Category: Know Your Audience

How well do you know your customer? Know them better here…

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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Finding the Elephant…

"I just carved away the bits that weren't elephant..."

“I just carved away the bits that weren’t elephant…”

What’s it mean to be “creative?”

Says the great John Cleese, that’s an almost impossible question to answer. Easier is to ask yourself, “What doesn’t it mean?”

Or as he puts it in the brilliant talk below, think of the sculptor who was asked how he made a beautiful statue of an elephant from a piece of marble.

“I just,” he answered, “cut away the bits that weren’t elephant.”

Watch below and be both enlightened and amazed…

John Cleese Reveals How to Be More Creative

P.S. Thanks for this, via our friends over at copyscience.com.

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Which Sells Best, Stories or Stats?

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“Simplicity is the peak of civilization.”
– Jessie Sampter

Do this: Write down the word “baby.”

Now, how does that word make you feel?

Try it with another baggage-friendly word like “family” or “war.” Or any other phrase that gets your inner emotional stew simmering.

Done? Good. No, dear reader, you haven’t stumbled into a 1970’s sensitivity training group.

There will be no hugs here. And no massaging your chakras (I mean, really… who does that in public?)

Rather, I’m just trying to warm you up for today’s issue. See, I’m still reading that book I mentioned, “Made to Stick.” (Okay — listening to it as an audio book, during the morning run. But in print or audio, I recommend you get a copy too.)
And this morning, the book gave me a shocker worth sharing.

So now that I’ve got you “primed” to receive (I’ll explain what I mean in just a second, let’s begin…

Which Works Best, Stats or Stories?

Carnegie-Mellon, says the book, did a study. They invited participants in to take a survey. The topic wasn’t important — something about tech products — but what mattered was the small payout. Each participant got paid with five $1 bills. They also got an unexpected letter and an empty envelope. The letter asked for donations for an international charity called “Save the Children.” But different groups got different letters.

One letter dripped with grim statistics. In one African country, it said, 3.2 million stand on the brink of starvation. In another, 2.4 million have no easy access to clean water. In a third, almost 4 million need emergency shelter. Each problem was gigantic and serious.

The second letter had only a story. “Rokia,” it said, “is a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. She’s desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.”

Which worked better?

Now, dear reader, I know your momma raised no dummies. You’re going to tell me that the Rokia letter cleaned up. And you’d be right.

On average, Rokia’s letter took in $2.38 in donations from the test group. The stat-soaked letter took in only an average of $1.14.
But that’s not the big surprise, is it? No, of course not. (What kind of storyteller do you think I am, after all?)

See, the study didn’t stop there…

How Less Really Can Mean a Lot More

The researchers then called in a third group. You’ll get paid for taking this survey, they said again.

Only this time, instead of giving the participants only one letter with their cash — everybody got both the story AND the stats together.

Great, you might say.

Heart AND head. A real one-two punch. Wouldn’t that net you both the bleeding hearts and the brainiacs, all in one sweep?

As it turns out, no.

Not only did combining both approaches fail to gas up the giving engines… it doused the pitch-power of the story-only approach with ice water.

The combo group, on average, gave almost a dollar LESS than the story-only group alone.

Just $1.43.

Isn’t that amazing?

I thought so.

But even more amazing was the last part of the experiment. This time, just to make sure of their conclusion, the researchers invited in a fourth group.

This time everybody would only get the stronger Rokia letter. But beforehand, they would complete an exercise.

Half the group would finish some simple math problems. The other half would answer a word challenge like the one I gave you at the start of this issue: Give word, write down feelings.

What happened?

Incredibly, the group that got “primed” with the emotional exercise gave an almost equal $2.34… but the analytically “primed” group AGAIN gave less, for an average of just $1.26.

These were unrelated calculations. But somehow just putting on a thinking cap was working like one of those tinfoil hats that crackpots wear to block out alien mind-reading waves (I’ve got to get me one of those).

Nearest the researchers could figure is that, while analytical thinking can shore up beliefs or activate a reader’s capacity for focus, it actually stymies action.

To get someone to act, they need to go beyond beliefs to the feelings they HOLD about those beliefs. Feelings inspire action.

And I don’t just mean that in the “touchy-feely let’s all hug a kitten and light a vanilla candle” kind of way. All persuasion works best when it focuses most on core emotions, not cerebral abstractions.
I know this charity, “Save the Children,” pretty well by the way. My wife and I have a Danish friend who works for them.

She’s a talented photographer.

Whenever there’s a crisis, her boss dips into the funds and puts our friend and her camera on a plane.
Burned out post-war zones, post-tsunami and typhoon disaster areas, dirt poor African villages — she’s been there, capturing a personal, eyewitness view.

