This column will be tough for me to write because, after 20 years of being in marketing, something happened to me that changed the way I see our industry.

It gave me new insight into situations that women face every day. I’ve heard them talk about it, but I didn’t understand it until it happened to me.

I got mansplained.

Merriam-Webster defines it like this: “When a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he’s talking to does.”

Stick with me while I explain what happened and why it made me rethink marketing.

How it happened

I’ve been looking for a service to transcribe calls and online meetings so I can listen more intently to what my clients and co-workers are saying instead of trying to take notes and multitask.

I signed up with one service for a trial. A few days later, I got the expected follow-up email saying, “Thanks for signing up; if you’d like to learn more, I’d love to give you a demo.”

As an entrepreneur and tech-industry investor for years, I’m always open to the opportunity to talk with a company about their business and their tech in this space, what their challenges and struggles are and how they market their services.

So, I scheduled a time. The account exec and I chatted briefly via email about my company and service requirements. So far, so good.

Then, I got the email that shook my world. Here’s what he said:

“I see you’re the co-founder of your org. You also might be looking to test this tool to maybe roll out to others on your team. That’s awesome and you’re obviously one of the top main decision makers, but just to be candid you’re better off delegating the testing/validating aspect to someone else on your team. I’ve been working with CEO’s/Founders of many different orgs for months and 90% of them are too busy and don’t have the bandwidth to incorporate a new piece of tech into their routine yet. [Brand] does need a ramp up time to learn about ones business.  [Brand] is not a silver bullet out the gate, therefore please let others do the testing/validating. You’re definitely the right level, but not the right one to do the testing.“ (Emphasis is mine.)

My reaction? “How dare you tell me what my business is and what my skill level should dictate?!”

Now, I have seen some bad sales emails in my time. My inbox is full of them. And I don’t have the patience for people who don’t take the time to communicate well.

So, I fired off a reply: “This is probably the worst email asking for other members to be involved in the process. I could think of a few hundred ways to say ‘hey, do you want to have your tech guys on the call to discuss with them also?’ I will decline the meeting and move on to another technology partner.”

The awakening

After I settled down, I told a friend what happened. The first words out of her mouth?

“You just got mansplained!”

Yes! Yes, I was mansplained. And, suddenly, I understood how insulting and how crass that can be, how frustrating for anyone, especially women who get this all the time.

At that moment, I began to see marketing differently.

Maybe you’re chuckling, too. A man mansplaining another man? Yep, it happened. And what I hope you take away from this incident and my reaction is that you open your eyes to how you communicate with your customers, coworkers, peers, vendors, clients and prospects.

3 ways to overcome bias in marketing

We need to think seriously about imagery, messaging and team roles and responsibilities to change the conversation and not inadvertently offend or belittle the people we work with. Here are three ways to start that process.

1. Review the images you use in your marketing collateral and other materials.

Shortly after this experience, I put together a presentation on a marketing approach for different personas within the dental industry. I had pictures to illustrate job roles such as dentists, hygienists, nurses, receptionists and technology staff.

Then I saw what I had done. I had chosen photos of a male dentist, a female hygienist and a female receptionist. Why did the dentist have to be male and the hygienist female? My own dental office has female dentists. But I subconsciously perpetuated the stereotype.

Look at your sales collateral and marketing emails. Review your personas, copy examples and artwork. See how you communicate to your customers and coworkers with imagery that perpetuates gender stereotypes.

2. Audit the language and content your salespeople use with prospective customers for potentially offensive language and concepts.

Whether you participate in or lead your company’s marketing team, your role is to control how your brand’s voice, message and equity is communicated by your workers.

In B2B, your salespeople and your marketing collateral (presentations, printed slicks, email and web content) are the primary drivers that shape your brand.

In B2C, it happens through your messaging via email, your website, social media, texting and other channels as well as personal interactions in stores and other physical locations.

When was the last time you audited what your salespeople are saying? Have you looked for potential mansplaining in the language you use to describe your product mix? Do you over-explain your value proposition because of gender bias?

How often do you look at what your salespeople say to prospects or your copywriters are writing in white papers, marketing collateral and other customer-facing content?

