Tag : proposals

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158: How Auctioneers Can Be Like Presidential Candidates

This presidential election season has been the most annoying and befuddling of the six for which I’ve been eligible to vote. This is the third one with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube; so, it’s more than social media stoking the fire.

The candidates have changed their opinions and platforms over their careers enough that Stephen Colbert could even use one candidate’s footage to debate himself. Others have assembled similar video presentations for other candidates, as well.

For two hundred years, American politicians have told one audience what they wanted to hear and another audience something else. Because all of us voters vote for our interests or our perspective of the interest of others, it makes sense that politicians play the chameleon game.

The problem now is how easily that deceptive pandering is captured and how easy it is to search for those captured moments. You’d think it’d behoove a candidate to be authentic and consistently honest, but politicians know that all Americans think most politicians lie for political expediency. They also know that if they uphold enough of their party’s platform, the zealots will look past their foibles.

Similarly, many auctioneers often play two crowds with different messages. Amazingly, they rarely get caught. At the same time, the industry as a whole scratches their head as to why the profession comes with a bit of a stigma in the marketplace.

Conflicting MessagesOn one hand, we market auctions to buyers as a place to get good deals (especially at absolute auctions). One auction industry blogger recently candidly admitted that he’d wait for an auction instead of buying an asset for a fixed price, if he had the time to chase the potential discount.

On the other hand, we tell sellers that only auctions will achieve the highest market value. I’ve had to copy and paste that into more proposals than I care to count—including proposals for absolute auctions.

“Well, a talented auctioneer working the frenzy of competitive bidding can get a crowd of people, who registered to bid thinking they’re going to get a deal, to pay more than retail for something.”

That’s true. I’ve witnessed that in person, especially with guns, sporting goods, cars, and collectibles.

What happens when there aren’t enough bidders or the right bidders to get that frenzy started, though? I’ve seen that happen, too: assets selling for pennies on the dollar.

Don’t get me wrong. A number of auctioneers consistently do better than the market with their sales. I’d hire them, if I had to unload the type of assets they sell.

That said, you and I both know that a lot of auctions are contracted not for superlative financial gain as much as an expedited end to a headache, a triage for the bleeding, or quick cash to allocate to another opportunity.

We can sell “high risk, high reward” with integrity. We can sell the time value of money with honor. We can sell superlative results with statistical evidence of our prowess.

But let’s stop selling one thing to our sellers and another thing to our buyers.

Stock image purchased from iStockPhoto.com.

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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

106: 4 Things Every Business Proposal Should Say

Even if you haven’t watched reality television or romantic comedy movies, you know some of the standard visual and verbal ingredients of a marriage proposal. There’s a guy (or sometimes a gal) on one knee. At some point, he goes through an awkward narrative around the following four basic points:

1.    “I love you.”
2.    “I want to spend my life with you.”
3.    “I got you this ring.” [usually non-verbally communicated]
4.    “Will you marry me?”

Image Used With Permission Through Purchase From iStockPhoto.comThese steps prove so common, they smell of cliche; but there aren’t too many ways around that outline. That’s just how marriage proposals work.

Believe it or not, those same four steps work well for business proposals, especially auction proposals to sellers.

“I love you.
Translation: “I value what you bring to this relationship.”

Sellers know we want a commission and that we wouldn’t be offering our services without a price tag. What they’re hoping is that we care about their assets—and not just another pay check—and that we’ll handle their sale with the care we would give our own sale.

One way to communicate this is to discuss the attributes of their assets that will interest buyers—what makes them unique or valuable. Follow this with explaining what part of your plan is connected to these attributes. Here are some examples:

“Due to the location of your property, signs will be more critical to the advertising campaign than our typical campaign. We recommend spending a higher percentage of the budget on banners that cover your building to attract attention.”

“Because of how new your restaurant equipment is, we will reach out to our list of restaurant chain developers in addition to our recent bidder lists of three similar Outback restaurant auctions that we held last year.”

“Not all auctions are newsworthy; but with your recent interstate PowerBall win and now famous tweet about your move to a private island, the human interest part of this auction’s story can be leveraged for maximum exposure. We’re going to bring in a public relations consultant to help us craft a press release that will attract members of the media.”

“I want to spend my life with you.” 

Translation: “This could be an ongoing, mutually-beneficial reality.”

Clients, like spouses, crave long-term security. Sellers want to know that we’ll stay attentive to their project amidst our others during the marketing campaign—especially for absolute/no-reserve auctions.

Put them at ease by describing all the expectations to which your willing to be held. Show them a detailed timeline of what you’ll do and when. Note when or how often you’ll communicate with them about market response and the progress of the campaign. Explain specific actions you’ll take to make their situation less stressful, less complicated, or less prolonged.

Empathy is huge for trust. That means letting people know that we realize that this is their treasured collection, their lifetime achievement, or their financial security that’s at stake. Each situation will determine what is professionally appropriate to say; and this doesn’t have to be a verbose section of a proposal, but intentionally moving into this perspective for even one sentence can be enough to separate ourselves from the competition.

“I got you this ring.” 

Translation: “Here’s my indicative deposit on good things to come.”

I remember a dude in college going room to room in our dorm building, asking for donations to help him buy a $500 engagement ring. He must have gotten enough donations. She said, “Yes,” and he’s still married to her more than a decade later; but it wasn’t the ring that sold her on life with him. Sometimes, we get the auction in spite of the proposal instead of because of it.

