What To Do, Redux

Tuesday, 10:27 pm
Reno, NV


That was a great, healthy, raucous sharing of ideas to the question I posted Sunday. Essentially: What to do, when the act of creating a formal ad is too daunting, but you need to do something to create sales.

The Usual Suspects posted really good comments, and it was cool to see a bunch of new folks putting on their Thinking Caps to tackle the problem.

As I said — I hate questions like this, myself. Cuz it hurts to confront puzzles, mysteries, dilemnas, and problems.

Yet, it’s been the best way to learn for around 3,000 years. It’s the Socratic method — essentially Q&A, but the answers are expected to be well-thought-out. (For a great example of this method in action, see the 1973 flick “The Paper Chase”, on the hot action inside a freshman year at Harvard Law School.) (I still get shudders watching it today.)

So, for my entire career, I’ve been practicing it whenever possible. John Caples, in “Tested Advertising Methods”, offers up hundreds of little mini-tests… asking the reader to choose which headline or USP worked the best. I was stunned to learn that most of my colleagues who had bothered to pick up that amazing book had also NOT considered each question carefully, chose definitively, and only then look at the answer.

Nope. Most glanced at the question, then quickly went to find the answer. “Oh, yeah,” they’d say. “I probably would’ve chosen correctly, if I’d had to.”

Bullshit. That’s cheating.

Your brain is a muscle. It craves good workouts, even though puzzles can make the old cranium cranky. The ONLY way to retain knowledge is to cement it into your noggin. Passive, lazy glances at the important stuff doesn’t cut it.

So kudo’s to everyone who ventured an answer.

It was gratifying to see so many writers come so close to the answer, too. (In truth, many would have technically passed the test, even though their answer wasn’t quite as complete as what I was getting at.)

Before I reveal my own answer, let’s address a few of the suggestions offered.

First, swiping is not gonna cut it. All writers swipe to one degree or another (though some of the new breed do it to excess, and rob themselves of finding their own “voice” and style).

However, even if you find an ad to swipe that is in your market, close to your USP, and even selling something similar… you’re still gonna have to slog through the very necessary tasks of re-molding the headline, all subheads, and especially bullets to your own situation.

This can work… but remember that part of the question was “…and you find the formal process of creating an ad daunting…”. For a veteran professinal copywriter, this particular problem won’t come up much. But for an entrepreneur or small biz owner selling your own crap, this is THE most common problem you face.

What’s more — as I posted among the comments last night — while using the “Lazy Businessman’s 3-Step Shortcut To Creating A World-Class Ad” (the record-yourself-at-fever-pitch-and-transcribe technique pushed by Halbert and me for decades) will actually get you to a good point in creating a killer sales message… in all the years I’ve taught it to people, few have ever actually done it.

Still, the process you would go through to get your head ready for such a recording… IS a big part of the answer to this problem.

Here is my solution:

First, and foremost… keep it all very simple.

What you want to do is create a sleek, greased slide leading straight to a single action.

No tangents. No long stories that require cognitive effort by the reader.

The key is that single action you will request: What, with a gun your head and wolves at the door, is the ONE action you would love to see your reader take? Could be a full-on sale… could be just to get into the sales funnel… could be a phone call. Or a hundred other actions.

Choose the one that you need him to do. Concentrate your salesmanship on getting him to that point — quickly, efficiently and without fuss.

Second: Get clear on WHO your reader is.

Remember — even jaded, long-time marketers have little clue who actually populates their list. Many entrpreneurs get an idea in their head of who they THINK they’re writing to… but are often wildly wrong.

So calm down (yes, even with that snarling and scratching at the door), and use whatever resources you have to nail your prime target. This could include asking your staff for input, calling up some actual customers to see who they are, or even doing a little “Google Stalking” to see if any of your intended readers show up in a search for demographic info.

If you’re writing to a cold list… you’ve still got to create that “avatar” character you’re writing to. If you gotta guess, you gotta guess. But you still have to make a final decision.

A sales pitch written to no one in particular will die a gruesome death.

Third: As so many posters commented… the next step is to create a super-condensed list of your reader’s needs and wants. You want to get as close to a psychological profile as you can. At this point — desperate and under urgent circumstances — you are in no position to offer him what you think he needs or should have.

Nope. You want to discern what he wants… and give it to him. This is not the time for long discourses on new ideas, or education on what-if situations.

Try, as much as you can with the resources you have, to figure out what parade your reader is marching in… and then hop out in front of it. Where’s he’s going, hey, that’s where YOU’RE going.

What a coincidence.

Fourth: As many of you guessed… you’re going to write a personal letter.

However — and this is critical — you are not going to write AT him… but TO him.

As much as your dire situation feels personal… this ain’t about YOU.

It’s about HIM. All you are is the conduit of good tidings — the bearer of great news, the gateway to something wonderful, the dude writing the one thing he’s gonna read today that really gets his blood moving. (Though, if your situation really does lend itself to a fire-sale offer, then by all means USE that tactic.)

