What I learned about digital marketing from cold calling. Short story. Non-fiction.

This is a short story about digital marketing and cold calling. Fresh out of school, I got a paid internship in San Mateo, CA. It was in the heart of Silicon Valley, during the dotcom boom, with “NewMedia”, a print and online magazine right in the middle of the digital world — exciting, I know, I know.

And what was my exciting job? Cold calling.

So I spent my days sitting at a desk calling perfect strangers all over the United States and asking them to spend a lot of money.

Specifically, I was selling them to buy tickets to NewMedia’s INVISION Awards Conference, attended by the producers of “the very best digital work produced today in the world”

While its then-competitor Wired Magazine is thriving today, both NewMedia and its conference went the way of the Dodo long ago. Google has nearly forgotten them and I kind of forgot them myself for a while. But I remember a few things I learned during my time there. The more I think about it, in fact, the more that cold calling experience had something to teach me about digital  marketing.

A personalized pitch through marketing segmentation

If one fine day you find yourself speaking the same way to a bishop as to a trapeze artist, you are done for. – David Ogilvy

Unfortunately I never spoke with either a trapeze artist or chimpanzee (or did I, hmm…?). Luckily, though, many of those I spoke to were actually vaguely familiar with what I was selling (technically, this was a blend of “warm calling” and cold calling). They’d been to the conference in years past, had heard of it by being subscribers, etc. For one reason another, they lived in a customer database due to some prior relationship with my employer, however tenuous.

One day at lunch toward the end of my internship, my boss revealed something I’ll never forget. “Your leads weren’t picked at random”, he said. “We created the calling lists for each one of you based on our idea of what kind of people we thought each of you would have the most success with”. 

In other words, he had segmented his prospects to so that they got the appeal (me, the cold caller) he thought would be most likely to convert. The ones I called, for example, were edgy design firms, while my more polished colleague Andrea seemed to be calling large media companies (and selling bigger ticket packages). 

He didn’t leave it at that; throughout our internship, he taught us on what to say and more importantly, what not to say.

What not to say on a sales call (or in digital content?)

Each morning while the crossing the Bay Bridge en route to NewMedia’s office-park digs, I tried to remember all the things I’d been instructed not to say — or had decided for myself never to say again. What a big list it was. This stuff is probably “Telemarketing & Telesales” best practices; I really wouldn’t know.

I’d summarize the what-not-to-says as niceties, most questions, disingenuous remarks, and apologetic remarks.

A partial list:

  • How are you?” or the equivalent. Questions like this wasted precious time and opened the door to a negative response (“I’m OK but I’m super-stressed today — actually, come to think of it, can we do this call another time?”)
  • Do you have a few minutes to talk?” or “Is this a good time?” As with the above, these opened up a potentially negative response.
  • Thank you for taking my call“. Blah. Niceties like this wasted time and never made my callee more likely to buy. 
  • I’m not really selling anything, I’m just…” Haha, yeah right. I tried pulling this one once and got called out on it.
  • Would you be the person responsible for approving conference travel?” I distinctly remember the response to this question when I asked it for the very last time: “No, I’m not. Who the hell are you?” You have to do your homework.
  • As you know, the Invision Conference is…”. I never actually said this, but it was offered as an example being presumptuous (or even worse, boasting) about what you’re selling. Why should they know about it?

The tricky part though is that you have to believe in a product without being presumptuous. Believing that your sales pitch is worth their time follows naturally.

Believe in what you’re selling — and how you’re selling it

Here’s another type of question you never want to ask — and an emotion you never want to betray.

  • I’m only calling because…”.

There is no only or just – or any apology necessary. You are providing information about a valuable opportunity. The time it takes your customer to absorb that information is worth it to them

So it is with digital content – you inform your target audience to help them make a decision. And without wasting their valuable time. There’s no need to minimize that free gift.

Now and then the executive director of the INVISION conference dropped by. He once made an observation:

“Rowan, on every call you make you’re using the rising inflectionnn...”. In other words, I was doing that thing where you raise the tone of your phone and make a statement sound like a question.

Which I’ve since discovered is an amazingly effective way to drive someone insane. But in telephone sales, it has a second drawback: it makes you sound uncertain. The real lesson: belief in what you’re selling. Authorities don’t use the rising inflection.

So why examine digital marketing and cold calling together? Cold calling clarifies key digital challenges: target our audience carefully, personalize our pitch, don’t waste people’s time, don’t invite distraction, and most of all, believe what write, and write what you believe. Just don’t brag.