If our proposals look like cheap and easy templates—especially Word documents with a few variable data mentions bolded like a mail merge letter—we communicate to sellers that they are just a number, a transaction, another notch on our belts. The amount of time and effort and even financial investment our proposal connotes (whether real or assumed) reflects on the level of individuality, creativity, and professionalism we’ll bring to marketing their assets.

One sentence that regularly makes its way into my clients’ proposals reads something along the lines of, “We hope this proposal illustrates our level of commitment not only to book your auction but also to get you the most bidders and highest sale proceeds possible for your asset.” Would you be confident enough to make that statement in your cover letter?

“Will you marry me?”

Translation: “Does this look like a good deal to you?”

A difficult reality of business proposals is that we’re asking a seller to marry us on a first, second, or even blind date. Because a history with us can’t inform the future with us, we need to build the case that it will be a good deal. By using graphs of past results, samples of advertising from similar auctions, and pull quotes from people in their shoes you’ve served in the past, you can establish a track record that casts for them a vision for the future.

Unlike a résumé, though, this all needs to be framed by their benefit. Only a fool would drop to his knee and tell his girlfriend, “I was voted ‘Least Likely to Divorce’ in high school. I graduated from college with both academic and humanitarian honors and got the lone internship offered by Mark Zuckerburg this year. I have written over 450 love letters in my dating career and have attended the Certified Lover Institute. I’m a member of the National Association of Romantic Beaus. You can trust your married life in my hands.”

How many times do auction proposals read like that?

If we talk about what we bring to the table, we need to do so in a way that gives them more confidence than it gives us. For instance: “Our membership in [national franchise/alliance/affiliate network] connects us with more industrial real estate investors and the collaboration of multiple auctioneers who have sold paper production plants like yours.” Or: “Our hundreds of state and national marketing awards mean that our sellers get the best advertising available. We want our clients not only to get the biggest-possible settlement checks but also to be proud of how their assets are shown to their peers and the general public.”

Yes, all of this means more work; but that extra work on this end might just be the difference between you getting the work on the other end of the proposal.
Throughout the Bible’s newer testament, Christians are told that we will some day marry Jesus and be his bride.  As a dude, that’s still weird to me. At the same time, it’s utterly humbling.

The bride is supposed to be the beautiful half of the wedding and the ensuing marriage. Jesus, our promised groom, lived a perfect life, a selfless existence. He did more good than any human will ever replicate.  Everything about him is beautiful. Nobody can even aspire to the beauty of his soul, the transformative gaze of his eyes, the gentle healing of his touch.

Contrastingly, we smell of unfaithfulness. We have been muddied by sin and disfigured by guilt. Our teeth are decayed by gorging ourselves on the delicacies of selfishness. We walk our life journey with a limp.

Still he loves us. He wants us. He cherishes us. He’s preparing a wedding even David Tutera can’t imagine and then an eternal honeymoon in a magical city on the other side of the universe. And he invites all of us through an eternal proposal into his mercy, grace, and redemptive power.

I don’t deserve it, and I definitely don’t understand it. But, man, am I grateful for it!

[footer]Image used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com.[/footer]

96: Winning The Close Ones

Having helped auctioneers with proposals for over a decade, I’ve found that many auction proposals follow similar outlines and use similar selling points.  So, how do you separate your plan from the competition’s one?

The way you present it.

Our culture is becoming more and more visually stimulated and educated; and your marketing materials need to reflect that—especially your proposals.

Display media choices & other marketing tools.
LoopNet SampleDon’t just list the media you plan to use; show it.  Grab screen captures of the websites on which you plan to list.  Splay covers of brochures or postcards of similar properties you’ve sold.  Maybe even include a digital tear sheet showing what their ad will look like in the newspaper.  You can find similar ways to illustrate press release work, too.  This tactic will save you from burning through past auction brochure samples and allow you to include these samples in PDF presentation via email.  In the past, I’ve even inserted a chart showing the subcategories and quantities of planned direct mail lists.

Sample MediaAnd it wouldn’t hurt to show online bidding screens or a picture of someone bidding online to illustrate that process, especially for an online-only auction.  On at least one occasion, an auctioneer has hired me to build a sample ad or even a full direct mail piece of the property to demonstrate to the seller what they can expect.

Demonstrate numbers with charts & graphs.
Sir Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power.”  But knowledge that isn’t easily understood or retained loses its power.  Charts and graphs not only make your information more indelible, they allow you to impress people by the fact that you’re even curating the statistics they illustrate.  If you have some of the following information—and it it puts your work in a favorable light—leverage it for your case!
• Percentage of bidders and/or buyers (on-site vs. online)
• Average quantity of registered bidders per asset type or per geographic location
• Sale prices vs. assessed values
Comparison to Assessed Value
• Price per acre per crop type or land location
Sale Prices Per Acre (Fictitious)
• Breakdown of areas of specialty by quantity of auctions in each category
Areas of Specialty
• Quantities of online only, simulcast, and offline auctions
Bidding Platform
• Media (specific or categorical) choices by number of past bidders or buyers
Pie ChartIllustrate your experience with maps.
My chiropractor has a map in his waiting area showing all the countries from which his clients have come.  Anecdotally, I’ve found that biplane‘s coverage map has given my career experience more credence than the number of auctions I’ve advertised or even the years I’ve been in the business.  To many folks, those units of measure are ambiguous.  Numbers might be relative, but geography is typically a concrete value—especially when selling real estate.  So, show your prospect the nearby locations where you’ve held similar auctions: ““We’ve sold X properties near yours.”  Or show them the geographic expanse of your work, whether that’s by county or by state: “We’ve sold your type of asset from coast to coast.”

