bullseye.22112600_stdBeing on target [with your messaging] is much more important than being facile with words.” – Gary Halbert

…stories without words can have enormous power. Just look at the first acts of Pixar’s UP or WALL-E… So what if when we sat down we gave ourselves a task other than producing words: Changing the verb from writing to storytelling may change the way we think about the work.” – Brian McDonald

Improving copy rarely comes down to improving the words.  Once in a blue moon word choice proves decisive, but even then, what leads a good copywriter to select the better word has nothing to do with vocabulary size or what most people think of as wordsmithing and everything to do with an ability to match the emotional nuance of the word to the psychology of the prospective customer. Even when it comes down to the words, it’s not about the words; it’s about the customer.

Creating Copy That Is On Target

The number one thing you can do to improve your copy is to ensure that it is “On Target,” or to continue to improve the degree to which it is on target.  And by that I mean improving the match-up between customer desires/motivations/expectations and the message sent by the words.  In the video below, copywriting legend Gary Halbert provides a strikingly clear explanation [Note – Skip to the 1:40 mark if you’re in a hurry]

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And yet, as important as this factor is, most copywriters don’t have a systematic, proven method for ensuring that their copy is on target – mostly because they don’t have a system for modeling their client’s prospective customers psychology.

I teach a fair amount of copywriting to client’s internal copywriters, private students, and open classes, and by far, these are the top not-so-secret “secrets” that I teach:

  • how to model the prospect’s psychology
  • how to ensure the messaging is on target.

And I’ll be teaching both of these things this December 8th and 9th in Austin.

Writing for Radio and The Internet

Fortunately for me, I co-teach my Wizard Academy Copywriting class with Chris Maddock, who tackles copywriting from the other end.  He works on the storytelling aspect that Brian McDonald alluded to in the quote I pulled from his blog post.  By teaching students amazingly efficient techniques for creating gripping and vivid mental movies in the minds of their readers, Chris works on the student’s core writing abilities – their ability to generate an emotional response.  I simply ensure the students can direct those newly developed abilities at the right target.

If this sounds like what you or your company’s copywriters need, there are still seats available, and if you act soon, those seats come with free on-campus room and board.  Check it out.

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Back before Starbucks, most on-the-go coffee choices sucked. Starbucks tasted a lot better, offered fancy-schmancy cappuccinos and, well, seemed a small daily luxury a lot of people where willing to spend an additional $3 on.  Life’s too short to drink lousy coffee and all that.

Even though espresso-made specialty drinks aren’t really in the same category as regular brewed coffee (and, frankly, Starbucks brewed coffee is not particularly tasty, IMHO) the public had been exposed to something better and was willing to divert coffee dollars to specialty drinks.

mcdonalds_billboardThen McDonalds unleashed their own premium brewed coffee (which really is pretty tasty) and a line of cappuccinos and other specialty coffee drinks, with Burger King and several other fast food chains following suit. The choice is no longer between paying $4 for something that tastes good or suffering with crap coffee.  Now you can pay $1 (or nothing on Fridays) and walk away with a pretty good cuppa joe.

Is it any wonder that Starbucks closed lots of stores, implemented lots of cost-cutting strategies, restructured their prices, and came out with a more budget-friendly line of instant coffee in order to stay relevant, attractive, and competitive?

3 Business and Marketing Lessons to take away from this:

1. As people’s options change, so do their buying habits. When was the last time you looked at your customers options and made sure yours compared favorably to the competition?  When was the last time you thought about offering up a new option?  Bundled services, un-bundled services, leasing, pay-by-the-hour, etc.


  • Saturn took a merely OK car and made it a success simply by offering an alternative buying experience.
  • There’s an HVAC company doing quite well simply by allowing customers to lease HVAC systems (with maintenance and replacement baked into the lease payment) rather than buying them.
  • One Hour Heating and Air Conditioning gave people the option of not waiting at home all day for the HVAC guy and people took that option in droves.
  • My wife’s photography business offers customers a flat fee and they get the digital files and printing at cost, rather than making the majority of her money on prints.  It has been very successful for her.

