Your Startup Isn’t Growing. Is It From A Bad Product, Bad Marketing, Or A Bad Market?

You’re about to go on the fifteenth date with that “perfect” girl. Everything’s been great. She thinks your corny jokes are funny, she loves watching The Profit with you, and heck, she doesn’t even seem to have any annoying friends. She might be the one. But then one day, things… just… stall. Not only is she suddenly “too busy” to see you, but she even lets slip that she thinks Marcus Lemonis is kind of lame.

What happened?

Who knows. But what matters is that startups actually deal with this same scenario all the time. Growth takes off, and you’re sure this company is the one that’s going to make your mom proud. But one day your growth hits a brick wall. And no matter how your good your ad creative, how optimized your campaigns, every new customers is more hard-earned than the last.

Not knowing why your startup isn’t growing is the hardest part.

The good news is that there’s probably a good reason. In this post, I’m going to show you what those reasons are and how to determine which one is the culprit.

The 3 Reasons Your Startup Isn’t Growing

OK, there aren’t only three reasons your startup isn’t growing. For example, if your company catches a whiff of bad PR for, oh, I don’t know… FRAUD, then that might be the culprit. These are reasons why nice companies selling nice things to nice people might run find themselves caught in quicksand:

Reason #1 – Bad Product: Let’s face it… you can only get so far before people realize your product isn’t great. If you’re reading this and aren’t aware if your own product is good or bad, I’ll just assume that (a) you’re brand new at your job; or (b) you already know deep down inside and you’re hoping that this article will let you off the hook. Either way, I’ll show you the warning signs of a bad product.

Reason #2 – Bad Marketing: Your product is fine. Maybe it’s even great. And people seem to buy it. But they’re not responding to your marketing, because, well… it’s lame. If you’re a marketer, you probably don’t want this to be the reason. But better you find out yourself then someone else (your boss?) be the one to break you the news.

Reason #3 – Bad Market: Trying to sell the world’s best yoga mat to your local Harley-Davidson club? Life insurance to a 17-year old? This weird, cucumber-flavored Pepsi to someone who doesn’t live in Japan? You get the idea. You’ll always hit a brick wall if they’re selling a great product to the wrong market. 

So which one of these is the main culprit? Keep reading and we’ll find out…

It’s 3rd Grade All Over Again, And I’m Giving You a Worksheet To Do For Homework

At least I won’t be grading you on the results. And this assignment will only take about 5 minutes. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. First, download and print this PDF. Or click here for an Excel version.
  2. Grab a #2 pencil (or go really crazy and make it a #4)
  3. Below is a list of 10 areas you’ll evaluate your company on. Read them now and then return here.
  4. Go through each line on your worksheet and rate your company as weakaverage, or strong. Don’t spend more than 30 seconds on each.
  5. At the bottom of this post you’ll find what results look like for a company with a bad product, bad marketing, or a bad market. Don’t peek! Whatever result your worksheet most closely resembles will point you to the real reason your startup isn’t growing.

Finally, at the end of this post, I’ll provide a bit more commentary on each result. 3-2-1-Go!

Click here to download your worksheet

Rating Your Company On These Areas Will Help You Find The Real Reason Your Startup Isn’t Growing

Again, on your worksheet, you’ll find these ten areas listed. Which of these your company is weak or strong in will indicate where your problem lies.

PPC/SEM Marketing – anywhere you spend money to drive leads, clicks, etc. Evaluate the ads themselves, not the entire conversion funnel (here are some good benchmarks to reference). Why this matters: if your ads themselves perform well but you’re not growing, it probably indicates a product- or market-related problem.

Search traffic for your product/company – what’s the search volume for the name of your company or if applicable, your own products? Nonexistent? Moderate? Growing? Why this matters: if people are searching for you, they’ve probably heard about you from someone else. That’s a usually good thing!

Search traffic for related terms – this is the search volume for terms that are related to what you do, like “landing page software”, “energy efficient lightbulbs”, or “books on how to find a girlfriend”. Why this matters: if there’s high search volume for things related to what you do, that’s a good sign that there’s a market for what you’re selling. 

PR coverage – are other sites interested in writing about you? Or does your local newspaper turn you down so they have space to cover that local fashion show for seniors? Why this matters: if you can’t get any PR, chances are your product isn’t interesting or valuable enough to be worth writing about.

Direct/referral traffic – having plenty of these visitors means people are (a) bookmarking your site, (b) heading there directly, or (c) coming to your site from articles written about you. Why this matters: it means you’re doing something right – people love you enough to visit you often to tell others.

Website Conversion Rate – you might generate lots of “top of the funnel” interest from a paid ad campaign, but once visitors actually learn what you do on your website, are they still interested? Why this matters: a low-performing site means your product just isn’t compelling, or that you haven’t described it clearly.

Sales Close Rate – do leads show up for calls, and are they closing at a healthy rate? Or do you resort to discounts just to get a few closes? Why this matters: a really good marketing team can get people interested, but if the product is weak and/or the market is wrong, then sales won’t get very far.

Referrals – what portion of your does your growth come from referrals? If your not sure what a good benchmark is, look at this article from FriendBuy. Why this matters: if you’re getting little growth from referrals, that’s a sign that people aren’t passionate enough about your product to tell others. 

