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B2B marketing’s 6 most common design mistakes

My recent post on “B2B marketing’s 10 most common copy mistakes,” attracted many readers. Since copy doesn’t stand alone, it made sense to update and repeat a post from 2009 on common B2B marketing design mistakes.

That post began with me talking about why I love “direct” marketing more than advertising.

Direct marketing is a discipline built on the testing and measurement of every element of a marketing campaign to let the market reveal which approach produces the most response. This ability to learn what works and what does not, gives each new B2B marketing campaign the potential to be more successful than the last — and to make B2B marketers smarter.

Direct marketing has been around for over 100 years, so those B2B marketers who have come before us have tested EVERYTHING. Granted, different products and different target markets can produce different results, but there are some findings that are pretty much universal. That’s because human nature is universal. So here are the design mistakes I see most often that can affect the performance of a Web site or other marketing effort:

1. Treating copy as a design element: Words laid out in a cute shape or design manner are unreadable. B2B marketers want the design to reflect their business brand and style, but the purpose of marketing design is to make the message as inviting and readable as possible. Designing headlines with some words larger than others also diminishes readability. Headlines in sentence case are more readable than those in title case or all caps.

2. Running copy lines across a full page from left to right: The eye moving across a computer screen or printed page from left to right can easily lose its place. The harder a B2B marketing message is to read, the faster a prospect or customer will stop reading it and move on. In fact, in email marketing, the rule is to put no more than 70 characters, including spaces, on a single line.

3. Not including visuals: The message offering a white paper is stronger if a visual of the white paper is included. Using pictures of people on Web site pages, landing pages, printed materials, and emails subliminally makes a company look human and adds a level of comfort to those thinking about responding. A visual that directly supports what is being said makes the message stronger.

4. Presenting the message in big, long paragraphs: Other B2B direct marketers have tested this and proven that paragraphs of over four lines look like work to read and reduce response. Busy B2B buyers don’t want to have to work to get information. Good readable copy is easy to scan. That means using bold subheads, bullets, indents, numbers, and other devices that make the message easy to understand by scanning the page.

5. Hiding the call to action: Presenting links online is pretty easy. But if B2B marketers want a response from any printed material — letters, sales sheets, data sheets, and brochures — the call to action needs to be prominent and clear. Prospects need to see the phone numbers, URLs and/or email address quickly and clearly so that they know instantly what they must do to respond.

This last note was mentioned in the recent “10 common copy mistakes” post as well. It’s frightening how often I see this design error — in fact I’ve seen entire Web sites designed this way.

6. Reversing body copy out of a dark background: This practice reduces readability by over 30%. Web pages, ads, fliers or mailers with all-black backgrounds and light copy are the worst. Reversed headlines are OK, but not body copy. Dark type against a light or white background is always the most readable.

B2B marketing’s 10 most common copy mistakes

My first contact with a prospective client always fills my head with questions. Are they savvy marketers who need their work refined? Are they clueless? Are they trying to do their best in spite of restraints from upper management? The possibilities are many, and I’ve seen them all.

Regardless of the situation and experience of the prospect, however, it’s rare that I don’t come across at least one of these common mistakes on the company’s Web site or other marketing material.

So I’m sharing this list with other B2B marketers who may want to review it and check out their own practices:

1. Selling the product and the company, not the call to action.
To maximize the response to a B2B content offer, Webinar invite, or any other free information designed to generate qualified leads, the copy message must sell the benefits of responding to the offer, not the company’s product.

2. Forgetting to tell prospects exactly what they should do.
B2B marketers should never assume the prospect/buyer/reader will know what they are to do. Testing has proven time and time again that, to get someone to respond, they must be told exactly what to do and when to do it — download now, call now, email now, click here now, etc.

3. Making the copy virtually unreadable by reversing it out of a dark background.
Copy is not a design element. Design should support the company graphic standards while making the message easy and inviting to read. Dark type on a light background is always the best.

4. Putting the company credentials ahead of the “what’s in it for me” copy. Putting the “we” ahead of the “you.”
I cringe when I see Web copy, emails or any other marketing materials opening with the word “we.” Prospects don’t care about the company behind the product or offer until they are in a purchase evaluation stage. In lead generation it’s OK to mention who the company is and include a brief statement of its expertise or focus, but that copy should appear after the offer and call to action have been made clear.

