Long Copy in the Era of the Twitterverse
If you watch cable TV, you very likely saw the scary commercial reproduced “IN THE NEWS” at right.
After seeing it a number of times, I figured these people were spending some serious ad money and it would be worth my while to have look. So I jotted down the URL, fired up the computer and sat back to watch.
What followed was a PowerPoint presentation that Bill Egner described in his blog:
Oh, gods! My brain feels like it is burning ... it is from giving up 77 minutes of my life watching Porter Stansberry’s online fear mongering investment services pitch!
First off a word on format; it is set up so it has to run continuously. You have no opportunity to jump ahead. The whole thing is Stansberry droning on in a voice that could put a meth addict who just snorted a whole gram of meth to sleep inside ten minutes! The only video part of this on line [sic] Sominex is text of what Stansberry is saying, with scary red lettered words here and there for emphasis.
Blogger Egner is spot-on.
Porter Stansberry’s verbal dysentery shows that he is an old time long-copy direct mail practitioner, who never learned to adapt to e-commerce.
Today’s Population of Non-Readers Makes for a Marketing Challenge
One of the greatest practitioners of advertising was copywriter Claude Hopkins (1866-1932), author of “My Life in Advertising.” In his “Scientific Advertising,” Hopkins' analysis of people and their reading habits is all the more relevant in today's dizzying multimedia world where most of the folks we want to reach are constantly connected to BlackBerrys, TVs, radios, laptops, iPhones, iPads and Twitter, as well as old-fashioned print via magazines and newspapers. Hopkins wrote back in 1923:
Always bear these facts in mind. People are hurried. The average person worth cultivating has too much to read. They skip three-fourths of the reading matter, which they pay to get. They are not going to read your business talk unless you make it worth their while and let the headline show it.
People will not be bored in print. They may listen politely at a dinner table to boasts and personalities, life history etc. But in print they choose their own companions, their own subjects. They want to be amused or benefited. They want economy, beauty, labor savings, good things to eat and wear.
“The addictive nature of Web browsing can leave you with an attention span of nine seconds,” reported the BBC in 2002, “the same as a goldfish.”
Persuading Someone to Sit Still Through a Long Presentation Is Tough
In the days before the Internet, more money was spent on direct mail than any other form of advertising. Here was an intimate sales message arriving in the mailbox along with such highly personal items as bills, letters from the kids in college, results of a health procedure and an invitation to a secret surprise party.
After myriad tests over the years, it was proven that once the envelope was opened, the linchpin of direct mail is the letter. Here is a highly charged, emotional message from one writer talking to one reader in the privacy of the home promising exciting benefits that will enhance your life and broaden your horizons with absolutely no risk.
The most successful advertisement in the history of the world was a letter—the “Two Young Men ..." effort that freelancer Martin Conroy wrote for The Wall Street Journal—first mailed in 1974. Over the next 25 years this masterpiece was responsible for more than $1 billion in subscription revenue.
The letter consisted of just 781 words on two pages (one sheet of paper printed front and back).
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the traditional direct mail letter ran two-, three- or four pages of typewriter type. However, to sell newsletters offering investment advice, the premier copywriter was Long Island freelancer Gary Bencivenga who said, “The more you tell, the more you sell.”
As a result, Bencivenga’s letters grew from four to six page pages. Eventually he began writing 8-page behemoths of mesmerizing prose that were filled with fascinating factoids and offers of irresistible free premiums.
“The right offer should be so attractive,” said the legendary copywriter Claude Hopkins, “that only a lunatic would say no.”
At this, Bencivenga was (and is) a master. By the end of the 8-page letter, you would be salivating to take advantage of the offer.
The Birth of the Magalog
In the first image in the mediaplayer to the right, you will see the myriad elements that go into a mailing envelope with an 8-page letter.
In the late 80s or early 90s, it was decided to bind these elements into an 8-1/2” x 11” self-mailer that looked like a special report. In the first image at right also is the cover of one of these early efforts, the “Private Report” from Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street newsletter with its black cover and promise of a “CONFIDENTIAL PROSPECTUS” exclusively for DENISON HATCH.
