Read this NOW, or the Puppy Gets It!

Years ago, I think it was National Lampoon sent out a mail campaign trying to get subscribers… or maybe it was renewals…

With a picture of a man holding an adorable puppy draped over his left arm. In his right hand, he held what looked like Dirty Harry’s revolver. The headline read (I’m  paraphrasing): “Subscribe now or the puppy gets it!”

Depending on how you feel about puppies, that qualifies as an “urgency” pitch. Of course, there are other ways to create urgency.

“Crazy Eddie” yelling on late night TV about his looney low prices on TVs and stereos… firesales and special edition offers… expiring coupons.

The list goes on. And on. And on.

 It’s no accident. Creating urgency is part and parcel of many a winning ad campaign. Maybe that’s why Linda, one of your fellow CR readers, wrote me asking what on earth was going on.

 The urgency plea, she says, is both everywhere and far too often just plain baloney. Sales end up lasting longer, last-minute prices seem to last forever, and so on.

What gives?

I took a minute to write Linda a reply. Then figured it was good enough to share with you too. See if you agree.

Yes and yes, I told her.

You’re right on two fronts.

First, lots of ads do whatever they can to pound the urgency button. Reason being, all marketing is more or less at war with the onslaught of “other” ads you mention — each of which competes for space in the customer’s mind — and more importantly, with the overwhelming forces of inertia.

The customer who reads and ad that encourages him to put it down for later consideration, is generally a customer lost in the long run. Put more simply, those who don’t “act now” tend not to act at all.

For a brilliant explanation of how this works, beyond the obvious, check out the much recommended “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Dr. Robert Cialdini. Especially what he has to say about the pulling power of scarcity. People really do want to snap up the “last” of anything, rather than miss out.

That said, the other thing you’re right about is that when every single ad is saying you’re going to miss out, the message starts to get diluted. Everyone starts to sound the same. And in selling, sounding the same as everybody else is slow poison to your business.

When that happens, what happens next?

The clever sellers will come up with other ways to express urgency, other than “limited supply” pitches.

As you mention, they’ll have deadlines before price increases, limited-time offers on extras thrown into a deal, special bonuses limited to the first few respondents, etc. Among the group of info publishers I work closely with, one of the most powerful innovations of the last two years — literally worth hundreds of millions of dollars (and counting) — has been to create online “countdown” offers with time deadlines tracked right down to the hour and minute on which the deal is available. I keep thinking they’ll stop working. Yet they keep working, just the same. 

But here’s one last key.

To really work, the limits need to be real. Even if they’re created just to increase the urgency, they have to be enforced. Otherwise, as you suggest, the customer’s get wise to the ruse. Not only does the seller sacrifice trust in his claims, he also sacrifices the power of the technique.

Even as a marketer, I would also second guess those businesses that don’t make good on their “last chance” offers in the way you’re suggesting. Both for the reasons above and also because, frankly, it’s a bad sign for other reasons.

For instance, I know that with the marketers I work with, legal teams actually scan the offers and make sure that if there’s a deadline mentioned, the offer gets pulled the minute the deadline passes.

And if there’s a “limited low price” offered, the legal eagles make sure it never gets offered again. Price hikes are made to happen. Limited bonuses get retired according to the restrictions printed on the reply card. This keeps the marketers honest.

But it also preserves the power of the technique for the rest of us, when we want to try it elsewhere to the same audience.

Long story short…

You’re right to question the “urgency” pitch as a consumer. But both good and bad marketers use it. And likely, will use it forever.

Likewise, if you ever find yourself on the marketing side of the fence, it’s something you don’t want to rule out too quickly.

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‘Twas The Last Sale Before Christmas

Six months before Christmas, I first saw the signs — shopping malls had traded palm trees for pines.

 By August, “Jingle Bells” from speakers did blare in hopes that the shoppers soon would be there.

 Then came Halloween, with Santas in caps; and merchants wrapped pumpkins in bright Christmas wraps.

 Soon all the newspapers took up the same tack –“Yuletide Joy GUARANTEED… or your money back.”

 Bloomingdale’s offered bathrobes, draped in pink spotted sash. “Buy one to help Mom greet the day with panache!”

 Kmart sold Barbies, with bleached-blonde perky glow; “Real cute up top” said the ad, “and stacked down below!”

 Toy shops sold tommy-guns for shooting paint at the dog; the supermarkets sold troughs of diet eggnog.

 By Thanksgiving the frenzy had gotten vicious and sick; over the first sale on anything, shoppers would bite, claw, and kick.

 Meanwhile, grandma’s kitchen revived a stale story — like the Phoenix from fire, arose the fruitcake in glory.

 TV showed the “specials,” each one still the same, only now they have action figures (sponsors list them by name!)

 “Buy DASHER and DANCER!  Buy PRANCER and VIXEN! Get COMET and CUPID and DONDER and BLITZEN!”

 (Maybe it’s venison Grandmom should be fixing.)

 By Christmas Eve, please believe, I’d had more than enough. Go ahead, call me Scrooge — but who BUYS all this stuff?

 All the commercials, the carols, the guilt-laden cards; all the neon-like lights draped in neighborhood yards.

 And here’s me, among boxes, still wrapping my last; with paper cuts and prayers that this season should pass.

 My wife’s finished wrapping; she was done long ago. Her paper’s creased neatly, her ribbons in bows.

 How does she do it? I still can’t comprehend. My presents look lumpy, paper torn at both ends.

