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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Getting the Most Out of Sales Letter Layout

We all know the rule. Great design can’t do diddly to help bad sales copy.  Great sales copy can often succeed despite bad design. But when great copy and great design work together? Watch out. So how can you make sure you’re getting the best work from the person who will layout your lovingly crafted sales letter?

It can be tricky, yes. But not impossible. 

Let me just rattle off a few quick insights from a few years of plying this trade… 

  •  For one, always, always… always… ask that your designer reads the copy. I’m blown away by how many don’t. And it shows. Boy does it show.
  •  Fancy design isn’t always good design. Your first aim is readability. Your second is to make sure the copy isn’t obscured by the design. Good design makes the copy feel easy to read.
  •  If you throw a designed piece of copy onto a table with other pieces of finished direct mail designs… and it disappears into the pile… you’ve got a problem.
  • No screened images behind text. No screened images behind text. Did I mention? Please avoid screened images behind text.
  • When in doubt, cut graphics before cutting copy. Really. By the time the designer gets a piece, the copy should be airtight. Or close to it. Graphics are less important than the written message. That’s just the way it goes.
  • Designers need to understand the motivations of the target market just as much as the marketers and copywriters. There’s no way to be a good designer when you’re working in a vacuum.

 I could add more. But that’s good enough for now… don’t you think?

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Anger in the Age of E-Mail

angryIt’s natural to get angry. And certainly, some pretty hot-tempered, “hair-trigger” individuals have still managed to do some very great things. But I raise this point for a reason.

See, you’d be surprised… shocked… unpleasantly stunned… by how one hot-tempered moment can undo years of building your career credentials. Yet, especially in the world of email, misunderstandings and flare-ups happen more than ever.

As a copywriter, I’d venture the likelihood is even higher, since the role actually requires that we constantly subject ourselves to critiques and directly measurable marketing results.

I once had a feud that lasted six months with a marketing manager who just wouldn’t get around to mailing my promo (when she did, finally, it became the control for two years).

Was it worth it?

Not a minute of it. The long emails I never sent. The ranting to co-workers on the telephone. All a waste of time, in retrospect. Not to mention what they must have thought of me after the call.

What do you do if you get into a hairy, hostile situation professionally? Some suggestions from the Wall Street Journal

Delay your reaction. Count to 10. Wait 24 hours. Save the long, angry email as a “draft” and reevaluate hours or even days later.

Go elsewhere. Withdraw to another room, another office, another venue. For a few minutes or a few hours. See if you’re still as hot under the collar when you return.

Vent discretely. To a friend. A journal. Or just open a Word doc on your computer and start typing, “The trouble with so-and-so is…” Don’t stop until you’ve run out of steam. Then delete the document.

Agree then ask. “Yeah, you might be right… and if that’s true, tell me what you would do in the same situation.”

See the result. Net-net, what’s the outcome you’re after? Abandon revenge and make this outcome your target instead.

All easier said than done. And sure, I have my own hard time keeping my temper reigned in sometimes. But I can tell you this. Whenever I fail to respond coolly, I always regret it afterward.

Don’t you?

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Why I’m a Fool For Cupertino

apple.pngIt’s shameless, really, the way I dote. To some of my friends, it’s even downright embarrassing. Yes, I confess, I’m crazy for Cupertino — particularly the stuff that comes out of you-know-which-company.

The iPad and iPods, Macbooks, Minis, the Time Machine, the iMacs, the iSight and more — you name the Apple product, and it has passed through the halls of our home and/or extended family. Many of us are shareholders too.

Twice, I’ve even been contacted to write copy for Apple product launches (I would have loved to, but didn’t have the time in my schedule to work on what they needed done).

Why such devotion? If you’re in the same boat as I am, you “know” already. If not, you might think I’m a fool. Especially if you’re as skeptical as I usually am about the whole idea of “brand” marketing.

But here’s the thing, and I think it’s all worth noting for the sake of yours and my own marketing careers… Apple, like any other brand with clout, didn’t buy their following. They earned it. And they continue to do so.

Before you groan and roll eyes skyward, listen.

Less than 12 hours ago, my wife and I ordered a copy of an episode of the U.S. version of “The Office” from the iTunes store. It wasn’t the first time, but I accidentally clicked the link for the HD version instead of the Standard Version.

