Waiting For Godot

I had a deja vu experience reading the Wall Street Journal the other day. It was like I’d seen the article I was on before, and could even close my eyes and predict what the next paragraph would be about… and I was right.

But it wasn’t anything spooky going on. I was merely reading yet another “the market is holding its breath” story, which are almost boilerplate at the WSJ. Investors, as a lump, are either waiting for the latest profit reports from some conglomerate, or waiting to see what the Fed is gonna do with interest rates, or waiting for some political event to happen.

Waiting, waiting, waiting. There’s a sense that, as a culture, we’re just lurching from crisis to crisis, like a desperate frog leaping on lillies while avoiding the alligator tailing him.

We all need breathers once in a while. It’s good to step back and take a look at where you’re at, versus where you want to be.

But you shouldn’t make this kind of reflection permanent. That’s like setting up camp in a rest area — you gotta hop back on the highway to get anywhere.

The winners in business keep moving, and they refelct a lot. You must be awake to do this. Most of the population are sleep-walkers, stumbling through life in a daze that never lifts.

The uncertain nature of civilization does this to people. The title of this blog entry refers to the existentialist play where two characters do nothing but wait for this guy Godot, who never shows. It’s a bit baffling, if you’re expecting raw entertainment, but the concept of existentialism is worth knowing about.

The first world war knocked everyone for a loop. An overwhelming dread bubbled up, and even non-intellectuals were asking “what’s it all mean?” All the hard work of making cultures and economies and governments function properly and fairly seemed useless — whatever was created was destroyed by war. What was the use of even trying?

People partied through the twenties, suffered through the thirties, and — like a married couple just itching for a fight, fed up with the status quo — finally succumbed to the urge to go to war again.

It was part of a repeating cycle. Cycles are fascinating to history buffs… but they represent opportunity for savvy marketers. It pays to get a handle on the Big Picture of our culture.

There is, right now, a powerful sense in the world that we’re all just hours away from something monumental happening. And so people wait. And put off decisions. They don’t want to get burned in another stock market bubble. They don’t want to be away from home if another terrorist attack occurs. They don’t want to buy a liquid screen TV until they’re positive it won’t be obsolete in six months.

This sense of “why bother” comes and goes in the culture. I’m old enough to remember it from the mid-sixties, when nuclear annihilation seemed imminent. You can’t predict exactly what the next part of the cycle will be, based on what happened before… but you can come pretty damned close.

We are a fairly predictable species, though no one wants to admit it. Understanding how some of this predictability can be used in your business plans is a profitable exercise. People need and crave certain things at certain times in each cycle. Right now, for example, huge swaths of the population are desperate for something to give their lives meaning. This started to show itself with the amazing boom in psychic hotlines just two years ago.

I’m not suggesting you start your own religious movement… but you should pay attention to the fact that other people are, in droves.

Just consider, as you advertise whatever it is you’re selling, that your target audience is caught up in the same general cycles as the population at large. There are forces acting on their ability to make a decision that you need to know about, so you can address them.

And, to make a sale, you need a decision. Ask yourself: What can I say or do to get someone to act… while they’re in “waiting mode” for almost everything else in their life?

Answer that, and you’ve got a campaign that will burn through the market like wildfire.

Here’s a couple of books to check out, to get a better idea of how people act predictably, and make decisions: “Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069” by Wm. Strauss and Niel Howe. And “Blink”, by Malcolm Gladwell.

Don’t wait around with everyone else. The other shoe is always dropping, somewhere. Movement creates results. Even when you feel like you’re slogging through molasses, each slog is still an action that will generate consequence. Good or bad, marketers thrive on consequence.

John Carlton

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I Shouldn’t Have To Do This…

Did you see the Superbowl? Turned out to be a real game after all. And, in the peculiar world of sports betting, the Eagles won by losing. They beat the spread.

But the game has turned into a sideshow. People tune in because it’s an event that gets talked about. Last year, chat around the water cooler was all about Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. Buzz. Marketers get sucked into the hooplah, and wanna be part of it.

The top story on the MSN home page right after the game was NOT the score from the gridiron. Nope. It was how viewers ranked the ADS. The circus came to town, and as the dust settles, the captialist system waits with beating heart to see what happens next.

