by Jeff

stradivarius1Actually, the title should say Myths, as there are two of them.

Stradivarius Myth #1

The first Myth is that there is one single isolated element responsible for the unique sound and virtue of a Stradivari.

Most theories about the Stradivari magic fall into the “silver bullet” category. According to them, just one, solitary factor or element make these violin tower over all other merely mortal violins. Some say it’s the wood density; others the resin or chemicals used to treat the wood, or the way the wood was shaped or constructed. But the vast majority point to just one thing.

Almost no one claims that the unique sound signature is due to a hundred smaller aspects pushed in the right direction and working together synergistically. Superior craftsmanship, after all, usually involves the artisan making thousands of decisions and getting them all right, not just in isolation, but in terms of how each decision affects the whole. So one might figure that most theorists would suggest a multitude of elements rather than “One Big Thing.” Yet precious few ever suggest this.

StradivariusWe simply don’t think of explanations like this because we’ve lost touch with the nature of craft in this mass-produced, hyper-rationalized, “7 Steps for dummies to earn riches in their sleep” world of ours.

We not only desperately want there to be an easily analyzed and duplicated shortcut, but balk at acknowledging exceptions to this because they imply a rebuke. To suggest that excellence is made up of a totality rather than one secret formula is to suggest that there’s no substitution for long diligent practice, for study, for mastery of craft, and for attention to detail.

And who wants to hear that?

2011-03-27_1720Stradivarius Myth #2

The Second Myth is that Stradivari really are better than the very best modern violins.

Believe it or not, there are highly trained craftsman that have dedicated their professional lives to creating violins to the same standards of the Stradivari. And by every objective and subjective test some of them are as good as those legendary violins that sell for 100 times as much money. Whether it’s scientists recording and analyzing the sound quality, or it’s expert musicians and violinists listening “blind”  to a comparison, there’s no evidence that the Stradivari outperform the best modern-made violins.

So the superiority of these violins is largely subjective, encompassing far more magical thinking and legend than fact, such that, when put to the pepsi-challenge, many Stradivari devotees end up preferring the sound of the modern violins.

So what does this tell you?

It tells you that expectations override perception:

So here are 2 Marketing To-Dos:

To-Do #1 = Get the Little Big Things Right; Aim for Mastery

This one is hard, but crucial. Just as the Stradivari’s excellence resides in hundreds of elements, deftly aligned and optimized, so too is your brand made up of scores of touch points: your parking lot, bathrooms, packaging, on-hold messaging, customer service reps, auto-responders, Website copy, and so on. And the same goes with any brand.

Case in point: after every launch of an Apple product, some knock-off jumps into the fray, heralded as an i-killer due to it’s superior specs or 1-2 killer functions. Yet these so-called i-killers always end up slaughtered in the marketplace.  Why?

Because the appeal of Apple’s products never rests on price, functionality, or specs alone. Apple products are the Stradivari of the marketplace because Steve Jobs and crew understand Myth #1; they push hundreds of small, seemingly tiny elements in the right direction to create a whole that’s much bigger — and far more profitable — than the sum of its parts. Which is why the invariably leave the “silver bullet” products in the dust.

So commit to mastery and push for added excellence on each small piece that goes into the process. Don’t rely on just one thing to pull you through.

To-Do #2 = Create Your Own Brand Mythology

This one’s a bit harder to explain, let alone pull off, but for starters, why not let your advertising “Manage Up” your sales, service, and technical staff? If you don’t currently have a genesis story, worth sharing, why not go dig one up and polish it off? In other words, share your passion, so people know you have the raw emotional voltage to power yourself to mastery of your craft.

Additionally, focus on creating the right marketing cues.  Cues that’ll alert your customers that your product and service is the result of craft and not just automated process. It could be as simple as an expensive looking packaging, or a hang tag on an item that normally doesn’t have hang tags. Leaving a bit of skin on your “hand cut” french fries and seasoning them with sea salt. There are hundreds of opportunities out there for business owners who’ll stop to search for them.

