June 11th, 2012 — Copywriting 101, Marketing, Words and writing
When I started freelancing, a couple decades ago, a wise old art director counseled me: never turn down work. Even if you’re super busy, stay up all night to get it done or offload it to a fellow creative and hopefully mark up their work. After all, you never know which new client might become your bread and butter or, conversely, if your current bread-and-butter client might go belly up tomorrow.
And I do try to stay hungry. But recently I’ve been turning down a bit of work. Part of this is a hunch we are headed for good times. Freelance creative are the canaries in the coal mine, first to get laid off in a recession but also first to know when companies think they better get cracking to stay competitive. And that’s what seems to be happening right now. Buy U.S. equities, dear reader. Buy Facebook like I did last week. (Though not at the IPO price obviously.)
And, another part of my reasoning is quality of life. I’m trying to get some traction on a fiction project, which uses the same brain cells as my copywriting. At the end of the day, when I’m trying to get the attention of David Ogilvy at that great water cooler in the sky, do I want to admit I didn’t get my novel finished because I decided to take on yet another few hundred $$ project? Not to mention my kid’s in the Little League playoffs and we are looking pretty good over here.
Both my turn down projects this week had to do with budget contractions. When times are good, prices start rising all over the place (the $3.47 deck pieces I wanted at Home Depot rose to $5.94 in the space of a month, for example), and it’s natural to get aggressively defensive.
One client wanted to redefine a project to pay less for work we’ve already agreed to. There’s a line item for A, and a line item for B, but the assumption is you’ll get both and I do research and prep with that in mind before I ever type a word. Now this client wants to only pay for the “A” portion which makes it a loser for me since the prep work is the same, so I’m outta here. Have to finish current projects but asking to be excused from future ones.
The second contested budget was much, much larger… an entire website. This is always a leap of faith because you don’t know how the pages will shake out when you estimate and hopefully pick a per-page number that averages out (same with catalogs by the way). With a new client, you also don’t know how finicky they will be and how complex the revisions. So I added something I thought was pretty generous, which was an offer to write 10 pages of the client’s choice at the per-page rate, charge nothing for my startup research time, then after that we could decide if it make sense for both of us.
Client instead wants a deal of some kind, which I can’t offer because my deal was my deal. This could have occupied me late into the night for much of the summer. Instead I’ll be baking baguettes, following the capers of my protagonist (a 19th century Quaker with a terrible problem) and maybe watching Logistics One finally get the best of Staffing in the Saratoga American Little League. Maybe I’m crazy, but maybe not.
September 16th, 2009 — Marketing, Words and writing
Last weekend I visited friend and fellow copywriter Dan Shaw and we were bemoaning the tight creative budgets in this economy. The issue is this: if a client can get an email or a web page written for $100 or $200, why in the world would they hire someone like us at several times that amount?
The answer is that you’re not just paying to get a project completed and checked off in your to-do list. You’re paying for results. And if a page costs 5 times as much to create yet generates 10 times as many leads, clicks, sales or whatever you’re looking for… then it nets out 50% less expensive. That’s hidden money in your advertising which is there for the taking as soon as you look beyond the basics of “how cheap can I get it”.
Writers and designers who do direct marketing well are compensated on results. If we interview with a prospective client we expect they will ask us to show us our “controls”—these are campaigns (the term usually refers to direct mail) that beat out competitive tests or previous controls so thoroughly they become the standard that is used again and again.
The more controls you have under your belt, the better you are likely to be compensated. Because your client is paying for results, they know that a writer who has the skills, instincts and experience to win repeatedly is likely to do better for them on the bottom line.
For example, Dan does some marketing to prospective college students who are choosing a school. He was telling me during our visit about a usability study he attended where he watched students as they interacted with web pages to see what elements appealed to them and were easiest to use. This translates into better results when he does his own pages for clients. And his clients are quite happy to pay for that knowledge and insight.
