The 6-word copywriting challenge

Six-Word MemoirsRecently, in a four-way e-mail conversation with friends, someone mentioned talking to a teacher from our high school days. When my name came up, the teacher described his memory of me in six words: “wavy hair, glasses, big into theater.”

Wow. I didn’t know how to take that – the very core of who I am, or was, compressed into six highly descriptive words. When I shared my dismay, one of my friends referred me to a book that dealt with this very idea.

It’s called Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure.

Here are some excerpts from the book, which I’m quoting from

Some writers tell their stories with humor and self-deprecation:

>> Woman Seeks Men–High Pain Threshold.
>> My first concert: Zappa. Explains everything.
>> Aging late bloomer yearns for do-over.

As you would expect, there are many bitter or bittersweet references to relationships gone bad:

>> Girlfriend is pregnant, my husband said.
>> Just in: boyfriend’s gay. Merry Christmas.
>> Let’s just be friends, she said.

Some lucky people sent memoirs that radiate contentment.

>> Alone at home, cat on lap.
>> Hope my obituary spells “debonair” correctly.
>> Wasn’t born a redhead; fixed that.

There is the contingent who describe themselves without judgment:

>> Gave commencement address, became sex columnist.
>> Mormon economist marries feminist. Worlds collide.
>> Still lost on road less traveled.

And last but not least, the philosophers who distill life experience into a greater truth:

>> Palindromic novels fall apart halfway through.
>> Cheese is the essence of life.
>> Wandering imagination opens doors to paradise.

I occurred to me that this would be a top-notch copywriting exercise. No, I won’t ask you to write about yourself. That’s just too hard. Instead, pick a product, any product, and try to describe it in exactly six words.

Here’s one for beer: “Low carbs. Makes date look great.”

You can do this on your own, but I’d really like to see what you come up with. Post your six-word masterpiece below.

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How to write the “classic direct mail package”

Advertising direct mail takes many forms: envelope packages, self-mailers, catalogs, magalogs, flyers, postcards, and more.

That’s one of the advantages of direct mail. You don’t have the format restrictions of magazine print ads, the time restrictions of radio or TV ads, or the technical restrictions of e-mail and Web site advertising.

As long as you comply with basic postal guidelines, you can send pretty much anything through the mail. This is good for products and services that require a lot of information to convince people to buy or try. But it can be a challenge for copywriters and designers without significant experience in creating ad mail.

direct mail package exampleLet’s take a quick look at how to write and design the granddaddy of all direct mail formats, the classic direct mail package.

The most important principle to understand is “divide and conquer.” That means that when you’re creating a direct mail package, you should understand the purpose of each element and allow that element to do its particular job.

Outer Envelope. This is the distinctive feature of the classic direct mail package: an envelope that carries all the other elements through the mail. It’s called the “outer envelope” or OE to distinguish it from the “reply envelope.”

The appearance of the OE can be anywhere on a scale from plain, with little or no copy or graphics, to bold, with lots of “teaser” copy and images. Plain or bold is a strategic choice based on what you believe will get the most people to open the envelope and read the contents. Read more

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3 predictions for the future of direct marketing

direct response billboardThere was a time not so long ago when direct marketing was the red-headed stepchild of the business world.

I remember just 15 or so years ago working for ad agencies who were just “discovering” direct marketing, calling it “interactive” marketing and lumping it in with Web site design, CD-ROMs, and other technology stuff. Direct response advertising was considered separate from all the “real” advertising, such as glitzy TV spots and splashy print ads.

Today, direct marketing is mainstream. People have finally realized the advantages of accountable advertising and the effectiveness of integrating direct marketing methods into the standard business model.

This is due in large part to the rapid growth of the Internet, which is well-suited to direct techniques. People have figured out how to both brand and sell on the Internet, and there is finally a realization that there doesn’t have to be a wall between these strategies. They can and should be integrated.

But what does the future hold? With all this change happening so rapidly, what will the marketing world look like 10 or 20 years from now? I have a few thoughts on that. Read more

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4 subject line tricks to boost e-mail open rates

Subject lines are to e-mail as teaser copy is to direct mail.

The subject line is the first thing people see when they receive your e-mail message. If it grabs their attention and creates curiosity, your message gets opened and read. Otherwise, your message gets deleted.

