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Resolutions for Copywriters

What’s the best thing you can do during uncertain times?

According to billionaire Warren Buffet and plenty of others, the thing to do when everything else is at a lull is work on yourself.

Constant renewal, in other words.

And per Aristotle, what you’ll want to do is adopt the habits of virtue. Walk the path.

I’m sure you’ve already got your list of resolutions revved up and ready to go. Among them, no doubt… your pledge to drop those extra pounds, stop sleeping next to your iPhone, and stop not using your exercise bike… or maybe at least swearing to get that exercise bike so you can stop making excuses to stop not using it.

But just in case you need some career-related pledges for the coming year, try these:

 1. Around the clock, make curiosity a habit.  Ask questions.

2. Every morning, read one piece of direct mail.

3. Every day, have a set time for writing.  Never deviate from it.
4. At least twice a week, study the latest marketing results.
5. By the end of this month, teach yourself the basics of good story-telling.
6. Within six months, do everything you can to get a mentor.
7. Always seek out your critics.  They’ll teach you much more than your fans ever could.

Naturally, the list could be longer. But even those seven, you might find daunting. If that’s the case just take them on one at a time.   Whatever you do, though, don’t wait to get started.  And don’t cheat yourself by setting goals that are vague, unrealistic, or under-ambitious.

With all that said, Happy 2013!


The Chemistry of Persuasion

Your new sales goal:  To make your prospect’s blood gush with “oxytocin.”

 What is oxytocin?

 An article in the New York Times reported on recent “neuroeconomic” research from top U.S. institutions.  (Princeton and a few other places.) So before I explain oxytocin, let’s take a crack at explaining neuroeconomics first.

What “neuroeconomists” aim to do is pick apart the brain and see how its biochemistry influences buying behavior. In the first of the experiments reported in the article, here was the setup:

 Imagine you have $10 in hand. Your responsibility is to convince another participant in the experiment to take all or some of your money. In any dollar increment you offer. Sounds easy?

Not so fast…

You have one chance to “sell” him on the amount you offer.  If the other participant (let’s call him the ‘prospect’) accepts, he keeps whatever amount he’s accepted.  And you get to keep whatever is left.

 (Example: You offer him $1.  If he takes it, you keep $9.  You offer him $7.  If he takes it, you keep $3).

 However… if, for any reason, the customer says no to your offer… you’re both out of luck.  You both get zero. Researchers expected an obvious outcome:  The ‘prospect’ would take whatever cash came his way.  Something, they figured, was better than nothing.  But apparently not.

See, when the guy with the money — let’s call him the “salesman” — tried to minimize his losses by making a low-ball offer… in most cases, the “customer” simply said no. And then it got even more complicated.

In the first variation of this seller-prospect experiment, the researchers wanted to see if they could predict which offers would ‘turn off’ the prospect. They used conventional brain imaging technology (MRIs, etc.)… and saw that, each time a “no” was coming, the prospect registered brain activity in exactly the same spot where the brain registers “disgust.”

 (Clean a garbage can, register disgust.  Get an offer you don’t like, ditto.)

 They they tried making a chemical measurement, with blood tests. Oxytocin was now among eight other hormones researchers looked for in the blood stream. Now, you say, you promised to explain what that is. And so I shall…

Oxytocin, according to some, is nature’s “love drug.”

It’s a neuropeptide your brain makes when you’re locked into a long-term relationship that you’re trying to make last. It’s also a hormone detected in animals when they’re with other animals they trust.

 Oxytocin is also a social bonding hormone in humans.  It flushes through the blood stream and gives you that feeling of relaxation you get when you know you’re among friends and, presumably, you also know you don’t have to keep your hand on your wallet.

But the researchers didn’t stop there.

They added another twist to the experiment. This time, each participant had something of value to exchange.  Each person started the game with an extra $10. (You can see the parallel to a real sale more obviously now — both seller and prospect have something valuable the other wants).

 So imagine yourself in the lab, under the microscope. This time around, your goal is almost the same. You offer the prospect something of value (cash) and hope he’ll take it. Only this time, if your customer likes the offer, he can accept… he’ll get THREE TIMES what you offered… and, out of that, he can also choose to give something back to you.

 You might expect that you’d end up forking over your dough… making your prospect rich… but imagine he might not reciprocate the gesture. After all, you offered.  He accepted.  More cash for him.  And now it was time to hit the racetrack, yes?

But here’s what surprised the researchers. Once again, it didn’t pay off for the ‘seller’ to play his offer to the bone.  Low offers brought low acceptance rates and, it followed, low paybacks. But high offers actually resulted in high rewards for both.  What’s more, when the offer coming from the seller had a high perceived value, oxytocin levels in the prospect’s bloodstream were ALSO high.

