Friday, March 06, 2009

Communication conservation

Here's a simple metric for communicators: waste.

Yesterday I helped clean out a storage closet at the office – a colleague wanted the space for a legitimate business need. Some of the stuff was mine or from projects I worked on. Some pre-dated my employment. And some was done by folks long gone from the company. 

And a ton of it was internal communications or marketing materials.

Brochures. Folders. Posters. T-shirts. Pencils and erasers. Mailers. Promotional kits. Tchotchkes. Table tents. Reminder cards. Ironically, the huge pile of trash contained several boxes of booklets and posters about a years-old recycling program. (The shirts, pencils and other useful items will not be dumped. We'll find a home for them.)

I don't know about you, but that kind of waste just makes me sick. It is just too easy to over-order printed material. The real cost is in the development and set-up – printing an extra thousand or so doesn't usually add much to the cost. Plus, we get caught up in our dreams of success. We worked hard on this launch, of course demand will be high and the project will have legs. Better get some extra shirts and brochures!

Let us all try not to succumb in the future. Let’s measure it.

I think a reasonable goal would be to land somewhere within 5 percent of demand. For every hundred people you expect to reach, you would have no more than five items left over, and no more than five people would go without. (Or would have to settle for an electronic copy, photocopy or in-house printed version of printed material.)

You may not be able to do it the first few times out, because we generally don’t count our used vs. unused material. We should. Over time, we’ll get a feel for the right amount instead of always ordering too much.

There are many benefits:

Communication benefits: One simple way to create demand is through scarcity. If only the first to arrive get the t-shirt or lanyard, people will queue up. If you’re out of brochures, it’s a great opportunity to set up a call or meeting later for some personal interaction.

Budget benefits: It’s just cheaper to order less. If you’re throwing away the extra thousand that only cost $30, it’s still $30 down the drain. Not to mention the cost of schlepping, storing and stepping over and around the overrun. And hey, how many painting shirts do you really need at home? (One tip: offset printers almost always throw in some significant number of overruns that are produced as they are fine-tuning the print job. So your order of 1000 is usually padded already.)

Measurement benefits: Doing this will make us better at gauging the real demand for our materials and measuring the participation in our events. That’s a good thing.

Career benefits: This is another one of those metrics that show your boss that you are thinking about the business and applying sound business principles in your shop. It can make you a better advisor as well.

For example, a few years ago, I was involved in a corporate-wide project that was supposed to culminate in a grand event. Now, I’m naturally cheap, and the cost of producing this event just seemed excessive to me, and I had misgivings about the funding. But I was fairly new to the company and I worked diligently with the event producers to prepare. I my opinion in the realm of low grumbling. Unfortunately, my misgivings were valid – the funding was slashed. My task was then to negotiate a kill fee with the event producers, running to many thousands of dollars. Today, I think I would work harder at providing some cost-benefit and risk analysis to my boss before embarking on a project like this.

Personal benefits: It just feels good not to waste stuff. If you don’t believe it, you haven’t tried it.

I’m sure there are people out there doing this already, and some great ideas I have not mentioned. Please share in the comments.

(Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level: 6.6 grade)

Thanks to erix!s photosteam on flickr for the photo.


Dan G said...

Great post, Matt. Cutting waste is really about being sustainable. And it provides all of the benefits you mention, plus it's the responsible thing to do for our children.

Beyond ordering just enough, consider how to accomplish your same communications goals without giving away "stuff" at all. Pdf's make great brochures. Reusable water bottles can eliminate the use of plastic water bottles at events. There are many tactics to green marketing and communications projects.

Ask your vendors how they can help you be more sustainable. Consider adding a carbon footprint measure to the marketing score card you take to the boss.

I think you're on the right track here.

Linda Carlisle said...

Excellent article and food for thought! I am always pleased to find those places where my passion for sustainability overlap with my passion for marketing.

There's a way to calculate the cost of the the storage of all your over-runs - break down the cost of maintaining your facility to the cost per sq. foot level. Logistics and warehouse professionals use this kind of calculation when figuring out where the break even is on just-in-time inventory...and with digital printing technologies, a just in time approach to supplies is easily achievable.