funny-dog-pictures-expect-believeAny copy­writer worth a darn has heard of WIIFM — What’s In It For Me. Every prospec­tive cus­tomer is con­stantly ask­ing that ques­tion and copy that fails to pro­vide a com­pelling answer, well, fails.

But prospec­tive cus­tomers want to know more than just WIIFM, they want to know What’s In It For You (or WIIFY)?  In other words, why are you offer­ing me such a good deal?  What do you get out of it?

WIIFM grabs atten­tion, but WIIFM with­out cred­i­bil­ity comes off as a scam.  You could be lit­er­ally mail­ing peo­ple $100 bills free of charge and get no con­ver­sions, because peo­ple can’t pos­si­bly see the upside for you.  The more the deal sounds too good to be true, the more the copy has to answer WIIFY, typ­i­cally in the form of “How we can afford to sell at these prices.” And per­haps the great­est exam­ple of WIIFY is the leg­endary “Frus­trated Con­trac­tor” letter.

2010-10-25_1605Writ­ten by John Young for Jim Abrams’ HVAC com­pany, the direct mail sales let­ter made both of them rich and has since been used by every every sin­gle HVAC busi­ness in the US and cred­ited with pro­duc­ing $1 bil­lion in HVAC sales. What does it say? Well, you can down­load a cur­rent ver­sion of the let­ter — still in use — here. But the short answer is that it head­lines with WIFFM and then imme­di­ately switches to WIFFY.

In other words, the let­ter promises to sell the cus­tomer a brand new, high-end fur­nace and A/C unit for thou­sands less than nor­mal price — so long as the cus­tomer buys in the win­ter. Why?  Because HVAC guys are busy in the sum­mer but unable to keep their employ­ees busy in the win­ter, cre­at­ing frus­trated busi­ness­men watch­ing their installers get paid to sit around watch­ing day-time TV. Prospects get a great deal (WIIFM) and con­trac­tors move some inven­tory dur­ing the slow sea­son while keep­ing their guys busy (WIIFY).

Vari­a­tions on the let­ter will also men­tion the owner hav­ing ordered or been left with too many HVAC sys­tems in inven­tory and the need to clear them out, etc. But the point is that the letter’s sounds-too-good-to-be-true offer gained cred­i­bil­ity in the eyes of the prospect by address­ing WIIFY — what was in it for the contractor.

How This Applies to Branding

used-car-guyThe prob­lem with WIFFY as it is applied to sales let­ters and event adver­tis­ing is that the level of your cred­i­bil­ity is often tied to a pass­ing or sea­sonal dynamic. To use an exam­ple from the Robert Col­lier Let­ter Book, a cloth­ier was able to offer incred­i­ble prices on Madras Shirts because the mill was all-but out of busi­ness and sold it’s inven­tory of shirt­ing fab­ric at once-in-a-lifetime prices. Obvi­ously, that’s a mes­sage you can only get away with say­ing once, oth­er­wise you look like the cheesey car lot guys who hype inven­tory clear­ance sales on a year-round basis.

Brand­ing requires a WIIFY that retains rel­e­vance and cred­i­bil­ity today, tomor­row, next year, etc. That could be a new tech­nol­ogy, a direct to the con­sumer pric­ing model, or the like. But that doesn’t do you too much good as a copy­writer. Either a client has a legit­i­mate com­pet­i­tive edge — and is likely already adver­tis­ing it — or not.

So what to do?