 And ribbons I’ve tied show embarrassing slack… like I’d sent presents to Hell, had them wrapped, and sent back.

 By midnight that night — ’twas Christmas Eve — most of my senses had taken their leave.

 So I stepped out back for air and leaned on a car. That’s when I saw it — a tiny white star.

 Cliché? Contrived? A vision too “nice?” I stepped up to see it… then slipped on some ice.

 “Godd*mn it!” I said, even “Humbug!” and worse; every word in the book you could define as a curse.

 A window flew open, my wife shocked by the clatter; “Honey” she called, “is something the matter?”

 And then, a whisper, from a boy four years old “Is that you, Santa?” he breathed out in the cold.

 Dear Reader, perhaps you don’t share my elation, but in that small moment, you see, I found revelation.

 ’twas small like a flicker, far-off as the star. An inkling, just then, of why wise men go far;

 Of why mothers start baking, why carolers sing, and why three once brought gifts to one child king;

 Why, every Christmas, we share things and confections, with the hope of redemption for unspoken affections.

 You see, I realized that while our lives are adrift, we can at least find foundation in one simple gift;

 A gift as elusive as the world she is round, And one I don’t name, for it’s far too profound,

 But you can hear it hinted in phrase that seems right, “A Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”

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What Nascar, Kool-Aid, And Purple Oreos Have in Common

Purple oreos?How sick and tired are you of having to choose between brands? Funnyman Stephen Colbert recently interviewed Lucas Conley, author of “Obsessive Branding Disorder,” to find out.

Branding, says Conley, has spun completely out of control. The idea, of course, is to build a reputation for a product name… so future products bearing that name will fly off the shelves.

It’s borrowed credibility. Sometimes appropriate. But more and more often, says Conley, it’s not.

Take a look at some of the weird and whacky branding combinations he listed during the interview (while Colbert pretended the whole thing was sponsored by Dr. Pepper)…

…Sylvester Stallone Pudding ™
…Nascar Brand Romance Novels ™
…Nascar Packaged Meats ™
…KoolAid Brand Tennis Shoes ™
…Harley Davidson Birthday Candles ™
…Playdough Limited Edition Cologne ™

Yes, these are real products.

In each case, what’s the business goal? What’s the advantage? What’s the point? You have to wonder. The folks over at neurosciencemarketing.com wondered too, but with brands that add too many choices under one brand umbrella.

For instance, did you know that there are 46 different kinds of Oreos today?

I’m talking about the little chocolate cookies with the vanilla cream center. At least, that’s what we were talking about when I was a kid. Today, you can get the “Double Stuff” version with twice the filling… the inverted “Golden Uh-Oh With Chocolate Cream”… the “Duo” which is half vanilla and half chocolate… “Spring Purple” Oreos with purple cream… and so on.

The study goes on to list an epidemic in overly stretched brands: 11 kinds of Tostitos… 16 kinds of Goldfish snack crackers… 23 kinds of Gatorade. You get the picture.

Conley’s problem with psychotic cross-branding was that all these companies had moved miles away from what they did best. That costs their customers, who get duped into buying lower quality but branded goods. It also costs the companies, who get distracted from using what they know to take their already developed businesses to the next level.

When businesses explode their menu of varieties within an already successful brand, they get a different problem. They end up competing with themselves for their own customers’ attention.

Sound like a good problem to have? Not so fast.

Columbia University did a study, using shelves loaded with exactly the mind of mega-branded product lines listed above. Customers walked past the shelves groaning with 20 different kinds of Edge Shaving gel or 30 kinds of Smuckers Jam… and the site stopped them in their tracks.

Okay so far. Except that, even though more customers stopped to look… many FEWER actually bought, compared to the customers shown a more limited choice.

How much fewer?

In the study, 30% of the customers looking at the limited selection bought at least one item. But out of the customers flooded with choices, only 3% decided to buy.

Wow.

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Idea Angst and How to Beat It

padandpenYou hear a lot about something called “writer’s block.”

Then there’s that thing we all used to get when most writing was done with a pencil, called “writer’s cramp.”

This, not to be confused with “writer’s camp,” when a gaggle of would-be-novelists disappear into the Maine woods to drink wine and avoid their manuscripts.

Then there’s what I call “writer’s angst.”

What’s that?

Back when I was going to an office to work rather than working from my “office” at home (a comfortable chair in our living room), I was standing at a bus stop reading a good book.

This, mind you, was not just any bus stop. It’s a block from the apartment we use while in Paris, on a sun-dappled and leafy, on a corner of the Quai de la Tournelle and the Pont de l’Archêché. Boats float down the Seine nearby. The gothic towers of Notre Dame shadow the river. Parisians stroll past while les bouquinistes set up shop.

It was a beautiful day, after almost a week of chill and rain. The breeze fluttered the leaves. And in that moment before a moment, I had just been thinking how much better this was than a 45 commute through traffic to a cubicle in an office park.

But suddenly, it hit me. Out of the blue, a week’s worth of research for a new promo suddenly gelled together. No, collided. Like a tangle of monkeys on bicycles.

Headlines and leads… points and counterpoints… resistance-melting proofs… a battering close… phrases, metaphors, images, and subheads…

It was good stuff and I knew it. Too good to lose. I had to stop reading, for fear that the words in the book might drown my idea. God willing, I thought, nobody would talk to me. Where the h**l was that bus? I fingered the metro ticket in my pocket.

I looked at my watch.

