Fill in the Blanks: A Framework Where Strategy and Copy Writes Itself

A blank screen or sheet of paper is daunting when starting to conceive a strategy or write copy. There are formulas abound for getting started. But the framework I’ve found most impactful, based on experience and results, is …

copy strategyA blank screen or sheet of paper is daunting when starting to conceive a copy strategy. There are formulas abound for getting started. But the framework I’ve found most impactful, based on experience and results, is one that I have personally conceived and refined over the past years.

I use a seven-step framework to create copy strategy that aligns with how people naturally process information, think and lead themselves to a place where they give themselves permission to inquire, buy or donate. This is detailed in my new book, Crack the Customer Mind Code.

I used this framework once again last week when an organization called me in to meet about a troubled direct mail and online marketing program. I walked the team through the framework, and we were quickly able to identify the disconnect between the approach they were using and what they should be communicating instead. In an hour, a succinct “road map” was created. It became apparent why their recent marketing campaigns weren’t working, and in the second hour of our meeting, we wasted no time in talking through the implementation of a new copy strategy.

I use this framework when writing a letter, video script or content — virtually any copy that requires getting my point across with a story. With client input, we discuss and fill in the blanks in the matrix. The result is a framework that enables faster copywriting and testing.

Most importantly: The seven steps lead to short-term memory, and often the desired long-term memory that serves as the tipping point when the prospect becomes a customer (read how this framework creates new memory in The 3 Levels of Memory: Marketing’s End Game).

Here’s how it works: I create a matrix like the one below (download the PDF). I ask questions, and fill in the answers. Fill in the blanks in the right column and your strategy will reveal itself. Then use the information to start writing copy, and your message practically writes itself.

7-Step Framework for Creating Copy Strategy (opens as a PDF)

Gary Hennerberg gives you the details of his “Seven Pathways from Head to Heart to YES!” in his book, Crack the Customer Mind Code, available from the DirectMarketingIQ Bookstore. For a free download with more detail about the seven pathways, and access to Gary’s videos where he presents them, go to CustomerMindCode.com

7 Secret Formulas for Getting Free Earned Media

A few days ago, I read Neil Patel’s blog post: “How to Give Your Content Wings: We Analyzed 11,541 Viral Articles from 2016 to Uncover the Secret Formula.” Excluding articles considered “complete spam,” Patel’s post discusses ideas and confirms formulas that every marketer and copywriter should know. The secret? Killer headlines. The formula? Actually, it’s more like seven formulas.

article-71342_1280The right combination of truly shareable words and ideas will energize marketing without crossing the line of becoming fake news. So even if you don’t use content marketing to support your overall campaigns, every marketer and copywriter can learn something from an analysis of 11,541 viral articles that reveals the top seven formulas that not only grab your readers’ attention, but gets shared to their friends.

A few days ago, I read Neil Patel’s blog post: “How to Give Your Content Wings: We Analyzed 11,541 Viral Articles from 2016 to Uncover the Secret Formula.”  Excluding articles considered “complete spam,” Patel’s post discusses ideas and confirms formulas that every marketer and copywriter should know.

The secret? Killer headlines.

The formula? Actually, it’s more like seven formulas.

Even if you don’t write content articles, there is something here to be learned for copywriters.

Here is an overview of Patel’s top seven data-driven tactics in headlines that drive more social shares:

1. Use Numbers

Patel says, “Use numbers in at least half of your articles.” In his analysis, 61 percent of top-performing article headlines had a number. A reason people click on titles with a number is certainty of what they will read. Another observation: You don’t necessarily need the number at the beginning of the title.

2. “This Is What…”

Because headlines with the highest engagement have 16-18 words, Patel looked for phrases that have been repeated. The phrase “this is what” was used often. Again, probably because of the certainty created with the definitive and authoritative phrase.

3. 500 +/- Words

More traffic may come from longer articles (due to higher rankings and traffic). But for sharing, shorter works. Images also impact social sharing. If you are publishing breaking news, write articles around 500 words.

4. “How to” Still Works

The phrase “how to” has been known to work for generations. No surprise here. An article in the vein of “how to” is usually informative, and teaches.

