Ego-Butter: How to Give a Copy Critique

redink.png I’ve gotten a few copy critiques in my day. I crave them, no matter how harsh, because that’s what makes the writing better.

I’ve also given a few copy critiques, too. And I’ve discovered that when I’m on the handler side of the red pen, there’s one essential element to making those recommendations more effective: “ego butter.”

Let me back up.

Some years ago, I was part of a conference call with a freelance copywriter. He’d been commissioned for a small job, which was tweaking the lift letter on a much larger, longer control (one I’d written, in fact).

Leading the call was friend and mentor o’ mine, the inimitable Michael Masterson. The letter was, well, weak. Michael took control of the call and made a series of what I thought were brilliant suggestions. We all concurred, except for the freelancer.

After the critique was over, the receiving end of the call went conspicuously silent. “Hello?” we said, thinking he’d slipped on a kumquat or something equally plausible.

“Mail it,” he said. “Mail it and see if it works? Then I’ll revise it.” Clearly, he was peeved. Not, dear reader, the protocol of a copywriter seeking much repeat business.

This guy, no matter how slighted by the review, clearly lost his cool. And with that, he also lost a repeat client. It was really too bad, because I distinctly remember plenty of high-paying work to go around. With some guys, there’s nothing you can do. Their skin is so thin, you could pop it with a tossed marshmallow.

But here’s the thing…

While I despised that copywriter’s behavior, it does occur to me now that, at some level I couldn’t help but sympathize.

See, while not all copywriters are the egoists and temperamental “artistes” like this guy might have been, there are reasons why — if you’re on the critiquing side of a creative exchange — you might want to take the writer’s position into consideration.

First, remember we’re only human. Remember too that good copywriters put a lot of work goes into what they produce. They spend a lot of time with it too.

By the time we’re finished the first draft, we’re connected with the result. In such a way that criticism — even the good kind — can’t help but set one back at least a little bit.

Again, if you’re a great writer and a smart one, you’ll take even the sharpest comments with a smile. But on the flip side, if you really want results from a hired gun copywriter, there’s a step you could take to get much better results. And it won’t cost you a dime.

Very simply, start with the positive. Not excessively so, not insincerely. But clearly and immediately.

Example: “I liked the headline. And oh wow, the typing was nice. And hey, is this scented paper? Nice touch. Now, let’s talk about your lead. I think I see a way to make it even stronger.”

Okay, of course I’m kidding here.

The point is, if the copy is salvageable, there’s something in it you like. Don’t save it for last. Talk about it up front. You can be honest about the stuff you don’t like to. But lower the resistance to your suggestions first.

Is that pandering? Perhaps.

But ask yourself, in any situation alike this, what’s the goal of the critique? Is it your aim only To toughen the writer’s skin… or are you out to get the best possible copy you can get?

The latter, I’d assume.

More

Help Wanted…

help wanted

Know WordPress? 

How about PHP? 

And anything else along those lines, for that matter. 

Because yours truly is looking for a little help. Yep, I’m hiring. Well… in a manner of speaking. Truthfully, what I’m most likely to do is go to one of the many excellent outsourcing sites I’ve seen (DoMyStuff.com, GetFriday, Yo

urManInIndia, etc.) and hire someone from there. 

But just in case you find it interesting, here’s what I’m looking for: This website needs tweaking. For instance, I’ve discovered that it’s programmed to crash Internet Explorer 6. Not intentionally so. But it’s successful at it nonetheless. 

It also has a strange stickiness to it that hangs on to some design changes I’d like to dump, even after I’ve tweaked them in the behind-the-scenes customization interface. And it “breaks” some features. Like the Archives, for instance (go ahead, click ’em… you won’t get anything, even though there’s a plug in set up to deliver archives that’s supposed to do the trick.)

Then there are the things I just don’t know how to do but would like to. Add in design pages that don’t have the sidebars and header. Have sales pages that I can link to but that remain hidden until they’re referenced in ads. Create a forum for you guys to poke around and chat with each other. Create a membership only paid part of the site where I can give away lots of extra goodies. Program in some SEO keywords, etc.

And so on.

So how about it? Anyone out there a closet programming whiz? Warning… since I can outsource a lot of this stuff fairly easily, I’m not looking to hire full-time or to spend a bundle. I just want to get a couple of repairs made so I can open up access to the site and increase the traffic. 

Drop a comment onto this article and it will get to me via email.

More

A Surprising Storytelling Secret

stories book.png I recently gave a Skype interview on how to use stories to make sales.

I’m sure you guys know, I’ve talked about this a few times in my weekly e-letter (see the sign up box on this page).

We even had a full chapter on it, in the book “Great Leads,” which I wrote with copy mentoring great, Michael Masterson.