And while you’re thinking about cues, spend some time pondering over what goes into the mythology behind a brand like Steinway, Red Wing Boots, Snap-on Tools, etc.  Obviously, quality plays a huge role, but what else?  Why are these names preeminent and known amongst the general public when Mason & Hamlin pianos, White’s Boots, and Klein tools are not?

What can you do to help mythologize your brand?



by Jeff

rainingDeep emotions almost always come as two-parters: emotions centered on loss, transformation, or fullfilment & redemption all require a before and after. You have to show what a person had BEFORE in order to hit your audience with the sense of what was lost AFTER.

This is why war movies always have a scene where the about-to-be-killed character shows his picture of his girl back home and tells his buddies what he’s going to do after the war. The director is setting you up to feel the loss when the poor sap gets mowed down.

Among fiction writers this before and after format is known as a set-up and pay-off, and this two-part combo is an integral part of any solid plot. Without the two part structure of set-ups and pay-offs, you just can’t pull off the powerful emotions that will really move your readers.

Naturally, this has tremendous implications for copywriting as well as fiction, reporting, and so on. So I’ve covered this essential copywriting skill in depth in a two-part series (natch) over at Copyblogger:


I hope you enjoy the series and that reading them pays off for you in your own writing.



by Jeff

2011-03-22_2327So quiet you could hear a…

It’s so loud in here I can’t even hear…

Do those sentence even make sense? If it’s really, really quiet, shouldn’t there be an absence of noise? Why would you point out how quiet it is by raising the spectre of sound in the mind of the reader? And why would you indicate loudness by talking about what you can’t hear?

Surprisingly, this isn’t just my lame attempt at a Steven Wright style joke; there are legitimate answers to these questions, and the answers reveal something shockingly important for copywriters.

The answer? You can’t convey extreme absence or total immersion very well through a direct approach. You have to hint at it through implication or comparison. Or you have to convey the subjective experience of it. Or use both techniques.

Hearing a pin drop implies that there are no sounds louder than that present. In other words, your mind, once seeded with that single, delicate sound, surrounds the rest with a silence more blanketing and complete than any you could have described directly.

And no, this isn’t just because “hear a pin drop” is a colloqualism or cliche, this technique works even when dealing with the actual experience of sound, as described by the great movie sound effects editor Walter Murch:

Murch flips on his computer, clicks the mouse a few times and instantly pulls up a scene from Jarhead. Swofford’s character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is in combat for the first time and there’s an artillery barrage. Everyone else ducks for cover, but he stands up. And the camera moves closer to him. Then, in the distance, there’s a muffled explosion followed by dead silence.

This fleeting silence is a golden moment for an editor — a chance to put the audience right there on the battlefield. Jarhead’s director, Sam Mendes, originally wanted that silence to stretch for several seconds. But Murch came up with a better idea.

Pieces of dust and sand from the explosion hit the actor’s face in slow motion. Then you hear the sound of the particles hitting his face. “My combat action has commenced,” the character says.

This fleeting silence is a golden moment for an editor — a chance to put the audience right there on the battlefield. Jarhead’s director, Sam Mendes, originally wanted that silence to stretch for several seconds. But Murch came up with a better idea.
Pieces of dust and sand from the explosion hit the actor’s face in slow motion. Then you hear the sound of the particles hitting his face. “My combat action has commenced,” the character saOne of the rules of the road is that if you want to create the sense of silence, it frequently has more pungency if you include the tiniest of sounds.”

Did you catch that?  The silence is lengthened and intensified by giving you both a small noise and an inner subjective experience of it. Murch even describes this as a rule of the road:

One of the rules of the road is that if you want to create the sense of silence, it frequently has more pungency if you include the tiniest of sounds

Similarly, describing the cacophony directly doesn’t get to the experience of it as well as describing the subjective mental disordering and disorientation that such ear-piercing noise causes; the internal mental confusion of ‘I can’t hear myself think‘ implies an external sonic chaos that your readers’ minds will recreate, thereby putting them “right there on the battlefield.”

So what are the advertising applications of all this?

In my last post I plugged the technique of discovering and using quality cues in your advertising. And that raises the obvious question: how can you find those cues?

One answer: find the pin drops.

What unique turn of phrase implies more than it says. How can you describe an internal state that implies an external event and vice versa?