I had exactly 20 minutes from here to my keyboard. Would I make it in time? That big old elevator was so slow. It would take three minutes to climb the stairs. Did I have a pen anywhere? Something to write on? Maybe in my bag. Where the h*ll is that bus?

Ah wait, here’s a pen. Maybe I can get this down on the blank inside cover of the book. Here’s the bus. C’mon people, file in. Show him your ticket. Tourist… question… fumbling in English. Let’s get this thing moving!

Scenery, great. Fountains. Cool. What’s with all this traffic? Getting out, walking from the stop, punching in the door code, up the creaky wood stairs, at the desk, opening the laptop… I made it. Someone says hello, but I’m already typing. It’s in. On the page. Phew.

Years ago, I wanted to be a novelist. And I remembered what a fiction teacher in college once warned us. “You’re not really a writer,” he said, “until you can’t wait to get to your office… or get home, if you have to… to write.”

Now I’m a copywriter instead.

But really, when we’re talking process, is there that much of a difference?

Aside from the pay, I mean. (Holler “copywriter” in a New York restaurant, and someone will hand you a business card. Holler “novelist” and someone will come out of the kitchen and hand you another dinner roll.)

The bottom line is simple: Every kind of productive writer spends time in the chaos of ideas, the maelstrom of data and research that marks the start of a new project. This is the whole theory, by the way, behind James Webb Young’s already short book, “A Technique For Producing Ideas.”

For instance, think about what it’s like — or should be like — to start from scratch with a new client or product. You end up throwing yourself completely into the research, from the ground up, with the hopes of knowing the thing you’re writing about better than the insiders themselves.

At first it’s too much. A mess of notions, no clear thread linking them together. You’re sure it will never make sense. Then it does. In an instant. And it’s all you can do to type fast enough to get it down. You need this to happen. But you cannot will it to happen. The connecting ideas, it turns out, find you. Not the other way around.

You can no more order yourself to be creative than you can order a dog to sneak up on its tail.

What you can do, however, is steep yourself in reports, in articles, in books, in recorded interviews and conversations, in related websites and — for our purposes — past promos and brochures. What you pour in, you’ll get back out. Organized by your subconscious. Stuff it in, pack it in, sit on top of it and pound if you have to.

Then take a walk. Take a shower. Go stand at the bus stop and wait.

Just make sure you’ve got a pen handy when you do.

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What’s Your Best Offer?

“Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry,” Donald Trump once said, “I like making deals. Preferably big ones.” And indeed, coming up with appealing deals and powerful offers can be an art form unto itself. 

Luckily for those of us who aren’t “The Donald,” there are formulas on how to do it. And books that lay out the formulas in simple yet thorough detail. One, for instance, is “Cash Copy” by Dr. Jeffrey Lant.

As an example, you could build any number of deals using Lant’s most basic premium offer formula, which goes something like this: Successful Premium Offer = FREE + limited time + stated real benefit

But you can get even more fancy, with impressive results. Here are some of the offer structures Lant suggests, followed by details on how marketers might use them… along with added details on how to apply them directly in sales copy:

 Offer Type #1: The Tension Buster

 Challenge: By the time your prospect gets to the sales close, what’s he worried about?  He wants to know if (a) You can solve his problems the way you say you can and (b) If you can’t, can he get his money back.

Marketer’s Solution:  Money-back guarantees are standard fare for all kinds of product offers.  Trial samples work here, too. Personally, I prefer strong guarantees to weak ones.  Clients sometimes fear a flood of refund requests.  But when you’re working with good products and honest sales promises, that shouldn’t be as much of a problem… right?

 Copywriter’s Technique: I usually push for  the strongest guarantee possible.  See if you can get permission to offer 100% of money back, even 110% back for dissatisfied customers.  For the extra 10%, maybe you could tally that up in the form of freebies the refunded customer gets to keep. Make it look substantial too.  Certificate borders help.  So can signatures and a photo next to your guarantee copy.  Also, try putting a strong testimonial in your P.S. or on your reply device.

Offer Type #2: The “Instant Gratification” Deal

Challenge: Immediate action-takers want immediate results.  They want to see the benefits as soon as possible after deciding to buy. 

Marketer’s Solution: Bill-me-later options, installment payments, and trial offers can help scratch the “instant-satisfaction” itch.

Copywriter’s Technique: Emphasize ease of ordering and speed of deliver, with simple phrases like: “You pay nothing up front.  Just let me know where to send your trial sample, and I’ll rush it to your mailbox.”  Tell the customer what they’ll get and, if possible, when.

Offer Type #3: The Coupon-Clipper’s Delight

Challenge: Even with good copy and a good product, sticker-shock can be a problem.

Marketer’s Solution: Quantity offers, limited-time offers, and trade-in deals are a good way to show prospects that they’re getting a good deal.

Copywriter’s Technique:  Emphasize the discount with call out boxes.  Do the math in $$ if the savings is a percentage discount. In the body of the sales close, try showing the cost and efficiency of your product compared to similar, more expensive products. If you can make the offer time-limited, do so.  And put that deadline in a callout-box on the reply page too.  Or another device: Try emphasizing the savings by creating a “price-off” coupon that gets sent back in along with the reply card.

Offer Type #4: The Ticking Timer

Challenge: If you don’t get immediate action on a sales decision, you probably won’t get the sale at all.

Marketer’s Solution:  Seasonal offers have a natural time limit.  But contrived time limits can work just as well.  The “speed-reply” bonus is also a common device.

