• Alan Shoebridge

We are in the era of ‘zombie’ marketing. Like a good horror movie, it's both scary and exciting


Once upon a time (not actually that long ago!), if I wanted to personally communicate with someone there were two primary options at my disposal. I could call them on my landline phone or mail them a letter. Theoretically, I guess I could have sent someone a telegram up until 2006, but that just felt totally absurd. Today, I can still mail or call someone if I want to commit to that level of effort, but I can also do a whole lot more.


A similar situation exists with our marketing and communications channels. Everything we could have done 20 years ago to get the word out about something is still viable to some degree, yet so much more has been added to the menu of options.


Year after year, the “oldest” tactics still persevere to one degree or another. All of them still have relevance to certain audiences, although some have moved into a kind of minimally viable, sleepwalking type of existence.


For lack of a better term, I call these “zombie” marketing and communication tactics. Here is how I break down the current state of play for all major tactics and channels.


1. Really how is this still a thing? The true zombies.

  • Printed Yellow Pages phone books. Is there anything scarier than getting a massive, printed phone book delivered to you? OK, of course there are many things scarier than that, but bear with me. Before internet search engines became accessible to the masses, these printed guides were truly indispensable. When they were still being delivered to our houses just a few years ago, they were almost indefensible in terms of their usefulness (0 out of 10) and impact on the environment (10 out of 10). I haven’t placed a Yellow Pages ad in years, but the solicitations still arrive. Apparently some people still use them, but very, very few. This is my zombie marketing poster child.

  • Pharmacy/grocery store bag advertising. Have you ever read any message printed on your pharmacy bag and taken action? Me neither.

  • Fax machines. Why, why, why are faxes still used for some communications? I hate it. This article explains the situation: "Fax, once at the forefront of communications technologies but now in deep decline, has persisted in many industries. Healthcare runs largely on fax. Despite attempts to replace it, a mix of regulatory confusion, digital-security concerns, and stubbornness has kept fax machines droning around the world."

  • Telemarketing. Always an unpopular approach, now made even less effective by our almost universal ability to screen phone calls and recent legislative actions to curb abuses. What does get through to our phones these days feels almost 100% predatory. Unfortunately, robocalls being enabled by technology advances keep this tactic and many scams going.


2. Badly hurting, and I’m sad about it.

  • Printed newspaper and magazine advertising. I started out as a print journalist and advertising helped pay my salary. I loved looking through daily papers for many years until the papers got smaller and smaller and smaller. Most Sunday papers today would barely qualify as one section of the same paper during the late 90s/early 2000s. Journalism is incredibly important and I hope many of the papers that are still hanging on can make a real shift to online content and remain viable in the future.

  • Local TV and radio. They are fighting a good fight, but corporate consolidation has tremendously hurt these two industries. The shift to online has also been difficult, but local media is trying to get creative and improving their offerings every year. Will that be enough to make it long-term in the new era? I hope so, but it’s going to be a tough fight.


3. Surprisingly durable, even if we don't want to admit it.

Everything listed below gets declared as “dead” at least once a year, but in fact they continue to work decently well, especially relative to the cost required for the first two.

  • Email. The number of users worldwide just keeps growing.

  • Direct mail. When done correctly, this tactic still works. Even a 1% response rate generally more than pays for the cost of a mailing.

  • Billboards. Yes there is almost no ability to track ROI and it’s often not the right choice for those who want to use them the most, but a well-placed billboard with a simple message can still stand out.


4. I’m really not sure what to make of it.

  • Online display advertising. I realize this can be OK for brand awareness, but the click-through rates are abysmal and many of your clicks often turn out to be done by human error or on purpose by bots. It feels like very few human beings click on random ads with any actual intent for finding out more information.

5. Going strong

At least for now, these all seem to be strong tactics with good targeting, performance and analytics.

  • Social media. One caveat here. For some reason the people leading social media companies seem set on making themselves as unlikable as possible and in some instances (ahem ... Facebook) have taken actions that have driven marketers and communicators away from their sites. However, you can't deny the mass appeal and amount of users these platforms can reach.

  • Search/PPC

  • Targeted digital ads

  • Texting. Ease of use makes texting an attractive option, at least until we abuse it like we have have with telemarketing and consumers start to push back, which might happen very soon.


So how do you navigate the zombie era?


In 2021, you have a huge range of choices in front of you, but likely a limited amount of both time and money. The solution is actually pretty simple; you need to approach it by asking the right questions:

  1. Who is my best target audience?

  2. What types of tactics do they respond to best?

  3. Of those tactics, which will reach the most people for the least cost?

  4. How many of those can I afford over a sustained period?

  5. Which of them, if any, will provide me with the best analytics and ROI?

  6. Build your plan

  7. Work the plan

  8. Measure results

  9. Adjust the plan

  10. Re-deploy

Being a successful marketer or communicator today relies on the fundamentals of knowing your audience and avoiding spreading yourself too thin. Yes, you could do it all to some degree, but that’s not a strategy for success.


Most importantly, beware of the zombies. They are still out there.




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