The free website, BatchGeo.com, can help you quickly create maps of multiple locations from your database.  Or maybe create a state or county map showing the number of properties that you’ve sold in those boundaries or number of acres successfully auctioned in them.  I’ve been impressed by auctioneers who have mapped in what states and countries they had online bidders and from which they had online buyers.

Your offer—all the things you are promising to do and for what price—will be the deciding factor in whether or not you get the job.  For situations when the proposals on the table will all have similar offers, make sure your proposal gives the impression that you’ll execute the auction with unmatched dexterity.  One way to do that is to use fewer words and more images.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever read an entire real estate sales contract, even though we’re preparing to buy our third home in less than a decade.  I’ve never finished reading the iTunes service agreement or all the entry rules in contests to win a trip to the Super Bowl or a new F-150.

And I’ve never read the Bible from cover to cover.

There.  I said it.

I’ve memorized literally chapters of the 66 books—including every verse of Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the canon.  I’ve studied entire books going verse by verse.  But genealogies or major prophets usually kill the hitting streak.

I’m grateful that God supplemented all those inspired words with his inspired nature.  Even in its “groaning,” decaying state, Creation teems with colorful illustrations of his creativity, evidence of his perfect engineering, and analogies for his transcribed principles.  It’s no wonder that Romans says nature alone is enough to show us our need of redemption—a rescue from the entropy of our soul.  And it’s critical that we, who have been restored, worship his revealed glory—so that the rocks don’t have to cry out in our place.

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

69: Retail vs. Wholesale Branding

Shoppign CartsFor Christmas gifts last year, I bought my grandparents gift certificates to Aldi. They love that place—and will sell you on why you should, too. If you’ve never heard of the German-based super market chain, they have a strong American presence. In order to use a shopping cart, you have to insert a quarter into the cart return. You push that cart through warehouse-style aisles of vendor-placed boxes and cases. Some of the canned goods might be missing labels; a good number of items sit on the floor. Stores open at 9:00 A.M. or later and close at 8:00 P.M. or earlier. And they sell stuff cheap enough for my grandparents to forego their local Walmart Super Center and bring their shiny quarter.

My cousin, on the other hand, has been a chef at Wegmans, a very different grocery store—a place so premium it makes Whole Foods insecure. It’s like Disney World for the hungry: multiple specialty cafes, cooking classes, recipe subscription services, gourmet take-home meals, roofs over their parking lot cart returns, online shopping (sortable even by special diet restrictions), downloadable store maps, video tutorials, a food blog, and a magazine. Foodies, yuppies, and French expatriates can walk amidst gastrointestinal delights from 6:00 A.M. to 12:00 A.M.

I’ve shopped at both and can see how the two extremes have each garnered a dedicated following. Both constituencies know what to expect in terms of cost and shopping experience.

You’ve probably seen auctioneers brand themselves at each end of that continuum, too. Both extremities offer profitable business models and market segments.

We all recognize budget brands with an almost-wholesale/closeout feel. They have cheap, crowded newspaper ads and photocopied posters or brochures. Their liquidations and consignment sales advertise with phrases like “Something for Everyone!” and “Too Many Miscellaneous Items to List!” You’ll see lots of star bursts, thick fonts, and bright colors in their marketing pieces. Their pictures regularly show time stamps and/or harsh flashes from point-and-shoot cameras.

Then there’s the retail auctioneers, who hire professional photographers to capture their items and ad agencies to design their media. They use ballrooms and wedding-style tents, suit-wearing bid assistants and sophisticated multimedia systems. Some even have live music, catering services, drive-through event centers, and/or on-site financing representatives. In their advertising, they implement headlines that describe amenities and features of the auction item(s) and let pictures sell the sizzle. They have uncluttered Web sites, custom auction signs, and advertising-wrapped company vehicles.

The mushy part of the deal, though, is that most small businesses are somewhere in the middle. Wherever a brand is on the spectrum—between generic and niche, budget line or premium exclusivity, family operation and corporate feel—it’s important to know and then guide public perception objectively. If your market is not on the easy-to-segment ends of the scale, you need to determine if you need to move toward one—and, if not, how you are going to differentiate your firm from the rest of the large median? I recommend creating a chart that answers the questions like:

  • What are the common denominators amidst our sellers? Our buyers?
  • What non-auction brands have similar customer bases?
  • How do they market themselves and their products or services?
  • How are we different from other auction firms? From non-auction companies that sell similar assets?
  • How do our differences benefit our sellers and/or buyers?
  • How do we leverage our uniqueness? And how do we then market it?

Another place auctioneers must be careful and self aware is in recognizing when an auction won’t fit within their brands. In my young career, I’ve had multiple occasions when I’ve bit off more than I could chew or chewed something that later soured in my mouth. Shooting for financial security, brand extension, or an interesting challenge, I’ve taken projects that weren’t in my wheel house. It causes brand dissonance in my customers; it has sometimes resulted in less-than-best solutions for their needs; it regularly kills my efficiency and profitability. With enough of these lessons and now referrals under my belt, it’s slowly getting easier to chase the work that best fits biplane‘s core competencies and refer the rest to someone else.

