Tag : auction-marketing

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189: Are You Gambling With Your Future Commissions?

Last Monday morning, I released a controversial take on the firearms portion of Facebook’s advertising guidelines. Several in the auction industry wrote it off as a Chicken Little screech, a tinfoil-hat projection. Others wrote to tell me how they had found my assessment true for them.

The potential of that post didn’t wait any longer than the following Tuesday night. I arrived home around 10:30 to find my Ads Manager on lockdown. My advertising account had been shuttered without warning and with no explanation. All of my clients’ ads had been paused.

Facebook shutdown

This was bigger than an ad not being approved. This was a total inability to advertise on Facebook without creating a new user account, getting all of my clients to update their access permissions, and re-creating all of the custom audiences I’ve made. From what I read online by others who had suffered this fate, even those steps were sometimes not enough to get back up and running, as Facebook has measures in place to protect against serial offenders.

One Facebook advertising vendor wrote a detailed article specifically on this situation, noting that even the appeals process was a long shot. Apparently, many advertisers don’t even get specific explanations of what caused their account closure. The appeals process could take days just to get a response, let alone resolution.

The worst case scenarios would’ve cost me significant time and money. I was looking at losing the fastest-growing segment of my business, the only cost-effective tool I have for some auctions. I stood to lose confidence from my clients, prospects, and the professionals in my continuing education classes.

The exceptions from the horror stories I was reading came to those with a long track record with Facebook advertising, large Facebook spends, and a humble appeal. Thankfully, all of those criteria applied to me. My appeal email also explained how I had recently written a blog post to exhort others to comply with their advertising guidelines.

I went to bed at 1:30 Wednesday morning, anticipating tough conversations and difficult work when I returned to the office. Five hours later, I awoke for some urgent pro bono work before breakfast. Before I got out of bed I checked my Facebook Ads app on my phone to discover that—miraculously—not only had my account been reinstated, but my clients’ ads had all resumed.

I jogged upstairs to my office. My inbox held two emails from Facebook: one welcoming me back to good standing and the other explaining why my account had been shuttered. I kid you not: firearms violations.

Ironic, right? I still don’t know what post or ad triggered the closure. It might have even been my unpromoted post of last Monday’s article. Apparently, the situation struck Facebook’s evaluators as bigger than just an unapproved ad, which I’ve encountered multiple times for clients. My activity was unacceptable behavior.

So, hear me again. Putting firearms in your farm, estate, and liquidation auction catalogs has the very real potential of hijacking your Facebook advertising for your non-firearm assets.

If you believe in Facebook as a marketing tool, consider playing by their rules. If you acknowledge that culture is moving away from newsprint to digital media, understand that adaptation is more than just a format issue. If you want to keep cost-efficient mass promotion in the tool box, consider how you use your tools.

While my company will gladly still design direct mail, newsprint ads, and banner ads for auctions with firearms, I will no longer create Facebook advertising for auctions with guns in the catalog. The stakes are too high for me. Take time to evaluate whether they are for you, too.

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177: Is the Difference Between Marketing and Advertising Costing You Money?

Our culture uses the words advertising and marketing interchangeably. So does the auction industry in which I work, even though they should know the difference more than most industries.

Most people see the Venn diagram of these two words as this:

Assumption Venn

In actuality, the Venn diagram looks something like this:

Venn Reality

Let me explain.

Marketing is the strategic pursuit of qualified prospects.
Advertising is the media through which marketing decisions are communicated.

In other words, advertising is just a part of marketing. It’s the louder, more flamboyant part; but it’s only a part.

3 real-world examples of this differentiation:

Marketing is my alma mater importing palm trees, lining walkways and roadways with them, and paying us grounds crew guys to insulate the non-native trunks so that they’d make it through the winter. Marketing is putting a palm tree in the college’s logo. Advertising is all the media that includes said logo and is sent to Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan—the states from which a large percentage of our student body came.

Advertising includes all the direct mail, newsprint, and signs my former employer dispersed before one of our multimillion dollar land auctions. Marketing is the multi-parcel system they used to get maximum value out of a property. Marketing is the software they wrote for that system when the personal computer was first invented. Marketing also includes all the lender luncheons they held in the new geographic markets they pursued.

Advertising got the registered bidders to an on-site auction, where one of my clients was selling his own farm. Marketing showed up when, after chatting up the attendees, he phoned a friend to get a sight-unseen starting bid by the acre.

Auctioneers make a marketing decision when they choose between live, simulcast, timed online, or sealed bid platforms. Same goes for when they choose whether to offer a buyer broker commission and, if so, at what percent.

Marketing determines who the prospects are, what they want to know about the asset or service at hand, and where to go to connect with these prospects. Advertising just executes that plan, and advertising decisions are easier once the marketing strategy has already been made.

Why do I make this distinction?

Because often, auctioneers ask me to recommend and/or execute advertising campaigns without that marketing foundation. I regularly seem to surprise auctioneers, when I ask them, “Who is your buyer for this asset?” or “Why would someone want this asset, or how would they use it?” The same goes for similar questions, when chasing auction sellers. (For the record, I also have stellar marketers as clients who start our correspondence with this information or answer these questions with dexterity.)

A marketing plan and an advertising budget are two different things. We can spend money on a standard media program that crosses a lot of t’s and dots a to of i’s. Or we can target prospects through the filters of cultural trends, asset appeal, market demand.

I gladly generate media all day. That’s how I make my money. But it behooves auctioneers to think bigger than just the box of advertising. Because marketing is how you make your money.

Stock image purchased from iStockPhoto.com

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172: YouTube Has Revealed What It Knows About Your Auction Buyers

YouTube is now the second largest search engine in North America. Web surfers watch almost five billion YouTube videos every single day.1 It’s a safe bet that Google, who owns the video streaming service, is learning a lot from all of the data it’s collecting. That data must be valuable enough for Google to lose $1.8 billion a year to keep YouTube up and running.2

One of the things YouTube knows from that data is the approximate average length of our collective attention span. To acclimate to this, they’ve made many of their advertisers’ ads skippable after five . . . long . . . seconds. That span of time even comes with a countdown clock to assure YouTubers that their wait is almost over.

YouTube 4 Seconds

To get their full message across, advertisers must make the first five seconds of their commercial compelling enough for viewers to avoid that skip button. At the average rate of an English speaker, that’s about 12 words—assuming words start immediately.

