Sizzle vs. Substance – it is a classic marketing debate. When putting together a marketing campaign, what is the right balance of sizzle vs. substance? This issue also translates into press releases, trade show strategies, advertising, internal business presentations, speeches, resumes and almost any form of communication. The obvious answer is that it depends on the message itself and the vehicle used to communicate the message.
Early in my career, I was asked to put together a direct mail campaign. The objective was to get customers to extend their service contracts. I put together a series of direct mail pieces that clearly communicated the value proposition. I was able to overwhelm the target audience with facts and logic, showing mathematical calculations that demonstrated the clear return-on-investment (ROI). I created four different mailers that were scheduled to be mailed over a four-week period. I thought I had nailed the project. My boss hated it.
He reminded me that regardless of how compelling the message was, if no one reads it, then the entire campaign was a waste of time. You need to draw in the audience with an appropriate amount of sizzle. In a word, my campaign was as interesting as reading a calculus textbook.
Later in my career, when computer animation was becoming cost-effective, I put together another campaign that had brilliant animation. We designed a series of animated visuals that could be mailed on CDs. Everyone on the team became so enamored with the technology that we failed to build a compelling message. While everyone loved the animation and ended up sharing it with their friends because it was so state-of-the-art, no one walked away understanding what we were trying to sell. Clearly, a project too skewed toward sizzle and not enough content.
To illustrate the point, I would like to share with you two videos that are very appropriate for the holiday season. The first is a commercial produced by the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) of Australia. It is a public service announcement intended to reduce the number of alcohol-related accidents, by reminding people of the consequences of drinking and driving. In my opinion, this is one of the best videos on this subject and has an outstanding balance of sizzle vs. substance. The “sizzle” is gut-wrenching and shocking, and the “substance” (or message) hits you over the head in every frame of the video. A warning – this is a powerful, yet graphic commercial.
On the other end of the spectrum is a unique view of the nativity story told through social media. This is a promotional video by a web development firm. It uses a very creative approach to demonstrate their marketing and web services. Again, this is an excellent balance of sizzle vs. substance because they entertain you while demonstrating their ability.
Remember to focus first on the message. Make sure that you are communicating the top 1-2 messages in an easy-to-digest format. It is always good to use the old technique of 1) Telling them what you are going to tell them, 2) Then tell them; and then finally 3) Remind them what you told them.
Once you have a clearly defined message, then identify a unique way of telling the story that engages the audience. Always make your message memorable by finding your own unique balance of sizzle vs. substance.
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