The Marketing Test That Saved the World

needleIn 1977 in the Horn of Africa…  a marketing test saved the world. But let’s back up just a second. What’s “testing” exactly? If you’re a working pro, you know already. To test is the soul of good marketing.

 You test different versions of headlines to see which pulls the biggest response. You test the price, you test the mailing lists, you test the guarantee. You even test the size of your envelope, the color of your paper, or the format of your landing page.

 Without testing, you’ve put all your eggs in one basket. With testing, you can blow open windows, doors, and whole vistas of opportunity. Keep that message in mind as we roll back to Africa, deep in the rough and raw territories of Somalia and Ethiopia, in the summer of 1977.

Here’s the story…

 A Microbe Hunt That Almost Hit a Dead End

Dr. Greene was just one of many top scientists on the ground that year, with the World Health Organization (WHO). For 20 years straight, the WHO had waged a war against smallpox, one of the world’s deadliest diseases.

You might not know diddly about the history of smallpox. And consider yourself lucky. Because this little, invisible, pernicious virus had been killing indiscriminately for at least 3,000 years.

 Egyptian mummies have shown signs of infection. Recorded cases appear in China and India, going back to 1,500 B.C. Smallpox helped wipe out the Aztecs and the Incas. And killed 400,000 Europeans per year, for most of the 1700s.

 Countless faceless millions fell.

Along with at least five European monarchs, including King Louis XV and most of his family. 

Queen Elizabeth got lucky. She had it and survived. So did Stalin, Lincoln, and George Washington along with Mozart and Beethoven.

 Still, even during the 20th century, the disease killed up to 500 million. Even 150 years after Edward Jenner discovered the smallpox vaccine, in 1950, over the virus still infected 50 million.

 As late as 1967, 15 million people had it. Of those, another 2 million died. But by 1977, that changed.

 The WHO had the disease cornered. Only the territory on Africa’s tip still hosted outbreaks. Only a handful of towns and villages had yet to get vaccinated.

 But that’s when the doctors hit a roadblock.

 Local wars, terrible roads, and famine already made the job of spreading the vaccine tough. But paranoid local leaders made it impossible. They distrusted the West. They didn’t have any knowledge of or faith in the WHO. And none of the local leaders, more militant than political, wanted these strange doctors anywhere near their people.

Especially not doctors armed with needles.

 Tensions ran so high, at one point it looked like the WHO team was about to get tossed out on their tails… with their medical kits following close behind.

 Then one of the doctors got an idea.

The Test That Changed Everything 

In every village, the WHO team had gone straight to the political junta… the men who sat on the council and held the leadership… and pitched the political and scientific advantages of allowing the vaccinations.

 It didn’t take. But then one of the doctors decided that if taking the case to the men in charge wouldn’t work… what about the women?

He cornered the top wife (the leader had more than one) and talked to her about the children… about personal loss in the village… and about medical miracles, already happening elsewhere.

 The next morning, the doctors got a message.

 The village council wanted to hear more about the vaccine. Within days, the doctors vaccination centers set up and a line of villagers going out the door.

 Within a week, the local leaders had sent messages to other nearby towns, endorsing the treatment.

 Over and over, the doctors used the technique in other villages across the Horn of Africa.

 On October 26, 1977, a cook from Somalia named Ali Maow Maalin checked into a small hospital with the last known naturally occurring case of smallpox.

 It’s the first and last time we’ve eradicated a human disease. And one of the greatest feats of modern medicine.

 Could it have happened without the “test” of both audience and message? Probably not.

 I worked briefly for Dr. Greene in 1990, doing some transcription work. He showed me snapshots he’d taken during the trip. And told me this story. It was an afterthought, he said. A last ditch effort and an almost-missed opportunity. Like many tests in our business, too — almost missed opportunities.

Sound familiar? Let’s hope not.

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The Details That Close Sales

magnifyMies van der Rohe, a twentieth-century architect, once said that God hides in the details. And says writer Anne Lamott, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.”

What is it that they know that we don’t? Not much, actually.

Since, after all, any good copywriter also knows that when you really… really… want to make for a powerful sales pitch, digging into the small details can be your most powerful technique. 