In addition, be careful in presentations and proposals not to promise Wegmans-type results to a client, when you know you’ll be using Aldi-style marketing—or worse yet, giving buyers the impression that they’ll get a steal of a deal while forecasting market-beating results to sellers. Auctions often surprise even the experienced professional, but don’t set yourself up for discontented buyers and/or sellers.

If you want premium retail results from your services, implement premium retail tactics. If you want to develop a low-margin, high-volume work flow, give buyers and sellers premonition of such proficiency. And if you’re somewhere in the ambiguous middle, never grocery shop hungry—especially at Wegmans.

In the final book of the Bible, Jesus communicates that he desires Christians to be hot (close to him) or cold (far from him), because lukewarm makes him vomit. It makes sense. Both religious and secular observers have certain brand associations for the holy and the hedonistic. And they have a big problem with the gray area in the middle, especially when it looks hypocritical.

Hopefully, nobody reading this is wanted for axe murders. I doubt any of us are up for conferred sainthood by Pope Benedict XVI. Are we then all hypocrites? Are we all useless, stomach irritants to our Creator?

There is no sweeping blanket answer to that. It’s tempting to judge our respective relationships with God by exterior criteria like what we wear to church or the streak of stars on our Sunday school attendance chart, the amount our tax return shows we gave to charity or the stenographer pads of all the notes we transcribed from the pews. Often, our default temperature reading protocol compares ourselves to someone else (other than Jesus) on the continuum until we find someone who makes us feel warmer about ourselves.

As a pastor’s kid, Bible college grad, and devotional book author, I know how to game the checklists. They leave me hollow. As uncomfortable and convicting as it is to ask, I find myself more challenged and authentic when I consider trajectory and momentum. Am I chasing into the Light, as I see shadows in my own heart? Or am I running from absolute truth and supernatural enigmas to be my own god?

As emotional, short-sited humans, we may fluctuate on the sine wave; but is the baseline ascending or descending? Or as gets regularly asked a lot in my circle of friends, “Where are you with God right now? Where do you sense movement?”

[footer]Stock photo used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com ©2010.[/footer]

61: Sell Only Your Core Competency

Power CordThis is one of the two times a year when work is typically less frenetic for me, which means it’s one of the slower times of the year for most of my auctioneers. So, I’ve been working on more auction company promotion than I do during the spring and autumn—company brochures, trade show displays, proposals, solicitation pieces, etc.

As I consult with clients about the concept of their respective pieces—the core messages on which to build the text and visual impression—the question I keep repeating is, “What is the one (or two) benefits you are promising the seller?” See, there’s a tendency amidst small business marketers to try to sell every possible aspect of their service in one swipe.

I’m free to say that, because I’m a recovering over-seller. My first company brochure was eight pages of magazine-size type, trying to prove my worth. (Now, it’s on two plane tickets.) The last ad I ran in Auctioneer (August 2003) was a full page ad that listed the 15+ different services that biplane productions could provide. I was trying to be all things to all auctioneers.

I don’t remember getting any clients out of that ad. And I’m not surprised. Foundational truth rests in the adage, “The jack of all trades is the master of none.” It’s the reason your family physician doesn’t perform brain surgeries, why athletes are sorted by positions, why we pick majors in college. A century removed from an agrarian culture, we now have local or regional access to enough service providers to be choosy.

We want specialists.

Your clients are no different. So, sell them on your primary area of expertise.

I laugh when I see auctioneers list five or seven (or more) areas of specialty. It reminds me of this entrepreneur’s sign I saw in Peru last month. If an auction company claims to sell all of those asset groups with equal dexterity, it gives the impression that it performs each at one fifth or one seventh of the proficiency as the auction firm that advertises only one niche. Which company would you hire: the one that does things at/near 100% competency or the one that executes at 15% or 50% competency?

“But we do sell farm equipment and commercial real estate,” you might retort. My response question would be, “Do you sell yourself to farmers and retail developers the same way—with the same materials?” I hope not. If you do, there’s a reason your auction company isn’t growing at the rate the firms you see sprouting around you. Sellers don’t care how well you chant from a podium, the part of the process many auctioneers think is “selling” something. They want to know you’ll have the most butts and the right people in the chairs in front of you. They want to know you have a top secret list of MVP’s who are waiting for you to show them opportunities. They don’t want someone who promises them they can put any number of things on an auction block.

If they wanted their property to be sitting next to random acts of other assets, they’d grab a booth at a flea market.

So, sift what you do down to one or two main services. Then frame those in terms of the primary one or two benefits they provide. Determine which venues and/or media would most efficiently reach the people who want those benefits. Then choose graphics that accentuate and illustrate those benefits to make sure your message stands apart from the other people shouting into that niche’s marketplace.

You may end up having different marketing collateral for different environments, but you’ll need fewer of each to reach the same people you were trying to reach in the first place. You’ll have less-worried sellers who have more confidence in your skills. Yes, you might see your number of auctions drop (at least temporarily); but you’ll be more efficient and effective on the sales you do have.

I wouldn’t suggest all of this unless I had seen it work for me.

