After reading all the rosy reports about post-Thanksgiving sales this past “Black Friday”…

Along with the rush of online buying excitement yesterday, it what’s been dubbed “Cyber Monday”…

 Why do I think we should all feel… torn?

 First let me catch up on some of the details.

 A Boom or a Time Bomb?

 You’ve heard, I’m sure, the report that the U.S. is not just “in a recession”… but that it turns out, say those who know best (or claim to), we’ve been in one since December 2007.

 Recessions are hard to call, except in hindsight. But, they say, this one isn’t something in the rearview mirror at all.

 Rather, like the fog on the bridge that’s so thick you’re tempted to cut your driving speed by half —  lest you careen into the chasm below — we’re smack in the middle of this. And not likely to roll out of it until as late as 2011.

 If you’re worried… as a marketer, an investor, or a family bread-winner… maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Then again, we’re now hearing lots of dazzling stories about retail excitement that shouldn’t have been. Strapped homeowners, credit card holders, and the masses of potentially unemployed… rolled out last Friday and shopped their little hearts out.  

Department store traffic — Macy’s, Bloomingdales, and the like — was up 10% over last year. Throngs of shoppers stormed Best Buy shops to pick up tech toys. Toys R Us sold lots of kiddie toys. Old Navy saw clothing sales bump higher over sales at the same time in 2007. 

 Online sales were just as swift, with buyers jamming the The Gap’s website so heavily it slowed to a crawl. The J.Crew site got so many orders, it had to shut down temporarily.

 Frenzied traffic slowed the pages over at Staples.com too. Traffic and sales on Buy.com were running at double-digit percentages above last year’s numbers, by yesterday afternoon.

 Here’s the thing…

 On the one hand, you can credit all this to the ingenuity of marketers who understand what it can take sometimes to get an order. On the other hand, what it took to get the orders doesn’t bode that well for the short-term of selling and marketing. 

 Because what it took was, in a word, discounts.

 Heavy, heavy ones. 

 When Discounts Run Too Deep

 Nearly 85% of retailers offered either big price breaks or giveaways — or both — this past weekend, says the Economist. And traffic on discount “coupon” websites shot up 33%. Meanwhile, the Sears Outlet store, says BusinessWeek, had to give away a free washer with every $700 dryer purchased.

 And those scarves Old Navy sold at a record clip?

They were priced at only $1 a piece.

 Across the board, sales of things like clothing shot up. But not at the specialty shops that focused most on clothing sales. Rather, the discount and outlet stores racked up most of the numbers. Along with related websites.

 That reflects the kinds of products buyers are targeting this year too. The sales on big ticket items are way down. On average, customers spent about a half to a third of what they spent this same weekend in 2007. 

 In other words, the marketers have gotten the people in the door. And they’re making high volume. But they won’t necessarily make money at the same time. The discounts and promotions will eat into the take at the register.

 Now, what’s all this mean?

The “Need-to-Know” Outlook For 2009

 For a marketer, it means it’s time to stay on your toes… or get on them, if you’re not already… and start thinking more carefully about offers and how to write them.

 Whether you’re writing copy that sells your own product or a clients, start studying across markets to see how they word pricing, what kinds of breaks or deals they make, what kinds of guarantees they write, and so on.

 The best place to start, of course, is with the kinds of products that compete directly with what your copy tries to sell. But some of the best ideas can come from a completely different kind of market altogether.

 For instance, this past Friday, my wife and I were on our way out of a large chain supermarket kind of store in Paris (think Wal-mart, but with French accents and escargot in the freezer section). Near the door they had a display rack of “experience” gift boxes.

 These are really just well-packaged gift cards dedicated to things you don’t normally see sold in supermarkets… or in any kind of store, for that matter…

 Bungee jumping and parachuting, weekends at a country chateau, local wine-tastings and gourmet meals, cooking classes. In each gift box, you would find the card that showed you had a credit due for the amount stamped on the box. Plus you’d find a directory showing the place nearest your location (national to France) where you could cash in your gift.

That gave me an idea for gift offers and discount giveaways that I couldn’t wait to get home and send to some colleagues in the publishing business. By the time I’d pounded out my idea, it was a lot different from what I’d seen in the boxes.

 But still worth testing. 

 Keep your eyes open as you read the papers, walk through shops, read ads on subways or hear them play on the car radio. Online, you can try going to those same “coupon” sites I mentioned earlier. One of the heavily visited ones, Black Friday Ads, is still up and running even though Black Friday is water under the bridge. Another coupon and offer-research site that’s open year round is the popular Retail Me Not website. Or you could try Fat Wallet.