Five seconds. 12 words.

YouTube Skip

Many auctioneers don’t believe Americans have a short attention span.

  1. Their signs and newspaper ads are compressed brochures, not teasers to their websites.
  2. Their headlines are generic, throwaway labels like “real estate” and “farm equipment” when a picture of the asset(s) makes the asset category obvious.
  3. They talk about the buying method (auction), the date of that auction, the type of bidding in that auction (online and/or on-site) and the presence or absence of a reserve before they talk about the asset.
  4. Their company brochures would take several minutes to read.
  5. They mail tabbed brochures with the most attractive panels on the inside and the terms, directions, and open house dates on the outside.
  6. They put their logo at the top of their emails instead of at the bottom.
  7. They lead with the name of an estate—a name that doesn’t belong to a celebrity that would be the reason why someone wants the asset.
  8. They duplicate the content from the front of their postcard to the back, crowding the impression on both sides.

How do I know the above realities are true? Because I get paid to design auction advertising media in these ways. Every week. Because auctioneers post scans of their fliers and post them on Facebook. Because even some of the pieces that win national auction industry awards violate the laws of attention span.

By the way, those five seconds for YouTube seem long, because our attention span for other media is even shorter than YouTube or Google demonstrate with the five-second countdown. For social media like Facebook, you’re looking at less than half of that. For people sorting through their mail, two seconds would be a long time to capture their attention. Same goes for email subject lines.

Social commentators speculate that the trend to shorter attention spans is attributed to smart phone usage. Mobile Internet use might be causation or correlation, but your own Google Analytics will show you that the trend is only growing. There’s no putting the attention span genie back in the bottle.

So, how do you adapt to this shrinking attention span? For starters, get off the bulleted list you just read. Second, before you post any information in any format for your advertising campaign, work on the 10 words or less to use as the talking point for the auction. (We teach a whole module on how to do this well at the Auction Marketing Management designation course.)

If you get really courageous, cut everything out of your advertising media except this tease, the most necessary information, and a call to action. Then put the rest of your content on your website.

1YouTube Company Statistics” Statistic Brain, September 1, 2016.

234 Mind Blowing YouTube Facts, Figures, and Statistics — 2016” Danny Donchev, FortuneLords.com, September 21, 2016.

Stock image purchased from iStockPhoto.com

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166: Get Better Results From Your Facebook Advertising

I talk to auctioneers who don’t see Facebook as a vital marketing tool, because it hasn’t worked for them. After asking a few questions, it’s clear why their Facebook campaigns have reaped subpar results: they’re advertising to the wrong people.

“I posted the auction on my Facebook.”

While it probably doesn’t hurt for you to share your auction with your Facebook friends, few people on your friends list are potential buyers or even referrers to potential buyers. Also, Facebook doesn’t show your posts to all of your friends, anyway—only the ones who interact most with your content.

“I did a Facebook post on my business page.”

This is a baby step forward, but it makes several incorrect assumptions.

  1. Those who like your Facebook page are likely buyers.
  2. People who liked your page in the past because of a specific auction or asset are interested in others.
  3. Facebook shows your business post to more than 10% of your page likes.

For more successful campaigns, you will most likely need to post multiple paid ads. Each will have its own headline and copy, its own photo(s) or video, and it’s own audience. Here are some audiences my auction clients use to see fantastic results from their Facebook ads.

Locals (general public nearest the auction or asset location)

Most real estate—especially farm real estate—sells to someone local. The same holds true for estate sale assets. Facebook allows you to circle your advertising around a specific address. If you know the neighbors or locals won’t be buyers, Facebook also allows you to exclude specific geography.

Current or recent visitors

If you’re selling something to tourists—vacation real estate or boats, for instance—you can target people in a geographic area that don’t live there but are currently visiting. You can also target those who just left that area.

Demographic selectors

Facebook gives you scores of options from net worth and household income to pastimes and priorities. You can pull people who like specific brands, who work in specific trades, who speak specific languages, or who collect specific items. You can also exclude any of the selectors, like recent home buyers (who probably won’t respond to your real estate ad).

Fans of publications

Don’t want to pay to advertise in expensive publications? Can’t make an early deadline? Does the magazine publish after the auction? Does the publisher allow only the advertisers who use their online bidding platform? Then target people who have liked or mentioned the publication. That won’t equal the total circulation, but it’s a lot better than nothing. Not all publications are available, but the current selection comes in handy for a number of asset categories.

Business executives

Whether you’re selling commercial real estate or business liquidations, you can target people based on their executive status. That goes for positions like president, vice president, CEO and others; but it also works for business owners and founders. You can also target executive and management positions in educational institutions and government offices. Facebook won’t grant you 100% saturation, but even a fraction is a good start.

Brokers, investors, and management professionals

Because you can target specific job titles, you can appeal to those who would benefit by bringing you real estate buyers. You can also select Facebook users who attach to the national associations for REALTORS, home builders, and mortgage lenders. For you commercial real estate pros, yes: you can select CCIM members, too. You can also target the investor class to supplement your end-user campaign.

Past bidders and lookalikes

Upload your list of past bidders’s email addresses or mobile numbers, and Facebook will allow you to serve ads to those it can match. You can take that one step further, and let Facebook find you people who look demographically just like your past bidders. This is a free service from Facebook. You pay only for the ads, not the matching.

Email subscribers and lookalikes

Likewise, you can match up to 50% of your email subscribers and direct ads to them. This allows you to reinforce your email and/or direct mail campaign with Facebook promotion, giving potential buyers more interactions with the asset and its headlines. Facebook can build a lookalike audience from these folks, too—again at no charge for the matching, just the ads.

Website visitors and lookalikes

After you install a free bit of code on your website, you can advertise to people who visited any page of your website. So, if you’re selling an asset similar to one you’ve recently sold; you can advertise to people who visited that former auction’s page. Using the lookalike audience tool, you can serve ads to people who look demographically like the people who visited that page. Taking that one step further, you can run (1) reminder ads for the auction at hand to people who already investigated it and/or (2) ads to a lookalike audience of people who’ve already visited this auction’s page.


Finally, you can segment almost all of these lists by any of the other lists. You can also take any of these lists and sort it further by age, wealth, gender, geography, language, and much more. And you can save the lists for future use.