Taking It Personally

God wired me “wrong.” I’m not left-brained enough to be the architect or auto engineer my junior high years dreamed for my career. I’m not right-brained enough to see concepts nobody else has dreamed; I’d be worth little to a Madison Avenue ad agency. In college, I took a brain-sided test in a creative writing class. I placed dead center. On top of that, I have the attention span of an inebriated goldfish.

I’m grateful for God’s wiring job, though. Because I don’t have to sift through a mental flood of creative ideas, I’m faster than many professional creatives. Because I like numbers and columns more than the average designer, I’m decent at organizing advertising that auctioneers would rather not touch. Because my mind bounces like a kindergartner on a trampoline, I can jump back and forth between the six to thirty auctions I have on my desk at any given time. I’d be unemployed or underemployed in most advertising settings; but in the auction industry, I’m in demand—working long shifts for good wages. If I tried to be a graphic designer for every industry, I’d be working in a corporate basement instead of my own. And I wouldn’t have over 120 state, national, and international awards.

Last week, I heard this advice from Andy Stanley’s leadership podcast: “Only do what only you can do.” I can confidently and humbly say, I’m one of a small handful of people in a world of billions who do exactly what I do and can do it at the level that I do. And if I’d chased the world, instead of the the relatively-tiny auction industry—God’s destiny for me—I’d be frustrated as an overwhelming misfit. By embracing my uniqueness, I find fewer outlets into which to plug; but I don’t bend my prongs trying to fit into places I don’t belong.

So, how has God wired you? And how are you embracing that wiring?

Stock image used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com

60: A Short Cut May Do You Good

QR CodeI rarely recommend cutting corners in advertising, but there’s one marketing short cut that’s been taking Europe and East Asia by storm: the QR code. The “quick response” two-dimensional barcode is just now burgeoning in the States, as smart phones grow in popularity.

The QR code is not your momma’s bar code. It can hold over 350 times the information that a standard linear bar code can—information like web links, auto-dialed phone numbers, text messages, and email addresses. You’ve seen similar technology in non-marketing situations like a USPS machine-printed stamp or a UPS shipping label. The QR code, though, is an internationally-standardized format, primarily directed to mobile phone users—where a camera and an app will turn a scan of the square into an open web page, a queued email, or a dialing call.

Retailers have hung QR code signs in their windows for after-hours-only sales or to take shoppers to the respective product’s information page in their online catalog. Advertisers have turned Times Square-style digital signs into giant teaser ads with a QR code for full information. Business card printers have already implemented QR codes into their product line, so that people can view your web site or call you—just by scanning part of your business card with their smart phone. GM has implemented a QR code into their Volt window stickers, so that car buyers can see full vehicle specs on their mobile devices. I even saw a photo of a Tesla Motors Roadster with a QR code wrapped on its trunk deck, as part of a new national scavenger hunt game that uses the QR code.

iPhone QR Code ReaderThe size of the square code graphic can vary with the medium. As long as the image can be captured, the QR code can work its magic. You could print these on your property signs so that drive-by prospects can take an interior photo tour from their car or get linked to that property’s page in the MLS or your web site. They can also be printed small enough to go on the mailer of your postcard—so that information you can’t fit in your direct mail piece will pop up on their iPhone or Droid. Within a decade, you might be able to shorten newsprint ads by replacing content with a QR code.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “It will be years before my buying public uses this technology. My market doesn’t have a demand for this—if it even knows it exists.”

That’s exactly why you should investigate the technology! You can let the world know that your clients get not only the best in current marketing practices but also the next generation of promotion. The codes are free to create and don’t cost any more than your current content to print on your brochures, signs, and vehicle wraps. By annotating its presence with a bright, little flag like “Scan this QR code with [name] app for more information,” you will generate interest in both your auction or property and the technology you’ve implemented. You can add a QR code paragraph in your seller proposals and even generate a QR code in advance for said proposal (with a hidden web page), as if to say, “Look! We’ve already created a QR code and web page just for your property.” Unless your competition is reading this article, I’d almost guarantee you a competitive advantage with such a claim.

Most of us remember what grocery store lines looked like before linear bar codes and the beeping red scanners. How much faster is checkout now? All of us remember when our local big box stores started offering self-checkout lines. While they don’t always make checkout faster, they give the sense of convenience. A QR code in your advertising will likewise let people help themselves—faster—to your marketing materials.

QR Code Ad

You’ll want to be an early adopter. Wendy Miller of Curran Miller Auction/Realty, Inc. (Evansville, IN) told me, “I recently learned about the quick response code concept at a real estate salesperson continuing education class.  The instructor mentioned that several REALTORS® in his area were including a quick response code on the sign they placed on the property.  When a prospect scanned the code with a smart phone, he was taken to a web site specifically dedicated to that property.”

Wendy already sees the benefit for her firm. She wrote, “As advertising costs continue to rise, we are actively seeking ways to market our auctions in the most cost effective manner.  The quick response code could easily be included in signage, direct mail pieces and other print media to disseminate a tremendous amount of information in a very small space, which would ultimately save our clients money.”

The more ways you can get people connected to your advertising for the same budget, the more efficient your advertising can be. QR codes could grow into a key component of your lean, mean marketing machine.

