Article category “Effective Writing”
That’s what it takes for movies to work.
Without our granting movie-makers “suspension of disbelief,” we could hardly enjoy the moment when it seems that the bad guy has gotten away alone on a plane, but suddenly hears some ticking and searches for the source of the sound. He finds the bomb that the hero has planted on the plane, looks somewhat surprised, then … cut to the hero and his pals on the ground looking into the sky as the plane with the bad guy on board explodes in a very satisfying ball of flames, sparks and smoke.
We never ask, “What about the camera crew that filmed the bad guy in his last few seconds? Or the director and lighting people? Weren’t they on the plane when it blew up?”
We don’t ask because we want the story-teller to tell us a story. Because we enjoy being entertained. So we agree to suspend our disbelief for the duration of the entertainment. And we do it most often for movies since they are the most popular contemporary medium for story-telling. (If you loved the movie, read the book.)
Of course, we do it with books, too. Melville’s Moby Dick starts off as a first-person narrative – ”Call me Ishmael.” – but as soon as our narrator is aboard the Pequod, he melts into the background. The first-person narrative becomes an omniscient voice, invisible, yet all-seeing, even reporting what’s inside other characters’ heads. Suspension of disbelief at work.
We’ve been doing it since long before Samuel Taylor Coleridge formally named the phenomenon of our willingness to suspend belief in 1817. It has been thus since our earliest ancestors sat around campfires, wearing animal skins, being enchanted by stories of particularly good hunts by someone who was particularly good at telling those kinds of stories – the primordial story-teller.
Not so in marketing.
In our business, we face the most cynical critics and doubters. Advertising may be story-telling, but it’s not always entertainment. (That’s the best kind of advertising, by the way, the entertaining kind, since we’ll all pay attention if it’s fun.)
Just like stories, ads have a beginning, a middle and an end. Except in ads it’s typically the setup (the problem), the solution (how a product or service solves the problem) and the close (the call to action.)
How is it that everyone approaches our stories with such skepticism while swallowing movie story lines hook, line and sinker? Yep, the answer is simple: entertainment. We happily set aside skepticism to enjoy a good movie.
No doubt if aliens landed and we offered to take them to the movies, they’d be somewhat stunned by our ability to accept all the cuts, dissolves, jumps in action and melodramatic, manipulative sound tracks. They’d likely view us with pity, consider us “children,” and wonder how on earth (so to speak) we could possibly run an entire planet.
We want to be entertained.
Is it some mass psychosis? Or simply an agreement en masse to accept the premise of a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional screen?
The smarter ad folk made the leap some time ago to applying story-telling methods to commercials. The great ones, that ones that broke new ground, stick in our minds: “Time to make the donuts.” “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” “Where’s the beef?” “Bud Weis Er.” “Volkswagen: the Force“ ”¡Yo quiero Taco Bell!”
We remember them, and we talk about them. Almost as much as movies. [Interesting side-note: Alka-Seltzer's "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" TV campaign was one of the highest-scoring in advertising history, yet sales plummeted. What happened? Chronic users thought they were being made fun of.]
Are entertaining ads and commercials sugar-coating the pill … or effective marketing? In the final analysis, our objective is to be memorable – or, to be more precise, to make our client’s product or service be the one that the target audience remembers. David Ogilvy and others called this “placing a burr in the consumer’s mind” and warned against creating ads that left people “remembering the burr, but not the sales proposition.” [e.g., Alka-Seltzer]
Tricky, isn’t it. We need to entertain to be memorable, but we also need to make sure that what’s remembered is our client’s brand. (It really is something that only professionals can do.)
Super Bowl commercials, like “Volkswagen: the Force,” are the exception to the rule. Those commercials are as much about people remembering the commercial as they are about creating broader awareness for the brand. And in fact competition is so fierce for inclusion in that most coveted of TV placements that it’s not enough to have the dough, you have to have the goods in your ad as well. After all, lots of people tune in just to watch those commercials. Imagine that.
I won’t work for free, either.
As soon as I read the wonderful New York Times piece by Tim Kreider, I knew I had to share it: Slaves of the Internet, Unite!
It’s gratifying to see these facts go “national.” And to see The New York Times bring to light how often the services of professional writers, illustrators and artists are undervalued, or not valued at all.
This Web site is almost four years old and from day one we’ve been writing about the dark side of the Internet, how it has opened competition for creative services to the globe.
Instead of raising the level of quality, the opposite occurred: a drastic lowering of pay levels (lower than could possibly be imagined) along with dropping quality down the toilet.
Instead of seeking professional services directly, many clients now seek out the “online resources” that pit professionals and pretenders against each other, bidding on far fewer projects than there are project seekers. As more and more clients seek the lowest-cost providers online, the rate of pay for professional writing has dropped well below the minimum wage. And the reason for that should be obvious: the third world is in there bidding as well. (Good luck with that.)
I doubt that it’s ever been more difficult for writers and artists to earn a living. Although, in the 1890s, the French writer Jules Renard said, “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”
(He also wrote, “Writing is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.”)
Just say no.
Some of the worst inventions to spring up in this rapacious, virtual, electronic world are content mills, farms and scrapers. Writers are either paid peanuts for original articles (e.g., $10-15 for 1500 words), or our work is stolen and “re-purposed.” The polite Internet term for this form of plagiarism is “mash-up.”*
So did we spend all those years in school and college and university learning and perfecting our craft to work for free? Or to work for one-quarter the hourly rate of the uneducated masses who say “would you like fries with that?”
Sadly, we writers undermine ourselves and each other every time we accept low-paying projects. Those of us who are professionals are no less professional than attorneys or plumbers or dentists. Good luck trying to get any of them to work for $2 per hour.
Part of the problem – perhaps the largest part – as Kreider wrote, is that everyone thinks they can write. That is, until they attempt to produce a coherent marketing piece, or a truly compelling ad. That’s when the fecal matter usually hits the air rotation device.
The services professionals provide do more than turn out carefully crafted messages and marketing – they help clients look more professional. If clients can’t understand that and still prefer to go for “the lowest bidder,” then vaya con Dios.
Here is Kreider’s description of the current state of affairs: “The first time I ever heard the word ‘content’ used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, ‘content providers’ — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called ‘art’ — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.”
This is the phase of history in which we find ourselves. This is the point in the evolution of the Internet in which we are attempting to ply our craft while putting food on our tables. These are, the best of times and the worst of times.
*[Copyscape can help you learn if your content has been stolen. Simply drop in the URL for your original work into Copyscape's search field. And if you find out your work has been copied, visit this page: blog.kissmetrics.com]
This really bugs me.
There are things that bother all of us, gnaw at us in small ways, like gnats. It’s like that for me whenever I hear grammatical laziness – grammatical gaffs that are allowed to stand, or (horrors) used intentionally. They’re buzzing around, diving for our ears, making us swat at the air around our heads.
You want an example? All right. Here’s an example of the collapse of grammar as we know it, in none other than The New York Times: “But a cup or three of coffee ‘has been popular for a long, long time,’ Dr. Freund says, ‘and there’s probably good reasons for that.’”
See that? That godawful mis-use of “there’s?” That’s what drives me nuts. “There’s” can only be a contraction of “there is” (not “there are”) so it can only ever be used with a singular subject.
“There’s good reason” – fine. ”There’s good reasons” – the opposite of fine.
That mis-use, which occurs with horrifying frequency everywhere (TV, movies, media) also popped up with stunning regularity in one of my favorite shows, “House, M.D.” I couldn’t understand that because Hugh Laurie, the show’s British star, must know better. (I mean, his best friend is Stephen Fry, after all – the guy who did this.) I could only assume that he wanted to sound more “American.” Adding insult to injury.
“House, M.D.” was a dazzling concept: take the Sherlock Holmes stories and make them medical mysteries. Wilson was Watson. Cuddy was a female version of Inspector Lestrade. And House was Holmes … get it? They even made House’s apartment number 221B. Great show. Except for the grammar thing, and how often Hugh Laurie said things such as ”There’s lots of things this could be…” “There’s all kinds of ways to treat that…” “There’s people waiting…” Etc.
Back to Dr. Freund. Let’s say you’re Dr. Freund … or that I am … if I were I’d be wishing that the NY Times journalist who interviewed me had bothered to correct my spoken faut pas so that it didn’t appear that I had a “poor grasp of grammar,” to put it politely, no matter how good my medicine.
