Archive for the ‘Business Practices’ Category

Pioneer Press: Oh No You DIDN’T!

June 15, 2010

Poor Pioneer Press. I mean, they’ve been through some major shake-ups in the past years. They’re a tiny, home town paper. They have less popular comics than their competitor. And they made the mistake of trying to woo us, die-hard Star Tribune readers, by sending us a free copy of their newspaper.

So it was that one Sunday morning I got up exceptionally early and realized that while my Star Tribune carrier was still happily slumbering, my dutiful free Pioneer Press carrier had already delivered the goods. And so this morning, I opened the Press and started reading.

The article about White Bear Lake’s waxing and waning lake levels caught my eye. Following the breadcrumbs from the cover of the local section to page 3B to finish my article, I was greeted with a graphic designer’s nightmare! Surrounding what otherwise was quite an attractive and well-designed advertisement for Pella Windows, were…CROPMARKS! PAGE INFORMATION! GASP!

Ok, for those of you who are not design geeks like myself, here’s a little background info. Crop marks are little lines, placed at each corner of printed artwork, that tell the printer how to position, print, and trim the artwork. They are not intended to be seen in the final product. Page information tells the printer the name of the digital file, as well as the date and time the information was printed. Also not intended to be printed in the final piece.

I frequently include crop marks when submitting art to publications, so they know how to place the art within their design. These are particularly helpful if you’re submitting an advertisement intended to have a white border around the edge.

Ok, so here’s the mess itself:

Printed crop marks!

See the crop marks and page information? (circled)

Lest you think I’m a terrible nasty person for pointing this out, I’d like to point out that we all make mistakes from time to time (see my previous article about apologizing!), and in the world of newspaper publication—when turnaround times are quick—a mistake here and there is bound to happen.

And, little mistakes like these make great gems for educating design students about the print process. So thanks for that.

On the flip side, I’d hope that the Pioneer Press made concessions to the advertiser for their error, which clearly had a negative reflection on the advertisers’ brand. And, unfortunately, their mistake cast a poor light on their publication to me—their potential subscriber—when it mattered most.

The lesson here? Well, never skip the step of careful editing and proof reading when you are publishing something to be seen by your potential audiences. It’s that expression your mom loves to use: you never get a second chance to make a first impression.


Caribou’s clever in-store social marketing

June 7, 2010
Caribou Stick Notes display

Caribou's example of low-tech social networking

Visiting the Caribou Coffee in Duluth’s Canal Park location this weekend, I spotted a highly effective, low-tech method of social networking: sticky notes.

With the phrase “What do you stay awake for?” printed on each little slip of paper, customers enthusiastically filled in the blank space. The sticky notes revealed a cross section of Caribou customers: teenagers, tourists, lovers, business owners, mothers and children. Their responses were surprisingly thoughtful, many of which spurred “conversation” from one sticky note to the next. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, it was wonderful to see these handwritten forms of expression that revealed much more about the author’s personality than pixels could ever do.

Should your business consider this type of promotion?

Caribou comments up close

A closer look at some of the comments.

To decide, let’s take a look at how Caribou benefits from their promotion. First, for a minimal cost of designing and printing sticky notes, Caribou created a promotion that:

1) Builds a dialogue between the company and their customers. This type of dialogue can build a sense of good will and customer loyalty. Clients feel listened to and achieve a sense of community with other Caribou customers.

2) Provides valuable information about their audiences. This information could be used to create future advertisements, Facebook conversations, or in-store promotions that resonate with their target audiences.

3) Provides a satisfying distraction while customers wait for their beverages.

4) Provides the foundation for an online social media campaign. Should Caribou wish to take the campaign online, they have a simple model that’s already been tested for sparking conversation, that they can implement on Facebook and Twitter.

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Is magazine marketing right for your business?

May 25, 2010

Yesterday, while purchasing sandals for my son at Famous Footwear, the cashier handed me a magazine with my receipt, saying, “And here’s a free fitness magazine to thank you for your purchase today.”