What do you want to pop up on people’s screens when they scan your life? Is it your love—maybe your drive or skills or accomplishments? How about your contributions to society or to the marketplace of ideas? Maybe it’s your heritage or internationality. If you’re a person of faith, might I suggest that it’s your Jesus and the evidences of what he’s doing in you?

Now, to stack another question on that pile, what are you doing to create that impression—better yet to make that an intrinsic part of your life? Most of us aren’t totally there. For the majority of us, the challenge is to keep that goal in front of us and then to break down that destination into manageable steps. If you want to be different next year, what can you do today to move toward that?

Maybe it’s to cut some friendships, some media intake, some purchases. For me, it’s usually more macro—sometimes writing a note, offering an authentic apology, or talking to God on a walk in the woods. Regularly, it’s closing the Facebook tab in my Firefox or consulting a mentor, reading nonfiction or taking my wife to a movie.

Our legacy is built with day-size bricks. Choose at least one small task to do today to alter your status quo. Then rinse and repeat tomorrow.

Tampons & Sports Cars

Tampon & Race CarDuring this economic downturn, Audi has grown market share and remained profitable as traditional global automotive leaders wallow in bailouts, recalls, and falling sales.  While many companies cut advertising expenditures, Audi America has reported an increase in its marketing budget by 20% and developed waiting lists in several metro markets for its models.

How?  Well, if you agree with Audi America’s chief marketing officer in this revealing video clip, it’s because they abandoned Detroit mainstays and appealed to more than consumerism.  Rather than relying on drives down winding roads accompanied by headlines of new features and price points, they use traditional and nontraditional channels to separate themselves from ubiquity.  With their clean diesel and green police campaigns, they give consumers something to ponder.  Their vehicles—what they sell—occupy only brief seconds in their spots.  In fact, in some of their commercials, long, shiny lines of their competition’s vehicles fill most of the space.  They take some risks, including racing an airplane at takeoff for viral video and asking ESPN video journalists to film a racing documentary on their race team.

If you’re not into European cars, consider Kotex, which is fighting ubiquity and segment stigmas with its new “U” campaign.  Using candor and self-deprecation, they are bucking the clichés and euphemism their industry has implemented for decades.  Their product packaging now comes in rainbow colors within black boxes.  Rather than talk about product features, they mock menstrual product advertising.  They’ve built social media into their web site that generates donations for a female-empowerment non-profit.

“We’re really out there and we’re trying to touch women and say we care about this conversation,” said Mr. Meurer, of Kotex. “We’re changing our brand equity to stand for truth and transparency and progressive vaginal care.” †

How ’bout your company ads, promotional materials, and “About Us” web page?  Are you just stacking resumé bullet points against your competition’s stack?  Are you making superlative claims then making sure they see your logo?  Are you trying to do what you’ve seen your competition do but just a bit shinier or with better stock images?

Or are you evoking something that makes prospects stop, think, and maybe change their preconceived expectations of your industry?

To be fair, I ask those questions about my company, too.

As a result, my company brochure isn’t full color.  I abandoned print ads years ago.  biplane productions isn’t even in Lynchburg phone directories.  There are no galleries of my award-winning work on my web site—instead: a link to a clearinghouse of free marketing advice and a map of auctions to which I’ve contributed.  I don’t rent trade show booths; I engage with my prospect base through seminar podiums, industry lobbying, and trade publication contributions.  Unlike the ad agency industry standard, I don’t mark up my printing or take a commission from newsprint ads.  biplane productions‘ clients see exactly what I pay for media and subcontractors in line item detail.  I open my personal life to clients and prospects through a robust Christmas letter and proactive online social networking.  My company car is wrapped like a race car.

These are each intentional choices, sifted through a specific brand identity.  It’s more than advertising, bigger than graphic design.  It’s letting branding infiltrate my business.

Why?  Because a lot of work-from-home designers are hungry and willing to charge less than biplane productions does.  Because my work isn’t a price point commodity that you can find at the other end of an online shopping cart.  Because I’m not a freelancer; yet biplane productions isn’t a traditional ad agency, either.  I am the only one who does exactly what I do for whom I do it.  So, why use other companies’ marketing techniques to illustrate my services?

As an auction marketer, you’re in the same boat right now.  Your competition is cutting commissions to get the auctions you’re chasing.  Bid callers are muddying the water in which auction marketers like you swim.  They’re offering online bidding and the same web sites you do; they’ve got lettering and a logo on their SUV, too.

So then, how are you leveraging your individuality to gain sales and hopefully market share?  How are you illustrating your competitive advantage beyond the designations behind your name, the plaques on your office wall, and the charts & graphs in your proposals?  None of these are bad things, but they can’t carry the weight of your brand alone.

God gave us unique combinations of pasts, talents, interests, relationships, and burdens. He’s the master of creativity; and we could chock this all up to the same expression of infinity as DNA and snow flakes.

But he handed those “random” cocktails to us for a reason: for us to leverage them for kingdom gain. He needs people to fly missionaries into remote fields and folks to love parking cars in church parking lots, hearts to sit with the elderly and arms to rock the infants, professionals to reach secular strongholds and private-school instructors to tutor the Christian leaders of tomorrow.

Take a look at your life. Maybe scribble notes on a piece of paper. Whom might you be able to reach that the church as a unit might not? The pains from your past—how could Jesus comfort and rescue others through those experiences and ensuing growth? How can you use your hobbies and proficiencies to leave a legacy larger than your own?