Everyone has their own ideas about what makes for good subject lines, but MarketingSherpa recently crunched the numbers on a year’s worth of newsletter data. The results produced four key strategies.

1. “Show value in the first two words”

You can’t be clever or mysterious. People get way too much e-mail to waste time on anything that doesn’t convey an immediate benefit. Take a look at the subject lines from Sherpa’s top 10 newsletter performers:

Top 12 Email Newsletter Mistakes
Simple Email Link Change Lifts Clicks
CAN-SPAM – Must-Know Updates
Best Time to Send Email: Test Results
6 Actions to Lift Clickthroughs: New Data
Your Copy of Annual Email Study Results Enclosed
HTML vs Text: Which Works Better?
Newsletter Design Exclusive Data
Email Audit PDF: How-to & Checklist
How to Conduct Email Surveys

I’m not sure where they get the idea that it’s specifically the first two words that make a difference, but it’s clear that all of the subject lines convey a benefit quickly and clearly, with relevant words near the beginning. Read more

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“Bite the wax tadpole,” said the copywriter.

wax tadpoleWriting clear copy is hard.

One reason is that everyone speaks a different language. Something that seems clear to you may not be clear to someone else. Let me give you a few extreme examples:

Read more

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AH-HA! Break though creative block in 4 steps

lightbulbYou’ve just been handed an assignment to write a direct mail package for a new product your client is introducing. It’s an important launch. You’ve been asked to be fresh, dynamic, and creative.

So, you pour yourself a cup of steaming coffee, turn on your computer, and settle in to give birth to an epic campaign. However, when your fingers hit the keyboard … nothing happens.


You write a few words. Delete. Then write a few more. Nothing. You try again and again to piece together a complete sentence, but you begin to realize that you have no idea what to say. You have no ideas. You’re dry.

Now you start to sweat and find yourself glancing frantically at the clock every five minutes. You can feel that deadline creeping up on you. Your stomach turns and you begin to wonder why you ever took on this assignment. You wonder why you’re even in this business.

And still the clock is ticking ….

Sound familiar? It has happened to all of us in the creative business. Some call it creative block. Others call it a slump. But whatever the term, the result is the same: frustration, stress, missed deadlines, or poor quality work.

The problem here is more than a tight deadline. It’s our society’s concept of creativity. Generally, we think of creativity as that mysterious “AH-HA” experience, where an idea seems to leap magically into our head in a bright flash of inspiration. But this “AH-HA” feeling is just a synapse firing in our brain. It’s an electro-chemical event over which we have no control.

However, what we CAN control are the events that lead up to and follow that sudden spark. Creativity isn’t just a moment. It’s a process. And despite what you might think, the process isn’t disorganized at all. In fact, it follows definite steps that you can apply to your everyday work to help free your mind and unleash your creative powers. Read more

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B2B copywriting vs. B2C copywriting

Recently, I ran across a short interview I did with Inside Direct Mail several years ago about the difference between copywriting for business to business advertising (B2B) and business to consumer advertising (B2C).

Given the growth in B2B, and the fact that I came off sounding reasonably intelligent, I thought I should reprint the interview here on my blog.


What is one of the key differences between B2B and consumer writing?

Business buyers often aren’t spending their own money. That’s good and bad. Good because they’re more open to big-ticket purchases. Bad because they usually have to get approval from others. In fact, you must sometimes talk to many layers of a company before making a sale – decision makers, buyers, and end users. All of which means you have to provide more purchase justification than you do for consumers.

Two other challenges also face the B2B marketer:

First, the buying process is often complicated, following a formal, rigid pattern of bids, budgets, bargaining, and analysis.

Second, you often have to get past a ruthless mail room or secretary before your message reaches your prospect.

However, these differences too often overshadow the similarities. Remember, business buyers are people with the same basic problems, fears, feelings, and dreams as everyone else. They just have those problems, fears, feelings, and dreams at work instead of at home. So while your products may be less sexy than in consumer marketing, you must never separate the sizzle from the steak. Read more

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$#!* Happens – A dirty story about ad testing

It was about 11:00 a.m. when we started up the mountain outside of San Pedro Sula in the northwest corner of Honduras. The humid air lay heavy and still in the valley below, causing the fields of sugar cane to shimmer in the hot sun.

We were videotaping b-roll for a few TV spots one of my fundraising clients wanted to test. Our task that day was the same as it had been every day that week: to capture images of the devastating poverty these people suffer.

