The Continuing Saga of the Sales-Challenged Geek

So it’s a gorgeous day, I’ve snuck out of the office on reasonable pretense, and I’m cruising down South Virginia Street with the top down and “Kid” by the Pretenders laying waste to my eardrums.

And I’m thinking to myself: Why don’t I get outa the office more often during the day, and drive around aimlessly like this?

South Virginia is a busy main drag, but traffic is moving fast, like feed through a goose.

I’m blissed out.

Suddenly, every lane north and south comes to a screeching halt, the cars hitting the brakes so abruptly that their rear ends bounce up like cockroaches running into a wall. I fishtail, and somehow everyone avoids a pile-up.

The problem? Some dude in a thrashed Riviera blowing across four lanes of heavy traffic from a cross-street with no light… and getting a good look at him, I start laughing my ass off.

He’s staring straight ahead as he barrels through, his left hand held aloft, giving a defiant middle finger to everyone he’s just given an adrenalin dump to.

Hey, you gotta get across a busy street, you gotta get across the busy street.

Hit the gas, and damn the torpedos.


Two thoughts pass through my mind as traffic starts moving again.

First thought: This is why I don’t get out more often. People go all whack under the summer sun.

And my second thought: Hey, I know that guy.

Okay, I don’t actually “know” him. Never seen that warped Buick with the peeling Landau roof before in my life, or the “proud to give the world the bird” driver.

But I know his type. All my life, I’ve gone out of my way to hang out with different kinds of people. I’m not sure why I’ve done that — probably some vague sense of wanting to sample everything out there — but it’s sure helped me as a marketer.

And I’ll tell you why it helps in a minute.

First, I gotta tell you who that guy reminded me of.

Back in my first year out of high school, I had worked my way into some pretty tough crowds. My long hair and minor skill with a guitar was my back-stage pass to Hoodlum City, and I was eager to experience life outside the mostly-safe, “Leave It To Beaver” lifestyle I’d been raised in.

In fact, I spent close to a year hanging out with bikers and ex-cons and other riff-raff. The dregs of society.

I loved it. These guys had a total “up yours” attitude to mainstream America, and purposely violated every rule and social more they could find. Looking back, it was like playing in a lion’s den… but at the time, I felt dangerous and “real”.

And because I was so skinny and naive and young, I enjoyed the privilege of being considered something like the kid brother some of those monsters never had. So I somehow never got my skull bashed in.

Okay, I’ll leave the stories of debauchery and gettin’ chased by cops for another time.

The reason I bring those guys up now is their peculiar world view. I got to know it well, and watching that maroon in the Riviera nearly cause a twelve-car collision today — while flipping off the strangers he’d nearly killed, just to make his point of “don’t give a shit” as poignant as possible — clarified a whole other issue for me.

Here’s that other issue: Last month, my ears started itching. It was because a heated discussion about me was reaching fever pitch online — and I just hadn’t caught wind of it yet.

But my partner Stan noticed a serious spike in views to my main page,… and tracked them to a blog that had started a thread about “long copy Web sites”, with my site as the primary suspect hoisted up for inspection.

No harm there. In fact, I’m flattered. The blog in question is actually more than “just” a blog — it’s been called the top hit-getting Q&A site on the Internet (after Yahoo Answers and MicroSoft QnA).

Perhaps you’ve heard of it — MeFi, as it’s affectionately known by insiders. Or Metafilter, the real name.

It’s truly an amazing site, started back in 1999 by a 35-year-old programmer who wanted to have the best blog in the universe. You’d be hard-pressed to find a subject that doesn’t get covered within any 3-day period on MeFi… from technology, shopping and health to law, fashion and religion.

Oh, and advertising.

It’s as close to truly broad-based community as I’ve ever found online. A cacophony of voices, ideas, opinions, and — primarily — getting questions answered.

Anyway… the founder floated a rather innocuous question last month… wondering if anyone knew if “long copy” Web sites were efficient or not in getting desired results.