5. Question Titles

Two-word phrases forming questions like “Do you…?” “Can you…?” and “Is the…?” work. So does this three-word phrase: “Do you agree…?”

6. Controversy

2016 was certainly a year of controversy, especially with a nasty election. But controversy sparks curiosity and interest, according to Patel. His recommendation? Create a title that contains a controversial issue.

7. Video

Another non-surprise was that using the word “video” resulted in higher shares. That’s been true of email subject lines for some time. So, whenever possible, post videos and include “video” in the title.

If you’re looking for something new to test, start your search with what works, and add to it from there. These formulas, revealed by analysis, should energize your messaging, whether you’re writing online articles, email subject lines or direct mail headlines.

Are You a Beggar or a Marketer?

Let me show you the single most annoying email I’ve received (and I receive it far too often).

Let me show you the single most annoying email I’ve received (and I receive it far too often).

Democratic Membership Status Email
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee … Desperate much?

Forget for a second that Democrat fundraisers sent me maybe a dozen messages yesterday alone, and that’s not a rare occurrence. Also forget that I’ve received dozens of this kind of email over the years. (So they sure ain’t “final.”)

Set aside that this message, on the surface, hits many of The Seven Emotional Copy Drivers (fear, greed, guilt, anger, exclusivity, salvation and flattery).

Where does any emailer get off asking for money with the vocabulary of a debt collector? “Final notice”? That reeks of desperation covered by a thin veneer of bullshit.

Emotional hot-button copy is essential for driving action. But marketing is often compared to dating, and nowhere is that truer than in the fact that desperate is not attractive. When you’re acting that desperate, solicitation turns into begging. And no one wants to do business with a beggar.

In fact, the overall impression I’ve taken from years of these kinds of fundraising efforts is that the DCCC must be losing because they tell me they’re desperate every day.

It’s not just political fundraisers who come off as beggars, either. Retailers like Jos A. Bank send me “final day” offers every day for items that have never been sold for their “regular prices.” Sometimes you see an item’s “final day” stretch on for weeks!

Jos A. Banks Sales Subject Lines
It’s not a special even if it happens every day.

I bet Jos A. Bank has binders full of evidence that those emails work. But sometimes good evidence can be misleading. You may be driving the most sales per blast, but at what cost to your reputation and long-term value proposition? Saturday Night Live has noticed.

Strong brands are not desperate. It’s fine to leverage fear, desperation, greed, salvation and more emotions in your marketing. But I really believe that begging, cajoling and threatening are mistakes.

Always step back and look at the the messages you’re sending collectively. They’re painting one of the move convincing pictures of your company, and it’s not always a flattering one.

Are you a beggar, or are you a marketer?

Direct Mail for 2017 

How did 2017 come upon us so quickly? Time is flying so we need to get started on planning direct mail campaigns for 2017. I really do mean planning, too. It takes time to plan out an effective direct mail campaign. Before we start though, let’s look at what we will not do in 2017.

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-2-35-33-pmHow did 2017 come upon us so quickly? Time is flying, so we need to get started on planning direct mail campaigns for 2017. I really do mean planning, too. It takes time to plan an effective direct mail campaign. Before we start, let’s look at what we will not do in 2017.

Don’t:

  • Overcrowd: Using too many images or too much copy is overwhelming.
  • Be Generic: You need to target your offers — they should never be generic. Specific offers get responses.
  • Rush: Just because you can push to get your mail out fast does not mean you should. Thorough effort in strategic planning is essential for sending quality mail.
  • Send alone: Your direct mail campaign should be tied to other channels, in order to amplify your reach and increase response.
  • Send once: Direct mail works best when you reach out to people several times — particularly if they are prospects and unfamiliar with you.

So now that we know what we won’t do, let’s take a look at what direct mail should entail in 2017. Technology will be the key to improvement. There are now so many ways to integrate direct mail with mobile and online content. Integration increases engagement, and new varieties of integration surface all the time. The pace of change in marketing right now is staggering.