Do you think that Mike Diamond’s plumbers really smell good? Or do you think that smelling good implies cleanliness, professionalism, and stand-up qualities?  Smell is just one sense, perhaps the most primitively emotional, but we’re all the more able to fill in all the rest ourselves based on that, aren’t we?

What about finger licking good? It’s a cliche now, but imagine when it first came out!

OK, now you try – what are your pin drops? What small detail seeds our mind to rain down the greater whole?

P.S. If this seems hard, it should. It’s the kind of thing ad professionals get paid the big bucks to come up with.

First, before we do anything else, watch this:

YouTube Preview Image

Yup, “Presentation” is often THE critical difference between good businesses that grow to be great and good businesses that struggle to achieve the success they deserve.

And, yes, presentation, in the larger sense of the word, not only encompasses marketing and advertising, but is an essential element within marketing, a fact alluded to by Seth Godin in this short but brilliant post.

The Arrogance of “Keeping it Real”

So if presentation is so important why do so many of us neglect, ignore, and otherwise screw it up?

Because we’re sold on the better mousetrap myth – this idea that a better mousetrap naturally leads to the world beating a path to our door, that the “real deal” doesn’t need to be dressed up.

More insidiously, we’ve also half-bought into the millenial notion that spending time and effort on presentation somehow equates to “posing” or fakery or thinking that one is “all that.” That presentation is, in a word, arrogant.

The truth, of course, is the very opposite: acknowledging the need to seduce, entertain, and wow an audience in order to earn their attention is a sign of humility, not arrogance.

Before a prospective customer can possibly notice your unannounced and unheralded quality advantage, they usually have to invest significant attention and interest, and expecting them to make that investment up front, with no promise or hint of a payoff, is not only arrogant but deranged. You are essentially expecting people to be as concerned with your industry and business — i.e., your life — as they are with their own.

What kind of lunatic expects that?

Your prospects don’t know the industry insider info you know, the kind of stuff necessary for them to recognize quality.

They have no clue how lower-priced providers cut corners, or what that means for them in the long run, because your industry isn’t part of their day to day world.

They don’t know that this or that thing or habit is a cue of sloppy work or great work or whatever. Nor are most of them willing to do the research to find out.

They just want to buy ____ and get back to their regularly scheduled lives.

Fixing Your Marketing Presentation Skills

If you’re willing to get off the crazy train and onto the gravy train, there are two rather unequal solutions to this, and you should employ them both:

1) Educate the Customer

This is the less effective but still necessary option.

Get past your own “curse of knowledge” to figure out what your prospective customers don’t know but need to know in order to recognize your superior quality.

Now boil it down to super direct, no BS messaging, and train your sales staff to deliver that same messaging to your prospects.  Also, extend your educational reach past your sales team and target those earlier stage buyers through great content marketing.

And make sure you have a content-rich Website, so your full explanation of, and case for, quality will be available to interested customers whenever they come looking for it.

All of this works and is worth doing.  But on its own, education never quite works as well as most business owners hope.

That’s because this educational approach reaquires customers to be motivated enough to do the research for themselves. And for a lot of markets and industries, the motivated researchers are a rather small slice of the customer base, meaning you lose more sales than you save.  As my partner, Roy Williams says:

“The challenge isn’t to make the customer understand.  The challenge is to learn to think like customers — it’s faster, cheeper, and more effective.”

A quote that leads me into the second strategy…

2) Tap into the customer’s natural quality and value cues

If people can’t tell that your HVAC guy is top notch just from watching him work, you can ensure that they’ll think of him in those terms by activating their quality cues for “professionals,” simply by having your worker:

  • show up in a professional van,
  • wear a clean, branded uniform,
  • put on booties to keep your home from getting dirty, and
  • talk through what he’s doing and why he’s doing it while he’s working.

2011-03-18_1031All of those things speak to presentation.

You are forcing your workers to focus on how they present themselves to customers in order to signal “this guy is an expert” in the language that the customer already understands.

When you bake these things into your operations, you’ll have really satisfied customers.  But when you bake them into your advertising as guarantees, you’ll have truckloads of NEW customers.

