Category: Headlines and Leads

Getting your copy started on the right foot.

#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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What’s The “Big Idea?”

bulb.png What’s the single toughest secret you’ll ever learn, if you hope to blow the doors off the world of writing sales copy?

For all the clever metaphors you’ll ever come up with, for all the phrases and images, the formatting breakthroughs, the clever taglines, and everything else… nothing will pack more career-building punch for a copywriter… than mastering the art of coming up with “big ideas.”

By no coincidence, that alone could take you a lifetime of writing.

Great copywriter and originator of the “big idea” idea himself, David Ogilvy, once claimed that he came up with only about 20 so-called “big ideas” in his entire career. And yet, that was enough to more than create his fame and fortune.

So what does a “big idea” look like? I’ve seen many try to define it.

Here’s one more list of filters to add to your collection…

* Big Ideas Have Instant Appeal:

Have you ever had a ‘gut’ feeling about a person? Have you ever asked a long-married couple when they decided to get married, only to find out they ‘just knew’ after just meeting each other?

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Blink,” calls it ‘thin-slicing.’ And it’s what we do, naturally, whenever we encounter something new.

Your target audience will do it too. Which is why you have ZERO luxury for trying to convey a complex idea in that very first instant your copy flashes them in the face.

They’ll “thin-slice” you, as a reflex.

They’ll compress all their judgment about whether to read on into that moment. If you don’t manage to win them over, in milliseconds, say hello to the trashcan.

So, the Big Idea is an idea that can be sorted, absorbed, and understood instantaneously. Which is why cleverness and complexity in advertising can be so dangerous for even the most skilled of copy wordsmiths.

* Big Ideas are Tightly Expressed:

Just because an idea has impact, doesn’t mean it has to be dense. In fact, the opposite is the idea. The more insightful the idea, the tighter you can usually sum it up.

And you should aim to do exactly that. Preferably in 8 words or less. And as early as possible, so that your reader knows as soon as possible what you’re getting at.

* Big Ideas Have Momentum:

Gladwell has another more famous book that I’m sure you’ve read, “The Tipping Point.” He starts off talking about a suede shoe.

It was big in the ’70s, and then disappeared. Suddenly, over 20 years later, it came back with a vengeance. First, on the hip street corners of Manhattan’s East Village. Then across town… uptown… then to young and artsy areas in cities across the U.S. Why?

Nobody, even the shoemaker, could tell.

Only that an idea started to build. It spread. By the time everyone noticed, it suddenly petered out again. It was too late. The trend had come and gone, elusive to all who’d tried to do anything but hang on for the ride.

Ideas are like that.

They catch on, they build, and then, just when you least expect it, they can recede out of popularity again. The best marketer is plugged in enough to see the swell of the wave coming, before it crests.

* Big Ideas Are Timely:

Related to the idea of momentum is the timeliness of an idea, especially when you’re selling information products. How so?

I write almost exclusively, these days, for financial products. My best promos tend to hinge on what’s happening in the markets.

For example, when oil sold at $147 per barrel, anything I wrote about oil and energy related investment products was almost a sure bet to do well.

In the mid 1990s, the market’s mind was elsewhere. You couldn’t say anything about investing without talking about the Internet, telecoms, or biotech.

When that market crashed in 2000, the tide of desire had shifted over night. Trying to write tech pitches suddenly became about as tough as talking a tabby into taking a dip in a hot tub.

Of course, the greatest asset you get by finding the timeliest ideas is that timeliness brings with a sense of urgency to your message. Maybe as a warning. Maybe as an unfolding opportunity.

But either way, you’re much better off when you’ve got that element to whatever you’re writing.

* Big Ideas Are Original:

Ideas feel biggest when you’re among the first to deliver the message. When you’re playing catch up to everyone else, not so much.

Even an idea that’s already current, already popular, and already talked about… gains new life when you can make it even more ‘new,’ simply by finding the extra twist.

This is why headlines built on “secrets” are so effective. We naturally want to read the story nobody else is telling.