[footer]* “Rebelling Against the Commonly Evasive Feminine Care Ad,” NYTimes.com, Andrew Adam Newman, March 15, 2010.

Image(s) used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com ©2010[/footer]

45: Popping the Question to Your Client

ProposalMy wife, a wedding photographer (in seven states), regularly tells me, “Every girl dreams of her wedding day.” And those tend to be expensive dreams. In 2008, the average amount spent on a wedding in the States was $21,814†—more than the per capita GDP in 141 of the world’s 181 countries.†† When searching for that number online, I found resources that could break that figure down to how much was spent on photographers, flowers, jewelry, even the clergy. But nowhere did I find how much was spent on proposals.

Man, I remember all my dorm room discussions about how we wanted to propose—stories we’d heard, tips from guys already engaged, discussions on logistical solutions. (My roommate, Dave, had the best execution on his proposal with fireworks launching over the lake when she said, “Yes!”) I’m somewhat surprised there’s not a cottage industry similar to a wedding planner to help guys with it.

I shouldn’t be.

Over the past five years, proposal work has accounted for about 3.5% of biplane‘s revenue. Auctioneers often depend on their commission rate and company brochure—or their personal sales pitch—to procure business. Once they get the sale, they’ll pay biplane hundreds or thousands to promote the sale—going for all the extras like a proud daddy. So, I’m not complaining, especially since proposals prove more enigmatic to me than do my bread and butter services.

So, since your proposals aren’t going to be using biplane billable time, I might as well give you some free advice on how to improve your pitches.

Kill the resumé.
Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Spend your proposal addressing what you are going to do for your seller—especially what you do that nobody else will do. Your company brochure and web site can cover your experience. Only express your credentials in terms of what the seller gains specifically from each one. (Example: “My 14 years with Farm Credit Services introduced me to a lot of the local land investors who buy large-tract properties like your 420 acres.”)

Spend space on the uniqueness of their property.
Impress potential sellers with plans tailored to their property. What non-standard efforts will you make because of certain aspects of this particular subject? Tell them. Incorporate images of their property into the graphic theme of the proposal—and don’t just grab a page from an appraisal or MLS-style sheet.

Replace words with graphics.
Show your sales results with graphs. Illustrate your marketing efforts with screen captures of web sites you’ll use or your email template; show images of sample brochures/postcards or ads. Create a chart showing the demographics of the mailing list you’re going to use. Draw a timeline of the auction process. Show your experience with a map of your successful sales.

Send a print and an electronic version.
Show them you value their business enough to overnight them a printed, bound, professionally-assembled piece. Impress them with your flexible speed by emailing them a PDF.

Give them line-item veto power.
If you can, provide an itemized marketing budget plan (or several in different cost ranges) that shows ad sizes and frequencies, direct mail size and quantity, web sites used and any listing upgrades planned. You get the idea. This empowers the seller and lets them know you care about their opinions and concerns. It also allows them to determine the aggressiveness of the advertising campaign, in case your marketing efforts come into question when the bidding stops.

In short, build your proposals around the potential seller—not your company.

One of the most vivid analogies the New Testament gives us for our relationship with Jesus is marriage. He proposed to us on a cross and now waits, in Hebrew tradition, to retrieve us for the grand wedding. He spent more on his proposal than any aspiring groom ever has. He sacrificed his son on the altar of our sins.

Too many times, I don’t absorb or participate in the love affair. I take his offer more as a business proposal—hoping to negotiate some things to my liking, to set the parameters of the agreement, to get some free kickbacks to sweeten the deal. I treat God as a religious genie or a Teamsters negotiator. I cheapen his love—not its value, just what I would pay for it.

The challenge for me, as I seem to feel more and more of his love and pleasure, is to reciprocate that with the sacrifice of a lover.

[footer]† “Martket Summary,” www.TheWeddingReport.com
†† “List of countries by GDP (PPP) per capita,” www.wikipedia.com

Photo used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com ©2009[/footer]

25: When Change Trumps Different

USA VoteDuring this odd election cycle, where the leading Presidential candidates go from joint appearances and platitudes to Internet attack ads, one thing has been easy to absorb: their mutual message. Oddly enough, the pair of opposing stumpers claim the same primary platform: change.

We should be accustomed to this by now as citizens in this system. Almost every election—at every government level—includes at least one candidate promising change. For me it’s become as cliché as, “This might be the most important election of our life time,” which we’ve seemed to have thresholded every four years since I was old enough to vote.

The thinking is that it will be easier to collect a majority of disgruntled voters than united, happy ones. At key tipping points in our nation’s history, this has been true—and maybe even needfully healthy. But more times than not, the incumbents—with their entrenched relational, governmental, and financial resources—overcome their challengers, often handily. They’ve got momentum, recognition, and a public track record that has usually been carefully honed.

So it is with your company’s public brand. You’ve been looking at the same pocket folders and proposals for five years; you have to proof your ads extra carefully, because they’re starting to all look mostly the same (to you). “It’s time for a change. We need something different.”

Before you call your nephew at community college to whip you up a new logo or hire some expensive metropolitan agency to give you five composite ideas of a new brochure template, ask yourself if your current materials look truly old or just too familiar.

See, your look has earned four-term Senator status in your marketplace. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on how you’ve served your market—or maybe how many times you’ve driven your logo while drunk or embezzled inconsistency into your newspaper ads.