 The idea is to go there not with a credit card in hand, but a pen and notepad. Write down what strikes you. You just might find a way to state your offer copy in a way that could make all the difference over the almost guaranteed rough times ahead.

Here’s another thing you should take away from this: there are times it’s especially important for a copywriter to know more than just the details of the product he or she is selling or the customer he’s selling to. And now is one of those times. 

 What you need to know, but might not know already, is something about the overall business strategy that’s directing what you’re about to try to do as you write your next sales piece. That is, what’s the aim of the business owner (and that includes you, if you’re your own marketing and sales team)?

 Are they trying to pump up total revenues? Are they looking to give great deals to loyal customers to keep them on board? Or are they trying to get as many new customers in the door as possible?

 Each strategy is a little different.  And each is going to change the way you write your pitch. It’s also going to radically change the products — and clients — you choose to work with.

In fact, even after the worst of the market froth is well behind us, getting to the level where you’re part of the business strategy conversation is the next important step once you’ve honed your chops as a copywriter.

 In good times as well as bad.

 Will there ever be good times again? Of course.

 If you count the tumult of ’92, the lull of ’94, the scare of ’97, the Internet bust of 2000-2001, and the gutter-gouging market of 2002… this latest staggering market blow is just one more of those moments when it feels like nothing will ever go right again. Granted, by comparison to all the rest, it’s a doozy.

 But this too shall pass. 

 One good thing, by the way — and maybe this is why I’m really torn — is that over-indebted consumers seem to want to think before they buy again. And is that really such a bad thing?

Sure, we all love a capitalistic feeding frenzy. But if nothing else, hard times keep marketers honest. And nimble. To survive, you’ve got to offer a good product. With a good offer. And do it all without breaking your own bank.

 Meanwhile, it’s not just lip service — or shouldn’t be — to say that good marketers want what’s best for their customers. And that includes watching them do what’s best for themselves. Which, right now for many of them, is to buy nothing at all. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still write copy that’s engineered to sell. And laden with as much promise and ambition as ever. I hope you will too. But hey, should we go through a few months where we have to work harder than usual to make it all happen, let’s try not to take it personally… shall we? 

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Confidence Copywriting Secrets Know Your Audience Offers and Closes Uncategorized

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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Copywriting Secrets Finding the Benefit Freelancer Tips Know Your Audience Offers and Closes Truth in Advertising

blueprintIn an interview, someone asked me for a “must-have” list for a  good piece of copy. I hit all the basics in my answer…

1) Benefits

2) More benefits

3) Specific and even shocking stats and proof

4) Third-party validation of your claims

5) Credibility building testimonials

5) Some track record of product success

6) A nice strong offer and airtight guarantee

7) And a firm push to get the order.

 Not a bad set of tools. But I left something out.

No copy will work if it isn’t build on top of a good sales effort STRATEGY. Now what exactly do I mean by that? I have to credit this insight to Roy Williams and his “Monday Morning Memo,” where he asked the question, “Which do you think would work better, the brilliant execution of a flawed strategy… or the flawed execution of a brilliant one?”

 Of course you know the answer. Think about it. Have you ever seen a movie with a great director… an all-star cast… and a screenplay you wouldn’t use to line a litter box? No matter how good the direction and performances are, they can rarely save a miserable script.

 On the other hand, get a great screenplay with a terrific plot and insightful, natural dialogue… and it’s hard for even a ham actor or egotistical director to screw it up.

 Something similar is true in sales copy. Strategy — a great product paired with a great offer and the ability to fulfill orders beyond the buyer’s expectations — is the cornerstone. If it stinks, it doesn’t matter how clever… how well printed or designed… or how stylistic your ad… because it’s still likely to flop.

 Meanwhile, a great strategy — which includes a great product, a great offer, and a strong guarantee, among other things — can work even in the hands of semi-amateurs.  Not always, but often.

 How do you know you’ve got a strategy problem?

If ad after ad isn’t working, no matter how good you ‘thought’ it read before going out the door… step back and look at the guts of what you’re doing. This is why it’s nice to have clients you work with over and over again. Especially those whose agenda you can anticipate… and who will listen to your input if you sense the strategy behind a product is weak.

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Copywriting Secrets Offers and Closes Writing Process

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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Copywriting Secrets Creativity Know Your Audience Offers and Closes Psychology Research Writing Style