Copywriter’s Technique: If there’s a limit on the number of customers who can sign up, write about it.  Give specifics. For example: “Frankly, after these 2,000 slots are filled, I’m going to have to close the doors.  If I don’t hear from you by then, you’ll be turned away. I’ll have no choice.  Which is why I hope to hear from you soon..” Emphasize benefits that a prospect sacrifices by waiting too long. Fax and toll-free ordering can be used to help speed up orders too:  “If you want to get started immediately, call or fax your order to…”

Offer Type #5: The EZ Offer

Challenge: Even eager customers can get confused by complex order forms, missing BREs, elaborate information requests, and worse.

Marketer’s Solution: Multiple ways to place an order help. Though, more than three options (fax, phone, mail… or… phone,

mail, e-mail) is probably too much.  These days, the ability to take orders around the clock is a big plus.

Copywriter’s Technique: Try numbering the steps: “(1) Fill out this invitation below, (2) Put it in the envelope provided (3) Drop it in your mailbox.” Add this phrase here and there too: “It’s that simple.” And if you’ve got the leisure of a toll-free number, be sure to put it where the prospect can see it.  Make it large.  Make it easy to find.  And put it on every piece in the envelope.

Offer Type #6: The Private Deal

Challenge: People like to feel like they’re getting privileges. “In a world where everyone is as important as everyone else,” says Lant, “people are dying to feel more important than everyone else.”

Marketer’s Solution: Create limited editions, clubs, and “societies.”  Frequent-flier miles and favored customer incentives work on this principal too.

Copywriter’s Technique: Use design to make the invitation look exclusive.  Write in “whispered” tones.  The reply device could be constructed like a real “R.S.V.P.” document. When you start the sales close, make sure you summarize the benefits in the form of privileges for exclusive invitees.

Offer Type $7: The Bachelor’s Offer

Challenge: Some people fear commitment.

Marketer’s Solution: See above for talk about “no-money-down” offers.  But for real fence sitters, consider collecting contact details for future use.  E-mail is great for this.  Give non-committal free information up front.  Then use regular contact to deepen the relationship and set the groundwork for a future sale.

Copywriter’s Technique: Here’s where emphasizing freebies can come in handy.  Especially if there’s little or no other commitment. But remember, it’s not worthwhile if (a) the freebie has no benefit to the prospect and (b) you fail to collect personal information for future contact.

A caveat, says Lant, is that “‘Free’ by itself is almost never the strongest possible offer you can make.” However, he recommends, when you’ve got a really strong offer — no matter what kind it is — one of the best things you can do is bring it out right up front.

 Added evidence — many of the most successful direct mail letters of all time lead with a strong sales offer right in the headline or on the first page. By the way, Lant himself credits another old friend of the CR with some of the best insights in his “offer” chapter — our prolific pal Bob Bly, author of the all-time classic “The Copywriter’s Handbook.” 

Pick up a copy if you haven’t already.

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The World’s Most Famous Copywriter?

Claude HopkinsClaude Hopkins looks like a crotchedty chemist. Or a vacuum cleaner salesman. At least, he does in most of the pictures you’ll find of him online.

Which is appropriate considering that he sold both, as a house copywriter, until at age 41 he got a job writing ads under Albert Lasker, at the Lord & Thomas ad agency.

Today, your average modern ad man might not think much of Claude Hopkins’ “antiquated” ideas.

Many working copywriters might not even know who Claude was, let alone why he mattered.

His most famous book, “Scientific Advertising,” was written and published more than a lifetime ago, in 1923. And it sold for 10 cents. Today, you can find it free online.

So why care about Claude Hopkins and what he had to say at all? Because so much of what he had to say then… still matters. The examples have changed. So has the medium. But the fundamentals are still the same.

Keep in mind, Hopkins ads from the 1920s are still among some of the most famous ever written. He was so talented, Lasker paid him $185,000 a year in 1907.

That’s like making $4,048,173 today. Actually more than that, since accurate inflation calculators only goes back to 1913. And Hopkins earned every penny.

He sold a fortune in Schlitz Beer, by being the first to write an ad about how their “bottles are washed with live steam.”

He sold carpet sweepers as, can you believe it, the “Queen of Christmas presents” and VanCamp’s pork and beans because they were “baked for hours at 245 degrees.” It was Hopkins’ stroke of genius to sell tires as “all weather,” putting Goodyear on the map.

His secret was simple. Find the benefit in whatever he was hired to sell, and make it unique. Own that territory. It was enough to make him one of the most successful copywriters who ever lived.

You can read a free copy of Scientific Advertising yourself, by downloading it from here.

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Make the Most of It, Starting Now…

corkpopJohann Underwald was a Swiss math whiz. When I say “whiz” I mean he was smart. Very smart. Some called him “the next Albert Einstein.”

But one day, back in October 1999, Underwald and friends decided to go bungee jumping. Big deal, right? After all, despite all the hype, bungee jumping is a surprisingly low-casualty sport.

Unless that is you happen to be Underwald.

They scheduled their jump into a beautiful 250-foot gorge. But in what could only be remembered later as a head-smackingly stupid and hugely humbling development, it turned out that Underwald the highly respected math-whiz had erroneously measured out a cord of 300 feet.

Whoops.

Sometimes, it’s all too easy for your best intentions to… er… fall flat on their face.  Not because you weren’t excited enough from the outset. But because when it came to the execution, you failed to follow through on the details.

I’m sure you know what I mean, especially this time of year.