Focus on direct mail’s strengths: it is targeted, tactile, scheduled and trustworthy. Take full advantage of these characteristics by applying tailored lists, textures, smells, inks and tracking. Make your drab direct mail fab. Customers and prospects will notice and appreciate your creativity.

Here are some ideas for fun direct mail:

  1. Textured or coated paper: Make your message pop with textures and coatings that will alert your targets via fingertip. This is relatively inexpensive and will boost response.
  2. Dimensional: Dimensional mail is any mail that is not flat — boxes, tubes or any other 3-D shape pops in the mail. Note that postage on dimensional mail is more expensive.
  3. Endless folds: Create fun and entertaining mail by sending a folded piece. These go beyond visual stimulation by requiring recipients to touch and manipulate the piece.
  4. Video: These mailers have an audiovisual player that is embedded within them. The video content is played after opening the mailer or pushing a button.
  5. Scavenger hunt: Launched with a direct mail piece, you can send your customers on a fun adventure.
  6. 3-D: Create a mailer with 3-D images, send some 3-D glasses along with it and let the fun begin.
  7. Ink: Try using some of the new, reactive inks that change color with temperature, and more.

These are just some of the creative ways direct mail can be used. Get your customers excited about your direct mail. There are so many new and fun options you can be taking advantage of. Not everyone has a big enough budget to take advantage of the more expensive options, but there are plenty of ways to spice up your direct mail while staying within your budget.

Let 2017 be the year you create better direct mail, and have fun doing it!

Don’t Make Me Think — Or Choose: Marketing From a Position of Strength

You think you’re being helpful by offering your site visitors and email subscribers a lot of choices. You’re not. You’re being counter-productive. And you may even come across as a little desperate. The counter-productivity is a result of our natural inclination to shut down when confronted with too many options to process.

Position of StrengthYou think you’re being helpful by offering your site visitors and email subscribers a lot of choices. You’re not. You’re being counter-productive. And you may even come across as a little desperate.

The counter-productivity is a result of our natural inclination to shut down when confronted with too many options to process. You’ve probably heard of this referred to as analysis paralysis or the paradox of choice.

These phenomena are very real, and offering too many choices, even if they are presented in a visually compelling fashion, leads a higher percentage of your audience to opt for “Door No. 3” — doing nothing.

Offering fewer choice requires that you do the research and planning work before crafting your offer so that you know what will resonate with each of your audience segments. Once you’ve done the work to establish your audience’s needs, there’s no risk in offering a manageable number of options. You already know what they want.

Reducing that risk has the added benefit of eliminating even a whiff of the desperation that comes with trying to please everyone all the time.

Appealing a little to everyone isn’t the goal. The goal is to appeal strongly to those best suited to benefit from your product or service. This allows you to market from a position of strength. You’ve built a great offer around a product you know to be of value to your target audience. Now you know your marketing is much more helpful than intrusive. (Assuming you’re backing it up with great content.)

Don’t dilute your message with extraneous choices or choices designed to appeal to other segments. Those belong elsewhere, on separate landing pages or in emails targeted specifically to those segments. (You are segmenting your email list, right?)

The action you want your audience to take should be immediately clear, apparent, and transparent. This isn’t the Penn & Teller show. You’re not going to trick anyone into taking meaningful action.  You can only convince them that what you’re offering is worth their time.

That isn’t to say that you want to offer your audience no choice. Frequently, a choice of options is appropriate for even a tightly segmented audience. But that choice should be limited to just a few options. As in two or three — tops.

And your CTAs should not be equally weighted. As I mentioned above, there should be a clear objective, with everything in the email or landing page pointing toward that desired action. The secondary action(s) should be just that — secondary. They should be an acknowledgement that our research and data and segmentation might not be perfect and that some members of our audience might be just slightly off the target you’ve created. That’s OK. Those secondary choices also serve to re-affirm the choice the bigger part of your bell curve is making.

The 5 Steps of Direct Mail Marketing 

All too often, we receive direct mail pieces that have been thrown together at the last minute. You can tell which pieces were rushed, and your prospects and customers can, too. So let’s clean up your future direct mail campaigns by planning them better. There are five steps to take before you send out your campaign.

