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DMA &Then 2016… I’ll be back

I’ve been asked to repeat my Ignition session at this year’s annual Direct Marketing Association conference, which will take place in Los Angeles. My slot is Monday October 17, 4:00-4:45 PM.

Titled (for legacy reasons too complex to go into here) “Devilish Details: Looking for an Advantage in Your Copy and Design”, it’s essentially an opportunity for creative practitioners and managers to let down their hair in a town hall setting. You know all those times you’ve seen a really good or bad example of creative and wished you could talk to somebody about it? Or that ridiculous assignment that you aced in spite of the suits? Or how your legal department maimed your dream concept? Here’s your chance to share.

I’ll come prepared with a few examples to prime the pump, and would love your suggestions either as comments or emails to me. Some of the areas I want to touch on are “Brands saying bae” (cringeworthy examples of corporations trying to be hip in social media, as featured by the @BrandsSayingBae handle or seen in the wild), infographic abuse (some are ok, but some are graphics for the sake of graphics, right?), mumblecore emails and whether they work, and fake-official direct mail that makes you wonder how stupid marketers think we really are.

Got any more ideas? Please share!

We will also have food! Not in the session (though copies of my book will be given away), but repeatedly during the conference because Los Angeles is a great food town. I’m specifically interested in great Chinese in the San Gabriel Valley and interior Mexican and am starting the research process now. Again, suggestions appreciated. This will be fun!

Then and now: Planned Giving with the Salvation Army

Planned Giving letters (front)

Front page of the two planned giving letters, side by side (click the image to enlarge to a readable size)

25 years ago I wrote a planned giving direct mail program for the Salvation Army. I recently received the current rendition of the same ask, and it was fascinating to see what has changed and what hasn’t. I’ve reproduced the letters from the two packages, which contain the key message, and you can read them by clicking on the images.

backs of planned giving letters

Back side of the two letters (click the image to enlarge to a readable size)

In both cases, the program appeals to high value donors and asks them to make a small regular contribution to fund community kitchens and shelters on a year-round basis. The vast majority of the Salvation Army’s donations come in fourth quarter, partly because of tax planning but also because holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas) are a time when Christian donors are particularly sensitive to the needs of people less fortunate than themselves. The letters are sent in first quarter to people who made generous donations over the holidays.

Soup & Shelter complete

Soup & Shelter package, complete

My pitch was called the “Soup and Shelter Brigade”. It thanks the reader for their generosity and paints a word picture of “a Christmas they’ll never forget” which they made possible. It goes on to present the year round need and provides two vignettes of people like the ones you’ll be helping—good people who have fallen on hard times, usually through no fault of their own.

The vignettes are important because we’re going to send you more vignettes each month as part of the program—here’s who you are helping this month. The monthly mailing is a reminder and a request for the pledged donation, since this was before the days when automatic credit card billing was an accepted practice.

Bed & Bread complete

Bed & Bread package, complete

The new package is from the “Bed & Bread Club” and has a hard edge that surprised me—not to say it’s not successful. “Not everybody wants a remedy, nor even wants to change. Being homeless is sometimes easier than doing the hard work required to change their circumstances… We’re sure you, like most of us, would prefer to help someone who wants to be helped who is ready for change.” And the letter goes on to promise that your gift will be used to support this cohort.

So this is appealing to a donor who is fed up with the ineffectiveness of social programs…. Possibly because “while politicians continue to argue how to best care for them, few solutions have been found that actually work.” It’s an exhortation to take things into your own hands that leans as much on frustration as Christian charity.

I’ve also attached photos of the complete packages (minus the return envelopes, which were blank in both packages). Mine includes a calendar with a theme for each month to illustrate the ongoing need “Bed & Bed Club” has TWO remit forms, one a standard ask and the other an authorization for automatic credit card billing. This makes me think the auto billing is a test which will be rolled into the main form if it works.

If it still works as in my day, local Salvation Army corps have access to several direct marketing agencies who offer them prepared promotions to choose from and then localize (mine isn’t localized because it’s an agency sample). “Bed & Bed Club” was the choice of the Capital District corps, and that’s really all I know about it. I hope it’s working, but I also hope (and believe) people still give out of compassion as much as frustration.