While there are groups or lists of people you can’t find on Facebook, there are a lot of specific audiences readily available to make your auction advertising more effective and efficient. Not all buyers are on Facebook; but there are more buyers there on any given day than in newsprint, magazines, or any TV channel. The specificity to which you can market on Facebook is unprecedented and unparalleled.

Stock image purchased from iStockPhoto.com

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163: Why Auctioneers Should Be Careful with #AuctionsWork (Part 1)

Sports Talk radio regularly includes variations on the above commercial. Every time I hear it, I laugh. I respect Johnny Bench, but the second-to-last line gets me: “And you won’t stink!”

Though it’s probably meant as a poke at Ben Gay and other joint relief creams, it also seems like an insecure proposition. Can you imagine if this were a closing line in an online dating profile or résumé? “And I won’t stink!” (That should be a given, by the way.)

You can learn a lot about a product or service by how it’s marketed: its brand position, its value proposition, its intended audience, its aspirational appeal, and more. You can even tell when the advertiser is trying to address unfavorable perceptions, or perhaps, when they didn’t focus group an idea enough.

Truly AsiaTake, for example, Malaysia’s tourism slogan: “Truly Asia.” Their Asianness isn’t in question. Heck, it’s the only country of the fifty nations in Asia that has a[y]sia in its name. For whatever reason, they are spending their marketing dollars trying to convince the world what continent and culture they are—when we already know. Their travel website, by the way, has much better slogans: “Immerse Yourself in Wonder,” and “A Land of Unforgettable Experiences.”

For the last several years, auctioneers have been posting their own versions of “You won’t stink!” and “Truly Asia” on Facebook. First it started in memes, comparing auctions to tag sales (yard sales on steroids). Now, it’s in the captions for a lot of pictures from auction professionals around the country.


It’s such an odd assertion.

When we walk into Walmart or Target, there’s no sign that says, “Retail works!” When we’re scrolling through Amazon, there’s no banner that says, “Online buying works!” Likewise, auto dealers don’t push “Dealerships work!” in their social media.

Of course, auctions work.

Perhaps not all the time and not for every situation or asset, but auctions have been a viable part of our culture for at least two centuries. A decade ago, the MORPACE survey estimated the annual sales from auctions in America to be $257 billion. Though that number seems high to me, even a small fraction of that number speaks to the credibility of auctions. To put that number in perspective, the U.S. film industry by comparison grossed $88 billion last year.

I checked: there’s no sign at my local cinema that says, “#MoviesWork.”

I’m not quite sure who #AuctionsWork is meant to convince: the general public or the auction practitioners. Industry spokespeople will say that the message is for consumers, but a hashtag won’t persuade a reluctant seller or buyer. If we want to win over the auction skeptics and agnostics in culture, we must leverage sales results and statistics, anecdotes and testimonials.

If auctions are the most transparent way to sell something, we must prove it.
If auctions are the fastest way to liquidate assets, we must prove it.
If auctions obtain the truest market value for assets, we must prove it.
If auctions generate superlative buzz and competition compared to other sales methods, we must prove it.

If we—individually and collectively as an auction community—can’t prove that auctions work, maybe we should stop regurgitating cliches about them.

You know who doesn’t use #AuctionsWork? Ritchie Brothers, Christie’s, Barrett Jackson, Sotheby’s, and eBay. They don’t need it. Neither do we.

While potty training children, parents inherently celebrate their child’s journey through the process. There are prizes and clapping and some version of “Yay!” Gradually, the rewards and celebration wane as the expectations of the child changes. In the vast majority of situations, parents are not congratulating their middle schoolers or college students for not needing a diaper. There are no graduation photos captioned with #pottytrainingworks.

The auction industry is past the Pull-Ups phase. We’re a vital, integral part of the economy; and we’re here to stay. It’s time we started acting like it. It’s time we stopped trying to convince ourselves that a hashtag proves our value to consumers. It’s time we out-marketed and outsold our competition, leaving them to wonder if their marketing methods work.

Special thanks to Gillian Zimmerman for her freelance editing help on this post!

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135: The Magic Formula for More Efficient Advertising

For years, I’ve been saying that there’s no silver bullet in auction advertising. I’ve taught in my seminars that there’s no Ronco “Set it, and forget it” strategy, because the one constant in marketing is that there are few constants.

It’s time, though, that I come clean.

There is a foundational formula that applies to all auction advertising, including yours. Using it can transform your sales pitches & seller proposals, your media spends & overall budgets. The number in its answer trumps all the numbers in your Google Analytics, Facebook Insights, and Mail Chimp reports.

Very, very few auction companies that I’ve consulted are using this formula, but the ones who are have a competitive advantage over the ones who aren’t.

I’m talking about Cost Per Bidder Per Medium.

Knowing your generic cost per bidder would be interesting—discovering how much it costs you on average to get a consumer to register to bid; but it wouldn’t be much in the way of actionable data. Knowing how much it costs you per bidder per medium, though, goes beyond interesting. That knowledge is incredible marketing power.

Here’s the basic formula:

Cost Per BidderNow, repeat that for every medium or every media category you use in your advertising: signs, direct mail, newsprint, paid search, social media, public relations, etc. Save that information, and repeat this process every auction. After a few months, you should start to see patterns on the aggregate. You’ll discover that some media are less efficient than other ones.

If you sell more than one type of asset or the same asset in more than one geographic area, you may want (1) a larger set of samples or (2) separate spreadsheets for each market.

Once you get enough of a sample size collected, you can use it to start adjusting your budgets to favor the most efficient source of customers. For example, if Facebook costs you $5 to acquire a bidder, and newsprint costs you $50 in bidder acquisition, then you can start shrinking the size or frequency of ads to send money over to social media.

You can have hundreds of people click to your website from your email blast or thousands from social media. If the only people who show up at your auction are the ones who saw the sign, though, that traffic is empty. If your YouTube video went viral or your phones have been ringing off the hook from a press release that’s hit all of the local news, but most of your bidders all brought your direct mail piece to the auction, then the buzz didn’t bring you buyers.

Buyers trump traffic.

Speaking of buyers, you can take this formula one step further to separate the tire kickers from the paying customers. In the formula, you can replace “bidder” with “buyer.” If you want to know how much you spent per buyer, the formula looks like this:

Cost Per Buyer
The formula is simple, but the data collection tends to be the hard part for auctioneers. The spend side of the equation should be easy to capture, since you already have invoices and probably a formula-driven Excel budget. You can add a couple columns to that budget to do this math for you and then link to those result fields in a master spreadsheet.