What do I mean by poor? Bad grammar, bad usage. What makes it bad? It’s entirely incorrect, by what we’re taught, when we’re taught grammar, and by mutual agreement on singular and plural usages, furloughs notwithstanding.
Please, make them stop.
I know I’m not alone in believing that we should, as often as practical and acceptable, correct grammar, spelling and usage. (Since it’s going to hell faster than an ice cube in a hot oven.)
And I know that I’m not alone in feeling that we’re witnessing an accelerated pace of acceptance of poor language, poor grammar, poor usage – in many instances simply for the sake of hipness, coolness, with-it-ness. How fatuous it all seems.
If you were writing dialogue in a story, I doubt you’d ever write. “he said u should phone him @ home.” Yet, that there is what many of our younger planetary citizens are doing. How long before it’s “literature” being taught in schools. How long before the Oxford Dictionary accepts “u” as a form of “you?”
I think we ought to get things “right” before we get them “wrong.” The fact that we can decipher what was written should in no way excuse how it was written. Laziness of mind is laziness of mind. The more we excuse it, the more it grows, like some ancient Japanese movie monster.
Prescriptivists vs. descriptivists.
It turns out there’s a term for those of us who worry about such things. I’m, apparently a prescriptivist. Had no idea what that even meant until someone pointed out, quite recently, in an online discussion, that “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” are the names given to the two opposing views on grammar rules.
I had, it turned out, been arguing with descriptivists, with whom there’s no arguing, since they believe less in grammar than they do in “usage.” Descriptivists, it turned out, are linguists first and grammarians second. To them, if the mis-use of a word or phrase (such as “there’s”) occurs with more frequency than the grammatically correct way, then it becomes the rule. (See that black hole of grammar, there?)
The problem that occurs for us professional writers and editors is that without a set of rules to follow and point to, anything goes. And that’s not good for either our professions or our work.
All right, I’ll admit it. I live for this stuff – we are, after all, paid for it. What does it mean to be a writer or editor? It’s all about judgement calls. And how can you make them if you have no basis for judgement?
The New Yorker did a piece on this, which, while quite good, misses one of the greatest (as in largest) points about language. The article describes élitist attitudes, but in its self-same élitism misses why correct and clear language is important. Most of us who became writers were the ones who cared as children when the rules were being taught to us. It meant something to us to master words and grammar. It was even exciting. Because we knew those were the keys to becoming one of the people we so much admired: writers.
How could you be one of those amazing story-tellers without being able to write in amazing ways.
Are we judgemental? You bet. When I meet someone who says, “My wife and me like to go camping,” I know we’re not likely to get along, and not just because I hate camping.
Language is more than communication – and clarity of communication is what the rules are really about, not élitism – it’s literally what defines a culture.
There are mistakes all over the place showing what kind of anarchy occurs when rules are either not known or ignored. Network World printed a doozy. ”Snowden seeks asylum from several countries including China, Russia.” To my mind that could only have been ”Snowden seeks asylum in several countries including China, Russia.” Knowing why is what the whole game is about.
If somebody is writing a letter to a friend, or speaking in a café, I don’t give a damn about grammatical structure and correctness. However, when major publications are allowing these kinds of errors, the apocalypse can’t be far behind.
We were re-watching “Michael Clayton” (an astounding movie) and I cringed when Clooney’s character’s young son was introduced, because at that moment he’s running around his mother’s apartment, shouting, “Mom, where’s my cards?” Several times. Ugghh.
So what about that? A major motion picture seen by innumerable people. What ethical boundaries are crossed when the choice to “accurately render an eight-year-old” risks further imprinting those who didn’t pay quite enough attention in grammar, junior and high school with horrible grammar?
It would seem that, today, fiction is more literate than reality. We never watched “The West Wing” when it was on network television but have been watching it via streaming. It’s amazingly literate, and clearly shows how much literacy matters. Would that it were so in reality.
When aspiring writers attend classes or workshops, they’re often advised to sit in a café and merely listen. When you do, you will hear two things: people typically do not speak in complete sentences, and people typically do not speak with perfect grammar.
The point of the exercise is to guide hopeful novelists toward more realistic dialogue, since hardly any of us will say: “While you’re in the kitchen making a sandwich for yourself, could you please make one for me, as well?” We’d most likely say, “Make me a sandwich, too.” (Despite the fact that the only grammatically appropriate response is “Abracadabra, you’re a sandwich.”)
Clarity is everything.
If people can’t make it through your messaging, how will they ever get to your product or service? Writing isn’t just about writing; it’s about conveying an exact message. That’s what the old saw “writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” is talking about. The easy part is putting down a bunch of thoughts. The tricky part is arranging all those letters and all that punctuation into something that truly grabs your target audience by the lapels and makes them remember what you said.
There’s truly no point in putting out confusing messaging. It’s a waste of time, space and money.
A local doctor did a landslide business after creating her own billboards. That’s a rather unusual occurrence. But she understood the importance of simplicity and clarity – especially in billboards. Hers were made up entirely of her smiling face, name, phone number and a large headline that said simply “I cure acne.” Those were the only words. And they were the only words needed because the people who needed her help found her.
I’m by no means advocating that every advertisement be that basic. But I am saying that honing your message can really pay off. Hers did. Her business boomed.
Imitation is for amateurs.
People who don’t know where to begin often begin by copying. Example, the “Got milk?” campaign that was so effective and compelling that a local land developer copied it with “Got land.” (Down to the all-black background and white type.) But … notice the punctuation? Did he miss the fact that the question mark was key to the milk board campaign? Or was he trying to say that he has land? (God, I hope not.)
It only confuses things to have writing that sounds like something else. You’re actually making the reader think of the original rather than you and your message.
Another common error is copying style, if not content. People will imitate a tone thinking, for example, that if they sound like Mercedes Benz they’ll be perceived like Mercedes Benz. But … that doesn’t really work, does it? Especially if you’re Subaru. (Not saying they do; only how silly it would be.)
The essential lesson here is: don’t write the way you think others expect you to write. Write the way you want to write. Write in a way that conveys not just what you do but also how you feel about what you do.
A recent LinkedIn article by Vivek Wadhwa described how he worked his way through the challenge of writing articles with advice from journalist friends: “What they said was that I should just write down my thoughts as though I were telling a story to a friend: forget all I had learned about structuring high-school essays; and be brief, hard-hitting, and to the point.”
Extremely good advice. My version is very similar: “Pretend you’re writing to one person, a close friend. Be direct and honest. Be unafraid of judgement.”
Be brief, be clear, be compelling.
When I got my first job at an ad agency in New York, I spent the first few weeks having panic attacks. Every time I got an assignment, I stared at the blank, white page in front of me, thinking I was expected to put down perfect, award-winning thoughts. So, naturally, my brain seized up each time.
I knew full well, however, that I wouldn’t keep my hard-won job very long if I didn’t produce. So, after struggling this way for a while, I got tough with myself one day and thought: “Just put down everything you can think of and edit it later.”
That breakthrough turned out to be every professional writer’s approach. We all do that. So can you. Just start writing. E.L. Doctorow describes the process of placing one word after another as “… just like driving at night. You can only see as far as the headlights illuminate, but once you’ve gone that distance you can see the next piece.”
The first time I did it as a copywriter, I put down an entire page of copy … then crossed out nearly all of it. I ended up with one or two sentences. But they were the perfect thing to build on. And when I did, I made sure the copy was brief, to the point and entertaining.
Then I repeated that process with every assignment. Little by little, I began putting less unusable stuff down and more “perfect things to build on.”
That’s because writing is like any craft – the more you do it, the more you know which steps to cut out and which to keep. You begin to have the ability – before even putting anything down – to separate the valuable thoughts from the merely distracting.
Write for them, not you.
One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is that we don’t write for ourselves – we write for our target audience. So we have to cull what will bore them and only keep what will make them respond.
That means, as so many writers have written about, “killing off your little darlings.” That, too, is what it means to be a writer.
Writers who fall in love with what they’ve written and are unwilling to change it – even after being told that it’s not relevant – would be better off keeping a journal. Writing is communication. If your objective is to communicate with a potential target audience, you’d better know what they find interesting, and what they don’t.
Or, to pass on the advice I was given in my first few months on Madison Ave., “if you won’t be there to explain it to every reader, then your ad better be able to stand on its own.”
Tag lines tell us who you are.
Thought I’d start the first post of 2013 with one of the first principles of truly good advertising campaigns: truly good tag lines.
Lots of people think of them as an after-thought. Not me. I’m always thinking about tag lines from the first moment I start thinking about a campaign or Web site.