Retention/Repeat Purchases – do your customers buy from you again? And if you’re selling a subscription-based product, do they stick around for long? Why this matters: low retention or a low repeat purchase rate is a major red flag that your product doesn’t fit with the market. 

Reviews/Net Promoter Score – either one will tell you what people really think about your product. If you don’t know how to measure NPS, here’s how to do it. Why this matters: low ratings on either metric are a sign that your product is weak. But if you have high ratings and still aren’t growing, that points to a marketing issue.

Which Type of Problem Are You Facing?

With your worksheet complete, compare it to the three examples below. Chances are it will line up with one more closely than others. If you find a match, read that section to find out the real reason your startup isn’t growing.

Can’t find a match? Read each section a few times, and you’ll probably start to see one that sounds mostly like you. And if you’re still not sure, there’s probably a combination of reasons your startup isn’t growing. More commentary on that at the end.

What A Bad Product Looks Like

This is the easiest to diagnose, so we’ll start here. Your product gets few referrals, weak reviews, and customers don’t stick around for long.

when your startup isn't growing because of bad product
When your startup has a bad product, you might be able to get people to buy it, but as soon as they find out what it’s like, your referrals, retention, and reviews will suffer.

You might get away with decent performance in your paid ad campaigns, perhaps because you’re still addressing a need that your target market actually has. And perhaps your sales team or website can even do a decent job of generating new customers. But as soon as people find out what your product is really like, the truth becomes evident.

How is this different from a bad market? These two problems are most easily confused, so let’s look at that one next…

What A Bad Market Looks Like

The tricky thing about having a bad market is that you’re also likely to see mediocre reviews, a poor net promotor score, and weak referrals – just like you do with a bad product.

But there’s a key difference.

When you’re trying to sell to the wrong market, nearly everything is a challenge. There’s not a lot of search traffic in your product category, so you can’t rely on SEO. Since your paid ads aren’t really addressing a need that your market has (or understands) they’re never going to work well.

when your startup isn't growing because of bad market
Selling to the wrong market is the toughest battle to face – nearly nothing works!

You might have pockets of people who “get” how valuable your product is. But if you’re finding that potential customers just don’t understand the problem you’re trying to solve (regardless of how well you describe it), then you’re probably selling to the wrong market.

This can be a particularly thorny problem if you’ve sold most of the “early adopters” in your market but haven’t established enough credibility to sell to the “early majority.” The book Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey A. Moore, provides some great insights here. If you were growing quickly early on but now your startup isn’t growing at all, it’s definitely worth a read.

What Bad Marketing Looks Like

If bad marketing is your main issue, then your company’s growth is mainly limited by your success with referrals, PR coverage, and search traffic.

when your startup isn't growing because of bad marketing
If you have a great product, some people will still buy it despite your poor marketing. You’re lucky – this is actually the best problem to have, as it’s the easiest to fix.

When customers have great things to say about you, when the press loves writing about how wonderful you are, and when more and more people search for you online, then you know that that product and the market are solid. So if these things are happening but your startup isn’t growing, it’s probably because: (1) you haven’t found the right marketing channel; (2) your ad campaigns themselves aren’t messaged properly; or (3) you haven’t figured out how to convert paid traffic into revenue.

While no one gets joy in learning that their marketing needs improvement, this is actually this best scenario to find yourself in. If you have a great product and are selling it to the right market, then marketing is really there to serve an accelerator for growth – not the only thing keeping your company alive!

The World Is Messy, And The Real Answer Might Be A Combination Of The Above

Of course, there’s probably more than one reason your startup isn’t growing. So which problem do you fix first? Here’s a quick rule of thumb:

  • Great marketing can only do so much to offset a bad product. If you’re dealing with bad marketing and a bad product, then improve the product first. Focusing marketing will only get you short-term gains. But you can actually build a business on a great product.
  • Likewise, a great product cannot account for a bad market. If you’re facing both of these issues, find the right market to sell to first. The right market will tell you what problems they need addressed (if you ask), and will lead you to the right product and the right way to market to them.
  • In other words, focus on fixing your marketing last. This may sound counterintuitive coming from a blog that’s focused on marketing, but if you deal with the underlying issues of bad product and bad market first, you’re marketing will be much more effective.

Have you dealt with this conundrum at your own company? If so, what was the underlying issue – and how did you solve it? Let me know if the comments.

Should You Hire a Marketing Agency For Your Startup?

One of the defining characteristics of a startup is that you never seem to have enough people to get everything done. Marketing is no exception. The desire for extra marketing help is always going to be there, whether you’re a team of one or one hundred. While recognizing that you need to add manpower is simple, deciding whether to hire more employees or bring on a marketing agency isn’t so straightforward. There’s no answer that works for everyone.

I recently went through this dilemma myself. And to help you learn from my experience, I wanted to share why I decided to consider a marketing agency and what questions I asked myself to make the decision.

When Things Get Complicated, It’s Time To Ask For Help

Early on, we scaled our business mostly through Facebook and Instagram ads. Our campaigns were pretty straightforward, and our small in-house marketing team could manage pretty easily.

But as we grew, things got more complex. First, we decided to go after some new markets. The copy and creative that worked initially would not be effective with these new audiences, so we soon found ourselves allocating at least twice as much time to creating and managing Facebook ad campaigns.

