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One size doesn’t fit all: Tailor your message to your audience

This article ran in the June/July issue of Auctioneer Magazine. Used by permission.

Imagine walking up to a bidder and saying, “Hey, let me tell you how we’re going to make you pay more today.” Or pulling a seller aside and saying, “We’re really going to sell your stuff at rock bottom prices. Bidders are going to have a field day.”

It rarely happens, for reasons that are obvious to every auctioneer. It’s just common sense to tailor what we say to the person to whom we’re talking.

But when it comes to our advertising, web site and other mass communications, common sense often goes out the window. Instead, many seek to be efficient. They want to save time and avoid duplication. They give everybody the same message.

It’s a mistake that can torpedo an otherwise effective campaign. It can cause prospective bidders to lose interest in an auction, or a prospective seller to look for another auctioneer (or another sales method).

A better approach is one that goes by many names. In some circles, it’s called audience segmentation. During the 1980s, we fancied it up and talked in terms of stakeholder communication.

In plain language, I usually call it targeting, and it comes down to this: Knowing who you’re talking to.

We pretend that a “one size fits all” message will work for everybody. So we create expensive corporate brochures and web sites that throw around high blown terms like “state-of-the-art” capabilities and “experienced staff” but add up to little or nothing.

We even do it in advertising for upcoming auctions, using the same copy and photos for use in very different venues. I’ve often had the challenge of promoting a group of properties with a wide range of diverse assets. Occasionally, I’ve seen an auctioneer use the cringeworthy phrase, “something for everybody.”

The people who are looking for nothing in particular are generally the ones you find at garage sales and flea markets. They may be good bidders at a low-end personal property auction, but they tend to be bargain shoppers. So if they’re buying much, your sale probably isn’t going well.

The reality is that different groups need to know and hear different things. Let’s say you’ve got a house to sell. Someone looking for a “starter home” might be interested in knowing that property values in the area have consistently risen for years, but he might be turned off by knowing what homes are renting for. That’s the kind of stuff an investor wants to know. A flipper probably is looking for things that can be easily upgraded to bring a higher price at resale.

So we need to have some idea what “market” a given advertising medium is reaching. What is the newsletter, magazine or web site about? If it’s full of tips for homeowners and handymen, your best pitch may be aimed at the flipper or the guy buying a home for himself. But if its focus is on investments, you may do better by focusing on rents, cash flow and taxes.

You can’t do this on autopilot, and we all have to be learning constantly. It’s common to have transitional land of one sort or another, such as farmland that might eventually be used for development, or recreational land that includes a great site for a new retail property.

Hunting and development don’t mix all that well. Maybe you need to choose to market the property to one or the other. Or maybe you need one set of ads for publications reaching hunters and another for potential developers.

The need for such audience segmentation comes up constantly. When you’re buying space on websites or in newsletters, it’s pretty easy to target. But what about the lists you use for mailings and e-mail blasts? If your lists are typical, they’ve been compiled over the years from numerous sources – call-ins for previous auctions, previous bidders, or purchased lists.

Imagine (with the benefit of hindsight) how much more useful those lists would be if, long ago, you had added a field or two further segmenting their interest. Then your e-mail blast could emphasize the assets – or the aspects of the property – specifically of likely interest to those.

Maybe there’s not much you can do about your old lists, but it’s never too late to get better targeting data on those you continue to add. And you can always ask them. Send them a very short poll asking them to check their areas of interest on a postcard if you’re using traditional mail and via a polling website for those you’re reaching out to via email.

Improve your aim. Trust me, it’s worth the trouble.

Auctioneer June/July 2014


Nobody wins a fight: The relationship comes first

This article was originally published in Auctioneer Magazine, April 2014. Used by permission of the National Auctioneers Association. 

By Carl Carter, APR

Let’s talk about “that seller.” The one who nitpicks everything you do and micromanages the marketing campaign for his upcoming auction.

Or “that bidder.” The one who shows up without meeting the requirements to register for a sale. Or who pays no attention to the terms and conditions, then balks at the buyer’s premium. Or who bids recklessly, then wants to retract his bid.

Maybe it’s “that agent,” or “that vendor.” You know the one I’m talking about. The one who seems to be begging for a piece of your mind, if not a lawsuit. The one who gets under your skin in a way that makes you want to scream – or, at the least, fire off a hot email.



And listen to the words of counsel I received decades ago from a respected mentor: The Relationship Comes First.

I’ve received a lot of public relations advice over the years, but none better than that. It’s some of the hardest advice to take, because it runs counter to our basic instinct, our pride, and our desire to appear strong and inconsistent. We fear being perceived as weak, or losing the respect of our associates, our clients or others. We worry about setting a precedent that allows others to run all over us.