You start out your New Year with big ambitions, busting through the swinging saloon doors of the universe full of hope and promise. What happens next? Just a few months in, you let the unexpected get in the way. Out the window goes the diet. Up in flames goes the promise to quit smoking. The samba lessons, training for the marathon, learning to speak Mandarin? Forget about it. Come March or even February, you’ve slipped back into the same revolving groove. Before you know it, it’s December 31st all over again and you’re singing the same old song from years prior.

Which is why, this year, I want to suggest you get started in another way.

You may, indeed, have already made your resolutions. But before you let yourself slip completely under the surface in the wellspring of your good intentions, let’s step back for just a moment and take measure first.

Specifically, let’s spend a moment — at long last — examining a few of those bad habits that have torpedoed your resolutions in years prior. Even more specifically, since this is after all supposed to be a blog about copywriting, let’s take a closer look at the obstacles that could overwhelm you during your year of writing ahead… sound good?

So, one of the burdens we face when we set out on a new venture is the baggage we sometimes insist on dragging behind us. With that in mind, let’s start by asking… what’s your baggage?

I can’t even count for you, at this point, how many newbie copywriters I’ve worked with. But I can tell you that one of the most common early copywriting career burdens — and it’s even a hinderance for a few less-successful industry veterans — is pride in our own cleverness.

I think you know what I’m talking about. Instead of writing copy that persuades, they’d rather whip out their best puns, humor, and headline word play. Okay, yes. We all do it from time to time. But how often have you indulged, in the hopes that your own cleverness would make you and/or your client look smart? Fun as it might have been, did that preening act make your sales copy more effective… or less? Since not everybody is clever in the same way, most likely the answer is less.

So let’s say, this year, before you decide to do anything, decide to step away from all that. Instead, let’s make 2010 the “year of the customer.” Benefits, core emotional drivers, targeted offers they just can’t resist.

What else might be holding you back, year after year?

Let’s talk about procrastination. Nasty stuff, that. And an albatross ’round the neck of far too many. Think about it. Are you the type that feels “busy” when you log in to answer your email, first thing in the AM? Does your checklist start with the little things and save the big things for later? Do you ever find yourself, during the day, feeling sick or even kicking yourself because time has almost run out and you “haven’t gotten a thing done?”

If yes, most likely you’re frittering away the minutes at the expense of the hours, days, weeks, months, and — yes — limited years of your life. And there’s no time better to break that habit than immediately.

Of course, this applies to many more things than just your copywriting career. But let’s try a suggestion from copywriting great Gene Schwartz that might show you how to break that procrastination cycle.

It starts when you get yourself an egg timer. Got one? Good. Now, every morning, do NOTHING until you’ve put in at least 33 minutes working on the biggest and most important project on your docket. And by important, I mean the one that’s closest to putting income on your bottom line and earning you respect in the industry.

In other words, all the small, urgent stuff… the quick phone calls, the emails, the must-have daily meetings… gets pushed to the back of the list  It’s end of the day stuff. And that same time, you want to move your biggest projects — the ones you dread getting started on the most — right up to the front.

Now, with the help of your timer, you’re ready to start carving away huge self-satisfying chunks of that project. Try setting the timer six times in a row at the 33 minute mark. Take a five-minute break after the third session or even between sessions if you have to. And make it a rule from now on that this is how you’ll start every morning.

All told, that’s only 3.3 hours of work per morning. Even if you’re getting started at the leisurely hour of nine, you’d be done in plenty of time for lunch. Yet you’ll be amazed at how much better, more relaxed, and valuable you’ll feel having accomplished something bigger than just the routine stuff that used to waste so much of your first-thing energy. What’s more, you’ll now have the entire afternoon to come back to all of that stuff.

This process, by the way and with or without the timer, is called “inverting your agenda.”

You’ve probably heard the old story. If you want to fill a jar with sand, pebbles, and big stones… put in the big stones first, the pebbles next, then dump in the sand to fill spaces in between. Any other order, and you’ll never fit it all in.

On a related note, let’s talk laziness. Sloth.

Procrastination is often the busy work that looks frantic but gets you nowhere. But to stumble through life complacent is like committing that same kind of crime, times ten. Think about it. When you finally earn your tombstone, how would you feel if nobody had a clue what to carve upon it?

“He napped,” it could read.

At your funeral, what if your eulogy was dead air? What if nobody could remember anything important you’d ever done? What if you were to suddenly realize on your deathbed that you had just been “there” all your life, present but not accountable for much of anything except wasting oxygen?

There’s a joke “motivational poster” I’ve seen making the rounds online. It’s a picture of an empty toilet paper holder of the simple spring-action type. Balanced on top of the empty holder is a roll of already-started paper. Underneath, the de-motivational caption reads “Because somebody else will do it.”

Don’t let that be you, the one that rides up the mountain on somebody else’s back.

Look, even I know that if I’m going to sell you on an idea there’s no easier way for me to do that than… well… for me to make it sound easy to you, too. Yet, there’s no way around it — good results demand good effort. You’ve simply got to log the hours, do the work, make it happen. Or don’t bother.

It’s that simple.

Ask yourself, if you’re trying to start your career… have you really gotten on the mailing lists of prospective clients? Do you really read as many frequently seen direct response letters as you can? Have you really made the effort to get your first writing gig, even if that means starting locally, getting paid a little less in exchange for the experience and portfolio samples, or — yep — maybe even working on “spec?”

(“Spec” means “speculative,” where you’ll only get paid if your new client uses your stuff. Some don’t recommend it. But given that an uncertain payoff at the start seems to be a common thread even among the top copywriters I know, I say don’t knock it — as a last resort, it could be your best way in.)

