Marketing guru Chris Maher offers advice for getting through to customers

One Humble Message
on All Your Surfaces

By Joe Gold, Senior Editor

Chris Maher is an idea guy, a writer and producer at M2K, an interactive advertising agency in Austin, Texas. Ideas are the air he breathes for the likes of Compaq, Dell and Hoover's. One indication of the agency's success: it grew 500 percent in the past year, to achieve $10 million in billings. He maintains that there are a few simple—if not easy to implement—precepts that spell success for those who know how to use them.

Maher freely admits that he gets his ideas from customers. "When was the last time you took a customer to dinner, really take the time to get to know him?" he prods.

It's hardly a matter of diplomacy or an academic exercise. "The best integrated messages integrate with the customer's values and beliefs," Maher said. He was preaching the gospel of "humble messaging" at the recent ClickZ Integrated Marketing Conference in New York.

Everybody, internalize the message

This means you. "If everyone in the company could internalize a single, powerful message, it would be more powerful than any multi-media ad campaign," Maher said. "Build the message from the customer up, or at least from sales up. If your officially sanctioned corporate messages are saying one thing and sales another, something is wrong."

Maher sees no contradiction between a humble and a powerful message. It's not the grandiose phrase that carries power, he says, but the value that the customer can take away. He offers these tips for crafting a message that works:

-What makes that single message work is repetition, repetition, repetition, not only in ads, commercials and Web sites, but on every "surface" of the company that touches someone outside the company.

-The company is the campaign. All the surfaces of the company participate. Is the company integrated? Does it speak with the same voice?

-Your company is probably larger than you know. Audit your company's surface area. Where are the contact points? Evaluate how you can use all your company's surface areas to support your campaign. (Surface areas are every point at which the company comes in contact with someone outside the company.)

-The receptionist is the most important surface. Salespeople and executives are prominent company surfaces. Surfaces are more than public relations people; they are in purchasing, engineering, customer service and technical support.

-Don't discount the least expensive, humble surfaces like final tags on e-mail, on-hold messaging, and fax cover sheets. Are your company's surfaces consistent or disconnected? Is there one message that crosses all surfaces?

Why is having a single message so important? "Because pattern recognition is hard-wired into humans," Maher says. "In a culture of discontinuity and distraction, repetition is essential. Anything part of a discernible pattern is more powerful than something random or without context."

So pattern recognition is what gives the message power, especially when it comes at the consumer from many directions. But it doesn't take a million-dollar campaign. "Integrated marketing can be as little as 33 cents and two surfaces, a letter and a phone call," Maher said.

For example, Maher used a series of images to promote an eDay seminar in New York, Berlin, London and Paris for Internet financial analysts. Along with schoolhouse clocks showing times in New York, London and Berlin is a stopwatch labeled "Internet." The easily-translatable message appeared on brochure mailers, of course, but also on the seminar Web site, letterheads and fax cover sheets, and finally on signage at the event. It worked because it was clear and consistent, as well as tailored for its intended audience. "And if you really know your audience, the message comes automatically," he says. was on online e-commerce measurement service that featured original editorial content.
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