And he offered up three samples. Mine was first.

Oh, my goodness, but the stoning began immediately, and went deep.

Let me tell you something: The dust-up over the “Web 2.0” bullshit is pretty much over in the active online direct marketing community. The top marketers may toy with fancier stuff here and there… but they still rely on long-copy sales pitches when it’s crunch time.

However… outside the tidy niche of entrepreneurs and small biz who track results… there’s a raging debate still going on about “nice looking”, high tech sites… versus the “scammy-looking” efforts of the marketers who dare to post copy that… well… looks like mine.

The horror!

I’ll give you the link in a moment, and you can go see how vicious the comments got. (I can recommend Metafilter, regardless, as a resource site. I’ve spent some time surfing it, and I like it mucho.) (Even though they used me as an ideological punching bag.)

The comments were brutal and cocksure. I could tell most of the writers were competent geeks, too, from the way they brandished high-tech language.

In thier view, long-copy sites were ugly blots on the virtual landscape, definitely scams, and obviously maintained by brain-addled low-lifes who were clueless about how to sell anything online.

Reading through the comments, I’m in tears… from laughing so hard.

I mean, I’ll cop to being brain-addled.

But clueless about selling online?

No way, dude.

And today — watching the Bird Man flaunt common sense (and safety) in a way that reminded me instantly of the biker drop-outs from my youth — the lesson here just coalesced in my mind.

It’s all connected.

And it’s about belief systems… and how they will screw your life up.

Harken: All humans are a perverse lot when it comes to logic.

There isn’t, and never has been, any kind of real “common sense” to be found throughout history. We like to believe we possess common sense, and also a clear-eyed view of the “truth”.

But the key word there is “believe”.

For most folks, common sense and truth are as real as the tooth fairy.

Those bikers had a very romantic mythology built up around themselves. They were outlaws, just a band of brothers unfairly hounded by The Man and hamstrung by a society intent on crushing their spirit.

And, to be fair, most of them had huge hearts and an admirable sense of loyalty and honor. I liked most of them immensely.

But their outlaw status was primarily the result of bone-headed, irresponsible behavior. They didn’t have rap sheets from robbing the rich to give to the poor. Often, they did time because they got high, lost control of their bike, and took out a lamp post.

Or forgot they were “carrying” when they flipped off the wrong cop, showing off to friends.

Nevertheless, to them it was a vast conspiracy by society to harsh their mellow.

The Bird Man in the beat-up Riviera?

Same thing. I’m sure of it, just from the glimpse I got of his defiant smirk.

In his world-view, rules and courtesy and order are for suckers.

Of course, Dr. Phil might ask him: “And how’s that working out for you?”

If you’ve got anything going for you at all — any measurable success in life — it’s probably easy for you to see the wrong-headedness of would-be outlaws and wannabe sociopaths. It’s one thing to be a non-conformist, right? And quite another thing to just ask for it by taunting the laws of man and physics.

Ah, but here’s the lesson for marketers: That same trap awaits you, every day.

It’s the trap of drinking your own Kool-Aid… and not having anyone call you on it.

The geeks trashing my long-copy site are a perfect example.

I’m sure they’re good people, and honestly believe what comes out of their mouths.

But that’s the problem. When you believe you know a certain truth… and no one around you refutes that belief, or challenges you on it… then you start to confuse belief with reality.

And whether your belief is “I’m a bad ass outlaw”… or “I understand advertising”… or even “no one reads long copy”… then that belief can become cemented into your head as truth.

Even though it’s bullshit.

Sometimes, you’re not an outlaw… you’re just a dick.

And sometimes, your ideas on what “works” in advertising is so wrong, it’s laughable.

Hey — we all suffer from the effects of an “echo chamber” at certain times in our lives. It just happens — we surround ourselves with people who think like us, we stop getting alternative input, and soon we start regarding everyone who doesn’t think like us as the “Other”.

So everyone with a toehold in the power structure is out to get you.

And everyone aggressively trying to sell are scamsters.

