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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!

Scary lesson from the WordPress hack

Last night I received about 800 emails confirming my subscription to various WordPress blogs, obviously the result of a hack. After I figured out what was going on I deleted them. No harm done, since almost all of them followed the best practice of requiring the recipient to confirm that they did indeed subscribe.

Unfortunately, two (so far) blogs did NOT require a confirmation and I’ve already started receiving peppy messages from them. Of course, these go straight to my junk mail folder. I am sure the thousands (millions?) of other recipients will do the same which effectively ruins the deliverability of future emails from those addresses.

Lesson: go right now, if you have a blog or a contact link on your company website, and be sure you require the additional confirmation step. If not, fix it now!

Hopkins Scientific Advertising for free?

Would you like a free copy of Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins? Sure you would, because this marketing classic is as relevant today as when it was published in 1923. Here are four principles from the book, as summarized on the Marketing Experiments blog:

1. People are selfish.
2. Generalities are worthless.
3. Advertising is salesmanship.
4. Advertising is a science.

The last is obviously to self-justify the book. But would you disagree with any of the others? Of course not, for reasons we have written about here many times. The world may change, the delivery mechanism certainly does, but people are still people with universal wants and fears.

Since the book is long out of copyright, a number of links to free downloads are available on the web. My favorite is this page by Roy Furr which showed up last week in my LinkedIn feed. Furr is a disciple of Jay Abraham who will of course use the podium to sell his own works while he has you engaged. But there’s no obligation, and I will take it on faith that opt-out requests will be honored.

You can go to this page and get full exposure to Furr’s marketing message, which is classic long form copy though a little long on analytics and short on emotion for me. In true Jay Abraham fashion, he really massages the info premium. Scroll to the bottom, and not only can you get the PDF download, but you can get an audiobook which Furr “recorded for my personal use”. The reader is pretty professional sounding, whether it’s Furr or somebody else.

My own publisher, FastPencil, is not so smart about freebies. They’ve discontinued the preview download feature whereby I offered the first ten chapters of Copywriting that Gets Results! at no charge. But a complete PDF is just $6.99, and since you’re saving so much on Claude Hopkins why don’t you just buy a copy?

Prosper vs Lending Club: which is a better investment?

In November 2015 I tried an investing experiment. I invested $2500 each in Lending Club and Prosper, and chose an auto investing option that put me at a medium level of risk where I could expect annual returns in the 10% range, after some write-offs for nonperforming loans. Both sites spread out your risk by buying small slices of many loans, and both reinvest the money as loans are repaid. So how’d I do?

I’ll start by saying that investing in these peer-to-peer micro loans (the face value of most notes is $25 or so) would make an interesting hobby for a numbers geek. There’s a lot of information on the websites, both historical and projected, and once you’ve invested you can drill down to the details of each loan (though, obviously, not to the detail of the borrower’s identity). Prosper initially appears more user friendly and click-and-forget but actually has more options when you get down in the weeds. For example, it allows you to specify that you will only lend to somebody who is employed. On the other hand, while both sites let you specify whether you want to make 36-month or 60-month loans or both (down below I’ll explain while that is important), only Lending Club will show you how your projected return varies with your choice.

I actually started writing this post back in March of 2017, and cited the following inquiry I sent to Lending Club at that time:

I opened this account around 11/15/15 with $2500. The value of the account is currently $2376 which is a net annualized return of –4.06%. If I back out past due notes my NAR is still just 1.76%.

By comparison, I invested $2500 in Prosper at the same time and my NAR with them is 11.42% with a total account value of $2736. Not knowing whether they adjust for past-due notes I looked up the itemization and found that three of 76 loans were past due (but less than 30 days, none longer than 30 days) with a total value of $130. If I take the drastic step of writing off those three loans my account value is $2606 which is still way above my returns with LendingClub.

In both cases I selected a middle range of loans which was projected to yield returns of around 10%.

When I look at the scatter chart of accounts with similar rates of returns at [gated page on website] my returns are far below almost all other Lending Club investors.

What is wrong with my account? How can I adjust my automated investing so I make money, rather than lose money?

I am happy to talk about this on the phone, but wanted to put the facts in writing to give you some background first. If you can give me a complete reply in writing that’s great, otherwise let’s set up an appointment next week to go over this on the phone.

Thank you, Otis Maxwell

A few days later, Lending Club answered as follows:

Thank you for your email. I have reviewed your account and noticed that  you have allocated most of your funds towards the riskier loans of grade C and below. This is one of factors that can be affecting your return since those loans are known to have a higher charge off rate.