Better yet, when you ADVERTISE those kind of quality cues, people begin to expect them from everyone in your industry; in other words you shape customer expectations to your advantage and your competition’s disadvantage.

More importantly, the listener consciously and unconsciously associates these quality cues with your company and brand — i.e., they think of you as the benchmark for top quality service, expertise, etc.

After an ad campaign like that, when prospective customers need what you sell, they’ll think of you first and feel the best about you, making them seek you out rather than vice versa.

Some of those customers will go onto your Website and educate themselves in order to prove that you’re for real. But many more will buy based on nothing more than that advertising-fueled “gut feel.”

And regardless of whether they researched their decision or not, all of those customers will not only want to do business with you AND will be willing to pay premium for the privilege.

Here’s what this technique sounds like when used in an actual ad*:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Note that “smells good” is cue for ‘presents himself as a professional,’ which is only reinforced by the “shows up on time” line. Those are the quality cues, and the price guarantee is the direct offer. Put the two together and is it any wonder why this plumber dominates his markets?

Bottom line: presentation matters. Not just for sales pitches or a Keynote Speeches, but for your frontline marketing and advertising, too. Find the cues, codes, and signals, your customers already associate with first-rate quality and service, and then bake them into your operations while simultaneously weaving them into your marketing.

Don’t be just another business in your industry; focus on presentation and make yourself Super in the eyes of your customers.

* Ad written and produced by Roy H. Williams

You’re about to watch the video equivalent of two emotional gut-punches.

Both of them are political and at least one of the two will offend your sensibilities.  But if you can get past that, they’ll be instructive — and with any luck, you’ll find that I have a few insights to share as well.  So here goes:

YouTube Preview Image

And then there’s this one:

YouTube Preview Image

OK, so what do both of these videos have in common?

The emotional violence takes place entirely within your head

The rabbit is never harmed and the poor boy’s head is never shot, except for in your mind’s eye. And that makes both ads all the more emotionally powerful.

But the projection of such a graphic image in the mind of the viewer will invariably offend some viewers. Even though the violence literally took place “off scene” (as in the greek ob skene, which translates as “off-stage”) the ads will still strike many as unfair or obscene. Why?

Because real obscenity comes through the introduction, through any means, of an unnecessarily ugly, violent, or immodest mental image. Naturally, it’s the “unnecessarily” part that gets sticky, but I think most of us could agree that the mental images incited by the two videos are both ugly and violent. They affect us. They are, in fact, cringeworthy. We remember them long after watching. Or at least I do.

And wouldn’t you want the same to be said for your ads?

Obscenity vs. Obscenity

Now, I’m NOT suggesting that you should do or feature something ugly, violent, or immodest to grab attention. It may work for Go Daddy, but that’s really not the kind of obscenity you want.

The kind you want is the kind used in these two ads – the kind where the structure and artifice of your ads entice the audience’s minds to imagine the outcome. There are different names for this technique, ranging from:

but the features remain the same, regardless of what you call it:

1) Start with vivid images

Regardless of whether you are employing visual images (as in print or TV ads), or mental images (as in Radio and copywriting), your ad has to employ sharp, vivid imagery if you hope, at some point, to get the audience to bridge the gaps between, or extend the story beyond, the the images provided in the ad. So if your writing is filled with abstractions, jargon, and technical speak, you’ll need to re-write it in concrete, tangible, emotional, and imaginable language.  And best to start off with a strong hook (or First Mental Image), too.

Notice that the first ad began with a cute little baby bunny sitting on the medical table, next to scalpels and stuff — a shockingly incongruous and vivid image.  The second ad started with an egg on a golf tee; the golf tee intimating the coming violence / bullet.

2) Make sure you’ve got drama

Drama means staging, dramatic tension, and the need to know “what happens next.” Some of this was hinted at in #1 when I wrote of both first images as containing incongruity.  Here’s a great Jerome Bruner quote to explain that:

“Well-formed stories, [Kenneth] Burke proposed, are composed of a pentad of an Actor, an Action, a Goal, a Scene, and an Instrument—plus Trouble. Trouble consists of an imbalance between any of the five elements of the pentad: an Action toward a Goal is inappropriate in a particular Scene . . . an Actor does not fit the Scene . . . or there is a dual Scene . . . or a confusion of Goals.”