 The point is, the higher the perceived value of whatever your offering is… the easier it is (usually) to make a sale.

 Why do I say “usually” and not “always?”

 Certainly, we’ve seen times when the promise is so ridiculously large that it has the opposite impact.  Trust levels plummet again, credibility goes out the window, and the sale is lost. Still, if you’ve ever had a hard time convincing a client that you need a BIG, CREDIBLE PROMISE to make your sales pitch complete… maybe this research will help you coax him or her over the line.

 (And believe me, all kinds of clients will want to toe that line.  For the sake of humility.  The sake of modesty.  Fear of lawyers.  Whatever reason.  But you’ve got to push them to make an offer prospects want to hear.  It’s your best chance at sales success).

 How big should that promise be, exactly? Big enough.

 Any questions?


Why Simple Writing Works Better

Someone once asked me…

Why I would, so often…

(At least in copy)…

Use so many…

One-line sentences…

And so many… well… of these things: “…”

Of course, the above is exaggerated.

But there’s no getting around it…

Many copywriters really do use a lot of one-line paragraphs.

Or even one word sentences.


Let’s explain using a demonstration.

Let’s imagine you are reading, say, an ezine that you happen to subscribe to. Much like the Copywriter’s Roundtable, in fact. You have noted quietly to yourself, in those deep, dark hours of the night when you lie in bed thanking the heavens for all good things, that something about said e-zine has changed.

For some reason, the e-zine editor has lost the key marked “return” on his keyboard.

Now all his paragraphs are long, even formidable, having gone from one line, two lines, or even the occasional three to five lines, all the way up to ten lines, twelve lines, or God forbid, entire pages of lines with no visual break wherefore you might rest thy eyes and, for heaven’s sake, take a little ocular breather now and again; something essential when you set out to read vast tomes that present weighty ideas, especially those limited — as most text today usually is — to black print on white for the bulk of the message (I’m sure you can imagine; it’s no pleasant affair, and only compounded if the same said author has also lost his key marked “.” as well.

See what’s happened?

My guess is that you had to go back and read that a couple times just to stay with the thread. You may even have gone back once to check whether — yes — it’s all one long and rambling sentence. How easy for you is that to read? I’ll guess again — not very.

Of course, there are lots of writers who live for that long, unwieldy style. Many of them work for law firms and city government. But even a few famous fiction writers love to get away with long sentences, uninterrupted by something so plebian as punctuation or manual line breaks.

Take author Jonathan Coe, who pounded out a 13,955 word sentence in his 2001 novel “The Rotter’s Club.” Then there’s the Polish novel with the translated title, “Gates of Paradise,” which includes a 40,000 word sentence. If you’re really a glutton for punishment, go for the Czech novel that’s one sentence start to finish.

Copywriters — the good ones — just don’t do things that way.

For one, it’s just too tough to read big blocks of text. They look foreboding on the page.

So we opt instead for smaller lines, shorter sentences randomly interspersed, and tight punchy ideas… because they let readers breathe while reading. They also don’t slow readers down. And can even egg a reader onward, because it doesn’t look so difficult, then, to take in “just one more line”… “and one more”… until he’s finished reading the column, the page, the promotion.

The biggest reason, of course, is that writing mostly in short, compact lines mimics the way we speak. And good copy almost always wants to sound as close as possible to the way we speak. To see what I mean, try taping your next conversation. Or read plays and screenplays. Listen to the dialogue in a (good) movie.

In copy, it’s often the same.

When the writing is breezy, uncomplicated and conversational, it also feels more accessible. But when it’s cursed by big fat blocks of text and sentences choked with dependent clauses, long paragraphs that are grammatically perfect but dense, readers can get scared off in a hurry.

To sum up:

* Please DO use line breaks in your copy. And your emails. And your blogs, ezines, plus anything else you want to have that “easy-to-read” feel.

* Please DO use those breaks judiciously. Sometimes with a one-liner. Sometimes with three lines. And yeah, sure, sometimes for a five-line heifer. But rarely more.

* Be sure, too, to vary the blocks so you’ve got some long. Some short. But with no discernible (distracting) predictability.

* Remember how you learned, back in school, to always present your paragraphs as “thesis, body, conclusion?” Yeah, well… don’t do that. Learn it, but then avoid it most of the time. At least in copy.

* Instead, imagine a strand of thread stitched through each paragraph block. Even the one-liner visual breaks. Just as you look to jump that white gap between paragraphs, ask yourself… “Where am I going to put my next stitch?”