“Cool!” I thought. Something for nothing is always a neat thing. And in this case, the brightly-designed and aptly named (Mind Body Sole) magazine seemed to be something right up my alley. The cover beckoned me to flip it open, with headlines like:

  • INSIDE >>>Exclusive Savings Offers
  • Tone up for Summer!
  • Comfort Food Makeovers
  • A Pizza Diet? Is it for real?

Inside the 60 page rag I found strong graphics, good photography and well-written articles peppered with ads for athletic shoes—brands all found at Famous Footwear. Genius.

Famous Footwear took a risk to spend the money to design, edit and print this magazine. One that, in my opinion, paid off. How?

  1. The articles were well-written and edited and provided content of value (and relevance) to their readers.
  2. The design looked professional and reinforced Famous Footwear’s brand elements.
  3. The product ads reinforced Famous Footwear’s product lines (and allowed the vendors themselves to present their products within their own brand campaigns).
  4. The magazine connected with the readers beyond the experience of buying shoes, building brand loyalty.
  5. The magazine drove readers to their website, allowing additional opportunities to interact with (and collect data) about their customers.
  6. The magazine included a special offer, to entice current customers into becoming repeat customers.

So is magazine marketing right for you? Before you jump in, beware of the following:

  • Creating a magazine isn’t cheap. To do it right, you’ll absolutely need a graphic designer/creative director, editor, copywriters, photographers, models, stock  photography, a sales representative, and project manager.
  • Publishing your own magazine takes time. Don’t expect it to happen in a couple of weeks. Depending on the content, you’ll need several months for planning and writing, a month for design and layout, and several weeks for printing/proofing. If you’re planning to publish more than one magazine, come up with an editorial calendar and production schedule to keep it on track. Note of caution: be careful not to call it a quarterly if you won’t follow through and publish it on a quarterly basis—you’ll lose faith with readers and advertisers.
  • The quality of the magazine should please your vendors. Vendors can help offset the cost of producing and printing a magazine, but if the end product doesn’t result in a return on their investment, you may end up harming that relationship. Make sure your magazine is created professionally, to a level that meets or exceeds the quality of your vendor’s ads.
  • You’ll need a plan for distribution. Consider whether you’ll send your magazine via direct mail, hand it out in stores, or rely on a third-party distributor to help it “get out there.” You’ll also need to decide if you’ll charge readers or make it a free publication.
  • Your content should be of value to your readers. Although it’s tempting to fill the magazine with plugs for your business, this should not be the focus of the content. Readers are savvy! They’ll quickly toss a magazine that feels like a big advertisement. Instead, focus on quality, relevant articles that connect with readers in way that fits the lifestyle message of your brand. They’ll get it. Trust me.

In summary, a magazine could be a great resource for your business—and your vendors—to connect with target audiences when done well. Not quite ready to commit? Consider a four or eight-page booklet or online brochure instead—they’re a great way to showcase your brand and your products without the huge page count.

As always, at Mix Creative we’re happy to talk with you about your magazine, booklet or any project! Contact us at 612-226-5717 or email us to chat about your project.

The Art of the (Business) Apology

April 14, 2010

Several years ago, I found myself outside a vendor’s home, glancing at my watch, and wondering if I had read the date and time of our appointment correctly. The minutes ticked by…5….10….15, and still she wasn’t there. Assuming one of us had the wrong time and place, I heaved a sigh and drove back to my office.

That very afternoon, I received a call from the vendor, apologizing profusely for her error. No harm done, I said, knowing sure enough it could have been me.

The next day, a package arrived. Inside was a handwritten letter from our vendor, apologizing for wasting my time, and a book: Time and the Art of Living.