People around us see what’s happening and tell us not to take it lying down. When this happens, keep in mind that the people goading you probably aren’t going to have to deal with the reputation damage. Their names aren’t involved. Yours is.

And don’t get me wrong: There are times when you have to deal with a difficult person – or a problem – head-on. Sometimes you may even have to go to court. You have to get paid for your work and protect yourself from thieves, cons and deadbeats. There are people with whom you can’t have a relationship.

Putting the relationship first simply means that you make a serious effort to resolve problems in a way that makes a future relationship with the other person possible. It’s largely a matter of counting the costs and benefits of a confrontation:

The potential revenue from continuing business with the person.
The risk of losing that person’s business – and possibly the business of others in his or her sphere of influence. (Keep in mind, in these days of social media, an unhappy customer can do a lot of damage.)
The potential expenses for collection costs, court costs or lawyers.
The possible reputation damage resulting from a flap or a lawsuit.

Remember that if you get drawn into a public fight, your reputation will be hurt even if you turned out to be right. And a year from now, nobody will remember or care who was right and who was wrong. What they’ll remember is the stink, and it sticks to you.

Now that we have to deal with social media and the Internet, that can happen in particularly annoying and troubling ways. An unsuccessful bidder at an auction suggests that he was treated unfairly, suggesting that maybe the auction company did something underhanded. A reporter or blogger writes a negative article. Court documents get into Google’s search engines. Before you know it, people who search on your firm are seeing negative stories. Sure, you can explain them to those who ask. But what about the ones who don’t ask? The ones who called another auctioneer instead?

If you’re still not convinced, look at it this way: How many times have you shied away from doing business with somebody because there were question marks about their character or business practices? You can’t put your finger on it, but you heard or read something.

Others are doing the same thing. Play it smart, and put the relationship first whenever possible.

CNN formalizes new format under slogan: ‘All Guesses, All the Time.’

ATLANTA — CNN announced today that the network will roll out a series of commercials and billboards with a new slogan, “All Guesses, All the Time,” beginning April 1.

Network CEO I.M. Unser said the network is responding to recent ratings patterns and focus groups, which reveal that viewers are more likely to stay tuned to the network nonstop when analysts are attempting to predict the future.

“Without viewers, we’re out of business. Once we give people an actual fact, they simply disappear, and advertisers won’t continue to pay us to talk to nobody. We had a major spike during the conclave to elect a pope, for example. We brought in every priest and bishop we could find to talk about the backgrounds of the various candidates, their qualifications, and what changes they would likely implement if they were elected. People couldn’t get enough of it. Once we got white smoke and everybody knew who the new pope was, it was all over, and we were left sitting there with nobody watching. We’re simply not going to let that happen going forward,” said Unser.

He acknowledged that the mysterious disappearance of a Boeing 777 Malaysia Airlines jet served as a catalyst to the new campaign. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” Unser said. “It’s been two weeks now, and we can put anybody with a pilot’s license in the chair and folks will stay glued to the set. I really hate to see it end,” he said.

Note: This post is strictly parody. This didn’t actually happen, exactly. 

Maybe you don’t need to do ‘something big.’ Maybe you need to do several things better.

Originally published in Auctioneer Magazine March 2014. Used by permission. 

By Carl Carter, APR

You got stung. You lost a big deal you would have sworn was in the bag. Or you’ve watched in frustration as a competitor has racked up a series of big auctions while your own pipeline seems clogged.

You have to do something fast. You huddle your staff. What went wrong? Who’s to blame? You feel a need to do something dramatic to regain your lost footing. Fire somebody. Rename the company. Hire a consultant. Crank up a national ad campaign.

First, take a deep breath. What’s the longer term perspective? An occasional “wake-up call” can be healthy if it forces us to look at our own businesses realistically. So let’s start there.