I went to their “Edit Allocation” page and found that indeed I had somehow created a “custom” allocation. I changed it to a “platform mix” with most of the notes grade C or higher, but of course that only affects new loans. Since then five months have passed, and we now have 21 months of history. My total account value at Prosper is currently $2837 which is a 7.2% annual return. At Lending Club it’s $2515 for a 0.38% AR. Those rates are without adjustment for delinquent or charged-off loans. Less than $70 of my Prosper loans are delinquent and only one, for $24, has been charged off. At Lending Club $600 in notes have been charged off and $169 is currently delinquent. The average rates on my Lending Club loans are higher, which is why the account value difference is not more that it is.

It might be that Lending Club is more rigorous in its charge-off procedures in response to their widely reported management and cash flow issues in 2016. I have now changed my allocation to 65% B and 35% C notes, the same ratio as at Prosper, so we’ll see how that affects returns going forward. But (especially considering I was originally looking at 10% returns) how great is Prosper’s 7.2%, which drops to 7% when I back out past due notes? (These numbers are net of fees, by the way.) In recent times you could have done much better in the equities markets, obviously, but also worse with conservative bond investments. I guess I feel like I do when I win back the cost of my entrance ticket at the Saratoga Race Way. I’ve had some fun experimenting with peer-to-peer lending, the process was easy, and I’ve made a little money.

However, there’s an 800 pound gorilla in my portfolio: what do I do when I want to get the money out? I have to turn off my automated reinvestment instructions and wait for all the loans to mature which will take 5 years (or 3 years if I’d selected only shorter term loans at the beginning, with a slightly lower NAR). During this time my annual return is going to steadily drop until it finally reaches zero. You could also resell the notes. Both Prosper and Lending Club contract with a third party, Folio, as a trading platform, which offers this fascinating disclaimer (especially the part I am going to put in bold type) to the buyer:

Purchasing Notes on the Trading Platform is inherently risky as the asking price is set by the seller, and may be priced higher than the remaining return expected on the Note.

Purchasing Notes with a negative Yield to Maturity or with large markups are almost certain to return less money than the price you will pay, producing negative returns on your investment.

There are various reasons a current Note holder chooses to list a Note for sale. Often Note holders are simply looking to liquidate their holdings; they may place Notes for sale at or slightly below par value (i.e., below the remaining interest and principal remaining on the Note). However, other sellers may be seeking to profit on their sales. They may price Note above its par value, either in the hopes that a buyer will view the Notes as very valuable or because they may hope to profit from a lack of buyer’s insight. They may hope that the buyer will not realize that the price has been set so high, or they may hope that a buyer will not be paying close attention to the price set.

Please be wary of Notes that are priced at high premiums.

In addition, the original interest rate set by Lending Club was based on the borrower’s credit attributes at the time the loan was requested and may no longer represent the underlying risk of the Note. While the underlying risk may have increased, the interest rate has not and may not offset the risk a buyer undertakes when purchasing a Note.

Since the Note was issued the borrower’s attributes have most likely changed, among these could include changes to credit score, income, employment, credit utilization, debt-to-income, and many other important factors. You should buy a Note only if you understand and are comfortable with these risks.

There’s some crazy talk in that. But as I’m looking to be a seller and not a buyer, I’ll likely need to price my notes a bit lower than their face value AND I’ll need to pay a 1% service fee to the exchange on each transaction. So I can certainly expect my NAR to dip to perhaps 5.5% for my Prosper portfolio by the time I’m done. (I’m assuming these $25 notes will be harder to sell, and thus require a larger discount, than notes with a higher face value.) That’s still better than a treasury bond or CD.

If you’re still with me, I’ll answer my question: from evidence to date, Prosper does a better job of managing its loan portfolio. They offer all the functionality of Lending Club (except for that glitch about the projection of return by loan period, which is informational and doesn’t affect your actual return) as far as I can tell. So no reason not to go with them. Now that I’ve balanced my criteria so they are apples-to-apples across the two services, I’ll report back in a year or so. I’ll also tell you about my experience (if any) in reselling loans.

Meanwhile, here’s a wild card: Kiva. This not-for-profit is a platform for making micro loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. You don’t get paid interest but you do get your money back (according to Kiva, 97% of loans are repaid) and you can either withdraw it or use it to fund another loan. Less profitable, but possibly more satisfying, than the peer-to-peer options we’ve been talking about today.

 

Are copywriters the last storytellers?