Now, let me me just say: I know darn well that it could have been me who were late, and I certainly held no grudge for her forgetting our appointment. And I’m not sure it even crossed my mind that an apology was necessary. But I can tell you this: the book and letter acknowledged that my time was valuable. It was a sincere gesture that made me feel appreciated. It was a gesture I never forgot, and the business relationship was repaired.

Let’s face it: as business owners, it’s highly likely that at some point an “oops” will come between you and a client. While your gut may be screaming to blame the error on Bill Keane’s Not Me, a more prudent approach is to apologize. The goal: repair the business relationship and restore good word of mouth to your business.

So, for the next time you royally mess up, here are some tips to master the business apology:

  • Don’t play the blame game. Even if you believe you’re right, you must acknowledge your client’s perception of the situation, and allow for the possibility that you may be in the wrong. Listen carefully to your client’s concerns, and reflect back what you hear to ensure you understand the issue. Focus only on the issue at hand.
  • Be prompt in your apology. Prolonging an apology may cause your client to doubt your ability to handle the situation, and make any subsequent attempt at a mea culpa seem insincere.
  • Take personal responsibility. A study published in the Journal of Management found that people respond most favorably to a sincere apology when the person apologizing takes responsibility for the situation, versus blaming outside forces. Acknowledge your role and the hurt or damage that was done, and take responsibility.
  • Ask for forgiveness. The frightening thing about giving an apology is that you relinquish control. The enlightening thing about an apology is that you demonstrate a commitment to that business relationship.
  • Take steps to make things right. Provide a refund, credit, or revision as needed.

A legal caveat: some apologies have legal implications. You may consider speaking with an attorney for mistakes of a serious nature or that involve contractual obligations.

How to Write Your Website (Without the Anguish)

March 24, 2010

For many business owners the prospect of writing their own website content arouses memories of the dreaded term paper. They set deadlines that slide in favor of completing client work, they open Word and stare at the blank screen, and they regress to updating their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds instead of facing the perceived challenge in front of them.

If you think you’re alone in your fear and procrastination: think again! Nearly every client I’ve worked with has gotten into their head about writing their own web content. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting it done. Complete one step each day and you’ll be done in no time!

