How to avoid 7 common marketing mistakes

A short guide on creating successful online marketing campaigns and web content.

Ian Barnard

I handle digital strategy
and e-commerce for


Creating an effective brief

The Mistake

The first online marketing campaign I worked on was raising awareness of a special funding grant for non-profit organizations across Canada. Eligible organizations could access thousands of dollars if approved, but applications were scarce. We decided to start a national social media campaign in order to increase applications.

I spent hours creating exhaustive lists of eligible organizations across the country, their social media channels and contact information. I then created a detailed content and delivery calendar, customized for location and program details.

The campaign launched. Results were poor. Engagement was low, as were visits to the grant application webpage.

Digging a little deeper, I realized that while nearly all of our targets had social media accounts, few used them actively. Staff members at most of the organizations were not familiar or comfortable using social media, and in many cases left the pages to be monitored by volunteers.

We dropped the social media campaign and focused on email outreach, which improved our success rate dramatically. Spending more time creating an effective marketing brief would have alerted us to this much sooner, and saved us a lot of time and money.

The Lesson

Understand your audience and goals before starting any online marketing campaign.

“Some of our best successes have been in industries that I knew nothing about.”
Leo Burnett

The Rules

1Establish what your client is expecting from you, and when they need it delivered.

2Define the overall scope of the project and its context.

3Collect as much background information as you can. Be curious.

4Clearly define your target audience. What type of people are they, and what do they think about your client?

“Know your prospect and know your product, and know both in considerable depth.”
George Gribbin

5Determine a single, compelling message that must be communicated.

6You need to have a Unique Selling Point. What makes this message interesting and different?

7Only now should you decide on the message medium and creative direction.

Further Reading

Briefing an Agency best practice guide, The IPA
This guide aims to help anyone involved in briefing any type of communications agency on how to do it better.

The Basic Binary Brief, Dave Trott
Binary is a way of simplifying things down to their most basic. This or that. Black or white. On or off. No subtleties, just powerful, simple clarity. Watch Dave explain the concept here.


What branding can and can't do

The Mistake

An employment services organization was struggling to attract new clients, and asked me to re-brand their location. They reasoned that a fresh new look and a stronger online presence would attract a wider audience. I decided to split the project into two phases: a logo and print materials re-design, and a digital marketing plan for three social media channels.

The new logo and brochures looked great, but did little to increase new business. The digital content strategy was a similar flop. A few months after implementing the digital strategy, the client had sunk a considerable amount of time into social media activities with disappointing results.

To fix the problem, I conducted some research and uncovered a deeper issue. Jobseekers felt that the client’s services were dated and ineffective. The re-brand had only addressed the organization’s cosmetic issues. They looked great, but were still offering a service that was out of line with their audience’s expectations and needs.

Focusing on updating their services instead proved to be the right move, and business has been slowly increasing ever since.

The Lesson

A new look can’t make a bad product or service more popular or successful.

A good brand is one that offers a product that people want or need in a unique and consistent manner.

“Any damn fool can put on a deal, but it takes genius, faith, and perseverance to create a brand.”
David Ogilvy

The Rules

1A brand isn’t a logo – it’s what other people think of you.

2Consistency is the key ingredient in creating a successful brand.

3Branding is a process that takes time. It will not happen overnight.

4A brand must be supported at the top of a business in order to have an impact at the bottom.

5A successful brand always addresses a need or desire in a specific audience.

“Brands are not ends in themselves; they’re a solution, something that allows us to achieve something.”
Alan C. Middleton

6Your biggest challenge will not be creating a brand, but stopping other people from destroying it.

Further Reading

Mark Ritson: Stop propping up brand purpose with contrived data and hypocrisy, Marketing Week
Do customers want purpose-filled brands? Sometimes. In some categories. Depending on how it is done. A lot of the time they don’t give a fuck. And usually most segments will not pay more.

Brand: It Ain't the Logo* (*It's What People Think of You), Ted Matthews, Andris Pone
A brand is not a logo, advertising or any other marketing communication, but what people think of you.


How to write an ad that sells something

The Mistake

I was having trouble writing an ad campaign for a new diet product that was soon to be released. The product had a long list of features that promised many benefits to the consumer. This was easy to convey in traditional print material, but I was stuck on the online ads. How do you convey so much important information in three short lines of text?

In an effort to fit in all the facts, my headlines were filled with abbreviations and jargon. It was a mess. Stumped, I brought my efforts to the director and asked for advice.

The director crossed out every headline, and wrote at the top of the page: “Lose 10lbs in 10 days.”

“First, make them interested,” she told me. “Then give them the facts.”

Of course, she was right. The headline resulted in a click through rate three times higher than other online ads in the campaign.

The Lesson

A successful ad first peaks the reader’s interest with a promise. Only then will they read about the features.

“Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement”
Dr. Samuel Johnson

The Rules

1The sole purpose of a headline is to capture the reader’s attention.

2You then need to convey how the reader can save, gain or accomplish something, or avoid risks, worries, and other undesirable conditions by using your product.

3Either make your layout powerful, unusual or dominating so that it captures the eye, or so uncommonly simple that it’s very restraint demands attention.

“The customer doesn’t give a damn about you until you have aroused his desire.”
Christopher Morley

4People want to know just one thing: What will your product do for me?

5Show people an advantage – and keep showing them.

6Use facts and testimonials to solidify your arguments and prove your claims.