Speaking of which, here’s a follow-up on my communication with the transcription-company account exec. About 20 minutes after I sent my reply, I got an email that was contrite and apologetic. Did I end up agreeing to a demo after all?

No. Because I suspected he tried to spin this as a funny story to his boss, and the boss said, “You blew it.”

3. Examine the roles and responsibilities of your marketing team.

I have been lucky enough in my career to work with phenomenal women. In the last ten years, more than 75% of my team members have been women. But I also know companies that relegate women to stereotypical jobs. If men lead the group, more often, women are assigned to positions based on gender.

If we’re going to change the corporate landscape, we have to expand opportunities for women. We must look past gender bias in hiring and consideration of women for nontraditional roles.

What are you doing to create equal opportunities? Have you checked yourself, your practices and your communications? Maybe you over-explain in some cases and under-explain in others, such as in training new hires.

This goes beyond mansplaining, which assumes that the man doing the over-explaining is talking to a woman who is either his professional equal or has even more knowledge and experience than him, but it’s still relevant to my point.

A good leader wants the entire team to be as successful as possible and gives everyone the opportunity to do that. It’s not a question of women having to demand equality. The male population must stand up and advocate for it.

In the rapid-fire evolution of our industry, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in print, digital or any other channel. In marketing, we are all moving too fast, whether you’re at the specialist level or the CEO. Sometimes, you need an eye-opening moment, like the one I had with the transcription company, to realize we need to change our perspectives.

Wrapping up

While some might question or contest my experience and say it does not meet the technical definition of mansplaining, don’t discount my point. It’s all a communications problem that attempts to label someone as “not good enough.” This approach, while offensive, is pervasive in our culture and forced me to review how I use marketing and how I interact with others.

My point is this: Are you aligned with breaking gender stereotypes? Or, do you label or discount others because of their gender, role or position? And, ultimately, how does that unconscious bias affect your marketing?


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Ryan Phelan is co-founder of Origin Email and brings nearly two decades of worldwide online marketing and email experience. Ryan is a respected thought leader and nationally distinguished speaker with a history of experience from Adestra, Acxiom, BlueHornet, Sears Holdings, Responsys and infoUSA. In 2013 he was named one of the top 30 strategists in online marketing and is the Chairman Emeritus of the EEC Advisory Board. Ryan also works with start-up companies as an advisor, board member and investor.



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As long as I have been in marketing and email (and that’s a long, long time), the mantra most thought leaders have repeated is: “Think about your subscribers, and deliver the brand promise that got you the acquisition in the first place.”

That means you’re offering relevant communications every time you send an email.

As an industry, we need to be smarter, to act more strategically instead of relying on tactics to reach our goals.

Sounds good, right? But today, I’m looking at my inbox and deleting every email that doesn’t have anything to do with me. It makes me wonder, “What are we doing here?”

What are you doing, and why are you doing it?

Your job as a marketer is to serve your customers and to advance your brand story. Some might say their job is “I gotta sell my wares. I gotta drive my KPIs.” And I would say, “I have a responsibility to the people who gave me their email addresses because I’m in the inbox they check many times a day.”

I fully realize the challenge of delivering value, telling the brand story and showing customers that you value them is not easy. What I see is people saying they’re committed to customer service, but it’s a commitment to customer service when things go wrong.

Today, we are living in what Forrester calls the Age of the Customer, and the expectations are different.

Here’s what noted Forrester analyst Rusty Warner says about the concept:

“Empowered customers are quickly becoming entitled customers who expect consistent, high-value experiences, regardless of channel. On their own, traditional marketing campaigns are ineffective at meeting these demands.

The challenge is to align deeply personalized outbound communications with customer-driven inbound interactions throughout the customer life cycle. In short, brands must win customers in their moments of need.

And, to ensure the brand’s success, marketers must leverage real-time analytics and insights to orchestrate contextually relevant experiences. While campaigns are not dead, they must evolve to ensure that these experiences are anticipatory, frictionless, and immersive.”

