Turns out I missed my blog’s one year anniversary, which took place on October 7th. Doh!
Oh well, since I also missed the chance to post these thoughts pre-Thanksgiving, I thought I’d share this as a way of saying thanks to all of you, my readers and subscribers.
Anyone familiar with Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey, or even with Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet from Save The Cat, knows that stories revolve around a very predictable set of structural elements:
- The hero almost always starts out with some fear, block, wound, or limitation to be overcome or transcended as a result of the journey taken, usually expressed in a stasis = death moment
- The hero typically resists the “call to adventure” before being somewhat forced to “cross the threshold,”
- There’s an “all is lost moment”
- and in any story not a tragedy, there’s also the happy ending
What you don’t likely think about is that we all go through this cycle multiple times in our lives. Heck, if “mythic” structure applies to freakin’ TV commercials, don’t you think it can apply to your work-a-day world? Well, it can and it does. And that realization has really been a portal to sincere gratitude for me.
See, instead of expressing gratitude in general for everything good in my life, I take a trip back, 5 years ago, 10 years, ago or even earlier. I mentally go back to the last time I faced a stasis = death moment in my life, or the last time life pushed me past the threshold by kicking me squarely in the nuts. I recall all those unpleasant feelings and what my life was like in that moment, and from that act of remembrance, all of the many blessings that have come into my life since then fall into sharp relief. I get to see the happy endings to a lot of cycles, and the gratitude that comes from that lasts far longer than a strained attempt to be thankful in general. Highly recommended.
A year ago I was leaving my old blogging home at Future Now and starting up an unknown blog in the already overcrowded field of copywriting and marketing. And while the ending hasn’t yet been written, the journey has been a blast. Thank you for being part of it.
““Know something, sugar? Stories only happen to people who can tell them.” — Alan Gurganus
“Being 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]
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.
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.
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.
Then 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 $1 isn’t that big, the principle remains the same: you are likely competing for dollars with businesses far outside your category. When it comes time to buy Christmas presents for the kids, bikes and sports equipment and toys and video games and books and trips are all competing for the same dollars.
This is especially true if you’re selling a premium or near-luxury product. In order to trade up somewhere, I generally have to trade down somewhere else. Convince me your product or service is the place where I should spend my “trading-up” dollars.
Finally, never discount the age-old option of doing nothing. I could buy a new 27-inch iMac, or I could do nothing and be happy with the my current Mac laptop. I could go on a vacation, or enjoy a staycation instead. As an advertiser, doing nothing is often your biggest competition, and yet, many copywriters ignore this competitor entirely.
And that’s all for me — I’m off to get a free coffee at Burger King ; )
While most of us would probably rather shout: “Stop the insanity you *&$!@#! 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:
- Who you’re not a good choice for
- What areas you don’t specialize in
- Where you have higher costs, wait times, or different ways of doing business
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:
“[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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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
- 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
Justin 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.