What freakish and frumpy aircraft teach you about internet marketing

Ian Lurie

This is a rewrite of an old, old bit I wrote on the Portent web site way back when. It’s not the same. Nor are my feelings on the subject.

The best internet marketing campaigns are the ones you don’t notice—they just do their job, delivering the stuff you need to your screen, when you ask for it. Then they get out of the way.

I can explain it better, though, by talking about a huge wooden seaplane and a small, frumpy airliner.

The Spruce Goose: All pizazz, no performance.

The Spruce Goose is the huge wooden seaplane.

Howard Hughes built it in the 1940s as a transport for the US military. It’s damned cool. First, it’s humungous. Gargantuan. It has eight engines. It’s 218 feet long. The wings are 319 feet, tip-to-tip. It’s 80 feet high. That’s 6+ stories tall.

The Spruce Goose. Original photo from Wikipedia.

It’s got a bigger wingspan than Airbus’s huge airliner, the A380.

It also broke new ground with unique technologies: Composite wood construction and ground effects, to name two.

Do you know how many were built? 1.

Do you know how many miles it flew, total? 1 mile. Ever.

The Spruce Goose was an fantastic failure. It was the product of Howard Hughes’ ego and a fat government contract. It suffered from feature creep and cost overruns. A 3-year-late delivery made it obsolete the moment it was done.

A lot like the last internet marketing project you worked on.

Most internet marketing is a Spruce Goose: Web sites that win Webbies. Designs that rival Picasso. Writing that rivals Shakespeare. The audience says ‘oooooh aaaaaah’. And then they move on, never to return.

These campaigns are driven by the ego of the designer, the CEO, the boss or the agency and a fat client contract. They’re not based on the true needs of the customer. They suffer from feature creep, cost overruns, and late delivery. On a Spruce Goose marketing campaign, the marketing takes over. It becomes the end goal and pushes the business out of the picture.

The result? All pizazz, no performance.

The 737: Low pizazz, high performance.

Boeing built the first 737s in the 1960s. It’s the hobbit of aircraft. It’s not the biggest, or the fastest. It looks a bit stubby. Inside, it’s about as comfortable as a bus. It’s… frumpy.

737. Original photo from Wikipedia.

Seriously, this plane is about as exciting as me at a dance party.

Do you know how many have been built so far? 8,000.

Total, 737s have flown over 65 billion miles. Sixty. Five. Billion.

One takes off or lands every five seconds. The average male doesn’t even think of sex that often.

The 737 is both humble and high-performance. No chest-thumping necessary.

On the internet, 737-style marketing works best—a humble, high-performance vehicle for your business. It does the job by:

  • Putting you in front of customers at the right time.
  • Helping customers make informed decisions.
  • Leaving no doubt as to why your stuff is unique, useful and important.
  • Being clear, readable and usable first, artistic second.

Great online marketing is a vehicle, not an end in itself. It transports the client’s product or service to the customer. You can worry about the style score later.

The result? Sales. Qualified visitors. Loyal customers. Profit.

Low pizazz, high performance.

The Spruce Goose test

Next time you’re confronted with a choice between marketing that’s spectacularly unclear and quietly effective, ask yourself:

Ten years from now, which will be more exciting for you:

  • Your web site, in a museum, with people gawking at it; or
  • Your business, cranking out sales and winning customers.


That’s what I thought.

Other stuff

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at www.ianlurie.com

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  1. You have unconsciously uncovered marketing strategy of my employer. Marketing is about the underlying pattern of effectiveness.
    Sure, I would love to have a web site and ads that sweep up every creative award around. However, if the customers don’t buy our machines, we’d be screwed even with the awards.
    I’m sharing this article with my colleagues. Thanks for summing it all up.

  2. While I completely agree, the sad truth is that it’s sometimes easier to sell the Spruce Goose. We marketers have to be willing to stand firm on what we know works and not fall for the glitz and glamor.

  3. I’d like to have a video of you at a dance party, Ian – for research and comparison purposes, of course…
    You are making some good points though, seriously; I had to do a mental check of my own blog. Yep, good to go. 🙂

  4. Seems like a lot of the time people waste so much time getting everything to look perfect and making everything all eyecandy that they forget to actually help the user/costumer.
    This trend seems to be afflicting every part of our society from movies to video games, to music and martial arts, even individual personality.
    As marketers we need to be smarter than that.
    Some of the most effective marketing and websites that I have seen are ugly as hell!
    Do what works!
    Thanks Ian!

  5. This applies to so many things. Would it be fair for me to compare the death of traditional news media to the Spruce Goose? Both are large behemoths that require huge crews of people to maintain and huge amounts of fuel to keep flying. They are affective when transporting large groups of people to the same destinations(ie same information). But quickly become inefficient when people want to travel to a million different, unique destinations(niche stories). They both simply can’t compete with more efficient methods(737s, small news sites or blogs) of delivering people to their desired destination. Like the Spruce Goose, one day newspapers will just be something we see in a museum next to the large printing press it took to make it.

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