Why?

Because in the charities well-tested experience, those individual on-the-scene images raise more money than a boatload of shocking statistics ever could.

I know that I’m going to try to work more of the “story of one” effect into my future promos. Maybe you should too.

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How to Ace Any Job Interview

frustrated-job-applicant.jpg Interviewers will tell you, they hire based on qualifications… experience… results… and so on and so forth, blah blah, etc.

Says Richard Wiseman, in his book “59 Seconds…” they’re mostly kidding themselves. And he’s got 30 years of psychological research to back him up on this point… including a joint study by the University of Washington and the University of Florida.

Two researchers followed the job searches of over one hundred students, from the creation of their resumes and their lists of qualifications through to the content of their interviews, replete with follow up thorough interviews and questionnaires.

The same researchers then contacted the interviewers and quizzed them too. They noted everything from general impressions to job requirements, skill matching, and so on. And, of course, whether the interviewers expected to make a job offer.

What was the key?

Not past experience. Not school performance or other qualifications. Not even embarrassingly low salary requirements or the cost of the suit worn to the interview.

Over and over again… it came down to how much the interviewer “liked” the interviewee. Yep. It came down to being irresistibly… personable.

Is that fair? I haven’t a clue. But it is what it is.

Gallup says the same, looking at presidential polling going back to the 1960s. Consistently, a candidate’s “likability” has more reliably predicted who will take the White House, more than any other factor.

Says the University of Toronto, the same goes for divorce — people others characterize as more “likable” end up about half as likely to get divorced. And doctors who rank as more “likable” are far less likely to get sued for malpractice, even if something goes wrong with a patient.

Likewise, says Wiseman, your “likability” can save your life — since doctors are more likely to urge pleasant patients to stay in touch and come back in for frequent checkups.

But what’s all this matter if you’re NOT looking for a job… getting married… visiting doctors… or seeking to run the country? Simple.

See, likability is simply another way of saying you’ve managed to persuade someone to trust you.

Both aren’t both those things — trust and persuasion — the very oxygen that sustains a good marketer and a good copywriter?

Yes, Cupcake. Yes they are.

If indeed that’s right, that you can persuade anybody to do anything just by being more likable… then how do you go about it?

Wiseman had a few tips. And in some ways, they’re not at all what you might think. For instance, he says, in interviews you might look to go in swinging, with a barrage of your best selling points right up front. After all, you want to impress… yes? No, actually. Not yet.

Research shows it’s much better, says Wiseman, to come in positive and personable… but to quickly get past a worrisome weakness first.

That way, you come across more genuine. People are less likely to trust you if you’re too perfect.

What’s more, says the same research, you’re also better off saving really impressive details for later. Why? For the same reason, coming in with them early sounds like boasting… holding them until later smacks of humility. It also lets the good bits linger longer, after the interview is over.

Reading that made me wonder, could the same be true in copy? Indeed it could. Think of the best classic ads of all time. Rags to riches and bumbling genius stories abound. (e.g. Every variation of “They laughed when I said…” ad ever written).

Likewise, consider what Dale Carnegie used to say. You’ll win more friends in two months, he said in his famous book about how to do just that, by developing a genuine interest in the people around you… than you will in two years of trying to make them interested in you.

In interviews, Wiseman says that means you need to show genuine interest in the company or client you’re trying to woo by knowing something about what they care about, by asking questions, and by offering a sincere compliment about something you admire.

And don’t be afraid to go off topic and chat — sensibly — with your interviewer about something he or she cares about too. Or rather, getting them to talk while you listen.

In copy, you do the same when you show you know what your prospect worries about… and when you do the work of finding out what they want a product to do for them in return.

You do that, too, when you use examples and analogies they can understand in their own terms… and when you tell them stories where they can see themselves, either as victim or hero.

In short, like the company looking to hire, your copy prospect is “interviewing” you and the product you’re selling, too. They want more than just the thing you’re offering. They want more than just the irrefutable data points you’ve dug up, too.

They want to know, most importantly, if they can trust you. They want to know… if they could learn to like you.

And will they?

If you don’t already think this way, you’ll be surprised how much it will change more than just your pitch. It will change the way you do business.

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What’s the Secret to Selling Bad Products?

chaplinCopywriters are hired guns. We usually don’t create the products we sell, just get hired to sell them. So how, pray tell, are you supposed to write copy that sells a product that… well… stinks?

Here’s the simple answer: You don’t.

And no, not just because making a strong tease for an unworthy product presents a serious moral challenge — though, that’s reason enough to turn down the job right there. But also because, frankly, bad products are  just… well… harder to sell.

