds).

‘Walk by’ is one of our key Effective Communication Tests for exhibitions. Unless you have ultra-active showman-salespeople this is a very risky strategy.

The Business Card delusion


 How many times have you picked up a pile of business cards you’ve collected and realise you have forgotten why you had many of them? You’ll probably dump most. The reason is that most business cards are designed without any thought that they are key marketing communications. They should be very clear about “What’s being sold, by whom.” Most cards fail this basic test, and their owners never realise.

 World’s first Comms QA system, AdQA


We believe that we have developed the world’s first rigorous Quality Assurance system for pre-testing, and improving, the effectiveness of communications. Several market research companies exhibited at the Insight section of Marketing Live. However, they all rely on focus groups, or groups of individual customers responding online, to a wide variety of questions posed by researchers in a formalised, non-realistic, environment.

We contend that these methods are useful but highly unreliable, and we have a veritable library of communications errors to prove it – even down to (mis)testing a two-word slogan for a major corporation. After launch, real customers took a ‘wrong’ meaning and the slogan had to be dropped at a cost of over £3million.

 As seen from the Customer's Viewpoint

 Our system, called AdQA, is based on analysing what makes a communication effective (or not) as seen from the customer’s perspective. It follows the same basic principles of any Quality Assurance system, but applied to communications. It asks basic QA questions such as “What is the purpose of this communication?” and “How is this achieved?”, but in much more detail. It does this by applying a rigorous set of customer’s buying questions and effective-communication tests.
See "Create, Pre-Test, or Improve your Communications and Selling with AdQA"

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