Internet Creative: Think Old, Not New
We sold somewhere around 300 copies of my new book so far, “The Secrets of Emotional Hot-Button Copywriting.”
See “IN THE NEWS” at right. Mark G. was one of very few (if not the only) dissatisfied customer to demand an immediate refund. The key paragraph in Mark G.’s brief e-mail:
All of the examples of copy seem from another era and none of them gave me a clue about how to write for the Internet.
The lede of my e-mail reply to Mark G.—before getting into the nitty-gritty of his return and refund:
Sorry you feel that way. Sorrier still for your clients or employers.
Mark G.’s concept of the Internet was prevalent in those thrilling days of yesteryear—the late 1990s
"This is a new medium and a new paradigm,” the hot-shot 20-somethings told us marketing geezers back then. “We don’t need to know your old marketing rules. We make the rules now, so take a hike.”
That ignorance-is-bliss philosophy resulted in $3 trillion disappearing down the sewer in the dot-com bust, and legions of those smug, self-important kiddies wound up moving in with their parents and going back to school.
Fact: The only way to write for the Internet—or any other medium—is to study what has been tested―and proven successful―in other media from another era.
What worked then works now.
For example, what follows are two identical marketing case histories—800 years apart.
Chartres Cathedral, France, 1194 A.D.
As regular readers may recall, direct marketing was launched June 15, 1194 A.D., the week lightning kindled a huge fire that destroyed Chartres Cathedral. All that remained intact were the façade, west towers and the crypt. Bishop Regnault de Mouçon immediately started writing fundraising letters to rebuild it.
The rich noble families of France and England responded with cash and gifts, as did the many guilds, the equivalent of unions back then—shoemakers, wheelwrights, bankers, vintners, coopers, furriers, bankers, etc.
As an eternal “thank you,” the donors' portraits and coats of arms were included in the stained glass windows, where you can see them today. (Click on two of the Chartres windows in the mediaplayer at right.)
The Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, Calif., 1980
In the mid-1970s, we lived next door to a couple who regularly watched the Rev. Robert Schuller’s “Hour of Power,” a Sunday morning televangelism program that reached all 50 states. One day, my neighbor showed me a handsome inscribed Plexiglas memento. It was a “thank you” from Dr. Schuller’s organization for the gift of a window for the Crystal Cathedral—the Philip Johnson’s architectural wonder— that the Schullers were building.
Like Chartres, when the Crystal Cathedral was dedicated in 1980, each of the 10,664 windows, the struts that support the windows and the 2,800 seats were all inscribed with the names of the donors.
What worked at Chartres, worked in Garden Grove, Calif. 800 years later.
(Actually what triggered this column was news that the Crystal Cathedral is in bankruptcy, with the Schuller family embroiled in an unseemly and juicy internecine family power struggle over succession. See the link below.)
Writing for the Web
When writing for the Internet—or any other direct marketing medium—two elements must be considered:
1. Reaching the right person. Direct mail is dependent on choosing the right lists. Off-the-page advertising means running your ad in a newspaper or magazine most likely read by the logical prospects. On the Internet, email lists and/or the intricate science of SEO/SEM and meta keyword tags are needed. Whatever the medium, prospect acquisition is the purview of the technical wizards.
2. Creating the right offer and message. Once the prospects are found, the next challenge is to craft the right message that persuades them to order, donate or inquire.
If Marc G. thinks he can study current Internet marketing techniques only, as opposed to the work of “another era,” he is sadly mistaken.
Direct mail and space advertising are very expensive. Highly disciplined and costly testing is mandatory. Short cuts and casual attention to results are punishable by red ink—lots of it—and layoffs.
On the Internet—where it costs virtually nothing to advertise—there is no need for arithmetic, no allowable cost per order. The only ones punished are you and me, our inboxes groaning with illiterate, irrelevant, self-indulgent, untested crap.
A case in point are the emails I get periodically from Liberty Medical—Wilford Brimley’s outfit—offering to take care of my diabetes.
I do not have—and never have had—diabetes.
In exasperation I called the marketing director of Liberty Medical and asked her why I was receiving these emails.
"It’s cheaper for us to send this offer to everybody than to spend the money segmenting out people with diabetes,” she told me. “What’s more, if you are diagnosed with diabetes, we want to be the first people to reach you.”
Write It Right
I am currently at work on a book titled, “WRITE IT RIGHT: What Authors Can Learn from the Great Copywriters.”
It is based on 25 years’ experience amassing an archive of direct mail samples, tracking those mailings that came in over and over again (which means they were hugely successful) and making them available to subscribers to “steal smart” from.