In other words, we only create stories or engage our narrative imagination when things don’t fit. If you high school son always comes home from practice at 5:00, you don’t wonder what happened when he pulls into the driveway at 5:00 pm, just as he always does. You start wondering what’s up – and spinning stories about possible causes — when there’s a deviation, either he’s home way too early or way too late.  So a rabbit on a green field doesn’t get our story-telling engines running. But a rabbit on an operating table clenches our gut and makes us wonder what the hell is going on.

The same thing happens with the egg on a gold tee. It’s unusual and we wonder if the egg will get smashed by a driver or what. When it’s shot by a bullet, we wonder what else we’ll get to see in slow motion as the bullet rips through it…

So if you want to compel your audience to imagine what happens next, or to fill in the gaps, you have to set-up a “troubled” or incongruous scene. Pull the bow back to create tension, then let your audience’s imagination fly.

3) Set the stakes high

Something emotionally compelling has to be at stake. We naturally don’t want anything bad to happen to the bunny. We just don’t. So there’s no small amount of audience tension when the rabbit is picked up and carried to the blender. Ack! And then we see a human baby on the operating table next…

Similarly, who doesn’t cringe when the next “target” to pop up (immediately following the rather symbolic melon) is a boy’s head? And how much anxiety do you feel when the bullet enters from the left side of the screen? Again, a human life (and, symbolically, far more than just one life) is palpably at stake.

Got it? You need high stakes. So even if you don’t think of your product or service as one that invites strong emotion, you’ll need to find the inherent drama of the product, or develop a drama-filled use-scenario or need-scenario centered around your product. Although this AT&T ad doesn’t make use of closure, it certainly injects some drama into one of their network’s most notable (positive) features:

YouTube Preview Image

4) Think Symbolically and/or Shift From Literal to Symbolic Imagery

If you’ve seen Pixar’s UP, you’ve been witness to the power of this. I wish I could show you the scene where Carl first realizes he’s in love with Ellie as he sighs a “wow” and leans onto his balloon, only to have it pop, and then to have that sound matched by the “pop” of their wedding photographer’s flash — for it’s amazing what’s intimated and covered in the space of those two pops — but sadly this YouTube video clip starts with the flash photography.

Yet this clip itself is a miniature masterpiece of visual storytelling. Just watch how much your mind fills in as the images on the screen take on increasing symbolic importance with every repetition. Ask yourself: what do I know is going on here, and how do I know it, and you’ll get an entire lesson on the fine art of closure. And should it then surprise you how emotionally powerful this montage turns out to be? I haven’t yet met the person who won’t tear up when watching it:

YouTube Preview Image

And for an incredibly cruder, commercial example of this technique, there’s always this guffaw-inducing Levitra Commercial:

YouTube Preview Image

Or, on a similar note, Hitchcock’s lovely train tunnel ending to North by Northwest:

YouTube Preview Image

5) Force the most important “beats” to take place between (or after) the images

As I implied with the balloon popping, Carl and Ellie fell in love, grew up together, and got engaged between those two pops. In the ads I featured at the beginning of this post, the (imagined) bunny blending took place after the screen went dark.  And the bullet continued towards the boy’s head only in our minds, for it was transmuted into a Call to Action on the screen.

I’d go into this further, but I think John Barber has already done an admirable job of this in an old Form is Function column on Comixpedia.

Or, you could check out the famous shower scene from Psycho, which, like the bunny ad, makes great use of sound to guide your mind in creating the images not shown to your eyes:

YouTube Preview Image

Bonus Tip: Have Confidence in the Impact of Closure

I almost wrote, “have faith in your readers,” and that’s good advice too, but the technique itself can often be more confidence inspiring and directly observable than reader reactions.  And as a rather striking example of the power of closure, I’ll introduce you to the very recent phenomenon of “bubbling.”

gestaltPic2So, a classic example of closure is this picture of a non-triangle:

Even though we can’t help but see the triangle, it’s not really there.  There are only three pacman-looking black circles. It’s our mind that completes the form of the triangle and forces the image onto our imagination.