Headlines come and go. Tag lines hang in there through campaigns and often for years after. Headlines are a flash in the pan. Tag lines have to sum up who you are, what you offer and how you think … sometimes in as little as two words.
For example, “Think different.” (TBWA\Chiat\Day, 1997-2002.) Even though it’s been one of the most enduring tag lines of the past two decades, I’ve always been bothered by its flagrant abuse of grammar. (see Grammar matters.) Despite that intentional flaw, one has to admit that those two words (in combination with the Apple logo) have truly defined Apple since the 90s. (Yes, it’s been that long.) Even though they moved on from that tag line way back in 2002.
Copywriters, not clients.
Tag lines are also one of the most important things ad agencies bring to the party. Take military recruitment ads – perhaps the most tag line-dependent campaigns in existence. All those ultra-inspiring, “sign me up” tag lines (“Be all that you can be.” “It’s not a job. It’s an adventure.” “The few, the proud, the Marines.” “We’re looking for a few good men.”) were written by (ta-da!) copywriters, not the Army, Navy or Marines.
The same is, of course, true for every attention-getting and easy to remember tag.
What happens when clients come up with their own tag lines? Take a look at Mezzetta, a California company that makes our favorite stuffed olives, jalapeños, dill pickles, etc. Their tag line? “Don’t Forgetta Mezzetta.” (Are you reminded of the Marx Brothers? I’m reminded of the Marx Brothers.)
A tag line defines the brand.
Brand names tell us the rudimentary facts about a company or corporation: we know that Melitta makes stuff for making coffee; we know that Chevrolet makes cars and trucks, and we know that McDonald’s sells fast food. Those are the simple facts.
Add a tagline and you add an emotional message that makes those brands stand out and stick in our memories. Tag lines take the brand up a notch. (Did they cover this in Mad Men? I can’t remember.)
When Chevrolet wanted to convince people that they built really tough, reliable trucks, they did it with a tag line: “Like a rock.” (Campbell-Ewald, 1992-2004.)
When Avis wanted to take on Hertz, the number one car rental company, they did it with a tag line: “We try harder.” (Doyle Dane Bernbach, 1962-2012.)
When FedEx wanted to put its name on the map as an overnight delivery service (a breakthrough concept at the time) they did with a tag line: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” (Ally & Gargano, 1978-1983.)
When AT&T wanted to humanize the monolithic communications company that was euphemistically called Ma Bell (since they owned and controlled everything in U.S. telecom) they did it with a tag line: “Reach out and touch someone.” (N.W. Ayer, 1979-1983.)
When GE wanted to humanize its massive research, electronics and appliance manufacturing company, that did it with a tag line: “We bring good things to life.” (BBDO, 1979-2003.)
In my opinion, none of those companies would have become what they are without those tag lines. That’s why I call them crucial. Think about this: each of those tag lines accompanied hundreds of headlines through the years. Who remembers the headlines?
Great tag lines through time.
Many of these tag lines are classics, not even used any more. But we remember them. People even borrow them to use for our own purposes. Because they’re so often so pithy and convey so much, folks find they can’t help themselves. (“Betcha can’t eat just one.” – Young & Rubicam, 1963.)
Naturally, you know that none of those companies came up with those classic tag lines. It was their brilliant ad agencies … or to be fully precise, the brilliant creative department folk at their ad agencies.
Here’s a Wikiquote list of “slogans” and a Web site that lists the results of a survey trying to list the 100 Most Influential Taglines Since 1948. (FYI, can’t stand the term “slogan.” Only folks who haven’t worked in ad agencies would use that term. Almost as bad as “jingle.”)
That list of 100 includes tag lines chosen from a field of 400 candidates. Not a list I would have put together. For example, I can’t believe the UPS “What can Brown do for you?” was actually nominated in place of their short-lived and far superior (IMHO) previous tag: “Moving at the speed of business.” (Ammirati Puris Lintas, 1995-2002)
But that’s show biz.
Thanksgiving has just come and gone in the U.S., and we’re moving on to the holidays that soften everyone’s hearts … while forcing wallets open. These are the in-between days when we know that the coming new year is another chance to address regrets and disappointments – to change direction, if we feel that’s needed.
This year, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, others sent and posted messages of thanks, taking the holidays rather more seriously than I recall before. It made me think I should add my own.
I’m thankful for:
- clients who happily pay appropriate professional fees for the services we happily provide.
- clients who understand the effort we put into writing and designing, and appreciate what we do for them.
- the opportunity to help new clients introduce products and services with the best possible language and marketing materials.
- returning clients who appreciate the level of professionalism we provide.
- clients who appreciate and value the skills, talent and effort required to produce effective marketing.
- clients who understand what it takes to create materials that break through the clutter and stand apart from the competition.
- clients who express sincere appreciation for how we polish copy, craft sentences, perfect paragraphs and marry that copy with design.
- clients who understand the value of the concepts we create for them so that their marketing materials are more effective.
- the opportunity to do what I love and be paid for it.
- being in a business that means partnering with other creative professionals.
- the opportunity to work with people who nearly always teach me something new.
- the fact that honing copy for marketing helps me be a better writer in every way.
Life is not a straight line. And neither is marketing. There are always ups and downs; periods of perfection coupled with challenges … even disasters. How we respond to those times and events defines who and what we are. How we address all the challenges that life brings defines what our lives add up to in the end.
So, most of all, I’m thankful for the opportunities to do the right thing, every day.
Only if you’re a member of Congress.
“Write what you know.”
Take writing workshops or classes and you will inevitably hear this piece of advice. Things that sound so obvious often belie their depth. This particular advice is ultimately about producing writing that rings true, whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. When that advice is passed on, it means: try to BS your way through your writing and the BS meters will ring instead.
For copywriters and marketing writers, that means we have to study our subject until we know it well enough to write about it convincingly – which can mean knowing the subject nearly as well as subject matter experts. It all begins with input. If we don’t get good input, we can’t provide good output. That simple. If the client doesn’t know how to clearly explain what they do or produce (an all too-common problem), it’s our job to dig for what we need.
This is a crucial aspect to copywriting, and one that’s not always understood. I’ve often had new clients look askance at me, wondering out loud if I really can write about their particular widget if I’ve never made any. What they don’t know is that a real copywriter is a generalist. A seasoned copywriter can write about anything. Because ad agencies can’t survive on just a single client or line of business – you’re asked to work on whatever comes up. (That’s one very realistic thing about Mad Men.)
We copywriters learn how to dig for what we need. By contrast, someone who has spent their entire career as a specialist, rather than a generalist, say for pharmaceuticals or farm implements, will have serious trouble writing about cars or perfume or shoes.
That’s the first secret.
Here’s the second: understand your target audience. It’s not enough to become familiar with the product or service we’ve been hired to promote – we must also understand who wants or needs the product or service, and why. We can’t possibly write convincingly if we don’t know that. (That’s a hint – if you’re working with somebody who doesn’t bother to learn about your target audience, you could be working with the wrong somebody.)
Example: I’ve never used chewing tobacco but I’ve advertised that product. (Not happily, but I did. See clients.) To do that, I had to learn about the products and the people who do use them. And it’s not just cowboys. They’re called smokeless tobaccos and they’re popular with people who work where smoking isn’t allowed. Ultimately – potential health risks aside – it’s no different than selling laundry soap, brassieres or riding tack: you have to know (1) the category, (2) the audience and (3) how to differentiate your client’s offering.
Yes, it takes work. Being able to craft sentences that sparkle like perfectly-cut diamonds is only half of the six-pack you’ll need for this picnic. You have to know the target audience even better than they know themselves. You have to know how to reach their emotional hot-buttons. You have to know how to get them thinking and talking about your client’s product or service. No matter how dull.
When I was building my spec book, I had a campaign for Mercedes-Benz that was a beaut. But several CDs with whom I interviewed told me, “That’s too easy. Everyone would buy a Mercedes if they could.” (Light bulb moment.) What they said, was “How do you get people interested in your client’s me-too product? Such as deodorant? Or beer? Or fertilizer? Or acne treatment?” That’s the real work. (And, yes, I’ve done all that.)
Are you convinced, yet?
Marketing is pre-sales. It’s the navy shelling the beaches in advance of troops landing. It’s about creating awareness of products and services. It’s what some of the early greats called “planting a bur in the brain.”