Today, the WHO’S MAILING WHAT! Archive is online with information on over 200,000 mailings in more than 200 categories—consumer, business, non-profit and catalogs—going back a quarter century.
In researching “WRITE IT RIGHT,” I have this invaluable archive at my fingertips, including over 1,000 “Grand Controls”—direct marketing efforts that were mailed for three or more successive years. Some were mailed for much longer periods, such as the fabled Wall Street Journal “Two young men ... ” letter that was a control for 18 years and brought in more than $1 billion in subscription revenue. These Grand Controls are pure marketing gold (and downloadable as PDFs).
To learn how to write for the Web (or any medium), the place to start is with the Grand Controls in the WHO’S MAILING WHAT! Archive—the old ones and the current ones―because the rules of direct mail copy and design directly apply to the Internet. For example:
• The subject line on an email is the equivalent of the direct mail envelope teaser. “All direct mail is opened over the wastebasket,” said freelancer Lea Pierce. Dash off a subject line on an email as an afterthought without testing, and chances are your message will not be opened, whereupon your effort is deader than Kelsey’s nuts and your time is wasted.
• If your lede doesn’t grab readers by the collar and relentlessly hang on all the way to end, they’re gone in a wink.
• The emotional hot buttons work in all media: fear – greed – guilt – anger – exclusivity – salvation – flattery. “If your copy isn’t positively dripping with one or more of these,” said Seattle guru Bob Hacker, “tear it up and start over.”
"You cannot bore people into buying. The average family is now exposed to more than 1,500 advertisements a day. No wonder they have acquired a talent for skipping the advertisements in newspapers and magazines, and going to the bathroom during television commercials.” —David Ogilvy
The new and inviolable rule for Web writing: “You are a mouse click away from oblivion.”
What About Studying Space Ads?
For “WRITE IT RIGHT,” I have spent many hours scouring the Internet for space ads, and have discovered a slew of older masterpieces―some that ran for 10, 20 and even 30 years—by the greatest copywriters of the twentieth century. They are interruptive, brilliantly written and powerfully designed—as relevant today as back then. The great New York Times editor Arthur Brisbane would describe them as, “easier to read than skip.”
Type into Google, “Great Print Advertisements 2010,” and plenty of space ads are made available. However, virtually all are art- and photography-heavy with little or no copy—the equivalent of a New Yorker cartoon with a tiny product logo in one of the corners as the caption.
These ads are hot, hip and oh-so-clever. But they make no promises and offer no benefits. The advertising community calls this “creative.”
"If it doesn’t sell, it’s not creative,” stated the Benton & Bowles motto of the 1930s and 1940s.
Check out the Stimorol chewing gum ad by Ogilvy South Africa in the mediaplayer at right.
It is truly bizarre, weird and outré―typical of the smartypants, art-director driven advertising that’s prevalent these days.
Should You Look for Guidance in Current Long-Copy Space Ads?
Once upon a time my personal benchmark for the state of the economy was PARADE magazine, the freebie in my Sunday newspaper. When it runs 16 pages and has no ads for tchotchkes (coins, collectibles, bunny slippers), it’s obvious the economy is still in trouble.
Alas, it is now filled with pharmaceutical ads—long copy and boring as a suitcase filled with rocks. Check out the Januvia diabetes ad from last Sunday’s Parade in the mediaplayer at right. No real headline, tiny sans-serif copy throughout, much of it written by lawyers. It is as stupid and amateurish as the Liberty Medical blizzard of e-mails to people that never had diabetes.
In short, successful writing for the Internet requires every bit as much discipline as the master copywriters that went before—starting with Bishop Regnault de Mouçon of Chartres 800 years ago and all who stood on his shoulders and the shoulders of those who came after.
"Times change,” wrote the legendary John Caples. “People don’t.”
Here’s the challenge for email marketers: How to break through the clutter and get your message opened and read within 3 seconds, for that’s how long your prospects allow before they hit the delete button!
Through detailed analysis of hundreds of thousands of emails residing in the Email Campaign Archive (www.emailcampaignarchive.com), best-practice advice from industry experts, case studies and more, “All About Email Creative” will give you the tools you need for success.
Here are just a handful of important takeaways you’ll learn from this groundbreaking report:
- Month, Day of Week and Time of Day with the Highest Email Volume
- Top 20 Most Popular Words and Symbols in Subject Lines
- Word Count Trends … What Could It Mean?
- What You Should Test — NOW!
- How to Avoid Junk Filters — The Trigger Words That Get You Trashed
- To Use Free or Not to Use Free — That Is the Question
- So many more!
Filled with countless examples, more than 20 charts, several case studies, and privileged knowledge from top email marketers, “All About Email Creative” is must reading for any marketer involved in email and cross-media campaigns.