Those 4 words are the most opened e-mail subject line most people have ever tested: “You are not alone.”
And while that’s a nice Cliff Claven-esque CRO tip to throw out, it’s asking WHY that’s such a powerful subject line that’ll get you somewhere.
Or if that’s not quite explicit enough, perhaps this will be:
- What is your advertising doing to make the audience feel as if you get “the way it is” and “how they feel”?
- What are your ads doing to show how your company can sweep in and save the situation?
- How are your ads making a promise of future happiness?
Because if your ads aren’t doing any of those things, they’re probably not doing much of anything else, either.
What are the two biggest mistakes in advertising?
Depends on who you ask.
My partner, Roy Williams, has a list of The 12 Most Common Mistakes in Advertising that’s awfully hard to argue with. But they’re the most common mistakes, not “biggest.” Plus, they are 12 of them.
For me, the biggest mistake is creating great advertising for a lousy product. By putting the advertiser out of business that mistake will have the biggest negative repurcussions.
Once you take that off the table, though, then I’d list:
- Not saying anything that’s worth saying (let alone advertising), and
- Boring your audience with ignorable and forgetable ads
Ira Glass’s Two Biggest Mistakes in Advertising
But if you ask Ira Glass, he’d tell you the two biggest mistakes are:
- Using an inauthentic, over-hyped “voice” or presentation style, and
- Keeping the focus on yourself instead of the customer
Don’t believe me? Check him out:
In other words, respect your audience.
Respect them by talking to them like a friend, one sitting right next to you at the bar. And respect them by keeping the focus of the ad on them and what matters to them, rather than on yourself.
Use Real People Language. Talk Like a Friend
Here’s how all-time copywriting legend Bob Levensen says to do it:
“Start off with ‘Dear Charlie,’ then say ‘this is what I want to tell you about. Make believe that the person you’re talking to is a perfectly intelligent friend who knows less about the product than you do. Then, when you’ve finished writing the copy, just cross out ‘Dear Charlie’.“
This is the same guy who told us that most intelligent people ignore advertising because most advertising ignores intelligent people. And he was right.
So skip the hype, the pre-amble, the hemmin’-‘n-hawin’, and just say the thing.
Instead of wasting your creativity on witty, charming, and clever language, save it for figuring out how to be believable and credible and to best substantiate or dramatize your major claim.
Ditch Your We-We: Keep Your Focus on the Customer
Most advertisers try to stay credible by focusing on why they’re better than the competition. Not a bad thing to do.
Unfortunately, they forget to tie those differentiators back to benefits that the customer will actually care about. Instead they just thump their chests and make We-We claims:
- We’re the best at this,
- We’re number one at that,
- We’ve been in business since 1893.
We this, we that, and they we-we-we all the way home, and all over themselves in their ad copy.
Everyone’s Favorite Radio Station
Ditch the we-we and take up the you-you. Make the customer the hero and the focus of the ad. Remember your copywriting basics: always answer “What’s In It For Me?” for your customers.
WIIFM: everybody’s favorite radio statio, playing 24–7 in their heads.
The good news is that ditching the we-we, switching to you-you, and answering WIIFM makes it a lot easier to talk to your audience in a human voice.
And getting back to my list of mistakes, it’ll also ensure you have something worth saying, and keep you from boring your audience. Way to go, Ira. Thanks for your wonderful, wonderful radio show, and all the great storytelling (and advertising) advice.
Now all you have to do is make sure your product lives up to its advertising ; )
P.S. Yes, I skipped Part III. I’ll circle back to that later this week or early next week. Trust me, that lesson will work best coming last.
Imagine you’ve been hired to create a PSA for the local police. Too many people are speeding in residential areas, and the police want a PSA-style radio ad designed to get people to slow down.
What kind of ad do you create?
If you’re like most advertisers, you DON’T dig for the facts and the insights and the logic. You won’t research the issue, and that means it’ll be tough to put real substance behind your messaging.
Instead, you jump right to brainstorming ways to dramatize your safety message: How can we create the most shocking, dramatically powerful ad, built around a “Don’t speed or little johny will get hit by a car” premise.
And because you skipped that essential first step of digging for substance, you’ll never get the chance to create something as awesome as this:
“If you hit me at 40 mph there’s around an 80% chance I’ll die. Hit me at 30 and there’s around an 80% chance I’ll live.”
