Archive Monthly Archives: January 2005

You Got Questions… I Got Answers

Here are the answers to questions posted earlier:

1. When you’re deciding on the form your product takes, you’ve got to put Operation MoneySuck into action. The question asked was about whether to create a single book combining both “101 Ways To Prevent Carpal Tunnel”, and a remedy for the problem once you have it.

The answer lies within your market, and within the goals of your campaign. The actual question concerned the possibility of eroded credibility if the “prevention” side of the product didn’t work. Which, of course, would necessitate the need for the remedy.

In general, it’s tough to sell anything that has to do with prevention. The old adage is: People won’t spend a nickel to prevent something… but will give you everything they have to fix something important once it’s broken. It’s especially true in health matters.

So, applied to this specific question… you will have a hard time selling the prevention part of the book, alone, anyway. So, if you’re keeping the remedy as your backend, you may not have a very large list to sell it to.

In other words, it’s not Operation MoneySuck to even consider splitting this product up. An experienced marketer would know that the real salesworthy product was the remedy. The prevention stuff is actually more of a bonus.

And you should look for something else to use as a backend.

I realize there are tons of books out there selling prevention. I have books on stretching and yoga and resistance training, all because I used to have a bad back. But I bought them AFTER I had the bad back, not before. Though they present themselves as prevention, in reality they are part of my attempt to fix the problem. (By the way, I finally fixed my bad back with a regular exercise regimen — weights, cardio, the works. And lots of stomach work, which is the key to a strong back. Writers have chronic back pain, because we’re sitting all the time at the keyboard. We’re suckers for expensive chairs — I have an Aeron monster, with a dozen settings for lumbar and recline — and all sorts of things that attempt to get around the problem without resorting to exercise. None work. You gotta haul your ass to the gym.)

So, to sum up: You look at what your market will pay for. Then you create your product to appeal to that. Logic has no place here.

2. Does it matter if your sales letter is printed on both sides or not? I don’t know of any definitive tests on this. The reason so many long copy letters are printed on both sides, however, is cost. One extra page can put your package over the ounce limit for first class, and that instantly bumps your cost per piece.

That adds up when you’re mailing in the truck-loads.

The holy grail for many mailers is a lightweight paper stock that is still opaque enough so you can print on both sides and not affect readability. I remember writing a penny letter for a client that worked so well he began dropping hundreds of thousands of pieces a week. There was nothing they could do about the weight of the penny… so they found super-light paper. And they even tested the glue holding the coin. They were able to slap the cent on the 12-page letter, plus a reply envelope and order form (and one or two lift notes, as I recall)… and still get the whole mess under an ounce.

I was deeply impressed. The glue weight made the difference. (And no, I don’t know what they used.)

Side story: Another client had tremendous success with a dollar bill letter I wrote. But they resented mailing so many bucks… so they decided (without consulting me) to just print the image of a dollar bill on the first page.

Sales plummeted, but they never told me what they did. They just reported back that “yer letter ain’t workin’ no more.”

If postage is not a problem, I prefer to print on one side of each page. But it’s not a major consideration.

Test, and let me know what you find out.

John Carlton

Long Live Johnny

If you’re too young to have experienced the rich cultural connection that was Johnny Carson, make the effort to get ahold of a few Tonight Show episodes.

Heck, even if you watched him for years before hitting the sack, go back and check out his talent again.

The man was one of the best salesmen who ever lived. He sold his show, night after night after night. And he did it by bonding with his audience.

No one has even come close to doing it better. I suspect most hosts have egos too large for honest humility anymore. Ego can win over an audience for a short time… but (as Joan Rivers, Chevy Chase, the guy from Wheel of Fortune and about a thousand other wannabes discovered) it wears thin in a steady relationship.

Johnny had a love affair with average Americans. He honestly enjoyed himself on the show, was genuinely funny… and could take a joke well when it was on him. He “went down easy”, and that allowed him to be a constant in people’s lives.

You just felt you could trust the guy. That you could have a beer with him and he’d be a good friend and not a prima donna. And if he had some advice for you, you’d listen. You may not always take the advice, but you’d listen.

All marketers should aspire to Johnny’s ability to bond. He spoke plainly, with humor and intelligence and a little honest street-savvy. What he offered shouldn’t be all that rare, but it is. He’s the friend, the uncle, the partner we all wish we had.

Find some old episodes, and watch them critically. Study how he bonds with the audience, with the guests, with his cohorts. And know that what he does is NOT easy. There are tactics he’s using. Being self-deprecating is just the most obvious. There is much more going on… and it’s all worth learning.

I miss him, but he was never my favorite late-night host. I miss the old David Letterman show much more, the really late one. His newer, earlier show on CBS just leaves me cold. I like the edgy, cult stuff. (I first saw Ernie Kovacs shows as a kid, and they warped me forever. Steve Allen, when he wasn’t censoring himself, could also court the dark side. The guys on the Daily Show are following that path, as old as television itself, of never being afraid of going over the heads of their audience. Like Soupy Sales did with kids…)

But I respect Johnny Carson’s ability as a salesman more than anyone else’s. Among my close friends, edgy works. But with the broader markets of the American hinderland, you need to understand the magic and power of Johnny’s ability to bond.

