Three Strategies to Avoid Dog Whistle Marketing

Many start-ups have trouble making an impression. They make a lot of noise, but no one seems to hear them. It’s the business equivalent of a dog whistle – inaudible to human ears.

There are, however, some simple ways to avoid this. Here are three reasons why people may not notice you – and what you can do to be heard.

Speak $&#^ing English! Prospects don’t want to whip out decoder rings for buzzword-bingo sales pitches. Tell them, in simple terms, how you will make lives easier, better or less expensive.

I once worked for a start-up that told potential clients it offered “professionally managed virtual personal computing information technology services for distributed workforces.” What we actually did was outsourced IT, which saved clients time and money.

By contrast, two companies I recently encountered know how to deliver a message beautifully.

Track Simple’s reporting and insights dashboard dramatically reduces the time that media planners spend producing and analyzing performance reports. Reporting takes up two days of every planner’s week. So as it put together its marketing, the company went with the claim that it “gives media planners their Tuesdays back.”

OKCupid, a dating site that makes money through advertising, is another good example. I asked their CEO how they stood out in the crowded online market and he said, “Single people spend their money differently from marrieds. We help advertisers reach free spending singles.”

In both cases, the benefits were described in plain English – and were infinitely more effective than polished, but overly wordy, pitches.

Talk to people. There’s a misconception that B2B marketing is totally different from B2C – that a 100 percent rational sell is the way to get through to businesses.


Your decision maker is a person. Rational benefits are important, but don’t forget to appeal emotionally to deciders. Will picking you make them feel safe? Smart? Innovative?

Big business gets this. Consider Oracle’s “20 out of 20” ads. Seemingly dull facts, but the implication—that if you don’t pick Oracle you are clearly imbecilic and will probably be fired—is there in the subtext. Like us or not, the campaign says, we’re the safe choice.

Use reason, but also touch spirits – and you’ll be heard.

Are You Real? There are hurdles to clear before you’ll matter to most customers.For example, in online advertising, most companies won’t give you a second glance until you have a million unique users a month.

Focus first on scale. Find those prospects that like to be first. In virtually every industry, there are blessed souls who like innovation more than scale. Find them. Sign them. Reach critical mass. Then build from there.

Sometimes entrepreneurs believe so much in what they’re doing that they miss thinking about the prospects. Prospects don’t care about your goals. When you put their needs first, though, you might be heard.