71204_BadHaircutEither you sell $5 haircuts, or you fix $5 haircuts. If you’re selling services, you know what I’m talking about.

Whether you’re selling car washes, copywriting, carpet cleaning, or kitchen remodels, you’ve likely noticed the once-burned aspect of your best customers.  The clients who pay your premium price most willingly and are most appreciative of the differences between you and the price-based competition are usually the clients who already tried the cheapo-charlies and got burned.

And you also probably still pull your hair out when never-burned prospects pass you up for the cheaper option.  Or for no-option and procrastination.

This is where fortune-telling can fill your pockets with gold.

Because you’ve seen this movie before, you know how it ends.  You can predict the precipitant event that’ll jar your prospects from procrastination, or the exact moment of clarity and regret that’ll send them screaming back from the “cheaper” alternative.  And you can describe it with eerily vivid detail and precision – all long before the prospect ever makes his wrong turn.

That way, when your words prove prescient, your dearest prospect will want someone who understands the jam he’s in and who can help him fix it.  So with just a little intelligent planning on your part, you can weave into your storytelling the exact “script” for his return to you, including:

  • The best points in the process for your prospect to switch service providers
  • Justifications for his change in mind
  • Exactly how to contact you
  • What information he’ll need to have on hand
  • What to expect for a solution, etc.

Yes, you can do this in person.  But you can also do it with your Web copy, which will give you 3 major advantages:

1) You reach early stage buyers who are just doing research and potentially re-frame their buying criterion to your advantage.  A few vividly told horror stories sometimes swings decisions around and increases immediate sales.

2) You forewarn even the prospects who still chose the cheaper alternative. After reading your story, prospects who do chose the cheapo charlies are a lot more wary of what can go wrong and head the warning signals earlier in the process, when stuff first starts to slide.

3) You gain instant credibility when newly-burned clients find you from a pain-driven Google search.  You may not pop up for google searches on “inexpensive fashion haircut,” while easily placing 1st for “fixing horrific hair cuts.”  And when that happens, everything you wrote about the daners of the $5 haircut will ring true for the visitors coming to you from that kind of search.  You’ll have just created all kinds of credibility for yourself.

Just do yourself a favor and be as specific and vivid as possible.  Because when you’re describing a future event, specifics make the event feel closer.

And make sure to emphasize your ability to pick-up the pieces when prospects experience a cheapo-charlie disaster.  Direct the movie in your prospect’s head.  Give them a new ending to the film.  Give them a happy ending and watch them flock to your theatre to see it – higher ticket price and all.

4028353766_1326313519Never ask a barber if you need a haircut

– Cowboy Wisdom as quoted by Warren Buffet

Your website, e-mail, and direct mail copy all suffers from a flaw that kills reader belief.  And there’s no real way to prevent that problem – only workarounds and partial solutions.

It’s the nature of the copywriting beast to suffer the fate of the barber telling people they need a haircut – the vested interest of the speaker works against his believability.

And that’s why stories come in so handy.  While the right story won’t prevent the problem, it will overcome it with a double whammy of psychology capable of crushing this credibility gap like an empty beer can. Here’s why:

1) Flattery works, even when you know the flattery isn’t sincere.

Or so says recent psychological research titled: “Insincere Flattery Actually Works“.  Even though we like to think that we’re too smart to be influenced by insincere flattery, our intellectual understanding of the intent to persuade doesn’t stop the emotional influence of the message.

And the same also extends to a story that flatters the listener.  A story that flatters your prospective customers’ sensibilities, suspicions, judgements, or aspirations will emotionally influence them, even when they recognize your vested interest in telling the story.

This stands in sharp contrast to bragging, which never works regardless of how sincere it might be. So why does most copy brag instead of flatter? In the words of Bryan Eisenberg, why is there so much we-we copy?

While emotional-directed advertising has historically performed twice as well as purely rational ads, the key to making those ads work is to focus on the buyer’s emotion, not the seller’s.

2) We unconsciously “see” things through the eyes of the story’s protagonist

When listening to a story, we understand the narrative by picturing the experience as it occurs to the protagonist.  When we hear a story, we identify with the protagonist, not just visually, but emotionally. That’s why we love happy endings, and why watching an authentic tragedy leaves us feeling devastated and drained.

