I’m gonna blog on the run here. It’s been a very hectic couple of weeks, full of gut checks and forced reflection and the never-ending flow of “Details That Will Not Be Denied” that come with being in business.
And now I’m trying to prep for 3 straight weeks of intermittent travel. Chicago for a seminar, back to Los Angeles for a memorial, then off to the Northern California coast to see what the ocean’s got to say for itself.
Still, I don’t want to neglect my blogging duties.
And I have a fairly cool observation I want to share that is pretty important for all marketers.
First, though: There is a memorial service planned for Gary Halbert, down in Los Angeles, for May 5th. To get the details, go to Gary’s site, www.thegaryhalbertletter.com, and sign in for the RSVP link. I will be there for sure, to help Gary’s sons with whatever they need help on.
If you knew Gary, and you want to pay your respects, this is the place to do it. Most of us who were close to him have finally slipped into the “acceptance” stage of grief, and this memorial is a way to be proactive about giving Gary his due.
Second: Back to more mundane marketing notions.
There is a great article in the April 16 New Yorker magazine on commuters. The writer put in a few facts — which got my salesman’s mind reeling — and a lot of Studs Terkel-style “man in the street” profiles… which offer a psychological portrait of an increasingly average Americann consumer.
As a marketer, you should always jump on info like this. It’s priceless demographic knowledge, explained in a way that keeps the humans involved at the center of the story.
Here’s the gist: According to the Census Bureau, one of every six Americans now commutes more than 45 minutes each way to work. Over 3.5 million travel 90 minutes or more… each way. (That’s double what it was in 1990, when the last census was taken.)
That’s a LOT of time in the car, sitting on your ass.
My take: They can’t read, can’t watch DVDs, can’t watch TV, and have limited patience for learning while crawling through jams.
Still, a good percentage are going to be YOUR customers. A literally captive audience, potentially.
This used to get radio advertisers all excited… but radio ad revenue is plummeting, after years of cramming so many obnoxious ads into each hour that people just stopped listening to commercial radio. (Radio does this slow-suicide dance every decade or so — recently, the average talk radio station had more ads than talk each hour. They just push it until they lose listeners, and then scramble to become “relevant” again. Dumb. But it’s the way the biz is run.)
People learn to zone out, or jockey around the dial, or escape to commerical-free satellite radio and CDs. (Or NPR, which is hit-and-miss on being interesting.)
Think about it: Frazzled, frustrated people hating thier lives, forced to stay awake during a routine drive that is too unpredictable to lose focus while you’re suffering through it.
These are people with a problem — essentially, wasted hours that cannot be replaced. It’s purgatory. Quiet desperation.
For savvy marketers, this could represent an opportunity to be the most exciting part of your prospect’s day.
Back when I worked for The Man, I had opportunities to sit in “parking lot” traffic jams in Silicon Valley (on the 101 between Palo Alto and Santa Clara), and the 405 nightmare between the SoCal beach cities and the Sunset Blvd offramp (which includes LAX). Two of the most notorious and horrific commutes in the country.
If you have NOT experienced true traffic psychosis, you probably should go sample it.
Just to understand what it is many of your customers are going through.
Why? Because, for most information products (and even many services), you can and should be providing audio options. (There is also a place for audio with retail products… if you do it right. Most physical products — especially high-ticket items — are only purchased after information is digested.)
But there’s a caveat: You need to understand your prospect’s state of mind, in order to create a CD or mp3 that doesn’t create a disconnect in his head.
And this goes for both audio products, and for audio pitches.
Most smart direct marketers know that providing audio versions of their products can increase sales dramatically. Many people simply prefer audio over visual (whether it’s reading or watching video).
Very few entrepreneurs, however, have yet realized the opportunities for putting your pitch into audio format. That is changing, as test results come in.
But I know of few marketers who tailor their audio for commuters. And thinking about how commuters digest audio input will help you in EVERY effort to communicate clearly and effectively, regardless of the format.
Here’s the key: Your presentation must be in short, identifiable chunks — because your listener’s concentration will be constantly interrupted by sudden braking, the need for snap decisions, and occasional outbursts of road rage.
Keeping things in chunks means any rewinding is brief, and there are no long, delicate trains of thought to be shattered.
