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We’re stepping back, not stepping away

Boy with American Flag

This photo is in the Creative Commons, meaning the photographer has approved its use without permission or payment. It originally appeared with an editorial, entitled “America’s struggles with cultural ignorance”, in the online publication of Biola, a Christian college.

As exactly nobody noticed but me, June was the first month since 2004 in which we did not publish a single post. Blowing that tradition feels great. I’m backing off on new freelance work and will continue to post here from time to time, but only if I have something worth saying. The collected wisdom of this site can be found mostly in the Copywriting 101 category or, if you want to pay very little extra for me to organize it for you, in my book Copywriting that Gets RESULTS! And if you are willing to read about food instead of marketing, Burnt My Fingers is alive and well with new posts at least 2x a week.

I started this blog because I was teaching a copywriting course for the Direct Marketing Association, and the innovative format (yes, blogs were new at one time) seemed a good way to keep in touch with students outside of class. In 2004 email and other electronic marketing was in the ascendancy, but we still used direct mail for many creative and marketing examples because there is such a rich history to draw from.

Today, the most effective marketing is found in ads that don’t seem like ads at all, in clickbait headlines and fake social media posts that target a specific group or concern. David Ogilvy and other giants of direct marketing would be very proud of, if not exactly chummy with, the Russians and others that excel at these new media. Just like Robert Collier or John Caples, they do the digging to understand what is important to their target audience, then present their product or service as a solution to the problem the audience is having.

As we learned from Roy Chitwood and other practitioners of effective selling (remember, a copywriter is a salesperson with a keyboard), every one of us is motivated in every decision by the desire for gain or fear of loss. Today the latter motivator seems to be on the rise. I hope we all live long enough that the tide will turn and we will be less interested in who is trying to take things away from us and how we can stop them, and more interested in being the best we can be and sharing any beneficial results that may accrue.

It’s America’s birthday, the 4th of July. Let’s celebrate by making a commitment to a more generous and optimistic society, and let’s each one of us take the high road in working to make that happen. Look your neighbor in the eye, even if they’re a stranger, and nod hello. Sharing and fellowship built our nation. It’s not too late to go back.

The IoT is making me paranoid

This past weekend I enjoyed a getaway with family in Washington DC. Beautiful weather, spring flowers everywhere. And an email alert, delivered at 12:42 am Saturday morning, that my Smart Hub is down. That means I can’t access the various smart devices attached to the hub. And, wait a minute, the hub is attached to the router and sure enough, the two Wyze security cams attached to the route are down as well.

Something similar happened the last time we were all out of town together, about a month ago. There was a bright flash recorded on one of the cams, then disconnect. (That time the connected light switches kept working.) I asked our neighbor across the street to peek in our back yard and see if anything was amiss. She said all was fine. When I got back there were no signs of any disruption and I felt like a jerk.

So, not going to bother her this time. The possibilities are:
–some kind of catastrophe like a house fire. I would have heard about this from the neighbor and it might even be on the news, since not much happens in our isolated hamlet.
–electrical failure. This is actually what worried me the most because we have two freezers full of specialty meats. And we do have outages in our area, usually caused by storms.
–a break-in! This would require the thieves to get past the security cams, which would have still been working at that point, then be smart enough to immediately find and disable the router.
–Spectrum internet went down. This is the most likely scenario, of course. Unfortunately I can’t remember my log in info since the account was originally set up in my wife’s name. I could get on the phone with them and try to prove I am who I am, but the blossoms are becoming outside my hotel window

By the way, our home is wired with security system sensors on every window but we did not renew when we moved in because it seemed a needless expense in our town which is very low on crime other than non-professional, nuisance activities. And what would that have done for me? Alerted a live agent who would have gone out to confirm a problem they couldn’t do anything about.

The irony of this, of course, is that before the Internet of Things I would have had no reason to be fretful. Thanks, Al Gore.

UPDATE: got home, restarted router, all fine now. The only sign of disruption was a box emitting a buzzing sound, on a table near the stairs. It turned out to be a “travel alarm”, an item we used before smart phones.

Bots run wild in ATT chat rooms

Here’s the transcript of a chat this morning with ATT:

opener : Hi, I’m AT&T’s automated virtual assistant. How can I help you today?
Otis : Our student is back from semester abroad so we would like to reactivate XXXXXXXXXXXX
agent :
Oh no! We can help you with reinstating your service.