Then, all you have left is asking bidders where they saw or heard about the auction. (It’s okay if they choose more than one.) You can poll them at on-site auctions, and you can create a toggle-list question for those who register to bid online. Using some tools currently taught in the Auction Technology Specialist designation curriculum, you can even track online bidders passively from their first interaction with your online AND offline media all the way to the bidding page.

If this seems like a lot of work, think about how much more work this information could help you book. Imagine if you and another auction company were vying for the same auction, but you alone could show the seller exactly where they can spend their money the most efficiently. Do you think you’d look a step ahead of your competition with a summary from the past year’s advertising effectiveness in their asset and geography markets?

That’s a rhetorical question.

It will probably take you six to 12 months to build reliable statistics. So, you’ll want to start as soon as possible. Don’t wait. I can name auction companies with more than a year’s head start on you.

Stock image purchased from iStockPhoto.com

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133: An Advertising Lesson from a Dead Skydiver

Parachutest coverFor a combined birthday & anniversary gift, my wife bought me my first solo skydive lesson. With that came a temporary membership in the United States Parachute Association and a couple months of Parachutist, their trade magazine.

January’s cover featured the recent record-setting, 135,891-foot skydive by Alan Eustace. The images of the 57-year-old Google vice president’s ascent and free fall comprised just one of multiple articles on all kinds of astounding records, acrobatic maneuvers, and unique group formations from the last month in the sport.

Before you get to the ads and drop zone directory in the back of each issue, you’ll find one or two of the few photo-less pages in the 92-page publication. Trust me, you’ll be glad there are no pictures. The big words at the top of the page read, “Incident Reports.” A short paragraph explains that these pages are for educational value.

Incident reportTo a rookie, these reports seem extremely thorough, explaining what caused each fatality, what could’ve been done (if anything) to avoid it, and even a list of the type & brand of all the gear the deceased was implementing at the time of the incident. Each report tells how many years the jumper had been skydiving and how many jumps they had successfully completed prior to their last one—both cumulatively and within the past 12 months, based on their log book. One of the recent fallen had jumped over 6,000 times, 75 of those in the past year. One exception to the disclosure transparency: only age and gender are given, as no names are divulged.

It got me thinking. In most (if not all) cases, the didactic summaries are similar to the cautionary tales that I heard in my seven hours of training before my jump. Why publish this information? Why bring the mood down and show the risks instead of just the rewards?

Nameless, this column isn’t an obituary. My guess is that the sport wants the world to know it has nothing to hide and that withholding reality only hurts those who participate in it.

The auction industry has a similar stigma to that of the sport of parachuting. Both are seen as risky business to the uninitiated and inexperienced.

I design auction advertising day in and day out. One of the most ubiquitous phrases I’m given to include spans all asset types and geography: “selling ‘as is, where is’ without warranty.” It’s how auctions are sold to sellers—that they can have “contingency-free sales” where “the seller sets the terms.” This is appealing to those who are selling distressed real estate and used machines alike; and it gives the auctioneer confidence to sell just about anything legal.

“Buyer beware” favors the seller, the one to whom my clients have fiduciary responsibility. Since that’s usually well-disclosed, everyone involved understands that the buyer takes that uncertainty into account with their bid.

To give buyers more confidence, many auctioneers take extra steps in their online content to record videos of what’s being sold. I’ve got clients who proactively snap pictures of often over-looked details and even the evidence of wear or damage. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve got other clients who have refused to disclose information like square footage or number of bathrooms, tax assessment or lot size, and miles or hours on a piece of equipment. “We don’t want to keep them from coming out to the auction,” they explain.

My response tends to sound something like, “They’re going to find out. Why force them to waste time coming out to bid on something they won’t want? They’re going to call or email you to ask this question. Why not save your time and theirs by just disclosing the facts? Honesty on the front end reduces questions and objections later.”

Parachutest recommendationWhy not be more like the editors of Parachutist? Why not just put the truth out there for what it is, and let the marketplace determine its value?

If someone is not interested in buying the item as it exists, it’s unscrupulous to push them toward purchase. That’s not a sustainably-positive brand image. “Well, maybe they’ll bid on something else in the auction.” Then advertise that something else. Otherwise, you’ve got a case of bait’n’switch on your record.

The insecurity behind this subterfuge stems from the very real fear that we won’t get stuff sold. Since most auctioneers work on straight commission, this makes each deal speculative to varying degrees. I get it. Candidly, that’s why I’ve never been successfully tempted to become an auctioneer, even though I’m confident in my ability to market assets. That said, maybe the decision of how to describe an asset could be avoided with the decision of whether to take the deal in the first place. (I make my money on an auction whether it sells or not; so, this suggestion threatens my livelihood, too.)

In December, I helped a client build a robust property and market analysis report for the seller of a multi-million-dollar asset. I’ve created few proposals with as many comparable sales—definitely not one with as many decimal places in the aggregate sale figures. I emailed the auctioneer a few weeks after the submission to see if he got the auction.

[Paraphrase] “No. The seller didn’t like our estimated value. He went with one of the other guys who promised him a higher sale price.”

I responded along the lines of, “Well, better to avoid the stress of the seller’s expectations. Let your competition handle that headache, while you spend your time on easier, profitable work.”

That pragmatic approach works if you’re trying to get buyers or sellers—or people to jump out of a plane with you.

A Lesson in GravityThis experience in every way lived up to my expectations. Wow! Huge adrenaline rush with a sense of accomplishment. I doubt that I will ever pursue my solo license, due to the expense; but I absolutely enjoyed growing in my life experiences and my appreciation for what skydivers do by well-trained instinct. A long day of ground school proved worth it for my 18 minutes (or so) off the ground. The Timmy mentioned at the beginning of the video is the one person I know would do this with me. Most importantly, he’s the one dude I’d want to do this with me, if I ever get the chance to do it again. #heartpoundsalute
For the record, the soundtrack (attributed at the end of the clip) is VSC’s rights-purchased music, which is why I couldn’t edit this shorter for you.

Posted by Ryan George on Monday, October 27, 2014

104: Natural Disaster Advertising?

Image purchased from iStockPhoto.comOn the night of June 29, my house went black.  My neighborhood went black.  Most of my city, too, while we’re at it.