Here’s an example. Which of the following descriptions sounds better to you?

“I live on a big street in the city.”

Or…

“I live on a leafy, sun-dappled boulevard in Paris?”

For me, both are true. Because they’re one and the same.

But doesn’t the second “option” sound better?

Here’s another example…

Some years ago, I gave a copy seminar in Poland. I knew nothing about the country, honestly,
except what I’d seen on the news about labor strikes in the 1980s… and what I’d read in history books about World War II.

I came away, however, as travelers often do after seeing a totally new place up close. In fact, some of those images still stick with me today. It was, in short, a really nice place.

Oh… wait… just saying it was “nice” isn’t enough?

Okay, here’s more: Outside of Krakow, we saw an underground cathedral built deep inside a salt mine and decorated with a dozen crystal chandeliers and life-size religious statues made entirely of salt.

In the Royal Palace, the walls were covered with etched leather. On Sunday, we fed walnuts to the peacocks that wander Warsaw’s park. We dined on spinach-filled perogi and drank warm honey wine.

Now… which description wakes up your imagination?

“Nice” or the ones that actually painted a picture. No, I’m not writing a travel brochure here, but I’m sure you get the point. Those details that make the images more alluring, are what some writers call “actualities.” And they can make all the difference when you’re trying to persuade somebody to do anything in print.

See, many new copywriters get in the bad habit of painting their word pictures in only broad strokes. And sometimes, that’s enough. For instance, when you’re breezing past a point that’s already clearly imprinted on your prospect’s mind… and that’s been illustrated ad infinitum elsewhere.

But other times, you’ve got a lot of selling power locked in the “actualities” or fine details of the images you’re presenting or the product you’re selling.

Dig out the right ones and trot them past your prospect, and you could just unlock the selling opportunity that otherwise might have passed you by.

Here’s another example…

A LEAD THAT’S WORKED FOR 17 YEARS

For at least the last 17 years, the newsletter INTERNATIONAL LIVING has mailed a sales package that begins:

“You look out your window, past your gardener, who is busily pruning the lemon, cherry, and fig trees…amidst the splendor of gardenias, hibiscus, and hollyhocks.

“The sky is clear blue. The sea is a deeper blue, sparkling with sunlight.

“A gentle breeze comes drifting in from the ocean, clean and refreshing, as your maid brings you breakfast in bed.

“For a moment, you think you have died and gone to heaven. But this paradise is real. And affordable. In fact, it costs only half as much to live this dream lifestyle…as it would to stay in your own home!”

What makes that work, in your mind?

The newsletter is about retiring overseas… it’s about travel to exotic, undiscovered places… it’s about a life transformation that begins when you take a step out into the world.

Could a letter selling the product possibly start in any other way? As it happens, in this case, they’ve never really beaten it… except with other letters that were just as focused on those fine and enticing kinds of travel details.

And even then, only for a short while.

Too much detail, of course, is just as much of a hindrance as too little. But just the right touch, like a dash of paint in just the right spot on a canvas… or a splash of the right spice in a stew… can make your copy incredibly powerful.

Here’s a rundown of what a really well chosen “actuality” can do…

IT CAN MAKE YOUR MESSAGE “REAL”: The right “actuality” can give a story a much greater presence, a feel of truth.

IT CAN MAKE YOUR MESSAGE UNIQUE: Getting specific is often the fastest way to make average copy rise above the mean. Why?

Because the details prevent the reader from lumping your message in with other ones that would otherwise sound so similar. Simple enough.

IT CAN EXPRESS MORE IN A SMALL SPACE: Again, good description doesn’t mean writing longer. In fact, it often means the opposite.

A good word-picture example can make a message clear faster than a drawn-out explanation of a point.

IT CAN TRANSPORT THE READER: Like a good movie or book, where the audience gets lost in the story, careful use of detail can draw a prospect into getting “lost” in (wrapped up in) the excitement of your sales message.

How much detail is TOO much?

You need just enough detail to stir emotions and put images inside the reader’s head.

Some other tips…

* Try delivering the detailed image first, then follow up with a promise… either to deliver on a good image or to help a prospect avoid a bad one, depending on what you’ve presented.