Over the next week or so, there will be numerous eulogies on Johnny, and everyone will talk endlessly about how much the man was liked. But none of these obituaries will scratch the surface of uncovering the man’s tactics. These secrets were, for the most part, invisible.

But if you watch closely, you can see his genius at work. Learn, and prosper.

John Carlton

Burning and Embarrassing Questions

I’ve noticed there are three levels of questions I get hit with. The most common are from raw rookies, and they fall into a single category: How do I do the basic stuff of writing ads, creating products, and putting a marketing plan into action? It’s the big test of being a teacher — the day I get mad at someone for asking me the same damn question I’ve heard four thousand times before, is the day I need to get out of the business of teaching.

The second level is from people who’ve dabbled in the advertising arts, but fall apart at the slightest obstacle. These questions often center on procrastination, how to get started on new projects, writer’s block (it’s a myth, by the way), and the details of editing badly-written first drafts.

The last level is from active marketers. Oddly enough, many of their questions mirror the more basic ones asked by rookies. You can have a fabulous success with one project, and then hit a brick wall on the next, and not be able to figure out why. The smart thing to do is to go back to the basics, and see where you went wrong.

Now, here’s the issue: There is no such thing as a dumb question. There ARE such things as “bad” questions… because sometimes you know the answer, but you want a different one (even though you know it’s not gonna happen). And I often get people asking me “stall” questions — they feel they’re actively pursuing thier project by asking me stuff, when in reality they’re just putting off sitting down and getting busy.

Great ads don’t get written by magic. It’s discipline and detective work and putting in your time at the keyboard.

Still, I get the nagging sense that there are a lot of questions that people don’t ask me, because they feel they’re too… embarrassing. These are often the most important questions to ask… because they’re sticking points. You cannot go further without the answer.

I understand this problem personally. I am mostly a self-taught guitarist, for example… so I never learned how to read music, and I couldn’t define a Dorian scale if you tortured me. (Though, I probably play leads in such a scale — I just never learned the right name for it.)

I finally took a few lessons from a great axe-man in the beach town I lived in back when I first became a freelancer. Taking those lessons was my reward (my “Miller Time”) for finishing hard jobs and meeting deadlines. He was a schooled musician, technically adept, and also a street-savvy bluesman. And, often, I wouldn’t actually have a formal lesson with him… but, rather, would spend the hour asking “dumb” questions. It was great. I finally got to fill in the gaps that were sometimes embarrassing for me. I was already “good enough” to be the lead guitarist in a band… but those small knowledge gaps made me look like an idiot. “Fixing” them made me confident enough to forge ahead with my stage life.

Now, I get to return the favor, as a teacher. If you have a burning question you’ve been hesitant to ask, now’s your chance. No one will judge you, no one will call you stupid.

For this post, just leave a comment with your question. Don’t be shy.

And, I know that in earlier posts I said I wasn’t going to accept comments. I’ve changed my mind. People have been emailing me with their comments, and I now would like you to just post them here. It will probably be slow for a time — there are still just a handfull of folks who even know about this site yet. But, if I get off my ass and start spreading the word — and you do the same — we could develop a pretty dangerous little online community here.

So please — post a comment. I’ll address the questions in subsequent posts.

How To Become A Respectable Word Slut

If you’re gonna slam your copywriting chops into high gear, you have to allow yourself to fall in love with the language.
This concept makes many otherwise strong men and women quiver… and it’s because our lame-ass education system does its best to make people hate the language early on. This antagonism toward English — created by boring homework and pointless drills and dull reading — has saddled most rookie copywriters with a truly sad and shallow vocabulary (list of useable words). Not only are they clueless about what constitutes a “power word” (one filled with emotional tension, like “humiliate”), but the way they construct even a simple sentence will put you to sleep.
But that’s why I say “allow” instead of “force” yourself to fall in love. There’s a very easy and enjoyable way to do this that can fix the damage done by brain-dead teachers.
Here are two ways to begin right now:
1. The current edition of the online magazine “Slate” ( has a great story about Dave Barry. He’s just retired his column, after 22 years. If you’ve never read Dave Barry, you’re in for a treat. More important, you need to read him and pay close attention to how he uses simple, common words and phrases to bring his ideas alive.
The guy is a master Word Slut, clearly in love with language and the amazing power language has to rattle our cages. Read the article titled “Dave Barry — elegy for the humorist” by Bryan Curtis.
2. While researching linguistics (I have strange hobbies), I also came across one of the best sites on current slang I’ve ever found. Go to and just start clicking on the words listed there. Warning: You better allow an hour or so per visit, cuz this is good stuff.
My favorite “new terms” the site has defined (and given fascinating histories for) are rat spill, metric butt-load, eye-wreck, ghetto pass, duckshove, road diet, listicle and BlackBerry prayer.
If you can go to this site and NOT find a new word to use in your next ad, then you’re hopeless.
The best copywriters are all dedicated Word Sluts. We delight in finding and using fresh slang and old forgotten cliches — anything that works to increase the readability of our copy. But you must be careful — you cannot use words that aren’t clearly understood by most readers. This forces you to write at around a fifth grade level (which most newspapers aspire to). You start using too many fifty-cent words (big ones that most people aren’t familiar with) and you will lose large percentages of your audience. This, of course, will murder your response.
But that’s why reading guys like Dave Barry is so important. He never uses a word that isn’t instantly understood by anyone able to read a newspaper. And yet, by having a deep “bag” of words to choose from, he is not limited at all. Simple language, lovingly arranged in the right way, can still be amazingly powerful.

