Category: Finding the Benefit

How to find the sales benefit that will matter most to your target customer.

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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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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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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“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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7 MORE Ways to Thank Your Customers Like You Mean It

8C6AB08B-CD89-47B3-92BC-7D8F3BEEEEA1.jpg In the last post, we figured out how to heap lots of “thanks” upon the plates of our best customers.

And yet, like a plump uncle, the customers sidle up to the table for more. Should we give it to ’em?

Sure, why not.

Without further ado — and all the microwaved gravy you can stand — please enjoy the second half of our “14 Ways to Thank Your Customers Like You Mean It” article from last week.

(And numbered accordingly…)

8 ) THANK-YOU “COUPONS” FOR THE NEXT PURCHASE – Okay, this one is a little self-serving, you might say. Your customer places and order and what’s his prize? Other than your excellent product, he also gets an offer for the next great deal.

Maybe it’s a half-off future purchases, maybe a break for his friends and family, maybe an invitation to get a free “refill” of some kind or some kind of free servicing agreement.

This, of course, encourages them to come back to you again. But it could also help them feel good — justifiably so — about being loyal to a company that believes in its own product (and why wouldn’t you?)

9) THROW IN FREE SHIPPING – Awhile back, my wife signed up for “Amazon Prime,” the club-like service from Amazon.com that gets you free shipping.

It’s a great deal if you shop a lot online (we do). And it always feels like a “thank you” reward, even though we pay to have that perk.

But even more importantly, guess where she goes first now for most of our online shopping? Testing by other businesses too also show that “free shipping” is a powerful addition to offers.

Even better, try a phrase like, “As my way of saying thank you, I’ll even cover your shipping costs. You’ll pay nothing.”

10) MAKE IT PERSONAL – If you’re open to giving a big discount anyway, why not ‘translate’ the savings into a thoughtful thank you gift?

That is, instead of mentioning the discounted sales price, offer the lower price plus a gift of equal value. Depending on what you’re selling, that could be anything.

A small gift basket with a thank you note, a bag of gourmet coffee, a corkscrew in a fancy case, or something else that matters to your prospect.

If it’s a really big-ticket item or you have a small but big-spendin’ client base, you could make the gift even nicer or more personal.

I recently read a note about a real estate broker who gave a house buyer some fine wine glasses. He says the realtors name comes up — and gets praised — every time he and his wife have friends over for dinner.

(For an even more complete example of this idea at work, see today’s “Second CR” article later in this issue.)

11) THANK THEM PUBLICLY – I don’t know what it is about the human animal, but we do crave our fame.

So why not give weight to a thank you by doing it publicly? Honor loyal customers on your website, honor success stories that feature your product, and just brag generally about your customers like you like them (as you should).

Try posting video interviews of customers on your website, feature them in ads, and just generally be proud like a parent, hanging their proverbial ‘work’ on your public refrigerator.

12) SURVEY WITH CARE – If you’ve read past CR issues, you know I’m not crazy about customer surveys.

They have their uses, for sure. But they’re often as confusing as they are useful, especially when the questions are written poorly.

However, there IS a way to send your customer base a survey that can make them better customers.

How? Simply by making it clear the survey is not about how to make them buy better, but how to give them a better product or service to enjoy.

In short, show you care. And follow up on that display, when you can, by finding the prospects that reply with unsolved problems… and solve them.

13) INVITE THEM OVER – Here’s an interesting way to “thank” loyal customers. Find out who they are and invite some of them over, specifically to celebrate their loyalty. Done right, there’s a good chance they’ll buy from you again. But the pictures you take at the event and post online could help show other prospects what a friendly business you are.

14) GET THEIR BACKS – In times of urgency that relates to your product, like say a financial meltdown or anything else newsy, put together a timely “summit” of your house experts.

Then record what they talk about and give it to customers out of the blue. Make it a surprise, to show you’re looking out for them and anticipating their questions and concerns.

You could tailor this idea for just about any kind of information product and plenty that aren’t.

And one more…

Bonus Idea – GIVE THEM WHAT THEY PAID FOR+ – What business would purposely deliver less than they sold? Sadly, plenty. And that’s partly why new customers are often a tough sell… because they’ve been jaded before.

But what better way to thank your customers for doing business with you… than by insisting on doing business with them at the highest quality level?

It’s the deal we make when offer something to somebody and ask for money in return. Better still if you can over-deliver.

So there you go.

Do these things or even some of them, and you could end up with some seriously grateful customers.

And isn’t that where you want to be?

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Time-Tested Fridge Wisdom

old man.png It’s commonly said that the Greeks talked about two kinds of knowledge. One you gain from study, the other from experience.