* Focus on sensory details (touch, sight, sound, taste, smell) and numbers. The former appeal most to emotions, the latter to logic.

* Use details to show transition or improvement: “Jeff Johansen used to take a city bus to the unemployment office. Now he drives an S-class Mercedes to the gym…”

* Describe an emotional reaction you want your prospect to feel. “Dear Friend, When I read the latest report from the FDA, I just about dropped my coffee mug. Let me show you what it said…”

You get the point. The goal of the actuality is simple. It is to allow the reader to see your writing as more than just word patterns on a white page.

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A Painful Lesson in Supreme Service

 Call it an airport casualty.

 A ruptured tendon in your poor editor’s left calf, thanks to a nearly missed flight this past week, in Frankfurt Germany.

 Seems the TSA in Philly pulled a surprise security inspection on the first leg (no pun intended) of my Lufthansa flight back to Europe. It took just long enough to eat away at my connection window on the other end, and I was left to sprint O.J. style (pre-crime spree) to my gate.

 In case you’ve yet to visit, the Frankfurt airport is an interesting place. Especially when you’re running late. Long corridors, lots of stairs, moving walkways, stupefied crowds trying to make sense of the overly complicated signs and directives.

 I jumped, I dodged, I hurtled.

 Three hallways, five flights of steps, a tunnel, one passport and security checkpoint each, and two 100 meter moving walkways later… and with a 30-lb backpack over my shoulder… I made the gate, sweating but relieved. Until I figured out that this wasn’t the right gate anymore. The sign that should have said “Paris” now said “Hamburg.”

 With less than 60 seconds to spare and no sign anywhere indicating the new gate, I got news from a desk agent that the new departure deck was a hefty 29 gates away… easily 15 minutes on foot.

 But I had to try, and try I did.

With a pivot and a leap, I landed back on another moving walkway ready for another full tilt run… when something went “pop” in my left leg. Like a bullet, like a hammer, like something your leg is not supposed to do… especially when you’ve got a flight to catch… but it went ahead and did it anyway.

 I couldn’t move forward another inch.

 And that’s where luck steps in, in the form of Lufthansa’s extremely helpful crew.

 At exactly that moment, a yellow electric cart pulled up, carting two older French women who also now happened to be at the wrong gate for their flight. I hopped over and explained what just happened to the driver. She helped me up on the back, jumped off to call and ask them to hold the plane, then whisked us over to the right gate. I never would have made it, even without the injury, any other way.

 At the desk, she checked me in and suggested a wheelchair. I couldn’t even hop the length of the boarding tunnel without whimpering like a kicked dog. So I accepted.

 She called ahead and arranged another one for Paris. And on the flight, an attendant just coming off a 22-hour shift… and heading back home to Paris… insisted on getting me ice, checking in on me, and even offering to drop me off at my apartment after getting me through customs.

I told her I’d be fine. But another airport rep on the French side rolled me through the labyrinth of Terminal One at CDG, waited while I picked up my bag, and helped me into a taxi. Three days later, I’m well on the way to better. Two weeks from now, I’ll have forgotten the injury (almost) entirely.

 But what I’ll remember is the customer care.

We don’t fly Lufthansa often, because we prefer to skip making that connection in Germany. Still, should the need ever come up again, I’ll fly with them gladly. And I know I’ll talk them up to friends looking to book flights on the same route.

 As copywriters, we spend so much time getting customers in the door. It’s too easy to forget about them once that’s done. Yet look what happens when a business that’s already made the sale and banked the money, still insists on going the extra mile.

© 2008 John Forde

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Ego-Butter: How to Give a Copy Critique

redink.png I’ve gotten a few copy critiques in my day. I crave them, no matter how harsh, because that’s what makes the writing better.

I’ve also given a few copy critiques, too. And I’ve discovered that when I’m on the handler side of the red pen, there’s one essential element to making those recommendations more effective: “ego butter.”

Let me back up.

Some years ago, I was part of a conference call with a freelance copywriter. He’d been commissioned for a small job, which was tweaking the lift letter on a much larger, longer control (one I’d written, in fact).