I later learned that a storm had wreaked havoc from Indiana to the Atlantic Coast.  I heard that one of my local Walmart Supercenters lost over a million dollars worth of perishable food; restaurants lost thousands of dollars of freezer inventory; hospitals went to triage mode with backup generators; lines at the few gas stations that had power stretched for as much as an hour for people to pump $5 rations of fuel; and Netflix, Instagram, and Pinterest temporarily ceased operation, as their servers fell victim to the power outage.

Utility crews from around the country migrated to help literally millions of Virginians without power.  Even with all the outside help and local linemen putting in 140-hour work weeks, it took as long as eleven days for power to return to all parts of the greater Lynchburg area.  My home office was fortunate to be without power for only 112 hours.  While I had to take cold showers, sleep on my basement floor to beat the 100º daily heat, and move my office setup to my wife’s Main Street studio, those relatively small inconveniences paled in comparison to those of the people who literally lost their homes or even their lives.

The culprit for these millions of dollars of damage? A derecho—a unique kind of windstorm that doesn’t swirl in the pattern to which we are accustomed.  Instead, a slightly-bowed wall of clouds bulldozes across the landscape, pushing powerful winds in front of it.  “Unlike other thunderstorms, which typically can be heard in the distance when approaching, a derecho seems to strike suddenly.  Within minutes, extremely high winds can arise, strong enough to knock over highway signs and topple large trees.”

In about 30 minutes, probably less, my city was crippled; and roads lined with stately trees became disaster areas.

If this (Spanish) word, derecho, is new to you, know that it was new to me, too.  I have a feeling I’ll be using it long after this storm tops my local news, though.  See, the advertising that I help auctioneers leverage follows the derecho’s pattern.

Unlike private listings, consignment retail, or traditional brokerage, my clients know how long their asset will be on the market.  And that amount of time is short—days or weeks, very rarely months.  Since an auction asset’s carrying costs have a defined end and since the amount which can be spent on marketing is also known, auctioneers can concentrate their expenditures within a small window of time.  They don’t have to hedge their bets, wondering how much they’ll have to invest and for how long.  Auctioneers can multiply the impact of their event’s core message across a wide but shallow wall of media, sometimes as little as a week deep.

There aren’t a lot of message changes in auction marketing campaigns like political campaigns exhibit.  You won’t see a glut of impressions per media as with Fortune 500 branding campaigns (think: NFL game TV commercials).  There are rarely focus groups and multi-pronged audience testing like those used for product launching campaigns.  Instead of slowly spinning toward landfall like a hurricane and sitting down in areas of low pressure, auction campaigns push the market with a sense of urgency.

The risk in an auction’s concentrated marketing campaign is that the perfect buyer or strongest bidder might not be available, ready to purchase, or engaging with pertinent media during the advertising’s lifespan; but that risk applies in some degree to all advertising.  More and more, I’m convinced that the challenge of finding the right people at the right time is (1) the reason biplane productions has stayed in business and (2) the opportunity to prove the auction method’s value proposition to sellers tempted to sell their items on their own.

The danger of auction marketing derechos is that it can create incredible goals for branding outside of auction campaigns.  Despite dropping back to fewer media, we’re tempted to expect similarly-immediate results.  The honing of a core message as well as the creative representation and application of that message should take much longer than the standard assembly-line auction workflow.  While there may be occasions for media blitzes or public relations urgency, the time and effort spent in brand building and brand management should be somewhat proportional to the time it’s expected to last.

I don’t know if it’s appropriate to compare what my clients and I do for a living to a deadly, expensive natural disaster.  That said, if the advertising we generate could engulf our buying community like Derecho 2012 has my physical community, we’d all have the job security of an American Electric Power lineman.

Outside of backpacking trips, I’ve never been without electricity for as long as we endured last week—let alone during a string of days north of 100º.  People a generation ahead of me opined about how the blistering heat of their un-air-conditioned youth resembled that week every summer.  Friends from my generation talked about realizing how dependent we are on gadgets and conveniences.  Everybody else was watching a movie in an air conditioned theater, swimming in a friend’s pool, or lining Cracker Barrel rocking chairs, waiting for a table.

My takeaway from Derecho 2012 was a consideration of response.  How do we—how do I, specifically—respond to setbacks beyond our control?  I’ve long struggled with that.  Along my spiritual journey, this has been one of the main sections of road construction—one I’ve too often taken too long to traverse because of exploring my own detours and finding them dead ends.  For too long I blamed God as much or more than myself for sticky situations.  I questioned his goodness, despite the overwhelming evidence of it in the macro view of my life.

This storm gave me another test in this area.  It might sound small, but I paid attention in this challenge to small things like praying for others instead of myself, not worrying about bridge crossings until I got there, and making my social media comments humorous or journalistic instead of whiny.  Rather than worry about the billable work time lost, I embraced the lost grid with an unconstructive weekend and reconnected with friends.

Sometimes, progress is measured in inches instead of miles.  Mine, anyway.


†”Derecho,” Wikipedia.com

[footer] Stock image purchased from iStockPhoto.com[/footer]

103: 5 Advertising Lessons From the Interstate

Image Purchased from iStockPhoto.comLast Saturday, I put over 500 miles on the odometer on the way to and then from an out-of-state wedding. I passed scores of billboards, but I only remember a few. Not surprisingly, two of them were advertising auctions.

Even though I passed both of the auction billboards twice, I never did finish reading their respective messages. Some might be tempted to blame part of that on high interstate speed limits and even higher traffic speeds. Some could even make the case that I’m not the fastest reader. Hopefully, the majority of travelers would agree with me, though, that there was simply way too much text to be absorbed during the short time of interaction.

The billboards I saw looked like the 25-word line ads I regularly place in statewide classified networks. There was no hierarchy of fonts or colors, sizing or bolding. Everything was emphasized, which means nothing was. They looked like Jenga stacks of text blocks. With no images or unused (“white”) space, those text blocks abutted the edges of the signs—crammed in the boundaries like alphabet sardines.

I’ve designed busy billboards that I’ve later been ashamed to pass on the highway; so, this post isn’t meant to denigrate these different auction companies’ work. That said, there are some lessons from my interaction with these signs.

