All opinions are not created equal

I once worked for an advertising agency at which every logo design and brochure had to pass a painstaking critical analysis. At the end of the workday, one of the partners would put the piece in his briefcase, bring it home, and show it to his wife.

It didn’t take long for new members of our design team to learn which colors, formats, and typefaces Mrs. Partner preferred. And it probably comes as no surprise that we produced a lot of work that used those colors, formats, and typefaces. She had no background in marketing or design, and her career path had absolutely nothing to do with any of the industries our clients served. Yet her opinion outranked everyone in the agency, including her husband.

You’re probably chuckling at the idea of a high-powered advertising executive basing important decisions about millions of dollars’ worth of client projects on Mrs. Partner’s personal likes and dislikes. But I’d invite you to ask yourself if you may be guilty of a similar approach with your own company’s materials and projects?

Let me take that a step further: When you have to make a decision about a logo design, copy for an ad, or the graphic approach to your new website, do you show it to several people around the office or in your circle of colleagues “to get their opinions?” It’s a common practice, so there’s no need to be embarrassed or defensive.

But you do need to answer three questions. First, is that small sample of opinionated folks representative of your target audience? Second, are the factors that motivate the folks in the surrounding cubicles the same ones that appeal to your real customers? And finally, is that small sample’s consensus what drives your decisions?

Everyone has an opinion, and few people are reticent about sharing what they think of something. But that doesn’t mean that all of those opinions are of equal value or deserve the same amount of weight when considering a decision. And if the people expressing those opinions have little understanding of the motivations driving your target audience’s decisions, their opinions border on worthless.

It’s like the pair of big-city bank executives who laughed off the idea of promoting the fact that their checking accounts paid interest. To them, the pennies that appeared on each month’s statement were inconsequential. But to their target audience in that city’s blue-collar neighborhoods — whose average income was barely a quarter of what those executives earned — those pennies were perceived as a big deal. Whose opinion really mattered?

If your attorney or CPA counseled a particular action, you would be likely to follow her advice. After all, you’re paying her fees because of her specialized expertise, right? She knows more about the matter and its ramifications than you would ever want to know, so you’re very willing to defer.

Well, the professional graphic designers, writers, web wizards, and others who develop your marketing materials have corresponding levels of knowledge in their own chosen fields. If they tell you a particular approach will be the most effective, they’re basing that opinion on their experience and expertise — just as your attorney or accountant would do. Would you ask your cubicle neighbor or third cousin to second-guess your CPA on a tax matter? Then why would you let his taste in color override a designer’s professional recommendation?

I’ve had clients tell me not to use postscripts (“P.S.”) in letters because they think it’s silly to include them. I don’t use postscripts because I think they’re pretty. I use them because test after test has proven that they dramatically improve the response to mailings. Large companies that invest millions in direct marketing constantly change variables to see which produce the best results, and a letter with a P.S. restating the offer or highlighting some bonus invariably generates more sales than a letter that lacks one. So should I trust someone’s personal taste or millions of dollars of measureable results?

By all means, ask for opinions when making critical decisions. But just be sure that the opinions you request are those that really matter. If you want to know how customers will react to color choices, ask some of them instead of asking the folks down the hall.

(Did employees ever raise objections to Mrs. Partner’s counsel? Sure, but those of us who had been around for a while knew what Mr. Partner’s response would be: “That’s just your opinion … and your opinion is wrong!”)

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Scott Flood creates effective copy for companies and other organizations. His guide to evaluating freelance creative talent, The Smarter Strategy for Selecting Suppliers, can be downloaded at https://sfwriting.com/freeguide, and his blog is at https://sfwriting.com/blog. ©2014 Scott Flood All rights reserved.