But there’s a third kind, a sort of wisdom corollary, they didn’t have access to but you do: refrigerator wisdom.

Yep, i’m talking about the kind you pick up somewhere between the other two, then print out and slap on your fridge with a magnet.

The following fits in that category.

No, it’s got nothing to do with copywriting. But it’s good advice for copywriters and everybody else, just the same. Besides, it’s springtime dammit. Just the right season for this kind of message.

How so?

I picked this up the following from an email sent by the good folks over at www.inspiringlife.co.uk. It’s reportedly a note from an 85-year old man about to leave this world behind.

Here’s what he said:

“If I had my life to live over again, I’d try to make more mistakes next time. I wouldn’t be so perfect. I would relax more. I’d limber up. I’d be sillier than I’ve been on this trip. In fact, I know very few things that I would take seriously.

“I’d be crazier. I’d be less hygienic. I’d take more chances, I’d take more trips, I’d climb more mountains. I’d swim more rivers, I’d go to more places I’ve never been to. I’d eat more ice cream and fewer beans. I’d have more actual troubles and fewer imaginary ones.

“You see, I was one of those people who lived prophylactically and sensibly hour after hour, day after day, year after year. Oh, I’ve had my moments, and if I had it to do over again, I’d have more of those moments – moment by moment by moment.

“I’ve been one of those people who never went anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a gargle, a raincoat and a parachute. If I had it to do all over again, I’d travel lighter next time.

“If I had it to do all over again, I’d start out earlier in the spring and stay away later in the fall.

“I’d ride more merry-go-rounds, I’d watch more sunrises, I’d play with more children… if I had my life to live all over again.”

Sounds like a good idea, don’t you think?

If you’re sub-85 and reading this, I suggest you put down the copywriting stuff for just a moment, close your laptop, and take some of his advice.

Because God knows, if not now… when?

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#486: A Sweet, Dark History of the Promise Lead

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candies.pngYou’ll remember from the last post, I’m showing you guys some of the raw material for a book on six types of leads.

And we’ve been looking at what my co-author Michael Masterson and I call the “Promise Lead.”

Admittedly, this is a tough one.

Why, you ask?

(Don’t look at me all confused like that… I HEARD you ask something… right?)

After all, don’t ALL sales leads have a promise implied inside them somewhere?

Yes, they do.

And we said as much last week.

But haven’t pure, flat-out promises been so overexposed in sales leads that the world is chock-a-block with skeptics who no longer hear said promises anymore?

Yes, that too is true. Well, mostly true.

My take on that last point is this: First, Promise Leads work very well with a certain kind of customer.

No, dear reader, not the stupid ones.

They work best, rather, with a prospect that’s sitting on the fence… ready to buy, but still awaiting that last nudge.

Any more ready, and you’d just hit them with a juicy “Offer Lead,” right out of the gate.

Any less ready, and you’d try something a little more subtle first, so as to shut down those filters we all wear to guard against an onslaught of too-much-the-same, unbelievable messages.

But in those moments, with an almost-ready prospect, busting through the saloon doors armed with a big promise can be an excellent choice.

So this week, let’s pick up where we left off.

Again, this is raw stuff… fresh out of the oven, not yet dressed for the table. Proceed at your own risk…

How a Promise Made This Candy Famous

When writing a Promise Lead, where should you start?

The default for most marketers is to study the product and just figure out what it can do best. We’ve all heard, after all, the lesson about “features” versus “benefits.” First you make a list of the products best features, and then you translate those into what they will do for the customer.

Simple.

It’s a lesson you may have heard connected before with one of the most successful product pitches in history. Forrest E. Mars grew up in candy maker’s house. And with some big shoes to fill. His father’s home business grew to invent and sell some of the world’s most famous candy bars, including Snickers, Mars Bars, and Milky Ways.

But Forrest’s father didn’t want to expand the business and Forrest, fresh home from Yale University, did. So he sold his share in the business back to Dad and moved to Europe. That’s where he took up with other candy makers.

It’s also where he first spotted the breakthrough that would help change the chocolate business, the course of World War II, and millions of kids’ birthday parties — and indirectly, the advertising industry.

It was a tiny pellet of chocolate, wrapped in a candy shell, found in the field kits of soldiers fighting the Spanish Civil War. The chocolate gave them quick energy, the shell kept it from melting under harsh conditions.

We know it now, of course, as the M&M.

Forrest took it back to the States and patented his own formula for the candy in 1941. Within a year, the U.S. was committed to World War II. And not long after, M&Ms made their way into soldiers’ field rations. When the soldiers came home, the candies were a hit with the general public.