Want to grab new customers?  How about making them an offer they haven’t seen before…

2. Competitive landscape determines options.  Often times, you don’t have to be the very first to offer something or do something.  You just have to be the first in your local area or industry.  Cappuccinos and specialty coffee drinks weren’t new creations of Starbucks. But as Starbucks expanded, they were often the first to offer them in a franchised, wine-bar-without-the-wine atmosphere for their given location or town.

For the local business this has both an upside and a downside: the upside is your ability to import successes from other towns, states, nations, and especially to import strategies from other industries.  The downside is that the internet and the global marketplace often provide people with lots of options. If you’re competing against the internet, you need to face up to that and work that into your business strategy. As Tolkien tells us, “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”

3. Categories don’t define perceived options. Before Starbucks no one would have guessed that you could get someone to pay $4 for a cup of coffee. But Starbucks wasn’t selling coffee, they were selling cappuccinos – they just managed to steel a lot of coffee business in the process.  And while the jump from cappuccinos to coffee, from $4 to $1 isn’t that big, the principle remains the same: you are likely competing for dollars with businesses far outside your category.  When it comes time to buy Christmas presents for the kids, bikes and sports equipment and toys and video games and books and trips are all competing for the same dollars.

This is especially true if you’re selling a premium or near-luxury product.  In order to trade up somewhere, I generally have to trade down somewhere else. Convince me your product or service is the place where I should spend my “trading-up” dollars.

Finally, never discount the age-old option of doing nothing.  I could buy a new 27-inch iMac, or I could do nothing and be happy with the my current Mac laptop.  I could go on a vacation, or enjoy a staycation instead.  As an advertiser, doing nothing is often your biggest competition, and yet, many copywriters ignore this competitor entirely.

And that’s all for me – I’m off to get a free coffee at Burger King ; )

the_candidateHave you ever wanted to ask the politicians, campaign managers, and political advisers a question or two about why they campaign the way they do?

While most of us would probably rather shout: “Stop the insanity you *&$!@#! meatheads” than ask a question, I think we’d also probably want to ask at least one question about negative attack ads.

Since I’m fortunate enough to correspond with an incredibly successful campaign strategist/marketer, I actually asked him: “Does the public really respond that well to blatantly nothing-but-negative attack ads?  At what point do people tune out from the BS being slung in all directions?

Of course the e-mail correspondence in which I asked this was a lot more rambling than that, but that was the gist of my questions. Here are the best parts of his response to me [emphasis in quotes added by me]:

  • Voters have a pretty good, although far from perfect, bullshit detector… they have a pretty good sense of what rings false. It’s not perfect, but I remain surprised at what voters will disregard in attack ads…
  • “And a lot of political advertisers have very poor instincts and can take factual attacks and frame them in such a way that no one believes the ad… If your ad leaves the viewer/reader/listener thinking to themselves that no rational person would have taken the action claimed and that there must be more to the story, then the advertiser has lost, whether or not the factual basis of the ad was true.”
  • “a candidate has some very deep image problems when voters will consider a false attack as credible. For an incumbent—and this year most of the candidates getting hammered are incumbents—the best defense to almost any attack is to have developed a deep reservoir of goodwill, through good constituent service along with other ways.
  • “The effectiveness of the attack is also predicated by the credibility of the attacker, not simply the credibility of the message. If the attacker is an unknown, or has high image negatives, the viewers are far less likely to give the message the credence it may or may not deserve.”
  • “Political advertising has different goals though. At the end of the day, you need to get the client to take a positive action toward your client. You need them to buy a new heat pump from you or something. While it would be nice to get a voter to vote for me. I do almost as well if a voter that would otherwise vote for my opponent chooses not to vote at all. At some level, if you’re selling a discretionary product or service, you still have to get the buyer to choose you. In an election, getting the voter to choose no one can work beautifully, even it makes your 12th grade civics teacher want to vomit.”

And here’s what struck me about those responses in regards to regular advertising:

1) You can’t fool people by glossing over unfavorable parts of the story.

