“The longer it takes to explain an idea, the smaller it seems” — Lee Clow
Great ads can deliver an idea like “Winning the Battle of the Short List” in less than 30 seconds. Or in the example below, in 9 short lines and less than 64 words. Better yet, great ads make you feel the truth of the idea in your gut.
How do they do that?
Usually with drama. Take this magazine ad I ran into over at the Sell! Sell! Blog:
Totally different experience than reading my blog post on the same subject, right?
And they created that experience through short-form drama. They sucked you into a story — smack in the middle of a mini drama — before you even realized it. And while you were mentally playing out that drama, they sucker punched you with the emotional truth of the idea. Here’s how:
1) The image of the ad has a high degree of story appeal. The guy is looking at you and he doesn’t look happy. So what’s that all about, right? Apparently there’s trouble in River City, and where there’s trouble, there’s a story. So curiosity obliges you to read the copy to figure it out and get the scoop.
2) The copy speaks directly to you, the reader. You are indeed being addressed by this man, and — boom! — at that instant you’re now inside the drama.
3) The copy makes it immediately and painfully obvious that you’re walking into a tough sell. A very tough sell that get’s tougher with each line of copy from the prospects mouth.
So once you finish reading and finally pop out of the mini-drama, the emotional truth of the message hits home. There’s just no denying the truth of that final “Moral.”
The Beauty of Short-Form Drama
So what’s the moral of THIS story?
Moral: Great ad writers do use short form storytelling and short form drama to cause people to realize the truth of your message on an emotional, gut-feel level. Most advertising fails because most ads aren’t written by ad writers capable of persuading through short-form drama.
What kind of persuasion is your ad writer baking into your ads?
OK, before you do anything else, watch this all the way through:
Now, regardless of which side of this issue you are on, put that aside for now. If you don’t you’ll never see the persuasive art at work in the film.
So what techniques ARE at work in the film?
Well, the grand strategy is to get you emotionally involved in the story of the featured man’s relationship — presumably with a woman who’s “first person shooter” perspective you’re watching in the video.
In fact, the creators of this video want you to not only be drawn into the narrative arc of their story, but to be “rooting” for the couple. So how do they do that?
1) Use of First Person Shooter Perspective & Narrative Misdirection
Whenever fiction writers need to write a suspense novel or mystery, they usually write from a Third Person Limited perspective, meaning the reader sees the world through the eyes of the main character and is privy to that one character’s thoughts, but every other character is only ever presented externally, as seen through the eyes of the main character.
This perspective allows close identification between the reader and the main character. It also allows the author to lead the reader in one direction, and then yank the carpet out from under their feet for a “big reveal.” We see Harry Potter’s world through the eyes of Harry Potter, and are surprised to find Quirrell, and not Snape, as the bad guy at the end of Sorcerer’s Stone.
Sounds kind of like the video, doesn’t it?
Of course it does. In the video, you see everything from the perspective of the “girl” being flirted with, dated by, and romanced by “Paul.” And you frequently experience you and Paul’s co-participating in activities with other hetero couples. Leading you to believe that Paul is also involved in a hetero couple.
This sets the stage. This technique allows the video to get you to think about the couple absent any other preconceptions you might have. They have to get you to like and root for the couple BEFORE the big reveal.
So step 1 is First Person Shooter Perspective combined with Narrative Misdirection.
2) Use of “Character Rooting Techniques”
Screenwriting gurus will tell you that you can’t assume the audience will like and root for your main character — you have to bake in scenes designed to GET the audience to like and root for your character. The late Blake Snyder called this “saving the cat” and thought it was important enough to name his first screenwriting book, Save the Cat.
And the corollary to saving the cat? Squashing the cat. You either have the hero perform some kind or heroic act, or you have the character suffer some kind of undeserved misfortune. Disney redeems the thieving Aladin in the eyes of the audience by having him give his stolen food to street urchins. He saves the cat. Cinderella loses her mom, and gets abused by her stepmom. She suffers undeserved misfortune.
So what does this film do?
- It starts out with playful, “meet cute” flirting. Every adult has had this experience and most people reflect back on the fear and emotional charge of such a moment, meaning that you almost can’t help but want success (however you define it) for the people involved.
- Lot’s more “Like me” moments. Playing on the beach, meeting parents, arguing over directions, and lots of other similar scenes that most viewers can instantly identify with.
