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How "ugly" can boost your campaign

How "ugly" can boost your campaign Robert Rose

It's a well-worn cliché here in Hollywood that one of the surest ways to win an Academy Award is to go "ugly." Christian Bale lost nearly 30 pounds and donned ugly, false teeth to play the crack-addicted boxer Dicky Eklund in "The Fighter." He ultimately won the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for best supporting actor. The gorgeous Charlize Theron gained 30 pounds, shaved her eyebrows, and wore fake teeth to play the award-winning role of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster." And, of course, the most famous of these transformations is Robert De Niro. He got into lean, mean fighting shape to play the young boxer Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull." But then, the producers stopped production for seven months so De Niro could gain 60 pounds to play the older, washed-up version of the boxer. It's slightly ironic that Hollywood is so purely focused on "beauty" but rewards itself so often for ugly-ing the place up.

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Just like in Hollywood, we marketers can be too focused on beauty. Our creative teams sculpt "beautiful" ads, websites, email campaigns, and content marketing. We strive for slick, gorgeous set pieces. We love our negative space and use words like "clean" and "simple" and "elegant" to describe the imagery of our brand. We use font design sparingly -- and aim for the best readability. In fact, designers have devoted entire hate-sites to fonts like Comic Sans and Papyrus. In short, we all want to design marketing that resembles fine art.

But ugly often wins
Ugly has certainly proven itself on the web. Go have a look at Craigslist.org or PlentyofFish.com. With all due respect to Markus Frind and Craig Newmark, those are as ugly as it gets. In fact, Craigslist breaks all the marketing rules by not even marketing itself at all. It doesn't even have any marketing people on staff. Is it successful? Well, PlentyofFish is one of the most popular dating sites on the Wweb, and Craigslist has more than $100 million in revenue. I think the answer is an absolute yes. And, certainly, no one is going to give Wikipedia any awards for being "beautiful" or slick -- but that site is one of the most visited on the planet.

But, OK, so Craigslist and Wikipedia are "anti-marketing" -- does that count? Well, maybe, but let's look at actual "ugly" in marketing. Can we find examples where "ugly" has worked specifically in marketing campaigns? Well, yes we can. Remember "HeadOn -- Apply directly to the forehead?" Yes, of course you do -- even though that TV commercial is more than five years old. It won several contests for "worst commercial of the year" but still managed to increase the product's sales by 50 percent in its first few months of running.

Then, there's the online grudge match of social platforms -- the beauty and beast of Facebook vs. Myspace. One of the main benefits touted to marketers when Facebook introduced its advertising platform was that, unlike Myspace's chaotic, animated GIF hellstorm, Facebook's design was a uniform, clean, beautiful experience. Everyone would know where ads were and where to click right? Well, traffic amounts notwithstanding (we know now that the platforms are highly unequal), the advertising performance favors the "ugly" chaotic Myspace. By most accounts, the average click-through rate (CTR) for Facebook ads are a 0.04 percent -- dismally low. Compare that to an average Myspace CTR rate of .1 percent. That's more than twice the response. Is it any wonder that Facebook has recently opened up the design capabilities of Facebook Pages so that we now have enough rope to be "ugly"?

This higher performance hasn't just been reported across the social networks, but on landing pages and email campaigns as well. Anne Holland of MarketingSherpa related a story a few years ago at MarketingSherpa's Subscription Summit in New York. During a presentation, a Match.com marketer showed off two pieces of email creative that the agency tested. In the first was a beautiful photograph of a smiling, happy couple in a tasteful layout. The second was just giant text and a "Go" button. When asked which one would win, the audience resoundingly picked the beautiful one. Guess which one actually won?

So, what is it about ugly? What, as marketers, can we learn from "ugly"? Well, here are three examples of "ugly winning" and some best practices that came out of it.

Being truly "ugly" takes great effort or great luck
In the HeadOn example, the company recognized that it was extremely lucky with its "ugly" commercial. The commercial was almost immediately parodied and went viral on YouTube. It even made it to Hollywood as a featured part of the comedy "Disaster Movie." Dan Charron, vice president of sales and marketing for Miralus Healthcare (HeadOn's maker), was quoted as saying, "We did not intend to make a joke out of this or a parody. All we are trying to do is create brand awareness." Well, it certainly worked.

But in most cases, being truly "ugly" and winning requires a lot of work. And, one of the most interesting examples of this is a sample of "ugly" that I ran across while writing this article.

Michael J. Russer is a mentor to real estate professionals -- and provides a service to help them become top-selling agents. He tells a recent story of one of his "students," Mark Seiden, and how they launched a new marketing site.

"The very first thing that Mark Seiden said to me," Russer said, "was 'I want to have the ugliest real estate website in the industry.'" He just might have achieved that goal.

As a realtor, Seiden specializes in "expired" listings. These are where the existing realtor has failed to sell a house, and the listing has expired as a result. Unlike sellers in the beginning of the process, this target persona is a frustrated, often angry, and sometimes scared homeowner. Seiden really wanted to capture this feeling, and so he launched sellingmyhomesucks.com. Most real estate websites want to make you feel "relaxed" as you take virtual tours, or see other houses as the realtor will present yours. But Seiden understood that his target market was well beyond that. As he told me for this article, "These sellers want their house sold now. They don't care about Flash and photos and all that. They are angry and frustrated." And, as you can see from this screenshot, the website is far from the typical "beautiful" website.

