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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The new polarity in marketing

The Diversity Visa program is the distant offspring of the old NP-5 program. Of course, Immigration consultants market these services -- at high fees -- when the rational thing to do is follow the instructions at the U.S. State Department site.

More and more, evidence is growing that traditional 'interruption' media is failing. People are tuning out of television, at least the conventional broadcast type. Conventional print media, especially the daily newspaper and Yellow Pages, are dying under the weight of the Internet. Overwhelming volumes of marketing messages are finding their way into the garbage pails, either figuratively, or literally.

So, as marketers, we are faced with two choices -- push ourselves even harder (and more intrusively) in front of our prospective clients, or find a way to get prospective clients to WANT to receive our marketing material; to desire to do business with us.

I've enjoyed correspondence with canvassing consultant Phil Needham who advocates the former approach. He would argue that canvassers are simply retracing the old steps before the mass media; where door-to-door salespeople were common, along with delivery people who actually brought milk, vegetables, and eggs to your home. And he has a point, within reason. Well-trained canvassers certainly can do good business, and quickly, but I'll never enjoy the experience of answering my home door and finding some guy with marketing message waiting to 'inform' me of something I had never requested nor wanted.

The other side of the equation is more challenging. How can we get people to really want to do business with us? If you can pull it off, great media publicity -- the free type, where reporters interview you and put you in the newspaper and on the air -- is best. (Of course, now that traditional media advertising is dying, so are the conventional media publications and broadcasters.)

I still remember a marketing success which proved the value of publicity. It also validated my instincts as an entrepreneur.
Back in 1986, the U.S. Congress approved a new immigrant visa category -- the NP5 -- designed to allow people without family connections or business interests to qualify for the much coveted "Green Card". To handle the volume of applications, the government set up a kind of lottery -- but (at least in its earliest version) with some really unusual entry rules.

The authorities announced they would issue 20,000 visas to the first 20,000 qualified applicants. To apply, you needed to mail a single sheet of paper to a Washington, D.C. post office box. Letters which arrived before the 'opening' deadline on midnight one day would be discarded. So would all applications after the initial batch. The rules said you could not use courier or personally deliver your application to the State Department, but you could mail as many applications as you wished.

I thought this is a really strange way for a nation to manage its immigration system, but came up with a rather wild idea. What if I found the postal station in Washington and, over several hours the day before the deadline, mailed dozens of applications? Eventually, chances are, one would get through the postal processing system and into the correct bin at the right time.

Then I took things a step further. I discovered that since the applications didn't need to be signed, I could provide the same service to others -- and take orders over the phone. So I placed a few ads in personal columns of newspapers across Canada, saying "increase your chances of winning the NP5 visa".

A few calls, and orders, trickled in. Then things got interesting, when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and a reporter for the Edmonton Journal took an interest in my little business. The reporter, especially, was skeptical -- he thought we might be running a scam. But I explained that we of course weren't guaranteeing a visa; we were simply providing a service to increase chances of winning, following the rules set by the U.S. government. The reporter called the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, and a spokesman told him that our idea, in fact, was legitimate. So he wrote the story.

Our phone line started ringing (I was doing this with a partner, a woman who later went on to marry someone else). As things peaked, you could hear the phone lines crackling. We would put down the phone with one order, only for the phone to immediately ring again. Hundreds of people were trying to reach us -- giving us money and eagerly hoping for their visa dream to come true.)

We indeed went to Washington D.C. I wasn't the only person with this idea -- in fact, the U.S. Postal Service reported they had never processed so much mail in a single day at any post office. Crowds milled around the Brentwood postal station, as people pushed stacks of mail into the slots and the huge mail bins rolled out to handle the volume.

When we recovered from a few sleepless nights, we added up our profits, a few thousand dollars for a rather intense week's work.
A year later, incidentally, I received a letter from the U.S. consulate in Montreal. I had indeed been selected for a visa. I obtained the visa, but never actually moved to the U.S. and allowed it to lapse. Later, with the North American Free Trade Agreement, I obtained another type of visa - the L1A, which allows me to work and grow my business in the U.S. while remaining a Canadian resident/citizen.

I still long for a repeat experience; the exhilaration of having an idea so much in demand that people are practically begging to do business with us. I've read this sort of publicity coup has happened to others, and it can be the most amazing experience of your business life. You can't of course build a business plan around the hopes for this type of free media attention -- but when it happens, you'll know you what it is like to really succeed at marketing. And I would argue that even lesser publicity successes are worthwhile, and far more valid and enjoyable than sicking uninvited canvassers or telemarketers at your 'prospects'.

The question is, how do you do it? You can hire media relations and public relations consultants, but in the end, you are going to have to have a creative and innovative idea -- or spin on an 'old' idea and make it work. With our own advertising clients, I am always willing to spend some time creating and developing media-sensitive ideas. (This service is free, but you need to be one of my current customers to receive it!)

So, maybe canvassing or push marketing is the way to go. But maybe you can leverage a good story and get publicity, and have people banging down your door to do business with you. I'll take the latter approach, any day.

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