  • STEP 1: Create an outline. Most websites follow a similar plan, and for good reason—it helps prospective clients quickly find the content they’re looking for, and it makes your site SEO-friendly. The basic site map contains: Home, About, Products (or Services), and Contact. Additional pages may include: Location (if you’re a bricks and mortar business), Blog (for adding fresh, SEO-friendly content), Site Map (for search engine optimization), Resources (for linking to other sites), E-Newsletter Sign Up (this may just be a button that links to an external form) and Testimonials. Think strategically about which pages make sense for your business and people coming to your site, then put it down on paper. There! You’ve just completed step one!
  • STEP 2: Be your target market and find your competitors. This step has two goals: first, to discover and record the key words your clients may be typing into their web browser to find you (and your competitors). Record the key words that brought the most relevant results in your web search: those are words you’ll later want to incorporate into your writing. And second, to review your competitors’ sites to take note of what you like about how they describe their products/services, and consider what you’d do differently. Make notes to yourself as they relate to the outline you created in step 1.
  • STEP 3: Bullet-point your web content. Using your site outline as a guide, list key points to include on each page. Don’t worry about word-smithing here; just get the content down! Think about the key words you wrote down in step two, and work them into the appropriate pages of your site content (use them early and often for best results!). For inspiration, review any other printed materials you may already have, or just think about what people ask you about your business and what you tell them in return and write that down. Now take a break—you’re over a huge hurtle!
  • STEP 4: First draft. Ok, I realize a lot of you just broke into a sweat at the mention of a first draft. Take a breath. Relax…this is only a draft! Not the real thing! At this point, we’re going to turn those bullet points from Step 3 into sentences, no big deal. Now, here’s some advice on how to do that:
    1. DO: Talk about your client: who they are, and how your product/service will make their lives easier/better/more fulfilled. Example: “At XYZ Co, we help small business owners like you create innovative storage solutions that help you maximize your office space.” DON’T: Talk about yourself. Nobody likes a bore who goes on and on about how great they are. Example: “At XYZ Co we sell office storage solutions that are the best in the industry.”
    2. DO: Use keywords that your clients will be typing into their browser search box to find you.
    3. DO: Organize long paragraphs with sub-headings to break-up the content. DON’T: Make your website a comprehensive treatise on your company and/or industry! Consider the average time a person spends at any given website is about 3 seconds.
    4. DO: Be conversational. Put in writing the things you say about your business every day—on the phone, at networking events, to your friends and family!
    5. DON’T: Sweat over every word. Remember, this is just a draft! In fact, websites benefit from regular content updates. Plan from the start that you’ll update your website content regularly; tweaking it to include new products or services, to change a focus or reach a new audience, or just make it fresh to your clients.
  • STEP 5: Review and Revise. Ok—you’re in the home stretch now! You have a draft in place; it may not be perfect, but it’s 100% more than you had before you started! This is a great point to bring in a professional copy writer to do some fine tuning of the tone and apply some editing (a writer would also be a good resource after step 3!). I know what you’re thinking—”I thought this was supposed to be how I can write my own site!”. But hear me out…with much of the work done already, you can benefit from just a few hours of their time. And it’s your business, for goodness’ sake! Spend the money where it counts to ensure consistent branding. HOWEVER, if  you don’t have money or access to a writer, and you fancy yourself a Pretty Good Writer, this is a good time to print out your draft and read it with red pen in hand. Look for:
  1. Grammar/Spelling errors
  2. Speaker Inconsistencies. Don’t switch between first, second and third-person voice.
  3. Active vs. Passive verbs. I prefer to write using present tense, active verbs: “Have office clutter? We supply you with storage solutions to optimize your space!” vs. “With our storage solutions, your office problems are solved”
  4. Adjectives. Descriptor words are your friends! Use them generously to describe how your audiences will feel upon using your goods/services.
  5. Key words. Do one more check to make sure you’ve included the key words that users will be searching to find your site on each page.

That’s it! Now send it off to your designer/web programmer and kick back with your feet up and a cocktail in hand to celebrate your accomplishment!

Squirrels and Business

December 16, 2009

What can a squirrel teach you about running a business?

I’m thinking about squirrels this morning.

Earlier this summer I set out a bird feeder at our new home. Peeking out the window, I watched with anticipation for all those beautiful song birds common to backyards: chickadees, cardinals, gold finches, red poles and more. Instead, I got squirrels. Big, fat hairy grey squirrels.

My blood pressure would rise every time I saw those little furry creatures on my feeder. Freeloaders! Party wreckers! “ARGH!!,” I’d yell. I’d bang on the window. I’d run outside to shoo them away.

Finally, I took the feeder down. It just wasn’t worth the stress—bird watching is supposed to be a peaceful pastime.

But I missed the birds. And the snow came and made food less plentiful. I decided to try again.

I trekked out to Hugo Feed Mill  & Hardware—a veritable bird feeder’s mecca—and met a fella in flannel and suspenders who knew his birds, and better yet, squirrels. After filling our cart with bird seed and suet, I quizzed him about squirrel-proofing our feeders.

“Well, you can buy these fancy domes to keep them off, but I wouldn’t bother,” the squirrel sage replied. “Just buy a 50 lb bag of feed corn and scatter it around the yard. The squirrels love rooting around in the snow for it.”

Feed the squirrels? Really? Reluctantly, I took his advice.

That afternoon, I filled the feeders and hung them from the oak tree out back, and scattered the corn around the base of the tree. To my delight, the birds came! All kinds of ’em. Pretty soon I was watching a community of hungry little feathered guys and gals eating enthusiastically from the feeders.

And then came the squirrels.

