If the writer doesn’t understand it, your customers won’t have a chance

Amazingly, I actually clicked on an internet display ad yesterday.

Internet display ads are, of course, the most ineffective advertising medium ever invented. And yet clients continue to pour squillions of quid into them. As if somehow, someday – perhaps by divine intervention or sheer good luck – they’ll suddenly start working for their brand.

But the tiny handful that do generate a click through do so because they use classic direct response/editorial techniques and offer something useful to the reader. “Lose pounds with this old wives’ trick’…’Get the new iPad for £30′…and so on.

And this one from Aviva did just that. It offered to explain a little about the government’s new pension rules, due to take effect next spring.

This met a need – my desire for knowledge about how my pathetic provision for retirement (ha!) might be affected – so I watched the little animation.

I was nodding along and understanding what it was telling me until it mentioned something about ‘your marginal tax rate’. At which point they lost me. I had to go and look it up on Money Saving Expert, never to return.

I had no idea what Marginal Tax was. I consider myself a reasonably educated grown-up sort-of person (your views may differ) with a little bit of knowledge about income tax and such like but this was a new one on me. (It’s actually just the way you, for example, only pay 40% on the bit of your income that’s over the 40% threshold. Simple.)

But experience told me instantly what had happened here. Because it happens in advertising agency meeting rooms throughout the land (and probably the world) day in, day out.

The client briefs the suits (the account handlers) about what they want to say in the video. The clients occasionally use industry jargon which is their own in-house language that everyone at the client understands.

At which point, a good account handler will say “Sorry, I’m not sure what you mean there, can you explain it to me?”.

The bad one, who is smiling and nodding but thinking mostly of going to lunch, will just write it down.

The bad account handler will then brief the copywriter and art director.

When faced with the Marginal Tax stuff, the good copywriter will say “I don’t understand that. And if don’t understand it, I can’t write about it in a way our lovely customers will understand it, either.” And the account handler will be asked to go back to the client and get the clarity she should have got in the first place.

But the bad copywriter will write it down, include it in his script and carry on thinking about how can turn Marginal Tax into a pun.

And the little video clip will get made, and the client will approve it because they know what it means and forget that the end viewer might not. (And, to be honest, they’re paying their agency a lot of dosh to think about this stuff and ensure the language used is right for the target group.)

The net result is a piece of communication that fails simply because nobody at the agency/copywriter end had the intelligence or insight (or guts?) to say “Hang on a mo, sorry I’m being thick here, but could you put this into easy-to-understand words for me so I know what I’m talking about”.

When you’ve been working with complicated clients and products for as long as I have – financial services, professional services, healthcare, hi-tech, B2B – you get a sixth sense for spotting writing where it’s clear that the writer hasn’t really understood what he’s writing about.

And it happens far, far too often.

 

 

 

 

How to do great charity advertising

As Mr Punch says memorably, on piers and promenades throughout the land, that’s the way to do it.

There’s an Oxfam ad appearing on the telly right now asking for donations to help the Ebola victims in Western Africa.

And it’s a superb, best-in-class lesson in how to do effective charity fund-raising.

So often these days, charity ads are produced to look like perfume ads, with an eye on the awards jury rather than a focus on maximum fund-raising. Moody black and white photography, portentous celebrity voice over and a glib, punny endline. Looks cool on your portfolio site but doesn’t bring home the bacon for the charity concerned.

But this one from Oxfam gets it bang on and I imagine does extremely well. Here are the key ingredients for successful charity fundraising, on telly or in dm or the press:

1. Look cheap. The work must look like it was bashed out in a hurry by the charity team. Not crafted by creative teams with silly big beards in their plush London offices. It must look and feel urgent and real. In other words, it should not look like advertising.

2. Show results. Crises and misery make it easy to write award-winning heart-tugging copy. But don’t  just show the downside. Make sure you show the upside too — the results of the appeal. Generate an emotional response, yes, but paint a picture of hope not despair.

3. Ask for a specific amount. This ad asks for £3. No more no less.  Often it works to give three different tick boxes and an ‘other’ one in case someone wants to give a huge amount or a very small amount that’s all they can afford. Remember: the biggest donors to charity are poor people and old people. Perhaps because they’re the ones who understand being needy?

