Of brochures and bike racks

A long time ago, during my days as a newspaper reporter, one evening I struck up a conversation with a city administrator who was bemoaning one of the challenges of his office.

This conversation followed a city council meeting that had featured a spirited debate about the purchase of a new pickup truck for the public works department. The discussion devolved into a sharing of opinions on the merits of one brand or model of truck over another, or a third or fourth brand or model. The discussion had gotten out of hand, and the business of awarding the bid had taken much longer than it should have.

Earlier in the meeting, however, a motion to fund an upgrade to the city’s sewer system, at a cost well into the six figures, passed with little discussion and even less debate.

All of which caused the city administration to say something along the lines of: “We can spend a million dollars of taxpayer money on a sewer project without batting an eye. But when it comes to buying a truck, everybody’s an expert.”

I was reminded of this exchange recently while reading Avoiding The Bike Rack Effect in Meetings, by Tomasz Tungus. (Thanks to Beth Cudney for sharing a link to Tungus’ post via Twitter.)

Tungus’ “bike rack effect” operates on the same principle as my former city administrator friend’s “pickup effect.” City council discussions about bike rack purchases (in bicycle-friendly communities, anyway) bear a lot of resemblance to the truck discussion I related above. (The truck discussion occurred in a community that, at the time, was more pickup-friendly than bicycle-friendly. A bike rack debate, in those days and in that community, would never have occurred.)

“The bike rack … is tangible,” Tungus writes. “Each member has used a bike rack, and an opinion on which type is the best. In addition, the money at stake rests within a typical person’s spending. So, everyone involved wants to inject their point of view and derive satisfaction from having added value. The discussion drags on and the majority of the meeting time is spent on a relatively trivial topic.”

After reading the article, I shared Beth Cudney’s link myself and added that in our realm, this could be called “the brochure effect.”

Or it could be called the website effect. Everybody’s received a brochure, and everybody’s used the web, so everybody’s an expert and has an opinion on how to make one. So, whenever marketing of a major event is discussed in a meeting, you’re bound to get a lot of opinions from a lot of people who like to discuss what the brochure or website should look like because those communication vehicles, like the bike rack and the pickup, are tangible and familiar. There is discussion on font size, photography, logo placement, links, QR codes, everything but the communications goals. (I’m sure event planners have their own version. There’s probably the “menu effect,” because everybody knows which vegetable goes best with which main course, or which wines pair best with lamb, etc. And fundraisers probably deal with the “scholarship effect,” because so many potential donors received scholarships or had children who did or didn’t.)

Trying to steer meeting participants toward discussing actual communication, branding or marketing goals and strategies can be a lot like getting the city council to discuss a multi-million dollar power plant or six-figure sewer system. These ideas are too complex or too large in scope to grasp.

It’s hard work trying to define an audience and the objectives of communications to that audience. But, to stretch the sewer system analogy too far, without a communications strategy to channel all of that effort, you could end up with a big mess.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

2 thoughts on “Of brochures and bike racks”

    1. Thanks! But to be fair, I think this issue extends beyond web and marketing (although it seems to be widespread in our line of work). The issue becomes more evident, however, in group types of work where consensus, buy in or general agreement is required for moving forward. The higher ed world involves a lot of consensus-building.

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