The new angle… the new information… the overlooked discovery… there are many ways to do this. All of them, almost always, are buried in the unique details of the story you’re telling.

* Big Ideas Have Depth:

Yep, I said that ideas need to be simply and clearly expressed. But can you have clarity and substance, even in a short line?

Absolutely, you can.

When we say that Big Ideas need “depth” what we mean is richness and life-altering impact. Ask yourself; does the Idea suggest major change ahead? Is it something that will shock, awaken, or fascinate your reader?

If not, why would the reader want to read on? And why would you want to get the success of that letter… or your business… on something that thin?

* Big Ideas Are Emotionally Stirring:

Too often, we mistake the preponderance of proof behind an Idea as all the “Bigness” we need for selling.

With smugness, we script any old headline, knowing it’s just a set up to hit the reader with blazing, double guns of the most rock-solid bullet points and factoids you’ve ever seen.

Sure, proofs matter in persuasion.

But, in the end, the one thing that makes one Big Idea compelling beyond any other, is it’s ability to sneak behind that locked door of the mind, where the emotional reasoning resides.

It must make a connection with that core, unspoken, and perhaps unrecognized place where the reader’s heart really resides.

Are there other ways to know if you’ve got your mitts on a “big idea” or not? Absolutely, there are. But this is a pretty good start. Try putting your next piece of copy through these paces and see for yourself.

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CR #485: Which Promises Work Best?

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“That’s right – it filets, it chops, it dices and
slices. It never stops. It lasts a lifetime, mows
your lawn, and it picks up the kids from school.
It plays a mean rhythm. It makes excuses for
lipstick on your collar. And it’s only a dollar,
only a dollar, only a dollar.”

Tom Waits, “Step Right Up”

This week, I share the raw copy from a draft of a version of a sketch of a preliminary manifestation of a chapter that’s supposed to go in the book I mentioned.

Did I mention? It’s raw.

And actually, I only have space here to include an excerpt. But I thought you might like it just the same (if not, your money back… how can you beat that, right?)

So without further ado…

“Cash if You Die, Cash If You Don’t”

According to famous copywriter Drayton Bird, that subhead I just gave you above was once one of the most successful headlines in the insurance industry.

Why?

“Your safest opening,” says Drayton, who has written copy since 1957 and for clients like Ford, American Express, and Proctor & Gamble, “… is your prime benefit and offer… an instant statement, instantly comprehensible.”

About 100 years ago, copy legend John Kennedy told his boss pretty much the same thing. And then wrote it up in a book called Reason Why Advertising, “To strike the responsive chord with the reader… is to multiply the selling power of every reason-why given…”

In today’s terms, a promise your reader cares about is the single best way to grab him by the lapels. To get him to hear your message out, he first needs a reason to listen.

In the 1960s and ’70s, adman David Ogilvy used a list he’d written, called “How to Create Advertising That Sells,” to bring in new clients for his agency. What did he say inside?

“It pays to promise a benefit which is unique and competitive, and the product must deliver the benefit your promise. Most advertising promises nothing. It is doomed to fail in the marketplace… Headlines that promise to benefit sell more than those that don’t.”

Then you’ve got our friend and fellow copywriter, Clayton Makepeace, who recently told readers of his Total Package blog:

“The only reason any rational human being ever purchases anything is to derive a benefit from it! That means …any scrap of sales copy that fails to clearly, dramatically, emphatically, credibly and repeatedly present the benefits a product will deliver is destined to fail miserably.”

Or as the writer Samuel Johnson put it, when he was writing about the sales game the way it was back in the 1700s, “Promise, much promise, is the soul of advertisement.”

We definitely agree.

You won’t find many ads of any kind that don’t include at least one healthy promise, either implied or stated outright.

So why create a whole lead category just to focus on promises?

When “Promise Leads” Still Work

Because there have been times — and there are still times– when a simple, direct promise without any other touches or twists will be your best foot forward.