Most of the audio I’ve heard — both in products, and in the few audio pitches I’ve seen marketers produce (mostly via podcasts, but sometimes through downloaded mp3 or snail-mailed CDs) — make the outrageous assumption that your listener has the luxury to “sit back, relax, take the phone off the hook, and listen to a tale…”
I’ve actually critiqued a LOT of ads over the years that use pretty much that identical language.
So get straight on this: Online and offline, your prospect is never in a place where he can — or wants to — sit back and listen to you ramble.
Both pitches and products should be as long as necessary to deliver what is needed for your prospect or customer to get the desired result. So, yes, I still write very long emails, Web site copy, and print ads… but they never RAMBLE.
And I present very long workshop seminars, teleconferences and Web conferences. And this “never ramble” tactic is the key to making them all work.
It may require some time to make your point… but in all cases, you still need to GET to your point immediately. And stay there, without wandering off on tangents.
Even long-copy ads — when done right — deliver bite-sized chunks of info… tied together in fascinating ways that ensure your reader stays with you. (The “Bucket Brigade” technique of holding interest.)
But you do not want to overwhelm him with stuff. Give him a little bit of info, help him digest it… and smoothly segue to the next bit of info. Navigating your reader through a pitch (or the info in your product) is very much like running along uneven terrain.
Consider how you would run along a mountain trail next to a river. Lots of rocks, gopher holes, tree stumps, puddles… you can’t rush mindlessly headlong toward your destination, or you’ll quickly stumble.
You can still move quickly… but you’ve got to pay attention to each step.
In copy, each chunk of new info is a step. Present your point, make your point, tamp it down in your reader’s brain… and then smoothly transition to the next point.
That’s the key to making long copy work.
So when you create audio — which is just “spoken” copy — that you suspect (or know) is going to be consumed in the car… don’t construct elaborate arguments or points that require long-term memory. (The all-too-common “I’ll get back to that in a minute… but first, I want to tell you about…” tactic is a sure sign you’re dealing with a rookie copywriter.)
When you deliver your material in short, digestible chunks, you can go on for hours and never “lose” your listener. This is how master communicators command attention fro long periods.
The commuting culture — which ain’t going away anytime soon — is a target audience that hasn’t been fully tapped. These are people who are ripe for certain products and services… if only the info can be delivered in a way that doesn’t make their brains bleed.
Commuters listen to books, and sometimes attempt to learn foreign languages. There’s no reason why they can’t consume your info product, too… or listen to your pitch.
Here’s a nice exercise to do in your spare time: Consider all the products that could be put on audio for consumption in the car (or on an iPod during a train ride).
Audio is different than reading… but the tactics for delivering content are the same.
Okay, I gotta go pack.
First, I want to thank everyone who posted a comment here about Gary Halbert. The outpouring of admiration and respect is a wonderful thing to behold. I read every single post, recognized many of you, and deeply appreciate everyone taking the time to write something.
Second… while the shock of Gary’s passing hasn’t faded much, there are pressing matters to attend to.
Gary’s son Kevin asked me to write a short post for Gary’s newsletter site, explaining a few things. I won’t go over the same material here — just go to this URL and see what’s up:
I urge anyone who wanted to personally say something to Gary’s family to use the email contact provided there. And, if you think you might want to attend the upcoming memorial service, use the “RSVP” sign-in list to get more information.
Ladies and gentlemen… I shall try not to be gloomy or morose here. In honor of a man who deserves such an honor (and who would have heartily appreciated the rock and roll reference)… I will borrow the famous line used to calm to the crowd after Elvis had ended his concerts:
“Gary Halbert has left the building.”
He died peacefully in his sleep, in his apartment in Miami Beach, sometime during the night of Sunday, April 8, 2007.
He was my friend, my colleague, my partner, my mentor… but mostly my friend. For over twenty years (many of them the wildest of my career), we shared a close, comforting relationship that included adventure, drama, tears and laughs.
Mostly laughs, of course. He was bigger than life, and could suck the air out of any room he entered without saying a word… preceded only by the shock-wave of his hard-earned reputation. He had a lust for experience, an astonishingly huge appetite for everything available in life, and took great pleasure in being who he was.
And he truly was a great man. He single-handedly changed the nature of modern direct response advertising… and through his teachings, spawned three generations (and still counting) of rabble-rousing entrepreneurs and marketers who continue to force the business world to bend to their will.