Put these two psychological principles together with the right kind of story and you’ve got persuasive dynamite.  Here’s a perfect case study demonstrating just how effective this can be:

Beckley Automotive’s 30% Sales Jump

My friend and colleague, Chuck McKay, works with a 15-bay repair shop in Des Moines by the name of Beckley Automotive.  Steve Beckley’s shop works on the European Imports he loves and drives himself: Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Land Rover, Mini, Volkswagen, Saab, and Volvo (along with Acura, Lexus, and Infinity).

For years Steve has purchased lists of European Import owners in Des Moines and has used multiple post card mailings to remind owners that someone in town understands all the ins and outs of the cars they drive. Over the years those cards have payed off handsomely.

But the cards suffered from the “barber telling you you need a haircut” problem: it’s just not very credible when anyone brags about how great they are – especially when they’re out to get your business.

So Chuck advised Steve Beckley to do two things with his mailings:

  1. Stop appealing to European Import owners and start appealing to owners of specific brands.  In the words of Chuck: “A Range Rover owner doesn’t think of himself as a ‘European Import Owner.’  He thinks of himself as someone who drives a Range Rover.  Speak directly to him.”  In other words, appeal to emotion& self-identity.
  2. Stop speaking like an advertiser and start communicating more like a good friend.  Start telling stories.

So to Steve’s immense credit, he took that advice, ditched his old copy, and wrote awesomely effective stories for each of the European marques he works on.  Stories like this one he sent to Mercedes owners:

Beckley Imports

Wouldn’t You Feel Smug?

Can you just imagine how self-satisfied you’d feel upon reading this story if you owned and drove a Mercedes Benz? You might just feel downright smug after reading that story.  And even though you’d know, in the back of your mind somewhere, that Beckley Automotive was trying to flatter you with that story, it wouldn’t matter: you’d still walk away a heck of lot more likely to call them for your auto work.

Indeed, that was exactly the case for recipients of these story-based postcard mailers, whose increased patronage of Beckley Automotive led to a 29.9% increase in sales this March over March of last year.

And that’s the power of smug.

It’s also a great way to sell a man a haircut when all the world can see that you’re a barber.

P.S. Chuck McKay does a lot more than advise clients on messaging and copy.  He’s also a superb Business and Marketing Strategist who manages to combine those rare-enough-on-their-own traits of clear thinking, small business savvy, and creative execution.  If you’re looking to grow in spite of the current economic climate, do yourself a favor – check out Chuck’s blog and drop him a message.

baddesignThere are a lot of bad Web designers out there.

Of course, that’s nothing against Web designers – there’s also a lot of atrocious Web copy out there, too. The difference is that everyone thinks they can write well, while most everyone believes they can’t draw. Moreover, the popular perception of good writing centers on clarity, whereas the popular perception of designcenters on creativity. All of which means bad design gets unleashed on the world, and goes un-optimized, more often than bad web copy.

Having dropped that turd in the punchbowl, let me admit that I’m no designer myself, with any knowledge I do have coming from self education.

Yet precisely because I am not a designer, I’ve always aimed my self-education at developing a knowledge of design fundamentals rather than of design tools.  And this has left me continually scratching my head when I consistently see those fundamental design principles violated by Web designers.

Sometimes I wondered if it was just me and my own deeply-ingrained Conversion-centric view of Web design, pounded into me by Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg.  But as it turns out, it ain’t just me…

Why does this matter to a copywriter?

Because your Web copy’s effectiveness will be dramatically affected by page design.

So what do I recommend if you’re a copywriter who is forced to work with a mediocre designer?  Educate yourself, learn to speak design, and force designers/clients to test disputed design decisions.

Here are 14 Starter Resources to Begin Your Design Education:

When you can articulate your objections to bad design more eloquently and professionally than the designer can advocate for his design, you’ll have a huge leg up.  And when that fails, you can always demand a split test between the simpler, cleaner design and whatever creative layout your designer has come up with.

So what about you?  What design resources have you found invaluable?  What do you recommend when working with a less-than-stellar Web designer?  Let me know in the comments!

P.S. The “Bad Design Kills” icon was created by Von Glitschka and used with permission.

P.P.S. Sorry for the lapse in posts.  Had some health issues and am just now feeling on the mend.

gossipYou’re thinking of buying something or some service and an acquintance says, “Don’t do it; I bought that/hired them and it was a total waste of money.  I got screwed.”

Do you trust that acquaintance enough to let them sway your decision? Generally speaking, yes.