  • Get better at measuring. I’ve seen very few auction companies that do a great job of collecting and analyzing data beyond calls, bidders and web visits. Why not measure the efforts that go into those numbers? How many sales calls did we make last year? How many visits? How many web meetings? Speaking engagements? If you’re not out there pitching, you’re going to get beat. That has nothing to do with technology and major trends. It’s just a reality of life.
  • Identify rationalization and excuses in your self-talk. This is a subjective, messy and painful process, and sometimes it helps to have a friend without an ax to grind who’s willing to challenge you. One “red flag” is if you find yourself saying, “I know this is the way things are being done by most folks, but our market and customers are different.” Sometimes they are. But even if that’s the case, they may just be lagging the rest of society. It’s generally safest to assume your market reflects the rest of the universe.
  • Don’t be in a rush to identify the cause. In our quest to make sense of things, we may see a cause-effect relationship between things that may just be a coincidence. The other guys are advertising in a certain magazine, and they just booked an auction you wanted. Maybe it’s a factor, or maybe they just out-hustled you!
  • What are we doing that’s working? You’ve obviously been doing some things right or you wouldn’t be where you are today. Identify those, quantify them as best you can, and look for ways to build on your success.
  • Broaden your “database.” Be wary of relying too much an anecdotal evidence. By all means, use “straws in the wind” to guide you in your quest to improve, but don’t stop there. Check industry and demographic data. Keep an eye on trends through such sources as Pew, Gallup and others. But be discriminating. I’m leery of “studies” from companies that sell the products they’re reporting on.
  • Review your own marketing materials. This is a good time for a “gut check” on your own brochures, proposals, slides, sales pitches, web site, advertising budget and other factors. You could be wasting money on media that aren’t working for you any more while missing opportunities elsewhere.
  • Evaluate your core marketing message. This is a tough one because a lot of us aren’t clear on what our core message is. Many point to their slogan, which is fine, but it doesn’t hurt to ask yourself what it actually means. I had a client (not an auctioneer) who used the same tagline – “A New Attitude” – for 15 years. None of us knew what it meant in the first place, and it had nothing to do with its products or customers. In truth, a new slogan might help, but that alone won’t fix your problem.

Sometimes you really do have a crisis. You really might have to do something big. But don’t start there. A little tuneup will probably produce faster results at a much lower cost than a major overhaul.

Carl Carter, APR, president of NewMediaRules Communications, has provided public relations, marketing and related services to auctioneers nationwide for 18 years. He can be reached at, or 205-823-3273.

After years of self-appointed experts, it comes to this. (Name that Social Media guru.)

Yep, it's Dale Carnegie. Still the best social advice around.

Yep, it’s Dale Carnegie. Still the best social advice around.

Avoid the ‘Good Times Trap’ by getting out of your comfort zone now

This column was published in Auctioneer Magazine. Used by permission.

By Carl Carter, APR

Once in a while – if you work hard and have a little luck – magic happens. You get into a profitable market niche early. You establish the right contacts, hold a string of great auctions, and gain a reputation as the go-to firm for a certain type of asset. Or a specific region. Or a seller profile.

Sales come in as fast as you can handle them. So you do the smart thing and make hay while the sun shines. You target your sales and advertising at the hot market. And while you know it won’t last forever, you go with it, because you’ve worked your whole life for just that kind of market.

In other words, you play it smart. But if you’re not careful, you can step into the “good times trap.” You focus so exclusively on what’s working that you forget to hedge your bets. You stop doing things that have worked for you over the long haul, assuming that the current run will last forever. But it may not. I’ve seen companies disappear virtually overnight because the conditions that made fed their success disappeared. You probably have too.

So here are some things you can do during the good times to avoid that trap. By all means, you want to focus on what’s working. But it’s also a good time to look ahead and be ready for the changes that almost always come. Here are a few things you can do to make the transition easier, just in case the good times don’t roll forever.

Increase your marketing savvy. Good times are the ideal time to get creative with your marketing. By all means, do what you know is working. But this is also a good time to test some new ways of promoting your auction company, because you have less pressure to go for the quick payoff. Sign up for some seminars on marketing techniques you haven’t tried yet. Educate yourself on Internet-only auctions if you haven’t already. Bring yourself up to date on the current media landscape. Who’s going where for their information?

Look for logical extensions to your current success. Who has assets similar to those you’re selling now but isn’t using the auction method? Get in the habit of reading news from different types of businesses and see who’s having problems liquidating what. Where are the clogs in the the supply pipeline? Who has idle assets and needs cash? Who’s looking to cash in?

Expand your marketing reach. The time to start reaching out to new markets is when you’re enjoying success in existing ones. Maybe you have a newsletter that gets you a lot of compliments. Great! So build on that by expanding the distribution list. Identify an industry where you don’t have a presence and start reaching out to prospects there. Identify the leading trade publications and web portals for that industry and begin reading them, if possible. Join an association or two. Attend a trade show or expo in an industry you’ve never penetrated.