Usually, your firm is best served by making only small adjustments to its marketing momentum. There is, however, a time for brand reform: when your company is

1) changing its focus
[Nissan to “shift_” (performance) theme]


2) growing into a new arena of specialization or, conversely, generalization
[BP (fuel) shield to bp (energy) sunflower]


3) adapting to the marketplace and/or culture
[Wal*Mart (dollar store white+navy look) to Walmart* (brighter, warmer, round-edges theme)]

4) changing ownership or management
[Mailbox, Etc. to UPS Store]


5) adjusting to its true identity
[BiPlane Productions (historic) to biplane (modern minimalism)]


Your clients and patrons vote with their business. You might be able to reinvent your firm with a Contract for America-size revamp. More than likely, though, you will win those votes the way Beltway insiders do: exploiting your establishment.

Even if that includes a hair piece.

I grew up in a faith system that prided itself on staying the same. While pastors and evangelists encouraged their listeners to grow in their relationship with God, that growth was barb-wire fenced with religious parameters [read: “tradition”] for what that had to look like.

Fast forward. I’m part of a church that has seen about 10% of its attendees (we don’t have membership) become Christ-followers within the past 18 months—a statistical anomaly in an American church. Serious life change explodes all around me: atheists becoming apologeticists, broken marriages being restored, addictions being broken. All this incredible change happens in an environment where conformity and uniformity are not even part of the discussion; there are no classes, no revival services, and no Sunday school with its prefab curricula.

I’ve been asked in group settings, “Where have you moved toward God in the past 30-90 days? Or what are you wrestling with God about?” The discussion is not about how to keep from sinning or maintain holiness and standing with God. It’s about our pursuit toward God, our movement and momentum—responding to the uncomfortable but rewarding promptings in our souls. It’s an inside out-change, not an outside-in one.

You can switch churches or swap religions, adjust priorities or guidelines, set some new resolutions or exchange value systems. But if you want positive, deep, and real change in your life, it starts by asking God to reveal himself to you—and then responding to him.

[footer]Stock image(s) used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com[/footer]

Your Seller’s Ambassador

Embassy Suites Key CardMany times, I return from a business trip with one or two room keys still in my wallet. This past week proved no exception, as an Embassy Suites door card followed me home. This time, though, I had kept it on purpose. I liked the chain’s slogan, imprinted on the face: “Everything for a Reason®.”

[This online article explains why the Hilton subsidiary chose this phrase to define and market their approach to hospitality.]

Advertising—especially auction advertising—should be based on that mantra, too. Misdirected strategies can kill brand perception; but the more intentional and vetted your branding is, the more likely your brand identity is to gain recognition, acceptance, and preference.

I get asked regularly why I design things the way I do or use the media biplane productions recommends. I don’t mind answering those questions, because I’ve usually answered those questions for myself in the past.

Back in my college design classes, every design project was subjected to public review. I had to be ready to explain to the teacher and my peers why I chose certain elements and their placement. And, “because I just liked how it looked,” (as heard from the C students) didn’t cut it. Why were the lines where they were? Why were they that thick or curvy or colored? Why this picture, and why there? What is the intended mood of the font(s)?

We took a 2-credit class on font choice and lettering, another one including line significance and shapes. We had to turn in a project with 6 or 8 varying stripes of black paper on white—that’s it—and explain the significance of their juxtaposition and composition. By the end of that year, we could segregate which fonts work for coffee shops or senior citizen organizations, snow board makers or laundry detergent. Our professors wanted us to arrive in corporate America presentations being able to answer all the questions posed us.

Your clients expect the same from you. They’re giving you a portion of their proceeds for your expertise, not just your time and exertion—especially in the realm of marketing.

  • So, why do you use the media you use? Is it because that’s where your competition is (a valid reason), where your seller goes for information or where they want their advertising dollar to go (also valid reasons), or because you’ve polled bidders and know that is where your target market connects with you?
  • What do your proposals say about you before a word is read—and what do you want them to say?
  • When do you use stock photos? How ’bout professional or aerial photography?
  • How do you do you showcase someone’s individual property in a multi-property sale?
  • Which web sites do you use? When? Why?
  • Why and when do you use an ad agency’s help?
  • What’s different between your advertising and that of your competitor(s)?
  • How much description do you place in your ads, your direct mail pieces, and internet? Is it the same information in each? why or why not?

These are just good starter questions. I hope you’re asking them (and more) and able to answer them. If not, know that your competitor’s ability to answer them might make the difference in your commissions this year. They do in mine.

One of the most challenging biblical mandates, for me, was written by Saint/Apostle Peter. He said, “but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always [being] ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”

As a Christ-follower, I need to be able to explain why I live my life the way I do—a life that should be wrapped around the destination and hope of heaven. This requires that I be living with that influence, that goal. That’s not always easy in Best Buy, when I’ve got some “free” money—or at a stop light, when a minimum-wage kid in a lowered Asian car thinks he’s got something on my German-engineered Cooper S.

The path to heaven should be growing more consuming; heaven’s intentions should be engulfing my will.

That’s not a cake walk. It’s not popular. And that’s exactly why we need to communicate our Christian lifestyles in terms of hope and gentleness—and not religious legalism and its hypocrisy. Thankfully, as that love springs more and more intrinsic, it’s easier to relay the reason for our joy to those searching for it.