Here’s why. Tide advertising isn’t primarily about convincing you that they have the best laundry soap. It’s actually about trying to sub-consciously guide your steps in the grocery store so that the laundry soap you ultimately reach for is Tide. You may not remember why you think Tide is best, but you may remember that you probably ought to buy Tide (your brand here). And that’s all they ask for.
Mountains of research have shown that it takes multiple impressions (exposures to an ad or campaign) for a brand name to sink in – typically five. Ever gone car shopping? Ever gotten to the point when you couldn’t remember which car had which features, or even which one you liked best? That’s the minefield marketing is trying to step through.
Our method is to employ truth. Truth will get you through that minefield. Empty claims will get you blown up. If you really know what you’re talking about, it comes through. If the copy rings true, you might actually convince your target audience about the “superiority” of your client’s offering. And the copy can only ring true when you’re sticking to things that you truly know, and that are true. Surprised?
The opposite of truth.
We’re in the middle of campaign season in the U.S. Something like a four-year flu. Empty claims are flying all around us. The perversions of the basic principles of marketing are sickening to watch. All methodology is abandoned for scare tactics and promises of a better future. Outright lies replace basic truths.
Tobacco advertising requires health warnings – this political stuff should come with warnings that it will rot your brain.
My point isn’t to rant, it’s to point out that we all have built-in BS meters and we all know when they’re going off. Like now, during presidential election season.
The really good writing in really good marketing and branding campaigns won’t do that. It will make you feel better about yourself for wanting or liking something. It will make you feel like your life could be just a little better with that particular item that just tickled your fancy. And that’s what really good marketing will do.
Can grammar affect sales?
I think so. Easy example: if that short sentence above had been written “Can grammar effect sales?” you, being the intelligent sort, would likely have lost interest in whatever followed. Why should you read something by someone who can’t write?
Same goes for food. Do we really want “The best pizza’s anywhere?” Or “Pasta’s & Pizza’s?” Eeesh. Doesn’t it make you wonder if places like this are a few beers short of a six-pack? How can we trust your cooking if we can’t trust your grammar?
This could go on forever, alas. (Just Google “signs with bad grammar.”) Seen in a church: “No Confessions To-Day.” (Ummm ….) Seen in a car dealership: “Certified Pre-Owned Nissan’s.” (Uh-oh.) Seen in a restaurant: “Please Seat Your Self” (Noooo …)
Too many business owners don’t realize the critical importance of correct grammar and professionalism in marketing and messaging of every kind … even menues. Every printed message tells people who we are, what we’re about and how much or how little we know about grammar.
The fact that you might have been bored in school and have some trouble remembering the difference between “to” and “too” or how to use apostrophes doesn’t have to stop you from presenting a professional, polished image to the public. Just hire writing help. That’s all it takes.
The problem with ‘no problem.’
A non-print example of crumbling language use is the now ubiquitous “no problem” restaurant server response. It always leaves us shaking our heads. Why, you ask? This imaginary exchange posted by Graham Guest in a LinkedIn group may help explain:
“I’d like the steak with fries, please.”
“I wasn’t anticipating one! And a beer please.”
“I’m very pleased for you.”
Some establishments are attempting to train the “no problem” problem out of people by educating them as to what they’re really saying with that bland expression – how it bears no relationship to “my pleasure,” or “you’re welcome,” and is an entirely inappropriate response to “thank you” in a service situation.
Surprisingly, when I posted about this in some LinkedIn grammar and writing groups, a lot of people responded that they don’t see the problem with “no problem.” They “understand” what the server means. Bad sign. To us, “no problem” means “I don’t mind that you troubled me for a glass of water,” or “I don’t mind that I had to bring you the food you ordered.” It in no way indicates gratitude for one’s business, or even one’s saying “thank you.”
When we hear it (more and more each day) we know two things: a. you aren’t actually thinking about what you’re saying, let alone understanding the meaning of words; b. you weren’t trained at all by management. And that makes us wonder, “what else is lacking here?”
(Maybe it’s an Americanization of the down-under “no worries?“ It might also have arisen out of the Spanish de nada, although no server in any decent Spanish restaurant would ever dare say de nada to a customer. That would be recognized as outright rudeness.)
Commas change everything.
The importance of commas can’t be overstated. Their role in assuring clarity of communication is vital. Equally, their over-use and misplaced use can cause endless confusion. When I’m editing client copy, I often find commas stuck in odd places that could only indicate a pause when speaking. But written text is not spoken text. So it’s most often a mistake – and grammatically incorrect.
Commas are actually quite simple: they separate parenthetical thoughts, and they separate a series. They are not intended to indicate a pause when reading.
How critical is a comma? Take the recently photoshopped cover of Tails, a pet magazine, that made the rounds of the Web with Rachel Ray on the cover and this doctored (series) quote: ”Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” Someone had removed a single comma after “cooking,” which made all the difference.
Commas matter. Properly used commas matter most. The person who perpetrated the joke understood that, even though he or she is a dunce.
Proper proof-reading protects your reputation. Without proof-reading, we look unsophisticated at best and ignorant at worst. We all need proof-readers. There are some simple, basic mistakes that our eyes simply miss. When glancing rapidly at text, we’ll skip right over things like “the the.” (I do.) And spell-check can often make things far, far worse.
Here’s a doozy from The Washington Post that would have made it past spell-check: ”After the iconic and illusive Apple chief executive died last year, Wired magazine submitted information requests to the Pentagon and FBI for copies of Jobs’s secret records. Top Secret, actually.”
The first comment posted after the article sums things up nicely: “Jobs was ‘illusive’? It seems any hack can get a job with the Washington Post these days, as writer or copy editor. Where can I submit my resume? I would never let a bonehead error like that get by me.”
It’s shocking how often I spot typos in the digital versions of The Washington Post, The New York Times and many other once-honorable pubs. They’re clearly using kids for the e-mail alerts that go out each day with headlines, and they’ve cut proof-readers. It shows. And it’s embarrassing.
Blame it on spell-check? Stupidity? Hard to know. What’s clear is that proof-readers are worth their weight in Au.
Oldie but goodie: NY Times on typos
Our calendar is barely 430 years old.
Any marketing person with training and experience begins any assignment by looking at context and environment – perspective. I can’t help approaching New Year’s that way. While we may think our calendar is now 2,012 years old, it is in fact (as of this writing) only 429 years old, and was created not to mark the passing of 365 days of our revolution around the sun, but rather to know when to celebrate Easter.
As you likely know, the calendar we use is the Gregorian calendar, also called the Western or Christian calendar because it’s based on significant dates in the Christian bible. It was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII via a papal bull, a decree, signed on February 24, 1582, and took several centuries to be adopted throughout the western world. The motivation for the Gregorian reform was that the Roman Julian calendar placed the time between vernal equinoxes (a year) at 365.25 days, when in fact it is roughly 11 minutes shorter per year. (Pretty cool stuff for 1582, huh?)
That 11-minute error added up to about three days every four centuries, which resulted (back in Pope Gregory XIII’s day) in the equinox occurring on March 11, and moving earlier and earlier in the Julian calendar. You know what that meant, right? The date for celebrating Easter wasn’t reliable. And Easter is the single most important date for the Roman Catholic Church.
Easter, by the way, was calculated using the Hebrew calendar to accurately fix the date of “the last supper,” which was in fact a Passover meal that Jesus was attending with his disciples. Pope Gregory XIII wanted to be sure that Easter was being celebrated on the correct date, year in and year out, so the date of the last supper was the starting point for the development of his new calendar.
Today, of course, we think of the calendar as a business tool rather than a way to keep track of religious events. And commerce was the main reason the Gregorian calendar was slowly adopted over time through much of the world. But it’s worth remembering that its origins were entirely based on religious celebrations.
Think about this: anybody who uses a computer, anywhere in the world, inevitably is following the Gregorian calendar.
Is it New Year’s everywhere?
2012 may well be the year that globalization truly takes hold. We, in the U.S., have come to grips with the fact that we are no longer an island unto ourselves, dictating “what comes next.” Our clothing, computers and customer service (sadly) can come from anywhere in the world … and usually do. Our economy is clearly affected by global events and our export markets can be countries that not long ago did not even appear on our maps. Brazil has taken a monster lead on the global stage, moving ahead of Great Britain in 2011. So, too have Russia, India and China moved up. (Investors call them the BRIC nations and place “emerging markets” investments there.)
