Are you familiar with the term “negative ROI”? It means the money spent on, say, a marketing campaign is less than the money earned from it. There are all kinds of reasons for this unfortunate phenomenon. But one of the biggies often seems to be the struggle of professional communicators to communicate among themselves.

The delivery of up-front project input from the company to the designer or writer often lays the seeds of either success or failure. It’s not a topic we usually talk about. Which is why we’re going to talk about it today, from both perspectives.

Essential tips for clients on giving input to writers and designers:

1. Be prepared. If you come into the input session (whether it’s a face-to-face, Skype or phone meeting) without your initial thoughts, expectations and project mandatories already jotted down, you’re suggesting that this project simply isn’t worth that kind of effort. Have you taken the time to look at other websites, direct mailers, or whatever, to get a rough initial idea of what you’re after? Well, you should.

2. Pull the team together. Will there be several folks at the company who will be involved in reviewing that first draft, making changes, and approving the final work? Then they should all have their say up front, either by attending the input meeting, or by offering their considerations to those who will be there. There’s nothing worse than completing the work to the Marketing Coordinator’s satisfaction, only to have it rejected by her boss, who had something completely different in mind.

3. Keep the committee little. While acknowledging the above point, remember that the more employees involved in the project, the more that project can get bogged down by differing opinions and agendas. Don’t ask the entire staff for their opinion of the new proposed website, unless you also consult everyone for advice on, say, corporate tax deduction issues. And please, don’t come in and tell us what your spouse thinks, unless they happen to be an experienced marketing professional.

4. Provide access. Don’t make the silly mistake of thinking that your marketing campaigns are created “for” your company. Successful ones are created “for” likely buyers, so project input should focus on their needs, concerns, questions, preferences and dilemmas. Give the writer or designer a chance to chat with the salesperson or customer service specialist at your business who’s on the front lines every day and knows these things about those finicky real-world buyers out there.

5. Assign a point person. Before a first draft is presented, there should be a single soul on the company side who’s in charge of interfacing with the designer or writer. Their job is to collect everyone’s reactions, and resolve any differences, before giving feedback to the creatives. Otherwise, that contractor will get stuck between those conflicting responses and agendas. And they’re not getting paid enough to deal with that kind of stress.

Essential tips for writers and designers on getting input from clients:

1. Get as close to the source as possible. When you’re called in as a sub-contractor or collaborator on a project, there can be one, two, or even three layers between you and the client. Just like that old game of ‘telephone’ we played as kids, the input that squeezes its way through that stack is likely to be garbled and unhelpful. Ask to speak to the client directly (after swearing you won’t steal the account). That way, you can listen for hidden gems of info, and ask follow-up questions that go in valuable directions you hadn’t initially considered.

2. Hey, you prepare too. You should have a standard set of questions to roll out at the input session, customized for that client. And don’t worry if things end up going in a different direction, if it offers more tasty intelligence. Also, be sure to ask about their buyers’ attitudes, circumstances and options. Ask about their own strengths and their competitors’ weaknesses—and what those things mean to buyers. If you seem to be getting long pauses because no one has ever asked them those questions before, that’s okay. You have to dig deeper to aim higher.

3. Be tactful. Based on your professional experience, you might think the client’s suggestions are just plain bad suggestions. But don’t just come out and say so; it’s important for them to feel they’re a valuable part of the process. Be supportive but noncommittal, and a little while later, explain how their idea led you to another idea that might achieve their goals more effectively. And when the client does offer a smart suggestion, your positive response and validation will balance out the times when you simply had to disagree.

4. Remember, it’s a process. When you’ve gotten all your input, and started sorting though your notes, a question or issue might come up that wasn’t covered in the original input session. Sometimes, especially when there are layers between you and the client, there will be a tendency to ignore those new questions and issues, to avoid “bothering the client again.” Fight that tendency and ask your question. It could make the difference between a insightful, on-target campaign and just another shallow piece of marketing clutter.

5. Write it down. As a marketing professional, you have sound reasons for the things you do on projects (at least I hope you do). All too often, we present our first draft without necessarily explaining those reasons. So knock out a few paragraphs of written rationale, to help the client understand why the decisions you made offer a smart, effective solution to their problem. Plus they can pass on that little manifesto to help justify your ideas to other company stakeholders, since, let’s face it, nobody can sell your work like you can, right?

Keep these tactics in mind, because a productive and positive input session tends to lead to a strong and positive marketing campaign, a positive buyer response, and, well, wadaya know, a positive ROI.

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