Occam's Razor and Cutting Your Own Throat
by Dean Rieck
Once a month or so, I unchain myself from my desk, turn on my voice mail, and brave the mad morning traffic to make a pilgrimage to the local library.
Up two flights of stairs, I enter the sanctum sanctorum. The holy of holies. (The Business and Technology section.) I thumb through the investment newsletters in front. Run a few computer searches on Disc Net. Gather any books on my research list. Then head to the back, where I spend the afternoon working my way through two or three dozen publications.
In a recent excursion, while wading through some of the more erudite (i.e. stuffy, jargon-laden, hard to read) periodicals, I ran across an article in the January/February 1997 issue of the Journal of Advertising Research.
The title: "To Whom Do Advertising Creatives Write? An Inferential Answer." The premise: Carry out an experiment to see if creative personnel have difficulty making a connection to their audience. The result: They do.
The authors selected a group of creatives and a group of TV viewers. They showed each group television commercials and asked them to respond "personally" to those ads through a questionnaire. Keep in mind that this research project focused on New York City ad agency personnel, mass market television commercials, and TV viewers. So, let's not overgeneralize here. The results, however, are telling.
In a nutshell, these agency creative people could not respond personally to the ads, only "professionally." Their responses "very closely paralleled those of the other advertising professionals who judge advertising awards." And the authors concluded that even though the creatives' job was to "translate strategy into (a) meaningful message," they did not in fact communicate with consumers, but with other advertising people.
The TV viewers, on the other hand, had no problem responding personally. And their responses had nothing to do with the professional quality of the ads. Instead, they responded positively to advertising that was "self-enhancing," and were "puzzled, confused, even angered" by some of the well-crafted messages, especially those using so-called "professional" techniques, such as "quick cuts, arch and cutting humor, (and) advertising that featured people and situations implicitly putting down the viewer."
Gosh, you could have knocked me down with a feather.
Imagine that! Creative people in the ad business disconnected from the good people they are paid to communicate with. Why, it's a scandal! It's unimaginable! Say it ain't so!
Sheesh. Of course many creative people in advertising are out of touch. Not just in general advertising, but in direct as well. No one had to conduct a study to show me that creative people often don't connect with their audience. It's obvious.
What might not be so obvious is what smart creatives should do about it if they're at all concerned with results. Or perhaps it should be. Because what I suggest is just that the obvious.
With your permission, I will resurrect the 14th century Franciscan philosopher, theologian, and political writer William of Occam, who put forth what has come to be known as "Occam's Razor." It is also sometimes called the Law of Economy or the Law of Parsimony.
In William's words, non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem. Translation: Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity. Further translation: Keep things simple. Translation for direct marketers: When faced with a creative challenge, do the obvious first.
Now, be careful. I'm not suggesting enrolling in the Swipe File School of Selling. All I'm saying is that the most commonsensical way to connect with a prospect is to just do what is most commonsensical.
Don't get all wrapped up in new techniques. Don't put form before function. If you have something to say, say it. If you want a prospect to do something, ask them to. The very best creative people in our business are those who do not feel compelled to justify their salary by wowing people with their brilliance.
A few other obvious suggestions to connect with your prospects:
- Avoid mistakes before seeking brilliance. Direct mail profits seldom result from a wild new creative idea. Generally, it's the solid, tried and true packages that work again and again, year after year. If you have a groundbreaking new format or creative tactic, test it, but don't get caught up in a search for the Holy Grail.
- Be honest and straightforward. Fake invoices, deceptive offers, clever copy to disguise a bad product, and other tricky techniques often work well. However, treating your customers like ignorant sheep is bad for long-term success. The way you sell says something about you. If you use tricky techniques, what you need are better products and offers. If you're a solid company with good products, act like one.
- Try to really help people, instead of just sell them. Going just for a quick sale will often lead you to dry, overused techniques. But if you make a genuine effort to be helpful in offering your product, you'll hit the hot buttons. For example, if you're a bank wanting to increase deposits, don't just send out a letter saying, "Open your high-interest account today!" Offer a free booklet that educates your customers about how to use your services, with a title like "How to double the money in your savings account in seven years."