All too often, we receive direct mail pieces that have been thrown together at the last minute. You can tell which pieces were rushed, and your prospects and customers can, too. So let’s clean up your future direct mail campaigns by planning them better. There are five steps to take before you send out your campaign.

Counting hands (one to five)Step 1: Position

Where are you now compared to the competition? Where do you want to be? What is your competition doing? Can you do it better? Set your goals accordingly.

Step 2: Permission

Do you and your team have the authority to plan and execute effective direct mail campaigns? In other words, are you being told what to do, or can you decide what needs to be done, and then do it? If you do not have the authority, find the person who does and work with them to plan out the strategy. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas.

Step 3: Creation

How are you going to go about design, copy and offer? They must work together to make an effective mailer. Will these components be produced in-house or do you need help? Who is going to do what and what will the timeline be? Keep in mind that postal regulations may limit your creativity, so make sure you know the rules.

Step 4: People

Who are you going to send to? This needs to be heavily considered. Do you already have a list or do you need to find a list of the right people for your offer? Should you employ different versions to better target people? Have you built personas so that you know details about who you want to target?

Step 5: Execution

You are now ready to proceed to sending your mail. Can you facilitate the printing and mailing in-house or do you need help? Make sure to assign someone to track results so you know what is working and what is not. The process does not stop once your campaign has been mailed — it continues on.

In this fast-paced world, it is hard to carve out the necessary time to plan and strategize a good direct mail campaign. However, it is also vital to the success of your mailing. Working through all five steps gives you a chance to conceptualize and build a comprehensive campaign.

The goal is never to just get it in the mail. The goal is response. You decide if that is measured by purchases, sign-ups, appointments or another approach based on what you are looking to accomplish. But the results you track need to match with your goal — do not track sign-ups if your goal is purchases.

The whole process may seem daunting, but when you break it down into steps you will find it much easier. And you don’t have to do this alone; there are plenty of companies that can help you create awesome direct mail. The most complicated part is postal regulations, so find someone knowledgeable to consult when you are designing so you do not have to pay extra postage.

The Demanding Approach That Delivers Concise Copy

Whether you’re writing long or short copy, you must demand that it be concise, with every word justifying its existence. An approach that delivers concise copy requires reading aloud every word you have written. Voice it. Hear it. Chop and …

CopywritingWhether you’re writing long or short copy, you must demand that it be concise, with every word justifying its existence. An approach that delivers concise copy requires reading aloud every word you have written. Voice it. Hear it. Chop and rewrite if needed.

Composing concise copy is tough. But you must demand it from your copywriter. Whether writing for any print or digital channel, you must challenge the need for every idea, thought, and word. When copy becomes boring, awkward or confusing, in a click or a toss you’ve lost your sales opportunity, perhaps forever.

Because I record voice-over for client videos, I often read aloud the copy I’ve written to the client. We’ve found voicing copy to be an effective approach toward making it concise.

The best online tool I’ve found for a team to review copy is Skype. Everyone is called and I share my screen with the copy viewable for everyone to see. Then I voice it. It’s never a dry read through. But filled with energy and emphasis on keywords. For a video voice-over, it’s how the message can be conveyed. For the written word in email or print, the naturally voiced and emphasized words are either shown bolded or in italics.

While this approach is time-consuming, it’s effective, eliminates extra words, and identifies redundant thoughts or the same words used too close together. It’s a process that exposes needless concepts and words that don’t advance the story.

My Tips for Concise Copy

  1. The copywriter drafts copy as tightly and concisely as possible.
  2. On a Skype call with the client or creative team, share the screen and voice the entirety of the copy aloud.
  3. Don’t be afraid to delete copy — potentially lots of copy when it doesn’t advance your story. Remove copy that’s confusing, boring or awkward. Start over if the copy isn’t working.

With concise copy, you have a greater likelihood that your reader (or listener) will focus on your story, minimizing the chance of distraction or disinterest.

See the Customer Inside the Idiot With Compassion

“A person is smart. People are dumb.” That’s been my best friend’s favorite quote since we were 16. But it has a flaw: Compassion.

