Coworkers of mine over the years have been entertained by stories from the early part of my career when I designed phone book ads. Not just because of the stories themselves, but also because I always begin them the same way; “Back in the dark ages, when there were phone books…” Indeed, some of my colleagues are of an age where a telephone directory seems like a historical relic worthy of discovery by Indiana Jones. But there’s something to be said for the archaic phone book ad – it got to the point.
Advertisers and designers creating these ads knew that their prospects wouldn’t want or have time to read an entire thesis on why and how their company was the absolutely best at what they did; they just wanted the information needed to solve their specific problem or issue. That’s why most phone book ads consisted of only a few elements; the name of the company (in bold) and/or the company logo at the top, a brief bulleted list of products and services in the middle and the phone number (also bold) and sometimes an address at the bottom. They knew the importance of designing and writing copy for a specific medium and how to get the most out of it. But then again, they’ve had a long time to fine tune best practices as the first telephone directory was published in 1878.
In my current role of Manager of Digital Media Design, I often get requests to send out an already designed print flyer or ad as an e-mail. When I respond with the time and costs associated to recreate their printed piece as an e-mail, the client is sometimes confused. Why would any additional time be needed? It’s already created, just e-mail it. But is the design and copy that might be appropriate for a print ad or flyer really best suited for an e-mail? While you might get by if the viewer is looking at your e-mail on a desktop or laptop, they’ll likely have one of two experiences when using their phone or tablet. Either your entire ad will be shrunk to fit the screen of their device resulting in your finely crafted copy being illegible, or it will be displayed so large that they’ll have to scroll through multiple screens just to reach your call to action.
Those of you up-to-date on your industry buzzwords know that I’m referring to responsive design. In short, it is developing your digital content so that the design and layout of your piece is flexible and displays optimally on whatever device the user might have. Although it might seem like a new concept, it’s been prevalent since 2010, which is a lifetime in terms of technology. For a while, many developers were somewhat resistant and often approached a project with the choice or whether or not to make it responsive, but responsiveness is such an important concept that shouldn’t even be a choice any more. In fact, it shouldn’t be called responsive design; it should just be… design. There are so many devices and types of devices in the wild, that responsive design is imperative.
But I’m not just talking about design. I’m referring to content as well. Content that might be appropriate for a printed piece is probably not appropriate for an e-mail. The person receiving your e-mail might be checking their e-mail on their device while on the bus, waiting for their venti no-fat half-foam salted caramel frappe latte at the local coffee shop or (gasp!) while using the facilities. Like the phone book ads of old, e-mail copy should be relatively short and to the point. Get their attention, tell them a little bit about what you want to tell them and then give them a way to act on it or find out more information.
There seems to be a growing trend where marketers seem afraid to leave anything out of e-mail copy which often results in long, text-filled e-mails that users have to scroll repeatedly to read. I think we’ve all been in a situation as mentioned above, clicked on an e-mail, been bombarded with text and then filed it away for future reading when you have “more time” to read it only for it to be lost forever in the bottomless pit that is your inbox. If you have a lot of information you need to convey, catch their interest and entice them with a nicely written and designed e-mail and then direct captivated viewers to a website or landing page where they can read all the details.
Sometimes, when I bring up my above comments, friends and colleagues respond that e-mail marketing is still a relatively new medium and will take time to develop. But is it really that new? It might surprise some of you to learn that the first mass e-mail marketing piece was sent in 1978. No, that’s not a typo. Gary Thuerk, a Marketing Manager at Digital Equipment Corp. and owner of the rather dubious title, the “Father of Spam”, sent an unsolicited e-mail to 400 recipients inviting them to a demonstration of his company’s new product. That’s 40 years ago at the time I’m writing this post, and plenty of time for a marketing medium to develop and mature. But don’t worry; e-mail marketing is not alone in taking a while for us to realize its full potential. I looked up the first advertisements in a few other media.
While no recording exists, the first radio advertisement occurred in 1922, was for Hawthorne Court Apartments near New York and lasted ten minutes. Certainly quite a bit longer than the current 30 second spots of today. Can you imagine sitting and listening to a radio ad for ten minutes? There’s a car dealership in my area whose advertisements consist of someone yelling their tagline that clocks in an two seconds.
The first commercial that was broadcast on television is another example of the first advertisement not quite taking full advantage of the new medium. In 1941, the broadcast of a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies was interrupted with a commercial for the Bulova Watch Company. Naturally, the first commercial that allowed for moving pictures and audio featured beautiful shots of the watch and attractive people doing exciting things while wearing it accompanied by an energetic musical score, right? Nope. Luckily, we do have a recording of this and, through the magic of the Internet, I can share it with you:
That’s right; the first advertisement on this amazing new medium was a still picture with a voiceover, which is basically a combination of the two main mediums at the time, newspapers and radio.
New marketing media can sometimes take a while to develop and mature and who knows what developments will happen in the future, but I hope that we will continue to step out of the “dark ages” and write and design pieces that best take advantage of the medium, whatever that might be.