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.

 

 

The copy’s too long

No it isn’t. Yes it is. No it isn’t.

Have you ever had a conversation like this?

It doesn’t really matter if you’re on the Yes It Is side or on the No It Isn’t side.The fact is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule about the length of copy on an ad, an email, a dm letter.

The length of the copy in any particular execution should be, simply, as long as it needs to be.

It all comes down to three simple things:

* What you want the reader to do once they’ve seen the advertising

* What you’re selling

* How much it costs

Need someone to change their bank account to your bank, need someone to give money to a charity they’ve never heard of, need someone to phone for a car insurance quote, need someone to buy your tasty sausages, need someone to buy your hair dye, need someone to take out a monthly subscription to your cable TV and broadband service…

They’re all different objectives, and the length of copy should be markedly different as a result.

Wildly simplified, the more difficult the decision that you’re asking the reader to make, the more reasons you need to convince her to make it.

Asking someone to try your scrumptious sausages next time they’re in Tesco? Awareness is enough, and perhaps a bit of discount. No copy, really.

Ask someone to give money to a charity, however, and you’re going to have to convince them it’s the right thing to do. Not only are they parting with their cash, they’re not getting anything in return other than a sense of Doing The RIght Thing. (Not to be sniffed at, as a motivation, mind you.)

This is why TV direct response charity ads tend to be a minute or more (the successful ones, anyway).

Ask someone to pay £30 every month for Virgin TV, cable, broadband etc and you’re going to have to really spell out the reasons to do it if you want your response to be anything other than pitiful. Sadly, most of the marketeers running these kinds of business don’t get it. So the responses tend to be pitiful. And the mailpacks tend to be much more expensive than they need to be, too.

And the more expensive the product or service, the longer the copy needs to be generally (if you want them to sign up there and then or make the call).

But nobody reads the body copy!

If I had a fiver for every time I’ve heard this, I would have retired to the Bahamas aged 30.

It simply isn’t true.

What IS true is this: MOST people don’t read the body copy.

Actually, most people don’t even read the bloody headline.

But those people who DO read the body copy are the people you need. They’ve read the headline and decided, hmmm, I might want this. So they read on.

They’re a tiny proportion of the people who saw the ad or letter initially. But remember, you can never sell anything to someone who’s not in the market for it.

But if they are, for goodness’ sake give them enough information for them to be able to make a really informed yes or no decision. Reel them in, persuasive fact by persuasive fact to keep them hooked til the end.

And generally, crushingly sad as art directors and designers find this fact, the longer the copy, the more stuff you sell.

So if the copy needs to be four pages long to get in all the great reasons to buy or act, then four pages long is precisely the length it should be.

 

 

 

 

Is this the most dangerous ad ever written?

It’s very rare that a piece of advertising or marketing is genuinely a matter of life and death. Which is why I was so incensed to see a tube card the other day that was bordering on the evil.

Tube cards are the little posters above the windows in tube carriages. They’re interesting because unlike most ‘outdoor’ advertising spaces, you can write some long copy as you’ve got a fairly captive audience. Ditto their cross-track cousins at stations.

Which is another reason why this particular aberration was so startlingly misjudged.

The headlline said You Do Know the FIve Signs of Breast Cancer, don’t you? 

Good headline, got my attention, got my interest.

But did it then tell me what these signs are so I could check? No it didn’t. It asked me to send a text (yes, send a text, not even visit a website) whereafter I would be sent these potentially life-saving nuggets of information.

Not so much as a hint about what these signs or symptoms could be.

I’m sure you’re ahead of me, here, but the question is, of course: Why on earth, if the campaign is all about helping people detect cancer early, would you not give the answers there and then? On the poster. Where people could read it. And think about it.

What possible benefit is there in teasing the reader with such a powerful headline and then not telling him (or more likely her) how to spot the signs?

But I guarantee I know how it happened.

Someone — perhaps the dimwitted client, perhaps the moron planner, perhaps the junior creative team with a single GCSE in art and drama between them — decided this campaign was about Social Medial.

“Yeah, soshul meeeeeja..that’s where it’s at. SMS’s, Facebook. Let’s get them to text and it’ll be really cool, yeah, woooooh.”