Context is Crucial
What works on a billboard doesn’t work on Facebook. What works on YouTube doesn’t work in direct mail. And what works on AuctionZip doesn’t work on radio. Advertisers face an ever-growing array of advertising media.  One of the biggest challenges of this reality is adapting the message delivery to the nuances of each medium. Rather than simply copying and pasting from one medium to another, we need to ask ourselves about who the audience is in each medium and how they interact with that medium.

Time Flies
In my recent Certified Auctioneers Institute class, I hid a gift card in a stack of mail from home and asked for a volunteer to flip through the stack like they would at home until they found it. My volunteer averaged less than two seconds of viewing time per direct mail piece—about half the time that I had to read the passing billboards. We need to simplify our initial advertising impressions to the answer of the question, “If I could communicate just one thing—one thought—what would it be?”

Simplicity Sells
Less is almost always more. In advertising, sentences trump paragraphs, and phrases trump sentences. If the headline doesn’t sell our asset or service, adding more words will not make the sale. One of the easiest ways to subtract words is to replace them with images of the assets being described.

Images Expedite Absorption
We live in a show-then-tell culture. Pictures are shortcuts, and we all read images before text. Since we have limited time for interaction, it’s baffling to me why more marketers don’t use shortcuts like photos.

Margin Matters
Space around words makes them easier to read. The space around text can also signify importance and hierarchy. If we don’t have color or images with which to work, the next best thing for getting our message absorbed is empty space around what is important.

Good advertising is more often a result of subtraction than addition. Consider an advertisement as a collection of shares of impression. The fewer the shares, the more each share is worth—and the more likely they’ll be remembered.

The wedding I attended took place in a one-room country church, built in bygone years with an adjacent cemetery. While the wedding party was smiling for their family pictures, I meandered between the headstones. Looking at the landscape from my drive and the collections of birth and death dates at this graveyard, I was struck by many of the same lessons for life as the billboards were for advertising.

My interaction with others needs to be tempered to the context of the moment.
The Bible says to use days wisely, since I don’t know how many days I’ll get on this planet.
There is beauty is untangled, unhurried life. Find the simple pleasures in life and sit down in the moment with them.
The observation—the images—of the life I live will say as much or more as the words I write—no matter how much I write.
The concept of margin (rest) starts in Genesis, when even the Creator took a day to reflect on creation.

I’ve heard these lessons many times, but I have a short memory and even an smaller store of discipline. I’m thankful to a God who takes me to new places and old places to remind me of his timeless truths.

[footer] Stock image purchased from iStockPhoto.com. [/footer]

102: Competing For (And Against?) Potential Clients

Image purchase from iStockPhoto.comWhen someone added me to a private Facebook group for auctioneers, I didn’t expect the conversations there to look much different than the rest of my relatively-peaceful Facebook stream. So, it came as quite a surprise when it turned into the most acrimonious auctioneer environment I’ve ever encountered.

Proxibid, a longstanding vendor for third-party online bidding, had announced a change in their structure. From what I gather, Proxibid was now going to allow non-auctioneers to sell their wares through the Proxibid system—a system that had been assumed as an auctioneer-only environment. Some viewed this expansion as a deceptive change of plans; others defended Proxibid for attempting to grow the potential buyer base.

I don’t have a dog in the fight. Some of my clients use Proxibid; some use one of several Proxibid competitors; others use proprietary systems for their online bidding. My job is the same no matter where the bidders bid—whether onsite or online: find as many prospective buyers as possible and entice them to bid.

When I joined the National Auctioneers Association in 2003, there were thousands more members in the association than we have now. While the auction industry’s collective revenues are holding—if not growing—the number of full-time auction practitioners in the country seems to be shrinking. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence to confirm this rapid constriction in the profession at large. That leads me to believe that there’s a lot of competition for work. In this Proxibid shift, it’s apparent that some auctioneers are worried about the pool of professional auctioneers shrinking further due to sellers being able to help themselves to online bidding and the buyers that gather at Proxibid.com.

As a sole proprietor who depends on family-sized businesses to hire me instead of helping themselves to online vendors, I understand that worry.  It’s real and deserved concern that fewer and fewer auctioneers will deem Biplane Productions worth its fees, that they’ll keep the work in-house instead of outsourcing—or that they’ll outsource to a hungrier freelancer.

I’ve had stout competition since my first day in business in 2002.  There are far more graphic designers in the country than auctioneers, and that ratio grows every graduation season. As of 2008, there were almost 300,000 designers in the country. As just one of the trade groups in my industry, the American Institute of Graphic Artists alone has multiple times the membership of the National Auctioneers Association.

I’ve been outnumbered by my competition for a long time. So has every auctioneer for whom I’ve worked and every auctioneer I’ve ever met. Auction marketers have competed with sellers and non-auctioneers since before we had a national association. That won’t change, and Proxibid won’t be the last Internet market place to help sellers help themselves.

The challenge, then, for all of us marketers is to create and prove value to potential clients—value they can’t achieve by doing the work themselves or by posting their wares on a website, even one built on the backs of innovative and successful auctioneers.

For me, that value proving included a transition into selling and delivering on my auction advertising knowledge base as much or more than my reputation for graphic design speed. My revenue efficiency has fluctuated, as I’ve contributed to more complicated campaigns. I’m serving auction companies that regularly now combine 10, 20, even 40-some properties in single auction campaigns. I’m accepting job orders in late afternoons that require overnight designs.

It’s not martyrdom. It’s most definitely not exclusive to Biplane Productions. It’s adapting. The Darwinian nature of capitalism requires it, and technology is accelerating the need for it.

I’ll let other people debate whether Proxibid’s move was harmful or advantageous to the auction industry and whether or not their expansion happened in good faith. That’s not my fight.

What is my fight is making auction advertising so attractive and effective that people keep hiring auctioneers to sell their assets.

At church, I’ve been on a team exploring the book of Ecclesiastes in which the wise Hebrew king, Solomon, pronounces no value to accomplishment in terms of wealth, power, or pleasure. Over and over, the sage proclaims the meaninglessness of chasing success—probably because it’s a moving target that doesn’t move with us into our next lives.

On my recent vacation, one of my pastors and I were chatting about my record workload over the past eight months. He asked a simple pair of questions that keeps reverberating inside my head: “Can you just get rid of some clients? Is it as easy as that?”

I told him that after I finish eradicating the rest of our non-mortgage debt, I’ll be considering strategies for sifting my client list. I told him that, right now, I just brace for the seasonal and unpredictable nature of my work, taking my career’s lumps with its advantages.