- Playfulness. Most of the scenes show “Paul” acting playful and fun. This is very human and makes the couple instantly likeable.
- Undeserved misfortune. Paul’s mom is introduced earlier in one of those “like me moments” that define the narrative arc of the relationship. So when Paul’s mom dies, we can’t help but ache for him. And to appreciate the relationship that helps him get through that death.
So we get lots of Character Rooting Interest moments packed into this 2 minute video. All setting up maximum emotional punch for the big reveal.
What the Heck Does this Have to Do with Advertising?
If these fiction writing techniques can get you to like and root for a couple in spite of a highly-charged politically divisive issue, do you think they could work to get you to identify with and like a brand?
Sure they could. Similar techniques worked for Tony the Tiger, the Jolly Green Giant, Bartles & Jaymes, and “I’m a Mac.” And they can be put to work for you, too, even if you’re not a huge multinational. Here’s an example created by my partner, Roy Williams, for a local HVAC client:
And here’s another one:
So, do you think that after watching a series of these ads, you might start liking and rooting for Mr. Jenkins and Bobby?
Well, whether you do or not, the ads are increasing sales. So somebody’s rooting for Mr. Jenkins. Actually, a whole lot of somebodies.
What are you doing to get people to root for YOUR business?
It does require a certain repetition of high-impact messaging for key influencers and decision makers. But that can be achieved through the use of targeted mailings, rather than, say, radio spots.
Take the IT example from last week’s Theory Thursday column: if you knew that the short list for IT vendors was composed lower-down on the food chain than the CIO, for example, you could do exploratory work getting the contact info for those IT managers, and create a monthly mailing to them for your particular brand and service promises.
A mailing a month with relevant messaging and creative execution would certainly gain you top of mind awareness with those managers when they ended up in the market for what you sell.
Of course, the key to all this is the “relevant messaging” and “creative execution” parts. If you aren’t relevant and interesting they will ignore you. So let’s get down to the practical part of this!
So when mass media isn’t feasbile, and you’re not selling a product with widespread, mass appeal, here’s how to create “monthly mailings” that’ll win you the battle for the short list:
Make routine mailings more relevant by focusing in on Precipitating Events
If your IT company offers hosted exchange hosting, realize that people don’t switch from in-house to hosted exchange services on a whim, or on the proposed hope of saving some marginal amount of the IT budget.
IT managers typically switch to hosted exchange because they’re worried about:
- e-mail service going down
- e-mail service getting botched
- e-mail service getting messed up with some new upgrade,
- or they have a bad feeling,
- or all of the above.
And the reason these managers put off switching is because of the pain and distruption generally involved in the switch.
So what if your routine mailings stopped promising exquisite service and low turnover, yada, yada, yada, and instead starting focusing in on guaranteed less than 12-hour migration time tables. Ability to migrate even downed systems. Guaranteed no loss of data, and so on. Make the messaging relevant to the pain points of the manager experiencing the precipitant event.
Make Routine Mailings Relevant by Giving Key Information to the Inside Decision Makers
A colleague of mine, Tom Wanek, works with a Physical Therapist who was having lousy luck getting doctors to recommed his work, even though they personally thought he was a top notch therapist in the area.
Turns out, the doctors simply didn’t like being on the hook for a perceived “endorsement” and would rather prescribe the therapy and let patients make their own decisions about who to use.
So my colleague advised the therapist to focus in on the practice managers and nurses at the front desk by sending routine mailers out to them.
And what was on those mailers?
A list of the types of therapy provided and specialized in, types of insurance covered, and so on. They even occassionally put that on a magnet, to make it easier to use as a ready reference.
Now, when the patient walked out with paperwork for this type of therapy, and an insurance card from that provider, the nurses can look at the reference card, and recommend my colleagues client as at least one of the providers the patient could go to.
In other words, that sort of Key Information mailer helped win The Battle of the Short List.
Make Routine Mailings Fun
The problem with a lot of mailers is that they look like junk mail. Hey, from a certain perspective — that of a guy sorting mail over a trash can — they ARE junk mail. Injecting some fun and creativity into the mailer gets your stuff looked at and appreciated.
There are tons of creative techniques but I might recommend Bill Glazer’s Outrageous Advertising. Lots of good examples that are easy to swipe and deploy for your own business.