Secondly, between 20014 and 2016 it got far more expensive to advertise on Facebook and Instagram. More advertisers competing for the same ad inventory directly increased our CPMs (they more than doubled for the audience we were targeting!). To hit our benchmarks, our ads had to perform twice as well just to get the same results. That meant even more planning, split testing, and campaign monitoring.

Finally, as our business grew, our internal team needed to spend more time on product messaging, website development, lead nurturing, and customer communication. While the time required to run a successful campaign continued to increase, the time we had available to do so only shrank.

Justifying The Cost Is Easier When You Can Measure The Results

Just because you need help doesn’t mean you have the money to pay for it. So I couldn’t just hire a marketing agency (or an employee) because I wanted to; the numbers had to make sense.

But it wasn’t hard to calculate: based on our monthly ad spend, the agency we were planning to hire could pay for itself if it improved campaign performance by just 17%. In other words, if we could spend 17% less on our ad campaigns, use that money to pay for agency fees, and get the same results, we’d be good.

I actually shared this number with the agency before we began the relationship. They knew what numbers they’d have to hit in order to keep the contract alive, and they were confident they could deliver. So we agreed on a 3-month trial period and moved forward.

Could I have hired an employee instead? Maybe. But here’s why that didn’t make sense for us at the time:

  • The agencies we looked at all charged management fees of about 17-22% of ad spend. Based on our ad budget, we could hire an entry-level employee for that amount, but not a more experienced marketer that we’d actually need.
  • Finding an employee can take a while. And you never want to rush a hire just because the need for help is pressing.
  • An agency will likely get up to speed quicker than an employee. They only need to focus on the job you’ve assigned to them, and don’t have to deal with on-boarding, coming to meetings, understanding the culture, etc.
  • If an agency didn’t work out, parting ways would be pretty straightforward. But doing the same with an employee is much tougher on both parties.

Did It Work Out? Yes And No.

I’ll skip to the end of story. We ended up parting ways after a few months. But not for the reason you’d think.

The marketing agency we hired actually did a decent job of improving our Facebook and Instagram campaign performance. But shortly after we engaged them, we made some core business changes that took us away from marketing on Facebook and Instagram. The agency didn’t do anything wrong, we just no longer needed their help in running campaigns on social media. Fortunately, they were really understanding. Ending the relationship was pretty easy, no hard feelings.

Even though we only worked with the agency for a short time, having an outside perspective was really valuable. They taught us quite a few things about campaign structure, how to set up tests properly, and using Facebook’s ad units in different ways.

Not only that, but having to teach an agency about our own brand forced us to clarify own messaging. We thought we had pretty clear guidelines, but when we started to explain them to an outsider, we realized they could use quite a bit of improvement. Having someone ask you a bunch of questions about your brand is a great way to find out where all the holes are.

Takeaway: if you end up hiring an agency yourself, I recommend finding one that’s willing to share knowledge back and forth. Both you and the agency will benefit.

Should You Hire A Marketing Agency For Your Own Startup?

There’s no right answer for every startup. So to help you come up with the right answer for your own company, here are a few questions to consider as you ponder the decision yourself:

Do you have clear branding and messaging guidelines?

Asking an agency to create marketing campaigns without clear brand guidelines is setting them (and you) up for failure. These guidelines can’t just live in your head, they need to be documented in a straightforward and accessible way, so that everyone on your agency’s team can have a clear idea of how your brand should be communicated.

Don’t have guidelines yet – not even in your head? If building these isn’t your strong suit, you might actually consider hiring an agency on a project basis to help you craft them.

Are you trying to scale a proven strategy or are you still looking for something that works?

Many startups acquire their customers primarily through one or two channels. But finding out which channels those are is going to take some experimentation. If you’re still in that experimentation phase, ask yourself if you’re able to move faster than an agency.

If you think you are, then you’re probably better conducting those experiments yourself. On the other hand, if you’re going to spend a lot of time just figuring out the basics of some new marketing channels, partnering with an agency who already has experience may help you get moving sooner.

Are there specific gaps in your team’s talent that you can’t fill otherwise?

Agencies can be really valuable if there are skills your current team lacks and (a) you can’t afford the time it takes to learn them; (b) it will take too long to find someone who already has them; or (c) adding these skills doesn’t require a full-time hire.

For example, your own team might be great at paid advertising on social media, but doesn’t know left from right when it comes to PR. If PR needs to play a core role in your marketing strategy, then maybe it makes sense to hire an agency that specializes in that.

Is your time being taken away from the core business?

If you’ve established a marketing strategy but find that managing it day-to-day is taking you away from actually running your business, a marketing agency might be a good choice as well. You’ll still need to provide lots of direction on marketing campaigns, but freeing yourself from managing the details may give you time to look at the big picture.

Are you stuck?

If you’ve tried “everything” but can’t seem to get traction with any marketing strategy, having an outside perspective can be really valuable. You might consider hiring an agency on a consulting basis to give you a more objective assessment of your business.

Is there a special project you need help with?

Perhaps there’s a big campaign you need some creative horsepower behind. Or maybe there’s a video you need to create that’s beyond the capabilities of your own team. Marketing agencies are perfect for this type of work. Your employees should handle the work that requires ongoing effort, but when you need to deliver a special project that requires skills that your own team doesn’t possess, an agency can be the perfect partner.