Was your service interrupted because of:
Payment issue
Other
Otis : Other
agent :
The Reactivate Wireless Service page has detailed steps to restore your line!
Otis : ##Url#https://www.att.com/esupport/article.html#!/wireless/KM1011528
agent :
Here are step by step instructions for restoring your line.
Otis : ##Url#https://www.att.com/esupport/article.html#!/wireless/KM1011528
agent :
Here are step by step instructions for restoring your line.
Otis : the page doesn’t have the answer and your “step by step instructions” aren’t showing up
agent :
Hmmm. Could you rephrase your question?
Otis : I want to chat with a real person
agent :
Let me get you to a specialist. Please tell us your first name.
Otis : Otis
agent :
Thank you, Otis. You will now be connected to a specialist who will assist you.

How might this have been a better experience? Keep the bots out of the chat room. Specifically, when I clicked “Chat” I expected to be connected with a live person. This was the way ATT chat worked in the past. If you’re going to try to make me use a virtual assistant, make it clear you are doing so. (Because I assumed I was going to get the same experience as previously, I did not notice the reference to the automated virtual assistant till I read the transcript.) And it should be a separate help/support function than Chat, which has the user perception of being a conversation with a real person.

When changing your logo is like wetting your pants

Adirondack Trust logo change

Why Adirondack Trust changed its logo… TMI!

The bank in town recently changed its logo. They explain in the pop-up above, which appeared when checking my statement online, that they wanted to “keep up with advances in technology” and that the new logo is “very well suited to today’s mobile world” and then go on to explain the design strategy, much as the designer might have done when presenting to the client. How much do I, the customer, care about this stuff?

They’ve also got a new website that must seem complicated to use because there’s a statement at the top: “Welcome! Learn to use our new website–watch our tutorial video here.”  When I click that link I get a warning that I am about to go to a third party website, which turns out to be Youtube. The video is a screen capture done with Camtasia, where we watch as they select from a drop down menu, access a contact form and such, all without any narration. Meanwhile the old website–which is called Webwise Banking–is still there and looks pretty much the same other than the logo change and doesn’t have any new functionality. Unlike most bank websites, it doesn’t present me with a table of recent activity. I have to counterintuitively click “history” to see any of that stuff.

The best thing about all of this is that their mobile sites, both adirondacktrust.com and webwisebanking.com, have been mobile-optimized; formerly webwisebanking (I never knew about the other site) returned a micro type version of their desktop. And their app, which formerly didn’t work for making mobile deposits, has been updated as well.

One wonders why Adirondack Trust thought it was necessary to put up a video tour of the site and why they didn’t imbed it on the page so they didn’t have that warning about the third party site. (This morning, by the way, the site is glitching and clicking the video link doesn’t do anything.) And why they continue to operate two sites, adirondacktrust.com and webwisebanking.com rather than redirecting the latter.

Think about Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima and how those food product icons have evolved over the years. Do those companies make an announcement every time they update the art? Think about your favorite apps which are constantly updated behind the scenes. If you’re curious or bored you can look up a snippet about what’s changed, but often these are silly, suggesting the developers don’t think anybody will read them.

It’s fine to update your logo (the old Adirondack Trust logo was complex and not particularly attractive or bank-y) and a good thing to improve the user experience. But just do it, don’t harp on it to your customers. To do so is like wetting your pants while you’re wearing a dark suit. It gives you a nice warm feeling, and nobody will notice but you.

Apologies for the outage… we’re back

Sorry. This blog has been running for close to 15 years but this week we had our first real outage, caused by a database failure when moving from one server to another. The problem was eventually solved, obviously, and we apologize for any inconvenience.

There’s a moral, too: if you have been thinking about checking something in our archives, or re-reading a particular post, now might be a good time to do it.

“Do you want your receipt?”

Here is a new but pervasive conversation in my home area (upstate New York). You’ll be completing a credit card transaction at a retail counter and the checker says, “do you want your receipt?” Well, of course I don’t. In an era of readily available online statements there are easier ways to track my purchases. And it’s just one more piece of paper to stuff in my wallet or lose in the shopping bag and ultimately throw away.

And yet. If I DON’T accept the receipt that leaves me open for fraud (the transaction is altered after the fact) or an error, like not picking up a sale price, that I would notice if I had the record. So my policy has been to say no if I’ve been watching the items and their prices on the register screen, and it’s a place I trust, otherwise yes. And I take those receipts, as I always do, and match them against my next statement to be sure they are consistent.