How to turn your life insurance policy into a cash machine

I don’t know how many of my readers this will apply to, but it’s too good not to share. I got an alarming notice from my insurance company the other day that the premiums are going to increase on my universal life policy and I should consider increasing the premium payments.

If you don’t have a universal life policy (or don’t even know what that is) stop reading here. If you do, take a look at the annual statement of value you receive. That’s what I did when I got this notice and I discovered my policy has a guaranteed interest rate on the cash value, which is what’s left over after the premium is deducted, of 5.5%.

There are not many things you can safely earn 5.5% on these days, so I asked the insurance rep if I increased my payments, not by the few dollars required to cover their premium increase, but by hundreds of dollars a year, would they still have to pay me 5.5% on that surplus? The answer is yes. So it in effect becomes a savings account that pays 5.5% compounded with each payment.

I’m not going to name the company (they are a former client, actually) and it doesn’t matter because your situation will be different. But if you have an old policy with a fixed low minimum interest rate that’s not so low any more, this is worth checking out.

P.S. This strategy only works if you plan on liquidating the policy for its cash value at some point before you die. If you die, your heirs will have the choice between the face value and accumulated cash value, which will probably be less.

Why copywriting is like fixing a hole in the wall

I live in a 135-year-old house with lath and plaster walls. I have two teenage boys. Thus, I have a lot of opportunity to patch holes in those walls. Recently I’ve gotten a lot better than this, and it occurred to me there are lessons that apply to copywriting or any repetitive artisanal task.

Originally I patched the holes with Durham’s Water Putty, which is a wonderful substance so long as you do not ever plan to sand or otherwise change it after it dries. Fortunately I did not fix too many holes this way. I’ve evolved to what I think is a pretty standard formula: two layers of gypsum patching compound over the lath, then a final layer of Sheetrock drywall mud. (There’s possibly been some new regulation for health reasons, because the drywall mud is no longer available powdered but only in a premixed tub labeled “Dust Control”.)

Sometimes the laths are missing or broken. I use 1 x ¼ inch trim strips from Home Depot to replace them, applying wood glue and clamping the ends to the backs of good lath till it dries. The resulting lattice has a Rube Goldberg look, but once the plaster is applied nobody can tell what’s underneath.

Sometimes the plaster has separated from the wall. Using the technique I read about on this site, I drill numerous 3/8 inch holes through the plaster with a masonry bit, squirt a generous amount of Loctite All-Purpose Power Grab adhesive through each hole, then tighten the plaster down against the lathe with a short drywall screw and a fender washer. Two days later I remove the screws and knock the washers off with my drywall knife, and the wall is ready to be patched.

Applying the final layer is critical to making it look like you have not patched a hole. The coat needs to be even and it also needs to be “proud”, a wonderful plasterer’s word which means it’s raised slightly above the existing surface so it can be sanded down flush. If the coating isn’t proud, you will end up applying another layer to fill depressions left after sanding.

I’ve also learned to use the right sanding tool. Power sanders are too rough and kick up dust. Squeezable wet/dry drywall sanding sponges take forever. I use a flat drywall hand sander made by 3M with a 3” x 9” sanding face. It makes the wall as flat and even as it can be and exposes areas that will need to be built up. I start with 80 grit paper (also from 3M, and specially cut for this sander) and finish with 150 grit. On a couple of occasions my initial surface was way too high so I attacked it first with a Stanley surform plane.

So how is this like copywriting? First, your work improves with repetition. You observe what you are doing both consciously and instinctively, note what works and what needs to be corrected. In my experience improvement doesn’t happen gradually. You start a task you’ve done many times before, and suddenly realize you’re must better than the last time.

Second, you need to use the right tools and materials. For a writer, these include your creative brief, whatever method you use to organize your work and any props you use to improve your focus. (One great copywriter I know keeps a photo of his intended reader stuck to his monitor, for example.) You can’t just sit down and expect that inspiration will strike on a regular basis.

Third, you want to spend your best energies on the things that get noticed first. In a wall patch, you want to avoid bulges, dips, rough spots and separation lines where the patch doesn’t feather smoothly into the underlying wall. For the copywriter, pay attention to the outer envelope teaser, the subject line, the headline, and of course the clarity of the underlying concept.

Don’t get bogged down in the details until the big picture is clear in your mind. Your reader will forgive you the occasional flat sentence in body copy as long as your core premise is sound. Just as my home visitors, and future home buyers, will look past an occasional nick or ripple. Because no 135-year-old-wall is perfect… and neither is your copy.