What are your expectations?

Don’t think that hiring a marketing agency abdicates you of your responsibility to grow your business. An agency can help you execute something that doesn’t make sense to do in-house, but don’t expect to just write a check and see your business to grow on its own. It’s up to you to get the fundamentals right. Once those are in place, your next job is to find the right resources to get the job done. Whether that’s through employees, freelancers, or agencies is up to you. Chances are that as you grow, you’ll make use of all three.

Still considering an agency? Do this first.

If you think that hiring a marketing agency makes sense for your startup, don’t start making phone calls just yet. Before you go down that path, get your team on board first. You all need to understand why you’re considering bringing on an agency – what they’ll be helping with, what they won’t be helping with, and how your team is going to engage them.

If your team doesn’t understand how an agency fits into the big picture of your marketing strategy, it will decrease the chances of everyone’s success. Once everyone’s aligned and you know exactly what you want out of an agency, begin your search. Good luck!

Your Company Will Fail Without A Brand Promise. Here’s Why.

“Come on,” my dad quipped, pretending not to notice the look of sheer horror pasted on my face. “It’ll be fun. I promise.

I was just a 9-year old kid, getting ready to ride a roller coaster called the Loch Ness Monster: 3,240 feet of bright yellow steel tubing wrapped around itself like a two contortionists playing a game of Twister in the middle of tornado. I nearly crapped my pants when I saw it, prompting my dad to issue that promise.

By making that promise, my dad was taking a risk. Any father knows that if you promise something, you better be damn sure you’re right. But, precisely 2 minutes and 10 seconds later, he proved that he was as I exited the ride with a huge grin on my face.

Promise was delivered on. Trust was established. And many more roller coaster rides ensued that afternoon.

Why am I telling you this story?

Because just as kids look to parents to fulfill any promises made, consumers expect that brands do the same. When promises are kept, a loyal following ensues. When they’re broken, disaster awaits.

To find out what a brand promise really is and learn how to develop your own, keep reading.

loch ness monster busch gardens
The Loch Ness monsters at Busch Gardens. Causing heart attacks in children since 1978.

What is a brand promise anyway?

Let’s test your knowledge. A brand promise is…

(a) When a brand assures you that this time, it won’t be late for your 8 PM date at The Olive Garden
(b) An unconditional 110% money-back guarantee on skydiving equipment
(c) Something that only overpaid marketing consultants understand
(d) A pledge to not spill massive amounts of oil and light the ocean on fire any more

The answer is (e) None of the above. A brand promise is simply what consumers expect a brand to deliver. It’s the very reason someone chooses to buy something. It’s what connects the actions of the company with the needs and desires of the buyer.

For example, two similar mobile phone services might each offer their own brand promises. Brand A might promise that you’ll always be able to connect with loved ones. Brand B might promise that you will always receive an affordable bill, as long as you never travel outside the United States, never call someone outside the United States, never exceed your data cap, never forget to look both ways before crossing the street, and never even touch at your phone. Two similar services, two very different promises.

How Do You Know If A Brand Promise Is Great?

There are two ways to find out…

First, you can pay a fancy agency a fee of $100,000 (along with the hand of your oldest daughter in marriage), and they’ll develop a fantastic brand promise for you. It will be fantastic because you just paid $100,000 for it, dammit, and only a fool would pay that much for something that was less than extraordinary, and you sir, are no fool.

Alternatively, you can use the $17.34 Rougeux 5-Point Brand Promise System For Marketers Who Get S**t Done to create your own, which I’m offering at a 100% discount for an unlimited time.

The Rougeux 5-Point Brand Promise System can be easily remembered with a simple acronym: DDDMM. Pronouncing it is easy, especially if you’ve ever had your jaw wired shut from a bizarre softball accident and were later forced to recite German poetry.

DDMMM stands for Distinct, Desirable, Delivered, Measurable, and Memorable. Here’s what each means.

DDMMM: The 5 Points Of A Great Brand Promise

Distinct

Any decent brand promise has to stand out from similar products. If you’re Starbucks, and your brand promise is simply “Hot coffee in a cup”, that’s not going to help you much unless you’re the only coffee purveyor on the planet.

Or if you’re a trucking company, don’t tell me that you’re “On time, every time.” You better damn well be, as that’s pretty much table stakes for every trucking company in the America. Instead, a powerful brand promise is one that only your product can deliver.

Desirable

This sounds kind of obvious, but how many times have you heard a company tout that if offers something like, “Strategic, value-added solutions.” A promise so frustratingly vague that you’re probably tempted to leave this page just because I made you read it. In fact, I dare you to read it again… Strategic. Value added. Solutions. Still here? Wow, your pain tolerance is pretty high.

A great brand promise has to be something that gets the buyer excited through its appeal. If your brand promise involves a unicorn descending from a rainbow to deliver you cauldrons full of crisp $100 bills, then you’re on the right track.

What is a brand promise? Saying "strategic value added solutions" is a poor answer.
Did you make the mistake of using “Strategic, value-added solutions” as your brand promise? Don’t worry, so did 4,649 other people.

Deliverable

I know what you’re thinking. “I’ve got this whole brand promise thing figured out. It involves unicorns, rainbows, and lots of cash. But there’s one problem. You probably can’t deliver on that. Especially since unicorns are notoriously difficult to train. A great brand promise needs to be something you can actually do. (That’s why it’s called a promise).