4. Tell them what this amount will be spent on. As specific as possible. Again, this Oxfam ad does it right, it tells me my £3 will buy a treatment ‘kit’. Perfect. I really feel my £3 will genuinely  make a difference.

5. Make the response mechanism clear and simple. Show them and tell them. ASK for the donation, don’t assume showing a phone number etc is enough. It isn’t. Tell them to do it right now.

Easy when you know how.

 

Has copy become simply space filler?

Last week, a client referred to a piece of copy I’d written as ‘content’. As in, ‘I’ll see if anyone has any more comments on the content then get back to you’.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t care less what my clients call my output. I’m simply happy and grateful that they’ve chosen me to help them out. So if they want to, they can call my work Pea Soup with a Cherry on Top. (I’d rather they called it brilliant, cutting-edge, highly-effective, a bargain at twice the price etc but let’s not be picky.)

What I do is write lots of words that sell lots of stuff. (And I’ve lost track of the number of times people have asked me what a copywriter is. So it’s a stupid job title anyway.)

But this was the first time I’d heard the term ‘content’ used in a non-digital context. It’s been fairly common for a while to call website copy ‘content’ but not advertising or direct mail copy. The client was actually referring to a sales letter I’d written.

But does this throwaway client comment actually mark a sea-change in the advertising/marketing industry? (This isn’t a rhetorical question, I’m genuinely interested to know.)

Has the power of well-crafted, strategically powerful copy been completely relegated to a position of simply space-filler?

Has the designer and mac jockey finally climbed to the top of the perceived heap, so that pretty pictures and impossible-to-read typography are now the dominant consideration when you’re trying to sell your wares?

Has copy simply become that annoying stuff that goes in the boxes on the wire-frame marked ‘copy here: 50 words max’?

Even worse, are the words on a website now considered simply SEO fodder?

You see outfits calling themselves ‘communications agencies’ or ‘creative agencies’ or ‘marketing agencies’ everywhere now.

But scratch the surface of their glossy website and, remarkably often, you’ll find they don’t have a single copywriter on the team.

Not one. Not so much as a fresh-faced junior straight out of college.

Never mind a senior, highly experienced writer running the creative side of things.

(In the olden days, the copywriter was king. And it was very rare indeed that an agency would have an art director as the top dog in the creative department. In fact, if you’ve ever seen Mad Men, you’ll know that for a long while the writers simply sent their copy down to the art department who added some nice visuals to the copy. They knew their place.)

But things, as Bob Dylan pointed out, have changed.

Call me old-fashioned (you won’t be the first, I promise you) but how can an agency selling advertising or website creation services possibly be the real deal if there’s nobody in the building who can write some great copy?

More strangely, how can clients look at the agency and think they’re going to get some great emails or a fantastically compelling website or superbly effective advertising if the agency doesn’t have a writer on board?

Odd, isn’t it?

 

Direct mail is coming back. But don’t forget the golden rules…

People are saying that good old direct mail is having a bit of a renaissance. The growth of edm and the price of postage has seen DM die off in recent years but some are saying it’s on its way back, partly due to its very rarity and therefore renewed impact on the doormat.

Time will tell, but it’s my favourite medium by a long way, so I hope its popularity is restored to its former glory.

Which is why I was so disappointed by a b2b direct mail pack I received yesterday from Parcelforce. You’d have thought, wouldn’t you, that a company whose entire existence is based on the post would be able to commission a half-decent mailing?

(I used to work on the Royal Mail account many years ago when I was a direct marketing agency Creative Director, and we made sure that every mailing we did for them was a paragon of dm best practice. It would be odd not to. Medium/message and all that.)

This mailing, however, was almost embarrassing in its cluelessness.

Because I work in the business, I ploughed through it to try and glean what it was all about whereas most recipients would have moved it swiftly bin-wise.

Clearly, Parcel Force have teamed up with the makers of the new Paddington Bear film. I guessed this because the whole mailing is festooned — no, smothered — in pictures of our favourite peruvian quadruped and lame bear puns abound. Bear essentials, bearing parcels. Oh, be still my quaking sides.

What this has got to do with a business to business delivery proposition, I have (still) no idea. The business benefits messages (such as they are) are buried beneath the bear puns, bear pictures and references to the film.