If an ad sounds one-sided, people won’t believe it.  This works for regular advertising and web copy, too, by the way.  It’s why admitting the downside is crucial to building trust and credibility for your message. You can’t be all things to all men, so don’t be afraid to say:

This, of course, assumes that you have prospects for whom you ARE the perfect choice, areas where you DO specialize, and disproportionately higher levels of quality, service, and results that more than off-set the downsides.  Still, few will believe you if you only communicate the upside, just like voters discount negative ads which lead them to believe that there’s more to the story. Ultimately, buyers know there has to be a catch somewhere – that  there has to be something in it for you.

2) If you’re already a category leader, build customer goodwill to fend off competitor attacks

If you’re the leader, you’re also the best person to steal market-share from.  Customer retention, customer loyalty, and customer good will need to be built and developed before someone comes in with a (superficially) more attractive offer designed to lure customers away.  And keep in mind that there’s a difference between loyalty programs and retention programs.

Although Apple occasionally ships a product with a glitch or flaw, or makes a marketing move that leaves customers feeling irked, it’s always smoothed over.  No matter how much Microsoft executives want to gloat that the “iPhone 4 might be [Apple’s] Vista,” that stuff just never sticks.

3) Credibility is tied to both reputation and perceived intent

People aren’t stupid. If you stand to directly benefit by flinging mud at someone else, they’ll discount your message.  You have too much of a vested interest to be credible.

So you’re ad should never focus on beating up competitors so much as helping potential customers.  Instead of a “Brand X Vacuum Cleaners Suck (or, um, don’t suck well enough, that is ;)” stance, you should take a “If you’ve ever been irritated by this problem with your vacuum cleaners, I’v found a solution you might be interested in” approach. And make sure you have established your authority to speak on the subject.

Just watch how James Dyson both focuses on the problem (not the competition) while establishing his first hand experience and engineering credibility:

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crybaby crying kid cry tear tears Above the Law blogIn response to last Friday’s post, I reader asked me to elaborate on the following Roy H. Williams quote:

“[You] can’t sell happiness unless UNHAPPINESS is the default option.”

And to do that, I’d like to combine that with a quote from the opening paragraph of Breakthrough Advertising, written by the legendary Eugene Schwartz:

“Copy cannot create desire for a product. It can only take the hopes, dreams, fears, and desires that already exist in the hearts of millions of people and focus those already existing desires onto a particular product. This is the copywriters task: not to create this mass desire – but to channel and direct it.” [Emphasis in original]

When Roy tells us that you can’t sell happiness unless unhappiness is the default option, he is essentially telling us that the desire for your solution has to already exist. You have to be answering a question that people are already asking.

No matter how much people may desperately need your product (according to you, at least), if they don’t FEEL as if they need what you sell and they don’t generally WANT what you sell, then you’ve got a product that advertising won’t help you sell.

Why Desire Trumps Need

My favorite illustration of this comes from this Calvin and Hobbes strip wherein Calvin attempts to sell a “swift kick in the butt” for $1 and can’t figure out why business is so slow when everybody he knows needs what he’s selling.

So if desire trumps need, the question becomes: how can you desire what you already have? Answer: you can’t.  You can’t possibly feel the want of something – can’t feel “in need of it” – if you already have it. If you’re selling “health” the person has to feel as if they don’t currently HAVE health. They have to have a health problem.

So where does this put preventatives like vitamins and exercise and such? Easy: these things are sold either as:

  1. The cure to a health problem – People start taking vitamins and supplements and exercise because they feel as if they’re fat or can’t keep up with their kids or have high cholesterol or joint pain, and so on.
  2. A way to regain something that’s already been lost, i.e., Youth – Most supplements and exercise programs are sold as anti-aging or youth-restoration solutions to people who feel that they are rapidly losing their youth.
  3. A way to gain an edge over the competition – selling performance rather than health.

