Category: Confidence

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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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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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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Are YOU Creative?

checklist.png In the last post, we asked why some people are creative and others aren’t. This time around, let’s put it even more plain: Are YOU creative?

Even though I.Q. tests supposedly measure your brain power, there is still no “Creativity Quotient” (C.Q.) test that measures how creative you are.

But the same Scientific American research found that creative people often have similar character traits. See if any of these apply to you…

Ideational Fluency – Someone gives you a word. The more sentences, ideas, and associations you can match to that word, the more likely it is you’re a “creative type.”

Variety and Flexibility – Someone gives you an object, say a garden hose. How many different things can you do with it? The more you can think of, the better.

Original Problem Solving – Someone presents you with a puzzle or a problem. Beyond the conventional solution, how many other workable but uncommon solutions can you come up with?

Elaboration – How far can you carry an idea? That is, once you have it, can you build on it until you can actually carry it out in application?

Problem Sensitivity – When someone presents you with a problem, how many challenges related to that problem can you identify? More importantly, can you zero in on the core or most important challenge?

Redefinition – Take a look at the same problem. Can you find a way to look at it in a completely different light?

How did you measure up?

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What You Don’t Need to Get Ahead

mbaHere’s something interesting from AdAge.com: MBAs can be bad for your health. Your career health, that is.

 Yep. Turns out that a survey of marketing execs from 32 different consumer-product companies showed a distinct disadvantage for companies that carried a Masters of Business Administration grad at or close to the helm.

 And we’re not talking tiny companies here, either. General Mills, Kraft Foods, Nestle, Pfizer, Clorox Co, Cadbury, Energizer, Kodak, Dunkin Donuts… they all made the survey list.

 On the list, there were 18 underperforming companies (sales growth lower than 7% annually) that were twice as likely to recruit their marketing execs from fancy M.B.A. programs.

 Of the outperforming companies, far fewer M.B.A.s held top positions (about half as many)… even though sales at those same companies grew 6.2% faster than sales of the underperforming competitors.

 What’s more, job satisfaction at the no-or-limited M.B.A. companies was higher, office politics tended to crop up less often, and in-house training was both more prevalent and successful.

 Did all grad degrees in the study fail the test? Nope. Just M.B.A.s. Interesting. Boy, am I glad I spent my time in grad school studying philosophy and classical lit instead, eh?

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What Marketers Do When Recession Looms

What marketers can do in tricky times.I’ve written before about what marketers and business owners can do in rough markets. Looking at what’s going on right now, maybe I should trot out that piece and run it again. Meanwhile, I came across someone else’s ideas on the same.

I liked it so much, I just want to share a little of it here.

Here are some of the highlights, from writer and marketer Ed Adkins…

 

  • Don’t cut your marketing budget. Shuffle spending instead and pick up the slack created by panicked competitors.
  •  Be ready to justify each expense in your budget. Companies and clients are looking to cut back. But once budget elements get lost, you might not get them back again.
  • Keep on networking. This is the time to keep business relationships strong. The same goes for shoring up relationships with your most loyal customers. Reach out to them and acknowledge the rough time they’re having.
  •  If you’ve got the resources, use this time to snap up new advantages that your weakened competitors will neglect.
  • Use this time to speed up your workflow and become more efficient. This pays double dividends when things start to speed up again.
  • Change your marketing message to reflect the times. For instance, you might focus more on family, friends, and stay-at-home activities.
  • Don’t permanently slash prices. Instead, create special sales events and bulk discount deals. This lets you go back to business as usual during a rebound.
  • Re-visit what counts to your business. During fast growth, it’s easy to lose sight of the roadmap that got you started. During slow times, it’s vital to revive your core ideals.

 

Great ideas, all of them.

Yes, tricky times are here. No, they won’t last forever. But you and your business can, with just a little bit of foresight to see you through the storm.

 If you like the teasers above, check out this site, where you’ll find lots of ideas on recession-based marketing and business strategy.

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How Woody Allen Would Write Copy

An interviewer asked Woody Allen how to write a joke.  Here’s what Allen said: “It depends on where I want it to take me.  First, I figure out where I want to end up.  Then I start asking questions so I can work backward to a beginning.”

Writing the end first is something a lot of novelists also do. Same for screenwriters.

So maybe it won’t come as a surprise to you that a lot of successful direct response copywriters to this too. For instance, I once asked great copywriter Bill Christensen how he gets started. “I write the offer card before anything else,” he said. “And then the sales close. Then I’ve got something to aim for in the rest of the letter.”

I was just getting started when he told me that. And I’ve done the same ever since.

Try it yourself. Especially if you ever feel unfocused or unsure of how to begin. Start writing by drafting a reply card and a sales close… and see if it doesn’t clarify your whole game plan.

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Short Words, Bigger Word Power

shortwordsIt’s brevity they say is the soul to wit. And If that’s true, I admit… sometimes, I can be a little soulless. I grew up loving what the nuns used to call “25 cent words.”

In high school, we called them “SAT Words.” These are the words, they told us, that make you sound smart. That win you respect, jobs, and the girl of your dreams. People who use these words, they said, can walk through walls.

Boy, did they get that wrong.

No sooner did I slip into the world of the written word, to discover that bigger, Latinate vocabulary doesn’t improve the accessibility of your cogitations, rather it obfuscates it. (That is, big words can make you sound dumber… simply because you’re tripping over yourself to get your message across.)

Which is why I was thankful when longtime copywriting buddy David Deutsch sent me a copy of “Short Words Are Words of Might” by Gelett Burgess.

It’s not a book, per se. In all it’s 16 pages. And SMALL pages at that. What’s really impressive, however, is that the entire essay is written with one syllable words. (Talk about practicing what you preach!)

Burgess’ essay originally appeared in “Your Life” magazine in 1938.

Here are a few juice quotes that reveal the core idea:

“Short words must have been our first words when the world was young. The minds of men were raw… Their first words were, no doubt, mere grunts or growls, barks, whines, squeals like those of beasts. These rough, strange sounds were made to show how they felt. They meant joy or pain or doubt or rage or fear…

“But these sounds came, in time, to grow more and more plain as real words. They were short words, strong and clear. And these first short words, used by our sires way back in the dark of time, still have strength and truth. They are bred in our flesh and bone. We may well call such words the life blood of our speech.”

“Short words, you see, come from down deep in us — from our heats or guts — not from the brain. For they deal for the most part with things that move and sway us, that make us act… That, I think, is why short words tend to make our thoughts more live and true.”

In other words, says Burgess, in a point that’s often ignored, short words have power. In poetry, sure. But also in sales copy too. “Never put a policeman in an automobile,” said someone much smarter than yours truly, “when a cop in a car will do.”

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