The mailing consists of two A5 landcape brochures in an A5 outer. A six pager and a 4 pager. 10 pages are therefore available to tell me why I should use Parcel Force. Most of these are utterly wasted. Four are just pictures of Paddington, ads for the film, and a Merry Christmas from New York message which leaves me utterly nonplussed. What has this got to do with anything?

I thought for a second, that there wasn’t even a letter. Repeat after me: YOU NEVER EVER SEND OUT A DM PACK WITHOUT A LETTER.

Leave out the brochure, leave out the response device, leave out the testimonials lift letter, the offer flyer. Leave out the bloody envelope, but never ever leave out a letter.

This letter was simply printed on the inside flap of the 4pp leaflet. A waste of personalisation as it gained no leverage from using my name. It didn’t read like a letter. It read like an ad. Wrong.

The headline on the letter was a tragedy in itself:

We’re bearers of Great British Delivery

What does that even MEAN? Clearly the writer was so excited about Paddington that any sense of trying to sell me something, engage with my business needs, or even hint at a reason for writing to me,  had never entered his or her head.

The letter starts by telling me that Paddington’s story ‘began with a Great British Delivery’  and ‘he has now become a part and parcel of British life’. Parcel! Geddit?

WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS UTTER BULLSHIT?

They then tell me, second para, that Paddington is coming to the big screen.

WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS IN A PARCELFORCE MAILING?

Finally, three paras in, we get to some sort of product story.  They tell me, knowingly, that ‘your customers want a carrier that can offer them choice, convenience and control’.

Eh?

My customers want this? Not my own company, then? What sort of company do they think Simon Plent Direct Marketing might be? Do they think I might be advising my clients about what parcel delivery service to use? What crazy mixed-up list is my company on?

Leaving this nonsensical non-targetting aside, the letter, and in fact the whole mailer, is overflowing with cliches about the brilliance of Parcel Force’s service:

‘We put convenience first’ ‘You need a carrier you can trust’ ‘Our exceptional quality of service’  This is entirely the level of business to business engagement it operates on. How old do they think I am? Four?

Please please please. Write the letter first. Cram it with interesting stuff I might want to know. Not stuff you want to tell me. Especially stuff about Paddington bear.

I AM A GROWN UP RUNNING A BUSINESS. I DO NOT CARE THAT THERE IS A PADDINGTON BEAR FILM COMING OUT AT CHRISTMAS.

Life is too short, and my time is too expensive, to waste it on rubbish like this.

Tell me what it is you’re offering. Tell me why I need it, how it will help my business. Tell me what you want me to do. And give me a good reason for doing it RIGHT now.

Other than to get me to fill in a form about what sort of parcel services I use (suddenly not how many my customers use?) in return for entering a prize draw to win a trip to, yep you guessed it, Darkest Peru, I have absolutely no idea what this mailer is for.

I have heard of Parcelforce. If my business involves parcels, I presumably know broadly what they offer. This mailing doesn’t tell me anything new, doesn’t announce a new service, doesn’t offer me a discount or any other incentive to use them. So what is the purpose of this mailing?

And, most frustratingly of all, it fails to answer the question burning a hole in the brain of every recipient: what the hell has Parcelforce got to do with a new Paddington Bear film?

A website that doesn’t show your products?

I had a very interesting conversation the other day. I was chatting to a senior agency chap who was telling me about their new website, currently in production. We logged into the work-in-progress build so he could show me what they were up to.

The site was great, with attractive graphics, nice clear navigation and a straightforward exposition of what the agency’s philosophy was. So far so good.

Until I asked him to click on ‘Our Work’.

I was expecting to see screengrabs of the websites they’d made, shots of their best press ads so I could admire the concepts and read the body copy. I expected to be able to click on clips of their TV and online video stuff and flick through some of their grooviest brochures. I was looking forward to seeing some of their ground-breaking exhibition stands in situ.

Except I couldn’t. There wasn’t a single example of a complete, finished piece of work.

There were loads of design elements taken from a campaign, and some shots that might have been used in ads or online. But not the actual ads themselves or websites or emails or corporate ID packages or pack designs or any of the other lovely work they’ve done.

Think about this for a second.