Jerry Rice gets it done as Lyft driver


You were looking for our usual overview of the Super Bowl FSIs which bend over backwards to relate their snack, cleanser or constipation-related product to the b*g g*me without ever mentioning its name?

This is better: very entertaining, brilliant product placement featuring NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice pretending to be a Lyft driver.

Standing up to the Department of No

NRDC Bees appeal

The “some of” is the result of an overzealous legal department; they were concerned that not all species of bees are dying at the fastest rate ever. But as we copywriters know, adding the qualifier waters down the teaser and weakens its appeal so that less money will be raised to save bees.

Not to get overly sentimental, but as a marketer you’re one of the good guys. By selling more products or services, you help create and maintain jobs. To the extent that they are of good quality, you may even be changing lives for the better by introducing people to your offerings.

Suppose there was a department in your company that kept you from selling as effectively as you could, and watered down strong marketing statements so they were less effective and sold less products and services and generated fewer jobs and changed fewer lives. That would be a terrible thing, right?

Yet there is such a department in almost every organization. It’s called “legal”. And in the name of protecting the brand, trademarks or whatever, they may be sabotaging your best efforts. You need to push back.

Here are some of the most egregious issues:

1. Being overprotective of your trademarks. You are asked to put an ™ after the first occurrence of a trademarked phrase (or, worse, after every mention which is completely unnecessary to protect your ownership_, or to only refer to a product by its full official name even though it’s too much a mouthful to say or remember. Legal feels this is protecting you, but it’s reducing response because people are distracted by all the foliage or simply can’t make sense of it. (As we’ve often pointed out in this blog, there is a certain percentage of your prospect audience that will bolt at the slightest excuse, and this exactly what they’re looking for.)

2. Being protective of OTHER brands. I never understood this one. You think Apple might sue you, so you’re sure to put a trademark after every mention of the Apple product compatible with your doohickey. It’s true that Apple is a very brand-centric and litigious company but if you look at all the advertising mentioning Apple you’ll see that most people violate their guidelines on a regular basis (by, among other things, giving away Apple products in promotions, which Apple says is absolutely verboten). Why should you be the one to kowtow, before being asked to?

3. Rewriting copy because of legal paranoia. You, the copywriter, have done your research or relied on solid background from the product team. If you say something, it’s true and can be supported. But legal is concerned about a hypothetical objection and makes you water it down. This is death.

4. Rewriting copy for reasons that have nothing to do with legal. This is a Lord of the Flies outcome, but it happens more than I would like to admit. Once all power is ceded to the legal department they think of themselves as the final arbiter of brand and they make you change things just because they can. If things have devolved to the point this is happening, it may be time to look for a new job.

But I said push back. What does that mean? First, don’t anticipate those legal objections by putting in all those qualifiers and curlicues before you’re asked to. Write the strongest marketing copy you can. Put a stake in the ground. Then water it down if you must. At least you’ll have the original draft to show your boss.

Second, when the legal changes come through fight back. If it seems like the requests are overreaching say so, or just ignore them. Make the nitpickers escalate it and see if their supervisors are more interested in jobs and sales than ®s and ©s. You just may win, at least once in a while.

P.S. This article is legally protected under Creative Commons. You are absolutely welcome to quote or misquote in any way you chose.

CES, Comdex and me (plus a few survival strategies)

CES 1979

On the floor at CES, 1979

I first attended the Consumer Electronics Show around 1980, when it really was what its name says. I was a young account executive working on the Federated Group, an “entertainment superstore” that was sort of like what Best Buy is today. Being low on the totem pole I was placed in the Showboat Hotel, a marginal facility located downtown. (Then as now, hotel prices skyrocketed during conventions; unlike now, you didn’t have the internet to comparison shop and find available rooms.)

3d pen at CES

Demonstrating a 3D pen at ShowStoppers, my favorite CES press event

The audience was mom-and-pop retailers who took a yearly junket to Vegas where they met with suppliers and made decisions about what to stock in the coming year. Betamax and quadraphonic were big. Even though I was not invited to the back-room discussions, I found myself fascinated by the opportunity to watch the watchers. I’d attend demos, and look at the faces of attendees as the features were explained. When their eyes lit up I would take note of hot buttons that might be used in my marketing.

