Dramatically Boost Ad Response with the Magic of People Power

by Dean Rieck

There's a saying: "Dumb people talk about people. Smart people talk about ideas."

It's a saying usually recited by those who think they're smart and enjoy rattling on about obscure trivia. However, these people aren't as bright as they think they are.

The saying is wrong. In fact, I'm going to show you why talking about people is very smart indeed — much smarter than talking about abstract ideas — and how you can use this idea to dramatically boost response to your advertising.

And I'll prove it by taking you on a tour of my local grocery store, the experimental lab of evolutionary biologists, and my own direct mail swipe file.

People are interested in people!

The first stop on our tour is my local grocery store to glance at the magazines. Why look at magazines? Because they're in the business of offering editorial and photographic content they know people want. They can instantly gauge which words and pictures generate the most sales. So, if you want to quickly know what people respond to, look at high-circulation magazines.

They're all over the store — sports, auto, and biker magazines by the beer; cooking, home decor, and fashion near the bakery; news, puzzles, and gossip at the checkout.

They're all different in their subject matter, but the most successful all share one vital characteristic: they feature people.

Psychology Today shows a picture of a woman looking at herself in the mirror. Headline: Body Image: An In-Depth Look at How We See Ourselves

Entertainment Weekly does little more than show pictures of stars with short blurbs:

Harrison Ford Teams With Brad Pitt in The Devil's Own
Liv Tyler in Inventing the Abbotts
Tim Allen in Jungle 2 Jungle
Meg Ryan in Addicted to Love

American Health for Women shows a close up of a beautiful woman. Headline: Exclusive Sex Survey: 500 Women Tell Why It's Hotter Than Ever

Mademoiselle shows another beautiful woman. Headline: Your Friends & You: Understanding the Relationships That Can Make or Break Your Life

Ditto for Time, Newsweek, Reader's Digest, and just about every other magazine. In some form, they all feature people in pictures, in headlines, and in editorial content.

People think in terms of people!

Next stop, a laboratory where evolutionary biologists are exploring a unique question: What is the brain really for, anyway? The heart pumps blood. The stomach digests food. But what is this great big brain actually designed to do?

In a series of experiments, researchers give subjects a problem to solve. To one group they present it in the form of an abstract logic problem. Only 10% solve it correctly. To another group they present the very same problem, but in the form of a social situation between people. In this case, 75% get it right.

From this and numerous other experiments, the researchers develop a theory that the human brain has evolved very specialized ways of thinking. It's not a calculator or computer, but an organ that is designed primarily to help us deal with social situations: How can I make a better living? Is this person trying to cheat me? Will this person make a good spouse? What do people think of me? How can I use this relationship to my advantage? What will that person's reaction be when I do this?

The researchers conclude that while our brain is fully capable of processing abstract information, it was never specifically designed for this. It works best when it must deal with people, emotions, relationships, and other elements of the human experience.

People respond to messages about people!

The final stop is my swipe file, which is a box under my desk where I toss direct mail samples until I file them away in my basement. Let's take a look at some well-crafted pieces.

American Online sent me a polywrapped direct mail piece showing a father and his two sons at a computer. Headline: More access, More content, More AOL for you!

The Hume Group sent me a 6" x 9" manila envelope. Teaser: YOUR SPECIAL REPORT ENCLOSED.

Inside, the report is actually a letter with a picture of a financial planner. Headline: Special Report ... GET RICH SLOWLY! "Forget the hype of get-rich-quick schemes," says this top financial planner.

Nightingale Conant sent me a 6" x 9" full-color envelope with a picture of Zig Ziglar on the front. Teaser: Thousands of Sales Professionals Have Benefited From His Dynamic Presentation ...

There's a lot going on in these and the thousands of other samples I have, but the point is that the best are often all about people — pictures of people, names of people, subjects distinctly people-centered and loaded with people benefits, and language that is personal and emotional.

General guidelines for people-centered marketing messages:

What have we gleaned from this whirlwind tour? We humans are captivated with ourselves. It's the most interesting subject we know. It's not just a media or marketing trend, but an evolutionary fact. So, why fight it? Use it to strengthen your sales message.

What's wrong with abstract concepts?

There's nothing inherently wrong with clever advertising "concepts," except that they too often focus on an analogy or image that is not about people. All things being equal, the farther away your focus strays from people-centered concepts, images, language, and benefits, the harder it is for your prospect to be interested, to process the information, and to respond positively.

Consider these examples from my "What were they thinking?" file.

From the United States Postal Service — a self-mailer with a picture of an orange stamped PARCEL POST. Headline: GET A TASTE OF OUR RELIABILITY.

From ADWEEK Directories — a 6" x 9" envelope with a graphic of a clock and a dollar sign. Teaser: 1/2 the cost, 1/2 the time, All the benefits of our unmatched worldwide resources.

From Roosevelt Bank — an envelope with a photo of an eagle flying in a blue sky. Teaser: The Search Is Over, Not Just Another Gold Card ... A Better Gold Card

Every one uses an abstract concept to make a point. But the concept and the point are divorced from the central subject people are interested in: people.

When you use an abstract concept to deliver a message, your audience has to connect the concept to your message, then try to relate your message to something they find personally relevant. Why make people work so hard, when there's one subject they are guaranteed to find interesting? PEOPLE!

If there's only one change you make in your direct response advertising this year, make it this: Build your message around people.

Copyright © 1997 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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