(I’ve been in meetings like this, I’m not exagerating one jot.)

Nobody around the table had the common sense to pause for even a nanosecond to put their teeny brains into gear and think.

To think something like, “Er, but if our job is to stop people dying of breast cancer un-necessarily, surely we should get this vital information to them as fast and simply as possible? You know, actually writing it in the ad and stuff? We can always give them a website or a text number to find out more if there’s not enough room.”

Instead, people might actually die because these total fuckwits didn’t think about the message, only about the medium. And that is a total bloody disgrace.

The best copy in the world can’t sell something nobody wants

In Saffron Walden, where I’m lucky enough to live, shops open and then close down again in the blink of an eye. They’re always shops that sell stuff that their owners are clearly passionate about — Pin Cushions R-Us! or Dog Trousers Unlimited or Tripe-2-Go.

The problem is, their passion isn’t shared by the community at large. They simply don’t have a market. Hardly anybody wants the things they’re selling. So they fail. And quickly.

And exactly the same thing happens in the broader marketing community, too. People launch products or services without bothering to find out whether there’s a viable market for it.

They’re excited about it so they assume the world at large will be. And they’re very often wrong.

It’s easy to launch your business online, of course. Build a WordPress website, get some basic SEO, send out some emails with MailChimp and bingo, you’re a business.

It’s a sort-of puppyish “If you build it they will come!” mentality.

Except they don’t come. Unless you’ve researched your market properly, and identified a large number of punters who need what you’re flogging, they’ll stay away in droves.

And it doesn’t matter how good the promotion is ie how persuasive the copy is, how cool the corporate ID is, how witty the advertising. If nobody wants it, it won’t sell.

(And you can take solace from the fact that big multinationals get it wrong sometimes too. Because they didn’t do the right market research. Or they didn’t do any at all.)

But if you’ve got something the world is actually waiting for — the fabled ‘Better Mousetrap’ — then good advertising and marketing will help you find more customers and sell more mousetraps. Think of Dyson. Genius idea, superbly effective advertising and marketing…sensational customer service…funky design…and…and…and…

So how do you know if there’s a market out there? The easiest way is to look for someone already selling what you’re proposing to sell. Are there a few people out there making an honest crust doing something similar to your idea, at a similar price?

Yes? Then a market probably exists and your idea may have legs. Hooray! Next step, ask yourself whether you can do it better, cheaper, faster.

On the other hand, if you can’t find anyone selling what you’re proposing to sell, there are two reasons why this might be.

1: Your idea is so amazingly innovative and different that nobody else has thought of it yet. But it will still answer a need of some sort. Think Dyson: the Better Hoover without a Bag. Think of a tasty new food product. People need to eat. Think of a way to carry all your music in a tiny little hard-drive.

2: There simply isn’t a market for it.

 

 

 

 

Borrowed Interest: why it’s the lazy person’s alternative to an idea

Borrowed interest. This is where you import an idea, a headline, a visual treatment or something else irrelevant to the product or service you’re selling from somewhere else.

It used to be something that only your local builder, minicab or beauty parlour did. Because they didn’t know any better and it, sort of, looked like the advertising they saw from the big boys.

They’d nick the campaign line from famous brands, so you’d get Betty’s Hair Art Refreshes the Styles that Other Salons Cannot Reach. Sid’s Plumbers. No Other Plumbers Look like us, or Plumbs Like Us. And so on. You get the idea.

Or they’d nick a line from a famous song. Or use a naff library shot image to create a lame visual pun. Much easier than understanding what your customer needed and presenting a compelling reason why they should buy from you rather than somebody else.

Nowadays, because of the democratising of the ad industry, where sales promotion folk do ads, where ad folk do dm, where dm folk do PR, we’re starting to lose our craft skills. On the agency side and on the client side.

And this has resulted in Borrowed Interest creeping into the work of agencies (and brands) that seriously ought to know better.

So what’s wrong with it?

The problem is, it’s usually done because the client/planner/suit/copywriter/art director can’t be bothered to delve deeply enough into the product or service they’re selling. It’s hard work to get inside the head of your target audience and understand their specific motivations, needs and desires.