So, for instance, where an Offer Lead like those you just saw might read…

A HOLLYWOOD SMILE IN 3 DAYS
…OR YOUR MONEY BACK

A Promise Lead might avoid mentioning the offer up front, so it can target readers who are almost ready to be sold but not quite. This version takes away any up-front focus on the deal and puts the spotlight solely on the big claim:

A HOLLYWOOD SMILE IN 3 DAYS

Likewise, Promise Leads are more direct than the other leads you’ll read about here, in that they each get progressively less direct.

You would think that as target audiences become more aware of their options, thanks to the always-on Information Age, more direct Promise Leads would be all over the place.

After all, goes the theory, more “aware” demands more “direct,” right? Adn yet, it’s also getting progressively harder to make pure Promise Leads work. Why’s that?

We’ll look at those reasons next week.

For now, know there are times when a direct claim and little else is exactly what you need.

For instance, the Promise Lead works especially well for targeting “mostly aware” prospects that are almost ready to buy and are mostly clear on what they’re looking for.

What to Promise and When

At the Ogilvy Center for Research in San Francisco, they ran a test. They wanted to see if people bought more from TV commercials they “liked.”

It turns out, they did.

But before you start studying million-dollar Superbowl commercials, hang on. Because it turns out how the people asked defined “liked.”

It turns out they remembered and ranked ads higher not if they were clever or funny, but if they were relevant to something important to the prospect.

“Advertising works best,” wrote Drayton Bird in Commonsense Marketing, “if you promise people something they want, not — as many imagine — — if you are clever, original or shocking.”

Of course, picking the right promise is fundamental. Because it’s your statement of your intention. In exchange for your customers’ money, what will you do for them?

And we know that ads promise all kinds of things.

To make you thin or bulk you up, to make you stronger, younger, fitter, and faster. To teach you to do something you’ve always wanted to do or make something easier than you ever thought it could be.

They can promise to make you more attractive. They can promise to make you rich. Or to save you money. They can promise you a better ride, a bigger house, more beautiful skin and a beautiful dress, a smart looking suit, or a happy marriage.

They can promise to look out for your interests, if it’s an ad for someone begging your vote. They can promise to look out for someone else that you care about, in the way of a charity for a special cause.

Here’s just a sample of some classic promise-making headlines…

** How to Build A Memory In 4 Short Weeks — So Powerful It Is Beyond Your Wildest Dreams Today

** Change Your Life Next Week

** Turns up your “Digestive Furnace and burns flab right out of your body

But more often, even the straight promise has more behind it than just what it claims.

Beyond what’s written, Promise Leads often satisfy some underlying emotion.

Respect, love, friendship. Prestige among your peers. Confidence and freedom from worry. Inclusion. Safety and security. A feeling of association and even similarity with people you admire and respect.

Even more specifically, a Promise Lead is not just what it can do for the customer, but what it promises to make the customer feel about himself. And maybe most of all, how it will let him be seen be others.

Those factors are what make your claims matter to your readers.

That’s the key.

Especially when your most direct promise is your default lead. Because you have only those first few microseconds for the prospect to decide whether or not to give you any of his most precious commodity — time.

***************************************************
Opportunity:
WHAT IF YOU NEVER HAD TO WORRY ABOUT
HAVING ENOUGH MONEY, EVER AGAIN?

What if you could retire within 18 to 24 months of right now — even if you’ve got little or nothing socked away in the bank — while still earning six figures every year?

Even if you aren’t looking to leave your day job, what if you could pad your income with an extra $25,000… $50,000… even $200,000… by spending just a little extra time doing this on Saturdays?

The guy who’s going to show you how puts his money where his mouth is, because he does this himself… and makes north of $200K extra each year (on top of the other $500K he makes).

And he says it only takes him a few hours each week. Wouldn’t doing even half that well be more than worth it? Absolutely. And you can set it all up in just three steps, online and from the comfort of your own home.

Even your neighbors won’t know how you do it.

-> Click here for details <-

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How One Big Idea Trumps Lots of Small Ones

“Shut up and listen,” I said. I was talking to Michael Masterson, the great copywriter, publisher, and best-selling author.

Had I lost my mind? Not at all.