I am curious where this new policy came from. Is it supposed to be eco-sensitive because it avoids wasting a scrap of paper? Is this happening where you live? Let me know.

John Burgess: a life well lived on the internet

I thought about making this anonymous, but I don’t think there’s anything that John Burgess and his family wouldn’t want to share. And maybe they’ll see this and contact me with additional details.

Recently, for reasons of my own, I googled “what does turtle taste like”. One of the top hits was an excellent answer from John Burgess on Quora:

The flavor of turtle runs across a spectrum of fishy-to-beefy, depending on the variety and the method of cooking. Sea turtles — most of which are now protected species — actually fall on the ‘beefy’ side, often being compared to veal in both flavor and texture, though with abundant and savory fat. Fresh water turtles tend toward the ‘fishy’ side, though also fattier than most fish.

Land turtles or tortoises, I find, are pretty much indistinguishable from other reptiles, whether snake or alligator. ‘Chickeny’ would be an apt description.

What a good and complete answer! And as often happens on Quora, I was drawn down a rabbit hole, this time by Burgess’ profile description: “A diplomat is one who is paid to dine for his country; I’ve done so globally.” Well!

When you get to his profile page you find that Burgess has written over 12,000 Quora answers on every topic imaginable, a lot of them on the Middle East (and specifically on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or KSA) where he was stationed for many years. His answers are invariably terse yet complete, objective and informative. No wonder he is a “top writer” on Quora, a designation I have not seen previously.

I say “is” when referring to John Burgess because his words are as fresh and relevant as when he wrote them, but I noticed something: he wrote 13 answers on January 26, 2016 and two on January 27, then never wrote again. I also noticed the word “remembering” above his profile, something else I’ve never seen on Quora. I realize that John Burgess, the man, is dead.

I googled “John Burgess obituary Sarasota” knowing that was where he lived from some of the posts, and got confusing answers including an unrelated scoundrel who was arrested for DWI. Then I tried “John Burgess obituary Sarasota born 1947” because I’d been able to extrapolate that birth year from some of his posts. It pulled up this wonderful obituary which was posted by his high school.

John Burgess seems to have had quite a life. He saw the world as a foreign service officer and made the most of the opportunities his travels provided. In retirement he used his experience as a consultant for various media and film producers. He was thoroughly involved in Sarasota, where he was a fan of the local historic architecture and also sport fishing.

I don’t know when Burgess retired, so I don’t know how much he got to enjoy his post-foreign service years. He was just 69 when he passed, so I’m hoping he mustered out well before age 65. I also don’t know whether his death was anticipated or sudden. On January 26 he was writing pssionately about many subjects, then three weeks later on February 16 (his 69th birthday) he was dead. If he suffered, it wasn’t a long illness.

And what is kind of majestic about all of this, what we know and what we don’t know, is how John Burgess lives on through the Internet. His life and his knowledge are there for us to share, thanks to Quora. May we all be so generous and fortunate when our time comes.

A copywriter with a broken arm is like…

(Insert your own punch line.)

Nobody respects a broken arm. That’s one thing I’ve learned after three weeks with my right forearm and part of my hand in some variation of a cast, with three more weeks to go. “What did you do, punch somebody?” people invariably say when seeing my condition. By comparison, wearing a boot after achilles surgery this past winter drew lots of sympathy. Feet and legs are noble; arms are somehow a joke.

My accident, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, was indirectly related to the foot surgery. I felt I was finally ready to return to free weights after working on machines at the gym. I was carrying a 55 pound weight bar when I tripped on the foot of a bench and went down, head first. I did not let go of the bar, maybe thinking it might fly off and hurt somebody else, and when I hit the mat it bounced and came down on the top of the radius bone, breaking it in two places. A physical therapist told me it is very common for people to make accidents much worse because they do not let go of whatever they are holding. In my case, a freak mishap I could not repeat if I tried.

Lots of things are difficult to impossible with one arm, like pulling on socks, buttoning pants (which is why I’m going to holiday parties in sweatpants this year), opening jars, hand washing dishes, cutting foods, wrapping presents and of course typing. My wife was out of town the day of my accident and for several days after, so I got to drive myself back and forth to urgent care and the ortho clinic (yes, that’s illegal) as well as trying all the above.

I am thankful the arm will apparently heal without problems (though it does have a plate in it, one more of a growing collection of metallic body parts) and am making a resolution to be more mindful of my surroundings in 2018. Two surgeries in one year is one, and maybe two, too many. You too, be careful out there.

