Truth in Marketing

Marketing ‌• January 22, 2013

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been pretty riveted by the Lance Armstrong fall-out. I can’t say I was terribly surprised after years of speculation and questioning, but more than anything I’m disheartened. It’s not just Lance–I always feel this way when stories like this come out. I love a great story about perseverance and dedication as much as anyone (particularly one that came with the do-gooder trappings of an entire organization bent on beating cancer) and it feels almost personal to find out that it wasn’t real.

As I was discussing my dismay with a marketing peer, our conversation became much more philosophical as we pondered just how easy it is to unintentionally lie–especially in the field of marketing where all you want to do is get people as excited as you are about your product/service/offering.
Of course, exaggeration and overstatement are easy traps to fall into for marketers, especially when dealing with complex products and long sales cycles where you need to continually talk about the same things in new and exciting ways. I worked in software for a long time and often felt that, in my desire to take a complicated feature or function and turn it into a digestible, eye-catching headline or email, I was potentially oversimplifying. I never intended to mislead anyone, but when you’re looking to get to the bite about why this ERP upgrade is life-changing, you can easily get into a gray area.At a holiday party, someone once responded to me telling him I worked in marketing by saying (in a presumably joking tone), “Oh, so you lie for a living.” Naturally, I was offended by this (although my husband’s a lawyer so you can imagine what kind of comments he receives) as I’ve never thought of what I do as lying. But upon some reflection, I did have to admit that I see where marketing toes that line of exaggeration and overstatement that could get you into a bind if you end up promising something that isn’t entirely true.

My go-to methods for keeping myself out of trouble include:

  • Using statistics. Whether they’re mine or borrowed (I actually prefer borrowing (with proper citations–always) because they add credibility), stats give me a compelling conversation starter and useful validation.
  • Working closely with whoever owns the product roadmap. Understanding what you’re marketing sounds obvious but is often forgotten. It can be all too easy to promise an idea instead of reality.
  • Having someone else read my work. Working in a marketing vacuum is scary. Getting another pair of eyes on campaigns before they’re out the door and out of your hands is crucial.

My point in all this is that marketers have a hard job of balancing truth and enticement. Surely this does not come as a surprise to most of us in the field, but it is good to remind yourself to get out of that rabbit hole when you feel yourself slipping down it. The effect it can have on your brand, relationships, and credibility are difficult to rectify once tarnished. Just ask Lance Armstrong (who wants to get back in the competitive cycling gig).

Sam McCue
Inbound Marketing guru, avid fisherman, and all-around backcountry enthusiast.

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