(I swear to you — it’s *finally* going up on Amazon.com, sometime this week. I’ll get you a link as soon as there’s one available.)

I had a great time doing the interview. Enough that I kept thinking of things I wanted to add, long after finishing the call.

I’d just come across a few great tips, for instance, from a semi-surprising source (though not so surprising when you think about it): Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of the cartoon South Park.

Parker and Stone popped in on a freshman writing class at NYU –where yours truly also studied some screenwriting — to talk for a few minutes about how they keep their story ideas compelling.

One secret they offer is… get yourself a deadline. A hard, serious one that drives you. Stone and Parker write an episode per week. “We’ve got a scary deadline every Thursday morning.”

Another tip I’m sure you’ve heard before, which is to put your ideas out there quickly. Don’t wait until they’re fully baked. And when they get out there, make sure you’ve got a roomful of critics who understand they need shaping, rather than critics who will just shoot the idea down.

First ideas are rarely amazing.

And here’s the tip I like best. When you’re writing out a story to sell, to tell, or whatever… look for what writers call the “story beats.”

These are the spots where you plot twists and turns, the angles on which you frame an outline.

Once you have those beats, read through and see if you can put the phrase “and then” between each beat.

If you can… that’s a problem. Every “and then” is a moment where you could lose your reader (or viewer) to some distraction.

Better is writing that turns on the phrases “therefore” or “but.” That is, every moment in the story either forces the next one, creating continuity, or flips away from the last “beat” in a way that creates tension.

In selling, the stories you’re telling are usually short, just long enough to illustrate an idea or sneak in a proof or promise.

But this is a good way to think about your copy throughout, too. That is, is your sales letter just one long string of disconnected sales points? Or does it follow a flow that your reader can’t swim against?

And just when they think they know where you’re headed, are you waking them back up with a rhetorical explosion or “twist” of their expectations?

Something worth thinking about.

More

Brainstorming By the Rules

brainbolt.pngAlex Osborn, founder of a super-successful New York ad Agency and of the Creative Education Foundation, came up with a list of brainstorming “rules” in 1963:

No judgment in early stages: Collect as many ideas as possible without imposing criticism.

Encourage wild or stupid ideas: Don’t refuse to write anything on the board. You never know where it might lead.

Forbid discussion: This may seem counter-intuitive to old-school thinkers. What’s a meeting without talk, after all? But at the start of brainstorming, analysis is death. Wait until you have your long list of ideas, first.

Ban cynics: Early criticism of ideas guarantees you fewer good ideas overall. Anyone who can’t accommodate randomness of thought shouldn’t be there.

Make the process visible: Be sure to record the ideas as the come on a flipchart or board. They must be seen by the group to be useful.

Impose time limits: The pressure of the clock helps ideas to flow more quickly, spontaneously. 30 minutes is good.

These rules aren’t easy to keep. But they worked for Osborn and
thousands of others, from copywriters to politicians to engineers. Systems
work if you give ‘em a chance.

More

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.

More

How To Get Started

startinglineI got a note from a reader who aspires to a copywriting career and wanted to know how best to get started. You can imagine, I get that question a lot. Here was my reply:

1) Keep on reading the Copywriter’s Roundtable!

2) Get some books on copywriting and study them. See the attached past issues.

3) Get on the mailing list of companies you think you could write for (your areas of interest and expertise).

4) Study those sales letters they send you too (the ones that make you want to buy, copy out by hand 3X).

5) Contact one of the companies (the marketing director or product manager, if you can find them).

6) Offer to write a sales letter “on spec” — which means they pay you if they like it.

7) Keep doing that until you have a portfolio of letters and some regular clients who hire you often.

Starting local is a good idea. Or can be. Businesses use sales letters and brochures to sell to other businesses (this is “B2B” copywriting) and then there’s the business to consumer market (“B2C”).

There’s also non-profit, but that can be a slow and less lucrative beginning. Better to get into that later, after honing your skills.

Look to the field you’re already working in, too. If you’ve been focusing on something in particular, you’re no doubt pretty knowledgeable about the products and the customers you service. Maybe enough that you could write marketing copy for that niche..

Of course, companies with information products, software companies, computer equipment companies, publishing companies… can all be good places to start.

You want to use each job as leverage to get your next assignment. And try to make each assignment that you get a little larger and more ambitious than the last.  

The more knowledge you get, start offering to give talks for companies and communities on how to use good copy to increase sales… and let people know, after the speech, that you’re a provider of those services.

 Find a good graphic designer (with direct mail experience, preferably) and form a “team” where you each try to bring in the other as part of new jobs. 

Again, you’re sure to have some hurdles in the beginning. And you need to expect to take at least six months to a year… maybe even just a little longer… to get good enough at this and established enough to make it a real career.