No big deal, except that it costs $1 more and has twice the file size. So I shot a note to Apple. In that short span, I got this reply:

Hi John,

I understand that the HD version of The Office episode, “Body Language” was purchased accidentally. I know you must be eager to have this taken care of. I am so sorry for any inconvenience this has caused. My name is John from the iTunes Store and I will do my best to help you.

John, I deeply apologize,but I was unable to locate your account based on the information that you supplied, Please reply back with the account name and the order number of the purchase.

Here is how to review your iTunes Store account’s purchase history, just follow the steps in this article:

Seeing your iTunes Store purchase history and order numbers
http://support.apple.com/kb/HT2727

Once I receive your email. I will do my best to credit you for the video.

Thank you so much for your understanding. I look forward to your reply.

Have a great day, John.

Sincerely,

John
iTunes Store Customer Support

Remember, this is over an issue worth $1. I’m tempted to just let them keep it, as long as they promise to more clearly mark the links — which, by the way, I’ll bet you they will.

The company definitely makes mistakes sometimes. And no, they won’t last forever. Who can forget, after all, their big lapse in quality, innovation, hipness, and share price back in the days of John Sculley as CEO.

But here’s what I think you want to notice… Apple does well right now not just because they hire the best copywriters, but because they make sure they offer the products and service that are an easy sell.

Much as I’m not a Windows fan, I acknowledge they did the same in their early days. They appear to be doing so again, with Windows 7. Or starting to, anyway. Google, too, earns their brand recognition with a great product and not just a great marketing team.

The list could probably go on.

From a professional copywriter’s perspective, the lesson here is simple. You want to write the best copy you can to make the best effort to sell, of course. But write it when you can for the companies that serve the customers they’re selling to.

Doing that alone could radically increase the success of your career.

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Better Than Money

beach worker.png “We must not be free because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.”

– William Faulkner

My friend Paul Hollingshead is pretty smart fella.

He recently wrote a piece that shared the math on this career path we’ve chosen, direct response copywriting.

In case you don’t know how you got here — and some don’t — let’s backtrack a bit: copywriting means writing writing ad copy. The headlines. The print ads you see. Billboards. TV ads. And sales letters.

In the role that Paul and I and many others play, we’re talking most of all about the sales letters. Really long ones, that can range 8… 16… even 24 pages or longer.

These days, we’re talking more specifically about sales letters on the Internet. Usually posted to a website or read off in “video” form, with text on screen.

I’m almost sure you’ve seen these ads. Maybe you’ve even responded to a few of them. But what happens on the other side of the screen? As Paul spelled out, people like us get paid to write those ads. And we often get paid pretty well.

Two weeks of writing or maybe three can bring you, the writer, a $10,000 fee. Throw in another two or three weeks of good sales, and you could see $30,000 in royalties. That’s a pretty tidy sum — $40,000 — for about a month of work and waiting.

That’s not unprecedented. For some us, it’s the norm or even a slow return. At the very top, it would be downright depressing. I’ve seen writers make twice that in a month. I’ve done it myself. I’ve seen a handful do that much in a week.

In short, Paul’s right. This gig can pay.

But the writing students I meet are so focused on the income potential, I don’t get asked often enough about other benefits. Since you can start enjoying these benefits even before you hit the big time — and perhaps if you never do — let’s talk about them now.

One of the big ones is, of course, the freedom. I used to work in an office, on someone else’s schedule. But you really can write copy from anywhere. All you need is a laptop and a Wifi connection. Heck, you could pull off a productive afternoon with a legal pad.

It did take work to get “good,” but once demand for my copy started to go up, I started working from home. Then from London, for a couple months. After that, I spent two months writing in a French farmhouse. Then I fulfilled a dream and moved to a sun-dappled apartment on the best street in the West Village, in New York City.

Since then, I’ve also worked seaside in Greece… under a friend’s grape arbor and in a family gazebo… poolside in Florida and pub-side in Dublin… on a cruise ship… and right now, from a favorite armchair in our apartment, here in Paris.

I didn’t need to put in for vacation time. I didn’t even ask anybody’s permission. I just packed up and went. These days, I bring my family.

When we go on vacation, I just get up a little earlier than they do and work until lunchtime. This way, we can take two or three vacations a year. Sometimes more.

Honestly, I have to remind myself now NOT to work when we go away.

What about the client? I take calls on Skype. We email. Sometimes I combine a vacation with an onsite visit. Sometimes they even pay for the travel, because I “trade” it for a brainstorming meeting or a mini-seminar.