He was generous to a fault, never suffered fools, and earned the love and admiration of everyone he met. All genius has a few rough edges, and Gary’s rough edges were legendary… but none of us would have had it any other way. He was a total package, and his life was full and well-lived.
We shared a lot of tragedies, in between the triumphs, and it was his sense of humor that helped us to survive, and even come out stronger than ever.
I know, from personal experience, that when things got so bad even your closest friends shied away… Gary would stand next to you and weather the storm, blow for blow, refusing to let you down. And, when you just couldn’t cry about it any longer, he would make you laugh.
It rattles me to my core to think I’ll never hear that warm, lusty laugh again. Someday, I’ll be able to listen again to the recorded stuff we did together… and you cannot listen to anything Gary did for very long before you’ll hear him laugh.
I hear it now, in my heart, strong and clear and reminding me to stay strong.
He was a brave, formidable, brilliant man with more real talent and genius than seemed possible.
And godammit, he’s gone. I had a nice, invigorating chat with him on Friday, received an email from him on Saturday… and then today, I got one of the worst calls in my life. His sons Bond and Kevin, who I watched grow from teenagers into a strong, confident men, delivered the news.
Gary Halbert. Born June 12, 1938. Passed away April 8, 2007, just shy of his 69th birthday.
He leaves a void that will never, ever be filled. No one with any sense will even try. No one still around comes close to being worthy.
For twenty years, I have lived in a world with Gary close by. Even when he moved to the east coast, we remained bosom buddies, not just staying in touch, but desperate for word from each other and eager for long chats. We could talk for hours on the phone, just trying to make sense of the chaos and sharing our wonder at the ludicrous nature of reality.
I would not be who I am today without that long, amazing friendship.
This isn’t the loss of a single, good man.
This is a rip in the tender fabric of the universe. I can feel his absence, as if a large part of me has been hacked off.
Today, the world is smaller… more hostile… and vastly less fun than it was yesterday. Yesterday, when I still could have picked up the phone and enjoyed Gary’s soothing voice and thunderous laughter.
There will be a lot said of Gary in the coming months. He deserves a legacy fit for a king, and I will do my part in making that happen.
But for now, I don’t want to share my memories with you. For now, those memories are for me and his family alone, while the grief and shock runs its course.
A great man has moved from this corporeal adventure, to somewhere else where genius writers are welcomed and cared for. And while I strongly feel we will meet up again… for now, I must hold tight to the fading echo of our last conversation. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to tell him I loved him, one last time.
And I did love the man. Everyone who knew him did. For many of us, he was a rock, an anchor in a world roiling in confusion and danger.
Let no one say he didn’t live an amazing, purposeful and productive life. He touched a lot of lives. He shall be more than missed… and he will never be replaced.
Ladies and gentlemen… Gary Halbert, my dear friend, has left the building.
“Who’s on first?” (Abbott & Costello.)
Have you read Gary Bencivenga’s latest “bullet” newsletter? It’s at www.bencivengabullets.com — and the story told there is so uplifting that Gary Halbert reproduced it in his newsletter (www.thegaryhalbertletter.com).
I’m a sap for good inspirational stories. It’s one of the hazards of being in touch with your emotional side, which is absolutely necessary if you want to write world-class copy — hell, I sometimes tear up watching sappy television commercials. Often, it’s the snarly, cynical guys who have the biggest soft spots.
Bencivenga’s story reminded me of something in my own past I’d long forgotten about.
This was in the early seventies, in my college town. A friend asked me to help him coach a kids baseball team — there were no parents available.
This was before the movie “The Bad News Bears” was made, and I believe it’s something that has happened multiple times (and is still happening) all across the country: One team in the league is created to house all the kids the other teams don’t want. The lousy players, the outcasts, the orphans of society.
And then, a coach is lured in, also from the outside. And then the team is taken for granted as a perpetual loser, but everyone can feel good about having “given the little bastards a chance“.
In this case, our team was a true menagerie of mutts. We had a couple of kids who didn’t speak English… several obese kids who couldn’t run to save their lives… a few emotional basket cases who would burst into tears for no reason (this was before the age of heavy medication)… and the only girl in the league.
Make no mistake — as coaches, we were mutts, too.
The other coaches were upstanding parents, still sporting their crewcuts from their glory days as star jocks. They took baseball very seriously.
And there we were, my friend Bob and I — two long-haired hippies in torn jeans and “Up The Establishment” tee shirts. We did, however, share a love of baseball. We’d both played organized hardball through our teens, and knew a bit about the game.