The first squirrel wound his way down the trunk of the tree and stopped to glance at the feeders. I held my breath. “Here we go,” I thought. But then it continued down to the base of the tree, where it spotted the corn. It picked up a kernel, plopped back on its hind legs, poofy tail rising behind him like a feather boa, and proceeded to nibble at it with its tiny hands. It was actually…cute.

It’s been days and I still haven’t seen a squirrel on the feeders. The birds are happy. The squirrels are happy. I’m happy.

So this has got me thinking…what’s the lesson here in business?

Imagine the song birds are your potential clients, and the squirrels are your competitors. Now imagine you reach out to your competitors, offering advice and resources to help them thrive. Your competitors learn new ways to reach out and service their own clients, you benefit from an enriched  network of people you can go to for questions and pass referrals, and you’ve established a feel-good vibe for your company.

So, help your competitors = get clients AND good karma.

Or, feed the squirrels and get the song birds.

Praising Plain English

December 10, 2009

The Brits have taken it upon themselves to police the world’s English communications, issuing praise to citizens who speak clearly and simply, and critique for incomprehensible offenders.

They call themselves the Plain English Campaign, campaigining since 1979 “against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information.” With 12,000 members in 80 countries, it appears that they’re addressing a need.

The Campaign’s awards include the coveted “Plain English Awards” and the infamous “Golden Bull” and “Foot in Mouth” awards.

A standout in this year’s Golden Bull award includes this perplexing entry from the Department of Health (try reading it out loud!)

Primary secondary and tertiary prevention.
Primary prevention includes health promotion and requires action on the determinants of health to prevent disease occurring. It has been described as refocusing upstream to stop people falling in the waters of disease.

Plain English Awards recognize all aspects of communication, including writing and graphic design. For this year’s winners, visit

After suffering through hours and hours of pretentious and needlessly isoteric Neuroscience journal articles as a grad student, I’m happy to see there are people out there who value clear communication. Contrary to the notion that “plain” and “simple” means “dumbing it down,” ideas conveyed in simple terms are likely to be repeated—and repeated accurately—from one person to the next, increasing their power to influence.

So to the Brits I say “Cheerio,” good job! We’ll do our best to avoid the “Bull” in our business communications.

Holiday promotions

November 10, 2009

Considering sending a holiday promotion? Here are some tips and resources to get the ideas flowing!

Take advantage of holiday specials. Just this week, I’ve received several holiday specials on printing alone. Here’s just a sampling:

  • For one more week, you can order 30 custom printed holiday cards for the price of 20 at Use coupon code: GC1895.
  • Create your own hand-made cards, place holders, gift tags and more with rubber stamps and all the trimmings from Paper Source. Receive free shipping on orders over $100 through November 15. Enter code: SHIP100
  • Make a photo book of a client’s project! Custom photo books at Shutterfly start from $12.99. Get free shipping on orders of $25 or more until 11/30/09. Enter code: HOLIDAY25

Consider a sending a New Year’s promotion. Companies do a lot of goal-setting and budget planning in the New Year. A well-timed and clever promotion can get attention without getting lost among mounds of holiday cards.

Or, send a Thanksgiving card. A hand written “thank you” goes a long way in creating a memorable impression with clients.

Explore other media. Try creating a fun holiday video or animated e-card to share with your clients.

As with every marketing endeavor, make sure you create a look and feel that speaks to your target audiences and is consistent with your brand standards. Take the time to craft your message and design your piece.


(re)Communicating Your Capabilities

September 15, 2009

Recently I spoke with a marketing colleague of mine who expressed frustration that a long-time client had been talking to other agencies to develop a new website and e-mail marketing. Having been their agency of record for all of their print marketing and advertising, my colleague expressed to the client his confusion.

“Oh, you can do websites?” was the client’s response.

It seems that in their business interactions, the client had come to think of my colleague as a go-to person for print and advertising. Comfortable in that role, my colleague had neglected to mention his full capabilities, of which websites and email marketing were also strengths.