* Remember how teacher told you never to start sentences with “but,” “because,” or “and?” Forget that too. At least some of the time. In real conversation, we break this rule often.

* If you’ve ever looked longingly at your “;” key, purge that urge right now. Really. It’s not recommended. And back the dependent clause habit as well. You’re usually better off clipping each sentence at a single idea. Then starting the next sentence where you left off.

* What else? One or two word questions are a nice way, sometimes, to egg your reader onward.

* Beware of format when you make your paragraph breaks. Too many one-liners in succession, for instance, look funny in a two or three column layout. Equally, a three-line paragraph in a letter becomes a very long block when you go to columns. If you can mark up a post-production draft, scan for lines that need re-breaking.

* A freebie: Line-breaks count in headlines and subheads too. Visually, you want one or two lines. Three at most. Usually of equal length, but do try to start new lines with verbs, numbers, or otherwise alluring bits of text. Never with throwaway words.

Sound about right?

Let’s hope so.


The Transubstantiation of a Cheeseburger

bigmacSometime back, I read the book “Fast Food Nation.”

In many places, the book is the anti-junk diatribe I expected. And it also takes pain to reveal secret histories of two American icons, McDonald’s and Disney, that are none too flattering.

However, the part where we learn how both Walt Disney and Ray Kroc found their footing in the American mindset actually left me a little more impressed than it did disgusted.


 For one thing, both never went to college. Both served in the same ambulance corps during World War II. Both could have prickly personalities. And both could be ruthless in business. But even the author of the book had to admit, both had built something out of nothing. And they did it in ways you and I could learn from.

For instance, Kroc famously got his ideas for the McDonald’s franchise while selling milkshake machines to local restaurants. And Disney got his idea for Mickey Mouse while using a garage for an art studio, since he couldn’t afford to rent a real one.

 Lots of us have ideas. Some that could set the world on fire. What’s rare is making the ideas into reality. And what’s even more rare is taking the small ideas and making them into something very large. 

 One way Disney pulled it off was by virtually inventing product placement in movies and around his theme parks. Nobody else had thought to do that until Walt suggested it. Now it’s common practice.

Something else Walt did was figure out how to build a groundswell anticipation for the “magic” of Disneyland. He even turned the building of the park into a weekly show that broadcast progress updates on how the park was coming together.

 By the time he was done, Mickey and Donald and Goofy — formerly just ink on animation cells — had taken shape in people’s minds as living, breathing characters. With a home of their own, in Disneyland. A place you could visit yourself. You could become part of the fantasy.

 All from a little idea. 

McDonald’s tried to do something similar. He wasn’t just another guy with a shop that made hamburgers. He tried to give his product personality, first with “Speedy the Cheeseburger” which then became “Archie McDonald” and, finally, the “Ronald McDonald” we know today (who, by the way, was originally a character invented by and played by famous weatherman Willard Scott, then deemed “too fat” to continue in the role).

Ronald McDonald, for better or worse, is more recognizable worldwide today than images of Jesus Christ. So say the marketing studies. And more than 90% of children in the U.S. can recognize the ‘golden arches’ before they can recognize their own names written on a page. (Certainly, our children can… and we try not to go there too often.)

Did McDonald’s commercials target kids? They did, alas. But at least they knew how to hit the audience… with tales of “McDonaldland,” a magical place where presumably cholesterol isn’t an issue and french fries don’t make you fat, and which prospered under the able and benevolent dictatorship of “Mayor McCheese.”

 The point: Love or hate what these two businesses have become, you can’t help but soak up the lesson: Both Kroc and Disney intuitively realized that the bigger the aura they could give their product, the bigger the space it could claim in the minds and hearts of the customers.

In other words, sometimes a cheeseburger — or a mouse or anything else — can be more than just that.



Imagine If Everyone “Sold” This Way…

* Republished from Nov. 2008, because… property markets might be looking a little more “up” these days, but… remember when? Enjoy…

While my wife and I were Stateside recently, we went to see a piece of property. Just for fun. As disclosed in the ad, the place in need of some tender loving care (TLC). But the neighborhood was right… and maybe, we thought, it would work as a rental property.

 So my wife got the broker on the phone. Sure, we could schedule a walk through, they said. Whenever. I’ll bet. After all, in many markets, real estate has seriously backpedaled from the boom of years past.

 Newly minted property brokers all over the U.S. got their licenses expecting to flip hundreds of properties a month. Instead, suddenly, they find themselves spending more time waiting for the phone to ring, and honing their skills in solitaire.

 “Hi there!” said the agent, lighting up as we drove up to the property with two babies and my mother along for the ride.