The first practice was a disaster.
Kids showed up with decrepit gloves that fell apart with the first catch, there was rampant crying and hurt feelings, and my feeble Spanish wasn’t cutting it with the ESL kids. And no one was paying the coaches much attention.
It was chaos. Being a nice guy did not have much effect.
So, in frustration, I just decided to screw the nice guy attitude…
… and told the team to take a lap as punishment.
They looked at me in disbelief, and I had to chase them toward the far fences. They got back, huffing and gasping, and I made it clear that we were gonna do laps every time they got out of hand. And I stuck to it, too.
Was I being cruel?
Nope. I was treating them as ballplayers. And, to my astonishment, they loved it. I don’t think too many adults in their lives had set down boundaries before. These kids were, for the most part, treated as losers, and acted like it.
Out of nothing more than frustration, I had accidentally given them a taste of respect — by demanding that they stop acting like losers.
Even when, once the league started, we lost every single game in the first half of the season except the last one. At first, we got blown out…
… and then we started getting closer, even scaring some teams. The fat kids stopped wheezing when they ran, and it turned out the girl had a wicked bat at the plate. And once the emotional kids realized we were going to just ignore their crying jags, they stopped doing them. Mostly. There would be a few tears and sniffles every game, but no one tannted them or paid them extra attention.
It just became no big deal.
And I’m not making this up: The last game of the first half was against the arrogant first-place team… and we beat them by a run.
Our joy was compounded by the humiliation of the jocks in the other dugout.
It got better, too. In the second half of the season, we won most of our games. It wasn’t enough to win the league, as Hollywood would have done it, but the real victory was the change in the kids.
I never once saw any of their parents in the stands for a game, and I wasn’t about to adopt any of them. I had a lot going on in my life, and this was a one-time volunteer thing, a couple of evenings each week. Come summer, I was going to be gone.
To give you an idea of how different a time that was — and how indifferent Bob and I were to social conventions — here is how we celebrated the final game: We brought an ice chest into the dugout. Soda pop for the kids, and beer for the two coaches. And long, heart-felt hugs and slaps on the butt after the last out.
And no tears.
I never saw any of those kids again. I have no idea what became of any of them.
But I remember their faces. I wasn’t such a sap back then, and I wasn’t proud of my effect on them, or even really aware of it. It was a job to be done, once I agreed to do it. A challenge, to get this motley crew of losers in some sort of shape. And, if we could, to beat the sneers off the faces of the other teams.
As a coincidence, I worked as a crisis-intervention counselor for institutionalized teenagers as my next job. It was the only gig my fancy degree in psychology could get me during the Carter recession.
And, just to put things in perspective, I learned fast that the majority of kids who get dealt a bad hand in life don’t get happy endings.
You can try as hard as you can to change some things, and wind up only with a broken heart and dashed illusions. The burn-out rate of adults working with state-owned kids is near to one hundred percent.
Still, you take the little flashes of magic when you can.
Those kids on the baseball team got to experience a few weeks of discipline and the attention of two adults who — no matter how scroungy and off-beat we looked — refused to let them wallow in victimhood. Who knows what curves life threw them after that. Maybe we had no lasting impact whatsoever.
Or maybe we did. When I reflect on the people who were forces of change in my life, it’s clear that major turning points often come as small moments. A casual comment, a fleeting extra lesson, a simple nudge of acceptance.
As adults, as business owners and marketers, we tend to believe we have to be tough as nails all the time. There’s even more pressure to be a rock when you lead others.
And it’s easy to forget just how fragile we are, as humans. We can be brought to our knees by microscopic bugs, rendered destitute by events we never see, decked by the uncontrollable forces of nature, fortune and destiny. And you’re vulnerable no matter how rich, or strong, or important you are.
But it works the other way, too. The power of a short phone call, an unexpected letter, or a visit “just for the hell of it” with someone who’s down can change history.
I’ve advised every writer I’ve worked with to strive to “be that one thing your prospect reads today that gets his blood moving”.
And that’s not bad advice for your personal life, either. Be that one person who is willing to share a moment — no matter how brief — with someone who needs your attention. Unlike business transactions, there may not be instant results.
You may never know what your actions accomplish. And, in truth, you shouldn’t care. You don’t reach out to others because there are rewards. You reach out because you can.
Have a great holiday.