Why “One Size Fits All” Design and Marketing Fails

Like many creative types, I have to rely on freelancing to supplement or at times support me financially. That means I have to market myself. I’ve become more comfortable with marketing and promoting myself over the years. Each year I learn a bit more and feel I’m making great headway. However, I’m young and I’m bound to make mistakes and was reminded of so over the weekend.

I attended an event at a local university. It was definitely an event that was outside my profession but I had the bright idea that perhaps this was a great opportunity to network. I knew I’d possibly find myself in a situation where I’d be ask what I do and felt comfortable talking about how I am a designer and how I blog, sort of the best of both worlds when it comes to my degree which happens to be in journalism. I planned on passing my business card on to those that I spoke to and that I felt I’d connected with on some degree. There was an older woman, very eccentric, who responded well to finding out that not only was I a graphic designer but a journalist (of sorts). “Oh, you could help me make PowerPoint presentations look good!” she exclaimed in her Southern accent that’d remind you of Blanche from ‘The Golden Girls’. Sweet, I’d potentially made a connection! Then came ‘the moment’. I handed her my business card and she gladly took it and examined it.

And she frowned.

I have to admit, in a way, I was devastated. It’s taken me years to settle on a business card that I feel properly promotes and shows off my style as a graphic designer. I’m really into illustration – I know what sets me apart from other designers is my illustration style, my use of vibrant colors and my edgy, no-holds barge attitude. I designed my business card to be pop-ish, bright and packed with attitude. Do you know what I forgot to do? Consider all of my audience. The card goes well with a younger crowd – younger people tend to want to work with designers and other creative types who aren’t dull, boring and stiff. They want someone they can relate to, someone who’s going to give them a product that stands out and looks unique – you know, design and creativity that goes with being young and wanting to show off your own style. My business card and the illustration on it landed me a freelance gig that was a couple hundred dollars – that right there tells me that it’s an effective design and that it works. It’s an illustration and style that I carried over into my website and whenever I’m approached by someone via my website, they usually remark that I’m obviously very creative and they want me to make them stand out like my work.

But, there’s a flip side. Older people really aren’t interested in bright colors, attitude, standing out and being unique. Often times they want design and creative workers who can work within a very confined, limited, familiar style. Yes, it’s a tad bit boring but it’s just how it goes. I’ve found that when designing for an older audience you have to rein in all that pent up energy, attitude and ambition to create something totally new and outlandish or else they equate all of these things as being a bit unrefined, unprofessional and not worth spending money on. My business card, as witnessed first hand and told by older people (like my usually inebriated uncle or very frank grandmother and the older Southern belle at this event over the weekend) doesn’t work for them. It’s plain and simple. They expected professionalism, sleek design, almost no real presence or personal touch. Which brings me to the whole topic of this post:

“One Size Fits All” design (or marketing) doesn’t work. Here’s why –

Too often as designers we approach a problem and come up with a solution (our design, photo, written piece, etc.) and call it a day. Do we take into consideration the entire audience who’ll consume our work? Probably not. I’ve been on both sides of this issue. When designing a publication, it’s usually thought that you should design it to always imitate what’s expected by your average reader. Here’s the problem – what if your average reader is, say, in his or her 50s? Or 60s or older? There’s nothing wrong with being these ages but this group isn’t going to be interested in the same design or creative elements as, say, someone in their 20s or 30s. And why should you “preach to the choir” when you’re leaving an entire group of people out? If you’re a publication and your average reader is near or over 60, isn’t there value in trying to appeal to a younger base who’ll potentially stick around with you for decades to come?

As designers and marketers, how do we get around this issue? Here are a few of my ideas:

1. Two-Pronged Attack: For a freelancer or someone marketing their business, I think the best method of getting around the “one size fits all” mentality is to actually market to both young and old, women and men, gay and straight, etc. You see, our society is very diverse. Old school marketing has always been very one-sided: we targeted the group with the most money or the group with the most dominance. A lot of the times, we’re leaving someone out. And that someone could very easily turn into a loyal client and associate. With this digital age, it’s not really hard to market to many groups at once. Sure, it’ll take a bit more time but I think it’d be worth it. I haven’t ditched or chucked my business cards. I have seen they are effective – just not with older people. So I’ve developed an entirely different design geared toward the older crowd. It’s polished, refined, reserved but still very stylish. I think Grandma would approve.

2. Design for the ‘little people’: There’s always a group that ends up being left out. If you’re into marketing and want a diverse client base, then instead of thinking about the audience you already have, look at the audience you don’t have. For example, take men’s fitness magazines. There are tons on the market – Men’s HealthMen’s FitnessMuscle & FitnessFlex, so on and so forth. What do all of these magazines do? They target men – often straight men, with articles that go beyond fitness – they talk about sex, relationships, marriage. The problem? They never ever ever mention gay males, who we all know both exist and love health & fitness. What gives? The point is not to ignore untapped sources of profit. Whether you’re a designer, writer or photographer, look outside your comfort zone or usual suspects and start hitting those that aren’t usually on your radar. They’re out there and they’re more than willing to spend a little money on great service and creativity – if you’re willing to spend the time to market to them and include them in your business.

3. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done, but guess what – your job is really never done. Too often when it comes to marketing or self-promotion, we all tend to spend very little time doing it. For some it’s a once a year occasion. Others do it once a season and center things around holiday themes or big events. You should be marketing and reaching out to new and old clients every week, month, all year and every year. Just because you’ve actually done a marketing or self-promotion campaign doesn’t mean you’re done and should be congratulated and take time off. Start looking at the feedback and measurable results. Did you get new clients? Did your website get more hits than usual? Are you making more in profit? If you can’t tell a difference in how your promotion efforts have helped you then it probably means it didn’t work. That’s ok, it’s all trial and error. Keep trying until you find something that does work and then work hard to perfect it.

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