Amanda Fucking Palmer monogramMy friend Jay Wallus forwarded the link to this great commencement speech given by Amanda Palmer (of the Dresden Dolls) to the graduating students this year at the New England Institute of Art in Boston. Those of you who work in any kind of creative field will recognize what she is talking about.

I love the idea that creative people figure it out as they go along, without knowing what the end result will be when they start. Amanda talks about having the courage to move forward anyway. Great stuff.


You can also read the transcript of the speech here.

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I am a big fan of direct mail, when it is done right. That’s often easier said than done. Here’s one I got from a company selling their direct mail/integrated marketing services, and they did everything pretty well except one thing.

That one thing killed their credibility as a direct mail services provider. Let’s take a look (click on the image for a larger version).

Can you find the mistake in this direct mail piece?

1.) An unexpected image with a relevant tag line. Good for creating interest. Nice job.

2.) A clear call to action with a nice incentive (iPad giveaway!). Nice job.

3.) A PURL, or personalized URL, designed to integrate print media with an online experience. The URL “” reinforces the theme. It all ties in with their message of creating cross-platform communications. Nice job.

4.) The text here is pretty generic, with no real compelling story to get people to act. It doesn’t answer the reader’s question, “What’s in it for me?” (other than Free iPad!) Meh.

5.) A QR Code provides a way for the reader to opt in via their smartphone – also a good tie-in with their message of cross platform communications. Nice job.

6.) A First Class Mail permit. If you are investing money in a cross platform mailing like this, you don’t want to skimp on standard mail postage when up to 10% of your mailing list might not ever receive your offer. Nice job.

7.) Uh, oh. This is my old office address. I moved from there five months ago, and this company has quoted projects for me since then. Someone hasn’t kept the data base up to date. Not good.

8.) A follow up reminder of the call to action, along with an expiration date to encourage action sooner. Nice job.

9.) Repeating the PURL to make sure I remember how to opt in. But wait, go back and look at #3 more closely.  BIG FAIL!!!!!

For a company to spent several thousand dollars on production, photography, data integration, URL purchases, website development and postage to tell the world how great they are at direct mail services, and then have them botch matching the name from one location to another is deadly to their message.

I don’t mean to pick on this specific company, and I blurred out the name intentionally. They are the mailing division of a printer I like a lot. I met their sales manager in 1981. I once slept overnight on the couch in their customer lounge during an extended press OK, and then had a beer with the 3rd shift pressmen at 7 am after they quit work for the night. Great bunch of guys.

Learning from your direct mail mistakes

The truth is, mistakes happen, even to really good companies. They probably weren’t as careful checking their own promotion as they would for their clients. Ironically, the “only doing half the job” theme describes what they did to themselves.

But companies can’t afford to waste time and resources. I bet if they had an outside resource do this for them, this mistake never would have happened. Ouch.

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What I learned about marketing from Sesame StreetRunning a business can really put my multitasking skills to the test. Nowhere does this become more evident than when I am engaging in social media, writing my blog or planning my next direct mail campaign.

I was reminded of this when a friend posted this video to his facebook page. It’s a classic from 1986, and it includes some of the things I always loved best about Sesame Street – engaging characters, good music and surprise guest appearances by famous people. Sorry, but Katy Perry is not in this one, although it does include John Candy, PeeWee Herman, Jeremy Irons and Danny Devito (you can read the entire list here).

The idea that Ernie has to stop doing one thing if he wants to do another thing well is the also true in creating effective marketing. You have to focus on it, and not just throw out any idea you think sounds good.

Here’s a short checklist for building your marketing program:

  • Understand who is your target audience and where to find them
  • Figure out how what you offer benefits THEM and why they would want it
  • Determine your goal for each campaign and focus on the elements to achieve it
  • Engage through multiple channels where your audience can opt-in to your message
  • Craft well-written communications.
  • For visually oriented materials, use clear and attractive design
  • For printed materials, use quality production processes
  • For promotional products, only use items that reinforce your brand or message
  • For distribution, use the digital and physical channels that meet your strategic goals

It’s one thing to have a checklist. It’s another thing entirely to do all those things well by yourself. To be truly effective, you have to figure which of the items in the checklist you do really well, and then delegate the rest to people that do them better than you.

Thirty years ago I had aspirations of being a graphic designer. Fortunately, I realized I was actually not very good at it because I seemed to lack the right creativity gene. Instead, my career evolved into becoming an idea translator for people with creative ideas, producing physical products out of their vision. That’s what I do best.