An appealing brand promise that you can’t deliver on is worse than having no brand promise at all. Fail a customer’s expectations and they’ll never come back.

Measurable

Now we get into the tough part. A brand promise is far more likely to generate raving fans if the buyer is certain that her expectations were met. If a brand promise is both deliverable and measurable, then buyers who see that promise fulfilled are going to love you.

One of my favorite examples is BMW’s The Ultimate Driving Machine. You can head to any dealer, plop your butt in 3-series, nail a few onramps, and come away feeling pretty certain that a BMW provides a much more satisfying drive than that cushy Lexus you’d been cruising around town in. Pro tip: do this when the dealer is open and with the permission of a salesperson. Doing so greatly reduces your risk of jail time.

Memorable

This is where many good brand promises fall short of becoming great. If no one can remember your brand promise, it’s of limited value.

Not only will your customers have a tough time remembering it, your own sales, marketing, and customer support teams will, too. How can you expect your team to build an experience around a promise that no one’s aware of?

Geico’s promise that “15 minutes can save you 15 percent on car insurance” is probably the best example on Earth:

What’s Your Brand Promise? Do You Even Have One?

If you haven’t defined your brand promise, two things will happen.

One, people will make their own conclusions about what your brand represents. Their answer is unlikely to be the same as what you’re trying to deliver, and you’ll be setting them up for disappointment.

The other scenario is this: potential customers won’t be sure why you exist, and they’ll patronize a business that is clear about what they have to offer. Especially if unicorns are involved.

P.S. Here’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way… just because you’ve established a brand promise once doesn’t mean that you never have to touch it again. As your product evolves (and as the tastes of your customers change), your brand promise will need to be adapted.

Why This Duracell Hearing Aid Commercial Will Make You Cry

I was standing there at my desk when a Slack message popped up: “Check this out…” with an innocuous link to a YouTube video. 78 seconds later I was desperately trying to pretend I had allergies as I fought to keep tears from welling up.

What happened?

A commercial for one of the most mundane objects on Earth: a battery.

To find out how a pitch for such an ordinary item could cause so many feels to come out of my eyes, I decided to deconstruct the ad. Watch the Duracell hearing aid commercial below and then keeping reading to see why it was so effective.

When it’s over, go watch this video of Chuck Norris kicking some ass to restore your emotions back to normal.

[accordion title=’Click Here To View the Script of The Duracell Hearing Aid Commercial’]

Act 1:

Friend at dinner (muffled): “These seats are excellent, but unfortunately, they’re for tomorrow night.”

Co-worker (muffled): There’s cake for Paula’s birthday in the kitchen..

Daughter: Thank you.

James: Bye bye! She’ll be fine.

[Crying baby / sports game]

Jame’s wife: Can you hear her? The baby’s crying!

Act II:

Doctor: So let’s get you started today. These are the batteries. The tab makes it super simple. Flip it over the ear.

Wife: How’s that sound?

Doctor: Did you hear her?

James: I think so… that’s amazing.

James’ wife: Thank you..

Act III:

James (to son): Well, it’s a rule. I said, what.. what rule? I don’t know about baseball…

James: She’s doing great.

James’ son: Yeah?

James: Yeah

James’ son: Thanks dad.

Closing:

Duracell batteries are long lasting. So you don’t miss the moments that matter.

Trusted everywhere.

[/accordion]

WHAT JUST HAPPENED? Can you even read this through those watery eyelids? Wipe your nose and let’s see how some marketing genius was able to make the Energizer bunny look like a cold-hearted killer compared to Duracell.

Genius Move #1: Follow A Classic Story Structure

Here’s a dirty little secret: nearly every great story follows an established pattern. This Duracell hearing aid commercial is no different. In this case, it follows the classic three-act structure. It goes something like this:

  1. Setup: The hero is going about his business when some unexpected event turns his world upside down.
  2. Confrontation: The hero struggles to deal with this new challenge. When he’s all but defeated, some external intervention occurs, and he finds the courage/skill/answer/secret potion he needs to succeed.
  3. Resolution: With the conflict resolved, the hero finds himself even better off than when the story began.

Anything that doesn’t follow an established convention is either crap or is considered avant garde, which is a special type of artwork for people who are overly concerned about the source of wool in their $295 turtlenecks.

Here’s how our Duracell ad follows the structure….

Act 1 – Reality Hits Home

Our hero isn’t given a name, but since the most popular baby name of the 1950s was James, let’s go with that. In the first scene, James isn’t laughing at a dinner party jokes because he can’t hear. Either that, or the jokes are about him, and this ad just got off to an extremely awkward start.

In the next scene, James misses out on a crucial office ritual: cake for Paula’s birthday. Missing out on both jokes and cake kind of sucks for James, but he’ll survive… right?

In the final scene of the act, James’ hearing loss goes from a mere annoyance to a painful source of shame when he neglects to hear his crying granddaughter over the sports game.

Act 2 – Enter The Savior

Having fully realized the consequences of his hearing loss, James meets with an audiologist. Now enters our savior: the hearing aid, powered by (you guessed it) Duracell batteries.