If you’re already working at this career path, but you’re wondering why you still haven’t gotten yourself all that far, then you’ve got a new round of self-reflective questions to ask. For instance, sure you can produce copy… but is it the best copy you can produce? That is, are you really building a relentless succession of persuasive sales points… or are you  just writing something to fill space?

How deeply did you dig when you did the research? How hard have your really tried to understand the customer? Does that include time talking to customer service, reading product-related forum posts, or walking the floor at product-related conferences?

Likewise, how well do you really know the product you’re selling? How many of the past sales-letter controls have you read? “All of them” is the only right answer. How much time have you spent interviewing the product creator, staff members, and anybody else close to the core interest of whatever you’ve been hired to write about? Your notes can and often should exceed the length of your final sales piece at least once and as much as three times over.

Bottom line: The greats in any field, this one included, aren’t the natural-born geniuses. They’re the guys (and gals) that put in the hours, more so than anybody else. That’s it. That’s the ultimate success secret. And it’s not just the total amount of hours but the way in which those hours are budgeted.

You have got to get a sense of where in your time schedule you’re going to draw the biggest payoff. In writing copy for hire, the best service you offer — and therefore the one he’s paying you for most — is your ability to take a lot of unique and potentially complex value, and boil that down to the most essential, most persuasive promise that will appeal to the target customer.

You are, in effect, a translator.

And before you can translate anything, everybody knows you have to understand it first. So what’s the first thing you should do this year? I suggest budgeting about double the time you normally do to study the angles on everything you write about and everybody you’re writing to. Commit to knowing it as fully as it can be known, even before you write your first headline.

Because that’s how you find the unique selling angles nobody else has found before.

Do it right and this will take you less and less time with each project, especially if you win over clients for repeat business. With the added bonus being that, the more work you do for the same client, the more loyal that client becomes to your copywriting business — simply because you’re the one that knows the products and customer base the best.

This list, of course, could go on forever.

But if you just pay attention to these few obstacles now, you’ll be able to put together a much stronger “to do in 2010” plan than you’ve written out at the start of any year prior.

Because I think this is so important to your success, let me just bundle up some of these ideas in another way…

During the year, I teach at a few writing seminars. And I almost always come away surprised by two things. First, I’m impressed by the caliber of many of the students. You meet some sharp people at these events, including people who’ve done amazing things in other phases of their lives. Or who at least have great insights into the world and how it works.

Yet, here’s the second shocker I come across, and all too frequently: You just wouldn’t believe how many of these smart, otherwise-accomplished people then tell me “I’ve ordered that course on copywriting… but I haven’t had a chance to get started.” And then, in the same breath, ask me for recommendations on other courses or resources they can buy and — most likely — still not use!

I call it the exercise bicycle phenomenon.

I’ll bet you know how that goes. Full of ambition, you bust out and get yourself an exercise bike. You’ll be the Lance Armstrong of the indoor Tour de France, you tell yourself. A champion in your own private world. You’ll even put the bike in your bedroom, so as to remind you that it’s there for you to hop onto first thing every morning. The first day, you put the world’s fastest hamster to shame with your wheel spinning. The next morning, you huff through another few miles. Just a month or so later, though, you’re only using the thing as a towel rack. Sigh.

I see the same thing happen over and over again to these people I’m telling you about. They buy the course. They buy the books. They go to the seminars. They talk up their ambitions to everybody who listen. And then, almost without even noticing it themselves… they quit. They just stop getting started. End of story. Double sigh.

When I come across somebody in that boat, I tell them the same thing. I’ll repeat it for you here:  Studying this stuff is great. But getting started is what really matters. Do it any way you can. Make this year that year you’ll remember as the beginning of everything grand.

Easier said than done?

Well, of course. Isn’t everything worthwhile slave to that maxim?

But yet again, I’m going to throw a line to my old friend Michael Masterson, copywriting mentor extraordinaire, who has given lots of generous advice on how to transform long-term goals into d0-it-today specific and immediate steps.

It’s a simple but powerful philosophy Michael espouses. In short, work backward from where you want to be 20 years or even 10 years from now, and break it down by year… by month… by week. Tomorrow. Today.

The smaller and more specific the steps you identify, the better. At least until you’ve broken it all down into the manageable, checklist kinds of details. And then make it a habit to carefully review that specific list each morning and again each evening. Michael actually carries index cards in his pocket, pulls them out, and checks things off while puffing a cigar.

It’s the connection between long-term goals and short-term action that’s key, however. No throwaway events on that daily checklist, in other words. All are there because they’re clearly building to what’s bigger. In this way, Michael has cranked out nearly a dozen books, added millions to his personal fortune, attained high level status in martial arts training, and quite a bit more.

It works, if you’re willing. And it’s not new. Aristotle would have called it — and did — “habits of virtue.” It worked for him. It’s worked for Michael and millions of others. Surely it could work for me and you.

 

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A Direct-Mail Designer’s Open Letter (to Copywriters)

youvegotmail.pngWe write plenty here about writing copy, but not so much about how it should look when it hits the mail (or the web).

Lucky for us, direct-mail designer Carrie Scherpelz has stepped up to put it to us straight.

Carrie, take it away…

An Open Letter to Copywriters
(From a Direct-mail Designer)

by Carrie Scherpelz

For most of my thirty years as a graphic designer, I had observed that designers rather than copywriters took the lead on creative projects. That changed about eight years ago. At the time, I was an art director at American Girl magazine.