“A person is smart. People are dumb.”
—Agent K, Men in Black

That’s been my best friend’s favorite quote since we were 16 years old. But it has a flaw.

It’s not numbers that make people stupid. It’s your distance from them and your angle of view that make them appear so.

Maybe it’s the customer who asks how many are in a dozen. Or the website visitor who says your pictures are too small, even though it just takes a click to enlarge them. Or the member who complains about your password protocol because they can’t figure out to write it down. (Full disclosure: I’ve been that idiot.)

That’s hardly an exhaustive list of the ways the people you’re marketing to can look like idiots. I don’t have any idea of the myriad of specific ways your customers frustrate you, but I’m betting you have a list.

The job of marketing is to convince people, many people, people you’ll probably never meet, to do the thing you have painstakingly tried to make them want to do. You may have spent years of your life trying to make it as simple as possible for them to do the thing. You’ve probably bent over backwards to make sure they have everything they need to do it. And yet, sometimes we’re all just Happy Gilmore on the putting green trying to get the ball to go into the hole that’s its home.

Happy Gilmore, not showing compassionWhen they don’t do the thing, customers can all look like idiots.

Compassion in Business

This came to mind when I was at Dreamforce last week. A big theme of the show was compassion. Now sure, a lot of that was discussion about charitable works and Salesforce’s gifts to nonprofits (which are to be lauded), But there was a bigger point that Mark Benioff made: Businesses and people don’t succeed by doing what they need, they succeed when they start doing what others need.

That sounds counter-intuitive, but it makes sense when you think about the hallmarks of great products and services: They solve your peoples’ problems.

Compassion is the key to doing that. If you can’t sympathize with the people you’re marketing to, you can’t solve their problems — be it the problems your products are meant to solve, problems with your products, or problems with the path to purchasing your products.

Compassion is also the key to finding a sense of purpose in your marketing. It’s hard to feel fulfilled herding idiots. When you can look at your customers with compassion, empathizing with their problems and helping them in a worthwhile way, that’s what’s fulfilling and sustaining in business.

So by being compassionate to your prospects and customers, you’re also being compassionate to yourself.

Plus, you’ll make more money that way.

‘Altercasting’ and the Art of Persuasion

Successful direct response copywriters imagine and feel the persona of the prospective customers. That sixth sense — where a writer takes on the mindset of the reader — is a path to persuasive copy. So are marketers using a persuasion technique where a person is cast in a role that encourages them to behave …

Flip the brain switch.Successful direct response copywriters imagine and feel the persona of the prospective customers. That sixth sense — where a writer takes on the mindset of the reader — is a path to persuasive copy. So are marketers using a persuasion technique where a person is cast in a role that encourages them to behave in a desired manner?

Altercasting caught my attention in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), quoting psychologists as saying “it’s widely used in the real world—by advertisers, fundraisers, parents, teachers, spouses, and therapists, among others.”

Altercasting is a theory of persuasion created by sociologists Eugene Weinstein and Paul Deutschberger in 1963. The goal is to project the identity of a role you want another person to assume to encourage them to behave in a desired manner. Altercasting supposedly targets both the social role and ego of a person.

Some examples cited by the WSJ drive this point: Want your co-worker to stay late and proofread a report you wrote? Mention that she is a good writer and really knows the subject. Hope to talk your meat-and-potatoes friend into trying the new Vietnamese restaurant? Tell him you admire his adventurous spirit. Want your husband to clean the garage? Point out what a supportive husband he is and how you know he wants you to be happy

Altercasting has two sub groups — “manded” and “tact.”

Manded altercasting is when you don’t change your behavior but openly state a role for the other person. The WSJ detailed another example to demonstrate manded altercasting specifically: “Honey, you’re such a wonderful cook. Would you mind making dinner tonight?”

Tact altercasting is passive, where you don’t state anything explicitly but change your behavior to suggest a role for the other person. If you wanted your spouse to cook, you might fumble around in the kitchen, pretending you can’t find the right ingredients, until your spouse steps in.

