My Best (and Worst) Marketing Story Ever

Here’s a true story about a little company that had one of the most brilliant campaigns I’ve ever personally responded to.


I used to work in the building industry. We were a small company that was capable of some amazing work, but we were not very sophisticated as a company. When I first started there, I helped assist in the payroll duties (i.e. collecting timesheets, keeping track of the hours each employee worked and reporting that to the accountant, delivering paychecks on payday, etc). Depending on the job and the time of year, we generally had between ten and twenty employees. We used the industry-standard for time tracking: hand-written, paper timesheets. These were the bane of our existence.

The Problem:

Paper is a horrible way to keep track of time; there is a massive margin for error. Employees would fill out their timesheets incorrectly (sometimes innocently, sometimes intentionally). They would claim more hours than they actually worked, or simply forget to fill out entire days that they actually had worked, shorting themselves.

At the end of the week, sometimes our superintendents would drop timesheets off at the office. Sometimes, they would fax them in. Sometimes, we would go pick them up from the jobsites. Timesheets would often come in late, they’d have coffee spilled on them, or they would be illegible because the workers would fill them out with a broken construction pencil, while their hands were shaking from the cold weather on the jobsite. Sometimes, they would take those already-indecipherable timesheets and fax them in to the office which made them completely unreadable, because pencil lead doesn’t show up on a fax. Sometimes they would fill in the timesheets with their daughter’s pink glitter-gel pen, because that’s all they could find in their truck.

Keeping track of who was where on which day was a complete nightmare. Some employees didn’t speak English. Some didn’t even have cars and would have their girlfriends drop them off at the jobsite. Some didn’t have cellphones. Keeping track of the employees’ time was the most complicated, wasteful task in the company. Over the years, we lost serious money in labor costs due to errant records and paying the bookkeeper overtime to work weekends cutting remedial paychecks to correct the errors. Think about it: 20 employees x just 5 or 10 minutes per day = thousands in dollars wasted.

Whether it was the fault of the employee, or just a clerical error, at 5:00pm on any given payday, we would receive at least one phone call from an employee standing in line at the bank, ready to cash his check, just then realizing that it was short. And these were not courtesy phone calls either—these workers were in a panic, and would angrily start blaming the bookeeper or the boss for intentionally “trying to screw up” their paycheck. Sometimes employees would drop by our office with their “screwed up” paycheck and yell and even curse at us. Some workers would cry (yes, literally cry) and tell us that they wouldn’t be able to buy groceries that week. …all because they weren’t paying enough attention to make sure their timesheets were accurate.

The Solution:

One day, I was leafing through a building industry magazine, and I saw a full-page advertisement for a time clock made just for construction companies. It had a picture of a desk covered in smudgy, crumpled up timesheets, with lots of corrections made in red ink, and a hand written post-it note from the bookkeeper to the boss saying “Hey Mike, you’ll notice that José’s timesheet says he started at Pine Crest at 7:00 on Tuesday morning, but Pine Crest is a gated community and the gate doesn’t even open until 8:00… what should I do? –Janet


That was us! That photo matched our office perfectly! How did this company know we had those same exact crumpled up timesheets covered in ink smudges from all the calculating and re-calculating? And how did they know about the gated community issue? Were they spying on us?

They had figured out exactly what our pain was. And the brilliant part? They had a perfect solution for us: in that same ad was a picture of the product they were selling—a rugged, weatherproof, electronic clock-in system that you could hang on a tree at a jobsite and have your workers clock in and out with the little magnetic keys (called “keytabs), producing perfect, precise timesheets every week.

When I finished reading through the ad, I tore it out of the magazine immediately and showed it to my boss. I jumped up in the air, yelling “This is what we need! This is what we’ve been looking for!” We called the phone number on the ad that very day, and put over $3,500 on the company credit card for the new clock-in system. We were so motivated to get accurate time records that we didn’t even mind the enormous price tag. We even paid $75 for rush shipping because as soon as we knew the product existed, we couldn’t live without it. We HAD to have it.

The Result:

The end of this story, I’m sad to say, is not a happy one. The product was a complete disaster. The firmware that ran the clocks was extremely buggy, the software for syncing the time records was even worse, the batteries would freeze in the cold so the clock wouldn’t work, all the clocks needed to be manually reset twice a year for daylight saving time, the keytabs for logging in and out were fragile and broke easily, and more often than not, employees would forget their keytabs at home and show up to the jobsite completely unable to clock in.

But from a marketing perspective, it was sheer brilliance. This company knew so much about me that it was frightening. They knew:

  • Who I was (a manager at a construction company—their target audience)
  • What my biggest headache was (keeping track of the employees’ time)
  • The overall cost of this headache (inaccurate time records = lots of money wasted)
  • How much we were willing to pay to relieve that headache (thousands of dollars)

They could charge us a premium because we were so motivated to use their product. And the best part? We never even talked to a salesman. We picked up the phone and called them, ready to buy, as soon as we learned the product existed.

I think the lesson I learned here is that marketers need to identify exactly who their target audience is, or better yet—who their target client is, then find out exactly what that target client is struggling with, and how exactly their product can fit into the client’s work flow.

Once you do that, if you can find the right place and time to put yourself in front of them, it’s electrifying. Oh, and make sure your product actually delivers. They could have really capitalized on their efforts by making me a salesman for them, referring business their way. …but they didn’t because the product just sucked. Don’t make that mistake.

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