As long as the work gets done, they’re happy.

You can’t imagine how great this is when you have young kids. Every morning, I walk them to school. Every afternoon, I’m here when they get home. No rush hour or missed family dinners. Even if I have a deadline, I still get to be nearby.

You can’t say that about most office jobs.

You can’t even say it about most jobs in sales. But with my kind of copy career, I don’t need to do cold calls or hit the road, either. One letter gets scaled up to mail worldwide, with results that roll in overnight. I like that too.

Perhaps least obvious to the early writer, though, is the job security.

After you do this awhile, you start to realize that the better you can sell, the more indispensable you become.

Suddenly, you’re the one people look to at meetings. You’re the one they count on. You’re even among those they call first, when any new project comes along.

Why? Because nothing happens in any business, until somebody sells something. By being the copywriter, you become that somebody. It’s that simple.

You would think that in today’s market, with so much of the job characteristics a lot of people look for, that there would be a glut of copywriters out there… fighting for clients.

You might even think that people like me would want to keep new writers out, just to short circuit new competition.

But the truth is, demand for good copywriters has never been higher.

With the Internet, every sales piece reaches out to many more markets. And many more people get to see each ad, more often. New ads need writing, just to replace them.

Meanwhile, many more businesses continue to crop up online. The industry is constantly looking for new “talent” to fill the void.

So why not be that talent, yes?

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The Fastest Way to Master Copywriting

speed

What’s the fastest way to master copywriting… or anything, for that matter?

You could sign up for the courses online. You can read all the books. You can go to the seminars, drink protein shakes at the keyboard, or slaughter goats at the foot of a guru. And all are good, except maybe the goat bit. 

But there’s an even easier way.

Said Edmund Burke, “It is by imitation that we learn everything.” Of course, he was just copying Aristotle who had said it a couple thousand years earlier.  Classical Roman rhetoricians taught the technique as “imitatio.” And then there was Ben Franklin, who educated himself using an imitation technique he describes in his autobiography.

Who else? Before Stephen King wrote blockbusters, he wrote out passages of “Moby Dick” over and over in college.  Virgil did the same with passages of Homeric verse. Daniel Defoe holed up with a copy of Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” and copied it out a few times, long before launching into “Robinson Crusoe.” 

Painters, actors, and musicians — imitating the masters plays a key role in all their training.

I’ve even got a local example for you: My wife is a classically trained musician with a graduate degree in Baroque opera. At the conservatory, aside from actually singing the arias, she and fellow students had to sit down with fat scores of famous pieces and write them out — note for note — over and over again.

Once, she says, she and three friends once spent 72 hours hand-copying all 300 pages of Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion. After finishing, they had to write their own fugues, but with Bach-esque flourishes sprinkled generously throughout. 

Here’s where the magic happens. The bridge between strict imitation and your own mastery is the spark that awakens, shapes, and educates that handy little tool we all call “creativity.”

Even in the natural world, you’ve got your irrefutable examples. Think about it. Not only do babies learn to speak by imitation. But also, beavers learn to build dams by imitation. Seals learn to swim by imitation.  Lions learn to hunt by imitation. Zebras learn to run by imitation.

So what’s stopping copywriters? Imitation, for some, has a stigma. It feels like cheating. Or a lack of confidence. Or maybe… illegal. And yes, if you’re talking about copying someone’s work and then passing it off as your own… that’s just not kosher. It’s even counter-productive to the growth of your own talents.

However, what we’re talking about here is different.

You’re copying — verbatim — the best stuff. But only to learn, in a way that you just can’t do by memorizing theory or learning from books and seminars, what’s working between the lines of the ads you’re studying. It’s an education of the subconscious. And you’ll be surprised by how well it works.

To try it yourself, do this:

First, get your hands on a blockbuster sales letter that’s similar to whatever you’re selling. Make sure it’s a good one and not a dud. Check the marketing reports, talk to the product managers, get on the mailing list.

When you’ve picked your piece, and before you do anything else, read it. Front to back, at least twice. Getting familiar with the words before you start copying will help you stay focused during the actual work of the exercise.

And here’s where the real benefit begins, in the last step.  You’re not going to do anything complicated.  You’re just going to copy out the sales letter page by page, word for word.  All of it.  If it’s too big to do in one sitting, then I recommend you spread out the task over a few days, a week, whatever you need.  But try to put in at least a half hour to 45 minutes each time you sit down.