As a business owner and marketer, I have to remember that there are other people who are better at items on the checklist than me. It means letting go of some of these tasks, so that I can focus on the things that I do really well.

I have to put down the duckie.

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The Millcraft Company and International Paper have put together a video on the value of paper-based marketing, and compares the environmental impact of printed vs. digital communications. They also have a companion website at

There are plenty of facts they didn’t include, but the underlying message is that print remains an effective and environmentally sustainable media. Printing is not dead.

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Earth from spaceSophwell works with companies to create tangible products from creative ideas. Much of what we do is print related. I’ve been in printing for a few decades now, and I have overseen production of millions and millions of printed pieces.

I sometimes struggle with the idea that what I do is wasteful and that it contributes to the mountains of garbage Americans produce. I have long been concerned about the environment, illustrated by the newspaper clipping below from 1971 when I helped coordinate a school-wide Earth Day project (cue the snarky remarks about the hair).

From the New Bedford Standard Times: ORR High Schools plans community clean up in Mattapoisett, Marion and Rochester

I'm not new to this sustainability thing (from 1971)

I still am working to reduce waste. Tangible products are critical components of a marketing and communications strategy. I work with clients to minimize production of materials that are wasteful or ineffective. Here are a few of the common guidelines I recommend.

Know your audience
Your promotion is junk mail to people who aren’t interested. Somehow I got on the list for a medical supply company who’s catalog gets tossed into my recycling bin. I’m convinced that this wasteful practice is the reason direct marketers often get a 1-2% response rate.

Make sure you know your database before you send out that expensive catalog. Reach out first with a postcard or some other cross-media campaign that gets them to opt in to your marketing program. They’ll tell you what they want, and it will reduce waste.

Ear-shaped foam stress reliever

I picked up this foam stress reliever from a printer's trade show booth. The picture does not relay the creepiness factor.

Don’t produce junk
Promotional products can be a highly effective component of marketing and incentive programs, but most people do it wrong. They are the equivalent of the lazy direct mailers, giving out 100 cheap pens at trade shows when only 1-2% of people are actually prospective customers. And trust me, that $.29 pen will dry up and get tossed (or worse, leak!) within the month. What does that say about your brand?

Identify your target prospect before the show. Offer a much nicer item, but only to people who give you permission to follow up later. They will keep a nicer product much longer (extending your campaign lifespan) while opting in to hearing your marketing message. Please, no more cheesy-shaped stress relievers.

Design efficiently
Printers buy paper in standardized sheet sizes that correspond to established press sizes. Understanding those sheet sizes allows graphic designers to lay out pages for ideal utilization.

For example, when a printed page has a bleed (where the image extends to the edge of the page), it typically requires an added 1/8″ of paper that needs to be trimmed and discarded. This sometimes means that the printer has to buy a larger sheet to fit your design. Talk to your print provider on how to design for more less waste. It will usually save money, too.

Don’t make the logo bigger
With promotional product or apparel giveaways, there’s a temptation to make the logo as large as possible. You’re paying to have your name there, right? Why not have it big enough for everyone to see.

Unless your brand is one that people closely identify with, your “Super-Size Me” plan probably won’t work. Oversized calendars end up rolled up in a closet instead of on a cubicle wall where real estate is sparse. The “XYZ COMPANY 2005 SUMMER OUTING” screen printed shirt only comes out when it’s time to mow the lawn. And by all means, do not put a date on a piece of clothing. (“I saw Jen wearing a 4-year-old T shirt. Eww.”)

Produce what you need
Does your business have stacks of printed materials from that giant press run three years ago that seemed to make sense since the unit cost was so much lower? Fine, except now you’re too embarrassed to hand one of these outdated, dusty and yellowed folders to a client. This common practice actually increased your unit cost for the pieces used when you factor in the worthless value of the ones in the recycling bin.

The high quality and efficiency of digital printing and smaller offset presses has negated the “more is cheaper” argument. Instead, print what you can use over the next 6 months. If you run out, print more (and fix the typo you missed last time). Consider setting up an on-demand program with your supplier that allows you to quickly reorder the latest materials through an online portal.

Use sustainable materials
A company that wanted to present themselves as environmentally friendly recently asked me to quote on producing packaging with film lamination. The problem is that film laminated paper can’t be recycled, and there’s only one brand that can even be composted.