So, bearing that in mind, does January 1 have the same significance to all inhabitants of planet earth? How about to the Chinese or Indians? Or those who follow the Hebraic and Islamic calendars, which were both based on lunar rather than solar cycles? For the Chinese, 2011 was 4708 (or 4648 depending on their epoch starting point). For those following the Hebrew calendar, 2011 was 5771. And for those using the Islamic calendar, 2011 was 1433. India has as many calendars as it has religions, though in 1957 they settled on the Indian national calendar (Saka) to align themselves with the Gregorian calendar.
That diversity of global populations is one of the reasons that New Year’s celebrations have always struck me as a tad odd. First of all, Father Time is winning, whichever calendar you use. Every new year means that we’re all a year older. And the yearly cycle is hardly celebrated the same way by all people on earth. Perhaps some of the old Roman superstitions lurk in our Bacchanalian New Year’s celebrations. Perhaps we truly think that we and the world will be magically different when the ball drops and the calendar changes.
What do we measure when we measure time?
Clocks, watches, calendars … do they measure actual time, or the experience of the passage of time? It seems that we “mark time” rather than inhabit it. We tick off the time we’ve used, or lost. And we look forward to the next calendar event, such as a religious holiday or vacation, which will only arrive after we’ve marked off the appropriate amount of time.
But time, according to Albert Einstein, was an indication of our relationship to space and gravity – how fast and how far we were able to move through space. And, in a way, that’s what we measure when we say “day, week, month and year.” A day is the spinning of the earth on its axis (creating the illusion of sun up, sun down). A year is the time it takes for our earth to orbit the sun completely – an elliptical journey that takes us closer to and farther from the sun, creating our seasons. Days and years are actual markers of time/space travel, while other calendar-based measurements are an artificial construct that in fact measure simply the passage of time as it relates to us.
Einstein and Paul Langevin addressed that “relativity” with a theory of time that has come to be called the “twins paradox.” One twin leaves the earth traveling at the speed of light and returns; the other twin stays behind. For the traveling twin, only seven years have passed, so he has only aged by seven years, but for his brother back on earth several decades have passed and he is now elderly. How can this be? (For a practical demonstration, watch the Jodi Foster film “Contact,” from a story by Carl Sagan.)
It’s all relative.
My point? Time is not as fixed as we think it is, or as our Gregorian calendar would have us believe. In fact, time is entirely relative. So we do not measure time objectively, but rather subjectively, based on our experience of time on our planet and the calendar we’re using. We subjectively say, “one year has passed,” “our child is two years old,” “we have a doctor’s appointment next Monday.” All of these are important, yet create a slightly false or inaccurate sense of time, an imposed sense of time, one that doesn’t matter to or affect the movement of the planets around our star.
Think of it this way: if we were still using the Julian calendar, we’d experience time differently. The same goes if we were using lunar calendars. Which is why I just can’t help remembering that the actual calendar we use isn’t even 500 years old, and that it has a back-dated, subjective starting point.
In fact, the new year did not always begin on January 1 for everyone everywhere. It depended entirely on which calendar was being used. What we now call New Year’s day is a very recent innovation, and an entirely subjective event. New Year’s used to be celebrated on days such as the vernal or autumnal equinox – days when you can actually feel something new is coming.
New Year’s resolution? Nah, thanks anyway.
The title of this article is from Abe WalkingBear Sanchez, who posted this on LinkedIn: “Words are magic. The very idea that by making sounds we can paint pictures in the minds of others, is magic. We choose whether we practice white or black magic.” – Jack Brightnose, Cree Medicineman.
That post really made me sit up and take notice. A writer’s life is all about communication, yet how often is it about the magic? WalkingBear’s teacher knew a great deal more about what was to become my life’s occupation than I did. I’m sure I had some teachers along the way who understood what Jack Brightnose taught. But what I remember most was their individual preferences for certain authors and certain kinds of phrasing. Not the reverence for the pure power of words shown by Jack Brightnose.
The dark side is always there.
Everything we do in marketing is about communication. But everything we do often becomes so habitual that we forget about the magic of words. In the world of marketing, the ultimate objective of communication is to influence, and perhaps sell something. In many cases, such as tobacco, liquor, fashion and pharmaceuticals, that’s leaning toward black magic – designed for profit, not for the good of the public. And I’m not making judgments about tobacco, liquor, fashion and pharmaceuticals – I’m talking about how they’re sold, how the words and images are used.
This is the dark side – the black magic – from which we professionals avert our eyes when asked to write copy for things that we might never ourselves purchase, or allow anyone in our family to use. It’s always there, in the background. And it’s hard to avoid when you enter the world of business. After all, that’s why agencies are hired, to help sell stuff. And as soon as anyone is trying to sell us something, motives become questionable.
Clearly free will was taught by Native Americans. Our choices define us. If we choose to profit by using words to convince people to buy our stuff, stuff we know can harm people, we have chosen black magic. But somehow that has been completely forgotten. The idea of profit as justification has wedged itself between white and black magic like some form of religious indulgence. In modern society, the profit motive excuses the intentional use of black magic.
Communication makes us human… sometimes.
What struck me when I read what Jack Brightnose had taught WalkingBear was how little respect is left for the magic that is communication. It’s virtually the only thing that sets us apart from the world of beasts. Sure, we have clothing and automobiles and iWhatevers, but would we have any of those things without the ability to form and understand words? Clearly not. We’d still be among the beasts, with bodies covered in hair, as we foraged and hunted for food and shelter.
Words lifted us out of that prehistoric life. Words gave us the lives we have today. It’s a little disheartening, though, to think that in only a few thousand years we went from “In the beginning was the word …” to sitcoms. No doubt that particular road to hell was paved with a loss of respect for the magical power of words. Instead, the shine of silver and gold became the lure, and the use of words to get the booty became the meaning of the words, not the magic inherent in communication.
So choices had to be made and we made them. Landing and keeping jobs became the new hunting and gathering. And we’re often asked to make tough choices as a result. The words used to force us into those choices are definitely not white magic. If only it were easier simply to walk away.
Can’t forget why we communicate.
Am I undergoing some sort of religious awakening? Nah. I’ve simply been reawakened to why I first fell in love with words when I was a boy. WalkingBear’s post reminded me of that. I’m sure the magic was what attracted anyone who chose to live as a writer. But being reminded that there’s always a choice between white and black magic is the real awakening.
In an almost indefinable way, I think that Jon Stewart’s Daily Show gets its mojo from calling people on their misuse of communication. He calls out liars and connivers and deceivers. He pulls back the curtain to reveal that The Great Oz is in fact a fake. And we all instantly recognize the truth of the revelations. We laugh, but recognize that what we laugh at is tragic. His show reminds us that we’ve learned to ignore the deceptions, because they’ve become standard operating procedure. We don’t pay attention, until our attention is drawn to the deceptions.
The Internet has both exponentially increased communication and brought it down in ways we could never have imagined. Not long after the explosion of the Web onto our psyches, it became obvious that sites (early on given the ludicrous euphemism “portals”) were only of value if they provided relevant information. Content (could there be a more demeaning term for writing and communication?) became critical. Site owners became desperate. So “content writers” were born, largely manipulators of existing content into mash-ups. Most of them are rank amateurs, often linguistically challenged, who are apparently happy to make a few dollars per day.
Here’s another fascinating quote that goes beyond marketing: “All poetry begins as self-expression. But if I only write for myself, who’s going to want to read what I’ve written except me? I tell my students that, at some point, writing stops being self-expression and starts being communication, or it fails. Whether you read me or not, I’m writing for you.” – David Kirby [Kirby’s “Thirteen Things I Hate About Poetry,” in Lit from Within: Contemporary Masters on the Art & Craft of Writing].
That was from a post by Erika Dreifus who has a blog and newsletter titled “Practicing Writing.” And it’s about the other side of what Jack Brightnose taught: in order for words to be magical, we have to remember that we’re not using them for ourselves alone – we’re using them to communicate, to paint pictures in the minds of others.
Can the answer be in a book?
There was a rather interesting question posed on a LinkedIn group: ”What ‘must-have’ copywriting book do you recommend?”
That seemed to imply that reading a book on copywriting could allow anyone so inclined to become one. Nothing could be more misleading. Of course, if the question was meant to learn how to become a better copywriter, then it’s slightly more possible. But it’s still the same answer: copywriting is a craft, like any other, which will only improve with continual, ceaseless practice and experience.
You really have to want it.
I’ve never known anyone who woke up one day and decided they had to be a copywriter. To want that, you’d have to desperately want to earn your living crafting finite messages in an enormously competitive field. You’d have to want to perfect the use of language, metaphor, euphemism, vernacular – all of it – so that what you write might not only stop readers, viewers, listeners and visitors, but might also convince them to focus on your message. You’d also simultaneously have to be far subtler than the morning news.