And yes, I do believe you have to do this by hand on paper and not at the keyboard. Why? Studies show we learn differently when taking notes by hand. Where those studies are right now, I don’t know. But really, I promise, they’re out there. Anecdotally, though, I can tell you that I can touch-type so automatically that I can daydream while reading the words. They seem to flow straight from eyes to fingers. 

Yet, when I write on paper, I have to stay fully focused on the task. I read a line, remember it, then turn to the page to right it out. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s much more effective. But what if you hunt-and-peck when you type? Well… maybe… but I strongly recommend the pen and paper approach. 

Think of the martial arts master. Slow movements and perfection. Not a rhinoceros plowing through the program. Yes, you’re knodding, you’ll try this. It sounds like a great idea. And I promise you, you’ll put it off… because frankly, it isn’t fun. And it makes your elbow hurt.

But I also promise you this: It’s worth it, in the end.

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Life: Once Complicated, Now Easy

 It’s often said that you can use certain sales messages over and over because, let’s face it, our target audience is a marching army. Over and over, they revisit the same points in life… they discover the same needs and wants… we show them how to satisfy themselves… and the cycle just repeats.

 It may be only half true. 

For instance, while a lot about selling never changes — there are shades of expectations that can evolve quite a bit. Take today’s “lifestyle” cutbacks, thanks to the economy. What feels like ‘cutting back’ to today’s crowd is practically a step up in standards when you roll back nearly 30 years ago. On a more subtle level, that’s even true when you roll back just 10 years… or five years… or to a couple years ago.

 The modern consumer expects more. In some ways, they also expect to work less hard to get it. This just goes to show you that the promises you’ll make in your pitches can’t remain static. They have to keep getting bigger. Or at least, sounding bigger.

 Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I can’t tell you. After all, innovations happen when everyone from big companies to mom-and-pop outfits are pushed to compete and over-deliver.

 On the other hand, it can only go so far. There’s only so much luxury and accommodation we can sell before the expense of it breaks the system… or drains the consumer’s bank account and available lines of credit.

 So what happens when no marketers can afford to offer more… and no customers can afford to pay for it?

 Awhile back, the two mentors I mention most in these issues suggested a whole new consumer trend coming down the pipeline. After the wake-up call. After the bust. After the recovery.

 The Boomers, they predicted, would sideline their ambition for a life of luxury and convenience… and start yearning for something a little beyond the material. When they said that, I sniffed the wine. I figured they’d just gone a little loopy. But now I’m wondering… could they be right?

 Gene Schwartz once wrote, in his landmark book “Breakthrough Advertising,” that people’s superficial desires weren’t all that tough to spot.

 But only the best marketers knew that all people share an even deeper, second “secret” desire.

 It’s the desire not just for products, services or pitches we “like”… but a deeper desire for products and services that helps us flesh out our own ideas of who we are. Not to mention, who we could be. And maybe most important (to us) of all, who OTHER people think we are.

 I’ve long said — and I’m not the first — that the deepest desire most prospects (aka people) share is the desire to be loved and respected. Or at least, respected.

In good times, when it feels like everyone is getting richer and living larger than the next guy, respect comes from living like a king. Piling up stuff. Earning luxuries. Getting pampered.

 In tougher times, character starts to matter as much… or more. Austerity becomes honorable. Excess, an embarrassment. Security, prudence, sensibleness — those become the hot sellers.

 We start rolling back to the fundamentals. Looking for answers. Or at least, looking for people who seem like they have the answers… and the substance to back them up. Credibility, always important, becomes even more so.

 Could it be that this is where the Boomers — the biggest market in the history of capitalism and the driving force of most of over six decades of economic growth — are headed next?

 Maybe.

 Look, for instance, how many things have trended back toward fundamentals. Walk more, use glass not plastic, cook at home, eat natural, cut up your credit carts.

 It might well be out of necessity. Yet even necessity has a way of wooing her bedfellows. By simplifying, we may very well find ourselves in a position to also rediscover the things that matter.

 Is that why hype is dead? Is it why “relationship marketing” is the most powerful force, online? Is it why so many marketers love to talk about “brand,” not realizing that brands don’t matter until a consistent relationship of quality has been established?

 Your guess is as good as mine.

 But personally, I’m guessing yes. 

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