Work with someone knowledgeable to advise you (or do the research yourself) on the source materials and recycleability of the products you select. Paper comes from a renewable resource, and paper fiber can be reused several times before degrading completely. Many fleece and microfiber apparel products come from recycled soda bottles. New plastics are being made from biodegradable corn starch. The products are out there, often at comparable prices to the less eco-friendly alternatives.

Work with someone you trust
Where do your products come from? Is that water bottle made with BPA, a plastic additive that mimics a female hormone in the body and is being investigated by the FDA? Are there toxic inks on that coffee mug from China that could get your company big fines in California under Proposition 65?

Make sure you express your environmental concerns to your supplier in a way they understand that it’s important to you. With so many Fortune 500 businesses now promoting sustainable practices, you don’t have to worry about coming off like a granola-eating tree-hugger (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Many printers have gone through an extensive certification process with the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) or SFI (Strategic Forest Initiative) to help clients maintain sustainable practices. Large promotional product manufacturers like Bic are also implementing their own programs, even when some of them have not had the best records on this in the past.

It may seem daunting to add sustainable criteria to an already overburdened marketing manager’s tasks, but all it really takes is developing an understanding with your suppliers that sustainability matters to you. The good ones will be on your side. The bad ones, well, you know what to do with those.

What have you done to promote sustainability? I welcome your comments below.

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Your printer is looking for answers

Your printer is looking for answers

1. How many do you need?

Why it’s important: Printers estimate production costs based on the equipment they have. Knowing the quantity determines which press to use, how much paper to buy and how long your project will take to print. It also helps them decide whether it fits their equipment, and whether they should turn down your print job or accept it but have it done elsewhere. (Virtually every printer brokers out work to other companies when they don’t have the equipment to do the job.) If it’s a 500 piece postcard printing, it may be too small for them to print economically. (more…)

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This project was a handful (photo by Thomas Duane)

This project was a handful (photo by Thomas Duane)

Sometimes I get to create something that’s never been done before. That was the case when the founder of marketing communications firm Neohatch Thomas Duane, along with sports and event marketing agency Woolf Associates, asked me to help produce a 32-page, 32″ wide by 20″ tall flip book for their client FlippSports.

A flip book has pages bound together with slightly different sequential images on each page. As you flip the pages quickly, the images animate and move. FlippSports created a series of these palm-sized books highlighting plays by famous baseball players to sell as collectibles – sort of like a baseball card on steroids.

Photo by Thomas Duane

Photo by Thomas Duane

Woolf Associates, at that point a division of advertising giant Arnold & Company, had lots of experience creating product tie-ins with sports events and stars, including Flutie Flakes cereal. Neohatch also had it’s share of experience with sports marketing, guiding projects like a partnership between Campbell’s Soup and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, as well as creating a branding strategy for WBA Heavyweight Champion John Ruiz.  The goal for the giant flip book was to create excitement about the small products by getting the big one listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.


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Postage rates went up for most types of mail in May. Here are charts outlining the new pricing.


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embroidered hatSewing designs into cloth using colored thread dates back over 2,500 years, and it is still popular today. Putting your logo on apparel is one of the best things you can do to promote your organization.

Using embroidered clothing for promotion is called physical advertising. Attractive designs on quality apparel promotes your brand wherever it gets worn, often for years into the future. This is true whether you are giving an item away as a promotion, providing team uniforms or reselling at retail.

Below are two videos showing a visual explanation of the process. (more…)

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Easter eggs in their native habitat

Easter eggs in their native habitat

Happy National Egg Salad Day. This holiday traditionally falls on the day after Easter, when your beautifully decorated Easter eggs have suddenly morphed from being an example of amazing creativity into a food product with an expiration date.

Here are a couple of eggs we decorated at our house that I wanted to share (artistic shout outs to Maeve Bradley and Jesse Bradley). We are no longer satisfied with using dies and stickers. For these pieces we cut out shapes with X-Acto knives and hand painted details with fine brushes.

To get the Sophwell logo, I printed out the logo on a label, stuck it to the egg, and then cut around each letter, I dipped it in the dye, dried it and pealed off the remaining label (click on the photo for a larger version to see more detail).

Now that Easter has passed and I have posted the picture to the web, I think the best use for this one of a kind egg would now be… lunch.

So what’s your favorite egg salad recipe? Post yours in the comments section below.

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