Keep your foothold (and reputation) in cooler markets. You never know when a dormant source of business might heat up, so it’s a good idea to keep pursuing auctions even for properties that might seem marginal compared to your current bread and butter. People quit thinking of your firm for an asset you haven’t sold in recent memory. I’ve heard many an auctioneer say, “Oh yeah, we’ve sold a lot of properties like that.” But not lately. So nobody remembers the good work they did before. They watch helplessly as the auction goes to somebody who’s sold more properties recently in that market space, and the auctioneer faces an uphill battle to re-establish a reputation for that asset.

Be lots of places, lots of times. I have a friend who – still in his early 30s – had built and sold two very different successful businesses and was enjoying a lot of success in a third. One day I asked him how he managed to do it. “The only way I know to be in the right place at the right time is to be lots of places, lots of times,” he said. It made sense. He was constantly on the phone, out at social gatherings, and busy with events and groups around town. He got in front of people. He listened. When he saw an opening, he moved boldly. While most of us are better served by a strategy of building one business for the long run, I couldn’t help admiring him, and I learned a few things as well.


Upshot of Facebook changes: Create more content

Ever since Facebook rolled out its last set of tweaks in early December, folks have been trying to figure out how those changes affect marketing strategies. This has led to a lot of hand-wringing about how Facebook is trying to force marketers to start spending money on paid ads.

facebook hide example

This is an illustration only. It’s actually a post by a good friend and nothing I’d want to hide, but I used it because it might not appeal to non-media geeks.

Get over it. You had a free ride for years, and it was never an entitlement. You didn’t earn it or pay for it, so there’s nothing to be gained from a conversation about how you’ve been done wrong, or what Facebook should have done. Instead, here are some constructive ways to respond – things that will work in pretty much any environment.

  • Generate content. By content, I don’t mean just Facebook posts. Beef up your website with informational articles, advice, announcements and other content, then provide links to it on Facebook and other social media.
  • Become a groupie. What’s going to do you more good, shouting something on a street corner or getting into a roomful of prospects to exchange ideas and build relationships? Invest a little time and effort in finding and joining Facebook groups where people in your target market gather. Resist the temptation to jump in and start posting in a group you’ve just joined. Hang around and listen for a few days. Learn who the “players” are, and figure out the unwritten rules of the group. Then gradually join the conversation. In short, use the same judgment you use in “real life” social interactions. (Note: While my focus in this article is mainly Facebook, this is true of LinkedIn as well.)
  • Segment your “friends” and limit who sees what. Like a lot of people, I have a “friend list” that spans a number of different worlds – auctioneers, journalists, PR colleagues, people I grew up with, and family. There is very little overlap of interests between them. By using lists and segmenting, you’re just using the same sound judgment you do in your face-to-face conversations. You tailor what you say to the setting and your audience.
  • Scale back the trivia and controversial stuff. When you waste people’s time or make them mad, they tune you out. You don’t even have to do it directly. Let’s say you’ve been posting a bunch of fluffy kitty shots. That’s fine, but remember that lots of others are doing the same thing, and your friends know how to “hide” posts on a specific topic. (See screen capture.) If folks are worn out with kitties and you’ve posted more than your share, you could disappear from some people’s feeds altogether.
  • Focus on one-to-one communications. This may be the most productive thing you can do. Stop thinking of Facebook as a stage and start thinking in terms of individuals. Identify prospects or people you’d like to know better, and send them a private message. Make it specific to something they’ve posted.

Above all, manage your expectations. If you have 700 “friends,” don’t expect your posts to reach 700 people. Don’t buy into the delusion that the world is waiting for your next outburst, bit of feelgood philosophy or strategic insight. There’s no magic. There never was. It’s just that it’s easier to realize that now.


Don’t be uniquely, beautifully ordinary! Tell us what you’re actually selling

Note: This is adapted for more general audiences from an article originally written for Auctioneer Magazine. Here’s the published version, which is more targeted to auctioneers.

By Carl Carter, APR

One of the quickest ways to get me in a foul mood is to hand me a copywriting assignment and tell me to “add the fluff.” It always means the same thing: Take the asset or service being sold and slather on a bunch of adjectives and adverbs.  I hate that kind of writing, because it doesn’t say anything. It looks like it should be saying something. It has words and periods and takes up space. But there’s nothing there.

Great copy starts with verbs and nouns, because they contain practically all of the language’s power. All you need for a complete sentence is a noun and a verb. He flew. I ran. They knew.

I know you can’t write a whole brochure or web site in two-word sentences. But you can tell a much more powerful story if you start when them. What are you selling? An antique sideboard? Nice. But you’ll really get my attention if you tell me it’s a Greene & Greene reproduction made of red oak with ebony plugs and splines, as well as hand-cut dovetails.

That takes a little work. You have to ask more questions, but but it beats the heck out of breaking out the same old filler words like beautiful, classic, ornate and elegant. Plus, it actually means something.