The camera crew donned their battery belts, cables, and assorted gear and we followed the narrow dirt path toward the shacks above. As we ascended a steep rise and veered to the right, we came across a young boy toting an armload of dry firewood. One of our videographers wanted to shoot this and positioned himself in the middle of the path.

That’s when it happened. And to understand what happened, you must understand the term “wrap-and-throw.”

Many of the people my client helps are so poor they live in makeshift shacks, some of mud or wood, others little more than plastic or cardboard nailed to sticks. These places often have no sanitary facilities. So the residents have developed a practical way to deal with their waste: They wrap it in a small bag and throw it.

Thus, we were walking in a “wrap-and-throw” community. And while the videographer set himself to shoot the kid with the wood, one of our guides trotted ahead to ask the child’s permission. The boy agreed, and the guide came running back toward the cameraman.

A wrap-and-throw lay silently in the path, aged and ripe. A group of unsuspecting, sunblock-smeared gringos stood stupidly smiling three feet away, anticipating nothing but the beautiful picture they were about to record. Our guide’s foot came down hard at ground zero … and the principles of ballistics did the rest.

It gave new meaning to the term “$#!* happens.” Read more

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Get FREE sales and marketing magazines!

Direct MagazineI’ve just added a “free publication store” to my Web site.

You can get FREE subscriptions to trade magazines in a wide variety of industries, including sales and marketing.

There’s no catch. Most of the subscriptions are 100% free. A handful offer cheap trial subscriptions.

How does this work? Well, a little-known secret of the publishing business is that there isn’t much money in subscriptions. The money is in the advertising and spin-off products. This is particularly true for magazines catering to niche business markets.

So what many publishers do is give away free subscriptions in order to build their readership. The higher their circulation, the more they can charge for advertising. Simple, huh?

Click here to browse my catalog of publications and subscribe to as many as you like. There are no limits and they’re all free. Plus, there are lots of extras, including white papers, podcasts, downloads, and more. You can browse by title or by industry.

Here are some of the most popular publications in the sales and marketing category:

Take your time. Look around. Subscribe or take as much of the free stuff as you like. And don’t forget to bookmark the home page because there are new magazines, newsletters, and other good stuff added regularly.

CLICK HERE to visit the collection of FREE publications.

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Favorite quotations about advertising

I love a good quotation.

Over the years, I’ve collected a few hundred quotes about advertising and selling that are variously inspiring, funny, or instructive. Here are some of my favorites.

“Advertising is totally unnecessary. Unless you hope to make money.”  -Jef I. Richards

“A good ad should be like a good sermon: It must not only comfort the afflicted, it also must afflict the comfortable.”  -Bernice Fitz-Gibbon

“Exuberance is better than taste.”  -Gustave Flaubert

“The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”  -Howard Luck Gossage

“Advertising is salesmanship mass produced. No one would bother to use advertising if he could talk to all his prospects face-to-face. But he can’t.”  -Morris Hite

“When executing advertising, it’s best to think of yourself as an uninvited guest in the living room of a prospect who has the magical power to make you disappear instantly.”  -John O’Toole

“Thinking is the hardest work many people ever have to do, and they don’t like to do any more of it than they can help. They look for a royal road through some short cut in the form of a clever scheme or stunt, which they call the obvious thing to do; but calling it doesn’t make it so. They don’t gather all the facts and then analyze them before deciding what is really the obvous thing, and thereby they overlook the first and most obvious of all business principles.”  -Robert R. Updegraff

“You’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going ’cause you might not get there.”  -Yogi Berra

“The headline is the ‘ticket on the meat.’ Use it to flag down readers who are prospects for the kind of product you are advertising.”  -David Ogilvy

“Advertising in the final analysis should be news. If it is not news it is worthless.”  -Adolph S. Ochs

“Let’s say you have $1,000,000 tied up in your little company and suddenly your advertising isn’t working and sales are going down. And everything depends on it. Your future depends on it, your family’s future depends on it, other people’s families depend on it. Now, what do you want from me? Fine writing? Or do you want to see the goddamned sales curve stop moving down and start moving up?”  -Rosser Reeves

“Facts are to the mind what food is to the body.”  -Edmund Burke

“Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement.”  -Samuel Johnson

“I have learned that any fool can write a bad ad, but that it takes a real genius to keep his hands off a good one.”  -Leo Burnett

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