You can also look at the products available from 3dmailresults.com and you should get a few ideas on 3-dimensional mailing gimicks that could be used to get your mailer opened and looked at. And, no, you don’t need to use 3-dimensional mailings, a little creativity can allow you to create mailings around current events, such as this Groundhog Day mailing my partner Tim Miles made.
Finally, in keeping with the “Practical Tactical” theme, here’s a nice way to outsource your requent mailers: sendoutcards.com
So Here Are Your 4 Practical Take Aways
1. Make a list of the “real” decision makers in an organization
Who might make the decision other than the person who bottom-lines the check? Managers, Executive Assistants, End Users of the Product, Sales Staff, and so on.
2. Make a list of precipitant events for your industry, product or service
Figure out what happens to the prospect to kick off her moment of need. If you’re not sure of what those events are, ask your sales team; they’ll know. And if your sales team doesn’t know, you might want to look into getting some better sales talent as long term solution to that. Short term, do some digging on appropriate internet forums, bulletin boards, twitter, social media platforms, and so on.
3. Figure out key information your short-list decision makers will need
Don’t assume it’s necessarily pricing. It could center around compatibility, speed, service after the sale, financing, service level agreements, or sales. Whatever it is, figure it out. Again, your sales team should know this stuff, if you don’t. And if neither you or your sales staff know it, consider interviewing or surveying some or all of your past customers. This stuff is important — no, crucial!
4. Ideate some creative mailers and start sending them out
Need some help getting creative? You could find some useful stuff here
I’ve blogged about this particular piece of film genius before, but I recently came across a brilliant video mash-up of all Ned Ryerson’s scenes. And what’s so great about this video, beyond the fact that it’s hysterical, is that it highlights the beauty of set-ups and pay-offs — a dramatic technique that’s usually a lot harder to see or show.
Normally, a writer has to work to bring things around, full circle, in order to show character change, making it a bit more difficult to pick out and showcase the set-ups and payoffs. But the “stuck in the same day” premise of Groundhog Day removes that difficulty, allowing the creation of mashup like the one below. A mashup that perfectly demonstrates the beauty of set-ups and pay-offs : )
P.S. If you’re a fan of the movie, you might also enjoy this blog post on Groundhog Day’s “Hidden Heroin”
And in an online world dominated by Direct Response, reason-why advertising, creative, “branding” ads often do seem utterly indulgent wastes.
But for all that, creativity remains important. Branding remains important. And they remain important because of the following basic truths of real-word marketing:
1) People don’t make buying decisions rationally.
2) Some messaging can only be credibly delivered BEFORE the prospect is in the market for the product or service
3) Getting people to pay attention to messaging for products they’re not buying now requires ads capable of interesting them with something other than the sales offer itself
Combined, this means that hitting potential, at-some-point-to-be prospective customers with recurrent, emotionally resonant messaging that will sink in BEFORE and be “reactivated” or “recalled” WHEN they are ready to buy works in ways that direct sales messages don’t. But that kind of advertising requires creativity.
So let’s take these one at a time, in greater depth:
People Don’t Make Buying Decisions Rationally
I was on the phone the other day with the owner of a B2B Lead Generation company. I won’t say exactly what he sold, but it definitely falls into the realm of big-ticket, considered purchase equipment. And according to his considerable historic data, most companies compiled their “short list” of possible suppliers based on gut feel.
Here’s a feel for how that works:
- There are a handful of tier 1 behemoth’s that most people put on the list, following the “nobody ever got fired for going with IBM” mentality.
- There are a score or so of smaller tier 2 suppliers that may well be better options than the 3 or so tier 1 providers. Due to the amount of these tier 2 providers and the very nature of being tier 2, it’s likely that either none of them, or only 1 or 2 of them will make the list.
- The decision of which tier 1 providers to put on the list and which tier 2 providers to add to that list gets made in conversation over a few minutes, mostly off of reputation, gut feel, and sales relationships. It almost never gets made from exhaustive analysis, reference to specifications, pricing, etc.
- Once the short list is made, THEN the research gets done, the bids go out, etc.
Anybody who understands this knows that the real battle for any Tier 2 provider ISN’T a battle for specifications or price. The real battle is the battle for the short list. And if 20 potential vendors are narrowed down to 1 or 2 in a matter of minutes, then it’s a battle determined almost entirely by Top of Mind Awareness and Gut-Level reputation.