Here’s how marketing great Roy Williams put it once in his famed “Monday Morning Memo” ezine…

“Give me a business that delights its customers and I can write ads that will take them to the stars. But force me to write ads for a business that does only an average job with their customers and I’ll have to work like a madman to keep that business from sliding backwards.”

Yes, you might say. It sounds so obvious. But pressed, couldn’t you or I come up with plenty of examples of businesses that managed to excel with mediocre products?

Yes, it’s possible.

And not always for reasons easy to explain. Perhaps customers at the start of a certain market just had fewer options. But where, these days, are you going to find businesses with no competitors?

Choice has exploded across all kinds of product lines.

For that reason, it means that taking on copywriting assignments for inadequate products or services is a situation you should find yourself in less and less. If at all. Since, fortunately, a multitude of choice for the customer also often means more choice for you when you’re talking about which products to write copy for and which clients to take on.

What to do if a good client brings you something mediocre to sell?

You have a choice. Either work with the client to make the bad product better (I’m doing that right now with a newsletter that’s decent, but needs to “bump it up” another 10% before it meets customer needs)… or bag the project altogether… and let your client know why, albeit with diplomacy.

If that’s a problem for the client, then you have the more difficult but ultimately career-enhancing choice of moving on to somebody else who’s got a more thorough and thoughtful core strategy for servicing customers.

It’s that simple.

Sure, all that said, sometimes you still might find yourself uncomfortably committed to a bad campaign. It happens. Never berate the client. But don’t be a pushover or a sucker either.

Again, this is either where you’re going to suggest possible ways to sell even better, in a consultant’s even tones and with the understanding that re-working the product might involve re-working your deal… or offer to take a kill fee and maybe even to share your research with the next copywriter who comes along.

The bottom line is that half-finished products and ideas CAN be sold without compromising your own integrity, but only if you’re willing to work with the client to make them whole. This is especially true in the information industry, where products can often be improved on the fly.

Just realize, even then… it can take a lot of work to get them there.

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What Keeps Your Customer Up at Night?

cantsleep1The meteorite in the rear view mirror. The 35 earthquakes, on average, that rock the globe every day. The threat of hurricanes and tsunamis. The doom of cosmic rays that would otherwise rip our DNA to shreds, were it not for the thin magnetic field protecting earth.

These are awesome, overarching realities of existence. 

But would you read a sales letter about any of them? Maybe, maybe not. But now consider the pain of arthritis. The horror of halitosis. Dandruff, psoriasis, and public speaking. The date you’ll never get. The weight you’ll never lose. 

 Or how about fear of not surviving this current market crunch… or making a terrible investment? How about the fear of joint pain, heart attack, or cancer? How about the fear of just looking stupid?

Fear of saying the wrong thing to the opposite sex… fear of wearing the wrong shoes to a party… fear of flashing your yellow teeth on a date… or God forfend, the fear of looking fat in a thong?

Or perhaps the most devastating problem of all, an “embarrassment of riches.”

 You notice immediately that fear — the deeply felt and personal kind — is local.

Personal. Immediate. And it’s no accident these same personal, immediate fears are the ones that tend to hold the most hooking power for headline writers. Not only because they’re specific. But because we have sense of exactly what they mean to us. And we’re emotionally connected to the outcome.

Just as importantly, these immediate fears are attached to problems we feel we can solve… or hope we can.  Your customers share that same sentiment. And tapping it is the key for you, as a copywriter, to making leads that start in the negative work. 

The more seasoned you are, however, you quicker you realize that fear alone doesn’t make the sale. Showing you know the cause of anxiety wins you attention, but what really makes a fear headline work is the hint of a solution. An antidote. A key to escape the prison of worry.

Think about some of the most famous copywriting classics:

“Do You Make These Mistakes In English?”… “Do You Do Any of These Ten Embarrassing Things?”… “Why Some Foods ‘Explode’ In Your Stomach”… “Have You A ‘Worry’ Stock?”…

 All focus on a fear innate to the target market.

But what really makes them work is what you don’t see here, but what’s surely delivered in the copy that follows… the promise of better language skills… better social skills… better health from better eating… safer investing…

 By the end, the copy transforms the customer from pessimist to optimist, full of hope and ready to try whatever it is you have to offer. Of course, once you see it’s a pre-existing worry you’re identifying, almost any headline could be a ‘fear’ headline, at least indirectly.

 “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” for instance, works because the copywriter identified the common fear of feeling alone or unimportant. Another headline classic, “Are You Ever Tongue-Tied at a Party?” identifies a similar fear.

But in each case, what makes the headline work is not just empathy for a reader’s concerns. That’s only the hook. Where the copy works is in offering a final, credible solution. If you can manage that… well then… you’ve nothing to be afraid of, right?

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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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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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