(Another reason why so much work these days looks like it’s aimed at 19 year olds, even if it’s clearly a product for 50 year olds.)

So instead of isolating a really interesting and compelling idea that’s firmly rooted in a consumer benefit, you get an idea that is simply bolted on to the product. The dimmer suits and clients go “Oo, that’s clever!”  because you’ve turned the title of a film or song into a headline for weedkiller.

This means that you lose the opportunity to say something really distinct and ‘ownable’ about the thing you’re supposed to be selling.

Instead of crafting a bespoke advertising solution (much as I hate that word, it’s appropriate here) you’re simply taking an off the peg idea and sellotaping it to something far more interesting.

It’s lazy and it’s ineffective. And it’s everywhere.

It’s really no different from your local car repair shop’s calendar with naked women all over it. In fact, it’s arguably worse than that. Here’s why…

But what about celebrities, aren’t they borrowed interest too?

Social psychologists have studied this phenomenon. And it’s crystal clear that using celebrities harnesses the power of what these boffins call ‘association’. So if you associate your product with a celebrity (or a sexy naked woman) it will share the goodwill that the celebrity engenders in the audience already.

If you’re selling a service where you’ve got nothing physical to show, like a bank, it’s often an interesting solution to create an ownable character (think of the LLoyds TSB people, for example, now dumped. DOH!) or import a celeb as the face of your faceless brand. Santander have got Jessica Ennis and Jenson Button all over their stuff at the mo. This probably does good things for the brand, especially when banks and bankers are so unpopular, as they are currently.

But a problem arises when you don’t buy out the celeb concerned. I was convinced I was looking at a Santander ad the other day, but it was Jessica wearing her Prudential hat. Big mistake, allowing your brand’s pet celeb to work for a direct competitor. DOH, DOH, DOH!

But as long as your celeb is saying something relevant about your product and ‘fits’ with your brand values then it’s often a good way to bring your brand to life.

And we all like a bit of domination

Cleverer brands often use another psychological technique called Authority. Endless experiments have shown that we defer to authority figures. Doctors, headmasters, tall people (really), generals, royalty…

So if you’re selling toothpaste, get a dentist to talk about its benefits. Even better, get a celebrity dentist.

Selling makeup, get a Hollywood makeup artist (or film star) to talk about its benefits. Selling insurance for old people, get a famous old person to endorse it.

I won’t insult your intelligence by listing the big brands that do this all the time. Just turn on the telly.

Of course, you have to choose the right person. Pick someone who’s completely irrelevant to your product or service and, although, you may get a little bit of traction through the association principle, you’re basically slap bang into good old-fashioned borrowed interest territory.

 

 

How long should a headline be?

If there are two feedback comments that are guaranteed to get a direct response copywriter’s hackles up, his teeth clenched and his knuckles gripping the table edge whitely, it’s these two. (In fact, if you know a copywriter who doesn’t get intensely annoyed when he hears them, he or she is clearly not a direct response writer.)

1 The headline’s too long

2 The copy’s too long

Just typing these makes my heart beat a little faster, a small bead of sweat pop onto my brow. My fight or flight instincts immediately switch to red alert. Or at least orange. I’ll save red for when I have to deal with these ludicrous assertions face to face. In fact, to save my anger boiling over right now I’ll just deal with the first one in this post, lest I resort to unwarranted profanities and turn the keyboard blue.

So, here we go, deep breath.

What does The headline’s too long actually mean? Is there some intergalactic law of science discovered by Newton or Hawking that dictates how many words one may use in a specific context? You know, an immutable law like “nothing can travel faster than light” or “if you’re in a wheelchair and speak with a synthesised robotic voice people will think you’re as clever as Einstein”.

Naturally if there’s a physical restriction on the space you’ve got to print your headline, like the character restrictions in an email subject line or an SMS message, then of course, your headline can indeed be too long. Because it won’t fit.

Other than that, I can’t think of any sensible criteria for making such a judgement.