You wouldn’t create that because you (likely) didn’t stop to ask: why is the speed limit set at that speed to begin with?
In order to say something powerfully, you must start by having something powerful to say.
And that means you have to spend as much time looking for the “stuff” of your ads (or radio drama) as you do writing or producing them. Which is exactly what Ira Glass says in Part II of his video series on storytelling:
“The amount of time finding the decent story is more than the amount of time it takes to produce the story. And that as someone who wants to do creative work, you actually have to set aside just as much time for the looking for stories…
…I think that, like, not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.” — Ira Glass
I concur with Ira on this.
Stop choosing to work the heart with “emotional” ads and great production when what’s required is for you to dig harder for the right insight, fact, product differentiator, or benefit that’s actually worth advertising in the first place.
The key is to start with what Leo Burnett called the “inherent drama” of the product or service itself. THEN you can add in all that great writing and production.
When you don’t start with the inherent drama of the product itself, you get something like this:
No one believed those ads because no one drinks milk as a high-performance sports drink. The advertiser was trying to stick a false drama onto the product and the approach flopped.
Compare that to the “Got Milk” campaign. It started from the truth about — the inherent drama of — milk, as in when, and under what conditions, do real people actually crave milk and only milk? When eating a peanut butter sandwhich, or eating rich cookies. That’s when nothing but a cold glass of milk will do. An inherent drama that led to ads like this:
What about you? Are you setting aside as much time searching for great substance as you do for writing and producing your ads?
Or are you still trying to bluff with fluff?
P.S. I’d like to provide proper attribution and credit for the radio ad, but… I can’t seem to remember or re-find wherever it came from. My apologies to the ad group that created that PSA
Well… not specifically, but he did do an amazing four part series on storytelling, and I thought I’d translate his advice to advertising, starting with the first video in the series.
The first video covers Ira’s two basic building blocks of storytelling: the anecdote and the moment of reflection. And in advertising terms, I think these are roughly analogous to Relevance and Credibility. But sticking with storytelling for a moment:
- The anecdote is the narrative that presents action in real-time, pulls people into the “world” of the story, builds suspense, and generates interest, and
- The moment of reflection is the part that helps raise questions and frames the meaning of the story
You can see Ira explaining these two building blocks here:
Anecdote = Meaty Factoid or Reality Hook = Credibility
In advertising speak, the narrative is often some interesting factoid or product feature that can then be tied to a benefit, need, or desire.
- “Our product uses a better grade of X, so it [provides this benefit].”
- Or, “We spend twice as long doing Y as the other guys, and that means you get [this benefit]
- The coakroach you see in the morning is the straggler behind hundreds of others that were in your home last night.
Or it’s a reality hook that’s tied to an immediate moment of need:
- You hit your garage door opener and hear this [sound effect of Garage Door spring breaking], leaving your car trapped in your own Garage. Now what?
- That roach you saw scurrying away when you opened your pantry…
In the case of the factoid, the Anecdote is providing credibility and, with the associated benefit, some degree of relevance.
In the case of the dramatization, it’s 100% relevance, framed in terms of a recall cue. As in, when this event happens to you, remember [our brand promise]
Moment of Reflection = Raise Questions, Frame Meaning of Ad Campaign
Branding and positioning (almost) always involve theft and warfare.
The meaning of your brand and the “position” you want in the minds of consumers is usuallly already occupied, or at least contested, by another brand. Somebody else owns, or is trying to own, what you want because there are only a few positions worth owning. If you want to plant your flag on that piece of mental real estate, you’ve got to remove their flag first. Either steal the land out from under them or fight for it: theft and warfare.
Take regular old batteries: the only three qualities people care about are:
- reliable, and
And of those three, the only two suitable for branding are “long-lasting” and “reliable.” That’s why Energizer spent gazillions of dollars on that bunny that just kept going and going and going… until it had stolen “long-lasting” out from under Duracell. They could have owned some other attribute with far less effort and expense, but it wouldn’t have been worth owning.
So now Energizer owns “long-lasting” and Duracell has switched to advertising reliability, simply because it was the only thing left to take that was still worth owning.
The point to all of this is that it’s almost never enough to position your brand; you have to de-position (aka unseat) your competition as well.**
And that positioning-de-positining dance is what the moment of reflection is all about.