With budgets tight, it’s very tempting for a marketing manager to just hire the cheapest provider and it’s tempting for a marketing director to review their direct reports on the basis of “how much money did you save me this quarter?” But it’s a cheap fix and in the end it may cost you more if your true goal is to get more customers, leads, donors, sales dollars etc. which of course it is.
Next time you bid out a project, take the extra step to hire somebody who’s good enough to charge more—and can prove it. If your management asks why you did not choose the cheapest possible solution, tell them you’re paying for results. And that’s how to find hidden money in your advertising.
August 26th, 2009 — Copywriting 101, Marketing
When times get hard, marketing is one of the first things to get cut. Consumers have less money, so why market to them at the same pace? And with a smaller budget, are those people in the marketing department even necessary?
As a matter of self-preservation, marketers like to counter that a recession is actually a great time to sell more aggressively. When others are cutting back, you can gain market share at relatively low cost by doing the opposite. And we’ve always had a few juicy stats to prove the point, with an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal providing fresh fodder.
In Q1 ’09, New York Life grew its market share to 5.4% from 3.9% a year earlier. It did this by increasing its advertising budget by 24%, and telling its agents they had a “moral obligation” to present the company’s strength to clients. Ads changed from a sentimental teddy bear theme to a serious message about financial stability. By second quarter, the firm had leapfrogged from ninth to second place in revenues from premiums and annuity deposits as many clients put extra money into their life insurance policies.
Bed Bath & Beyond was equally aggressive, increasing advertising expenditures to 3.7% of revenue in 2008 from 3% in 2006. Much of that money was invested in targeting the 100 key stores of a major rival, Linens ‘n Things. Linens coupons and discounts were matched dollar-for dollar. The payoff: Linens ‘n Things went out of business. And with its increased marketing share, sales at Bed Bath & Beyond were up 2.8% for its quarter ended May 30, compared to an drop of 13% in the home furnishings sector overall.
If you’re a marketer, sink your teeth into those stats next time you present to the money people—and be sure to tell them you need some strong creative help to get the right message to your audience. WSJ reminds us that Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup (comfort food) and Revlon nail polish (affordable luxury) are products of the depression that are still successful today, born of aggressive marketing and a well-told story at a time when others were cutting back.
April 30th, 2009 — Copywriting 101, Marketing
A long time consultant client, concerned about the recession, asked me to cut creative pricing to the bone on a couple of recent jobs then came back and asked me to cut again. I agreed because I was well, concerned about the recession.
An interesting thing happened on both these jobs. Instead of being happy they were getting fantastic value, both clients tinkered with revisions long past the point of reasonableness. In one case, I think the client tinkered to the point that he did his message serious harm.
I caution my students against doing spec work because free is worth what you pay for it; the spec work will be lightly regarded and clients will either not read it or will be butchers with the edit pencil. This is a similar situation, I think. The price is so low that subconsciously, the client thinks the creative can’t be very good. So no worry messing with it.
In general I’ve avoided cutting prices the past year because of experiences like this. If a client balks at an estimate, I ask what they are concerned about. If they have a number in mind, I try to deliver quality for that without compromising.
Hourly rates have been a particular concern. My rate isn’t the lowest. So if a client asks what my rate is and says “I can’t pay that” I say let’s throw out the hourly rate and look at an overall budget. They are happy, but I still end up charging my rate or close to it.
It will be good when times are better again and we can concentrate on doing great work that builds our clients’ businesses and pays for itself in measurable response.
February 22nd, 2009 — Copywriting 101, Marketing, Words and writing
When economic times are bad and marketing budgets are tight, every promotion has to work harder than ever to pay back its investment with increased sales, leads or visibility. The good news for copywriters is that often we can improve return on the marketing investment with better response at no increase in costs, simply by wringing out every last benefit and bringing it home to the reader.
But how do you deliver a positive message when the news all around you (maybe even including the news you need to deliver in your copy) is bad? Here are three pointers.
Rule #1: Don’t go negative. Stick to a positive message in your copywriting.