Screaming headlines do not make any of us more interested in marketing messages. To be universally appealing, copy must be clever, enticing and compelling. And if you’re targeting a very specific audience, you also have to be unerringly relevant.
So before you count on a book to guide you into this parallel universe to diamond cutting, you damn well better have some relevant life experience – as a reader and writer – before jumping into these shark-infested waters.
Further, no book on “copywriting” will get you a job. Only your samples will. And you’ve got to have the chops to get there.
Catch 22, again.
With a nod to Joseph Heller, copywriting is one of those professions in which you can’t get a job until you’ve had one. No, that wasn’t a typo. You have to have extraordinarily impressive samples of the craft to even be considered for a job. The wormhole we’ve all found is to create a portfolio of spec samples until we have actual, produced ads to show.
To pass on the very sage advice I was given when I was starting out: “only do samples of things you really love so that that will come through in the writing, and get a young art director to help you so that you both have samples to show.”
I took that advice to heart and created a pre-job campaign for my favorite Indian restaurant. If they ever did much advertising, they certainly would never have done the full-page, four-color ads I created for them. But they were great ads, in all humility, because they were fun. The first headline in the campaign was “There’s no such thing as curry powder in India.” Which is true, and educational. I had fun doing the sample ads, and people had fun reading them.
It took several months of working on my spec book along with willing art directors to get to the point when I actually landed my first ad agency job, on “Madison Ave.” In advertising, you’re only as good as your last campaign. That’s why everyone’s portfolio is worth its weight in Au (http://bit.ly/lM7nWn). So like many others I knew, I had duplicate portfolios in case one was lost. Why would a portfolio be lost? Because advertising headhunters were forever shuttling them around to various agencies looking for copywriters and art directors.
And that’s another fact of life about advertising: to grow your portfolio, you often have to keep changing jobs. (My first assignments were on Seagram’s 7-Crown and Crown Royal, and Schaefer beer. All booze, all the time. I needed a change after a year of that.)
The book I recommended.
So was there a single book that everyone agreed on? Ha. Every single answer was different. And each showed the author’s background, preferences and proclivities. Nearly all advertising books are either memoirs, which don’t help neophytes get past square one, or self-advertisements, which are equally unhelpful.
That’s why my recommendation was: “Get yourself a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.”
No book can ever guide one into how to write – the most any book can do is describe what it”s like to write. You really have to work and work and work. You have to find your voice, play with tone and style, and ultimately just keep doing it. Inevitably, as you do, questions of grammar and style will come up. The NY Times Manual of Style and Usage is great, along with the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook. But for something small, handy and wholly reliable, I most often turn to the The Elements of Style.
One of my jobs is teaching effective story-telling to businesses.
Stand in my shoes for a few minutes and here’s what you’d see when a copywriter meets with new clients for the first time. We’re warmly greeted, offered coffee or water, then told in great detail about the product or service this new client wants to market. They’re truly excited about their offering and believe all we have to do is tell the world it exists and sales will tumble like the falls at Niagara.
But frequently they’ve missed a critical step: placing themselves in the minds of their target audience.
The effective use of narrative means, most of all, knowing (a) who your audience is and (b) knowing what they want to hear. This is a tough hurdle for many clients. This is the moment when they’re faced with a hard fact: we are not running ads for them. In fact, anyone who does an ad strictly based on pleasing the client is wasting the client’s money. (Dear Client, you run ads for your target audience, not for yourself.)
For example, a headline that pleases your client may bore the pants off your true target audience. Just because they think ‘thermal wrapping cloth’ is better than a moon landing doesn’t mean the people who actually need it will be as excited by it. You have to find out why it will interest them.
So here’s where the science and methodology of copywriting comes in. You have to understand both who will be most interested in what you’re writing about, and why. You have to become familiar with the specific marketplace and understand what the competition is saying and selling. You have to do a lot of homework before you even start writing.
If you are selling a product or service that’s custom-made for college-educated women between the ages of 24 and 54, you have to know what they read, what they watch, what they listen to, and – most of all – what matters to them. By understanding the kinds of books, magazines, newspapers and broadcast media they care about, you can target both your media buys and your messaging to grab their attention. And that is ultimately the objective of all marketing.
Think about it this way: you know you won’t get the same audiences reading Car & Driver and Vogue. Use the right medium to reach the right audience with the right story.
Crafting the story: the real work in writing.
Many professional copywriters have had the experience of telling someone what we do only to have that person say, “oh, you write jingles?”
No, we don’t write jingles. (The days of jingles are long gone.) We craft stories. We make new cars sound impossibly enticing. We help you believe that new watch is something you can’t live without. We convince you that this new beverage will change your life. Etc. Are we lying? No, we’re doing our jobs through the effective use of narrative to promote products and services for our clients to the most appropriate target audience.
For narrative in marketing to be truly effective, it can seldom be just about the product or service. It must also be about a very specific target audience. E.g., if we happen to be writing about a high-end Mercedes-Benz, we have to understand the mindset of the people who could afford one and might want one. We have to know something of what their lives are like. And we have to do the very same thing for everything we write about. We have to understand the specific demographic for each specific product or service.
Take high-tech. The typical audience for high-tech products, such as computer networks and data centers, are people who are highly knowledgeable about their industry and profession. So you aren’t going to win points writing for them as if you’re describing a vacation in the Bahamas. Telling them their life will be “a walk on the beach” with this super-duper new wireless router will sound, to them, like someone’s trying to sell them the Brooklyn bridge.
Believability is key to effective narrative. And to be believable, you have to be knowledgeable about both your product and its true target audience. In the case of the high-tech example, the story you tell has to sound like a day in the life of an IT manager, or CTO. And that’s never a walk on the beach.
Everything is part of the narrative.
Every part of every marketing effort – down to the way ads, marketing materials and Web sites are designed – should be there to support the narrative. And a key part of that narrative should be a call to action. It can be a soft sell or a hard sell, but it ought to be included as part of the story.
I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being paired with designers who thought that how something looks is far more important than the lowly message. Fortunately, I’ve also had the experience of working with true professionals who understand that everything we do is about communication. We’re telling a story in words and pictures.
A key aspect of any design is where your eye is led. Really good designers understand that. They know that when you open a magazine to your client’s ad your eye should be led through it to the ultimate objective, whether that’s branding or a bold call to action. And when you open your client’s Web site it should be easy to follow how its constructed and how to get where you most want to get within that site.
When the opposite is true, when an ad or Web page is a jumbled mess of graphics that simply confuse the eye, the narrative falls apart. There is no story when there’s merely confusion. Lots of “off the shelf” Web sites create an impression of cohesiveness, but that will quickly dissipate if you’re left scratching your head, wondering, “what exactly are they trying to say here?”
The narrative must grab a viewer or visitor, it must pull you through, and it must leave you with a better understanding of the product or service as a result. That’s the job of story-telling in marketing. Now that you know, you’ll start to see when it works … and when it doesn’t. And you, too, will know the importance of story-telling in marketing.
I know, I know. Sounds like a “duh?” question but, really and truly, it’s not. While everyone will immediately tell you they’re selling their product or service in their ads, my question is “how?”
If your ad is all about price, then you’re selling on cost. That’s kind of like the burger wars. You know, when McDonald’s does their $1 menus? Do you really want to go there against your competition? Selling on price means you have to be willing to duke it out to the end.
Sometimes that can mean undercutting your profit … all your profit. I managed a record store long ago and far away in Santa Monica. It was a single retail location, but the owner wanted to draw people in with a loss-leader. So he’d run a full-page newspaper ad for the latest Stones, or Bowie or whoever album at cost … his cost. The problem was, Tower Records paid a much lower cost for their total volume so they always undercut my old boss. That was a battle he couldn’t win. (And a lesson I never forgot.)
If your ad is all about a limited time offer, that’s kind of like a price ad, but with a limited lifetime. Not good. That’s a sign of a desperate retailer or service provider trying to convince folks that “now’s the time to shop at Crazy Crandall’s.” Now, not only are you trying to woo folks from your competitors with some price incentive, you’re telling them that they only have to care for the next week, or month, or whatever. That message usually goes directly to the delete file.