When you mention the fact that your brand does X (and the other brands don’t), you get to frame the meaning of that fact:
We do X because we’re committed to delivering, [this benefit]—which means that the other guy simply doesn’t care.
Now the tag end of that statement doesn’t always have to be explicitly stated. In fact, it’s often better to have the audience draw that conclusion themselves. Sometimes, though, it helps to openly call out the competition and rhetorically punch them in the face. But regardless of which way you accomplish it, that bit of de-positioning should be part of your ad.
“When your garage door breaks, call us, because we’re [the only service center in this area that is] open 24–7 and have fully stocked trucks capable of fixing your door on the first visit, even at night and on weekends. We’re here when you need us, not just when it’s convenient. [Unlike the other jerks that are only open during business hours]
But that’s just for one ad. When you start talking branding and positioning, you’re really talking about campaigns.
Chances are, if you do X because you’re committed to Y, then X isn’t the only thing you do.
In fact, you’re probably doing an entire alphabet full of things differently or better than the other guy. Actions that point back to the values that drive your company. And a good ad campaign will frame all those factoids to consistently establish and support the position you wish to claim in the mind of the customer.
So each ad, you raise a factoid (or an Anecdote in Ira Glass terms) and you frame it in terms of this value, or brand position (through a moment of reflection).
And your ads should do all of this while raising questions about why your competition doesn’t do these things and whether or not they really care about the customer at all. Position yourself; de-position your competitors.
Where Most Advertisers Go Wrong
Most advertisers go wrong in three places:
1) They provide no facts, reality hooks, or dramatized moments of need. There is nothing to establish credibility or relevance. They have no anecdote or story, so they come off as boring, irrelevant, and/or unbelievable. In the words of Roy H. Williams, the ad is all cheese and no meat. What most advertisers want to skip to is the framing part, the moment of reflection, where they just openly state what they believe and stand for, and so it comes off as so much solipsistic blah-blah-blah.
2) They try to cram all the facts into a single ad, rather than stringing them out into a campaign. When you just list the facts, they lose their dramatic impact, and you’re back to blah-blah-blah land.
3) They state a feature or function—what should be an anecdotatl bulding block—but don’t contextualize or dramatize it. There’s no interest or dramatic force in the fact they give the audience, so it doesn’t translate into relevance or even all that much credibility, either.
4) They attempt to position themselves, without deposition the brand that already holds that position in the minds of customers. If you claim a quality or position that another brand already owns, you’re really just paying to advertise them—unless you deposition them in order to reposition yourself.
And that’s Part 1. Stay tuned for part 2 later this week.
* Yes, eco-friendly or green is another quality people might care about for batteries, but then you’re into the land of rechargeables rather than regular old alkaline batteries. Different market.
** Sometimes you are lucky enough to have no meaningful competition in your cateogry, allowing you to simply claim what you want for a brand position. And that’s a very good thing. Take advantage of it! Also, I’m aware that “deposition” is a legal term, which is why I’m hyphenating the word so as to mean un-position. Thanks for indulging me in this : )
P.S. I’m usually wary of talking about marketing or advertising in terms of war, simply because the analogy doesn’t hold: in war you can attack the enemy directly, in marketing you usally can’t; all you can do is persuade the customer. Walmart didn’t kill Kmart, we did when we stopped shopping at Kmart and started shopping at Walmart instead. But the analogy is useful when describing a zero-sum competition. There is only so much market share, customer dollars, and brand positions available. Either you get them, or the competition does. Just keep in mind that the only way to beat the competition is to win the customer.
Have you ever heard of Quora?
It’s a Q&A-style social media site. People ask questions and genuine no-kidding experts answer them. Then members vote the answers up or down. The Q&As you see in your newsfeed depend on who you follow, the interests you indicate, and (of course) the questions you pose.
My addiction to Quora flows from the quality of the answers: they’re almost always insightful, experienced-based, and often brilliant.
The List of Triggers I Snagged from Quora
At any rate, one of the first Q&As I read on Quara was this one on cognitive biases: “What are some good examples of biases being exploited in marketing?”