“I’m not saying that charming, witty and warm ad copy won’t sell. I’m just saying I’ve seen thousands of charming, witty campaigns that didn’t sell.”
Rosser Reeves

Further Reading

How to Write a Good Advertisement, Victor O. Schwab
A short book that offers concise, specific and tested information on every phase of copywriting, including: 100 good headlines and why they work, what illustration should and should not do, 22 ways to hold the reader longer, 14 instructive split-run tests and more.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini PhD
The classic book on persuasion that explains the psychology of why people say "yes" and how to apply these understandings.

[Video] Life lessons from an ad man, Rory Sutherland
Advertising adds value to a product by changing our perception, rather than the product itself. Rory Sutherland makes the daring assertion that a change in perceived value can be just as satisfying as what we consider real value -- and his conclusion has interesting consequences for how we look at life.


Designing websites that work

The Mistake

I was asked to design an online calendar page for an organization that offered weekly workshops for clients across five locations. To make it easier for clients to find the workshops they were interested in, I added a search bar at the top of the page that filtered events by location, topic and date. Instructions were placed directly under the search bar, where I felt they couldn’t be missed.

During a usability test a few months later for an unrelated issue, I decided to throw in a question about the online calendar to confirm it was being used by clients as intended.

To my surprise, 80% of the test recipients had a lot of trouble using the calendar. The test showed that no-one was reading the instructions, or even noticing the search bar at all!

I re-designed the page to make the search bar more prominent, and removed the instructions entirely. A second round of testing returned much better results.

The Lesson

We don’t read web pages in the same way we read books and magazines. Design web pages to help people easily find what they’re looking for.

The Rules

1Page navigation and layout should be immediately self-evident and obvious. Erase any questions from the visitor’s mind.

2We don’t read web pages - we scan them. Use subheadings, white space, short paragraphs and lists to help visitors find what they are looking for.

3Make it obvious when something is click-able.

4Omit needless elements. No Happy Talk. No Instructions.

“Good things, when short, are twice as good.”
Baltasar Gracián

5Conventions are your friend.

6Usability tests are the only way of knowing whether your website design is good or bad.

“Why didn’t we do this sooner?”
What everyone says during their first usability test

7Focus groups are not usability tests.

8Websites need to be designed for viewing on all devices.

9Making things more accessible benefits everyone.

Further Reading

Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, Steve Krug
It's hard to imagine anyone working in web design who hasn't read Steve Krug's "instant classic" on web usability, but people are still discovering it every day. Don't be surprised if it completely changes the way you think about web design.


Writing web content that people will want to read

The Mistake

A client wanted to re-design their digital promotional materials for an upcoming service fair. They provided the copy, which was written by their staff and filled with technical terms and jargon. Feeling that the client’s own staff had the best understanding of their services and audience, I used their copy verbatim.

The fair was a flop. People who viewed their materials left with no understanding of what the client was offering. While industry experts could easily understand the content, the average person was left out in the cold.

I had made the mistake of assuming expert knowledge naturally lead to general understanding.

For the next service fair, I re-wrote everything using simple, every-day words. Traffic and downloads increased 80% compared to the previous campaign.

Once people understood the service, they wanted all the information they could get.

The Lesson

Web content is a conversation between you and the reader. If they don’t understand what you’re saying, they’ll find someone else to talk to.

“Tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating.”
David Ogilvy

The Rules

1Talk to your readers – use “you”, “I” and “we”.

2Write in the active voice (most of the time).

3Write short, simple sentences.

4Use words your readers will understand.

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.”
Stephen King

5Cut unnecessary words.

6Give extra information it’s own place.

“Short words are the best, and the old words when short are best of all.”
Winston Churchill

7Keep paragraphs short.

8Put the action in the verb.

Further Reading

Want to write copy? Here’s our advice, Drayton Bird
Advice from Drayton Bird, the man praised by David Ogilvy as “knowing more about direct marketing than anyone in the world."


Measuring online success

The Mistake

At my first job leading social media activites for a non-profit organization, I measured everything in meticulous detail. Not content with standard reports, I created advanced excel spreadsheets that tracked follower growth by channel in minute detail. I could calculate audience growth rates, identify shareable content, and had a scary amount of demographic data on our audience.

At the end of the year, I was asked to create an impact report. Feeling pleased with my mountain of data, I submitted the findings. The directors called me in, sat me down, and asked, “So... what does this all mean?”

I had no idea what to say.

In my eagerness to track everything in detail I’d forgotten to ask the most essential question: how did my social media activity impact the bottom line of the organization?

The Lesson

Don’t track data for the sake of it.

Identify clear business goals, and tie them to a Key Performance Indicator (KPI). Your success is measured on the impact your activities has on that KPI.

“But the audience is right. You hear directors complain that the advertising was lousy, the distribution is no good, the date was wrong to open the film. I don’t believe that. The audience is never wrong.”
William Friedkin

The Rules

1Determine what goals matter to your success. You should have no more than three.

2These goals will be unique for every business. Ignore anyone who claims to have a universal solution.

3Start with the big questions: How many visitors are coming to my website? Where are they coming from? Are they doing what I want them to do when they arrive?

4If the answer the last question is “no”, find out why.

5Focus on the critical few, not the insignificant many.

6Be guided by data, not opinions.

7Any metric by itself is meaningless.

8Capturing data is easy. Accurately analyzing it is not.

Further Reading

Web Analytics 2.0, Avinash Kaushik
A Google co-founder shares his approach to web analytics using data to help you make better business decisions.