That’s just the way it is. That’s what you believe. And what you believe must be true, because you believe it so deeply, and never question it.

Like I said… we all fall victim to belief systems. We all have a love/hate relationship with reality.

In the case of the geeks, however, it’s just silly.

If you read the posts in the thread about long copy on Metafilter, you’ll see certain phrases pop up like weeds: “I don’t like it…” “I think it’s…” “This is obviously…”

And it’s all belief. No actual facts, or reality behind any of it.

Like I said — in the community of successful direct marketers, the question of long-copy versus graphics-heavy short-copy isn’t even on the table anymore. It was settled long ago by guys who test, and pay attention to what works.

And here’s the way it works: If you’re selling something, you start at the beginning of your pitch, move through all the things you need to say to establish credibility, incite desire, hold attention, counter objections… and move your prospect through every other stage he needs to go through to get tweaked enough over your offer to pull out his wallet.

If you can accomplish that with a few clever bon mots and a nice table of ironic animation, go for it.

However, if you haven’t tested anything… and you simply believe you “understand” what goes into good salesmanship because you’ve seen so many ads in your life that you MUST be an expert already… then please take a time out.

You need a reality check, dude.

Entrepreneurs who model their selling tactics on what Madison Avenue does with Coke and Toyota do not remain entrepreneurs very long. They quickly become ex-entrepreneurs, and are soon forced to get a nice, safe day job to pay their bills.

Business owners who have something to sell… and want to sell it… had better pay attention to the successful marketers who actually understand and employ real salesmanship.

It’s not entertaining… it’s not often pretty… and it’s not about “branding” or creating cool art.

Or even being “liked”. God knows those of us who champion long copy and aggressive sales tactics have suffered our share of slings and arrows.

Like I’ve always said: If I wake up tomorrow, and the laws of the universe have changed… so that pretty, clever, soft-sell ads suddenly sell product like hotcakes… then I will be the first veteran to start creating pretty, clever ads full of graphics and minus hard-core salesmanship.

I don’t write long copy ads because I enjoy sweating out vast sales pitches.

Nah. I’m too lazy for that.

I write long copy ads because that’s what works.

What you “think” about these ads is irrelevant.

That you don’t “like” them is beside the point.

When your belief system butts up against reality, reality wins every single time… at least when money’s on the line.

You can believe that three-of-a-kind beats a flush with all your heart… but you still won’t take home the pot.

The first time I voted for president, I was positive my boy would win in a landslide… because all my friends thought exactly as I did. The other guy running was a putz, no one with any brains would ever vote for him, and our platform was so reasonable and fair, we were a shoo-in.

That was 1972. I voted for McGovern, who got pounded by Nixon in the biggest electoral slaughter in US history. McGovern carried his home state, and nothing else.

I was in shock for a month, my youthful (and very naive) idealism shaken to its core.

But I’m glad I got that kind of vicious reality check so young. It healed fast, and forever after, I was suspicious of people with loud opinions that weren’t backed by practical experience.

There are, essentially, two groups of people in the world of small biz owners and entrepreneurs: Those who believe they know what should work in advertising… and the rich guys who KNOW what works.

Hey… I’m kinda fired up about this, aren’t I.

Just be clear: I’m not trying to embarrass anyone here.

I’m just taking my job as teacher seriously.

And I say this because I know — from personal experience — that getting slapped by reality can jar your entire world view.

It’s very much like getting busted by The Man… unfairly, rudely and wrongly.

How dare reality be so ugly and against my grain?

Ah, heck. Maybe I’ll get into this more later…

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

P.S. Check out that site — — when you get a moment. My partner Stan and I have crammed the available mentoring opportunties there with free goodies that should get your greed gland quivering.

That is… check it out if you’re not scared of a little long copy.

P.P.S. Lastly… any rumors of me giving another “copywriting sweatshop” seminar, where I personally rip into your efforts at writing a good pitch, are just that: rumors.