And this answer from Kevin William Lord Barry struck me as well worth reading, copying, and (eventually) posting and riffing on as a (series of) blog post(s) [bolding is mine]:
“I think exploitation is too strong a word. Humans communication in general is an emotional thing. In any case, here’s my master list:
1) Ethos (your perceived character) is the most important, as opposed to an appeal to pathos (emotions) or logos (logic).
2) People make judgments by comparison/anchoring.
3) People process information best from stories.
4) People are foremost interested in things that affect them.
5) Breaking patterns gets attention.
6) People look to other people’s decisions when making decisions.
7) People will believe things more easily that fit their pre-existent mindset. The converse is also true.
8) People handle one idea at a time best.
9) People want more choices, but are happier with fewer.
10) People decide first, then rationalize — If people are stuck with something, they will like it more over time.
11) Experience is memory, the last part of the experience is weighted heavily.”
I’ve got to admit, Kevin created a pretty good list — why esle would I have reprinted it here? — but…
- One, it’s hardly exhaustive. I bet most of you could think of a few principles and biases well worth adding, and I invite you to do so in the comments,
- and Two, there’s no commentary, just the bare list, even though each item begs for some elaboration.
So in future posts, I’ll discuss what I’d add to the list, and then move through Kevin’s list and offer a deep-dive on each item. But for now, I’m just kind of interested in your thoughts.
What psychological principles or levers would you readers add to or take away from this list?
P.S. I’m sure many of you Cialdini fans will recognized item #6 as an expression of Social Proof — which sort of begs one to add the other “Weapons of Influence” to this list of cognitive exploits. And if you’re not familiar with Ciadlini, you can get an excellent quick and dirty intro to his 6 Principles of Influence from this video that my colleague, Tim Miles, sent me:
“Balls Beat Brains, Balls Beat Budgets” — Andy Nulman
Advertising with heart kicks two ways:
1) Advertising with Values & Passion (heart = soul)
2) Courageous Advertising (heart = lion hearted)
And, as you can see, both ways intersect in the heart. The word “courage” even comes from the French word for heart, which is why you can not only be courageous, but can encourage others, helping them to “take heart.”
This isn’t just theory, either; it’s observable fact.
Every small business advertiser I’ve worked with who had the guts to take a strong stand in their advertising (and then to back their claims up when the time came) always found the source of their gutsy courage in deeply and passionately held beliefs and values. Values imparted through family traditions, defining moments, and relationships.
This is important because it’s the business owners capable of advertising with heart that experience the most impressive (and sustained) growth.
So let’s take a closer look at Andy Nulman’s quote:
Balls Beat Brains
Of course smarts matter and sound strategy is crucial. But when it comes to small business advertising, the obstacles to adopting and implementing a sound strategy is rarely a lack of smarts or the inability to come up with (or have a professional come up with) a great strategy. The obstacle is always a lack of courage to embrace that great strategy once it has been presented.
Because great strategies are always gutsy.
This isn’t to say they are risky, though. Often the riskiest thing is NOT to use a gutsy strategy.
Gutsy gets confused with risky simply because the identity of a privately owned company is inextricably tied to the self-image of the owner. So an owner of good taste and respectability can’t help but react to any necessarily outrageous (i.e. gutsy) advertising strategy by feeling as if it requires taking exceptional risks with her self image.
Here’s how that usually manifests:
1) “The risk of insult is the price of clarity”
To make an advertising claim powerful, you have to use surprising, vivid language, and your statements have to be made without the usual conditionals, exemptions, caveats, and contextual preambles that would render them perfectly defensible.
In other words, your words have to be dramatic. And to be dramatic you have to “cause a scene,” which is to say you have to exhibit the crass bad manners of drawing attention to yourself by leveraging other people’s attentional triggers.
Business owners with manners don’t want to “cause a scene,” so their natural tendency is to wimp on the messaging by filing off all the sharp edges from the ads. “We just can’t say that!”
It takes courage (or shamelessness in general) to look at sharp messaging strategy and commit to it without flinching.
2) Saying what you stand against means making enemies
This one’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? If you choose whom to lose and state what you stand against, you’re not only purposely excluding some people and drawing a line in the sand, you’re also calling out anyone who believes otherwise.
Most business owners don’t want to do that. They want everyone to like them (and give them their business), so pissing off anyone seems like a bad way to advertise. Unfortunately, no business can be all things to all people, and you can’t have insiders without outsiders. You have to be for someone in particular, not everyone in general, if you want your message to resonate.