And here’s the modern version of that known as Bubbling:

celebrity-blog-bubbling-olivia-wildeAccording to the internet, bubbling was created by a young Mormon man who wanted to follow his religion’s prohibitions against pornography while still, um, aiding his imagination.

The added covering from the bubbles makes swimsuit pictures that much more provokative. And indeed that’s exactly the right word for it, because the bubbles “provoke” your mind to fill in the gaps in a way that the actually more revealing bathing suit doesn’t.

In fact, I chose this picture from FabFunny.com because it was slightly less scandalous than the rest (and also because it featured both the before and after versions and was of a known celebrity, Olivia Wilde)

So in a world of “Show, Don’t Tell” advice, sometimes it’s better if you leave the drama off-stage and allow the real showing to take place in your readers’ imaginations. When you do that, you might end up with an ad that’s seen as “unfair” by your competition, and that’s no bad thing.

P.S. My apologies for the predominance of “sex and violence” examples. They were the easiest to find and most demonstrably obvious examples of the phenomenon available; though I hope the Pixar montage shows off a more elevated use of this technique



by Jeff

A few weeks ago I held a quick and dirty Website Optimization contest for one page of Crutchfield’s check-out process. And great things came from that, as Crutchfield kicked in a $75 dollar gift certificate to the winner, and Jeffrey and Bryan Eisenberg also donated some signed copies of their books.

But even better than all of that, I had some really sharp readers suggest great changes and even produce a few mock-ups of those changes/alternative page designs. Best of all, I left sorting through those suggestions up to Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg, who volunteered to act as judges for the contest.  So here’s their judgement:

The overall design winner is Alex Fisken of UX Associates.

Here’s the design Alex came up with (w/ analysis of good and bad aspects to follow):


So the good parts of this design are all up at the top of the page:

  1. It’s clear that the user has entered into part of the check-out process, because the various checkout stages are clearly labeled at the top of the page and the current stage — that of selecting accessories — is appropriately highlighted
  2. It’s perfectly, explicitly clear that the item has been added to cart.
  3. The two buttons for continue to cart and keep shopping are easily distinguished based on color, size, and shape
  4. The arrow pointing down to “Choose recommended accessories makes it abundantly clear that the user is being offered a chance to select accessories for his already-added-to-cart TV

And now for the not so good parts:

  • The “continue” of “continue onto shopping cart” might be easily confused as a “continue shopping” since that is very common wording for a lot of checkout processes. Might be better to weak that to “proceed to shopping cart” (or to at least test it).
  • The wording on “Choose recommended accessories” is liable to damage the very point of the page — to sell more accessories. Seeing that phrase causes readers to ask, “On what basis are these accessories being recommended?  And why are you pushing these cross-sells on me?” Might be better to weak or test this wording to something more appropriate

Kevin McCaffrey’s Awesome Accessory Section

And that last point brings us to our Runner Up, Kevin McCaffrey of Conversion Rate Services, who recommended much better wording for this section of the page, as seen in his mock-up:


First, the “Do you need” formatting of the question is both more direct and more appropriate as it is framed from the buyers point of view (“I need to make sure I have everything I need” vs. “Don’t you want to buy something else from us?”) and designed to solicit a response. We’re all hardwired to answer questions, so this phrasing is harder to ignore than “Chose recommended accessories.”

I also like the option to click “no thanks,” as well as the button to “see more wall mount brackets.” Great stuff.

Now, some might be wondering, but doesn’t the offer have to be generic to all kinds of accessories, rather than specific to Flat Screen TVs?

Answer: No. Not anymore and not if you are a big boy e-commerce player like Crutchfield. They can easily use a service like Monetate to customize that call-out to the product, and, frankly, if they’re not doing that, they should be.

My Franken-page Mock-up

And knowing that the top half of Alex’s design needed the bottom half of Kevin’s design, I couldn’t help but frankenstein them together to come up with this:


And that there is the conclusion of the contest. Congratulations both to Alex and Kevin and a hearty thank you to all who participated. The winners may collect their prizes by e-mailing me their addresses and contact info.

P.S. A special thanks to both Jeffrey and Bryan Eisenberg and Crutchfield for helping out with this.