Rather, I was summing up the core idea behind one of the best-selling books of all time, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

That, in my opinion, is the key idea behind that book. And the fact that it’s so easily defined has a lot to do with its success.

Michael came back with another example… I delivered a third… and the volley went back and forth, until we ran out of ready examples.

It wasn’t a game.

See, Michael and I — along with another brilliant copywriter, Bill Bonner — had just finished running four straight days of an intensive, private copywriting bootcamp.

It happens every year.

We meet in a French country chateau. We drink wine. And we stay up late, playing guitars. During the day, we work on copy.

We had around 25 writers attending. Some with years of experience, others just months. Some had just been hired, weeks earlier.

We rehashed lots of fundamentals. We even came up with a few new breakthrough discoveries, some of which I may — or may not — share with you here in the months ahead.

But over and over, in the classic writing samples we looked at and in the new copy our workshops produced, one thing was abundantly clear: The tighter and more isolated the core idea, the more powerful the result.

Without exception.

One Big Idea, Clearly Expressed

Think about it.

When you have a “great” conversation read a “great” book… or see a “great” documentary… what grabs you? Is it the litany of small details? Or the golden thread that unites them?

More often, for most of us, it’s the latter.

And the more you “get” the core idea behind a story, a speech, a revelation… the more memorable that one core message becomes.

This is just as true in sales copy.

One message, well developed, just has more impact than ads — short or long — that are overloaded with competing ideas.

Don’t believe me?

100 Headlines That Prove The Point

For this article, I decided to go looking for strong ads that featured single secrets, single solutions, and single ideas… to see if that list was as long or longer than one showing a much wider reaching,
more thinly spread approach.

First I looked in a digital “swipe” file I have on my desktop. In there, I have over 200 snapshots of winning direct mail and print ads. Some old, some new.

Overwhelmingly, the theory proved true.

But I had  picked up a lot of these sample ads randomly. Would the theory hold up if I went to a more recognized resource?

Maybe you’ve heard of Victor Schwab.

Advertising Age calls Schwab the “greatest mail- order copywriter of all time” and a pioneer in advertising research.

Nobody, arguably, has ever been a more devoted tester of headlines, layouts, offers, and copy appeals than Schwab.

He was also one of the first copywriters to lay down a persuasion “formula” for sales copy, in 1941. And his classic book, “How to Write a Good Advertisement,” is a must-read staple on the bookshelves of ardent copywriters everywhere.

One of the things you can find in Schwab’s book is a list of what he called the “top 100 headlines.”

It made no sense to scan the list for only single- idea-driven examples. They were the majority, by far.

Instead, I looked for only headlines that looked more like the multiple-idea type. And get this — out of a list of 100 headlines, only 10 were NOT clearly single-idea based.

Something else: Even those 10 multiple-idea ads still clearly had an implied “golden thread” that bound the whole thing together.

Take a look.  And remember, this is the list of headlines that DON’T appear at first to fit the single-idea theme we’re talking about…

  • “Do You Make These Mistakes In English?”
  • “Five Familiar Skin Troubles — Which Do You Want
  • to Overcome?”
  • “Have You These Symptoms of Nerve Exhaustion?”
  • “161 New Ways to a Man’s Heart — In This
  • Fascinating Book for Cooks”
  • “Do You Do Any of These Ten Embarrassing Things?”
  • “Six Types of Investors — Which Group Are You
  • In?”
  • “The Crimes We Commit Against Our Stomachs”
  • “Little Leaks That Keep Men Poor”
  • “67 Reasons Why It Would Have Paid You to Answer
  • Our Ad a Few Months Ago”
  • Free Book — Tells You 12 Secrets of Better Lawn Care”

Would they have worked even better if each focused on only one thing — rather than a list — right here in the headline? Maybe. But notice that even though they don’t, each clearly points toward a
single, over-arching theme.