So only those business owners with the emotional passion to take a stand and the courage to make enemies end up with loyal customers, real brand value, and advertising capable of attracting and building such.
3) Strong Offers Absent Fine Print Means Occassionally Taking It On the Chin
My partner, Roy Williams calls it “budgeting for the knucklehead factor,” and it comes down to this: when you make unconditional guarantees on something — the quality of your products, a no excuse delivery date, an offer of a free trial — you have to overcome the fear that people will take advantage of you.
Make no mistake, it’s not a baseless fear; a small percentage of people WILL take advantage of you. That small percentage will shamelessly return an obviously abused or past-the-service-life item and ask for a replacement. Or gluttonously thieve three or four free trials, rather than limiting themselves to one. And so on.
Those people are knuckleheads, and yes, you should anticipate and budget for their shenanigans, precisely so that you can take it on the chin and smilingly live up to your promise.
Yet the real fear that business owners face isn’t the reasonably assessed risk that a small percentage of people will take advantage of them; it’s the nightmare scenario where 30% to 100% of them do. Fortunately, that scenario only exists in nightmares. Any business owner with the heart and the courage to face that fear down inevitably finds that the knuckleheads make an exceedingly small percentage of the population.
Believe it or not, the vast majority of people will treat you fairly, the vast majority of the time. Just ask companies like Walmart and LL Bean and Nordstroms — companies that make unconditional guarantees and suffer the knuckleheads in order to enjoy the business and loyalty (and profits) from the rest of us.
So for small businesses, this kind of advertising requires a double dose of courage: one to look past the irrational fear and make the strong promise or guarantee, and another to take it on the chin when the inevitable knucklehead forces the issue.
4) Telling Your Genesis Story Requires Real Vulnerability
Telling an audience about your life-defining moment takes guts because you are openly exposing your soul. But it’s also one of the only ways we’ll ever believe in your mission and your irrational commitment to it. As I wrote earlier, if you want us to believe in your superpowers, you’ve got to tell us about your genesis story.
And because telling a genesis story requires vulnerability, including one in your advertising takes guts. It takes heart in both senses of the word. Some business owners have it. Most don’t. Just ask yourself, would you be willing to expose something like this:
“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 promise I’ll be there for you.”
That’s J.R. Dunn’s Genesis story. And it took real heart to broadcast it to the world in a radio ad. Would you have the courage to do the same?
Balls Beat Budgets
The formula is quite simple:
Salience * Repetition = Long Term Memory Storage
Salience is just another word for emotional importance (aka relevance). The more emotionally important something is, the less repetition it takes to lodge in your long term memory.
You can probably remember how and when you proposed to your wife, even though you only proposed once (and if you had to propose more than once, that definitely got permantly chiseled into your consciousness). You can also likely recall exactly where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news about 9–11.
And as a former high school teacher, I can also tell you that the opposite is true: as emotional importance falls to zero, the number of repetitions required to make something stick approaches infinity.
Courageous Advertising amps up the emotional importance — the surprise and the audacity — of the ads in order to boost the salience of the message. Assuming, of course, that the message had any relevance to the customer to begin with. Commiting to a relevant message to begin with requires courage, and then accepting gutsy wording/copy requires additional courage from the business owner.
The upshot is that courageous ads require significantly less repetition. And in advertiging, repetition = money. That’s how small budgets beat big budgets, or in Andy’s terms, how Balls Beat Budgets.
Better yet, audacious advertising gets it’s own free press and attention — on an order way beyond what even most big budgets can buy. Just ask the creators of the Poo Pourri video below how much free news coverage and viral sharing their video received. It’s on the order of hundreds of millions. And it was made for just a few thousand dollars.
Of course, it takes some audacity to make an ad like that, but that’s the point, isn’t it?
And it’s not just about videos. This applies to publicity stunts, signage, store decoration, direct mail packages — everything. Audacity gets noticed, remarked on, and spread by word of mouth, social media, news, etc. This is another way that balls beat budget.
Of course, audacity is one thing, but audacity that reflects your values and deeply held beliefs is even better. Remember, it’s best to combine both meanings of courage — heart and balls.
That’s why effective advertising is almost always courageous advertising.