But sales were about to get even bigger.

Forrest realized that television — making it’s way into the mainstream at that time — was the next place he wanted to go to sell M&Ms. He hired a copywriter named Rosser Reeves to do it. It turned out to be another groundbreaking move.

Reeves, at the time, was already a success. He was both copy chief and vice president of his agency in New York. But when he sat down with Forrest Mars to talk candy, he listened and took notes like a first-year copywriter.

“He was the one who said it,” claimed Reeves in the version we’ve heard told. “He told me the whole history and then I pressed him and he said, ‘Well, the thing is they only melt in your mouth, but they don’t melt in your hands.'”

That was all Reeves needed.

Within four years, Mars was selling one million pounds of M&Ms per week. M&Ms have since gone on Space Shuttle flights with astronauts. They’ve been the official candy of the Olympics. And according to Business Week, they’re the best-selling candy in the world.

Mars died at ate 95 in 1999, with a $4 billion fortune. And his candy company takes in over $20 billion per year, with 30,000 employees worldwide.

It’s no accident that Reeves went on to his own kind of fame. And not just because Reeves happens to be the real-life model for the character of Don Draper on TV’s series, Mad Men.

You might know him even better, after all, as the father of what every copy cub and professional advertiser memorizes as the “Unique Selling Proposition” or “U.S.P.”

To Find the Promise, Find This First…

When Reeves first wrote about it the U.S.P. in his book Reality in Advertising, he was writing down the formula you can use to write any effective Promise Lead.

Reeves formula had three parts.

The first part, for Reeves, also meant starting with the product. And only if that product was actually good enough to almost sell itself. As a preacher’s son, Reeves was fundamentally honest and felt all advertising should be too. The product must be able to do what you’ll say it can do.

But an even better reason for starting with the product is the second part of Reeve’s formula. What the product does and by default will claim to do has to be original. That is, the best products do something competitors won’t or can’t. That’s key because the U.S.P. — the promise you’ll make — has to sound and feel different from everything your prospect has heard before, too.

Then there’s the final part of Reeve’s formula. This is the one most forgotten, but it’s impossible to overlook if you’ve got any hope of coming up with a powerful promise. Every promise must target your prospect’s core desire. That is, they have to already want what you’re promising.

This is worth repeating.

Reeves believed, and so do we, that you can’t create desire in a customer. You can only awaken what’s already there. This is especially true in a pure Promise Lead, where you have nothing but the claim pulling all the weight. The more tightly you can target those core desires, the more likely your ad will work.

It’s that simple.

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Can You Judge a Customer By His Cover?

apple.png Or maybe that title should read: “Can you judge a customer by his… computer?”

You’d have to live on the moon to have missed Apple’s long running ad campaign, “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC.” It was textbook psychographic targeting, associating the product with a personality type.

It worked, but why?

Maybe this will help explain:

In a recent study (I’m afraid I no longer have access to the source) it turns our more than half of Mac users live in the big city. Meanwhile, PC people are about 18% more likely to live in the burbs and 21% more likely to live in the countryside.

By a wide margin (50% more), Mac people love to throw parties. Or at least say they do. While about 23% of PC people say they’d rather not.

However, nearly 30% of PC people like to fit in with the group. Not so with Mac people, who tend to crave their own “uniqueness,” generally speaking.

PC people lean more to cake and candy snacks. Mac people? They’re about 7% more likely to go for peanuts and potato chips.

PC people tend to like tuna fish sandwiches more. Mac people supposedly favor bistro-type fries.

If you’re PC, you’re more likely to drink California Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. If you’re Mac, you’ll crack open a Chianti or Cabernet Sauvignon instead.

Believe it or not, Mac people are more likely to think of themselves as tech-savvy nerds.

PC users are 43% more likely, meanwhile, to feel about as comfortable with computers as they are with learning a foreign language. Or so says the poll.

Who watches more “60 Minutes?” The Mac users. And who watches “20/20?” That would be our friends on the PC.

“Moby Dick” is more a Mac novel. And “Great Expectations” leans more toward the PC.

And on it goes.

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Brainstorming For One

“Brain-writing” is not my term. But we’re going to make it our own by revising it a little to make it more productive…

You brainstorm to get ideas when you have none.

Ideally, you do so in a group. So you can feed off each other. So you can legitimize sitting around drinking coffee. So you can get others to do all the hard thinking for you.

In all those respects, group brainstorming is a good thing.

But what do you do when you’re writing in isolation?

Brain-writing is a way to kick ideas around … jumpstart your engines … and get into that “zone” of creativity that you normally hope to get in a group session.

In fiction circles, there’s something similar called “free-writing.”