Every copywriter should read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and following that, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. The first describes the classic myth structure which has existed across many civilizations and millennia: the hero emerges from humble beginnings, deals with adversity and learns from it, battles for cause and identity, suffers a major setback and enters a dark period, then draws on everything he’s learned to rally and prevail in a final battle. The Writer’s Journey is the same story, but told through the lens of Star Wars, one of the most popular films of all time.

I go to movies often with my teenage son, and it is painful to me that so many of today’s films are CGI spectacles devoid of plot or character development that could have been improved by a rote interpretation of the above sequence. I wonder what the budget meetings were like when they decided to put in yet another car crash or exploding head instead of spending a few bucks on a junior screenwriter.

If you’re a copywriter, you can’t afford to be sloppy like the Hollywood studios with your plots. You’re telling a story in which your prospect is the hero (thanks to your product) or in peril (but your service will save her). It needs to be credible and complete or you will be shown the door. Always remember that the marketer is an uninvited guest at the hearth of life. Your fellow travelers may be willing to listen politely for a moment but, if you can’t hold their attention you’re out in the snow. And, unlike failed Hollywood blockblusters, there’s no foreign distribution to redeem bad copy.

Yesterday in the car, I was listening to our recent Nobel laureate in literature for the first time in a while. “The drunken organ grinder cries…. I want you.” Parse those words and you’ll see there’s more drama and pathos in two lines than in most recent movies. The organ grinder is a street performer, someone who’s not particularly valued though he may amuse us. This one, though, has troubles. He is lovesick and that is probably what led him to drink. We want to know more.

Write copy that good and you’ll be a success, even a hero. Unlike yours truly, you may even sell a screenplay some day.

Sixfold: A crowd sourced literary competition

Are you a copywriter who has dreams of publishing legitimate (i.e. non-marketing) prose or poetry? Then take a look at Sixfold.org. This outfit puts on regular literary competitions you can enter for the very reasonable fee of $5, plus a commitment to read and critique 18 fellow competitors’ work.

Entries are submitted via the web, and each is assigned to a panel of judges (there are controls in place so you don’t critique your own work). You receive six stories in each of three rounds with no author identification. As a critic, you rank the stories from 1 (best) to 6 (least-best) and write a brief explanation of your vote. I found this a challenging and stimulating assignment.

In the first round, it was pretty easy to identify stories that would rank toward the bottom but harder to determine the order toward the top. But you have to take this seriously because only the top two move on to the next round, and the writer of the story will have access to your critique and know how you voted. It’s a (mostly) transparent process, like Yelp for writers.

Again in the second round, you read, critique and rank six stories and the top two move on to a third round. In the third round, the highest-ranking work gets a $1000 award and the top 15 get publication in the quarterly Sixfold Journal. At this level the writing is very, very good for the most part and I felt challenged to be very clear in my critique. I needed to have a reason for placing the work where I had, and I had to explain the reason in a way that was useful to the author.

After the competition ends, you have access to a complete list of the entries ranked in judging order. You can read the stories, and click through to whatever bio info the author has provided. More important, you have (password protected) access to the votes and critiques on your own entry and the more rounds you made it through the more critiques there will be. I was fortunate to get to the third round (I placed #20, just out of the running for publication, among 265 entries overall) so there were lots of critiques and some were very useful. Specifically, there were enough criticisms of the way I chose to end my story that I’m going to go back and fiddle with it.

The one thing I didn’t like, though I understand the reason for it, is that participants have the opportunity to be as anonymous as they wish both in their critiques and their entries. You can hide your work, or your name, or both, in the publicly available results. This allows a writer to submit a work to gauge acceptance without publishing it. It also allows an established writer to submit anonymously. 5 of the top 15 stories are currently listed on the results page as “Document [number]” and aren’t available to be read. Most of the lower ranked stories are anonymous in the results, suggesting that a new author was simply looking for feedback which is entirely legitimate.

As a contestant, I’d like to know the identity of my reviewer so I can read their work and understand any inherent bias or perspective. It’s frustrating that User 2707 gave me a 1 (which, confusing, is the worst ranking for tabulating score, meaning I was 6 out of 6 in his rating) and said simply, “Thanks for letting us all read your story! I enjoyed it.” Would he/she have been so dismissive without the protection of anonymity? There were also some reviewers whose critiques were not available; I got a ranking but not an explanation. It’s a glitch in the system, I assume

All in all, the positives far outweigh my concerns, and I’m a big fan of sixfold.org. Already thinking about what to enter for the July competition.

