My son and I walked into the bowling alley off a beaten path in Bridgeton, New Jersey. It looked nice enough. It was clean and appeared modern with a lively banner stretched across all the lanes. The alley shoes appeared almost new and the bowling balls were in good condition. From a distance, the lanes looked shiny and appeared well oiled. For bowling snobs like us who bowl in weekly leagues and have our own gear, this is important.
That’s why as soon as I stepped onto the lanes, I knew something was wrong. Instead of being able to slide up to the foul line on modern non-skid synthetic boards, the shiny wood alley was more like an old fashioned kitchen floor that had been saturated with wax to give it a nice appearance. Sliding up to the foul line which is the norm before releasing the ball, could have been dangerous. If your foot sticks, you can take a nasty fall.
So, I walked up to the foul line and like a child first learning how to bowl, I aimed for the center pin and rolled the ball down the alley. Clip clop. Clip Clop. Like the hoofs of a horse, it noisily bounced and thumped over the wood until it veered off to the left and sought refuge in the gutter.
It’s easy to blame the bowler, but in this case the fault was the shiny wood which was warped. At closer glance, the boards were splitting apart. While the alleys looked up-to-date, they were actually a throwback to the late 1930’s when lanes were coated with shellac and bowling balls were made of rubber. Back then, there was little concern for the relationship between the lane surface and the ball.
Over time, like most products, lanes evolved and were made with urethane-based finishes and today’s balls are far more sophisticated. At this little New Jersey alley, the bowling balls were contemporary but present-day balls do not interact well on out of date lanes.
There is a similarity between that bowling alley and companies who update their products but not their messages. Trying to communicate the same messages without attention to how those messages fit into today’s lifestyle is no different. Yet, that’s what we repeatedly observe when conducting message development and communication programs.
Just last week, we facilitated a communications training for a healthcare company that makes homeopathic products. Their old messages are still accurate, succinct and tell an engaging story, but that story is outdated. They’ve updated product packages, labeling and have embraced today’s social media platforms. But when they speak, they use the same examples they’ve been using for twenty years even though today’s audience is far different than the audience of two decades ago.
Today’s audience embraces active lifestyles, healthy food choices and natural treatments for everyday ailments. Helping today’s listener understand how natural products can complement conventional treatments and fit their day-to-day regimens should be as natural as the products themselves. Sometimes, that’s as simple as sharing every day examples and anecdotes to make the message more relevant.
Like bowling alley management that updated appearances to lure people in, the focus must include how to make those people stay. Companies who fail to stay current by not clearly communicating relevant messages can also find themselves striking out.
Yet day after day, people focus on what they care about instead of concentrating on what the listener cares about. They insist on peppering slides with endless text because it’s important to them. They speed up to get it all in when they’re running out of time. They use lots of industry acronyms that mean nothing to the listener. Because they are often so focused on their own agenda, they miss obvious cues that signal their listeners have tuned out.
Perhaps there is a big lesson to be learned from a little alley. Other than my son and me, no one else was at the alley compared to our home lanes which are packed at all hours. Those lanes are constantly updated with the latest technology and so they can adapt to their customer’s needs.
If you want your message to land in the strike zone, make sure that message is customer centric and relevant so it doesn’t land in the gutter.