 “Listen,” she told us, “before we go in, I have to tell you that we’ve had at least 50 people see this place in the last 20 days… it’s going to move fast. I just wanted to warn you.”

 Ah yes, I thought, create urgency. She’s off to a running start. But given what we were about to see, it might as well have been a sprint into the Grand Canyon.

 “It’s been empty for awhile.”

 No kidding. The wafting sent of rotting carpet was unmistakable. The curious brown stains on the walls, on the other hand, I couldn’t place. And I’m not sure I’d want to, either.

“Sorry about the cold,” said the agent, “the utilities were turned off when the previous owners vacated the property about a year ago.”

 “Wait,” said my wife, “is that an abandoned car out back in the driveway? It looks like it’s jammed with junk.”

 “And this container of cream in the fridge…” I said, as I peeled the carton from a puddle of black muck that held it to the glass shelf, “does that expiration date really say ‘JULY 2005?'”

 “Um…” said the agent, “yes, well, I’ll have to look into it a little more for you. I only know attorneys are handling the sale. I think it’s a question of mental unsoundness.”

 Yeah, I thought, maybe the prior resident went nuts after the poltergeists put up this wallpaper. In one room after another, it became clear. The place was a dump. Had Charles Manson and friends been looking for a hideaway, they would have filed this one under “too spooky” to take up residence.

 “It’s really priced to sell,” said the agent, clinging to her chipper-ness as best she could. “They’re looking for a cash deal.”

 “Mind if we go see the bodies… er, I mean… the basement first?” said my wife. “Sure,” said the broker, looking for the door heading downstairs. It was clear she, too, had spent as little time in this place as possible.

 The best selling point was, perhaps, how easy it was to get the front door open again so we could step outside.

 “They’re looking to do this quickly, without all the contingencies. You know, like a house inspection and stuff.”

 I took a glimpse at one of the windowsills on the outside of the back porch. It was half-eaten by termites.

 “So,” I said, “just in general terms… how’s the market around here lately? Moving fast?”

 “Oh, the slowdown isn’t really hitting us at all,” she said. “We’re seeing demand and prices still going up.”

 “Yeah? Interesting. I’m writing a promo right now for a financial advisor who’s looking at the real estate bust… so I’m seeing lots of these stats myself… how do sales this past year compare, number-wise, with the year prior.”

 “I’d have to email those numbers to you,” she said. And less than an hour after we bid our goodbyes, she did. “Here you go…” said her email, “…and it looks like 2006 was even better than 2005!”


 My father, a semi-retired attorney, had a different set of trend figures from a real estate agent he’d helped out some years ago. Out of seven or eight zip codes, only one saw a 1% increase in property prices in 2006. Another stayed flat. The rest had plunged by 11%… 20%… even as much as 29%.

 And here’s the funny thing.

 The ghost house alone was enough to convince us something had turned sour in the property market. But what is it that really sticks in my craw now, a week or so later?

 The reflex clichés, the lack of key information, and the wobbly statistics coughed up by the market-challenged sales agent.

 I couldn’t help thinking… there IS a way to sell that property. But this wasn’t it. Re-price it for the market and to reflect the condition of the place. And then, heaven forbid, educate the broker to sell it for what it is — weakness, warts, and well-buried merits combined.

 Could you imagine if everybody sold that way?


What’s Your Best Offer?

“Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry,” Donald Trump once said, “I like making deals. Preferably big ones.” And indeed, coming up with appealing deals and powerful offers can be an art form unto itself. 

Luckily for those of us who aren’t “The Donald,” there are formulas on how to do it. And books that lay out the formulas in simple yet thorough detail. One, for instance, is “Cash Copy” by Dr. Jeffrey Lant.

As an example, you could build any number of deals using Lant’s most basic premium offer formula, which goes something like this: Successful Premium Offer = FREE + limited time + stated real benefit

But you can get even more fancy, with impressive results. Here are some of the offer structures Lant suggests, followed by details on how marketers might use them… along with added details on how to apply them directly in sales copy:

 Offer Type #1: The Tension Buster

 Challenge: By the time your prospect gets to the sales close, what’s he worried about?  He wants to know if (a) You can solve his problems the way you say you can and (b) If you can’t, can he get his money back.

Marketer’s Solution:  Money-back guarantees are standard fare for all kinds of product offers.  Trial samples work here, too. Personally, I prefer strong guarantees to weak ones.  Clients sometimes fear a flood of refund requests.  But when you’re working with good products and honest sales promises, that shouldn’t be as much of a problem… right?