At some point, though, there will be an intersection with my faith and my insecurities. At some point, I’ll stop worrying about losing business or losing a career to my next stage of life. At some point, I won’t care if you consider me an expert instead of a freelancer in a basement.

Each time I read Ecclesiastes or close InDesign at 2:00 A.M., I’m getting closer to that point.


[footer]Stock image purchased from iStockPhoto.com[/footer]

100: The Pinterest Effect

My Current Pinterest BoardsI take notice, when I hear a question over and over again.  And one question I’ve heard a lot lately is, “What is ‘Pinterest’?”

In short, it’s a social media environment that pulls inspiration from the bulletin board at your local coffee shop or the pin board in your college dorm room.  It’s a live stream of images—called “pins”— pulled from other websites and categorized topically both by the website administrators and again separately by its users.  Each image comes with three optional interactions: like, comment, and re-pin (to your board of pins).

Whereas other social media are based on users generating their own content, Pinterest‘s ease of use and popularity is mostly because its users don’t create the original content.  In fact, approximately 80% of posts are re-pins.†  To avoid copyright violation, the pictures are almost all linked back to their originating sites—be they travel, lifestyle, or entertainment websites.

One of my (4) Sisters' Pinterest Boards

One of my (4) Sisters' Pinterest Boards

Women typically account for a higher percentage of users than men do on social media*, and they account for anywhere from 68% to 90% of the activity on Pinterest—depending on where you get your stats.  Most posts are often associated with fashion, decor, cooking, crafts, and inventive solutions for household organization.

Pinterest Board: Inspiration for Biplane's New OfficeUnlike Facebook, it’s not intended for conversations.  Pinterest has grown so much and so quickly that Friendsheet.com, a site that makes your Facebook stream look like Pinterest, has garnered the favor of Mark Zuckerburg††—and might someday be a native Facebook option.  Unlike Twitter, it’s not intended to keep users updated on current events.  Unlike YouTube, it’s exclusive.  You can curate your own pin boards and list of followers only if you are invited by someone who is already a Pinterest member.  Unlike Google+, it’s growing like a weed both in number of users and the amount of time those users spend on the site (more than four times longer than Twitter users per month and almost 30 times as long as Google+ users average per month***)—exponentially expanding to over a million average daily visitors.*

So, why do we need yet another social media site?  And what does Pinterest have that we can’t get anywhere else?

Visual simplicity.

Facebook has images.  Twitter is succinct and sortable, too.  Pinterest, though, simplifies everything to one thing: pictures.  No profiles to manage for its content creators and little, if any, reading required by its consumers.  It lets our short attention spans be satiated quickly—or drawn into the bowels of online daydreaming.

If Pinterest were running for president, it’s campaign supervisor would be explaining its surge in the polls emphatically: “It’s the photos, stupid!”

Facebook, the major social media player with more average minutes of use per month than Pinterest understands our culture’s draw to images, as it sees 70% of its users’ activity centers around its photos.**  But that pales to the photo-centricity of Pinterest, which by default, has pictures at just under 100% of activity.

There’s a lesson there for every marketer.  What makes content quickly absorbable is compelling imagery, imagery which Pinterest users tend to pull from predominantly-commercial websites.  Words—even headlines—are secondary.  As a culture, we don’t’ care about explanations and slogans, if we aren’t drawn to them through the picture(s) they accompany.  As a marketer who helps other marketers, I can tell you that if the design of our marketing media centers around large, singular imagery—and those images are professionally staged and captured—our advertising will be far more effective than the current average of small business advertising media.  That goes for small business at large and the auction industry, which I serve, in particular.

Message is important.  And honing your message is crucial.  But Andre Aggassi was right: image is everything.  And, last time I checked, advertising is part of everything.  If the first thing your media recipients and viewers sees is text—no matter how large or bold or colorful—chances are good that you’re doing advertising wrong.  If they see a solid background with a collage of pictures, we are making them work harder (than if we had used one big, full-bleed image) and, in many cases, watering down the primary draw.  Look at advertising for Apple, Nike, Ford, TNT, and BOSE.  They get it.  So should we.

If potential buyers don’t like what they see in the primary image, what makes any retailer, wholesaler, or auctioneer think potential buyers would care what other pictures we have or what the advertisement has to say?

The Bible says we humans were created in God’s image (one of the ways homo sapiens were differentiated from the rest of creation).  As believers of The Way, we are to be pictures of Jesus in our culture.  While we are wrapped in individual personalities and exclusive physical containers, the essence from the new core of our souls should shine through those translucent shells.

In contrast, the entropy and temptation for us all is to talk religious words, add Jesus stickers or fabric on the outside, and gather with those who codify and police exterior criteria the way we do.  That’s lazy and destructive.  Jesus didn’t come so that we could shine through the filter of him—or worse: the filters of religion, church, and spirituality.  He came to give us life, to change our core, to change the lightbulb—not the lamp shade—in the fixture.  He wants his truth and love and other attributes to radiate from us.

If today were a snapshot of who you are, and you handed that snapshot to a stranger, what would they see?  If you had to hand it to Jesus as a photo illustration of him, what would you have changed about your day before taking that picture?

†” Why Is Pinterest So Addictive?” by Stephanie Buck, Mashable.com. March 24, 2012.

†† “Friendsheet: The Zuck-Approved Pinterest-Style Facebook Photo Browser” by Josh Constine, Techcrunch.com.

* “A Very (P)interesting [infographic]” by Tim, DailyInfographic.com. March 9, 2012.

** “In Age of Pinterest, Instagram, Marketers Need An Image Strategy” by Chas Edwards, Adage.com. March 15, 2012.

*** “The Mounting Minuses at Google+” by Amir Efrati, Wall Street Journal. February 28, 2012.

98: Learning From Public Perception

Screen Capture of jcpenney's New "Auctioneer" AdAlmost 100% of my income comes from the auction industry.  Because of this, a lot of my Facebook connections also derive their livelihoods from the same line of work.  Last week, I saw a number of industry leaders posting and liking a web-published letter from the National Auctioneers Association (NAA) to jcpenney, asking them to immediately pull a television commercial that includes an auctioneer—on grounds of improper representation of a 12-figure segment of the economy.

