Funding cuts?!

I just read this article, right. I’m appalled by the ever-increasing pool of bullshit that is politics. It seems that no one speaks anything true, any more. It’s all about branding, I guess. Each political party, or brand, needs to put forward policies that are popular with the majority of its most common voters, to increase brand share. However, I reiterate, people do not know what they want. Ever. They change their mind, and politicians soon follow suit.

However, there’s one other thing that can, and will also change policies as quickly as snow falls: the shit-storm. The shit-storm has been around for a long while, as long as Marmite, or sliced bread, I’d say. A shit-storm is usually the result of a miscommunication within the political dirge, and the above article highlights such an event.

They’re cutting university funding. They’re increasing research budgets, but they’re cutting a whopping £84m from the capital funding budget, which pays for things such as buildings, and resources, and £51m from the teaching budget. How do ‘they’ (Hefce, the Higher Education Funding Council of England) plan to do this? Promote shorter courses geared towards ‘more vocational’ subjects. NO! No, no, no, no, no!

Regular readers will remember my earlier rants about how degrees aren’t really worth much, any more. Let me stress, I think it’s a wonderful thing that more people are going to university, studying, and broadening their horizons. Indeed, the number of people going into higher education surged last year, which Lord Mandelson claims was a result of the economic turmoil that we’ve been experiencing. Getting a job was suddenly less of a viable option before, so more kids decided to go into higher education, and ride out the recession. I had always planned to go to university, but I, too, was one of those kids.

That makes sense, but being surprised that numbers of new university students aren’t declining does not. Again, let me stress that it’s a great thing that more people are going to university. Has this undervalued the worth of a degree, nowadays? I felt that I had to go back into education in order to be able to find a job. I think that speaks for itself. However, encouraging shorter, ‘more vocational’ courses is not the way to fix money problems in the higher education sector.

I always associated ‘vocational’ qualifications with less academic vocations. Before I went to college, I wanted to do an NVQ in drama. This was when I knew very little about the whole post-secondary school process, and I was soon warned against it by my peers. It seems, then, that in wanting more people to study at university for less time, hence easing costs, the government would actually be encouraging more people to go to university, full-stop. It’s madness.

The Conservatives are promising more fully-funded university places, while my brain slowly implodes. Where is all this money going, and where is it all going to come from? I don’t have a clue, but one thing is for sure; the Hefce certainly needs to straighten up. I don’t want an ‘Ivy League’, and I definitely don’t want higher education to morph into something that resembles the American education system, with fees running into tens of thousands of dollars per year, which is something I can sadly see becoming a possibility, especially if things continue the way they are.

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My thoughts on field marketing – Part 1

I work, and have worked in field marketing for the past couple of years. You might know it as ‘direct marketing’, also. For those of you who are unaware of this wondrous profession, I am contracted by an agency, to go into a store, representing a certain client, and demonstrate a product to the public. I’ve been told that my job is to spread positive brand awareness, but I’ve also been encouraged to sell as much as I can. In all honesty, it’s not the most taxing job in the world, especially on certain campaigns.

I’m currently working on a campaign for Epson, and am stationed in John Lewis. I’m demonstrating their range of printers, with my hero model being the lovely PX710W, an all-in-one photo printer, with added wireless, and tons of other delightful bells and whistles. I love working in John Lewis. In the past, when I’ve been sent to other, high-pressure retail environments (ala DSG/PC World) the whole interaction dynamic between store and customer is centred around sales, as due to the nature of the store, people want to get in and out as quickly as possible. There’s something. PC World is what I’d call a ‘hostile’ retail environment. It’s cold, both metaphorically and literally. Its myriad of steel shelves, and its lino floors don’t really do anything to inspire people to actually want to shop there. Sure, people do, because it’s a necessity, for whatever reason. Maybe they really, really need a USB cable, or they can get something cheaper there than they can anywhere else, but when people are done doing what they need to do, they don’t really want to hang around there, which is a view echoed by the staff as well. It’s very cramped as well, as the floor staff attempt to cram as many products on the shelves as they can.

Going back to my original point, because people don’t want to hang around, you spend a very, very short amount of time with each customer, in which time you need to impart valuable messages about the brand, and the product, as well as demonstrating the product itself. Because of the short length of these encounters, and because of the relatively huge footfall of these kinds of stores, you maximise your number of encounters, and maximise your number of sales. As a field representative, you learn to adapt to this environment. You learn to be short, and to the point with people.