Also, keep in mind that this is the buying process for a very dry, technical, considered purchase. If that doesn’t get bought in a rational manner, what does?
Now, most people use Blendtec as an example of “Viral Marketing” or the power of YouTube. Frankly, I think that represents what Bob Hoffman calls, “arguing from the extreme” — as in what percentage of videos go viral? And what percentage of those are commercial in nature? And what percentage of those actually manage to impact sales? Do the math and you’ll find that Blendtec is a veritable freak of nature, and not a representative example of any sort.
But as an example of winning the battle of the short list through creative advertising, Blendtec is right on the money. Very few people probably saw those videos and rushed out, on the spot, to buy themselves a Blendtec blender, in some sort of direct response frenzy. Operators were NOT standing by, after all.
What DID happen, though, was that people saw those videos, filed that attention-grabbing demo away for future use, and ended up putting Blendtec on their short list when it did come time to shop for a high-end blender. A neat little trick that more than doubled sales. And a trick that wasn’t done with spec sheets and data points, but through a creative, whacky demo.
Some Messaging Can Only Be Credibly Delivered BEFORE “Go Time”
Few people want to believe they’re “susceptible” to advertising. Nor at first glance, should they, as most of us DO discount paid-for message in light of the obvious self-interest and bias. But that’s only in the short term, while we’re consciously thinking about it.
But that’s not what happens over time. The latest psychological research shows that over time the emotional messaging imparted from the advertising sticks while our intellectual discounting of the message wears away. So over time, intelligently crafted advertising DOES affect our internal, gut-feel of the brand.
Get it? Tell me you have the ideal solution for me when I need what you sell, and I’ll discount your claim. Convey that same claim to me through your ads, before I need what you sell, and — with some luck and skill — I’LL have a gut-level feeling that you’ll be the best provider to buy from.
In other words, the battle for the short list has to be won BEFORE the battle — with creative advertising! Or as Leo Burnett would say, “Before you can have a share of market, you must have a share of mind.”
If you can’t grab their attention with WIIFM, your ad had better be INTERESTING
“The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.”
In other words, without some amount of creativity — the “imaginatively, originally, freshly” part — you’re sunk.
And that makes sense, doesn’t it? If I’m talking to you about some product or service you’re currently ready to buy, I’ve already had a certain amount of relevance given to my messaging just based on circumstance. If you’re already in the market for a high-end blender, a headline for 30% off on a Vitamix would grab your attention. But if you’re NOT currently in the market for what I’m selling, then my messaging has to gain your attention through some other means. That’s where creativity earns its place. In the mixer example, creativity in the form of a whacky demo gets me to willing watch the Blendtec videos, even though I have no current desire to buy a blender.
Creativity also factors into making a point felt, rather than just understood, which is sort of important if you’re trying to impart a “gut feel.” If you’re message doesn’t make an emotional impact, I won’t remember it. And if I don’t remember it, I won’t help you win the battle for the short list.
Want an example of all this?
OK. Here’s a radio ad from my colleague Chuck McKay. It was written for a firm of divorce lawyers. Take a listen and see for yourself just how much creativity is or is not a key factor in the effectiveness of this ad:
P.S. Chuck will be doing a “Free Consulting Friday” promotion tomorrow. Want a chance to pick Chuck’s brain for free? Drop him an e-mail telling him your marketing problem/question, and he’ll schedule a phone call with you.
1) Practical Tactical Tuesday
2) Theory Thursday
I’m aiming for an interesting theoretical post each Thursday, followed up by perhaps a case study or a quick and dirty how-to on the following Tuesday. In between, I might throw in some shorter link-based posts, lists, and interviews, but I’m not promising those on any kind of regular basis — just the Tuesday & Thursday content.
So look for the first ever Theory Thursday post tomorrow, and in the meantime, here’s a quick thought and a cool article worth sharing:
“According to the Bible, when Christ stood up and made his sermon on the Mount he preached to the masses. he didn’t get up on that rock and say, ‘I’d like to talk to 18–25 year old ABCs, with a predisposition to change and a disposable income of X.’ No, he got up an preached to as many people as possible.” - Sir John Hegarty
And here’s a pretty good article talking about this exact same advertising mistake:
P.S. Hat Tip to my colleague, Steve Rae, for forwarding the Slate article to me.