You write — in a conversational voice — a very personal letter from you to him, getting right to the point, and outlining what you have for him in the following manner:

Here’s who I am…

Here’s what I have for you…

Here’s why you’ll like it…

And here’s what you need to do right now.

Yes, you need to write your opening line (or subject line, if you’re using email) in a compelling way… because it’s doing the job of a headline. And yes, you need to think in bullet form (even if you don’t use the formal, indented bullet set up). And yes, your close needs to cover all the essentials of classic salesmanship.

However, if you know who you’re writing to… and you’re dead honest about what you have, and how it fits into his life… then all this should come naturally.

Many of you know the story behind the big damn Stompernet launch. Frank Kern graciously has told this tale many times, and I’ll repeat it here: With just days left before the launch, the guys doing the writing were nowhere near having a final “buy now” sales pitch ready.

It was panic time. They were trying to hire me — at ridiculous rates — but I didn’t have the time (or, honestly, the inclination — I’ve had my share of emergency jobs, and they’re never any fun).

So, during a break at the seminar in San Diego we were all attending, I sat down with Frank and Mike and promised to do what I could to help them get back on track.

The copy they had was, to my mind, hopelessly overwritten and a muddle.

And completely unnecessary, I told them.

At this point, they knew WHO they were writing to… and even had a fair idea of their prospect’s state of mind. (Teased to a froth, from an extended launch process.)

So, I said, here’s all you need…

And I quoted to them pretty much what I just laid out here in this post.

For Frank, it was an epiphany. And he was able to blast out the letter that sealed the deal in record time. (It was a beauty, too. I am NOT taking any credit for what Frank wrote at all. I’m just pleased to have helped part the fog, and point out the yellow-brick road.)

The thing to do when your body is telling you to PANIC… is to settle down, get your breathing deep and relaxed… and set to work mapping out a simple, direct, no-frills path for your very real reader to arrive at a simple request for action.

Movement will save you. And movement in a definite direction, knowing that you only have to create a very simple pitch with a simple request for action, can bring stunning results.

All great ads are, at heart, just killer letters that touch your reader’s heart. Or greed gland. Or desire for vengance, or whatever it is that he wants enough to open his wallet to attain.

It’s fair to ask: If this is such a good tactic, why not write ALL ads like this?

And the professional answer is: Because, once you have the core of your pitch nailed in this format… you can increase readership, desire, and response by fleshing more of the classic “formal” parts. Big headline, bold and centered subheads, ranks of tidy indented bullets, some graphics, audio, video and all that other cool stuff.

Nevertheless… cornered by a crisis, without the time or resources to “perfect” your ad… a very simple sales letter, aimed at the tender emotional sweet spot of need in your reader, leading to a single action… can save your life.

That was fun, wasn’t it?

You guys are scary-good, and I feel better about the state of the copywriter field after seeing the sense, the will to think hard, and the skill set so many of you offer.

Stay frosty…

John Carlton

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  • Emette E. Massey says:

    John thanks for allowing us to “play along.” I personally enjoy these types of post event those it hard on the noggin. It’s these brain draining adventures that make the lessons stick for me.

    I’d like to see you do more of these copy learning brain teasers here in your blog.

    Man, big thanks also for sharing your real world advice here in this blog (on matter what the form)! I long to become an A-Level writer. With your generous help here (and other excellent tool available) my confidence is climbing fast.



  • Matt Hegedus says:

    Great stuff… thank you.

  • Awesome John,

    I’ll test this on my forex list. I learned about the avatar stuff with Eben Pagan, it was a “ah ha” for me like he say.


  • David Craft says:

    Thanks John!

    I have heard of this before through doing affiliate sales. The most important thing was to get the basics up, out there and give them a call to action. It’s amazing how much the KISS principle gets overlooked when writing copy. I am a rookie but I would say the one thing I have gotten more than anything from just watching, listening and testing is this – most copy is way over done.

    If you know what you have is what people WANT, get something out there quick and let them know you got it! They can’t solve your problem until you solve theirs. Then modify if needed as time permits. I used to be a code slinger and very often your first burst of writing is your best. Then you can test and modify.

    Thanks again for keeping us frosty!


  • Thomas says:


    As a Stomper, I can tell you I sped through the letter to get to the price and purchase link. I was pre-sold. But going back and reading the letter brought back the flood of emotions I felt through the entire pre-sell roll-out period.

    It reminded me of your story about sitting at a bar and telling your story about who you are and what you do to the guy next to you. Easy. Simple. Straightforward.

  • Patrick says:

    Thank You, John.

    That must go down as one of the great lessons on copy writing.

    I’ve had so many “ah HA” moments… and I’m still digesting your answer.

    Also, I finally understand what the big infatuation with
    “Gun To Your Head Copy” is about!

    Patrick Foley

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