I was asked to collaborate with a well-known national copywriter on a direct mail promotion for American Girl. The copy for the promotion had been written, and my job was to design print-ready components for a 6×9 package based on the writer’s detailed sketches. Hmmm, I thought, what an odd way of working. The designer always does the drawing, not the writer . . .

Game for this unusual challenge, I started the project in my usual way by creating eye-catching designs based on the sketches and sending pdf concepts off to Texas for the copywriter to review. When he responded with his feedback, I began to learn that good direct mail design is different from what most designers do.

Some of my design elements got in the way of the message, I was told. Directed by the writer, I made changes that stripped down the design.

He specified new colors that he said got better results. (How did he know that?!) I was required to use Courier as the letter font, not Times New Roman. He didn’t want me to add graphics or photos to the letter either. (Amazing! I was sure that no one in the world would read a boring 4-page letter with no graphic relief.)

When I balked at the writer’s art direction, I learned that direct mail results are measurable.

Colors and fonts had been tested and found effective. There was no arguing with the arithmetic of response.

Many of my colleagues in design prefer not to work within direct mail’s constraints to their creativity.

Perversely, I found that I loved direct mail design. Maybe it was my competitive side kicking in: I wanted to beat the control. Or maybe it was because I have always been fascinated with human behavior and what motivates people to take action.

Or not.

Maybe I just like direct mail design because I love to read and write. I like to think about a writer’s copy and then design a clear and compelling format for it. Unfortunately many designers pay little attention to words and readability.

A block of copy is sometimes treated as just one more graphic element to place within the stylish, distinctive design of the piece.

As a result, colors and patterns often compete with the copy, confusing and even obscuring the message. Branding can also get in the way of presenting a direct mail offer. I try to avoid these pitfalls and do my best as a designer to sell the copy.

Someone once said, “Great design may save bad copy, but bad design will destroy the most brilliant copy.” As a designer, I find good copywriters to be very controlling.

And rightfully so.

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How To Tame Technology

bigbrotherIt’s not always easy to know where technology will take us.

Still, you’ll want to do what you can to stay ready.

What happens, for instance, to copywriters in the digital age? Up until now, I’ve heard lots of people wax on about how different the online customer is from the customers you’ll write copy for in print. And for the most part, I consider that hogwash. People are people and bring their same desires and fears to the Internet.

But one thing that’s definitely true about the world of online marketing is that it has closed distances and allowed lots of small “niche” markets to come together. Something else that’s true is that the pace of exposure to those markets has exploded. So has the volume of exposure, in total products available.

So what’s that going to mean for you, the copywriter?

Quite a bit. If you want to survive, bottom line, you’ll have to make a few changes.

For instance, you’ll want to…

Write faster. With more markets breaking up into smaller segments, with more customers reachable online, and more niche products to sell, that means the demand for copy goes up.

So does the exposure to marketing messages. So does the competition for the customer’s attention. Marketing copy will get exposed more frequently, tire more quickly, and need more testing to find what ultimately works.

Demand for your copywriting skills should soar. But how quickly you can crank out a workable draft is more important than ever before.

Nurse your passions. The more focused, the more targeted the customer, the more easily he’ll spot a faker when he sees one. This is another reason why you should write copy, if you can, that sells to a special interest you already ‘get’ and get well… yourself.

Because when you’re passionate about what you’re selling, it comes across. You use the write lingo to talk about it, you have the right appreciation for the fine points. And more likely than not, you’ll already have the right connection with your target audience.

Know the niches. One-profile-fits-all is no longer the modus operandi of savvy marketers. To be honest, it hasn’t been for a long time. Breaking down markets into special interests has been the name of the game for as long as just about any of us can remember.

The only thing that’s changed now is that figuring out who those segments are and what they want has just gotten easier. Thanks especially to search engine tools, keyword tracking, online forums and user-run recommendations sites, and more.

But the better you ‘get’ what the niche customers care about, the better you’ll be at coming up with products or pitches that will sell inside of this increasingly narrow focus.

Know the products. Just like it’s going to make a big difference for you to better understand the niche customer, you’ll need to know the nitty-gritty details about the increasingly niche products too.

Not just because the products will be more specialized and therefore different from what you knew before, but also because niche customers are a lot more focused and educated too.

If you start talking about a product without fully understanding it yourself, the niche customer will spot your fakery from a mile off.

Discriminate better. No more taking on ‘sad sack’ projects, hopeless cases, or copy quagmires… ever again. In a world where the flood of products is rising, there are bound to be more duds out there than ever.

If you can’t sell it or it simply isn’t good enough to sell, most of the time, you’ll have to learn to say no. That doesn’t mean you have to shun every orphaned opportunity. Some might thrive, to the shock and pleasure of the client, with just a few unexpected tweaks.

However, other products are just duds. The reason they don’t sell well is because they don’t deserve to. If you’re absolutely sure this is the case with any new project, politely decline the gig and walk away. There’s no time for messing with these half-baked opportunities anymore.

Make sure you take your best shot. In archery, they tell you to aim twice before pulling the trigger. In copy today, do the same. That is, if you’re writing a new promo, keep an extra document page open at the same time. Call it “test leads.” Whenever an idea comes up for an alternate headline, jot it down in this second doc.

I try never to submit a package without at least one test lead. Sometimes, as many as four test leads and an original, all at once. In one recent case, I even wrote three entirely different versions of the whole promo. Without charging an extra dime. Why?