It’s human nature to categorize the things around us. Gestalt psychologists demonstrated this phenomenon well through visual tests that show how we perceptually organize the world around us. Their results described an overarching principle of pragnänz, which is that the simplest and most stable interpretations of the world around us are favored. Neuroscientists have documented these brain short-cuts even at the cellular level, showing that the branches on brain cells are trimmed away over time to strengthen some brain pathways over others.

The lesson here? If you want your clients to change their perception of your company’s capabilities, you’re going to have to retrain their brains. Here are three simple strategies:

  1. Talk to your client about your capabilities. Ok, this one seems like a no-brainer. But think about it, when is the last time you integrated a little advertisement for your other services into a conversation with your client? One strategy: use an example of how you created a solution in similar situation with another client. Expand on the different services you provided.
  2. Try an email footer. Communications guru Colleen Wainwright suggested changing up your email footer frequently as a tool for self promotion. Try something like: “Did you know we can create _______ for you? Call us for more information.”
  3. Share examples. Shapco Printing in Minneapolis does a great job of communicating their capabilities by sending examples every few months or so of a piece that was printed using their equipment, accompanied by a letter highlighting their capabilities. You can try this too, by sending examples of your work—printed or electronically—to your clients, with a personal note that includes a detail about the project.

Since we’re working against brain chemistry here, it’s a good idea to make communication about your capabilities an ongoing activity. Just think: someday there may be a brain pathway out there dedicated to your business!

The mystery of Internet Explorer popularity, or why everyone should help a designer and download Firefox today

August 7, 2009

As a graphic designer who has taken on the task of also developing (or working with programmers) to develop internet sites, I have been launched into a world of seeing a design, so beautiful and pristine on my MAC screen, rendered crudely on a PC—a phenomenon only users who switch between the two operating systems will understand. But there’s also another obstacle: code that works consistently in Safari, Firefox, and Opera displays sporadically in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

And recently I’ve discovered that apparently there’s inconsistency between how code is displayed between Internet Explorer (IE) 7 and IE8. Or even, from one page of identical code to the next in IE8!

Voicing my frustration in solving this issue with my different web developers, I have come to understand that Internet Explorer has long been the problem child in web browsers for displaying code correctly. Developers everywhere pull their hair out finding work-arounds to make their code compatible to this flaky browser, and have been for a long time.

Not only that, but Internet Explorer is a frequent target for hackers, and far less secure than other browsers. Microsoft itself has posted articles about the issue.

My developers tell me that the cross-platform browser Firefox was developed as the solution to this flakiness. And, true to its mission, performs admirably. According to its website,, the software was developed to be “faster, safer, smarter, better.” It has a huge list of awards to its credit, is free to download, and has numerous user-friendly browsing features. It’s also been around since 2004 and, according to the twitter feed Firefox Counter, has exceeded one billion downloads.

So with a superior operating system out there, why is Internet Explorer still the most used internet browser?

Turns out, I’m not the only one asking that question. Type the question into into your Google search, and you’ll get pages of search results, including Robert Nyman’s summary and musings, titled “Why would anyone use Internet Explorer“. Yet the predominant answer is quite simple:

  • It comes preinstalled on a PC


An anecdotal check with my friends and clients in the business world confirms it—they’re using Internet Explorer. Often, IT departments within the company prevent employees from downloading unapproved software, which includes the Firefox browser. Also, people I talk to are surprised to hear of IE’s bugginess. They just use what they’re used to. They’re not developers, after all, and they haven’t ever compared it to any other browser.

W3Schools, a respected resource for web developers, published statistics that show an increase in Firefox usage, but admit that other site statistics still report that Internet Explorer accounts for up to 80% of users.

Thus, it appears that designers and programmers alike will be struggling to make sites that look good in the lowest common denominator (IE) for a while longer. In case you’d like to be part of the solution, visit to download Firefox 3.5 today. Twitter about it. Tell a friend. And start enjoying seeing sites the way they were intended to be viewed!