This is why Roy also specifically addresses selling health in this quote (also taken from Friday’s post):

“PROBLEM: Selling health is a bad idea. Most people already have health. If they keep their health, they’re not going to give you any credit for that. Health isn’t measurable unless you’re currently sick and this regimen cures you. As I said before, weight loss and body shape are measurable. Does this program accomplish those things?”

What to do when unhappiness isn’t the default option

So if unhappiness isn’t already recognized as the default option, the copywriter/advertiser has to do one of two things:

  1. Find at least one aspect of the product or service that customers are NOT happy with and use your copy to agitate that problem, or
  2. Connect a problem or unhappiness they currently have to the product or service they are currently using.

Infomercials are infamous for this. A chef’s knife is a perfectly adequate solution to the challenge of dicing up fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc. But in unskilled hands, it’s not nearly as fast as a Slap Chop. So the Slap Chop infomercial has to make that into a BIG DEAL by:

  • Comically exaggerating the difficulty and time requirements of chopping with a knife.
  • Tying the customer’s current lack of healthy, delicious, and interesting foods and snacks in their diet to the inability to quickly chop foods.

Watch the video and you’ll see exactly what I mean when you hear phrases like: “You know you hate making salads, that’s why you don’t have any salad in your diet” and “Stop having boring tuna; stop having a boring life.” No slap chop = unhappiness as the default option my friend 😉

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2010-11-04_1251Justin Halpern isn’t the only one privy to frank, off-the-cuff insights delivered with sardonic wit. As a Wizard of Ads partner and Monday Morning Memo subscriber, I have the immense privilege of receiving 200-proof advertising wisdom delivered via pithy remarks straight outa Roy’s pen.

When I come across these how-to-advertise-in-the-real-world epigrams, I write them down for frequent review. And for “Friday Fun,” I’m going to share a baker’s dozen of them.


  • Details and specifics add credibility. Names! Dates! Problems! Solutions! Anything less is an unsubstantiated claim and will be summarily dismissed by the customer.
  • …the job of a slogan isn’t to be comprehensive… The job of a slogan is to break the ice, position the company, and gain the interest of the listener so that they want to know more.
  • The subconscious is not only real, it is powerful. It is in the subconscious and in the unconscious that brand essence resides.
  • “Visual imagery of positive outcomes.” This is the heart and soul of selling.
  • [You] can’t sell happiness unless UNHAPPINESS is the default option.
  • To sell volumes of anything, you have to name the price-point the prospect was planning to spend, then describe something he can buy at that price-point that exceeds what he was expecting to find.
  • The challenge isn’t to make the customer understand.  The challenge is to learn to think like customers – it’s faster, cheaper, and more effective.
  • “I don’t want to see your business from your perspective.”
  • meaningful differentiation – relevance and credibility. That’s what marketing is all about.
  • PROBLEM: Selling health is a bad idea. Most people already have health. If they keep their health, they’re not going to give you any credit for that. Health isn’t measurable unless you’re currently sick and this regimen cures you. As I said before, weight loss and body shape are measurable. Does this program accomplish those things?
  • The strongest lines are always the ones about the customer.
  • Always satisfy the left brain when you can. It holds veto power when the right brain wants to do something that is obviously dangerous or foolish.  No, I’m not saying that logic trumps emotion. I’m saying only that lazy writers too often try to work the heart because it’s easier. They’re unwilling to do the research and hard work required to satisfy the mind.
  • Clarity is the new creativity” is simply my way of saying, “Cut the poetic crap when the subject requires some explanation.”  Too many people in the past have used the Monet technique of impressionism to “bluff with fluff” when the client would have been better served if the writer had delivered a little more information.

And there you have it.  Any one of these would be a great jumping off point for an entire post, so if one catches your eye or you’d like some elaboration, let me know in the comments.

beautiful-woman-smokingDoes it really shock anyone that the tobacco industry-produced Anti-Youth-Smoking ad campaign, “Think. Don’t Smoke,” actually made kids MORE likely to smoke?  36% more likely to smoke, according to one study.  I’m sure the tobacco executives were heartbroken…

But avoiding the question of intent, why did the putatively anti-smoking message have a pro-smoking effect on it’s audience?