3 constituencies marketers must serve

There are three ways we can be of service to our customers without waiting for something to go wrong:

1. Marketers must serve their subscribers, customers and fans by using technology and going the extra mile.

Simply put, this means marketers have to think of their customers first, not their marketing objectives. When we talk about putting strategic planning ahead of tactical planning, the strategy should emphasize this question: “What are we doing to help the customer make a choice?”

To achieve their goals, many companies will say, “We need to sell thousands of dollars of crap. How do we get the customer to buy our crap?” The proper response is, “What does the customer need that I have, and can we get sales from it?”

You probably think I’m naïve. But, so many times we blast the heck out of people and hope there’s a segment of people who want the crap we’re blasting. That doesn’t serve our customers.

Use the technology available to you: The last time I got my hair cut, my barber asked me, “What has been the biggest change in marketing?”

I said, “Access to data about our customers, the technology we need to communicate with our customers, and the price of that action, whether in advertising costs, forms or contacts with the customer.”

All three of these things lend themselves to the marketer having access to tools, abilities, strategies and tactics. Saying you don’t want to use those things is an insult to the advancement of marketing technology.

We have an inherent responsibility to use those tools to create and send more relevant messages.

Go the extra mile: Instead of phoning it in, launching a campaign to everyone on the list and hoping some will bite, we try one extra thing. It could be trying a new strategy or carving out time to think about the “why” (the strategy) instead of the “how” (the tactics).

Here’s extra-mile behavior in action:

I bought a product from a seller on Amazon. After it arrived, I found it didn’t work the way I expected. So, I left a review on the seller’s Amazon page. It wasn’t a scathing review (I rated it 4 out of 5 stars), just a comment along the lines of “It’s a good product, but you have to do this to make it work, and that’s annoying.”

Five days later, someone from the company reached out to me, asking how to make it right and offering to send me a new device.

What they sent wasn’t just a replacement. It was an upgraded, costlier device. The company didn’t have to do that. It could have ignored my comment and gone with the natural flow of the business. Its dedication to their customers is what the Age of the Customer is all about.

2. Marketers must serve their practices by constantly getting smarter about what they do.

This practice is how they do their jobs. Do you get a little smarter about marketing every day you’re on the job? Do you use LinkedIn like Facebook (check-in, like something, check out) or like a source of information that can generate ideas and contacts?

I encourage you to take at least an hour a week to connect more deeply to the marketing universe, whether you read up on marketing news and commentary, listen to podcasts and webinars or attend in-person events. Find something in your email program that you can test, and keep track of your results.

This serves your customers because the smarter we get, the better we can talk to the people who have entrusted their email addresses, Twitter handles or Facebook newsfeeds to us.

If we don’t continue to push ourselves in new directions, we will fail.

3. Marketers must serve themselves to find fulfillment.

This is an appeal to marketers who tell me they aren’t happy. Folks, life isn’t about being sad and miserable.

If you aren’t happy with your job, you need to do all the things I’ve told you about here. Learn more. Read more. Connect more. Try new things, not just to benefit your job but to improve your self-worth and fulfillment and to vault you somewhere else.

I hire smart people. I don’t hire “doers.” You know the ones. They are the automatons who go through the motions and do what they’re told. I want people who want more, who are willing to question, grow and watch my team’s back. To ask “why?” and “why not?”

All of these questions are aimed at doing better email. That serves our customers better, and that comes back to the company in more sales and less churn.

You need to push yourself constantly to be happy or go somewhere else to find happiness. If you look just for a “doer” job, that’s all you’re ever going to get, and happiness will elude you.

Wrapping it up

The best marketers I know feel a responsibility to each of these constituencies to take advantage of the wealth of opportunity in our industry. They participate in activities because they’re smart. They know their stuff and they participate and teach and learn and grow.

If you can follow their example, you will benefit your company, your customers and – ultimately – yourself.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Ryan Phelan is co-founder of Origin Email and brings nearly two decades of worldwide online marketing and email experience. Ryan is a respected thought leader and nationally distinguished speaker with a history of experience from Adestra, Acxiom, BlueHornet, Sears Holdings, Responsys and infoUSA. In 2013 he was named one of the top 30 strategists in online marketing and is the Chairman Emeritus of the EEC Advisory Board. Ryan also works with start-up companies as an advisor, board member and investor.



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