Noth­ing Says Your WIFFY Has to Be Economic

As an exam­ple, here’s an ad fea­tured in Roy Williams’ recent Mon­day Morn­ing Memo:

When I was seven years old, I held my father’s head in my hands as he took his last breath and died. A thing like that stays with you. It helps you under­stand that rela­tion­ships – peo­ple – are what life’s all about.You gotta tell’em you love’em. This is J.R. Dunn. So now you know why I became a jew­eler. Fine jew­elry is one of the ways we tell peo­ple we love’em. When I got older and fell head-over-heals for Ann Marie, the love of my life, I didn’t have enough money to buy her an engage­ment ring. She mar­ried me any­way. Go fig­ure. But I can promise you this: If you’re think­ing of get­ting engaged to the love of your life, come to J.R. Dunn Jew­el­ers in Light­house Point. No one in Florida, no one in Amer­ica, is going to give you a bet­ter engage­ment ring for your money than me. One of the great joys of my life is to make it pos­si­ble for guys to give the woman they love the dia­mond she deserves. There was nobody there for me when I needed an engage­ment ring. But I promiseI’ll be there for you.”

Do you think this ad pro­vides the lis­tener with a WIFFY?

2010-10-25_1319Of course it does, but the WIFFY is emo­tional, not eco­nomic. The lis­tener — or this lis­tener, at least — believes that J.R. Dunn will give him a great deal on an engage­ment ring because there’s an emo­tional pay-off for Mr. Dunn. And as always, deep emo­tions are always linked to self-identity, hence the open­ing story / Men­tal Image.

So if you want to cre­ate cred­i­bil­ity, go beyond WIIFM to WIFFY.  And if you want that cred­i­bil­ity to last beyond a sin­gle sales event, try tying your WIFFY to emo­tion.

* Photo credit to ihasa­hot­dog


  1. Chuck McKay on 10.25.2010

    Excel­lent analy­sis, Jeff. The Frus­trated Con­trac­tor let­ter usu­ally works quite well the first time its used in any given mar­ket for the rea­sons you’ve listed. Unfor­tu­nately, nearly every con­trac­tor who had great results resent it to the same mail­ing list the next sea­son… and then sent it again… and again.

    And if a sec­ond con­trac­tor tries it in the same mar­ket? Pffffftttttt.

    As good as this let­ter is, it keeps pro­duc­ing less with each use. How many times can a major man­u­fac­turer make the same costly mis­take before peo­ple no longer believe the story?

    Plus, after the sec­ond time around, how many peo­ple with elderly HVAC sys­tems, who didn’t NEED imme­di­ate replace­ment, are still on the fence about buy­ing? One is reminded of the “Employee Pric­ing for Every­one” pro­grams which ulti­mately killed imme­di­ate sales for the auto industry.

    The worst thing about overuse of the Frus­trated Con­trac­tor let­ter is the dam­age it does to the contractor’s rep­u­ta­tion. No mat­ter what he fol­lows it with, the list he’s been mail­ing already con­sid­ers him to be a liar.

    Ironic, isn’t it? All across the coun­try the very ele­ment which first cre­ates cred­i­bil­ity whit­tles away at it with repeated use.

  2. Lorraine on 10.25.2010

    Thanks for this post, Jeff.

    Your exam­ple of the emo­tional WIFFY got me think­ing about using WIFFY for non-profit mar­ket­ing and devel­op­ment tools. Con­trary to what many imag­ine, suc­cess­ful non-profit mar­ket­ing doesn’t focus only on the cause (i.e., organization-centric mes­sag­ing) but also on ben­e­fits to audience/donors and what’s in it for them.

    I can also see how WIFFY would work beau­ti­fully for non-profit appeals: It not only offers a fresh way to hook atten­tion, but also bol­sters cred­i­bil­ity and trust.

  3. Jeff on 10.26.2010


    Thanks for read­ing and I’m thrilled you found it use­ful. Would love to see an exam­ple of WIIFY applied to non-profit mar­ket­ing! Do you have any exam­ples on-hand?

    But I def­i­nitely agree that in a blood-is-thicker-than-water sort of magical-thinking way, non-profit mar­ket­ing has to make supra-rational appeals that touch an emo­tional, almost pri­mal place in our psy­ches. And when deal­ing with that, the last thing donors want to see or feel is that the peo­ple work­ing at the non-profit are just going to a 9-to-5 job.