Let’s say you’re selling a luxury home. Of course it’s beautiful. Gorgeous, even. People with the money to build luxury homes rarely build something ugly (and if they did, and you wouldn’t tell anybody). So “beautiful” says little or nothing.

It has a big, luxurious kitchen (yawn) with top-of-the-line furnishings? Don’t they all? Tell us about the seven-foot-long island built of walnut, with a two-inch thick rose granite countertop from a quarry in Brazil.

Don’t tell me it’s an open floor plan. Tell me the stovetop faces outward so that I can see across the dining area and through the 14-foot floor-to-ceiling glass doors out onto the travertine patio and the 11,000-foot peak beyond.

If it’s a farm, let me know how many acres are tillable, with what kind of soils. If it’s a commercial tract, don’t just tell me it’s a great location. Get the traffic count and tell me how many blocks it is to the civic center.

Years ago, I had the challenge of writing about a home set up on a hillside in Colorado, and when I wrote the brochure copy, that was about all I knew. The seller assured me that “no expense was spared” in construction, and I was struggling not to doze off.

What cost so much?” I asked.

I wanted to build something that would last forever. You see those beams up on the ceiling? Every one of those is joined using mortise-and-tenon joinery. There’s not a nail or screw in the whole works.”

Now, you could argue that he was just being wasteful, but he was after the kind of buyer who’d like to know that sort of thing. It told the story of the home’s quality far better than a generic statement that about “exquisite detail and superior craftsmanship.”

As I recall, we sold the house, too.

If you can’t break the habit of recycling the same old fillers, try this: Every time you publish a brochure or ad, look through it and make a list of all the modifiers you used. Start a Word file with a list of them, and refer to it before you start writing your next one. Over time, you’ll build up a nice list of words you’re probably wearing out, and it’ll force you to put more thought into your next one.

These media resolutions will help you know more and save time in 2014

There’s so much stuff coming at us, from so many directions, that we can’t possibly sort it all out. So here are some ways you can make better use of your time, stay informed and avoid misinformation.

Resolution #1. Read, but don’t watch. We can read much faster than we can watch TV, and you’ll get more serious reporting that way. Learn to use Feedly or Flipboard, which enable you to quickly scan headlines of dozens of publications in a fraction of the time it would take to watch a local TV story about a guy with a trained parakeet. Then you can actually read the ones that look worthwhile.

Resolution 2: Learn by listening. How many hours did you waste last year listening to ranting idiots on sports talk radio saying things like, “State’s gotta quit trying to run up the middle”? I listen to NPR a lot, but I also enjoy listening to podcasts. Install a podcast app on your smartphone (I use Podkicker, but there are a number of very good ones.). There are scores of excellent podcasts ranging from news programs you couldn’t hear live (minus the commercials) to news/political programs to humor. Break it up so you don’t get bored. (If you feel like you’re missing out on cable news, at least you can do it this way while you’re accomplishing something useful.)

Resolution 3: Support quality journalism. Subscribe to The New York Times and your local newspaper. I know, you may feel like the Times is a liberal rag, but they have the best reporters in the business, and they do have a paywall now, so that if you read it regularly, you’ll soon be asked to pony up. Depending on where you live, you can probably subscribe to your local paper for $12-15 a month. Even if you can get it free online (or through Feedly or Flipboard), consider it an insurance policy on your future information flow. You don’t have to take the “dead tree” version. The point is to support a valuable resource (or one that should be), because if reporting news ceases to be profitable, your news will disappear and you won’t have your “free” news either. I also strongly encourage you to support your local NPR station. NPR has the best broadcast reporting in the business today.

Resolution 4: Read to be informed, not to share. One danger of using an RSS reader like Feedly or Flipboard is that it’s very easy to hit the “share” button and put a link on Twitter, Google+ or Facebook. If you’re not careful, you’ll catch yourself sharing things you haven’t read, which can be embarrassing and annoying. Keep the horse in front of the cart by remembering that the point of reading news is to read news – not to link it.

Resolution 5: Nix the viral sites. The Internet and your Facebook feed is awash in memes, videos of dogs greeting their owners returning from war, and pirated pictures with text across of them. The’re all a waste of time, and the entire “viral” phenomenon has sparked an industry of low-quality stuff with splashy headlines. The “hot” ones nowadays are Upworthy and Buzzfeed, but that could change by the time you read this. You’ll know it when you see it. Even worse, they’ve become a breeding ground for hoaxes that will just make you look stupid if you share them. Just stay away like they’re poison, because they are.

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