- Remove the barriers to buying. People want to buy things. However, if there's a good reason not to part with their money, they won't, no matter how persuasive you are. The fastest way to success is to remove the physical, emotional, and financial reasons not to buy before you tinker with creative. The introduction of the 800 number, for example, did more for selling success than any 8-page letter.
- Make your copy and design clear. If your readers don't understand what you're selling or why, they won't buy anything. Your first job is to be clear. Don't be cute. Don't try to impress. Don't preach, rant, or ramble. A copywriter should get to the point quickly. A designer should make the copywriter's words easy to read. Try this: pick up your phone, call a friend, and explain in 30 seconds what you're selling. Then hang up and write down what you said. See how clear and straightforward you are? Why be any other way in your message to a prospect?
- Be truthful and believable. If you're truthful, you believe what you're saying. If you're believable, your prospect believes what you're saying. To encourage belief in your truthfulness, back up your claims every way you can with testimonials, case studies, strong visual evidence, solid guarantees, merchandise return labels, or anything that proves you're on the level.
- Always state a clear, specific call to action. People aren't stupid, but they are lazy. I am. And I'll bet you are, too. Never make people guess or assume anything. If you want a phone call, say so. If you want a filled-out order form, give instructions to do it. Don't assume anything.
- Always guarantee your product or service. If you have a good product, stand behind it. A guarantee isn't a burden, it's a boon. It's a powerful marketing tool. A solid guarantee is tangible proof that you're reputable. And it helps to lower the perceived risk your prospects feel when considering your offer.
- Don't make your envelopes too pretty, too often. An envelope that gets ripped open is like a kamikaze pilot. It's sole purpose in life is to carry its powerful cargo to a specific tactical location and then sacrifice itself as it delivers that cargo. But if your envelope is a design masterpiece, prospects might avoid tearing it open like they avoid tearing pretty Christmas paper. Make your envelope a kamikaze pilot, not Christmas wrap.
- On your envelope, use copy to select your audience. Your prospect needs to understand that your message is addressed specifically to him or her. Your prospect should think, "This is for me. I might be interested in this." Use key words that relate to your prospect's interests or identity, such as "Exclusive offer for golfers inside."
- Make a personal connection in your letter. A letter should be personal, honest, easygoing, warm, and friendly. It should sound like one friend writing to another, not like the guy selling slicer-dicers in the mall.
- Talk about your prospect's wants and needs. Your prospects don't care a jot or tittle about you or your company, which is why you shouldn't spend time in your letter beating your chest about your capabilities. Talk to your prospects about what they want and how that want can be provided with an immediate reply.
- Sound down-to-earth and believable. If you're selling a get-rich-quick scheme, you can get away with hucksterish patter. Your audience wants to believe the unbelievable. However, most people respond best to a straight-arrow style. Don't put on an act, just write like you talk.
- Always include company name, address, phone, fax, and e-mail on brochures. Brochures are keepers, so they should provide complete offer and ordering information for delayed orders or pass-along orders. Plus, repeating this information sends a clear message that you truly want a response.
- Make your order form stand alone. Always assume the worst case scenario and highlight the complete offer, toll-free number, mailing address, premiums, and every detail needed to complete a sale. And make it easy to fill out and mail. Some complex products need detailed order forms, but too many are needlessly difficult to fill out. Keep it as simple as possible, on one side, with as few fill-ins as you can get away with while still being complete. Give directions if you need to.
- Include a BRE if you ask for confidential information. When you ask for credit card numbers or other personal information, you must insure the privacy of that information by enclosing it in an envelope. If you don't, you'll lose a ton of orders from prospects who will forever think of you as completely insensitive to their privacy.
Obvious, isn't it?
Remember, if you want to avoid cutting your own throat in this business, use Occam's Razor.
Copyright © 1997 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
Click here for reprint policy.
Copyright © Direct Creative. All Rights Reserved.