At several points in my copywriting career I’ve felt like I uncovered a powerful “warning” or “caution” theme that outweighed anything positive I could say. And every single time this approach was tested, I’ve been blown out of the water by a bland and generic benefits-oriented message that handily defeated my negative scalpel twist.
The reason, I think, is that readers go through a filtering process before they get to your copy. Themes like “how to survive the coming depression” may be fine for best sellers, but people volunteered to read those books or watch those TV shows. You, on the other hand, are one flick of the finger away from the recycling bin or a click to the next web page. You have to earn a reader’s acceptance before they will permit you to market to them. And if you scare them on your initial approach, they’ll simply run away.
Tip #2: Be nurturing. Write copy your readers want to read.
Today’s consumers, even business people, are hurting and they want coddling however they can get it. If you can take them to a quiet and reassuring place even for a few minutes, chances are they’ll stick with you till you get to ask for the order.
One of the most successful promos I was associated with was a subscriber acquisition package for Great American Recipes during the early 1990s recession. It became the first non-sweepstakes control for this marketer by delivering a message of comfort and nostalgia:
Remember when good food meant the best times you ever had with your family and friends?
I’m talking about lazy summer evenings serving home-made ice cream on the screen porch. The fine feeling of knowing everything was cooked just right, and there was plenty to go around. The warmth of neighbors sharing recipes, in a cozy kitchen on a cold summer night…
We haven’t even gotten to the product yet, but this was already outpacing “you may already have won” even in tough times. And an extra benefit is that the product I’m selling is depicted as taking them back to happier days… so not only are readers more likely to order, they’re also more likely to keep the product (the initial pack in a recipe card continuity program) instead of sending it back when it arrives in the mail.
Tip #3: Be specific. Believable copywriting is effective copywriting.
Readers are extra-crabby and hyper-sensitive when they feel threatened. Even more than usual, they’re on the alert for flabby generalities and statements that are not supported by facts. The truth is your antidote, but you also need to be very clear in your writing so readers know you’re telling the truth.
Non-profit fundraising writers know about this challenge because for them, times in are always bad which is why they are raising money. Herschell Gordon Lewis shares a great example of bad fundraising copy, a letter that stars with a sentence something like “Around 2 million people in the western Sahara will go hungry this summer”. The word “around” is the deal breaker. If the writer didn’t care enough to find a more exact number, why should the reader care?
The other challenge is that huge negative numbers seem overwhelming. It’s terrible if famine threatens a region, but what can I as an individual do to help? On the other hand, if I understand that my $100 contribution saves 40 children with diarrhea, that’s that is something I can manage. Apply the same rigor to your benefit statements or descriptions no matter what the product or service, and you’ll be better off in bad times.
A promotion that follows all these rules is a lead generation letter for a major insurance company. It’s about long term care insurance and it starts with the “bad news” that Medicare is not going to cover your expenses in retirement like you thought it would. The lead sentence of this letter is what makes it work and it’s actually very close to something I heard from a salesman during a brainstorming session:
Every one of us would like to live well in our later years and leave some money for the next generation. Is that too much to ask?
Unfortunately, this modest dream could be shattered if you one day need assisted care in a nursing home… in fact you have a 40% chance of being in a nursing home after age 65. A nursing home stay can be expensive, averaging more than $180,000 nationwide. And it can be demeaning, robbing us of our choice and dignity.
Fortunately, Long Term Care Insurance is now available from ((client name)) that helps retain the very options that expensive long term care takes away…
This delivers one specific jolt of bad news (and carefully modulated outrage) but immediately provides the solution for it and proceeds to coddle and nurture the reader for the rest of the letter. It’s been the control for going on 10 years and I expect it will only do better in the current economy. Try the same formula in your own writing and see if you don’t succeed, good times or bad.
NOTE: I’m in the process of installing the contents of my DMA “Copywriting that Gets Results” course on this website. Watch for more articles and pointers coming soon.