If your ad is about longevity, how long you’ve been in business, you’re getting warmer, but you’re still not delivering the goods. A message that tells people how long you’ve been in business is a feel-good message, especially for the business, but it doesn’t necessarily convince your true target audience why they should come to you. How you’ve stayed in business for that long is closer to what matters. Have you done it by being better than anyone else? Have you done it because yours is the only business of its kind in your area? Have you done it because you always treat people better? As in fairer and as in no-hassle returns? If that’s the case, that’s starting to look like the real deal.
Sell on benefits and you’re selling for the longterm.
An endless number of businesses have learned the hard way that conveying the benefits of doing business with you is the only way to get and hold onto new customers. Price is not a benefit – it’s too temporary and fraught with sand-traps. If the price is too good to believe, most folks don’t believe it. Meaning they don’t think they’re really getting quality goods or services when it’s “that cheap.”
Short-time promotions also only excite a certain kind of audience – the kind that’s only ever looking for bargains. Do you really want them on your mailing list? They’ll only come in when you’re having a super sale, so you’ll start thinking you always have to have them.
Selling on benefits is the only to have both loyal customers and customers who help you sell by convincing others that yours is the business to go to. Sell on quality, reliability, trustworthiness and fairness and then you can charge enough to make some profit and still grow your target audience.
Quality. Reliability. Trustworthiness. Fairness.
Those are not promises, they’re benefits. If you focus your advertising budget and message on those benefits, you’ll develop a loyal following of repeat customers.
Some years ago the packaged goods companies dug their own sand-traps: they started doing promotions. What happened as a result was not the simple blip in sales they’d hoped for. Instead, they had created a new kind of consumer: the kind that only bought their particular soap, or soup, or frozen goody when it went on sale. The “stocking-up while it’s on sale” approach to shopping changed everything, and the packaged goods companies were never able to go back to “the way things were.”
The “big box” stores were the natural evolution of that approach to shopping. They took the promotion from an occasional event to an all-year deal. And the packaged goods companies will never able to go back to “the way things were.”
The message here is simple: sell on benefits and deliver on the benefits. In today’s excessively price-conscious marketplace, it’s the only way to make your advertising dollars pay off – both now and in the future.
The digital age has changed everything.
If you read the biography of John Adams by David McCullough, you know that that wonderful book was based entirely on letters from the lifetime of one of our country’s most important founders. Think about this: if John Adams were living today, how much of his correspondence would survive?
Being part of the digital age means that we are required to do more than merely write – we must know how our particular computer works. That knowledge is now part and parcel to knowing how to use that digital tool to write. We don’t sit down to draft a letter; we create a “doc,” assign a sub-folder, give it a title, and then we save the doc and fiddle with it multiple times before actually using it.
When we e-mail, do we know if our messages are saved? I certainly don’t save every single e-mail I receive. Why? I’m thinking about my computer’s e-mail program more than the messages. I’m thinking that it’s overwhelming to see 4,000+ messages in my in-box. So, every few months, starting from the bottom, I highlight and delete. And that would seem to be common practice for pretty much everyone.
Imagine what that means for our written history.
While a digitized data world means that now we can store an entire basement’s worth of files on a tiny hard drive, managing that trove has proven overwhelming. And it’s become a problem for corporations of every size since data retention is now a legal requirement for many business and government sectors.
Our society is now our data.
The modern world could not function without information. We cultivate and harvest information the way our agrarian ancestors worked the land. We no longer work directly to produce what sustains us – instead we produce goods and services that are proffered and supported with communication, from marketing to manuals.
We also no longer identify ourselves, when challenged, as the son or daughter, brother or sister, niece or nephew of so-and-so, but instead must produce documentation that defines and validates us.
This information is also not limited to the kind referred to as “data.” While data is a product of the “Information Age,” the kind of information that forms the core of our society is significantly more far-reaching. Birth certificates, school records, social security statistics, building plans, mortgages, aircraft records and nuclear facility specifications make up the kind of information that’s vital to our continuity. It just happens to be a fact that much of it is now digitized.
Too often, the importance of this information isn’t recognized until it’s urgently needed. Personal lawsuits, corporate litigation and disasters can impact the need for information that was once considered not worth saving. And not being able to access this much-needed information can change the course of lives.
Old, paper-based filing systems had the advantage of transparent logic. Ever try to find a doc on someone else’s computer system? I have and it can prove an impossible task.
The way we save data keeps changing.
Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, stated that digital technology would be virtually re-invented every two years. (Specifically, he was talking about the number of transistors in a CPU doubling every two years.) That statement became “Moore’s law,” which defined how rapidly our data management systems would change. Today, that time period can be as short as six months.
In the face of such continual technological change, it’s not surprising that we’re all faced with increasingly rapid computer obsolescence. And every time we replace a computer or data device, we may be losing more of our written history.
The author of a New York Times article titled The Virtual Attic describes some of the changes through the years that have meant replacing the computers on which work was done and writing was saved. The first computer I bought around 1986 (an IBM PC) had two 5 1/4″ floppy drives and no hard drive. (It also had a “green” screen – no color, no graphics, just green, glowing text – and cost $3400.) Do you remember loading programs that meant swapping out a dozen or more of those floppies?
I was living in a Manhattan co-op apartment when I’d bought that computer and when I put the apartment on the market Joyce Carol Oates and her husband, Raymond Smith, came to look at it. But they were far more intrigued by the monster computer on my desk. “Doesn’t it give you migraines?” Smith asked. They were both writers who had not yet begun working with computers, and I found myself spending more time describing what that was like than the renovations of the West 67th Street one-bedroom.
What will be left of your story?
Eventually I migrated what I felt needed saving onto the “newer” 3 1/2″ floppies, then onto CDs, and now anything that seemed important over the years has been backed-up onto hard drives. But what was lost? What was left behind? While I may have been using computers since the mid-to-late 1980s to write, I certainly don’t have any of the e-mails from that far back. Do you?
What will people know of us when we’re gone and all that’s left is a hard drive or e-mails account that’s very likely password-protected? Will people scour our e-mail to see what kinds of thoughts we put down to good friends and life partners as David McCullough did with letters for his book on Adams? Will our personal history evaporate when our computers are donated or recycled?
I find it fascinating and mind-boggling that the letters of people who wrote with quill dip pens may ultimately be more durable than anything from this digital age.
Is content still king?
Ever since the earliest days of the Internet, there has been one great need above all other needs: content.
Without good, relevant content, there’s no value to a web site or portal. Ignoring this truism, some enterprising sorts decided that aggregating and automating content would be a good business idea. Is it? Forbes doesn’t think so: Congratulations Demand Media. You’re still pretty dumb
There are so many things wrong with content mills that one could go on forever. One of the worst things is how inane the content turns out. Why? The mills want generic articles that can be blasted into almost any venue as soon as one enters search terms. The result is stuff nobody really wants to read.
An equally bad thing is their pay scales. Demand Media pays an average of $15 for 500-1,000 word articles. Think about that for a moment. The lowest rates paid to writers for articles are in the range of 50 cents per word (where it has been for about a century). For a 1,000-word article, that’s $500 … a long way from $15.
The better markets pay $1-2 per word. So you can see where things are headed if the content mills have their way. You can also see why the typical content mill writer would want to grind out content rather than craft their copy. If you’re only making pennies, why kill yourself?
What does this mean for clients? Content mills are training clients to expect to pay far less than typical. But clients don’t really want lesser quality, do they? Trouble is, you can’t have it both ways.
Here’s an independent writer’s take on it: Demand Studios’ IPO reveals more reasons writers should be wary
Seasoned pros won’t touch the content mills.
Since 1988, I’ve largely earned my living as an independent advertising and marketing writer. The contemporary combination of globalization, the Internet and a flattened economy has created a plethora of content mills/farms that pay writers far less than minimum wage.
Demand Media is only one of many content mills. Examiner.com is even worse, recruiting “writers” (non-vetted, non-edited) and then making them work to publicize their offerings (and annoy everyone) because they pay by the click vs. by the word or article.
These mills are paying writers pennies on the dollar, if that much. It’s a brilliant business plan that depends entirely on the submissiveness and low self-esteem of writers.
Let me say that again: it’s a brilliant business plan that depends entirely on the submissiveness and low self-esteem of writers. And it cuts writers out of the markets they’ve been writing for long before the mills showed up.
Wake up, writers.
Writers need to wake up and realize some things about the critical need for their particular skill. Industry cannot grow without communication. Business cannot grow without communication. Capitalism cannot function without communication. Ultimately, communication (via marketing, advertising and p.r.) drives capitalism. How can there be competition without communication that makes the target audience aware of choices?