USUALLY, it simply means setting a timer, putting pen to page, and letting the ideas pour.

Whatever it is, you write it down. You don’t stop until your pen runs out of ink or your elbow balloons like a grapefruit.

But there are two problems with free-writing when you apply it to writing promo copy:

  • First, pens come with a lot of ink these days. Even the dime-store ballpoints could keep you scribbling well past deadline.
  • Second, sometimes it’s the very prospect of a blank page … the sight of a blinking cursor… and the notion of all that cerebral “freedom” … that’s got you stymied in the first place.

There is a more efficient way to get started.

If you were about to make bricks, would you begin without clay? If you were getting ready to make glass, would you begin without sand? If you wanted to make punch, would you leave out the hooch?

Of course not.

So why is it writers of any kind so often try to start conjuring up ideas out of thin air?

For all the reasons to get “blocked,” this is the easiest of them to resolve.

Before you begin your solo brainstorming session (or a group one, for that matter), get yourself a hefty stack of “stuff” about the product. Aim for height. An inch is too little. A foot is too high. Somewhere in the middle ought to do it.

Next to this, put a fresh stack of index cards … a legal pad … and/or a computer.

This is where the “brain-writing” comes in. Start reading. Start taking notes.

The process remains “free” in the sense that you shouldn’t try to organize the ideas at this point. Record them as they come. You’ll sort later.

However, contrary to popular creativity myths, discipline has a role. For instance:

You’ll need to keep yourself from focusing too long on any one aspect of your research.

You’ll need to force yourself to write in full-fledged ad copy, rather than just recording notes.

And you’ll need to make sure, always, that the central promise of your ad is the magnet pulling you through the muck of ideas you’ll produce.

You should have at least six kinds of things in your “brain-writing” stack before you begin:

  1. Competitors’ ads.If you write direct mail, you know there’s no excuse for not being seeded on competing lists. Keep a box of other people’s promos by your desk.
  2. Samples of the competitors’ products.You can probably get comped, as a professional courtesy. But, at least once in awhile, go through the subscription process anonymously. You might learn something from the way they do business.
  3. Printouts of relevant web sites.Yes, printouts. If you’d rather, you can make handwritten notes while scrolling a screen. But avoid the temptation to bookmark links, save pages, or copy and paste text into word documents. No matter what you think … the only way to really absorb the ideas is to re-interpret them for your own notes.
  4. Relevant magazines and newspapers.Big media has the budget to gather persuasive stats and anecdotes. Again, copy the information in your own hand. Don’t just clip and count on coming back to it later. HOWEVER, make sure you note your sources with every factoid – both for legal reasons and because you’ll get extra credibility when you cite a respected source.
  5. History and non-fiction bestsellers.Sometimes, nothing can be more valuable than going down to your local bookstore to see what your prospects are reading. It’s an excellent way to put your thumb on the popular zeitgeist. Restrict yourself, however, to buying two books … tops. If you’re under any kind of deadline, you won’t have time for more than that.
  6. Your product manager’s “best of.”Any good product manager will give you the following items when you start a copywriting project: product-related e-mails, raw testimonials, 3rd-party reviews and endorsements, product-related news clippings, free “giveaways” that come with the offer, notes from past brainstorming meetings, past control packages, tapes or transcripts of conversations with customers, customer service letters, interviews with core people connected with the product, and phone numbers of people you can call to talk to about the product.

This is, of course, just a partial list. You could add more. But even with only the above, you should be drowning in new ideas before day’s end.

(At which point, you’ll have a different problem – more ideas than you can spend in one piece! Every copywriter should be so lucky, right? Save the leftovers for the test mailing.) The beauty of this simple approach is that you don’t need a soul around to help you make it pay off. In fact, isolation makes it easier.

Tip: At some point, you’ll make it to the bottom of the stack or you’ll feel in your gut that you’ve got all the key points somehow covered. AT that moment, stop and get up. Put on your coat. Go shoot some hoops, take a walk, knit an afghan (the sweater, not the citizen).

While you take a break, your subconscious mind is mulling over everything you’ve come across. Absorbing. Sorting. Editing.

The next morning, put the pile of stuff in a box and get it out of your sight. Everything happens now inside your pile of notes. Re-read all the material. Twice.

Take the points that stand out and re-write them on a fresh page. Some things will stand out. Others will strike you as complete garbage. Distill and polish. Narrow. If you need to accelerate the process, mail or e-mail the notes to a trusted (and patient) friend to read.

If you try this technique and you’re STILL stuck for ideas by the time you reach the bottom of the stack, you might consider buying yourself a push broom. Or running for public office.

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