Imagine going to Ford’s website and not seeing a single picture of a car. Just a nice, arty shot of a steering wheel. Or going to Apple’s website and not seeing a picture of an iPhone. Just a little picture of a printed circuit. Or going to Next’s website and not seeing a picture of the coat they’re selling, just a picture of a button on the cuff. Imagine going to an architect’s site and not seeing any pictures of the buildings they’ve designed.

Is it just me, or would you find this somewhat odd? You build a fantastically expensive, beautiful, engaging website in order to sell your wares and, er, you don’t show them?

So this agency had made a creative decision not to show the stuff it sells. The stuff it sweats blood over. The stuff its clients pay a bloody fortune for and hang proudly on their boardroom walls.

There were loads of case studies telling the visitor how brilliant they were at solving the clients’ marketing issues in creative and striking ways. But we had to take this entirely on trust as none of the work was there to actually see.

Not a sausage.

How could this happen? How could senior agency management make a decision not to show the very things that prospective clients would be most interested in seeing? If you don’t have anything else on the site, at least show the work, surely?

I didn’t have the nerve to press the chap at the time. People tend to get extremely defensive when Emperor’s New Clothes type comments are lobbed at them.

But I suspect it’s because of at least two things.

Firstly, I believe the website creation was put in the hands of the agency’s own website developers/designers. And not in the hands of their planners, copywriters or art directors. This meant that its whole development was approached from a technology/build perspective, not a marketing/sales perspective. So everyone admired the sliders, the dissolves, the colours, the parallax scrolling…and forgot about the site’s fundamental reason for existing.

Which brings us to reason two. I suspect there was a failure at the most basic level of communications strategy. They should have been applying the same rigour they would demand on a project for a client, and saying to themselves “What will the people visiting this site most want to see? What do we need to show them to make them consider buying our services?” and answering “Our work, of course! Hurrah!”

So what’s the lesson to be learnt here? One, if you’re an agency, ensure you approach your own marketing with the same clarity of thought you’d apply to your clients’ projects. That means establishing clear objectives and communications strategy at the outset.

Or two, consider giving the website concept development to an outside party who can remain objective and focussed. And who can say “But, but, but he’s not wearing any clothes?” and not worry about the internal political consequences.

Click on Contact at the top of the page if you’d like my help.

 

 

 

 

 

Is a picture really worth a thousand words?

A picture, so it’s said, paints a thousand words. And certainly, in some contexts, this is true. In particular, a powerful news image can tell you a story instantly. In a film or tv drama, the whole purpose of the exercise is, as any screenwriter will tell you, to tell a story using pictures.

But is it true in marketing and advertising?

Take a look at the average website and you’d certainly think so. Big images, big sliders, hardly any copy. (And often the copy is small, discreet, pale grey reversed out of red or something.) They often look amazingly cool and groovy and are often produced by amazingly cool and groovy people in amazingly cool and groovy offices.

But do they work to sell your stuff?

Mention the word ‘sell’ to a typical web designer and you’ll see a look of utter incomprehension enter his eyes. You’ll hear a sharp intake of breath at the very suggestion that his art might be sullied for mere commercial gain.

I exaggerate of course. But, in my experience, the truth is closer to this than many marketeers and company owners might like to think.

So let’s just remind ourselves what websites, edm and all the rest are really for.

They’re to get people to want to buy your products or services. Or, at the very least, to get people to find out about your products or services and move them a little way towards a buying decision.

Now I realise at this point that some of you (and maybe a lot of you) will be saying “Oh no, it’s to build our brand”.

That’s because, to repeat myself from previous posts, there is a very odd and utterly misguided viewpoint that’s very current amongst many marketing folk. And that’s the belief that ‘you build a brand and then people will try your products’.

This is utter tosh. The truth is actually almost the complete opposite: getting people to try your products is what builds your brand.

And you get people to try your product by telling them how great it is. And giving them all sorts of practical and emotional REASONS why they should try it. Once they engage with your product they’ll form a view about your brand.

This is really, really important.

There are small design groups (and big expensive agencies) all over the world who have completely lost track of this most basic marketing truth.

If nobody buys your stuff you don’t HAVE a brand. You have a corporate ID. A nice logo and some whizzy graphics. (And a website that’s all cool and groovy images.)

You might call that a brand, but it’s a long, long way from being a brand. A brand is created in your customer’s mind, not on a designer’s Mac.