Because the ads pitted logic against emotion and tepid syntax against vivid imagery. They essentially introduced a pleasure and rebellion promising white bear into the minds of kids and then said: don’t think of a white bear.

The Truth campaign, on the other hand, sought to harness the power of imagery, emotion, and identity in order to direct it against both the tobacco industry and smoking.  Any wonder that kids exposed to the Truth ads where 66% LESS likely to smoke?

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So to sum up: Imagery and emotion always outweigh logic and syntax.

Moreover, negative emotion tends to outweigh positive; no one needs to teach you to worry, but positive visualization is an acquired skill.

So what does this have to do with either Sex or Websites?

Enter MyMarriageMatters.org

Ads for MyMarriageMatters.org keep popping up on television.  Except that the ads seem to be far less for mymarriagematters.org as they are against AshleyMaddison.com.  Yet when looked at closely, the imagery and language of the ads is way more vivid when talking about Ashley Madison than it is when proclaiming the need for fidelity or MyMarriageMatters.org.  Just take a look at the ad and see for yourself:

My Marriage Matters V.2 from Ryan Hill on Vimeo.

So what were the results?  Traffic to Ashley Madison was UP 30% following the appearance of these ads on TV! [Hat Tip to Edit Weapon for tweeting this bit of info]


2010-11-03_2159Worse, when you actually go to MyMarriageMatters.com, what you find is a replay of the ad, with no real call to action button. Not only is there no CTA in the ad itself, but there’s no CTA on the website either, except for the most muted, neigh-unto-invisible, dull-gray text link beneath the video asking visitors to sign a petition.

And to be clear, this is the main Website for the organization – not a landing page.  Can you imagine a main Website with no home page copy, no “About Us” pages, no “How We Can Help You” pages, no downloads, no links to other pro-marriage sites, and no real call to action other than one, small, dull gray text link.

It’s almost as if the site owners had designed the link NOT to be noticed – as if the owners of the site and the producers of the ad wanted to promote Ashley Maddison, not marital fidelity.  Then again, what else might you expect from a pro-marriage organization founded and run by a divorce lawyer with possible ties to AshleyMaddison.com

Valuable Website Optimization lessons you can learn from this

Whether the tobacco companies and Ryan Hill mishandled their messages, or deviously manipulated their audiences, you can use their experience to your benefit.  The same principles that led these anti-smoking and anti-affair ads to provoke the very behaviors they were (ostensibly) trying to suppress can be harnessed for your good – if you learn these Web Optimization lessons:

1) Don’t skimp on the imagery related to product benefits. Most copywriters write vivid and image intensive copy when describing and “agitating” the problems faced by prospective customers, but then they get all technical and abstract when describing the solution. The negative image sticks while the positive solution fades away – just like the “Think. Don’t Smoke” and MyMarriageMatters.org ads.

The solution: write copy that’s at least as vivid in describing the benefits and future happiness that comes from your product or service as it is in evoking the problem.  Never rely on logic, syntax, or a flimsy verbal response to undue a vivid mental image. Make sure your positive mental images overpower the negative images.

2) Make your desired Call to Action visually prominent. It’s hardly unusual to find the main conversion point on Websites to enjoy less visual prominence than peripheral areas, 3rd party ads, unimportant links etc.  I also commonly see shopping carts and check out processes that give equal visual prominence to “delete” or “exit” buttons than the “checkout” or “continue” buttons.  Home pages often have call-outs for tertiary conversions more prominent displayed than the primary categories for shoppers.  And so on. Don’t let this happen to your site.

The solution: use proper graphic design to guide the eye of the visitor towards the correct actions. This correction is often the root cause of those “I changed the color of my add to cart button and got a 83% lift stories.”  It’s not the button color that crated the result so much as increasing the visual prominence and contrast for the desired call to action. So stop focusing on button colors and start focusing on guiding the eye through proper design and visual prominence.

Any other examples out there of copy, imagery, or design that gives emphasis to the wrong, counterproductive aspect of a message or request for action?  Let me know in the comments.