But if you’re on Amazon, looking at an interesting book, and you see a handful of 5-star reviews, many claiming that this is “The Best” book on the subject, do you trust the positive reviews?

Well, it depends on how well written and substantiated the reviews are, etc. But generally speaking, no, you don’t really trust them.  All else being equal, we tend to give far less credence to positive reviews than negative ones.

Why we trust negative reviews more than positive recommendations

Basically, we grant others authority in the matter of their own personal experiences. If they say their favorite color is blue, we believe them.  If they say they had a bad experience with such and such a product or service provider, we believe that too, because they are speaking from their own personal experience in that one situation.

You don’t have to be an expert on vacum cleaners to know that the one you bought has failed you miserably. And your experience alone is often enough to sway someone from buying that brand.

But a general recommendation is different. The ability to credibly make a positive recommendation requires more than just personal experience with a given product. For a recommendation to be persuasive, the reader must have faith in the reviewer’s overall judgement and in their field-specific knowledge.

You can tell me you liked a specific type of ergonomic chair, but your experience alone isn’t enough to make me want to buy that chair because there are a lot of good chairs out there and I’m not looking for good – I’m looking for the best my money can buy.

In order to persuade me that the chair you bought is the best chair for my money, you have to have more than just your experience with the chair.  You need to have broad knowledge and expertise (or at least experience) with the top ergonomic chairs on the market so that you can compare multiple chairs and competently pick out the best performing chair for the money.

To believe and act on your recommendation, I’d need to know:

  • that your use of the chair is similar to mine,
  • that you’ve already tried a bunch of chairs, and
  • what your criteria were for selecting the chair you did.

All this over and above your personal experience with the chair you eventually bought and recommended.

See the difference?

A Social Media “Friend” isn’t necessarily a friend

A lot has been made recently about studies purporting to show that people trust their friends less and experts more. It’s well worth looking at the study, but be careful about applying this too broadly.

First of all, what the study is really saying is that people trust anonymous reviews less than recommendations stemming from an authoritative source.  Well, duh!

Does that mean reviews and testimonials have lost importance?  Hell no.  Keeping in mind what we just discussed, here’s what I believe it means:

  1. Negative reviews can still have an outsized impact.
  2. Positive reviewers need to substantiate their unbiased nature and subject matter expertise.

Sean D’Souza is ahead of the curve, as usual

What this really reminds me of is Sean D’Souza’s advice on Testimonials, advice that clearly understood (and masterfully leveraged) this phenomena several years ago when his product first came out.  He used to give the PDF away to members of his newsletter, but the product he’s selling now for $40 is well worth it, in my humble opinion – and I’ve sampled more than my fair share of copywriting books, info-products, and guru advice 😉

shovelWhat tells you when it’s time to stop digging?

That repentance is necessary for salvation is hardly a principle confined to Christianity. It’s really as simple as saying that if you’ve dug yourself into a hole, you need to:

  1. realize you’re in a hole, and
  2. stop digging, and
  3. become open to solutions (aka, a way out)

And until you do, you won’t have much hope of getting out of that hole. Obviously, the sooner you recognize the hole, the easier the process is. Just as obviously, this applies to businesses as well as individuals.

In fact, a lot of hole-digging in business involves maximizing short term profit at the expense of long-term reputation, customer satisfaction, product improvement, etc. Mostly because profitability is fervently measured while the long term things often don’t even have indicators, let alone measurements. This means most companies don’t realize they’ve dug themselves into a hole until a crisis hits.

So what are your early indicators for these “soft” or long-term factors? Have you bothered to set any up, or are crises going to be the only indicator that the hole you’re in is higher than your arms can reach?


Are you demanding a state of grace, or are you willing to take people as they are?

One of the few things I don’t like about Getting Things Done is the “state of grace” factor.  Meaning you have to start your system from a point at which everything is accounted for on a slip of paper in your in-box. You have to take 1-2 days out of your life to get yourself to the starting point.

I think that’s one reason there are far more variants of GTD and people using modified GTD systems than there are actual GTD practitioners. People like the system, but most can’t start from that all-too-hard-to-achieve state of grace.

Similarly, businesses that are willing to take people as they are generally do a whole lot better than businesses that force customers to have gotten their ducks in a row beforehand. People want solutions, not an “I told you so.” Think of the difference between a normal university and most online universities. They’ll always be a Harvard, but I think a lot of 3rd Tier Colleges and Universities are about to get crunched as more and more people opt for educational alternatives that will take them where they are.