John Carlton

What kind of smell are you leaving behind?

There are three levels of interaction with a customer. If you are stictly a direct mail or online operation, you will never see most customers at all. As a freelancer, I have to “go deep” with a client, but it’s almost always on the phone — so, while I get to know my customer intimately through long, frequent chats, I wouldn’t recognize them on the street. Lastly, if you are, say, a doctor or a retailer, then you operate in the same space as your customer, face to face. You can see, hear, touch and smell them.
Now, the biggest blunder most businesses make is to ignore the lifetime value of a customer. These “future blind” businesses operate as if the current transaction is the only one that matters. So they get short-sighted about the long-term effects of customer satisfaction.
It’s human nature. Most direct response joints will lavishly woo a prospect until he actually orders… and then consider him a nuisance that, oh well, must be sent the product. I can tell you from experience that most clients (in all industries) suck — they will come to a freelancer or vendor desperate and begging for help, promising the moon… and, once the crisis has been handled, will get nit-picky over paying the rest of the fee. In retail, once you buy something, you’re just taking up space in the store.
Businesses treat customers the way a cad treats a date — intense attention and interest, until they get what they want. Then, hell, you can walk home.
Smart businesses never operate this way. They understand that a happy customer will buy again, and again, and again. The lifetime value of a happy customer is a multiple of his first purchase. Often, the first purchase is a “test” buy… and, if he’s satisfied, the next one will be huge.
So it’s important what kind of smell you leave behind, after your prospect becomes a customer. In direct response, even if you never meet your customer, you can still bond with him through your emails, letters, and occasional phone calls. (This is one reason I insist that my clients have long, outrageously generous guarantees on all offers — it forces them to continue “wooing” the customer after he buys.) If you deal more intimately with people, you have even better opportunities to re-establish that critical human connection.
I’m thinking of this as I stew over my second attempt to reach a human being at the “customer service” phone center for Best Buy. I dropped over a grand at the joint, and there seemed to be some suspicious activity on my credit card connected with their online operation. It would be a simple matter to solve, on the phone, with another human being. But no — they’ve installed a robotic system that has NO OPTION in the menu to talk with a live person. Their site chirps about being able to handle all matters on this line… but if what you need is outside the narrow confines of the menu, you’re out of luck, dude. They don’t spell it out, either. You have to figure it out, after putting in your time: You ain’t never gonna speak to a real person.
I like Best Buy, I really do. It’s a cornucopia of electronic gear, with at least moderately helpful staff, non-gougy prices, and — important for me — lots of stuff in inventory. And, if it’s not in the store, you can just pop online and order.
But you cannot reach a human being after the sale. I suppose I could haul myself down to the store, find the right line to stand in, and eventually get some sort of answer. But that leaves a bad “smell”, and it ain’t good customer service. That smell is even worse because of the forty minutes of frustration on the phone trying in vain to find a way around the robot. (Come to think of it, I’ll bet the store won’t handle something done online. I may just be paranoid, but I can clearly envision the conversation: “Sorry, we can’t help you if you ordered through our Web site. But we do have a great customer service phone number…”)
I’m just venting here. I discuss it further in the latest issue of the Rant, because it’s important. We shouldn’t have to be reminded that every customer still has us on “probation” after each sale… but it’s in our nature to want to take the money and run. And that’s wrong, both on a karmic level and a pure Operation MoneySuck level. It’s a lesson that needs to be learned the hard way.
Sure, I’ll bet the geniuses at Best Buy did the numbers, and decided that not having live operators saved a bundle. But I just started exploring new places to buy computers and other massive mounds of electronic gear, after being left at the altar one too many times by my former “go to” place. Best Buy seemed like a relationship that could have gone on happily for a while… until they made me walk home after the first date. (Okay, I’m through with the romance metaphors.)
Show me the place that will sell me what I want, and be there afterward when I need to cuddle (sorry, couldn’t resist), and that’s where I’ll be spending my money.
I’ve got a lot to spend, and I’ve got many more years left to be wanting new electronic gear. They had their shot, and they blew it. Does anyone know of a place that understands the need for some hand-holding after an electronics sale?

John Carlton