Meanwhile, out of the 90 single-idea headlines, just ake a look at how instantly clear and engaging these “core big idea” examples are…

  • “The Secret of Making People Like You”
  • “Is the Life of a Child Worth $1 to You?”
  • “To Men Who Want to Quit Work Someday”
  • “Are You Ever Tongue-Tied at a Party?”
  • “How a New Discovery Made a Plain Girl Beautiful”
  • “Who Else Wants a Screen Star Figure?”
  • “You Can Laugh at Money Worries — If You Follow This Simple Plan”
  • “When Doctors Feel Rotten This is What They Do”
  • “How I Improved My Memory in One Evening”
  • “Discover the Fortune That Lies Hidden In Your
  • Salary”
  • “How I Made a Fortune with a ‘Fool Idea'”
  • “Have You a ‘Worry’ Stock?”

Here’s an added benefit: Starting off in the headline with just one, simple idea makes writing the rest of the sales letter easier..

How so?

Finding the core idea, of course, is the hard part. It has to be precise, not scattershot. You have to know your audience and know them well. Or you risk missing your target completely.

But hone in on the right promise, the right hook, the right singular theme at the start… and writing the sales copy that supports it underneath suddenly gets easier.

You know where you’re headed. You know which tangents to look out for. And you know, too, when you’re ready to wrap up your pitch… because you’ll know when you’ve said all you need to say.

I think back to my own promos and it’s true. Those that worked best were the most focused on one message. Those that flopped were those that wandered. I’ll bet the same is true for you.

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The Dark Side of Testimonial-Driven Sales Copy

cheesyman.png In my experience, testimonials almost always enhance a promo package… except… when they don’t. What might make for a
bad time to use a testimonial?

Most often, when the testimonial itself just plain stinks.

For instance…

When it’s emotionally unsatisfying and vague:
“I found your book very useful.”

When it’s too gushy:
“I love your book! It’s the best one I’ve ever read! The exclamation point on my keyboard is stuck!!!”

When it’s too polished or pretentious:
“We delight in your intrepid and yet profitable handling of territory so treacherous as options investing.”

When you’ve used stock photos instead of real ones:
(Rule of thumb: Most of your customers probably do NOT have bleached teeth or airbrushed faces. And most of them do not wear t-shirts that have been pressed and dry-cleaned before the photo shoot either.)

When they’re a legal risk or just plain fake:
“I’ve secretly used this investment newsletter to pick stocks for years. I’d be working at McDonald’s without it.” – Warren Buffet, Omaha.

Or when the customer seems too embarrassed to sign it:
“I like your stuff, really I do. – Anonymous”

We could go on finding many ways testimonials won’t do what you want them to do. But how about how to make sure you get good testimonials and use the properly?

Here’s a truism based on experience:

Good products, first and foremost, are the better your chances of getting good testimonials. But even then, you need to identify the person on the team that’s got enough passion for the product to cull and archive a strong testimonial file. This could be the product manager, but more likely, they’re getting their best stuff from the front lines. That is, from the people who deal most directly with the customers.

Don’t be afraid to ask customer service if you can look at their letters or if they’ve seen something good. Often the good stuff is buried in letters asking support questions.

If the company is going to do surveys, make sure they leave room for open-ended questions at the end. And if they’ve done surveys already, look for ones where you can follow up to get enthusiastic customers to elaborate. A day of phone calls to buyers can pay off with testimonials you’ll use for years.

If the company corresponds via emails or an online customer forum (and who doesn’t these days?), ask if it’s okay to follow up with buyers electronically. Or better, ask the product manager to follow up, since replies to their requests might sound more natural (customers have a tendency to fancy-up their praise when they find out it’s going to go in a sales letter.)

Bottom line: There’s no way to get good testimonials without applying a little elbow-grease and a little creative harvesting.

That said, copywriting legend John Caples had a tip. Try running a testimonial-gathering contest. Caples liked to give customers a chance to fill in the following line:

“Finish this sentence in 25 words or less: I like (name of product) because…”

And in return, he would offer every participant a small prize.

Here’s another great idea, based on an insight from friend Michael Masterson, over at www.earltytorise.com: “Ask them what their life was like before they got your product… what their life is like now… and, specifically, how your product helped them make that change.”

Good ideas, don’t you think?

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Read this NOW, or the Puppy Gets It!