Leading the call was friend and mentor o’ mine, the inimitable Michael Masterson. The letter was, well, weak. Michael took control of the call and made a series of what I thought were brilliant suggestions. We all concurred, except for the freelancer.

After the critique was over, the receiving end of the call went conspicuously silent. “Hello?” we said, thinking he’d slipped on a kumquat or something equally plausible.

“Mail it,” he said. “Mail it and see if it works? Then I’ll revise it.” Clearly, he was peeved. Not, dear reader, the protocol of a copywriter seeking much repeat business.

This guy, no matter how slighted by the review, clearly lost his cool. And with that, he also lost a repeat client. It was really too bad, because I distinctly remember plenty of high-paying work to go around. With some guys, there’s nothing you can do. Their skin is so thin, you could pop it with a tossed marshmallow.

But here’s the thing…

While I despised that copywriter’s behavior, it does occur to me now that, at some level I couldn’t help but sympathize.

See, while not all copywriters are the egoists and temperamental “artistes” like this guy might have been, there are reasons why — if you’re on the critiquing side of a creative exchange — you might want to take the writer’s position into consideration.

First, remember we’re only human. Remember too that good copywriters put a lot of work goes into what they produce. They spend a lot of time with it too.

By the time we’re finished the first draft, we’re connected with the result. In such a way that criticism — even the good kind — can’t help but set one back at least a little bit.

Again, if you’re a great writer and a smart one, you’ll take even the sharpest comments with a smile. But on the flip side, if you really want results from a hired gun copywriter, there’s a step you could take to get much better results. And it won’t cost you a dime.

Very simply, start with the positive. Not excessively so, not insincerely. But clearly and immediately.

Example: “I liked the headline. And oh wow, the typing was nice. And hey, is this scented paper? Nice touch. Now, let’s talk about your lead. I think I see a way to make it even stronger.”

Okay, of course I’m kidding here.

The point is, if the copy is salvageable, there’s something in it you like. Don’t save it for last. Talk about it up front. You can be honest about the stuff you don’t like to. But lower the resistance to your suggestions first.

Is that pandering? Perhaps.

But ask yourself, in any situation alike this, what’s the goal of the critique? Is it your aim only To toughen the writer’s skin… or are you out to get the best possible copy you can get?

The latter, I’d assume.

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Help Wanted…

help wanted

Know WordPress? 

How about PHP? 

And anything else along those lines, for that matter. 

Because yours truly is looking for a little help. Yep, I’m hiring. Well… in a manner of speaking. Truthfully, what I’m most likely to do is go to one of the many excellent outsourcing sites I’ve seen (DoMyStuff.com, GetFriday, Yo

urManInIndia, etc.) and hire someone from there. 

But just in case you find it interesting, here’s what I’m looking for: This website needs tweaking. For instance, I’ve discovered that it’s programmed to crash Internet Explorer 6. Not intentionally so. But it’s successful at it nonetheless. 

It also has a strange stickiness to it that hangs on to some design changes I’d like to dump, even after I’ve tweaked them in the behind-the-scenes customization interface. And it “breaks” some features. Like the Archives, for instance (go ahead, click ’em… you won’t get anything, even though there’s a plug in set up to deliver archives that’s supposed to do the trick.)

Then there are the things I just don’t know how to do but would like to. Add in design pages that don’t have the sidebars and header. Have sales pages that I can link to but that remain hidden until they’re referenced in ads. Create a forum for you guys to poke around and chat with each other. Create a membership only paid part of the site where I can give away lots of extra goodies. Program in some SEO keywords, etc.

And so on.

So how about it? Anyone out there a closet programming whiz? Warning… since I can outsource a lot of this stuff fairly easily, I’m not looking to hire full-time or to spend a bundle. I just want to get a couple of repairs made so I can open up access to the site and increase the traffic. 

Drop a comment onto this article and it will get to me via email.

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A Surprising Storytelling Secret

stories book.png I recently gave a Skype interview on how to use stories to make sales.

I’m sure you guys know, I’ve talked about this a few times in my weekly e-letter (see the sign up box on this page).

We even had a full chapter on it, in the book “Great Leads,” which I wrote with copy mentoring great, Michael Masterson.