I do have a small, intimate event coming up… but you can’t get into it unless you’re on my “private invite” list. Sorry.

P.P.P.S. Oops, almost forgot. Here’s the link to the Metafilter thread:

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"11 Really Stupid Blunders You're Making With Your Biz & Career Right Now."

  • Spence says:

    Excellent thoughts as usual though I was a bit surprised by your stance…I mean, really John, long-copy? That’s sooooooo Web 1.0.

    I giggle every time I see this argument come up in discussion groups and forums. Just finished bashing my head against that particular wall over at the Warrior forum.

    It’s not the QUESTION that bothers me so damn much: if a new copywriter/marketer asks if “long copy still works” with an honest desire to find out the answer then I welcome the opportunity to help them out…but more often…

    You hit it on the head: they’re cocksure and brutally opinionated. This most recent discussion was backed up by the original poster because he drafted up a short-copy page for his product and asked his friends and family if they’d rather buy from HIS page or from a page he found on Clickbank with long copy.

    How did Clayton put it…”Focus groups can be weapons of mass destruction.”

    Opinions are opinions I suppose and every marketer who insists on not blighting the landscape with an “ugly and outdated” page full of long copy simply leaves more money on the table for us and our clients.


    P.S. “Sometimes, you’re not an outlaw… you’re just a dick.” Excellent line…I have a feeling that’s going to be popping up in my conversations for awhile. 😉

  • Yoav says:

    I’ll add some hard data to the discussion:

    Our website home page:

    Conversion rate X%

    Our main landing page:

    Conversion rate 2.25*X%


    I am a geek, but there is no arguing with the facts.


    As you can see we didn’t spare money on graphic design

  • […] Link to Article yahoo The Continuing Saga of the Sales-Challenged Geek » Posted at John […]

  • Who Are You Going To Listen To? | Internet Marketing Chaos says:

    […] 28, 2007Who Are You Going To Listen To? I read an interesting post about who to take advice from on John Carlton's blog yesterday. (If you don't know John Carlton get over to his site […]

  • Wesley says:

    John, not sure if this is the place to say it but I want to mention that I have been considering a couple of different copywriting courses recently and I find the sales letter for your Marketing Rebel course a big turn-off.

    Want to know why?

    The ultra excessive use of yellow highlighting. It’s really annoying.

  • Bernie says:

    “Uncle” John, I think the subtle point that may go over the heads of most people, like a Barry Bonds homer right over the centerfielders head, is that no one really can know what works unless they TEST it.

    No MATH no BUSINESS. Jay Abraham, Dan Kennedy, Bill Glazer, the list goes on and on of course, (including yourself) that you have to test rigourously.

    The creative art types as well as the techies have got a great deal going for them, why ruin it with facts?

    Of course it has been this way for a long time. A case can be made that there are two schools of marketing thought. 1) The Salesmanship Camp; 2) The Public Relations Camp.

    As a marketer in the B2B space (Fortune 100 marketer) it never ceases to amaze me how marketing and sales are so completely disconnected in corporate America.

    Of course that may be why some of the big names Ford, Chrysler, IBM, Kodak, Motorola, etc. are laying off people by the thousands and tens of thousands. Their marketing is hamstrung because it doesn’t drive the sales and revenues that are needed.

    Staying frosty in Arizona!


  • […] The Continuing Saga of the Sales-Challenged Geek […]

  • […] John Carlton weighs in again on long copy vs short copy (long copy won years ago),  he reminds us that […]

  • Ryan says:

    Hey John,

    Just a quick question…

    You mentioned traffic was up… Were sales?

    THAT would be priceless.

    -A brain addled reader

  • john-carlton says:

    Hi Ryan. Yeah, sales were up a bit, too… but we can’t tell if there’s a direct correlation to the MeFi thread, and it would be dishonest to claim there is. In other words, I can’t tell you how many geeks came over to gloat and be horrified, and then bought. My instinct says some did, but they aren’t about to cop to it…

    It’s probably like that AC/DC album I had to hide from my hard-core classic rock and jazz-afficionado friends back in the early 80s — around those friends, I had to pretend to be shocked by the dismal state of affairs in rock at that time… but when they left, I played Back In Black until the grooves melted…

  • Philip says:

    Hey John,

    You know, this could be a positive thing.