It’s created by her experience of everything about your product. The price, your service, how well your product meets her needs, whether it’s trendy and so on, and so on.

Sadly, building a whizzy website with cool photography and whizzy graphics is far, far easier than creating a powerful marketing and advertising strategy that goes to the heart of your target audience’s practical needs and emotional mindset.

There’s real graft involved in tearing your marketplace to shreds to identify your real USP. There’s lots of time involved in researching your customers until you’re sick of listening to them.

It takes clever creative people to write engaging and dramatic headlines that will stop customers in their tracks and pull them into the detail.

This is why your website needs to be driven by a coherent marketing and communications strategy. It needs, just like a tv ad, to be utterly clear about what unique benefits you’re offering your customers. It needs to give them lots of reasons why they should give your product or try.

And unless you’re selling fashion items where the picture does most of the work, or you’re a pure online retailer like Amazon where people simply go to buy at the best price, this means writing some great copy.

Some powerful, benefit driven headlines. Some well-crafted engaging body copy that draws the reader in, drives her towards a sale.

And perhaps a little video that lets you explain and perhaps demonstrate what your product or service is all about. (Plus, of course, great pics of your products or service or your team or your customers. Don’t use library shots if you can possibly avoid it.)

Remember, any advertising, be it your website, your radio ads or your 48 sheet poster, is only there because you can’t talk to all your customers face to face. 

PS I have deliberately avoided the topic of search engine optimisation in this post. It goes without saying that your customer has to find your site before she can read it. Don’t be misled, however, into thinking your web developer’s job is done just because your new site has leapt up the Google rankings. It’s a common, and dangerous, error.

 

 

 

And now everybody scrolls

You have to laugh.

This blog is entitled Nobody Scrolls as an ironic reference to the fact that when I started it, everyone who claimed to be an internet marketing expert told you that Nobody Scrolls.

This was a couple of years ago. But now, these same, ahem, experts will tell you that you have to use the latest, ahem ahem, ‘best practice’ website structure which is entirely based on the concept of scrolling.

You’re doubtless familiar with the current fashion. It involves a large image section at the top of the page, often with two or three ‘sliders’ which sometimes change this image automatically. (I find these very annoying, personally. You may not.)

Below this, you find a succession of pages stacked on top of each other which you are obliged to scroll down. Sometimes these go on for several feet. Scrolltastic!

Launchbar is a small add-on application for Apple’s Mavericks operating system and is a perfect example of this kind of website. It actually works quite well.  Have a look when you’ve finished reading this post. http://www.obdev.at/products/launchbar/index.html

(Note how I didn’t include a  link here. Links make people leave your page. Two years ago every self-styled web expert would say nobody scrolls, fill your site with links.)

So clearly something has changed out there, to make all the gurus change their tune completely?

And of course the thing that has changed is not our web-browsing habits, it’s not the way the world uses its computers. It’s not that we’ve all suddenly fallen in love with scrolling (because we all loved scrolling already).

What has changed is the technology used to build the pages. The propellorheads who are still mostly in control of web design and development have now decided that this format is the way to go, so everyone is following sheep-like with big sliders, stacked pages and, bless-em, parallax scrolling (where a layer of type or imagery moves in relation to the background as you scroll).

And this technology-driven shift is post-rationalised as being driven by communications considerations.

It ain’t. It’s nothing but fashion, folks.

And until web design and edm management is dragged into the hands of properly trained designers and copywriters, fashion will continue to drive how our websites and edm look.

Having said that, the new ‘rules’ are a lot better than the old rules and many sites are now doing a pretty good job, like the site mentioned above. Apple continues to be a paragon of clarity. And the BBC.

Naturally, if you’re trying to sell direct off your site, you learn really quickly what works and what doesn’t. Amazon and John Lewis are perfect examples. It’s no coincidence they’re massively successful.

But until the rest of the world wakes up and sees web design as a words-driven medium, as Apple, BBC and Amazon do, just like any other form of marketing communication, we’re stuck with silly over-designed sites that simply follow the flavour-of-the-month formats which are based entirely on how pretty they look.

And not at all on how effectively they tell your story.

 

 

Why waste your precious budget telling punters what your product isn’t?

You see it time and time again. Ads where the hugely expensive media cost and production costs are squandered by telling the the potential customer what the product isn’t, rather than what it is.

