Building Empires (and Profits) on the Cheap
Here’s a secret for you: most advertising you see is useless. Big budget Superbowl ads, “brand awareness,” and billboards exist for two major reasons – vanity and advertising budgets that need to be spent. This advertising isn’t quantifiable, testable, and it’s not cheap. It works for Coca-Cola but it won’t work for small businesses.
Enter Dan Kennedy and The Ultimate Sales Letter – a how-to guide to direct response marketing. It’s a simple idea – you send informational and persuasive materials to prospects with instructions on how to buy your product. It’s cheaper than buying network advertising or billboards and you can directly measure your success rate in acquiring customers. Great companies have been and will be built on a great product and a great direct response marketing campaign. But it’s a competitive market and there is an art and science to writing effective sales letters.
That’s why this book is so valuable.
Since You Can’t Invade Your Customer’s Dreams Like DiCaprio – Get ‘Em While They’re Awake with Words
The book describes the Kennedy method for writing sales letters. It’s a checklist format and (tellingly) the first steps are about getting into the minds of your customers. Before you put pen to paper, you need to put your mind into the thoughts of your customers. As Robert Collier says, you need to “enter the conversation already occurring in your customer’s head.” So Kennedy proscribes imagining what keeps your customers up at night, what frustrates them, and what their desires are, etc. He doesn’t come out and say it, but you need to build an initial avatar to sell to.
The avatar is one of the most useful mental models for marketers and entrepreneurs. You create a fictitious, ideal customer that your product/service is for and you develop your marketing around this person.
Let’s say I’m going to start up a skateboarding apparel company. I know what separates my work from the competitors, I’ve produced a small initial order, and now I’m ready to sell.
My avatar is Timmy Jones, a 15-year old boy from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon. He splits his time playing video games and skateboarding with his friends (when his over-protective mother lets him go out). He’s an average student but he thinks his future isn’t necessarily in a traditional career – he wants to make it to the X-Games or at least work there. He’s uncertain about his social status at high school, he hangs with the skater crowd and he’s pretty popular with them, but the coolest girls only pay a little attention to him. There’s an avatar – and now you imagine writing your online sales page or email to him. You sell Timmy on why he should buy your clothes.
Bad marketing screams impersonality. To sell via print, you must reach out, have a conversation, and enter your customer’s brain. Creating a concrete avatar helps you write to a person and increases the probability that they will pay you to solve a problem. Kennedy gives a ton of useful guidelines and strategies for getting into the customer’s mind, how they will relate to your product, and how to build rapport with them. Following his steps helps to flesh out your avatar.
All First Drafts Are Shit. – Hemingway
After you’ve determined your customer’s mindset and taken all the logistical considerations Kennedy discusses, you’re ready to write. This is where Kennedy as the prose teacher comes in.
Good writing is re-writing. So many would-be writers are discouraged because school teaches them to fear mistakes and to be overly concerned with writing a good first draft. Here’s the secret, from Ernest’s mouth to your brain: they’re all shit.
Kennedy admits that he’s never written a one-draft copy letter, even when he was starting off in the business. The re-writing process needs to be multi-layered. I’d never thought of this but it’s part of Kennedy’s genius that he advocates going over your first draft a number of times with different goals in mind.
First, rewrite for strategy, focusing on your big-picture message.
Then rewrite for style – make sure it sounds good.
Then re-write for passion – you must capture your customer’s imagination and get them excited.
Then finally rewrite for clarity – they need to understand your offer.
This method is so effective because if you try to rewrite for all things at once, you’ll do each poorly. I’ll be applying this many-layered rewriting strategy to all my writing going forward.
Something else nobody tells you in school: all good writing is formulaic. I’m a law student, and we take a year-long course in legal writing. During the first semester, our professor never gave us any good examples of legal writing and in fact placed a soft ban on seeking out good legal prose relating to our medium (the legal memorandum). Consequently, I learned very little.
Second semester rolls around, and on the first day of class – our new professor supplies us with what he considers the pinnacle of legal brief writing: a brief filed with the Supreme Court, written by a top advocate. Some of my classmates skimmed it or ignored it in favor of reading our theoretical legal writing textbook, but I went in the opposite direction. I read the 70 page brief in depth and examined it for structure and phrasing.
Never opened the textbook.
Though I didn’t know the phrase at the time, I wrote out key phrases and ways to link my ideas, creating my very own legal “crib sheet.” When it came time to write, I copied the structure and phrasing of this esteemed advocate and wrote the brief like a pro.
The point is: when you’re learning anything new, copying from the masters is the quickest path to competence. And Kennedy supplies the raw materials necessary to develop this competence throughout the book. As I continue along my journey – I’m going to periodically post examples and breakdowns of the good copywriting and what I learned from it.
This coincides exactly with Michael Ellsburg’s advice in The Education of Millionaires and whose guest post on the Four-Hour Work Week Blog inspired me to get off my ass and start this blog. He gives a list of great online-marketing copywriters to follow, emulate, and crib good ideas from.
Be Boring and Die
Beyond copywriting, this is a valuable life lesson. You wanna get the girl/job/customer of your dreams? If you do what everybody else is doing … good luck.
Kennedy talks about how to tell stories, write for emotion, discuss the effects of the product rather than the product and gives a list of tools/phrases one can use to differentiate yourself from the competition.
Useful stuff and not just for direct response marketing purposes.
Buy this book. It’s a how-to guide to running direct response marketing campaigns. Although its focus is on snail-mail campaigns, writing good copy is writing good copy. Also, the section with specific advice on running email or online direct response campaigns is excellent.
This is a book of principles. No matter what format, learning the principles is the key to crushing it. Buy the book, practice its steps, apply it and you’ll be making more money.