I've worked for a lot of advertising agencies over the years. I'll never forget one, early in my career, where the designers were lumped in with the salespeople during office hours. The entirety of the graphics team was treated, day-in and day-out to cold calls being made in search of new customers for our business. One salesman in particular comes to mind when I think of those days, and not because he was good, but because he was perhaps the worst salesperson I have ever known.
Let's call him "Bill". Bill was a guy who would come in at 6AM, three full hours before the office opened, to maintain the outward appearance of being a diligent employee. Of course, on the days I came in early, I would always find Bill paging through a newspaper while ESPN.com was featured prominently on his computer screen. He missed the mark while selling, too. Constantly. Where the others on his team would ring their sales bells on an almost daily basis, I can't recall ever hearing Bill's bell go off.
The thing I remember most about Bill was his sales calls. He would pick up the phone, give the person on the other end his full name, title, company, and the address where our office was located. Should the caller have the resolve and the stomach to sit through that (most did not) he would then open with the worst sales proposition in the world: "Is now a good time to talk?"
I don't know about you, but when I hear "is now a good time to talk?" either from my spouse, my boss, or some stranger on the phone, I know it's not going to be good news. I am at least, delighted that they gave me the option of getting out of the call by asking if the timing was right. For even the meekest among us can say, "No, not really" if given an opportunity to dodge what is so obviously going to be a pitch requesting either precious time, money or both, and hang up.
The time of cold-calls, I really do think, is past us and I imagine Bill is having a hard time finding work, these days. Whether it was on a sales call or taking up office time to do non-work while appearing busy, Bill's biggest problem was his authenticity. Today, now more than ever, the authenticity of you and your belief in what you have to sell is crucial. Audiences can see through a pitch in the blink of an eye. Why? Well, one big reason is the Internet, of course! Long gone are the days of reaching a market you have nothing to do with in order to sell them something they don't need for a price they can't afford. Chances are they can get something they do want, from someone they do trust, at a price they like, online. You, digital storyteller and master of Internet marketing, have got to be genuine: with your product, with your pricing and most of all, with your sales pitch. And the best way to do that is to give no sales pitch at all.
Now, I'm absolutely not saying that you can't market something, online. Just see my previous posts on the subject, for example! You absolutely can sell online, and you absolutely should, but let's imagine for a moment that you're a person who is happening upon your website for the first time. Let's say, upon your first visit, you are greeted not with a website, but a pop-up asking you to "Sign up for a Newsletter - It's FREE!" before you even got to see the first piece of content or anything having to do with what the site is about. Would you sign up for that newsletter, not even knowing the bare minimum of what the site had to offer you? Would you close the pop-up and be annoyed for the rest of your visit that what you just stepped into was not so much a fun, interesting site, but a sale waiting to happen? Would you just turn around and leave?
It's highly likely that you would do one or all three of those things. As Internet-savvy consumers, we know when a website is genuine and when it's just someone's slickly-disguised sales pitch. Sometimes, but rarely, the content is good enough that we stick around anyway, but that's almost certain to leave a bad taste in your mouth in the end.
Merely selling to your audience is not taking care of them. Pop-ups, landing pages with special offers, and my least favorite thing in the world, pay-to-view sites, do not work. I once had a friend who had made a brilliant comic which he wanted to put online. He claimed, out of fear that someone would steal his idea, he was going to charge people to read it and make a million dollars. Long story short, without anything for them to see beyond a meager amount of pin-up art and very small JPEG snippets of his brilliant online comic, his audience didn't care to pay the $5 fee to see his pages and he never ended up having a community at all. Why? Because ten-thousand other webcomics were giving their wares away for free. Some were better. Some weren't. Either way, they didn't require a fee to get in, so they got the audience he could have had.
When you ask your audience for money, be careful. There's an old analogy of a man going to his fireplace, demanding that it make fire for him before he throws the logs in, which, I feel fits quite nicely to this scenario. Give your audience something and they will give back to you.
In a nutshell: Don't be afraid to be a salesman, but don't forget to be a storyteller, first.