Bad news for Southwest Airlines frequent flyers

This morning I discovered that the new SWA reservation system automatically cancels you if you book two flights out of the same city on the same day. For example, I’m going to be on the west coast in July but don’t know whether I am coming home directly or continuing on to SNA. So I booked flights for both and now SWA has cancelled my return to ALB because it was the more expensive ticket. After 30 minutes on the phone with customer relations, the SFO-ALB leg has been reinstated and the SFO-SNA cancelled. I will now book the latter on another airline.

I was notified of the cancellation by an automated email, no explanation, which arrived in the middle of the night with a new mystery confirmation number. The long conversation and time on hold has produced the above information, which the rep says has always been in the contract but is only now being enforced. She says the people most affected are “tiered” passengers (frequent flyers) who often make multiple reservations and later cancel one. Exactly.

This flexibility is the precise reason I have been flying SWA. I am paying for the ticket and I understand if I forget to cancel the money is gone. It seems like a fair and straight up business transaction. I pointed out to the agent that I am one of the lucky ones because I took the trouble to research this; a lot of folks are going to show up at the airport and discover they don’t have a ticket because they thought the automated email was an error, they didn’t see the email, or they didn’t make the reservation on the web.

Any recommendations on a carrier with lots of coast-to-coast itineraries out of ALB?

Does ScoreIt teach you to write like Stephen King?

Food for thought: I recently received an email from Bowker, a service that provides ISBN numbers to self-published authors. They have a new product that allows you to compare your prose to that of successful published writers and find out who has a style and genre close to yours. The software is ScoreIt, and it has a hefty price tag of $99. If they’d let me do one match for free I might have tried it but as it is I will just opine about something I know nothing about.

Let’s say ScoreIt tells me I write like Stephen King, and that my story of teenage mishaps is closest to his horror works. What am I supposed to do with that information? I suppose I could advertise my work with phrases such as “if you liked Carrie, you’ll love Teen Troubles!” And certainly I can use it for the elevator pitch to prospective agents in which you tell them your writing is like Stephen King crossed with Herman Melville (for argument’s sake I’m presuming that’s a secondary match). Is either of these worth $99?

What I’m worried about is that ScoreIt is going to make writers try to train themselves to write more like Stephen King. They’ll pore over his books (and the reports from ScoreIt which I presume have granular detail on shared vocabulary, sentence structure etc). And it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of developing their own voice, they will indeed write more and more like someone else.

Of course, I used Stephen King as my straw man for a very good reason. He has a completely different voice from book to book, depending on topic and presumed audience. And he explains his craft and technique quite fully in On Writing, a standard textbook in college writing courses. The $10 or so that costs you on Amazon would be a better investment, methinks.

What the pool guy can teach us about selling freelance creative

I’ve recently moved into a house which, two owners ago, was tricked out with all the bells and whistles available in the early 1990s. Most of these tchotchkes have fallen into disrepair and must either be abandoned (like the in-wall coax cabling throughout the house) or gussied up. This has caused visits by a stream of spa guys, pool guys and sprinkler guys and I’ve noticed something interesting and consistent in the way they address my wife and me which can help in selling freelance creative.

“See the three holes in the top of that sprinkler head?” says the sprinkler guy. “That’s a Toro. They require a special tool to open the head, so you have to call a service to do it for you. I’ll replace all those with Rainbirds you can adjust yourself.”

“This is junk,” says the pool guy as he turns the handle on the filter tank. “$125 for a new one.” Water starts to ooze out. “Look at that.” As the gaskets become saturated, the leaks stop. “Well, maybe it’s good for one more season. But keep an eye on it. If you lose your prime [which for some reason is what they call pressure in the system] then your pool will become filled with algae.”

What’s happening in both these instances is that the contractor is sharing a do-it-yourself tip to make me, the client, feel in control while simultaneously instill fears, uncertainties and doubts that I’ll actually be able to do it.

“Write like you talk,” you might tell a client who thinks they can do their own copywriting. “Short sentences, no more than 10 words on average but break those up with an occasional one- or two-word sentence. Paragraphs no longer than five lines, but break them up with an occasional one-line or even one-word paragraph. And your vocabulary should be plain English. No words over ten characters if possible.”

Now who’s going to remember all that? The guy is going to dutifully write it down, and possibly try it, but will quickly abandon the effort and call you. And you may well be able to ease your estimate a bit higher because they now have more appreciation of your craft.

This is why I shake my head at creatives who present their work as a black box and refuse to open the kimono and explain what they’re doing. The more you tell them, the more they will respect and trust you, and the more likely they are to hire you to do it for them. Now I’ve got to go down in the basement, because the last owner loved to tinker with his sprinklers and I’m pretty sure he had one of those special Toro tools.

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