But the most interesting thing about this project was how much effort the design team put into making the site "ugly" -- spending almost eight months to refine the look and feel. As Seiden told me, "We took the challenge of 'ugly' very seriously. The designer's first iterations really missed the mark. They were too pretty. The key was for the designer to really feel the emotion and the feeling of the frustrated seller."

The preliminary results have been amazing. Even though the site has only been up for a couple of weeks -- even in just beta testing sending the site around to his "network" to get feedback -- Seiden has already received multiple listings out of it.

"Ugly" isn't always ugly
Just as in Hollywood, ugly in marketing isn't always really ugly. There's ugly -- and then there's "Hollywood ugly." Put Ginnifer Goodwin, Sandra Bullock, or Tina Fey (all three gorgeous) in a pony-tail and black horn rimmed glasses, and somehow they become the "homely girl." Sometimes, as marketers we can fall into the trap of our marketing just being "over-designed." It's not necessarily horrible to look at, but it stops performing because it's confusing, or we have just accessorized our page with everything we think should be there. And, in many cases the advantage is to find something that is just simpler.

For example, last year the software and design company 37signals published a blog post about its homepage redesign. Ostensibly what it did was to simplify the design quite a bit. As CEO Jason Fried said in the post, the company was "interested in more visuals, less text, and a generally simpler and less dense presentation." So, here is the before and after:

The new design performed at a 14 percent higher conversion rate, and shows that sometimes if we just reduce things down to their simplest components, we can really improve results.  

Sometimes "ugly" is meta
Finally, it's clear that we marketers have an opportunity to use "ugly" to differentiate ourselves. With the overwhelming amount of marketing and content being thrown at consumers, we can create content that may, at first, seem to counter our brand identity -- but in fact will serve as a memorable content that consumers want to share.

The telecommunications company MetroPCS used this strategy in their advertising with their Ranjit and Chad commercials. Using a "low budget" set that looked like it came right out of a much nerdier version of "Wayne's World," Ranjit and Chad host their "talk show" and extol the virtues of the MetroPCS service.

Now, some have called this campaign racist, but there's no question that it worked. During the first quarter of last year, sales for MetroPC were up 22 percent to almost $1 billion.

But beyond advertising, this strategy is certainly most prevalent in content marketing. And maybe no other example embodies this as well as Blendtec's "Will It Blend?" series. The company has purposely kept production budgets low to make the show look like an informercial or cheap game show. And, the charm of the production is CEO Tom Dickson's authenticity. He's clearly not a polished presenter. For example, watch him blend Facebook (one of my favorites.)

To say that Blendtec has been successful with this campaign would be an understatement. With about 200 videos in the can and more than 7 million views on YouTube, not to mention appearances on national television, the compny has seen sales increase 700 percent or more. It's been voted as one of the top viral video campaigns in history.

Does "ugly" work because it's ugly or because it's different?

Recently, a group of Princeton psychologists conducted a study where they tested cognition and memory in students. The tests replaced clean, readable fonts in an article with "ugly" fonts that made the reading more difficult. They were testing the hypothesis that reducing the "load" of cognition was not always good for the student. In other words, they wanted to see if students remembered more if they had to struggle a bit to read it.

Their experiment proved to be true. The students did, indeed, have better recall from the "ugly" fonts. But many have questioned the results, saying that it could have actually been the Hawthorne Effect at work.

The Hawthorne Effect is named after an experiment done in the 1920s at the Hawthorne Works factory outside of Chicago. The experiment tested the productivity of workers in various light (low light vs. high light). The subjects were found to increase their productivity after the light changed -- no matter what the change was. Subsequently, the effect is called when, in experiments, the subjects modify their behavior as a result of the change and not necessarily the nature of the change. So, put simply, in the reading experiment, we have to ask ourselves what would happen if we took those same students and gave them Comic Sans fonts in all their books over 15 years. Would their cognitive skills improve if we then gave them an "ugly" Helvetica font as a "change"?

The "ugly" truth

The success of the meta campaigns suggests that the change is almost certainly one of the effects at play with how "ugly" plays across our marketing strategy. We can use "ugly" to our advantage to differentiate and create an authenticity to our content -- especially where the slickness or conservativeness of our brand might otherwise be perceived as insincere. For example, when we're considering a customer interview or testimonials, maybe it's better to have them simply shot with a cell phone camera in a conference room rather than a glossy, studio-produced set piece.

Additionally, the lessons from sellingmyhomesucks.com also remind us that we need to keep all of our target personas in mind, as well as our overall goals (branding vs. selling). We might do well to explore the emotional side of all of our target personas throughout their buying cycle. In specific cases, some of these may differ greatly from our usual suspects. And, in these cases, "ugly" marketing might be just the ticket to attract this persona

And, finally, we'd be wise to consider the success of simple vs. heavily designed materials. As an industry, we should learn to test our assumptions about what consumers will prefer as opposed to how they'll actually act. Consumers might tell you that they prefer the design of Facebook over Myspace. Or, they may actually love the beautiful photography on our new landing page. But the question is how do they actually convert? We should be mindful to modify our strategy on what our consumers do -- and not necessarily what they say.

With all of these strategies, we can don our false teeth, eat pizza for seven months, and put on the latex mask. Just like in Hollywood, getting "ugly" for some of our campaigns might just get us to new levels of success.

Robert Rose is chief troublemaker at Big Blue Moose.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

The Chief Troublemaker at Big Blue Moose. I'm responsible for innovating creative and technical content marketing strategies for my clients.I have more than 15 years of experience, and a track record of helping brands and businesses develop...

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