Having not seen the commercial on TV, I found the ad online.  It shows a trite caricature of an old school “colonel,” calling bids backwards as western music twangs in the background.  And then it drops these statements: “No more pricing games.  Just great prices from the start.  That’s fair and square.”

Anybody who’s been to an auctioneer convention has met or at least seen bid callers that resemble to varying degrees the bid caller hired for this TV spot.  But anybody who’s been to an auction industry gathering can tell you that he represents the exception to the rule—at least the present and future of it.  So, the industry as a whole is probably as embarrassed by this portrayal as my college friend said she was by Crocodile Dundee being a representative of her native Australia.

I think the response, though, is more to the implication that auctions aren’t fair or square sales environments.  Nobody wants to be called unfair.  That implies shady, even immoral, business.  If that were the intended statement of the commercial, I would stand with professional auction marketers around the country in their attempt to stop the besmirching of their profession.

That said, I doubted that was the intent of the ad; so, I called jcpenney’s media relations department.  Kate Coultas, jcpenney spokesperson, emailed then called me to affirm that the intention of the TV spot was to illustrate an environment where consumers are inundated with advertised price points from various places.  A live “outcry” auction proved analogous of that concept.  Having spent time in a candid conversation with Coultas, I trust that the motif was the goal and not an attack on potential customers from the auction community.

jcpenney logo used with permissionIn an official statement, the company stated, “Our ‘auctioneer’ ad is part of our campaign to introduce consumers to our new ‘Fair and Square’ pricing strategy. Our new pricing strategy aims to put an end to the frustration many consumers have with today’s endless retail promotions. The ad is in no way meant to portray the auctioneer profession in a negative manner and we apologize for any offense we may have caused.”

Even before I spoke with Coultas—having watched the series of six ads in which the auctioneer spot falls, I extended grace to Peterson Milla Hocks (known as PMH in trade forums), the ad agency that put the series together to illustrate how jcpenney is breaking away from convention with their new, three-tiered pricing strategy.  And I refrained from any critical remarks of PMH, because they are not auctioneers.  They represent the marketplace, people of the population that only know of auctioneers what stereotypes and TV shows have shown them.  Sadly, in both those situations, an unprofessional or timeworn bid caller most likely contributed to those impressions.  My clients, peers, and I work through branding to combat that stigma, as does the NAA through robust continuing education, public relations initiatives, and a standard code of ethics.

That said, this situation presents itself with a chance for collective introspection—a chance to remind ourselves of how crucial public perception of the auction marketing method is.  Candid auction professionals must concede that, while auctions are above board, they do come with some obstacles to purchasing that retail doesn’t.  Using jcpenney as an example, its customers:

  • do not pay a buyer’s premium
  • are not charged an additional fee to use a credit or debit card
  • do not have to register at the door in order to purchase
  • are allowed to return items under certain terms within a documented time frame
  • do not have to reveal their purchases and the amount paid for them to a crowd from their community
  • are not assigned a number that they have to remember or carry with them while shopping
  • do not have to wait through audible announcement of sale terms before shopping commences
  • do not have to wait for a designated date to purchase an item
  • do not have to wait for a list of items to sell before they can buy their desired item

Am I against auctions or the auction method?  No!  I’ve purchased multiple items in live (on site) and online auctions.  I just sold my iPhone 4 intentionally through the auction method instead of listing it on Craigslist or selling it to a local electronics dealer; and when the winning bidder was flagged as a scammer, I trusted the auction method to sell it a second time.  My wife and I were even runner-up bidders last November on a house and were fully prepared to purchase it, had the bids not gone as high as they did.  If I didn’t believe in the auction method, I’m in the wrong line of work.

What can be gained with the auction method is a liability to other sale formats and vice versa.  One of the tradeoffs for the benefits of live bidding is that an auction isn’t always the most convenient way to purchase.  Some of that is immutable—the nature of the method.  Other aspects are improvable with ingenuity and technology.

Thankfully, courageous auction professionals are working toward making it easier and more convenient to buy things through the competitive bidding environment.  Most auction firms are including simulcast online bidding for those who can’t physically be present at the auction.  Others, including many of my clients, have moved to online-only auctions in which bids can be left at the buyer’s convenience—even for real estate.  One auctioneer I met allows returns of items purchased at personal property auctions.  Another auctioneer, faced with international bidders walking out of his auctions due to the unintended intimidation through his speed talking, told me that he has killed the chant in his bid calling—as have international auctioneers I watch on Velocity.  Some firms are moving to mobile payments and/or killing fees.  Personally, I think eBay’s Buy It Now concept and auction tracking app are both positive ideas for the auction industry.  The list of innovations and redirected strategies is dynamic—a rising tide continuing to lift all progressive boats.

The fight to save and grow the auction industry is in the hands of us who market in it every day.  Our success will require us to step out of our perspective, our conveniences, our assumptions.  Our jobs will most likely continue to require more steps and a wider skill set.  I’m in this, too.  To maintain value for my clients, my responsibilities, packages, and services have changed over the past years.  Have you found that to be true?  If not, how long do you think your status quo will serve you well?

While researching for this post, I discovered that jcpenney also got negative feedback recently for hiring Ellen Degeneres as a spokesperson.  Apparently, OneMillionMoms.com, a project of the American Family Association, is encouraging people to boycott the department store for hiring a lesbian endorser.  Sadly, it’s no surprise that these calls crescendo from evangelical Christian roots and voices.

My friends and acquaintances who have struggled with same-sex attraction are no less acceptable to God than my heterosexual friends who have struggled with porn, premarital sex, extramarital affairs—or for that matter, gossip, laziness, bitterness, jealousy, overeating, or ignoring the speed limit.  We are all broken people who can’t heal ourselves.  Not one of us can attain heaven, wholeness, or God’s favor with our own effort.

So, I don’t understand the boycott—what is wanted, what is hoped.  A sinner-free jcpenney would put the chain out of business in a week for want of a single customer or employee.  Based on John 3:16, we know that Jesus wants Ellen and her partner in heaven—and heaven working here in and through them—as much as he does in and through any of us.  In light of that, how does a vociferous boycott align with those goals?  And how can redeeming, restorative love be observed by the secular world in the fanaticism from those who claim to carry the Holy Spirit in their heart?  Last time I checked, there was no passage in the Bible suggesting anyone boycott an unbeliever into soul-level repentance and saving faith in what Jesus did for them.

[footer]Images used by written permission from jcpenney.[/footer]