5. Using long, complex words and language thinking it makes the company appear sophisticated.
I addressed this issue in a previous blog and included the following paragraph that was shared on a blog by Peter Helmer. Basically, his advice is “Don’t write like this” and he’s right. “We provide CMOs with best-of-breed, next-generation, scalable solutions that optimize revenue and enhance customer value. We act as a change agent empowering a paradigm shift using a value-added synergistic approach that enables clients to take a deep dive.”

6. Promoting features, not benefits.
Working recently with a client on integrating direct mail best practices into a mailer, this discussion came up. For B2B marketers who want to educate product managers on this issue, here’s the classic example using a portable dishwasher.

Spec:        Measures 12″ x 12″
Feature:     Small size
Benefit:     Fits anywhere

7. Using the same messaging regardless of the title or industry of the individual target.
Emails, Web site pages dedicated to specific titles or industries, or direct mailers segmented by title or industry — with copy focusing on those targets — consistently performs better than using a single generic message for everyone.

8. Saying too much.
When B2B marketers are offering a white paper download via an outbound marketing message, they should sell “what you’ll learn” and “what the content will help the reader do or understand” put in the call to action, then shut up. Many marketers I’ve worked with feel the need to go on and on about all of the elements connected to that issue. Determine if the information is really necessary to get a response. If not, leave it out.

9. Being dull.
Clients who present what they have to offer in a very straightforward, matter-of-fact manner are typically afraid that any other tone sounds too promotional. But if the messaging does not show any excitement or energy about the content or product being offered, how can the reader get excited about it?

10. Putting cute ahead of communication.
Being clever — getting prospects to smile when they read a B2B marketing communication — is not bad. Unfortunately, many times the move to be clever overpowers the communication. B2B marketers should be very sure to keep the tie-in to the theme or visual in marketing to a minimum so as not to overpower the purpose of the message.

Three dumb — and costly — B2B marketing mistakes.

A few days ago in the mail, I received a white padded envelope addressed to my business. It contained a single-page B2B marketing 8 1/2″ x 11″ letter and an 8GB jump drive.

It’s a great B2B direct mail package. Using a padded envelope makes it a “dimensional” or “lumpy” mailing package, which pretty much guarantees it will get opened. It also contains a something-for-nothing gift, which everyone loves.

On the label of the mailing package is my company name and address, and under that it reads “Attn: Susan Fantle.” Definitely personalized, with my name, which is also a best practice. Plus, it wasn’t cheap to send. The first class postage came in at $1.10. That doesn’t include the cost of the envelope, the production or the jump drive.

The B2B company sending the package kept their name subtle and understated by having a small line at the top of the label that read: Symantec, and their address.

The package uses best practices all around, so I was impressed. The B2B marketing letter inside the envelope, which was not personalized, opened with:

“Congratulations! I’m delighted to let you know that you are one of the first respondents to our recent offer. That means you are the lucky winner of the enclosed free gift!”

My response to the opening line was “Yikes!” I have no clue what offer I had responded to that made me a winner. Then the letter goes on to say:

“Symantec Website Security Solutions is the choice for leaders in online security.”

That’s very nice of them to say, but I’m not a leader in online security and never have been. I’m a B2B marketer. I do subscribe to a few online technology publications to try to keep up with the industry a bit. But, in order to subscribe, those publications make me fill out an extensive form that would reveal instantly I am not a technology buyer. Anyone renting those lists could easily have selected IT titles only and not wasted $1.10 in postage and more sending me the package and the free drive.

But that’s not the only thing that made me say “yikes.” The enclosed jump drive was BLANK! The B2B marketer behind this effort missed a huge opportunity to include a video, a brochure, a case study or any number of strong communications that would have expanded the sales message. Most marketing specialty firms that provide branded jump drives will record messages on them for their buyers. So that would have been pretty easy to do.

Symantec is a respected company, with fine products. But whoever managed this B2B direct mail missed three basic best practices: properly target, remind people of what they did online to gain the marketer’s interest, and make full use of the power of the free gift.

It’s possible that this campaign may get into the hands of enough qualified prospects to generate enough business to pay for the cost of the campaign. But I believe that every marketing effort should attempt to maximize that response. That means doing everything right.