(I swear to you — it’s *finally* going up on Amazon.com, sometime this week. I’ll get you a link as soon as there’s one available.)

I had a great time doing the interview. Enough that I kept thinking of things I wanted to add, long after finishing the call.

I’d just come across a few great tips, for instance, from a semi-surprising source (though not so surprising when you think about it): Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of the cartoon South Park.

Parker and Stone popped in on a freshman writing class at NYU –where yours truly also studied some screenwriting — to talk for a few minutes about how they keep their story ideas compelling.

One secret they offer is… get yourself a deadline. A hard, serious one that drives you. Stone and Parker write an episode per week. “We’ve got a scary deadline every Thursday morning.”

Another tip I’m sure you’ve heard before, which is to put your ideas out there quickly. Don’t wait until they’re fully baked. And when they get out there, make sure you’ve got a roomful of critics who understand they need shaping, rather than critics who will just shoot the idea down.

First ideas are rarely amazing.

And here’s the tip I like best. When you’re writing out a story to sell, to tell, or whatever… look for what writers call the “story beats.”

These are the spots where you plot twists and turns, the angles on which you frame an outline.

Once you have those beats, read through and see if you can put the phrase “and then” between each beat.

If you can… that’s a problem. Every “and then” is a moment where you could lose your reader (or viewer) to some distraction.

Better is writing that turns on the phrases “therefore” or “but.” That is, every moment in the story either forces the next one, creating continuity, or flips away from the last “beat” in a way that creates tension.

In selling, the stories you’re telling are usually short, just long enough to illustrate an idea or sneak in a proof or promise.

But this is a good way to think about your copy throughout, too. That is, is your sales letter just one long string of disconnected sales points? Or does it follow a flow that your reader can’t swim against?

And just when they think they know where you’re headed, are you waking them back up with a rhetorical explosion or “twist” of their expectations?

Something worth thinking about.

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Brainstorming By the Rules

brainbolt.pngAlex Osborn, founder of a super-successful New York ad Agency and of the Creative Education Foundation, came up with a list of brainstorming “rules” in 1963:

No judgment in early stages: Collect as many ideas as possible without imposing criticism.

Encourage wild or stupid ideas: Don’t refuse to write anything on the board. You never know where it might lead.

Forbid discussion: This may seem counter-intuitive to old-school thinkers. What’s a meeting without talk, after all? But at the start of brainstorming, analysis is death. Wait until you have your long list of ideas, first.

Ban cynics: Early criticism of ideas guarantees you fewer good ideas overall. Anyone who can’t accommodate randomness of thought shouldn’t be there.

Make the process visible: Be sure to record the ideas as the come on a flipchart or board. They must be seen by the group to be useful.

Impose time limits: The pressure of the clock helps ideas to flow more quickly, spontaneously. 30 minutes is good.

These rules aren’t easy to keep. But they worked for Osborn and
thousands of others, from copywriters to politicians to engineers. Systems
work if you give ‘em a chance.

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Forgetful? Blame Happiness

happysmileAccording to a recent study published in the “Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,” the more positive your mood, the more likely you are to forget important details.

“People in a positive mood such as happiness were shown under experimental conditions to have relatively unreliable memories, and show poorer judgment and critical thinking skills… our recollection of past events are more likely to be contaminated by irrelevant information when we are in a positive mood. A positive mood is likely to trigger less careful thinking strategies.”

But wait, there’s more.

The study also found that subjects in a NEGATIVE mood were far more focused in their critical thinking and communication skills. Here’s where you can tie that insight into copywriting.

See, it’s common legend that benefits sell best. Yet in some camps, there are those who claime fear-based or problem-solution based copy will consistently pull BETTER.

Well if that’s true, maybe this is why…

Put the customer in positive territory (like all those hilariously forgettable ads aired during the Super Bowl)… and you risk not making an imprint with little key items like the name of your product or the special offer you hope to make.

But dip a promotional toe in negative territory, and you help the prospect stir his own fire, so to speak. The adrenaline surges, the senses come alive, and the powers of memory for detail awaken.

Which, for a good product with a good offer, is exactly what you want to do.