Fesco Bags

Collecting bags is a big deal at CES. Extra points if they are from obscure Chinese companies or are sturdy and actually useful.

By the 1990s I’d moved up through the ranks and then out, with my own freelance copywriting practice. My clients were primarily technology based and I started attending Comdex (the name stands for Computer Dealers Expo, which it was not; the focus was on much larger operations and installations) on a yearly basis as well as the much smaller Interop show in May. We now had the internet but not Travelocity or Kayak. My lodging philosophy was to rent a car and drive around till I found a room at a reasonable price. I stayed at some pretty scary places. I’d park that car on a north-south street (no longer in existence) parallel to the LVCC and walk about 10 minutes to the convention hall. Parties were plentiful (the best ones were from Oracle, IBM and other large companies for their clients, which usually included my clients) and I rarely paid for food or drink. Comdex was dealt a crippling blow by the events of September 11, 2001 and limped on for a couple more years before closing for good in 2003. I believe I attended the 2002 show and it was a shadow of its former self with many sections of the LVCC hidden behind fabric drapes.

Meanwhile, CES was picking up where Comdex left off and many of the largest vendors moved there. It became a place for big electronics hardware companies to show their wares and, as before, I could watch the audiences and see what I should be saying in my copy about these products. It also took on something of the third-world bazaar personality of Comdex in its wildest years, with massage chairs among the technology exhibits and adult entertainers in the lobby at the Sands (not by accident because AdultX was held at the same time, a schedule which has sadly gotten out of sync in recent years).

Massage chairs at CES

Massage chairs are an irresistible attraction for the foot weary CES visitor.

I’m not attending CES every year these days, since it has gone increasingly back to its consumer roots and most of my clients are b-to-b. So in lieu of my usual posts-from-the-floor, this year I’m sharing a few of my personal practices:

• These days, I always stay at the Econolodge on Convention Center Drive which is around $100 if you reserve well in advance. The only reason to do this is that it’s a 5 minute walk to the LVCC.
• Rent a car. They’re not that expensive compared to other jacked-up prices because most people take shuttles or wait in the endless cab lines. You’ll only use it to go from the airport to your hotel and for evening forays around the desert.
• Go on Yelp and explore local ethnic restaurants. Vegas has a vast array of Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean places that are insulated from the tourist traffic and prices.
• Go to In-N-Out on Tropicana at least once, unless you live in California and get to go all the time.
• Don’t go to parties. They’re not what they used to be. Don’t go to buffets. They’re no longer a bargain and the food’s not that good. And of course, don’t gamble.

Here are a few more dos and don’ts from someone who is on the ground this year as a vendor.

The USPS is getting better

USPS tracking

Tracking for my two-day Priority Mail package that took a week to arrive

Remember my fiasco with the Post Office last holiday season? This year they’re a lot better. They’ve updated their tracking tool, so you know what’s actually happening in their system rather than simply that it is “in transit”.

Using this tool I was able to determine that just 1 of my 7 packages arrived in two days as printed on the “2-Day Priority Mail” box. (To be fair, the clerk at my post office said it’s “two to three days”.) One just arrived today, after a week on the road. We’re getting there.

The age of the scary brand manager is upon us

Freelance creatives are familiar with the sales/marketing conflict at their client organizations: sales needs to generate business, while marketing needs to generate the maximum number of leads at the lowest possible cost. When good leads can be produced cost effectively, everybody wins. It’s an example of creative tension that produces a positive result.

But now there’s a new force to be reckoned with at many client companies: the brand guardian, who might be a product manager, an in-house creative director or some kind of special off-to-the-side position on the org chart reporting directly to the marketing VP. Unlike the sales and marketing folks, the brand manager is often not required to show measurable results. And their interference can do serious damage to your best work.

Companies have long been aware of the importance of a consistent identity, but social media has caused them to be ultra-vigilant. If you go off-brand in a way that’s tacky or politically incorrect or just counter to what your customers expect, you risk being excoriated like Gap with its new logo and Starbucks with its #RaceTogether campaign. The brand manager would appear to be a sort of flack jacket, taking a daily activist role to keep this embarrassment from happening.