    Think about it

    The more madison avenue type advertisers there are, the more opportunities for us!

    If people want to believe that they will make more money with flashy ads than with direct response ads, then… that just less competition for us!

    At least that’s the way I see it

    Bottom line, we direct marketers can CRUSH the graphic designers in one swift motion… which means… we can DOMINATE more markets.

    So, this could be good for business.

    You know, im not suprised sales were up because traffic was up… your just too damn good!

    Even people who hate direct response STILL have the money sucked right out of their pockets by your copy… its just that goods.

    By the way, maybe you could switch the Please add x and x to something like x + x = what? because i didnt get what the hell the form was asking for at first.

  • Aviva says:

    Hi John,

    I’m really interested by this post of yours because it’s raising a question I’ve started asking myself lately: While I know metrics show that long form copy outsells short form, I’m wondering if there’s been a drop off in conversion rates over time.

    Speaking as a market of one (ya, I know that’s bad…), I can say that I was more inclined to buy based on long form copy one year ago, and even six months ago, but find myself less inclined to do so now. It’s just starting to feel like an over-inundation. The format feels “done” to me, so that I’m starting to suspect it rather than to trust it. Am I alone? Would be interested to know…

  • Rob Jacobs says:

    I was referred to this blog by a friend of mine, and after noticing this post in my RSS reader and checking it out, I’ve got to say I’m a little disappointed by what you’re pushing here.

    I was entertained by the anecdote of the outlaw driver flipping everybody off, but you took a whole lot of space to pretty much sell us all on how we should perceive long, get-rich-quick style sales letters on the internet.

    The people in that nerds forum were both right and wrong. Whether or not long copy sells depends on your market. It may sell great if you have the kind of product that needs it; but if you’re selling a product where long sales copy only inundates the sales process, lawn flags for instance, then long copy isn’t the way to go.

    But it does seem that for the hyped up guru’s get-rich-quick ebooks, long copy is what ends up selling more. You can get people to buy anything if you throw enough people in front of a letter and keep them reading long enough, but I’m sure it goes without saying that these types of products aren’t anything that any of us would want or names on.

    I don’t need to pay you $10,000 for 4 one-hour phone calls in a month. I can already turn a profit on my own and sell products online with proper testing.

  • […] The Continuing Saga of the Sales-Challenged Geek Sales-Challenged Geek, Part Deux Add this: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

  • […] Internet is a home for a broad range of wildly differing points of view. I was bemused to read John Carlton’s experience of being slagged off on MetaFilter because his sales page was ’spammy’. The MetaFilter tread is about whether long sales […]

  • Markus Trauernicht says:

    Hi there

    I bought Johns “kick-Ass Copywriting Secrets of a Marketing Rebel” a while back. Thought it was utter nonsense but was not too sure.

    Dec 2006 he was an Underachiever speaker in Melbourne along with Ed and Frank. It made the difference to me. In one salesletter my conversions went up by times 3,3. So much for tracking and testing & using longer copy.

    I started selling on the web in 2000. So I am not totally new to this.

    My German degree in Marketing & Engineering – absolutely worthless when it comes to selling on the web. Wasted money!

    John’s stuff WORKS!

    Suddenly companies call me – please write for us. I had never even mentioned, I could write for others.

    Recently I spoke to a woman who works for a consulting company – investing in Germany etc. She was upset that someone in her company actually wanted to put in a response element in a €20.000 ad. Latte macchiato club marketing in its finest form. She offered me a job. More than I make now.


    Just different worlds.

    Markus Trauernicht from Berlin

  • […] communities of people have very strong anti-marketing attitudes. Another example can be found in this post on John Carlton's […]

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