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How To Get Started

startinglineI got a note from a reader who aspires to a copywriting career and wanted to know how best to get started. You can imagine, I get that question a lot. Here was my reply:

1) Keep on reading the Copywriter’s Roundtable!

2) Get some books on copywriting and study them. See the attached past issues.

3) Get on the mailing list of companies you think you could write for (your areas of interest and expertise).

4) Study those sales letters they send you too (the ones that make you want to buy, copy out by hand 3X).

5) Contact one of the companies (the marketing director or product manager, if you can find them).

6) Offer to write a sales letter “on spec” — which means they pay you if they like it.

7) Keep doing that until you have a portfolio of letters and some regular clients who hire you often.

Starting local is a good idea. Or can be. Businesses use sales letters and brochures to sell to other businesses (this is “B2B” copywriting) and then there’s the business to consumer market (“B2C”).

There’s also non-profit, but that can be a slow and less lucrative beginning. Better to get into that later, after honing your skills.

Look to the field you’re already working in, too. If you’ve been focusing on something in particular, you’re no doubt pretty knowledgeable about the products and the customers you service. Maybe enough that you could write marketing copy for that niche..

Of course, companies with information products, software companies, computer equipment companies, publishing companies… can all be good places to start.

You want to use each job as leverage to get your next assignment. And try to make each assignment that you get a little larger and more ambitious than the last.  

The more knowledge you get, start offering to give talks for companies and communities on how to use good copy to increase sales… and let people know, after the speech, that you’re a provider of those services.

 Find a good graphic designer (with direct mail experience, preferably) and form a “team” where you each try to bring in the other as part of new jobs. 

Again, you’re sure to have some hurdles in the beginning. And you need to expect to take at least six months to a year… maybe even just a little longer… to get good enough at this and established enough to make it a real career.

 Like anything worthwhile, you WILL need to put in the hours and be dedicated. But you can certainly learn how to do this, if you put in the time. 

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“Need to Tell” vs. “Want to Tell”

In marketing copy, “need to know” is the info your prospect has to hear to help him have a better life and, you hope, to decide to buy.

Perversely though, it’s often the “want-to-know” info that has more pulling power.

That is, you’re your prospect has emotional interests that drive him toward things that may not be essential to his well being, but that he wants to know more about anyway.

Put your finger on the latter and you’ve got an extra edge when formulating your pitch

On the writer’s side of the fence, however, it occurs to me there’s another dynamic dilemma, similar in name but not in nature. It’s the difference between “need to TELL” information and “want to TELL” information.

It goes like this…

“Need to tell” describes what the copywriter can’t leave out of the copy. Because without it, the message just ain’t compelling enough to seal the deal. So what’s “want to tell?”

It’s the stuff that the copywriter WANTS to jam into the sales copy somewhere… but might not need to. By this, I mean the jokes and puns, the clever subheads and lengthy anecdotes, the extra trivia… typically the kind of extras that satisfy the writer’s ego, but don’t do much for the reader.

Dumping a gut full of “want to tell” copy onto the page can feel cathartic.

It can make you feel smart. It can make you sound funny or witty or clever. But it’s no way to sell.

How do you know when you’re “over-telling?” Take a red pen (or your delete key) and go back over the copy, reading it aloud. Look at it visually on the page too. Are there points where you hear or see yourself making the same case over and over again? How about your proof of the main message in the headline?

Usually, three strong proof sections will do the trick. Much more than that and you’re just showing off. Take a look at what you’re promising too. Offers with lots of things to give the prospect can be fine, just make sure you’re not over-compensating by throwing in the kitchen sink. At a certain point, that can make your product seem cheap rather than valuable.

Look too for personal anecdotes, inside jokes and puns, and passages jammed full of exclamation points or florid, hyped-up descriptions. Copy can be aggressive and excited and still work very well. Sometimes extremely well. But not when there’s nothing substantial under the fluff. These sections can also go.

The bottom line is, you know when you’re working hard to get something into the copy because you “just like it” vs. when you know that the copy will fail if that particular bit isn’t included. Arm yourself with the Hemingway principle: “When in doubt, cut it out.”

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