Years ago, I think it was National Lampoon sent out a mail campaign trying to get subscribers… or maybe it was renewals…

With a picture of a man holding an adorable puppy draped over his left arm. In his right hand, he held what looked like Dirty Harry’s revolver. The headline read (I’m  paraphrasing): “Subscribe now or the puppy gets it!”

Depending on how you feel about puppies, that qualifies as an “urgency” pitch. Of course, there are other ways to create urgency.

“Crazy Eddie” yelling on late night TV about his looney low prices on TVs and stereos… firesales and special edition offers… expiring coupons.

The list goes on. And on. And on.

 It’s no accident. Creating urgency is part and parcel of many a winning ad campaign. Maybe that’s why Linda, one of your fellow CR readers, wrote me asking what on earth was going on.

 The urgency plea, she says, is both everywhere and far too often just plain baloney. Sales end up lasting longer, last-minute prices seem to last forever, and so on.

What gives?

I took a minute to write Linda a reply. Then figured it was good enough to share with you too. See if you agree.

Yes and yes, I told her.

You’re right on two fronts.

First, lots of ads do whatever they can to pound the urgency button. Reason being, all marketing is more or less at war with the onslaught of “other” ads you mention — each of which competes for space in the customer’s mind — and more importantly, with the overwhelming forces of inertia.

The customer who reads and ad that encourages him to put it down for later consideration, is generally a customer lost in the long run. Put more simply, those who don’t “act now” tend not to act at all.

For a brilliant explanation of how this works, beyond the obvious, check out the much recommended “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Dr. Robert Cialdini. Especially what he has to say about the pulling power of scarcity. People really do want to snap up the “last” of anything, rather than miss out.

That said, the other thing you’re right about is that when every single ad is saying you’re going to miss out, the message starts to get diluted. Everyone starts to sound the same. And in selling, sounding the same as everybody else is slow poison to your business.

When that happens, what happens next?

The clever sellers will come up with other ways to express urgency, other than “limited supply” pitches.

As you mention, they’ll have deadlines before price increases, limited-time offers on extras thrown into a deal, special bonuses limited to the first few respondents, etc. Among the group of info publishers I work closely with, one of the most powerful innovations of the last two years — literally worth hundreds of millions of dollars (and counting) — has been to create online “countdown” offers with time deadlines tracked right down to the hour and minute on which the deal is available. I keep thinking they’ll stop working. Yet they keep working, just the same. 

But here’s one last key.

To really work, the limits need to be real. Even if they’re created just to increase the urgency, they have to be enforced. Otherwise, as you suggest, the customer’s get wise to the ruse. Not only does the seller sacrifice trust in his claims, he also sacrifices the power of the technique.

Even as a marketer, I would also second guess those businesses that don’t make good on their “last chance” offers in the way you’re suggesting. Both for the reasons above and also because, frankly, it’s a bad sign for other reasons.

For instance, I know that with the marketers I work with, legal teams actually scan the offers and make sure that if there’s a deadline mentioned, the offer gets pulled the minute the deadline passes.

And if there’s a “limited low price” offered, the legal eagles make sure it never gets offered again. Price hikes are made to happen. Limited bonuses get retired according to the restrictions printed on the reply card. This keeps the marketers honest.

But it also preserves the power of the technique for the rest of us, when we want to try it elsewhere to the same audience.

Long story short…

You’re right to question the “urgency” pitch as a consumer. But both good and bad marketers use it. And likely, will use it forever.

Likewise, if you ever find yourself on the marketing side of the fence, it’s something you don’t want to rule out too quickly.

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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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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 Details That Close Sales

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

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

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

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

“I live on a big street in the city.”

Or…

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

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

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

Here’s another example…

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

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

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

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

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

Now… which description wakes up your imagination?

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

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

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

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

Here’s another example…

A LEAD THAT’S WORKED FOR 17 YEARS

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

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

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

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

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

What makes that work, in your mind?

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

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

And even then, only for a short while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much detail is TOO much?

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

Some other tips…

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

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

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

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

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

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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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