 Like anything worthwhile, you WILL need to put in the hours and be dedicated. But you can certainly learn how to do this, if you put in the time. 

More

“Need to Tell” vs. “Want to Tell”

In marketing copy, “need to know” is the info your prospect has to hear to help him have a better life and, you hope, to decide to buy.

Perversely though, it’s often the “want-to-know” info that has more pulling power.

That is, you’re your prospect has emotional interests that drive him toward things that may not be essential to his well being, but that he wants to know more about anyway.

Put your finger on the latter and you’ve got an extra edge when formulating your pitch

On the writer’s side of the fence, however, it occurs to me there’s another dynamic dilemma, similar in name but not in nature. It’s the difference between “need to TELL” information and “want to TELL” information.

It goes like this…

“Need to tell” describes what the copywriter can’t leave out of the copy. Because without it, the message just ain’t compelling enough to seal the deal. So what’s “want to tell?”

It’s the stuff that the copywriter WANTS to jam into the sales copy somewhere… but might not need to. By this, I mean the jokes and puns, the clever subheads and lengthy anecdotes, the extra trivia… typically the kind of extras that satisfy the writer’s ego, but don’t do much for the reader.

Dumping a gut full of “want to tell” copy onto the page can feel cathartic.

It can make you feel smart. It can make you sound funny or witty or clever. But it’s no way to sell.

How do you know when you’re “over-telling?” Take a red pen (or your delete key) and go back over the copy, reading it aloud. Look at it visually on the page too. Are there points where you hear or see yourself making the same case over and over again? How about your proof of the main message in the headline?

Usually, three strong proof sections will do the trick. Much more than that and you’re just showing off. Take a look at what you’re promising too. Offers with lots of things to give the prospect can be fine, just make sure you’re not over-compensating by throwing in the kitchen sink. At a certain point, that can make your product seem cheap rather than valuable.

Look too for personal anecdotes, inside jokes and puns, and passages jammed full of exclamation points or florid, hyped-up descriptions. Copy can be aggressive and excited and still work very well. Sometimes extremely well. But not when there’s nothing substantial under the fluff. These sections can also go.

The bottom line is, you know when you’re working hard to get something into the copy because you “just like it” vs. when you know that the copy will fail if that particular bit isn’t included. Arm yourself with the Hemingway principle: “When in doubt, cut it out.”

More

7 MORE Ways to Thank Your Customers Like You Mean It

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

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

Sure, why not.

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

(And numbered accordingly…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one more…

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

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

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

So there you go.

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

And isn’t that where you want to be?

More

Surprising Psychology Secrets for Marketers

psychbrainWhat’s more persuasive, email or face-to-face communication?

Per a UK psychology study published on this fascinating British psychology blog, gender roles make a difference. So does the level of familiarity. Friends can persuade us more easily, generally, than strangers.

But when familiarity levels are low, email is more persuasive for men than it is for women. And when familiarity levels are high? Women still react better to face-to-face interaction. At least, better than men.

But overall, you get your best results when “oneness” levels are highest.

“Oneness” is simply the idea that the better you feel you know someone, the more doing something for them feels about as good as it does doing the same for yourself.

 The researchers tested this by giving two test groups a set of personality tests.

In one group, the results were faked so participants would believe they shared identical personalities to fellow test-takers. In the other, the faked results showed a vast difference in personality types.

 After the test, the participants were asked to try to convince one of their test-taking counterparts of different assigned arguments. In the “like” personality group, persuasion was a breeze. Between dissimilar types, not so much.

 If I had to tie this back to the email or face-to-face question, I’d say that — at the very least — this confirms what a lot of us have already suspected. Which is that, the more you build that personal connection, often the better your results.

Especially in business-to-consumer marketing.

From the same psychology blog, want to persuade a group that your opinion is actually the majority opinion?

Turns out that all you might have to do is repeat that opinion at least three times. Doing just that, it can have 90% of the same effect as three other people voicing the same stance. For marketers, this just underscores another accepted truism: there’s value in repetition.

If you’ve got a key message and you’re writing long copy, especially, look for more than one way to express that point. Not so the meaning changes, but so that it’s fresh and easy to absorb each time. Same goes for reinforcing your big benefit. Come back to it naturally in the copy, throughout, when you can.

Speaking of psychology tricks, here’s a set of some insights a little more for the “useless but interesting” file.

First, try this: do the following math quickly in your head… 2+2, 4+4, 8+8, 16+16. Done? Good.

Now QUICK pick a number between 12 and 5. Great. You picked the number 7.

Weird, isn’t it? No, I don’t know why it works.

Here’s another one: What is 1+5? 2+4? 3+3? 4+2? 5+1? Now say the number “6” as many times as you can over the next 10 seconds. Done? Boy, you follow directions well. Now QUICK… name a vegetable. 