So, can we really afford to have communication dumbed down any further than it already is? The word on “the street” is that Google has become weary (and wary) of the mills that use “optimization” tools to place their articles at the top of search results.
Clients should be just as wary. Do you really want “mash-ups” rather than original, professionally written, carefully crafted articles? I didn’t think so. Think carefully about SEO before you jump on that bandwagon. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the gurus of SEO said that it has turned into “content written for machines rather than for people.” If you want people to respond to your calls to action, you need to write for people, not for search results.
The mills promote a culture of minimal thinking, minimal work and total plagiarizing. They virtually force their minions to work as quickly as possible in order to get out as many articles as possible so that they might actually survive. The concept of quality isn’t even part of the mix. Who needs it?
No writer, no newspaper.
No writer, no magazine.
No writer, no web content.
No writer, no owner’s manual.
No writer, no package copy.
No writer, no cereal box copy.
No writer, no program guides.
No writer, no museum guides.
No writer, no dictionary.
No writer, no ad copy.
No writer, no radio copy.
No writer, no catalog copy.
No writer, no business.
No writer, no sales.
No writer, no company.
No writer, no book.
No writer, no poetry.
No writer, no songs.
No writer, no laws.
No writer, no play.
No writer, no movie script.
No writer, no TV script.
(You get the idea …)
The message matters most.
Can we exist without communication? I think not. Can we prosper without communication? I’m sure not. Who produces the communications that help us prosper? You guessed it, writers.
No matter what the product or service, no matter where in the world, in order for commerce to take place, there must be communication. Communication is the keystone of commerce. From the days of merchants rolling carts through villages, shouting their wares, to the half-time commercials during Super Bowl games, communication is key to making the sale.
Everyone knows that. No one gives it a second thought. But where would companies be without written communication? Where would the global economy be without written communication?
Our entire economy – indeed the economy of the majority of the world – is based upon competition. The message is frequently “why our product is better,” “how our product improves things,” “why you’ll be happier with our product.”
On this first morning of this new year, I sing the praises of the creators of the messages that make the world go ’round.
The writers craft the message.
Could Coke be Coke without the commercials and ads that proclaim its unique benefits? Could Mac be the rising star in the computing world without the commercials and ads that inform us why we should choose their offering over a PC?
Would we even be seeing and hearing those commercials and ads without TV, radio and print media? And would we even have those forms of “information and entertainment” without the writers who create the content?
When the Web was born, its progenitors announced, “content is king.” And you know who creates content …
You could justifiably ask, is there too much of everything these days … too many messages, too many puerile shows, too much competition for our eyes and ears? Yes, indeed, but again I say that thanks to writers we have the choice of what to watch, what to listen to … and what to buy. Communication informs us of our choices.
We vote with our choices, and in doing so we guide what the future brings us. If there are way too many ‘reality TV’ shows, it’s our own fault. We’ve chosen to watch them and reward their advertisers. What we have in the way of choices reflects the choices that have already been made.
It all starts with communication.
I worked on the introduction of the Sony Mavica – one of the very first commercially available digital cameras. It cost between $5,000 and $10,000, and when I asked my Sony clients, “who will be the target audience for this amazing device,” they answered, “probably just the national news media.” They had no idea what they’d helped spawn. Digital photography had been introduced to the masses. Sony also brought about digital music, as well as CDs as a medium, and look where that’s gone.
Sony knew, as every major manufacturer knows, that inventing something – however spectacular – is hardly enough. You have to get the word out. And who does that? Yep, the writers. We ask the key questions and put down the key answers so that the most appropriate target audience will get the most relevant message.
Marketing is about communication, not sales.
Sales comes after the message. First you have to inform, then you can seek the sale. But forget the sale if the message isn’t clear and compelling. That’s what we do. We’re the writers. We craft the message, and we do our damnedest to make it clear and compelling. We form the communication. We get the word out.
Without writers, companies wouldn’t be known, their products wouldn’t be known and their futures would be uncertain. The better the writer, the better the result.
It all starts with the message, the communication. Everything follows from there. Everything. And that, folks, is what it means to be a marketing writer.
I was in my first year of junior high when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated on this date in 1963. It was a consciousness-raising event that may have set me on the course to being a writer.
I was in the English classroom of the toughest, scariest teacher I’ve ever had, Mr. Doucette (a French irony), when he answered the phone that never rang. It was on the wall by the door of every classroom for emergencies. With all of us watching him intently, he seemed to shrivel a bit, said “oh my god,” and then only grunted answers toward the wall he was now facing. When he hung up the phone, he turned toward us, but avoided looking at us. We knew he was extremely upset; it was rare for Mr. Doucette to be at a loss for words. In a much quieter voice than he’d ever used, he finally said, “there’s going to be an announcement over the P.A. system from the principal. It will be fairly upsetting. I want you all to try to stay calm. After the announcement, you will be sent home to be with your families.”
The principal gave us the bad news in the briefest possible way. Several girls screamed. Some started crying. Most of us boys were more silent than we’d ever been. This made no sense. This was America. Things like this did not happen here.
As it turned out, since both my parents worked, I was home alone, watching the black & white TV picture and listening to Walter Cronkite who choked back tears as he told us that JFK was dead. Whatever mattered in my world suddenly became far less important. The first president of whom I’d had any awareness was gone. Suddenly and shockingly.
The need to make sense of things is one of the key reasons writers become writers. It’s the reason I became a writer. What we learn in marketing is that people’s emotions frequently play a bigger role in decision-making than facts. That’s why what we write is the exact opposite of scientific treatises. We are seeking to connect with the emotions that lead people to want something, to become curious about something, to feel the need to know more about something.
What I have wanted badly, since 1963, is to know who killed JFK. A NY Times piece that came out today, written by Jackie Kennedy’s Secret Service guardian (Clint Hill), raised all the questions all over again. Mr. Hill wrote that he heard the first shot and saw the president grab his neck. He was immediately so intent on running toward the president’s car that he didn’t hear the second shot, and then he “was just feet away when I heard and felt the effects of a third shot.” A lone gunman? I don’t think so. All three shots hit the president. And that supposed one gunman killed two days later by a terminally ill mob hitman shortly after being arrested? No, Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone, if he acted at all in the murder of JFK.
This has been the most burning question throughout my lifetime, with little hope of knowing the answer since the facts of the case supposedly must remain sealed until 50 years after the last remaining Kennedy child is gone. No president or public figure who came after JFK has been as electrifying, as unifying and as filled with purpose. He may have been the last one who put objective good ahead of personal beliefs and preferences. He could have put our nation on the path toward global participation instead of isolationism. He could have made a mark in history far greater than he was allowed.
Soon he will be merely another part of history rather than a signpost in the lives of people who were around when John F. Kennedy was murdered. Soon he will be like Abraham Lincoln – a president who was assassinated before he could accomplish all that he was meant to during his days on earth.
A few years later, we lost Martin Luther King and then Robert F. Kennedy. Yes, the 60s were a crazy, crazy time.
When a good advertising idea appears, it goes on and on. Example: those brilliant MasterCard commercials that ended with “priceless.” They’ve been copied so often that it’s impossible to keep track. But that just proves how good the idea was.
The “got milk?” campaign was equally brilliant, and even more frequently copied. But how poorly great campaigns were imitated proves why it takes a very good writer to turn a good idea into a great idea.
Locally, some real estate outfit has put up “got space” signs all over the place, complete with black background and the same font as the “got milk?” campaign. Except, he/she/they never understood the meaning and importance of the original “got milk?” campaign since he/she/they left off the question mark … or any punctuation. That little bit of punctuation makes all the difference. (Writers know that.)
Example: does the “got space” rip-off mean this advertiser a) has space available? b) wants to know if you do? c) only has space where the sign appears? So much unknown … because of such a little thing: punctuation. Even a period would convey clarity and help make the sign more meaningful.
Much of what it means to be a very good writer is understanding the importance of choices and what those choices will mean to anyone who views the communication you produce.
Example: knowing when you’ve got something original, distinctive and memorable; knowing how to talk about it so that it will attract the right target audience and produce the desired effect.
The “got space” signs are a nod to greatness, but ultimately a pointless waste of “space” – both on the landscape and in any viewer’s mind. And also proof that this particular advertiser never really understood the original “got milk?” campaign. Such imitations abound and are painful to see because of the lack of clarity. They’re not just wasted opportunities; they’re wasted dollars.
Clarity in communication is vital, critical and necessary. Without it, who really knows why you’re saying what you’re saying, or to whom?