While the story hasn’t quite resolved itself yet, James can at least imagine a brighter future when he whispers, “That’s amazing.”

Act 3 – Life Is Good

We find James at the kitchen table, yet this time, he’s able to hear his granddaughter crying. The story reaches its peak when James’s son says, “Thanks dad,” as James comforts his granddaughter.

James is not only happy with himself, he’s also able to live up to the expectations of his family.

Genius Move #2: Reinforce Emotions Through Production

Not only does the story itself follow the classic three-act structure, the production choices of the Duracell hearing aid commercial were all made to reinforce the message of each act. Take a closer look and you’ll see what I mean:

  • Music: Initially, a sole piano sets a sad and contemplative tone. As it the story transitions into act two, the music pauses to emphasize James’ realization that he can’t hear. But as he visits the doctor, the music cautiously resumes. As the tempo gradually increases into act three, a keyboard and synthesizer are added to convey energy and confidence. Way to go, synthesizer.
  • Lighting: The dim set of James’ house is a sharp contrast to the brightly lit audiologist’s office, reinforcing the idea that new things are taking place. Ok, “brightly lit” is an understatement… the audiology office looks the interior of the spaceship from Space Odyssey: 2001. Anyway, the story concludes with the soft, natural light, conveying a warmer, more familial environment.
  • Time of Day: The story begins in the evening: darkness increases along with James’ realization of his loss. Yet the story resolves in the full daylight, the start of a new day symbolic of new beginnings.
  • Emotion: Confusion and frustration take over the first act of the story, climaxing in full-on anger when Jame’s kids return from their night out. I would not want to be there to hear James’ wife chew him out afterwards. In act two, sadness is replaced with cautious optimism in the audiologist’s office. Love and laughter are shown in the final act that takes place in the family’s home, leaving no doubt to the outcome of the story.
Act by act breakdown of the Duracell hearing aid commercial
Each act of Duracell’s ad is reinforced through the production choices made in each act.

Genius Move #3: Use Supporting Characters To Frame Emotional Transitions

James’ wife

James’ wife has a simple role in the story: show you how you should feel as you watch James deal with his challenge. She starts off with anger at James’ failure…

Duracell hearing aid commercial act one: James' wife gets upset
James’ wife isn’t exactly going to nominate him for AARP’s Grandfather of the Year Award.

… and later displays gratitude for at possibility of James getting his hearing back.

Duracell hearing aid commercial act two: James' wife is optimistic
This shot takes less than a second but it drives home plenty of optimism.

Finally, she shows joy as she see James thrive again. Observe your own emotions as you watch the video… are you feeling the same way? James’s wife plays a minor role but she telegraphs the emotional transitions really clearly.

James' wife is happy
James’ wife is relaxed and happy now that James can hear again.

James’ Son

The Duracell hearing aid commercial isn’t really about James’ ability to hear. After all, who really cares if he misses out on office birthday cake because he’s a bit deaf? It was probably some crummy cake from the grocery story, anyway. No, the story really has to do with James failing his family, specifically his son.

Take a look at the conclusion of Act 1. As James’ son and daughter-in-law gather around the crying infant, James looks at his son with embarrassment and sadness. To make things worse, James’s son doesn’t even make eye contact with him:

Duracell hearing aid commercial act one: James is embarrassed
Worst. Babysitting. Ever. James was a major disappointment to his son that evening.

Finally, the closing scene shows James, his wife, son, and daughter-in-law seated together, signifying that the family is healthy again. When James picks up his granddaughter this time, James’ son smiles directly at his father. The father-son relationship is restored and James receives the trust and love he years for as a grandfather.

Duracell hearing aid commercial act three: James' son is smiling
All is well, and James’ son can once again look at his dad and smile.

Genius Move #4: Don’t Make It About The Product

This is the most important part of all.

People aren’t interested in watching advertisements. They want to watch stories. And this Duracell hearing aid commercial is exactly that – a story about a new grandparent who lets down his family because he can no longer hear. Even if most viewers can’t empathize with hearing loss, nearly everyone can relate to the hurt caused by strained family relationships.

As lesser writer would have been tempted to introduce the Duracell brand right at the start. Since so many videos are skipped after just a few seconds, the temptation is understandable.

But doing so would only tell the viewer, “This is an advertisement. Nothing to see here!”

Instead, an engrossing story is used to break down any resistance a viewer might have towards seeing a branded message. It’s only until the last 8 seconds of the video that the product being advertised is finally made clear.

In this case, it’s a simple battery.

Perfect example of the maxim: “There are no boring products, only boring writers.”

P.S. Random Observations

I had to watch the Duracell hearing aid commercial more times that I care to admit to do this deconstruction. And it the process I noticed some things that you probably missed…

  • The doctor gives James a package of 16 hearing aid batteries. The package notes that each battery lasts 4 years. That means James has enough juice to last him 64 more years. I guess there’s nothing wrong with being optimistic.
  • In Act 3, I really can’t tell what meal the family is eating. The lighting suggests breakfast, as do the oranges on the table. But the Coke (tea?) and Chinese takeout contain suggest either lunch or extraordinarily usual eating habits.
  • James’ coworker seems overly disturbed that he didn’t hear her the first time. What if James was just “in the zone” as he processed his expense report from that craaazy insurance conference in Tampa? Don’t most people just call your name again before donning an expression of utter confusion?
  • The interior of James’ living room looks like it was inspired by an outdated Motel 6. Come on James, you can afford a painting or two on those walls!
  • Why did the custom designer have James wear that copper bracelet? It’s given tons of prominence in one of the scenes, and since those things are proven not to work, it’s strange that they would have him sport one.