 Copywriter’s Technique: I usually push for  the strongest guarantee possible.  See if you can get permission to offer 100% of money back, even 110% back for dissatisfied customers.  For the extra 10%, maybe you could tally that up in the form of freebies the refunded customer gets to keep. Make it look substantial too.  Certificate borders help.  So can signatures and a photo next to your guarantee copy.  Also, try putting a strong testimonial in your P.S. or on your reply device.

Offer Type #2: The “Instant Gratification” Deal

Challenge: Immediate action-takers want immediate results.  They want to see the benefits as soon as possible after deciding to buy. 

Marketer’s Solution: Bill-me-later options, installment payments, and trial offers can help scratch the “instant-satisfaction” itch.

Copywriter’s Technique: Emphasize ease of ordering and speed of deliver, with simple phrases like: “You pay nothing up front.  Just let me know where to send your trial sample, and I’ll rush it to your mailbox.”  Tell the customer what they’ll get and, if possible, when.

Offer Type #3: The Coupon-Clipper’s Delight

Challenge: Even with good copy and a good product, sticker-shock can be a problem.

Marketer’s Solution: Quantity offers, limited-time offers, and trade-in deals are a good way to show prospects that they’re getting a good deal.

Copywriter’s Technique:  Emphasize the discount with call out boxes.  Do the math in $$ if the savings is a percentage discount. In the body of the sales close, try showing the cost and efficiency of your product compared to similar, more expensive products. If you can make the offer time-limited, do so.  And put that deadline in a callout-box on the reply page too.  Or another device: Try emphasizing the savings by creating a “price-off” coupon that gets sent back in along with the reply card.

Offer Type #4: The Ticking Timer

Challenge: If you don’t get immediate action on a sales decision, you probably won’t get the sale at all.

Marketer’s Solution:  Seasonal offers have a natural time limit.  But contrived time limits can work just as well.  The “speed-reply” bonus is also a common device.

Copywriter’s Technique: If there’s a limit on the number of customers who can sign up, write about it.  Give specifics. For example: “Frankly, after these 2,000 slots are filled, I’m going to have to close the doors.  If I don’t hear from you by then, you’ll be turned away. I’ll have no choice.  Which is why I hope to hear from you soon..” Emphasize benefits that a prospect sacrifices by waiting too long. Fax and toll-free ordering can be used to help speed up orders too:  “If you want to get started immediately, call or fax your order to…”

Offer Type #5: The EZ Offer

Challenge: Even eager customers can get confused by complex order forms, missing BREs, elaborate information requests, and worse.

Marketer’s Solution: Multiple ways to place an order help. Though, more than three options (fax, phone, mail… or… phone,

mail, e-mail) is probably too much.  These days, the ability to take orders around the clock is a big plus.

Copywriter’s Technique: Try numbering the steps: “(1) Fill out this invitation below, (2) Put it in the envelope provided (3) Drop it in your mailbox.” Add this phrase here and there too: “It’s that simple.” And if you’ve got the leisure of a toll-free number, be sure to put it where the prospect can see it.  Make it large.  Make it easy to find.  And put it on every piece in the envelope.

Offer Type #6: The Private Deal

Challenge: People like to feel like they’re getting privileges. “In a world where everyone is as important as everyone else,” says Lant, “people are dying to feel more important than everyone else.”

Marketer’s Solution: Create limited editions, clubs, and “societies.”  Frequent-flier miles and favored customer incentives work on this principal too.

Copywriter’s Technique: Use design to make the invitation look exclusive.  Write in “whispered” tones.  The reply device could be constructed like a real “R.S.V.P.” document. When you start the sales close, make sure you summarize the benefits in the form of privileges for exclusive invitees.

Offer Type $7: The Bachelor’s Offer

Challenge: Some people fear commitment.

Marketer’s Solution: See above for talk about “no-money-down” offers.  But for real fence sitters, consider collecting contact details for future use.  E-mail is great for this.  Give non-committal free information up front.  Then use regular contact to deepen the relationship and set the groundwork for a future sale.

Copywriter’s Technique: Here’s where emphasizing freebies can come in handy.  Especially if there’s little or no other commitment. But remember, it’s not worthwhile if (a) the freebie has no benefit to the prospect and (b) you fail to collect personal information for future contact.

A caveat, says Lant, is that “‘Free’ by itself is almost never the strongest possible offer you can make.” However, he recommends, when you’ve got a really strong offer — no matter what kind it is — one of the best things you can do is bring it out right up front.

 Added evidence — many of the most successful direct mail letters of all time lead with a strong sales offer right in the headline or on the first page. By the way, Lant himself credits another old friend of the CR with some of the best insights in his “offer” chapter — our prolific pal Bob Bly, author of the all-time classic “The Copywriter’s Handbook.” 

Pick up a copy if you haven’t already.