My Tips in Seattle’s ‘Marketing’

Thanks to publisher Larry Coffman for sharing my writing tips in the November issue of Marketing:

• Neil’s Notes: Good friend and author (The Longest Shot) offers these five sensible steps in the writing process for writers of any ilk:

  1. Ideas: Brainstorm. Get them out of your head. Many will stink.
  2. Research. Collect information. Observe the world. Talk to people.
  3. Notes and Outline. Get organized. Shape the material you’ve collected. Get ready to write. 
  4. Rough Draft. This is where you write everything down, so to speak. Get the story out; don’t edit yet.
  5. Rewrite, edit and polish. This step is self-explanatory. If your writing was woodwork, this is the chiseling and sanding stage and where you add a finishing coat.
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Those First 50 Words

Would you spend an entire week on your opening for an ad or other marketing or sales piece?

According to Brian Clark of copyblogger, it was a normal practice for Eugene Schwartz, a copywriting legend and author of Breakthrough Advertising.

“Master copywriter Eugene Schwartz often spent an entire week on the first 50 words of a sales piece,” writes Clark, “the headline and the opening paragraph.”

I know it might sound crazy. And I admit I’m not able to devote that amount of time to my current projects. Workload and deadlines don’t allow it. But I do remember spending long hours writing headline after headline after headline when I worked on high-visibility advertising campaigns while on staff at a B2B agency. I might spend several days refining a concept, searching for the perfect headline, and writing body copy for a new campaign.

No matter the communications project and time constraints, it’s a good reminder to concentrate your effort on those first 50 words. Because if you lose the audience at the outset, it doesn’t matter what comes after, or how much polish you applied to the rest of the piece. They’re already gone.

Keep Your Eye on the Goal


Drew Brees and the Saints offense. (Ed Schipul/Flickr)

Forgive me, but I’m going to use a sports analogy. Football, to be specific. When quarterback Drew Brees and the rest of the offensive unit of the New Orleans Saints take the field, they have just one thing in mind: score. They are focused on moving the football down the field and crossing the goal line. That’s it. Nothing else matters.

This is the way it should be in marketing and fundraising pieces. There should be a clear goal or purpose. Get the prospect, customer, or audience to do something: visit a Web site, request information, make a donation, pat head and rub stomach, something.

Here’s another key: Ideally, there should be just one goal or purpose.

The last few days I’ve been working on a fundraising appeal that has too many elements. My client agrees, I think, but her internal client is asking for a lot: to direct the audience to a personal URL, to include a separate ask with three other ways to give, to include a bumper sticker in the mailing, and to incorporate a special message that doesn’t appear to relate to anything else.

I struggled with it because, like the Saints quarterback, I wanted to drive toward just one goal: get the audience to click their personal URL, for instance. Instead, it felt muddled, even though I did my best to write a cohesive appeal.

Thoughts on Retention

Retention is that marketing word for keeping your customers. Is there anything more important, especially in a sluggish economy?

As I stared out my office window at the snow-covered trees, I thought of this analogy, which people in rural Floyd County could certainly relate to. Suppose you have a large woodpile just steps away from your home, as do many folks where I live. You spent the summer and fall splitting wood and neatly stacking it near the door. It’s your heat and comfort for the coming winter.

Now winter has arrived. But instead of drawing from the woodpile, you wander into the woods to collect any other wood you can find. There’s not much to be found, and others are also searching nearby. What wood you do find is cold, wet and not ready to burn.

While off in the woods, you’ve left your woodpile unattended. What’s worse, when you return a significant portion is gone!

OK, you get the point. It can be very easy to overlook existing customers and any additional opportunities with them.

Don’t get me wrong: all businesses should do external marketing and cultivate new customers, even in a down economy. For some, increasing market share is a real possibility. But keeping your existing customers needs to be at the top of the marketing to-do list. If you tend to them, they will see your business through every season.

3 Maxims for Bad News Copy

Unfortunately, we’re living during a time when the business news is often bad. That means clients have assignments that require delivering bad news. I worked on two such projects in recent months, which got me thinking about important elements of “bad news” copy.

Here are three:

1) Be direct.
Get the bad news out early, quickly and completely. Don’t bury it. To borrow from Nike, “Just say it.”

2) Be clear.
This is a key element of all effective copy, but it’s especially important when you’re delivering bad news. This is no time to be fuzzy or cute. Your message needs to be crystal clear.

3) Be honest.
Don’t try to gloss over the bad news or give it a slick PR or marketing spin. I know it’s tempting, but don’t do it. You won’t fool many people. In fact, you could lose credibility. Once you get the bad news out, you can move on to the positives and any plans for overcoming difficulties.

Always in Marketing Style: The Guarantee

I recently received a four-color, oversized, multi-page direct mail piece from Yahoo!. (Print is not quite dead, especially if you’re a search engine giant with a few extra bucks to throw around.)

I was reminded of the good old-fashioned guarantee, which was included in the letter’s P.S., also a reliable direct-mail device:

P.S. Right now, we’re also offering a Satisfaction Guarantee on Sponsored Search! Just sign up by April 1, 2010 … and try it for at least 14 days. If you’re not completely satisfied with your results, we’ll refund you up to $500 in click charges.

Are you using a guarantee in your business? Can you include one with every offer to a new customer or client?

This is an indispensable strategy, especially in a sucky business climate.

Think Visually

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(Click to enlarge image)

Even if you’re a writer or copywriter, thinking visually can be just the thing to generate a fresh idea or creative concept. I know this may seem obvious, but for some writers (myself included) words have usually been the way to solve a communications challenge.

And that’s OK. As writers, words are our creative playground.

There’s a saying I’ve heard that goes something like, “He has to talk to know what he’s thinking.” A similar thing can be said about wordsmiths: “He has to write to know what he’s thinking.” That’s been me much of my career.

For example, when developing concepts for B2B advertising and marketing projects, I’ve often just scribbled raw headlines, taglines and such in stream-of-consciousness fashion. Sometimes for hours at a time. I can usually come up with something. Add a complementary visual or image to a smart headline or slogan and it becomes a snappy ad or perhaps a campaign.

But there’s another way. It’s the way graphic designers and art directors think. Visually.

As the years have gone by, I’ve improved in this area. I’m not great, just better. Sometime I’ll suspend the writing and just think visually. This week, for instance, I came up with the above image idea for a direct-mail piece about a fax-to-email service. The creative director liked it, and after the art director rendered it, I worked on a headline.

I’ve also at times suggested that those talented art people come up with the concepts or a visual direction, and then I’ll write the headlines and copy. This approach can work quite well.