What Do You Think of The Duracell Hearing Aid Commercial?

Maybe you watched the Duracell hearing aid commercial and thought it was a crass attempt to get people to pay more for a branded commodity.

Or maybe you didn’t even finish reading the article because you immediately ran to the nearest Walgreen’s to buy their entire stock of Duracell batteries.

Or perhaps you’re convinced that this is really a super secret conspiracy among Big Audiology, Coke, and Duracell: it proves that drinking soda causes deafness, and all these companies out there to profit off the suffering they induce by making you consume their products.

However you feel, let me know if the comments below.

Instagram Stories Are A Ripoff… And They’re Awesome

“Great artists steal.” That’s a favorite Steve Jobs quote of mine. While the designers who created Instagram Stories may or may not be great artists, they definitely stole from Snapchat.

Not that I really care. Here’s why…

Short-Lived Media Like Instagram Stories Keeps Us Real

When you know your post is only going to last 24 hours, you don’t care so much about how polished it is. And I think that’s a good thing. Raw, un-produced media is more like the way we interact with our friends in person. You don’t rehearse before asking your pal to join you for lunch. If you did, you’d be eating alone. The more we approach social media like we’re just talking from one human to another, the more authentic we our communication can become. Instagram Stories relieve us from the burden of trying to get things perfect, which makes social media more enjoyable.

You Can’t Worry About Metrics When There Aren’t Very Many

Sometimes the best features are when things are left off. Since you can’t Like an Instagram Story in the first place, you aren’t going to worry as much about how well a Story performs. As far as I can tell, all you can see are the number of views your story gets. No worrying about number of likes or responding to comments. This is like getting a credit card where you’re not allowed to see the bill or pay the balance. Update: I was just informed that some people think credit cards actually work this way. Whoops.

It’s Easier To Find Your Way Around

One of the things that bugs my about Snapchat’s Stories user interface is how hard it is to tell how many updates a user has posted. That little wheel in the corner of the screen just doesn’t do it to me. Instagram’s version, where bars are lined up on the top of the screen, feels like an improvement. And this is a small thing, but I love how you can move forwards and backwards between users in Instagram’s version.

That Highlighter Feature Is A Better Way To Do Text

If your text just doesn’t stand out agains the photo, the highlighter option makes your life way easier. Being able to make your text legible without having to use that black bar is just makes for better compositions.

OK, It’s Not Perfect

Instagram Stories are going to be pretty tough to use once they’re widely adopted. Scrolling across that bar along the top isn’t going to cut it.

The filters are kind of weak sauce. I mean, one of the reasons Instagram was so popular early on was because it’s filters let your lame photo of a cheeseburger look like it was slightly artistic and slightly less lame. Instagram should be a leader here, and it’s not.

Finally, Instagram has the chance to one-up Snapchat by letting people react to Instant Stories. Turning these from one-way updates to two-way conversations could be a lot of fun.

But I Still Love The Effort

Instagram Stories, along with Snapchat and Facebook Live, are the greatest changes ever to grace social media. Turning social media from a permanent record of events to a live, in-the-moment stream gets us acting like the real versions of ourselves – the version our friends see us as when they interact with us face-to-face.

Do you love or hate Instagram Stories? Let me know in the comments.

Don’t Create Another Facebook Audience Until You Try This

Read any article on running a Facebook ad campaign and you’ll be told to split test your ads. Big deal. But I want you to quit worrying about testing this headline or that image for the moment and try something completely new – compare Facebook audiences against each other.

As I discussed in this post, it doesn’t matter how good your Facebook ads are if they aren’t shown to the right people. And with the myriad ways in which Facebook let’s you create a target audience, you should spend just as much time exploring new targeting options as you do on the ads themselves.

Here’s How To Compare Facebook Audiences

Fortunately, Facebook let’s you test multiple audiences against each other to see which performs best. It’s actually pretty simple, and I’m surprised more marketers don’t spend time on it. Here’s how to do it (the right way)…

Facebook let's you test multiple audiences against each other. Here's how. Click To Tweet

First, create a handful of Facebook audiences that best approximate the people you’re trying to target. Experiment with different approaches, such as Likes/Interests, Behaviors, Demographics, Website Activity, or Lookalike Audiences. If all this sounds new to you, here’s a guide on creating different types of Facebook audiences.

Next, use Facebook’s “Show Audiences Overlap” feature to see how similar each of these audiences is. You’ll find it on the Audiences page in Ads Manager by clicking the Actions button near the top of the screen.

Select each of the audiences you’ve just constructed and open the Show Audiences Overlap window. You should see something like the below:

Facebook audiences overlap
Ideally, you should see little to no overlap between your audiences. Anything more than 25%: proceed with caution.

Make sure to select each of your audiences in that box in the top right. You’ll want to compare each audiences against all the others before proceeding.

You’ve structured things the right way if there is little to no overlap among all of your test audiences. If that’s the case, then you can safely run all of your ads to each of these audiences simultaneously. Just create a single Campaign with an Ad Set for each audience, and you can easily compare the results.