John Lewis, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish, as you can imagine. It’s generally a cool place to be. It’s warm, and inviting (when they don’t have the air conditioning on) and I myself have been known to walk around the store (not when working), just for the sake of it. Others do too. You see a lot more people wandering around, who are ‘just browsing’. Last time I was stationed in this store, I approached customers like I would in a PC World store, which was a huge mistake. Not everyone in the store is there to buy. Some, like me, are just having a look around. Killing time, and what not. “I’m just browsing”, isn’t something you really hear in PC World. On the flip-side, when you do meet someone who genuinely wants to know about your product, they’ll happily listen to you go on for up to half an hour, or maybe even more than that. I think this is great, as I’m genuinely enthused about the products I’m given to demonstrate. It’s also great, because the encounters you do have with people are few and far between, and when you’re not demonstrating, you either wander your department aimlessly, or you kill time by watching what’s going on around you. More on this later.

We’re currently studying a module on my course called ‘Measuring Marketing Effectiveness’, which is all about, well, measuring the effectiveness of marketing. Epson are spending a great deal of money (field marketing campaigns are very expensive) sending me, and a lot of others, around the country, into stores to demonstrate their products. As field reps, we’re not accountable to anyone else in the store, and we’re not directly monitored in every way. How, then, can Epson measure their return on investment, other than through sales? What about this so-called ‘positive brand awareness’ that was drilled into us all at our training session. How can you measure that?

My job does involve a minimal amount of ‘homework’. Every day I’m in store, I have to get a manager to fill in and sign a form, confirming my attendance in the store, and rankings on my performance. I’ve also got to submit a questionnaire online every night, after work, with various bits of information such as how many demonstrations and sales took place, which product among competitors sold best over the course of the day, and what store staff think of the brand I’m representing. All of this questionnaire data is then collated, and placed into a report, which then gives Epson their supposed ROI. This is troublesome.

My first problem is with the feedback form, but this is a relatively minor issue. The store/department manager has many obligations, of which, shadowing field reps does not rank very high. What’s the point of asking these very busy people how we’ve performed if they’ve barely seen us over the course of the day, which is often the case. Secondly, the questionnaire asks what, in my opinion, are irrelevant questions. Regular readers will know of my dislike of surveys and questionnaires, but this goes a bit further. It seems that the metric that the survey relies most heavily on is conversion of demonstration to sales. I think this bit of information in itself is irrelevant, especially in an environment such as John Lewis. Not everyone I demonstrate to will have the intention of buying a printer. Indeed, in an ideal world, I’d only demonstrate to those who are most committed towards buying a printer, but if I have to choose between doing absolutely nothing, and demonstrating to someone who’s not very likely to purchase what I’m demonstrating, I’ll take the demo. I got in this game for the interaction, and for the talking to people, and I pride myself on my ability for that. Indeed, we’re hired as field marketers, and not as salespeople. I think it’s important for everyone, everywhere, to make this distinction.

What about this heightened brand awareness, then? How is that measured? Let’s use the example of the ‘one that got away’ again. The guy who wasn’t really looking to buy a printer, or a camera, or whatever. If he receives a generally lovely demonstration, no matter of how little he intends to buy the product in question, he’s going to remember that demonstration. He’s going to hopefully remember the nice man, or woman, who were just nice to him, which will reflect positively on the brand they represent. They might not remember what they were demonstrating, but I’d wager this person remembers the experience, especially the next time they go to buy a printer, or a camera, or whatever. Well, that’s what I think; at least, as that’s what I’d do.

How can this experience be measured, then? It can’t, really. The demonstrator could be asked to comment not on the number of demonstrations they make, but how they went. Of course, this is also unreliable, as the unaccountable nature of such a survey allows people to lie, and allows them to ‘fudge’ their data, to make them seem more effective as a result. I guess, the only way around this is to make sure you recruit ‘nice’ field reps, who won’t lie, and will genuinely represent brands in a positive way, which will get people talking about them. However, how do you achieve that? This is certainly a horrible vicious cycle, among vicious cycles. It’s certainly something I think field marketing agencies need to take notice of, however.

A couple of weeks ago, I was demonstrating the PX710 to a gentleman who was looking for a photo printer. I told him all about Epson’s special Claria ink, about their micro piezo and variable size droplet technology, and even printed one photograph off multiple printers to show the quality difference in printer brands, and inks. I was nice about it, though. I talked to him as a person, and not as a prospective ‘customer’. If I’m honest, I didn’t care whether he walked out with an Epson printer or otherwise. I was just glad I had someone to talk to. After I had finished my demonstration, he still said he was unsure as to whether to go for the Epson, or a similar Canon printer. He said he’d have to think about it, bid me farewell, and left. Usually, this would mean that he’s not coming back. However, an hour later, the man returned, shook my hand, thanked me for my kindness, picked up a printer, and went on his merry way. You don’t get a lot of handshakes outside of John Lewis, but I think of them as a great complement. I went home happy that night, not because I’d sold a printer, but because I’d made someone happy. Hopefully, this is something we can all learn from.