Clearly a headline that’s 100 words long might be hard to read or follow. But, having said that, there are endless examples of hugely successful multi-layer headlines which are simply split into overlines and underlines. I’ve written a good few in my time for proper DM clients who understand the real rule about headline length, which is this:

A headline should be as long as it needs to be

I appreciate this is a bit glib and prompts as many questions as it answers. But it’s true, too.

So, Simon, how do you know how long it needs to be? Well, in a direct response environment you can test alternatives and see which generates the most response: DM, EDM, Google Ads, Banners, DR press ads and inserts, for example. Easy.

And of course, if you’ve got someone like me writing this stuff for you, you’ve got a vast amount of experience to draw on to get you off on the right foot.

Your headline says whatever needs to be said to a) catch the reader’s attention and b) interest him enough to carry on reading. Your beautifully crafted body copy and subheads then takes over and whisks him forward on a magic carpet ride of persuasive magnificence until he (or she) is practically begging you to sell them the doodah you’re waxing lyrical about. Hopefully.

So if your offer is a bit complicated, then your headline might need to be a bit longer. If it’s a simple sell, your headline can be shorter.

In an awareness environment your headline might serve a slightly different function. Often it’s simply about impact and memorability. Direct response is about making the sale, awareness ads are simply about getting your name lodged in the potential buyer’s brain.

Here are a couple of interesting examples of awareness type headlines.

One of the most famous headlines ever (why???) was in a press ad for Rolls Royce by big Mad Men style agency Ogilvy & Mather. I’ve written about this in a previous blog. The headline (which was actually “borrowed” from a similar ad by Peugeot) was:  ”At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls Royce comes from the electric clock.”

This headline is 18 words. And there’s a secondary headline directly underneath it, adding another 29 words. That’s near enough fifty words. Is this too long? If you think so, tell me why. I’d love to know.

I suspect that the people who say the headline’s too long these days are looking at the piece as a work of art, not a piece of sales material.  Or more likely it’s simply one of those silly, handed-down-from-generation-to generation ‘rules’ that nobody stops to question. (Like Nobody Scrolls.)

Which brings me to the second example for your perusal. The VW press ad headlined:

Lemon

Is this too short? Probably not. Firstly, because it didn’t exist by itself. Unlike the Rolls Royce headline, Lemon works totally in conjunction with the picture. Of a cute ickle Beetle.

Lemon, means a bit of a failure, a bit of a klutz.  So you see the car, you see the headline. You ask yourself “why are they slagging off their own car?” And so you read the ad. Job done. The body copy rewards your interest by telling you that it’s a lemon because VW do loads of quality checks and this one didn’t pass.

So if your picture and headline are working together they can share the burden of the communication. Arguably, the Rolls Royce line doesn’t need to say “In this new Rolls Royce…” but who am I to criticise The Greatest Headline Ever Made (again)?

But the conclusion we draw from these two examples is a simple one. The headline needs to be as long as it needs to be.

In short, there are only two sorts of headlines. Ones that work and ones that don’t.

 

Catalogues aren’t ads

More and more often, I see catalogue copy written as if it were in a press ad. (And get asked to write it like that, too).

This is very wrong.

If you’ve got as far as looking in a catalogue for a certain product, you’re already a good way along the path to forking out for it. What you’re looking for is information about the product or service that will convince you that you’ve come to the right place, and to reassure you that the product you’ve found meets your needs — whether it’s a table, a skirt, a case of wine or a Lego set.

So when you’re met with some glib, lame copy that the writer obviously thought was ‘creative’ or ‘clever’, instead of easy-to-assimilate facts about the product, it’s just intensely annoying. And it actually gets in the way of the sale.

Imagine if you’re looking for a new coat on the High Street. You’ve decided that, oh I don’t know, Next is the place you feel might have the very one you’re seeking. You go into the shop. You find a sales person.

You ask him to show you where the raincoats are. He tells you a joke before you’ve finished speaking. And laughs at his own brilliance.

You ask him whether they’ve got it in a large. He tells you another joke. Equally as unfunny and irrelevant as the first one. You realise the conversation is all about him showing off. Not about you proceeding to the till, a happy customer.

You ask him how much it is. He responds by quoting the company’s new TV ad, word for word. You  kill him with a swift chop to the jugular.