By definition, altercasting seems manipulative and even potentially dangerous if misused. But smart adaptation of this approach for persuasive purposes has critical applications in marketing and copywriting.

Begin with your customer’s persona by imagining what they feel. When you write to that individual, encourage self-awareness and thus engagement. This instigates persuasion and gives a customer a sense of permission from themselves to take action.

Self-awareness examples would include:

  • In fundraising, a reminder to the reader — especially past donors — that they are generous individuals, and you hope they’ll be generous again.
  • For life insurance, suggest to the reader that they are likely concerned about their loved ones’ financial future, so you help them realize they should be financially responsible.
  • For a health supplement, caution that while an individual may be an active adult and look good on the outside, inside their body a completely different scenario could be unfolding.

The key is to sense the persona of your prospective customer and place them in a certain mindset before relaying your message. Then engage, build trust and persuade so customers can allow themselves to act in response to your message.

My new book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code” details a dozen persona types I’ve observed over my career. It’s available at the DirectMarketingIQ bookstore. Or download my free seven-step guide to help you align your messaging with the persona of your prospective buyer. It’s titled “When You Need More Customers, This Is What You Do.”

Creative Cage Match: King Arthur Flour vs. Cook’s Illustrated

It’s another hot summer month, and another Creative Cage Match is heating up. Now, just because I have no desire to cook or bake in this heat doesn’t mean someone else in a more temperate climate isn’t looking for a new recipe to try or kitchen gadget to pick up. I say go ahead, enjoy … I’ll be over here eating a caprese salad and fanning myself.

There’s a reason that pro-wrestling is so popular — and it’s not just the juicy drama and bespangled costumes. People love a good fight, and have for millennia, dating back to the gladiators of Rome and beyond.

So, once a month I’m going to select two marketers and toss them into a Creative Cage Match. I’ll be looking at everything ranging from email to direct mail, website to mobile site. It’ll be a mix of objective and subjective, and each time a marketer will walk out of the ring triumphantly.

The mercury keeps rising in our thermometers here in Philly, but just because I have no desire to cook or bake in this heat doesn’t mean someone else in a more temperate climate isn’t looking for a new recipe to try or kitchen gadget to pick up. I say go ahead, enjoy … I’ll be over here eating a caprese salad and fanning myself.Too Hot to Cook

On this side of the ring we have King Arthur Flour (KAF), a Norwich, Vt.-based supplier of flour, baking mixes, ingredients, cookbooks and baked goods. Founded in 1790 in Boston, Mass. under the name Sand, Taylor & Wood Company, KAF is an employee-owned company and is considered one of the best places to work for in the state of Vermont. Aside from their online presence — including a fully e-commerce site and blog — this baker’s paradise also has a print catalog.

And in the opposite corner we have Cook’s Illustrated, an American cooking magazine published by Brookline, Mass.-based America’s Test Kitchen (ATK). ATK produces several other publications, along with a cooking show, radio program, cookbooks … you name it, they’re involved. Cook’s Illustrated itself is bi-monthly, accepts no advertising and provides extensively tested recipes, as well as super thorough product reviews.

Email vs. Email

Most emails I received from cooking- or baking-based services/publications get my attention right away, due to my personal interest. But with these two contenders, I’m curious to see who gets the hot, summer food vibe right. Let’s start with King Arthur Flour:

King Arthur Flour email part 1 King Arthur Flour email part 2 King Arthur Flour email part 3The subject line reads: “The Complete Guide to Scone Baking,” and while I do love scones, I don’t think I’ll be firing my oven up to 425 degrees Fahrenheit anytime soon.

That said, if it’s not 93 and humid where you live, KAF does provide the full shebang when it comes to scones. Clicking through on the call-to-action button for the guide takes you to a highly visual web page that walks you through the basics of scone making, offers some tips to up your scone game, provides some recipes, as well as contact info for the Baker’s Hotline.

If you stick with the email, you’re rewarded with a legit scones baking tip, more recipes as well as some essential gadgets and a blog post on prepping scones ahead.

So, while I think an email about baking scones is a bit off for July, I think King Arthur Flour did an excellent job providing its subscribers with valuable content.