Be sure to make your ads sticky

In his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes three rules of epidemics–three things that cause minor curiosities to become major trends. One of these is called the “stickiness” factor.
Stickiness is what causes messages to be interesting and memorable. I’m reasonably sure most b-to-b advertisers don’t spend much time thinking about stickiness as they prepare their trade magazine ads because most trade ads are neither interesting nor memorable.

To illustrate his point about stickiness, Gladwell tells the story from the 1970s about legendary direct marketer Les Wunderman and his Columbia Record Club account. (See also “Up close, personal,” Marketing News, Feb. 15, 2005, page 15, for more information on the DM icon.) Wunderman had been handling the account, which was already the world’s largest mail-order club, for 20 years when the client decided (as clients always do) they might be missing something. They decided to hire the hottest Madison Avenue ad agency of that era, McCann Erickson, to create and place some prime-time television ads to boost awareness.

Naturally, Wunderman wasn’t thrilled to share his prize account with a competitor, nor was he convinced the McCann approach would be worth the client’s money. So he proposed a winner-take-all shootout involving regional issues of TV Guide and Parade magazines, plus regional spot TV advertising.

In McCann’s 13 markets, they would create the magazine ad and place TV spots in prime time. In Wunderman’s 13 markets, his agency would create a different magazine ad and run TV spots in dayparts they felt would be most successful, like the wee hours of the morning when their ads normally ran.
I’ll let Gladwell tell the story from here:

“The key to Wunderman’success was something he called the ‘treasure hunt.’ In every TV Guide and Parade ad, he had his art director put a little gold box in the corner of the order coupon. Then his firm wrote a series of TV commercials that told the ‘secret of the gold box.’ Viewers were told that if they could find the gold box in their issues of Parade and TV Guide, they could write in the name of any record on the Columbia list and get that record free.”

The gold box created a connection between the TV spots and the magazine ad order coupons. It made them sticky. The results were spectacular: In the McCann markets, responses were up 19.5%. In the Wunderman markets, responses were up 80%. His reward was he got to keep the account.

As I have been thinking in recent weeks about the importance of stickiness in b-to-b advertising, naturally I started looking for examples. At first, I didn’t find any, but I kept trying. I looked in obscure verticals and broad horizontals. I looked in inexpensive special interest trade pubs and very expensive thought-leader business books.

The more I looked, the more frustrating it became, because it ought to be a basic law of b-to-b advertising that you must strive to make ads interesting and memorable, read: sticky. But I’m telling you, the examples I found were few and far between.

In the May 15, 2005, issue of Marketing News (“Edgy ads generate buzz, attract customers,” page 7) I told you about a Canadian company called Peloton that created a bogus Web site called itworkersagainstwellview.com to call attention to the many ways their WellView data management system improves oil field drilling efficiencies (and reduces a company’s dependence on IT support). That was definitely interesting and sticky.

Lately, I’ve noticed a similar approach from Tokyo-based Toshiba Corp. pointing out how competitive printers rob you blind with hidden costs and inefficiencies. The ads direct you to a Web site called endthestealing.com where you can download white papers on document management and case studies on possible savings with their Encompass program.

Even big oil company Chevron Corp. based in San Ramon, Calif., perhaps trying to minimize the sting of higher gas prices, is running spreads in such prestigious publications as Fortune and BusinessWeek promoting traffic to a Web site with the URL willyoujoinus.com. While one may experience some skepticism in anticipating a visit to that Web site, you will be quickly won over by a plethora of helpful information about the current world energy situation and a robust blog of reader comments on key issues.

The only irritating thing about the Chevron site is a distracting counter on the home page that shows how many barrels of oil were consumed during your visit. It soared past a million during my brief stay.

In another business magazine I discovered an ad for DHL International Ltd., based in Plantation, Fla., offering a free 180-page handbook on global business practices called “Bridging The Culture Gap.” The ad’s headline was, “We’ll make importing from China so easy, you’ll call it the Near East.”

By itself, that headline would come off pretty empty, but combined with the handbook offer, it was a lot more believable. They even included a Business Reply Mail card to make it easier for me to order the book.

It used to be commonplace for b-to-b advertisers to offer white papers, case studies, technical bulletins and other printed pieces that helped prospective customers make informed decisions. For some reason, this is no longer the case. If you’re concerned about accountability (as most marketers are these days), being able to count “documents requested” by prospective customers is a nice metric to have.

And when you consider the ease with which we now search for information on the Internet, why wouldn’t you pay off your ad with something compelling on your Web site? It serves at least two purposes: You enhance and reinforce your selling message from the ad, and you cause them to visit the Web site, where they might discover other products and services they can use.

Stickiness should be a required trait of all business-to-business advertising programs. It’s not the final question you should ask, it’s the place where your creative brief should start.

Who knows? You might set off an epidemic of sales.