See what I’m saying?

I suspect this new trend for writing catalogue like this might be a horribly inevitable spinoff from the obsession with Tone of Voice as discussed in my previous blog. Dimwitted marketing folk think that all their communications must speak to you as if you were a fifteen year old LA punk, so that their brand is cool and edgy and all the other yawn-worthy adjectives that they hurl about.

Clarity is lost in a fog of bogus TOV-driven ‘creativity’. (As my friend and fellow practitioner Bill Fryer says, if it doesn’t sell it isn’t creative.)

Again, it’s all part of their fundamental misunderstanding about what a brand is. Let me repeat. A brand is something that is created in the minds of customers who have experienced your product and formed an opinion about it. It is NOT something that you create through copy, design, advertising and all the other communications tools at your disposal. These things create an initial demand. But they don’t create a brand.

The same malaise is creeping into direct response advertising, too. A lot of this is to do with the gradual erosion of the distinction between what is ‘above the line’ (traditional media-based advertising) and what is ‘below the line’ — sales promotion, direct marketing, in-store and so on.

Most agencies now declare themselves to be ‘integrated’ and offer the whole lot in one lovely expensive package. (WIth a silly Brand TOV document thrown in for free, naturally.) Unfortunately this means that we’re losing the craft specialists.

So advertising people think they know all about direct marketing, and create and write it as if it were the same thing. So it’s usually very bad direct marketing.

And below the line people think they can do advertising. And it’s usually very bad advertising.

And, of course, the poor client who traditionally could quite rightly assume the specialist agency knew what it was doing, is left to make a judgment that he is possibly unqualified to make.

 

 

 

 

 

The clowns have taken over

In the crazy, mixed-up, back-to-front and upside-down world that is advertising at the moment, creative directors will often comment on copy that’s been written for them by saying “Hey, fantastic tone, brilliant!”

This is meant to be a compliment. It means you’ve managed to write very accurately in the house style of the particular brand you’re working on.

Each big brand has its own Tone of Voice book, that tells you how to talk in its own unique language so the brand stands out. But, hilariously, mostly these TOV guides all say exactly the same thing: warm, quirky, human, not jargon. Short sentences. No exclamation marks. And so on.

So by trying to stand out they end up sounding like all the rest. So they’re not unique at all.

Some are sillier than others. Virgin Holidays is probably the most extreme I’ve personally come across. You have to write as if the customer is a rock star and continuously praise and flatter him. I suppose it’s meant to be ironic. It’s actually just really, really annoying to read.

More importantly, a lot of the time this fixation on Tone gets in the way of the communication.

Often the agency and client are so obsessed with getting their TOV jokes and stylings in, the offer/message of the advertising is completely obscured. Virgin Holidays are an excellent example of this madness.

The copy will start with some vacuous nonsense about how ‘The waves on the beach will rush out to greet you. You look fantastic in swimwear’ and so on. And you don’t get to the point of the ad, some discounted package holidays, until three or four paragraphs later.

As if the reader cared about any of this guff. She’s looking for a deal. Companies like Virgin are doing their utmost to make sure she can’t find it.

David Ogilvy once said something like ‘people don’t buy from clowns’. And I’m starting to think he had a point.

Sometimes it’s clever not to be clever

I love the John Lewis press ads. They’re a perfect demonstration of my mantra that ‘what you say is always more important than how you say it’.

They simply state the offer, in ordinary, everyday words. They show a beautiful photo of the product concerned and rely on elegant typography and a standard layout format to carry the John Lewis brand message.

They don’t try and do a clever headline to impress their mates or try and win awards. If the proposition is ‘Get three years’ free guarantee on all Apple Macs if you buy before June 31′, that’s what the headline says.

I’m sure many advertising creatives would consider these ads ‘uncreative’ for being so straight forward. And many clients think that they’re not getting their money’s worth from their agency unless each ad has a pun and ‘an idea’.

They’re both wrong.

The creators (and brave client) responsible for these ads know that, as with editorial, it’s the content of your message that counts, not the typeface it’s written in. And that’s what makes these ads miles cleverer than the rest of the dross that passes for advertising these days.