5. More Lessons from the Case Study

The case study in the previous chapter teaches us the powerful importance of marketing to activist success. Here are some other lessons we can draw from it:

• If good marketing powerfully attracts people, bad marketing repels them with equal or more strength. Hence, Doe’s no-doubt-correct impression that passersby found her pitch “obnoxious.” It is essential, therefore, that even if your marketing isn’t expensive—and McHugh’s cost nothing, except for her time—it better be good. I regret to say that I believe much progressive activism is built around bad marketing, and that is a major reason for activist failure and frustration. The good news, however, is that if progressive activists can improve their overall rate of marketing success, progressive social change should happen at a much faster rate. (Keep reading and you’ll learn how!)

• There is no such thing as “no marketing” because “no marketing” is equivalent to “bad marketing.” That is because, even in cases where you don’t consciously market, a message is nevertheless being conveyed to your customer—and that message is likely to be either repellent, or so weak that your opposition can easily counter it.

• If your activism is annoying, alienating or angering people, it is (usually) not because they resent you or your message, and not because they resent the fact that you are marketing and selling to them: it is because you are marketing and selling to them badly. Good marketing and sales, by definition, seeks to form a positive bond with the customer, and it never seeks to annoy, anger or alienate him or her. So if that’s the reaction you’re getting, you should assume that your marketing and sales approach is flawed. “What am I doing wrong?” should be the question you ask on such occasions, not, “What the heck is wrong with these people?” (I.e., the people you are trying to reach.) More on how-not-to-blame-the-marketing-victim in Chapter 9.

• In marketing, the details count. In classes, I teach that marketing that hits the center of the target—that is executed with great precision, with all the details in place—is far more effective than marketing that is even slightly “off.” If McHugh hadn’t made eye contact, or mentioned the soldiers’ ages, or spoken in a clear voice, she probably would have been far less effective at conveying her message.

• Simply speaking from your heart, or simply narrating your truth, usually isn’t enough. That’s because, as I’ll discuss in Chapter 16, you need to speak to your customer’s heart, and tell the truth in a way your customer can relate to. That’s why Jane Doe’s heartfelt pleas did not move passersby nearly so much as McHugh’s dispassionate recitation of names.

• You are part of the packaging. Because customers are easily confused or frightened, professional salespeople go to great lengths to fit in with their customers’ cultural norms, or at least to appear as non-threatening as possible.

Pardon the stereotype, but as a “gray-haired librarian,” McHugh probably had the “non-threatening” thing down, and it also helps that she lived in the neighborhood where the vigil took place, so that many passersby probably perceived her as being a familiar neighborhood “type.” Her appearance, in fact, probably sent a strong double message that (1) “I am not scary, and therefore you can safely listen to my viewpoint,” and (2) “your neighbors support this cause, and therefore it is appropriate for you to do so, too.”

In contrast, Jane Doe, with her “R. Crumb hair” and (I’m guessing) East Village artsy clothes and attitude, was probably perceived by passersby as being at least a little unusual and, therefore, threatening. If so, they would have naturally been inclined to resist her pitch.

If even New Yorkers—who inhabit one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan communities on Earth—are put off by salespeople who look a little different, imagine how much more people from less diverse places are likely to be put off. OK, don’t imagine it—here’s a real-life example. During the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries, National Public Radio’s news show All Things Considered ran a segment on the culture clash between the Iowa voters who were soon to be holding their caucuses, and the legions of Howard Dean supporters who descended on the state to try to sell those voters on their candidate. The Iowans (at least as portrayed on the segment) tended to be older, rural, socially conservative and somewhat sedate and measured in their social interactions. The “Deaniacs,” in contrast, were mainly young, urban, hip and hyper-enthusiastic and energetic. The culture clash was obvious in the taped encounter between a voter and a Deaniac that was featured on the segment, and another problem was that the clash appeared not to have been noticed by the Deaniac herself, who plowed on with her enthusiastic canvassing, oblivious to the fact that she was putting off the local.

Linda Stout tells a related story in Bridging the Class Divide: “We both had a vision of working for peace. I guess I was looking for someone to be the leader, and I assumed Carol would be willing to do it. But she said, ‘Linda, look at me. Do you think people would take me seriously as a leader?’ And I looked at her wild hair and ‘hippie’ clothes and said, thinking out loud, ‘No, you’re not the leader we need for Charleston, South Carolina.’ We both knew she would not be trusted by local Charlestonians because of the way she looked and because she was not from the area.”

I like my look as much as the next person, but if I were canvassing in Iowa or Charleston, I would swallow my pride and break out the conservative duds. I would also do whatever else I could to be accepted, and seen as non-threatening, by the locals. Otherwise, what’s the point?

• Good marketing is 90 percent of the sale. McHugh reported that, after she spoke her piece, the young men in her audience “[got] it immediately.” Not “somewhat,” or “in a while,” or “after some consideration,” but “immediately.” That’s how easy it becomes to make the sale, if you do the marketing right. Had the event involved petitioning, voter registration or some other activity, there is also no doubt that McHugh could have convinced many of the passersby to take the next step. In any case, she accomplished the most difficult part of any sale: getting the customer’s attention.

There are also three fundamental and highly important truths about marketing and sales that can be gleaned from the case study. People generally don’t like to hear them, so I call them Bitter Truths. Accept these truths, and start incorporating them in your activism, and you will become vastly more effective.

I discuss them individually, starting in the next chapter.