Was it a… carrot?

Only 2% of those tested this way ever say otherwise.

No, I can’t explain that one either.

More

Why Only Some People Are “Creative”

homer.jpg On D-Day, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops pulled off the largest invasion in history, forcing their way into Nazi-occupied Europe.

Strategy was key. So was equipment.

But the real mettle of the moment came from the soldiers staging the invasion.

This included, naturally, pilots who had to navigate a sky thick with German anti-aircraft fire.

Long before the invasion, military strategists knew this would happen. They also knew they needed top-notch fliers.

At first, they tried using intelligence tests to pick candidates. But intelligence alone as an indicator turned out to be useless in determining which pilots would be inventive enough, in a tight situation, not just to save themselves but also to save their airplanes.

Creative cognitive ability, it turned out, was only partly connected with smarts. Around the same time, a psychologist from the University of Southern California identified the crucial difference between convergent and divergent thinking.

Convergent thinking is the kind we’re used to on I.Q. tests and in math and science textbooks. It’s a way to find the single, logical, and usually most orthodox solution to a problem.

Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is more widely cast. It searches many routes, finds many solutions, and then might settle on one or the other depending on what the situation dictates.

The best fighter pilots, not so surprisingly, were those more adept at divergent thinking. When the context required, creative survival tactics prevailed.

So if it’s not IQ that matters, what is it that makes one person a convergent thinker and another person a divergent or more creative thinker?

Another study reported in Scientific American relates the story of a 43-year old art teacher in San Francisco. For most of her life, she had been a painter. She even took a job teaching art later in life.

But suddenly, she could no longer do her job. Lesson plans confused her. She couldn’t grade projects. When she could no longer remember her student’s names, she retired and took her troubles to a neurologist.

He did a brain scan and found dementia damage to her frontal and temporal lobes, mostly on the left side of her brain.

The teacher gradually lost some speech abilities. She also lost some control of herself in social situations, both of which are common with this kind of neuron damage.

But something else happened.

As her inhibitions in public waned, her creative powers grew. Her art grew more prolific, emotional, and expressive.

The neurologist dug deep into research on the disorder and found others who also had new bursts of creativity after the damage had set in, even in some who had never before been artistic or considered themselves “creative” before.

What’s this mean? No, I’m not saying that a little brain damage is something to hope for if you want to up your creativity.

But I’m sure you heard, by now, you’ve heard that there are “right-brained” and “left-brained” people. The idea is that “left-brained” people are the type you’d expect to find at, say, your accounting firm’s Christmas party.

“Right-brained” people, on the other hand, tend to be more artistic and possibly a little eccentric or scattered. Like, say, the bulk of ex-poets and actors working the tables at your local coffee shop.

Like most generalizations, this isn’t quite right.

While many of us have a bias in either creative or rational powers, the fact is that most people have both halves of their brain kicking into gear most of the time.

On the left-side, we’re processing details and performing convergent thinking. On the right side, we’re applying abstract associations between details, the work of divergent thinking.

Stroke patients who lose power on the left side of their brains tend to lose logic and language, but may suddenly become more creative. Patients who suffer right-side damage may be seem creative but also might seem more uninhibited or scattered.

The good news is that both left and right brain can work together to produce a result that’s both logical AND creative.

Take Einstein. Certainly, he had incredible powers of logic and process. He did the math, just as it had been done before he came along. But he also made the leap to creativity, finding new mathematical associations nobody else had recognized before.

Here’s the better news…

While few of us want a touch of neuron damage… and almost none of us, surely, were born an Einstein…

There actually ARE ways you can increase your creative function. And many of them simply have to do with channeling the filtering function of your left-brain.

One very simple way is just to keep reminding yourself to approach most moments in your life with curiosity.

Another is to consistently reset your attitudes toward convention. That is, simply repeat to yourself that the way things have always been done is not necessarily the way the always have to be done.

There there’s what researchers call “detail fermentation.” That’s a fancy way of saying, “do your homework.” It’s also the explanation I typically give when I tell people I don’t believe in “writer’s block.”

That is, when you fill your mind with facts and data and details relevant to the ideas you’re trying to create, the more likely you are to succeed at creating them.

Somehow, satisfying the left brain’s hunger for logic and process first… allows it to relax and let the right brain step in to find the overall creative associations between those details.

Einstein did this while searching for “E=MC2.” For years, he studied not just physics and mathematics, but astronomy and philosophy and other fields too.

So the next time you’re feeling like a failure creatively, before you give up try this tapping into this technique instead: Stop, drop, and study.

Dig into the facts and materials you have to work with. Then, and only then, see if the bigger and better ideas come.

More