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Ken Magill

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Stupid DM Watch: Behold the Committee Effect in Action

5/31/11

By Ken Magill

For one of the lamest email fundraising pitches in recent memory, look no further than my alma mater Buffalo State College.

The pitch was a classic case of marketing by committee. Or at least it better have been.

Buff State—yep, that’s what they call it—last week sent me a message carrying the subject line: “Imagine the Best that Buffalo State can be.”

Opening the message revealed a Buffalo State feel-good graphic and a short bit of body copy that said, drum roll please … “Imagine the Best That Buffalo State can be.”

The email’s sole call to action was, “Learn more by watching our video, just click the link below.”

Clicking the link led to a sappy YouTube video with some soft guitar and violin music playing in the background while a Steven Spielberg lookalike in an academic gown did some speechifying.

A full transcript is necessary to appreciate the syrup that practically drips off the screen during the video:

“I’ve heard story after story about how Buffalo State changed lives,” says the Steven Spielberg lookalike. “Buffalo State is an institution that is devoted first and foremost to serving its students and to supplying them with the knowledge values and abilities they need to achieve personal and professional success.

“Business men and women, pillars of our community have said to me it is because of Buffalo State that they have been able to achieve what they have achieved.

“We make the world a better place by helping students learn how to learn so they can change and adapt to careers not yet imagined

“And most importantly, we make the world a better place when we graduate students who uphold the ideals of truth, wisdom, learning, beauty, tolerance and civility.

“My friends, as we go forward boldly in the spirit of collaboration, let us celebrate our proud past, serve our noble purpose and imagine always the best that Buffalo State can be.”

Sniff. Sob.

Hold on. Pulling myself together.

Okay. I’m back.

The Steven Spielberg lookalike turns out to be Aaron M. Podolefsky, Buffalo State’s president. He was appointed president in 2010. I graduated … well … before that.

And truth? Wisdom? Learning? Beauty? Tolerance? Civility? Makes me want to put on a tutu and do a pirouette—with a martini and lit cigar, of course. Oh wait. I did that last night I think. Sorry for the visual.

The video closed with a Buffalo State logo and a written call to action that said “Make a gift to Buffalo State at www.buffalostate.edu/makeagift.”

This pitch has to be the result of a committee. There is no way an individual could have created such an end-to-end failure.

First, while I may have given Buffalo State my email address, I don’t remember doing so. A search of that address’s inbox revealed that the last time Buffalo State sent it a message was in 2008.

Then there’s the copy: Imagine the best Buffalo State can be? What the hell is that supposed to accomplish?

Oh, wait. In the body copy the word “imagine” is italicized. That makes it meaningful.

Then there’s the content.

Failing to identify Podolefsky up front was a seriously amateur oversight. No one who graduated before 2010 is going to know who he is. Hell, most of Buffalo State’s current students probably don’t know who he is.

And we can guess why the video failed to use a voiceover to verbally ask for a donation. I’d bet a box a San Cristobal monumento cigars and a liter of Belvedere vodka the fundraising committee ruled against it because coming right out and asking for money after such a heartfelt—and in this context, pointless—speech would be crass.

And about Podolefsky’s speech: It was fine for a bunch of wide-eyed, newly minted college graduates—it reminded me why I didn’t go to graduation—but it wasn’t fundraising worthy.

This isn’t meant as an attack solely on Buffalo State College. It is an attack on marketing by committee.

Effective direct marketing is rarely going to be aesthetically pleasing to every member of a random group of people. As a result, any committee will water a pitch down until it is acceptable—pleasing and inoffensive, tasteful and artful, warm and inviting—to the 10 or 12 people who oversaw its creation.

To everyone else it’s self-congratulating blather that prompts no action beyond an eye roll.

Message to the committee responsible for Buffalo State College’s recent email fundraising pitch: Hire a professional email marketer, shut up and let him or her work.

If you need a recommendation, I can help.

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