This was far sexier in the mailbox than a #10 envelope with a teaser that was obviously a piece of junk mail.
It wasn’t long before mailers in the fields of finance and health began to use flashy design with blazing bright covers, headlines, subheads, 4-color photographs, charts and graphs sidebars and separate articles. Suddenly the plain-Jane direct mail piece morphed into a 16- or 24-page self-mailer that was a cross between a magazine and a catalog. Hence the term “magalog.”
One of the great magalog designers is Ed Elliott of Phillips Publishing. In a long phone interview with me, he said, “I can do more with a self-mailer (magalog) that resembles an editorial product than I can do with a traditional letter. First of all, I don’t need to get somebody to open it, because it’s not in an envelope. In effect, it’s already open.”
Additional reasons why magalogs are so powerful, according to Ed Elliott:
- An opportunity to involve someone who is not an avid reader.
- The magalog disarms people. It is not a piece of junk mail, but rather informational.
- Unlike an envelope package, which is a linear reading experience, the magalog has multiple points of entry and reader engagement.
- At every entry point, the object is to have 2-, 3- or 4 teasers to capture attention.
- It has perceived value as something with editorial content.
- We’re not selling newsletters; we’re giving away valuable premiums.
- When you find a good, strong control, you can continually change the format, headlines and ledes to give it longer life.
- Interesting information on sidebars capture the reader’s attention.
- When the results of a magalog begin to flag, designers can change the cover and downsize it to a 5-1/2” x 8-1/8” “bookalog” or turn it into a giant tabloid.
As magalogs grew more sophisticated, so too did the marketing philosophy behind them. Pioneer Gary Bencivenga likens magalogs to “infomercials in print.” They explain and demonstrate the product; they offer testimonials. He added:
Magalogs remind me of the old General Foods salesman who used to go door-to-door bringing a free scoop of coffee for housewives to try. They say, “try this, and I’ll be back next week to take your order.” Magalogs serve the same purpose, by giving readers a free scoop of the product.
Where Porter Stansberry’s Train Went off the Rails
Stansberry’s 77-minute PowerPoint on the Web tried to do what the old print magalogs used to accomplish—offer information, premiums and cred, punctuated with fear, greed and salvation.
But blogger Bill Egner homed in on the flaw in Stansberry’s online effort: “You have no opportunity to jump ahead.”
My personal take: Stansberry’s argument about the dangers to my 401(k) was very informative and persuasive, and half way through the pitch I was ready to buy. Yet I had no way to get out of this endless monologue and reply to an offer (Stansberry Investment Advisory 12 issues plus a slew of free premiums—for $49.95). Instead, I was locked into another half-hour of Stansberry—my 76-year-old bladder in a state of rebellion. Yet I hung in, fearing that I would miss the opportunity to order. If I gave up, I would be forced to begin at the damned beginning.
Finally the order form came up on screen and remained there.
On returning from the loo, I suddenly wondered whether this guy was for real. A quick Google search revealed that in 2007 Porter Stansberry was hit with $1.5 million fraud fine, the result of a SEC Complaint because his “newsletters contain nothing more than baseless speculation and outright lies, fabricated to induce investors to pay [parent company] Agora (or its subsidiaries) for subscriptions or purported inside information.”
Needless to say the windy Porter Stansberry lost my order, not that he cares with 241,700 active subscribers.
Essential in E-commerce: Exit Points
With a print product—8-page direct mail letter or magalog—if you make a buying decision halfway through the copy, you can lay the pitch aside, find the order device and mail, fax, email or phone in your order.
In other words, along with many points of entry, these printed formats had physical points of exit. You could move on to the next step any time you were ready.
Stansberry PowerPoint presentation was linear. The only way to get out of the thing was sit through all 77 minutes and listen to all 12,700 words or say bye-bye and hit delete.
He should have given me the opportunity to order at various points along the way, perhaps by including a menu bar with hyperlinks at bottom.
It was as frustrating as finding yourself on the telephone in the purgatory of voice mail jail.
“Power corrupts,” said Edward Tufte. “PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.”