What about your business?  Are you willing to meet people where they are – to save them from their past stupidity if needed – or are you demanding customers enter your doors in a state of grace?


An apology without a “Mea Culpa” isn’t a real apology.

I know that with businesses there are sometimes legal issues with admitting you did something wrong, but frankly, more companies wimp out of making a real apology from fear than they do from actual legal constraints.

What they end up with is a psuedo-apology where they kind of sorta say they’re going to do better without specifically admitting or addressing what they did wrong. But an insincere apology is worse than no apology.

If you’re making a statement about a mishap that’s your fault, you should say that it’s your fault, specifically and directly.  Don’t hedge, don’t be vague, and don’t try to spin it while you’re apologizing.


The object of giving something up is to gain something else

Christians fast and make sacrifices during Lent  — i.e., they give up temporal, worldly pleasures and activities — so as to better concentrate their minds on the eternal and the spiritual. It’s not just about giving something up, it’s about eliminating some things to focus more on others.

This is a recognition that you can’t just add and add and add without having things get crowded out of the picture – usually the wrong things, the most important things.

While we all tend to endlessly add To-Dos to our list, there’s only so much time in the day. How many of us actively focus on a Stop Doing list? The idea is to replace less effective and efficient strategies and practices with more effective ones.  So shouldn’t we have as many “Stop Doing” items as “Start Doings”?

What’s on your “Stop Doing” list?

2010-02-16_0013If you’ve ever been frustrated and beaten down by this or that issue at work, was your outlook on that issue one of dispassionate, organizational-focused analysis?

Or was your search for a solution to the problem just as emotionally driven as any consumer purchase?

The ugly truth about B2B Copy: most of it assumes that organizations buy things.

But I’ve never heard of an organization getting on its computer, checking out a Website, filling out lead forms, or meeting with sales reps.  The only people who do those things are, well, people.

And like all people, B2B customers generally trying to do one of two things:

  1. Trying to get what they want
  2. Trying to get away from (or avoid) a problem/pain in the butt that they don’t want

In either situation, emotions rule the day.  And so does the context of the situation.  This is where even decent B2B copy goes wrong by assuming only positive motivation from the buyer.  The copy acts as if only proactive customers exist in the marketplace.

Apparently, whoever wrote the copy never lifted their head above the cubicle or observed much of the outside world.  Yes, some people are aggressively proactive. But the majority?  They’re usually moving away from pain, typically in the face of crisis. They get serious about fitness after a health scare or humiliating event. They avidly back-up computers after a hard drive failure.  And so on.

And if you don’t think the same thing happens with organizations, you’re nuts; again, it’s people that are doing the buying, and as importantly, institutions generally have MORE neurosis than individuals, not less.

Here’s a few business examples of this same behavior:

  • Sales results slide a bit, but aren’t really bad enough to push management into real action.  They look around at some of their sales training and sales recruiting options, but sit on that information as long as times are moderately good.  Then, when a competitor starts stealing away key accounts or the market starts shrinking it suddenly becomes time to buy sales training.
  • A company’s e-mail hosting requirements grows increasingly more complex.  The in-house hosting becomes shaky at best and the IT manager knows it should be outsourced.  He takes a look at his outsourcing options, but he’s got about 10 other higher-priority items on his to-do list.  He might putter along like this for a year before suffering, say, a 2-day e-mail outage.  Now the IT manager/company is really in the market for outsourced exchange hosting.

dominoesWhat I’m talking about are precipitating events – the kind of things that move a someday/maybe aspiration into a firm resolve to buy.

Now here’s the deal: most companies involved with B2B and complex sales know (or at least the sales people know) exactly what their top 5 or so precipitating events are. Yet most B2B websites fail to address the negative buying emotions stemming from those precipitative events.

Last week I was invited to take part in a landing page critique by Bryan Eisenberg.  My first question was, “what was the precipitating event?”  And based on the answers to that one question, the copy was totally transformed.

In the space of a short half-hour call, the clients themselves were able to take copy that read like something a Perl script might spit to messaging that compelling addressed the real buying motivations of the visitor.  Like magic.

You can do it too.  Just ask yourself, what are your clients’ precipitating events? Ask your sales team if you need help.

Now go look at your Web copy while keeping those precipitating events clearly in mind.

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