Reflections on Black Friday weekend 2017

Black Friday was the catalyst that turned me from a wise-ass cub copywriter, marking time till I sold a screenplay, into someone serious about their profession. Not a few years ago, I got a job as direct mail ad manager at the Broadway, a defunct chain of department stores in Southern California. One of my first assignments was the sale catalog to bring people into stores on the day after Thanksgiving. (No evening-before previews then.) I had to wrangle departmental buyers all of whom wanted more space than they’d been assigned, or wanted to jam more product into their allotted space. It was a nightmare. I seriously thought about quitting.

Then, on that morning (yes, we worked the day after Thanksgiving then) Marketing VP Jan Wentzel put me into his car along with my boss, Lisa Stanley. We drove to several stores to watch the people lining up to get in, and then lining up at cash registers–LONG lines–to purchase the very products I had been working so hard to present in an even handed way. For the first time, I realized that what I was doing had something to do with the company’s success and, by extension, all of us keeping our jobs.

In more recent years, I’ve pretty much ignored Black Friday, especially as it became easier to shop online. This year, at the goading of my teenager, I decided to check it out. I hit Walmart, Target, Sears and our local mall on Friday afternoon. I also made a serious attempt to find online deals which could count as Amazon-killers because they combined online and pickup-in-store shopping.

Walmart was the winner at that category. I bought a device which was one price online, but $30 cheaper if you bought in-store. However! You could order online for in-store pickup, know it wasn’t going to be out of stock, and get the same $30 discount. I did that and went to the store to pick it up, scanned a bar code at a kiosk, and realized I could buy a couple more things while I was waiting for them to bring it. Very smart, Walmart.

Sears was just sad. Not a lot of shoppers but even fewer cashiers, so there were still long checkout lines. What you’d expect from a store that’s teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

I like Target a lot but ended up buying just one thing from them. They had a nice sale on Fitbits as a doorbuster, but the model I wanted was gone. I found it on their website and ordered it. Unfortunately I then found it elsewhere at a lower price so the item will be returned. Feeling bad for Target, I spent a good amount of time checking their website for other bargains to buy, and returned yesterday on Cyber Monday when they were offering 15% discount and free shipping on everything. But time after time, when I got to the product page it was unavailable to ship, check inventory in store. Where I wouldn’t have the 15% discount.

The one sale product I really wanted was a Sony wireless Blu-Ray player, marked down from $119 to $49. It was “temporarily” out of stock online and finally disappeared from the website. Amazon, surprise, had it at the same price and I ordered it. Not going to the mall was more than worth the $7.50 in theoretically lost savings. Amazon wins again.

Tips for making the most of DMA &Then annual conference in New Orleans

The DMA Annual Conference happens next week, October 8-10, in New Orleans. If you haven’t registered, you can still get a ticket here. The format has been revised again, eliminating the Ignition sessions I’ve led the last three years, so I will be sitting this one out. Please have a beignet and a muffuletta on my behalf.

In case this is your first DMA, a couple of tips. The content has reverted to a focus on use histories presented by marketers and their agencies, which can vary from life-changing to self-serving and there’s often no way in advance to know which is which. My strategy is to choose backup sessions in each time slot and sit at the back of the room, so I can slip out unobtrusively if the session turns out not to meet my needs. I’ve found there is little correlation between the size of the room or the popularity of a session and its quality, so you shouldn’t necessarily jump into a room because it’s standing room only. Read up on the speakers and their companies and plan accordingly.

My second tip is to spend a good amount of time in the exhibit halls. Of course you want to see what the exhibitors are up to (and support their investment in the show), but this is also the place where I run into old colleagues, clients and friends who are randomly trolling the floor like I am. Speaking of networking, my third tip is to sit at tables during the meals where not only do you not know anybody but the participants don’t appear to know each other. That’s how to meet new prospects (because I’m a copywriter, almost everybody is a potential prospect for me) and learn new things.

And finally, take the time to enjoy New Orleans, one of the great food and entertainment cities of the world. The Convention Center is somewhat removed from the most interesting areas as are the big hotels, so you’ll need some initiative to make the most of the city. Go to the French Quarter early in the morning when the locals are waking up. Stroll, smell the flowers, get chicory coffee along with that beignet at Cafe du Monde. If you’re there on Sunday, take the streetcar out to the Garden District and have brunch at Commander’s Palace. Walk the French Quarter again at night, where you can enjoy much of the jazz (including Preservation Hall) simply by standing outside the open windows. I’m jealous!