Because most of my copy gets tested online, where running alternate versions is cheap (nearly free). I get a royalty on every sale, no matter which promo wins. So I figure getting more than one iron in the fire more than takes up the slack.

Get savvy. Copywriting was always a gateway to other kinds of knowledge. List marketing, printing, design, even people management — you’ll know a little of everything before you’re through.

These days, it pays to get savvy about a few things copywriters didn’t even talk about just a few years ago. Like how search engines work, what a website should look like, email marketing and editorial, and so on.

You might even need to apply the same ideas to selling your own services. With an eletter of your own, for instance. Or a blog or website that shows samples of your work.

Expand your offer. The need to crank out copy faster is just one way to stay ahead of the “niche” curve. You’ll also want to look for other ways to monetize your talents.

Consulting on other people’s copy, for instance, for a fee. Or taking on student writers in a swap for some of their royalties. (I’m already booked up with writing students and mentored projects, for instance.)

The bottom line:

Be aware that you can’t just write for the big hits anymore. There’s definitely still a big “hits” market there. But you’d be passing up an explosion in niche marketing opportunities that’s just too lucrative too ignore.

Also be aware that the demand for good copy will soar yet again, as more and more products come to market. But that “good” copy will increasingly be defined not only how clean it reads, but by how precise and narrowly focused it is on the niches that will see it.

Not to mention, on how fast you can deliver it.

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Secrets of a Direct-Mail Legend: Rodale

rodaleOnce in awhile, you can’t beat a good case study. And what better case study for a copywriter or direct marketer to learn from than the profile of a legendary direct-mail publisher: Rodale.

Rodale, if you haven’t heard of it, is located in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. Emmaus is a small American town that’s less than 8 miles square. Just under 5,000 families call it home. One of those families is that of J.I. Rodale, a former New York tax accountant who started Rodale Manufacturing in 1923.

Yes, manufacturing. Not publishing.

But then, during the Great Depression, Rodale moved to an empty warehouse in Emmaus.

And it was in the corner of that building that J.I. took a chance and followed his passion… straight to a printing press in the corner of the electrical warehouse.

His first few efforts were flops.

No, strike that, his first SEVERAL efforts were flops. They included a miserably unpopular humour magazine (closed after one issue)… some health digests… and a book of randomly accumulated health facts.

From 1923 to 1940, nothing seemed to work.

Then the company picked up roots and moved operations to a nearby 60-acre farm.

In addition to publishing, J.I. had a fascination with natural farming techniques and organic living. By 1942, he had combined the two and was publishing a magazine called “Organic Gardening and Farming.”

Yawnsville?

Maybe to the coke-and-cheeseburger set.

But “Organic Gardening” (now titled “OG”) is still around. And it’s hugely successful, with over 3 million subscribers worldwide.

The passion-publishing combination seemed to do the trick. Rodale started producing a slew of health magazines and books…

“Prevention” — arguably the most successful health magazine in history — was one of them.

Other titles include “Men’s Health,” “Backpacker,” “Runner’s World”… and books like “The South Beach Diet,” “The Home Workout Bible,” “The Organic Suburbanite,” “Shrink Your Female Fat Zones,” “The Testosterone Advantage,” “A Road Map To Ecstasy,” and many more.

The Rodale empire grew. And J.I. Rodale prospered.

He passed away in 1971, during an appearance on the Dick Cavett show.

So What Was His Secret?

The first time I saw one of Rodale’s direct-mail book promos, it was in the mid 1990s.

According to Forbes, the market for direct-mail-sold books was 4% of overall wholesale book sales. Today, according to the same article, that market has shrunk to about 1.4%. Rodale’s book division felt the pinch. Others, like Time-Life, cancelled their direct-mail efforts altogether.

But not Rodale. They stuck it out. Then they stumbled on an outrageously simple idea: Focus.

More focused marketing… more focused editorial.. more targeted benefits…

And most importantly for Rodale, more focused tracking of customer buying behavior.

Rodale took survey data, customer purchase behavior, and their magazine databases… and applied the same rigurous sorting technics you’d expect from a credit-card company.

They sorted and re-sorted their pile of prospects into fitness buffs, gardeners, weight-loss practitioners, etc.

Then they sorted even deeper until they found unexpected connections. “Organic gardeners buy household-hint books. Runners buy organic-lifestyle books,” said Forbes, “Using that information, Rodale sends out 100 million mailings a year.”

As focus and clarity had helped J.I. back in 1940, so it helped Rodale Publishing in 2002. Fewer ideas, more passionately-held. More quality. Bigger promises. And a crystal clear answer to the question, “What does the customer want.”

Says Rodale of themselves, “Rodale is America’s leading ‘how to do it, you can do it’ book publisher… regardless of whether it’s a book, magazine, or Web site, we take pride in our ability to communicate with our readers through personal, positive, practical and passionate editorial… “

Rodale’s direct-mail book sales have taken off. In 2002, they represented 31% of Rodales $450 million revenue.

New York publishers like Simon & Schuster and Houghton Mifflin, says Forbes, are so impressed they’re looking to apply the same discovery.

Like I said, this secret is simple…

In it’s essence, less is more.

Focus works better than trying to bludgeon your prospect with everything and the kitchen sink.

That’s a lesson here for the online marketer too. For instance, super-simple websites are leagues more effective than ones with 100 bells-and-whistles. E-mail marketing sent with relavent messages sent to pre-qualified, captive readers work much better than blanket ‘spam’ mailings.

And so on. But you get the picture.

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