Some years ago, this business had a near-death experience when we were caught off guard as the market caught on to our trick to induce sizeable and quick advertising purchases.
We had exploited supply chain relationships, inducing owners and general contractors to allow us to write feature profiles about construction projects, in exchange for their providing their subtrades/suppliers list and (at the height of the strategy) encouraging them to send letters to their suppliers urging them to support the features with advertising.
It is obviously hard to say no to this sort of direct referral and, as we built our business systems around the model, it resulted in a surge of one-time advertising clients (the subtrades and suppliers) and some profitable repeat business (as general contractors/owners gave us additional projects to profile.)
But this story initially had a rather sad consequence. In time, the subs and suppliers began seeing the initiative for what it was: A business-grabbing project by the publisher, not a good-will support initiative for the owner/contractor. And other publishers jumped into the fray, offering (demanding) similar “support” advertising.
I won’t dare speak too highly of our business practices during this era, but some of our competitors took things even further. One planted sales reps within the offices of the owner/contractor, using their phone lines to drum up business. Others took the money and delivered garbage — after all the ads were being purchased to support the client, not because the advertiser cared about the publication’s actual quality.
Finally, the industry as a whole caught on to the game. Some associations informally began circulating advice never to participate in these deals; and general contractors and suppliers set policy decisions to not participate. Our sales declined sharply; and I needed to respond to the sudden business decline quickly enough to avoid a catastrophic failure.
The crisis led to a fundamentally revised business policy. If we were to do these features — and we still do them — we would always treat the individual paying advertiser with respect. This means including proper editorial recognition and (always) ensuring that the advertiser doesn’t feel pressure to participate. (A “no” is taken as that — a “no” and no one is coerced.) We would also engage and support relevant community activities and associations, and not simply seek to skim business from the members.
These decisions have allowed our business to continue though there are always new challenges, including the shift from print to online media, and the need to redefine how we deliver value (including spreading the word for advertisers online and through social media.)
The lessons I’ve learned are that you can apply a variety of techniques and tactics to induce business, but if your sales and marketing are exploitive or fail to correlate with recognition of your clients’ underlying priorities and needs, you’ll ultimately be caught out and fail. You cannot brag about it, but it always makes business sense to do things right and respect your clients. If you really deliver value, your marketing ultimately will succeed.