Small Business

The Cocktail Party Test for Advertising


The same rules that apply to good social etiquette will help you create winning ads: Find what interests prospective buyers and focus on that

We've all been there: the dreaded cocktail party. It's usually the preamble to some big event; an occasion nobody wants to attend but everyone must so they can see and be seen.

Some people love cocktail parties. I call them "networkers." You know the type. They waltz into the room, scan it to see who's there, and then begin working their way from person to person trying to gather leads and dispense business cards. Networkers are one of the reasons cocktail parties are so dreaded by the rest of us. They make us feel like a bus stop.

Still, occasionally you'll meet someone at a cocktail party and find yourself engaged in a truly fascinating conversation. Sometimes someone so interesting will come along that time flies by and you hope neither a networker nor anybody else interrupts you. Sometimes those conversations evolve into business relationships or even friendships.

If you've been in business for any length of time, you've learned the cocktail-party etiquette that can lead to such a conversation. Focus on one person at a time. Make eye contact. Listen. Don't talk about yourself. Find what they're interested in and make that the topic of conversation. Most of all, don't be arrogant, boorish, or annoying. Following these simple rules will increase your odds of starting an interesting new relationship and decrease the chances you'll be perceived as someone to avoid.

THE FRIENDLY SELL.

Believe it or not, the same rules apply to advertising.

Think about how you relate to most ads you see. You expect them to focus on themselves. You expect them to be loud. You expect them to tell you what they want you to hear, rather than focusing on what's interesting to you. Most ads act like someone with bad manners at a cocktail party. They fail the cocktail-party test.

Of course, it's true that our expectations of an ad from an etiquette standpoint are somewhat lower than what we expect from human contact. We don't get offended by an annoying ad the same way we do by an overbearing networker. But the principles of human interaction hold true, and whether the annoyance is coming at us through the door or through the television, it's something we want to avoid.

That's why most ads underperform. Advertisers desperately want to have a relationship with their prospects, but the reverse doesn't always hold true. And the more an advertiser presses, the less likely it is that they will be well-received. Just like at a cocktail party, advertisers have to win people over, not bowl them over.

PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS.

Think about your favorite magazine. What's the difference between the editorial features and the advertising? Simple. The editorial features are written with you, the reader, in mind. Their objective is to inform, entertain, or otherwise please you. That's why you pay good money for a subscription. Now consider what would happen if the focus of your advertising was not merely on what you had to sell, but on informing, entertaining, or otherwise pleasing the reader. You'd be much more likely to capture their interest and affection.

It's a cliché, but it's true: Most of what we need to know for successful social interaction we learned in kindergarten. In the same way, most of what makes an ad successful can be gauged by whether it passes the cocktail-party test. It's easy to get attention by shouting, jumping up and down, or otherwise acting inappropriately. But that's not the kind of attention you want.

Meet your prospects where they're at. Make eye contact with them, if you will, and demonstrate that you understand where they're coming from and what they're dealing with. Give them something of value—something interesting or funny or touching. Don't speak down to them. Don't shout at them (and in print, using an exclamation point is shouting). Consider their needs, wants, and desires, and the context in which they'll be exposed to your ad.

Make your ad a reward, not a punishment, and watch what happens.

Steve McKee is president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland Advertising, an ad agency specializing in working with fast-growth companies and businesses whose ad budgets are under $10 million.

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