The bad stuff occurs when setting and enforcing brand standards becomes a subjective process. These standards grew out of style guides and copywriting rule books, which were specific enough that they were easy to follow. You knew what colors you could and could not use, and you knew not to sound like J.C. Penney when you were writing for Neiman-Marcus.

But now, weighed down by “voice of the customer” screeds and “personas” for the various pilgrims you meet along the “buyer’s journey”, brand enforcement has gotten much broader and at the same time more arbitrary at many companies. (NOT all and certainly none of my clients—see below!) The only way you know for sure is when your hand is slapped for going off-message. And because they want to avoid this experience, many marketing managers are over cautious and will preemptively kibosh good creative because they think brand won’t like it.

Historically, good lead generation has had little to do with brand. If you want to start a conversation at a party, you don’t begin with your elevator pitch but with a statement you think will be of interest to the other person. If you’re DirectTV, a satellite provider with a huge brand investment, you trick people into opening your envelope by making it look like a personal invitation. Now that AT&T has acquired them, the difference is an AT&T logo on the back of the envelope. Brand can wait. Right now they just want to get leads.

Don’t take this the wrong way. Brand is good. I love brands. One of my favorite clients is an agency that specializes in helping companies define their brands. The damage is done when brand is apparently in conflict with good creative—something that should never happen because brand should not be “this is who we are” but “this is what we can do for you” or “this is how you feel when you use our brand”.

Brand is still about benefits, about you and not about me. But many brand managers don’t trust this. They’ll dial back powerful selling statements in favor of stilted, stuffy language that is somehow “brand-y”. This hurts your chance to win for your client by generating more customers and revenue through powerful copy. Same thing happens with graphics if you are shoehorned into a template that looks great but doesn’t follow principles of good eyeflow and doesn’t allow enough content to deliver a compelling message.

So what can you do? If possible, get an audience with the brand manager as part of your assignment. Ask them to explain why the standards are the way they are. Then, when you present the work, play back those explanations in the same way you quote from the creative brief. This gives the brand manager some skin in the game and may even win them over.

But that’s an ideal situation. At some companies the brand manager may refuse to even talk to you. They may argue there’s no need because the brand standards are already laid out. It’s obvious they’re being defensive—but the very reason you need to talk about standards is to be sure you interpret them correctly.

A brand needs to listen to its customers. It needs to evolve. Marketing is a key part of that conversation. As my sales training client Roy Chitwood says, “nothing happens till somebody sells something”. When a brand manager shuts you out of that conversation, everybody loses.

This post was inspired by conversations at my “Devilish Details” Ignite Session at the 2015 DMA conference, where over 100 creatives shared examples of good ideas gone bad. It has no bearing on any of my own clients, past, present or future.

American Red Cross blood donation marketing could use a shot in the arm

A family member died from a blood disease, so I’m sensitive to the importance of blood donations. I had not given in far too long when I stopped into an American Red Cross trailer a few weeks ago and donated a pint plus platelets.

The techs warn you at the time there’s no guarantee your blood will be acceptable, but I got a follow-up call a couple weeks later for another donation. I happened to be in a public place and the connection seemed to be poor. I asked them to call me back. Later, I reflected on the fact my blood must have passed muster or they would not have called me. Why didn’t they just tell me the good news?

Tonight, another call. Again the connection was poor, which I’ll now say is due to some budget choices on the equipment used by the telephone staff. There’s a drive this Thursday at Saratoga Catholic, would I prefer 11, 12 or 1 pm?

Wait a minute, I said. I understood there was something special about my blood from the previous call and I’d like more detail before committing. The rep read through a script about how important blood donation is. But what about my blood, what’s special about that? Well, you’re A Positive which is 34% of people but only 3% give blood. Further you’re able to give to A Negative donors as well.

I had to stop her there because I’m not available on that date but asked her to call again. I really do want to give blood and intend to, but this process is self defeating. Let’s see how it could be made better

1. On the first follow-up call, congratulate the donor on the fact their blood was found acceptable and is helping save lives right now. Why in the world would they not do this?

2. On the second call, don’t lead with generic blood donor motivators. Tell me what my blood type is and why that’s important, rather than have me ask for it.

3. Finally, don’t twist my arm. Calling me out of the blue and trying to set up an appointment right way is way too intrusive. How about a softer direct mail sell? And how about a secondary ask of a donation, which might help pay for the program?

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