How Much Is Too Much?

If there’s too much overlap (say more than 25%), then proceed with caution. You’ll be bidding against yourself when you run your campaign. That will cause your ads to be unnecessarily expensive or cause them to stop running entirely. Worse, you won’t get a true gauge on how those audiences perform.

If you see that more than one of your audiences is performing well, no problem! That just means you have even more people to target. And since Facebook consistently offers new ways to target people, make audience split testing a regular practice.

Target Just The Right People With Facebook Custom Audiences

If you don’t show your Facebook ads to the right people, then it doesn’t matter how good they are. That’s why creating the right Facebook audience is one of the most effective things you can do to get better results. In this post, I’ll show you how, using Facebook custom audiences.

Creating the right Facebook audience is one of the most effective things you can do to get better… Click To Tweet

The Facebook custom audiences tool is broken down into three types: Saved Audience (beginner), Custom Audience (intermediate), and Lookalike (hard core). For premium Star Wars-themed protective laptop covers for MacBook users. Not that I can imagine anyone not wanting one…

Saved Audience: Start Here

Start a new Saved Audience and you’ll soon find that Facebook’s Detailed Targetinsection has literally thousands of choices. Where do you start? Here’s the answer you don’t want to hear: you just have to dig through them and see which ones could apply. Here’s what I found for our Star Wars laptop covers:

  • Target people who use a Mac by selecting Behaviors -> Digital Activities -> Operating System Used -> Primary Mac OS X.
  • Constrain your audience to Star Wars fans by selecting Interests -> Additional Interests > Star Wars. There are dozens of similar choices, but since this is described as “People who have expressed an interest in or like pages related to Star Wars” it should be a pretty safe bet.
  • Since these are premium covers, make sure your ads are only shown to people with an income greater than $50,000 by excluding Demographics -> Financial -> Income -> $30,000 – $40,000 and $40,000 – $50,000.
  • Since people who travel frequently are more likely to need a laptop case, add one further constraint: Behaviors -> Travel -> Business travelers.

If this audience is constrained to people older than 22 who live in the United States, you get 170,000 people. That’s a perfect audience size for custom Facebook audiences: large enough yield plenty of responses, but still targeted to potential customers only.

Facebook custom audiences saved
You don’t need The Force to target people when you have this many options.

Custom Audience: Now You Can Retarget

Now that you’ve got traffic coming to your website and are selling Jar Jar Binks Rey-themed laptop covers for $95, it’s time to step things up.

If you were wise, you would have installed the Facebook tracking pixel on your website before you began sending visitors there. Doing so will allow you to build Facebook custom audiences based on people who’ve taken action on your site. For example, you could set up an audience of people who viewed Star Wars-product pages on your site but did not complete a purchase. Perfect for retargeting with a follow-up ad.

You can even upload email and phone numbers of your existing customers to create a Saved Audience. When your Star Wars: Episode VIII- themed items hit the market, you’ll have a list of known buyers ready to market to.

Facebook custom audiences screenshot
The custom audience feature is “impressive…. most impressive.”

Lookalike Audience: Mysterious But Effective

Facebook custom audiences truly reach Death Star-like power with the Lookalike Audience option. How does it work? Using a “seed list” of Facebook users you’ve specified, Facebook can create a larger group of similar people. I’ve never found a good explanation of how Facebook builds its Lookalike Audiences, I just know that they work.

The Lookalike Audience option is especially handy when your audience can’t be easily defined with Facebook’s pre-determined options in the Saved Audience tool. Here’s how to build one:

  • Select a data source. Choose a Custom Audience you’ve already created, a conversion pixel you’ve configured, or the followers of your Facebook page.
  • Select the country you want to target people in. Yes, Antarctica is an option.
  • Choose the size of the audience you want to create. It will be presented as a percentage of all Facebook users in that country, so a 1% audience for the United States will be about 2 million people.
Facebook custom audiences lookalike
To test multiple sizes, select “Show Advanced Options” and Facebook will create up to six Lookalike Audiences.

Mind Blown: You Can Mix All Three Audiences Together

That’s right – to create insanely accurate Facebook custom audiences, you can actually combine all three types. Here’s how you could create an über-list of people who might buy a Star Wars-themed laptop cover:

  1. First create a Custom Audience of all people who’ve purchased any laptop cover from you. You could do this by uploading a list of customer contacts or by using the Website Traffic option to target people who’ve bought one.
  2. Use that Custom Audience to create a new Lookalike Audience. If based on the United States, this would give you a list of 2 million people who would be likely to buy a laptop cover.
  3. Finally, create a Saved Audience that uses this Lookalike Audience as its source (just select it next to the Custom Audiences option). Further narrow your targeting by adding the OS X, Star Wars, income, and business travel constraints you added with your very first Saved Audience. Chances are your new audience will be a bit smaller, but perfectly targeted.
To create insanely accurate Facebook targeting, you can combine multiple audiences together. Click To Tweet

To take things a step further, you can even split test audiences against each other – a topic I cover in this post.

What Else Do You Need To Know About Facebook Custom Audiences?

Building custom Facebook audiences requires thoughtfulness and the patience to test out new ideas. If you have other tips on building a great Facebook audience, please share them in the comments!