    - Jeff

  4. Holly Buchanan on 10.27.2010

    Great exam­ples Jeff.

    I espe­cially like the jew­eler ad at the end.

    I see this work­ing well in the finan­cial ser­vices indus­try. Many folks think those folks are just out to make a buck.

    I was speak­ing to a group in Atlanta. And there was a young hot-shot guy in the back row who was a Long Term Care insur­ance guy. I asked him why he got into the busi­ness, expect­ing an answer like “con­trol your own des­tiny” and “make unlim­ited income” typ­i­cal lines.

    Instead, he said, “I was very close to my grand­mother. After she died, we found out she’d been abused in the nurs­ing home. It is my life’s mis­sion to make sure that never hap­pens to any­one else’s grandmother.”

    Wow talk about WIIFY. I told him to tell that story in every sin­gle sales meet­ing he goes into.

    Thanks for another great post.
    .-= Holly Buchanan´s last blog ..Women and Finance Sur­vey with Vibrant Nation =-.

  5. Jeff on 10.28.2010


    That is AWESOME! Thanks so much for the com­ment and for shar­ing that way-cool story.

    - Jeff

  6. Jeff on 10.29.2010


    You’re right that a pass­ing good deal has to be, in fact, pass­ing — has to, at some point, pass — to have real cred­i­bil­ity. In the case of the Frus­trated Con­trac­tor Let­ter, it could rea­son­ably be con­strued as sea­sonal: you’re always going to get good deals on Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions AFTER Christ­mas and you’ll always get a bet­ter price on air con­di­tion­ing units in win­ter than in sum­mer. But the extra, time-pressure ele­ments they put in the let­ter just don’t hold up well to repeated use.

    All that said, the let­ter still pulls and the eco­nom­ics con­tinue to work for HVAC com­pa­nies that do the mail­ing. Hard to argue against that. But really, what this points out is most busi­nesses — and sadly, most copy­writ­ers — over-eagerness to cut and paste rather than to look at first prin­ci­ples and come up with and test orig­i­nal mate­r­ial. It’s why there are all those “Who else wants…” head­lines out there.

    - Jeff

  7. Chuck McKay on 10.29.2010

    Jeff, in gen­eral I agree, but “All that said, the let­ter still pulls and the eco­nom­ics con­tinue to work for HVAC com­pa­nies that do the mail­ing. Hard to argue against that.” requires a slight caveat. It con­tin­ues to pull well for HVAC com­pa­nies which use it for the first time — as it should. The Frus­trated Con­trac­tor is an exam­ple of an excep­tion­ally per­sua­sive direct response letter.

    How­ever, hav­ing per­sonal expe­ri­ence with two HVAC com­pa­nies that have burned it out in their mar­kets, I can attest to its declin­ing effec­tive­ness with repeated use.

  8. Jeff on 10.29.2010

    That might be the case, Chuck. I haven’t been actively involved with any clients in that indus­try in a year and a half or so, but the last time I checked, I per­son­ally knew of sev­eral HVAC com­pa­nies that had been run­ning that let­ter, with very minor tweaks, for years. And while the response rate had gone down dra­mat­i­cally, the let­ter still more than eco­nom­i­cally jus­ti­fied itself with less than a .1% response rate.

    These num­bers are approx­i­mate, but if you send 10,000 such let­ters out at a cost of a few thou and you get 10 respon­dents back for 5 sales, and if the sales are for $10K sys­tems made at a 100% mark-up, well, you just made a hand­some profit. You can only imag­ine how well the let­ters worked back before they were over-used and mis-used! But even at a dis­mal response rate, they can still more than eco­nom­i­cally jus­tify them­selves, on the short-term. That’s what I meant about “being hard to ague with.” Didn’t say you couldn’t argue with it, just that putting five fig­ures in your back pocket makes a pow­er­ful counter-argument.

  9. Chuck McKay on 10.29.2010

    Excel­lent points.

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