Insanity. You see it on TV, in the press, in DM and online.

There’s a particularly idiotic example poisoning the airwaves at the mo. It’s for Trainline’s app that lets you organise your railway journeys from your mobile.

Self-evidently, if you’re a regular user of the railway anything that takes the pain out of the process has got to be a good thing.

My local operator won’t let you buy a weekly ticket on a friday for journeys starting the following monday, for example. (I have no idea why. And neither have the poor folk manning the tills. When the tills are manned that is.)

So, in theory, I might be a candidate customer for the app in question. I’d therefore like to know all about it. What it can do. Where I can get it. And so on.

But does the 30 sec tv spot tell me any of this? Noooooo. Of course not. The people involved in making this masterpiece have decided to use the spot to tell me what the app doesn’t do. It doesn’t help me put out a fire on my computer. Or help me when my parachute fails at 20,000 feet. Fascinating.

Clearly, my sides are supposed to be splitting at this.

Except they’re not. I’m really annoyed that they waste 20 seconds of a 30 second spot not telling me the stuff that, as a potential user, I’d actually really like to know.

 

Social Media: why it’s a PR medium not an advertising medium

These days, you can’t do an advertising pitch to a potential new client without including some soshul meeja, innit, content.

So the copywriters and art directors come up with all sorts of cool and groovy uses for Facebook, Twitter, Vine et al and, depressingly often, an App relating to the client’s product or brand (which, needless to say, never gets made).

The problem is, in the real world social media isn’t an advertising medium, it’s a PR medium. Companies that recognise this crucial distinction are able to use social media effectively and very cost-efficiently.

That’s because they realise that, exactly like ye olde media like newspapers, the most effective place for your sales message is in editorial.

Editorial is the stuff people WANT to read. The stuff that gives them useful information or entertains them with gossip. Ads are what people do their utmost to ignore.

So when you try and shoehorn your advertising campaign’s messages and tone of voice into social media it just screams I AM ADVERTISING PLEASE IGNORE ME.

Advertising people don’t understand PR. (And, to be fair, most PR people can’t do decent advertising, either.) Advertising people generally think PR is something that’s done by airhead toffs called Giles and Camilla. And that it’s easy. And somehow less important than advertising.

Wrong.

Get your new product into some editorial, because it’s relevant, interesting, entertaining, and you get a million times more bang for your buck. (Well, perhaps not a million, but a PR person will give you the actual data.)

Effective Twitter campaigns provide a constant stream of useful information. Be it recipes, links, tips and techniques. Nobody will re-tweet your, oh-so witty, ad campaign headline.

Ditto Facebook. Sure you can drag people to your Facebook page with an offer or promotion. But don’t be fooled into thinking bribing people to Like you has got anything to do with effective use of the medium.

Get some important journalists or opinion formers behind your brand, however, by using social media properly and you’re suddenly on a different planet results-wise.

Which is why clever clients, and clever ad people, know that it’s the PR agency who should be running their Facebook and Twitter activity. Not the ad agency.

 

 

The John Lewis Christmas telly ad. I thought it was just me…

Very pleased to read AA Gill in the Sunday Times writing about this Christmas’s TV offering. I thought I was alone in finding it cynical, sentimental and manipulative — the accidental, unforced charm of the original three years ago (the boy waiting for christmas so he could GIVE the presents) having been replaced by a big budget pre-hype campaign including selling cuddly toys of the animated characters in the ad…advertising advertising in other words? What?

Here’s what Gill had to say about the ad and, for good measure, about my noble, ahem, profession of copywriter:

“It left me Scroogeishly dry-eyed. It was a sickly, anthropomorphic cartoon about a hare getting a bear an alarm clock. The animation was tedious, the concept idiotic, the purpose cynically saccharine.”

He heaps similar scorn on the ads from M&S and Tesco: “Snot-ragged melodrama that reminds you of how good advertising used to be, how witty and skilful, and how comparatively sophisticated it assumed its audience to be. Ad men were once demi-celebrities: they were exciting, important enough to be sent up. Of all the media businesses that have been turned over by the new age, advertising has suffered the most. Now a copywriter is a clerk, a man who composes the annoying sidebars on websites…”

…and self-important blogs, of course.