I shouldn’t have to mention this… but the track record of big splashy ads is not good, if increased profits was the goal. Madison Avenue went completely insane long ago, and convinces clients their ads must be hilarious to “work”. They count up the votes they get for “best ad”, and the “buzz” they generate around water coolers… and claim victory when the culture picks up any line from the copy and starts repeating it. “Where’s the beef” kinda phrases.

The sad truth is that entertaining ads do not sell product. In the worst case, people laugh their ass off at the ad, and tell their friends about it… but can’t remember the name of the product. Or confuse it with the competition. Because it was just tacked on after the mini-clown routine, as an afterthought. All the creative effort went into entertainment, and not an ounce into actual selling.

Not that being remembered is any guarantee people will buy your shit. “Oh, hey, there’s that cereal they advertised on TV! Gosh, that was a funny commercial… let’s buy it!”

Yeah, right.

Jack In The Box is an exception — they skillfully entertwine product and pitch into the play. But you still shouldn’t use them as a template for any of your own ads… unless you have a campaign war-chest in the high millions. These guys rely on massive repetition for results. Most entrepreneurs have one good shot at the sale, and need to pack as much salesmanship into each ad as possible.

What Madison Avenue does wrong with 99% of their television ads is to create funny stuff that has no relationship with the product whatsoever. The advertiser simply prays that being associated with such humor (or, occasionally, bravado) will rub off in a good way. Or something.

However, most of these ads are completely interchangeable. It could be Ford, or Chevy, or Toyota financing the yuks (or doing the bragging). Doesn’t matter even a little bit.

And so the commercial doesn’t rub off at all. You remember the punch line, but couldn’t come up with the right brand name if you were tortured.

The problem is an utter lack of a USP. A real one, with reasons why and credibility and proof… and not a fake one, tested in focus groups by people without a drop of salesman’s blood in their veins.

And pay attention — these large companies are about to come to the Web in force… and it’s likely they’ll be using the brand new “online” divisions of the Madison Avenue ad agencies. They will have presence, and gobble up bandwidth like a brontosaurus wading through your backyard garden.

Entrepreneurs will feel the pinch. And that’s where having classic salesman’s skills will be your life saver. If you’re in a market niche that’s creating big profits, you’re gonna have competition soon. The days of “low hanging fruit” on the Web are about to expire, and it will happen fast. Like, yes, a tsunami.

Learn the craft of selling, now, while the Huns have not yet reached the gates.

Blatant pitch: Most readers of this blog already have my stuff. However, if you don’t… and you’ve been dicking around putting off buying it… you will want to know that I’m about to restructure everything I offer. Prices are going to rise across the board, as soon as next month. I’m writing the new copy right now.

I have not raised prices in three years. My stuff is now embarrassingly-cheap, compared with what other “experts” are gouging people for. (And many of these experts learned everything they know from veterans like me, Halbert, Abraham and a tiny handful of others.) But that’s not a reason to buy. The reason to buy is more simple: Nothing will happen in your life until you learn to write sizzling copy… and learn what to DO with it to bring in the moolah.

I’ve been teaching people how to earn massive piles of money, both online and in the “old world” markets of direct response, for many years now. I know what to do, I’ve done it over and over, and I can teach you how to do it, too.

And it’s about to get more expensive to learn the secrets. So you might wanna get off your duff and take the plunge now.

How’s the New Year shaping up for you so far? Having fun yet?

John Carlton

P.S. The ONLY ad during the Superbowl that created real buzz… was PULLED after one airing early in the game. It was the spot for www.godaddy.com, the new site registering domain names for cheap. They used a buxom blonde in a phony congressional hearing set-up, and echoed the fuss over the Janet Jackson thing. I’m not sure how salesworthy the ad was, since it was hard not to stare at the buxom beauty’s bounty (and ignore the pitch)… but it was a ballsy move. Risked the wrath of our new Puritanically-inclined culture of titillation. I like that.

The network pulled it, however. No word on why.

Sex will sell. Sex will create buzz.

Sex will also get you in trouble with the Man.

P.P.S. The first time I turned on a television in Paris, there was a naked lady standing on a bare set selling laundry detergent. Starkers. Very casual about it, too.

Say what you will about Europe’s “values”. They kicked the Puritans out five hundred years ago, and have been more relaxed about things ever since. Lucky us.

The Meathead From France

One of the most popular taped interviews I’ve ever done is “The Go-To Guy”, which I recorded with Gary Halbert over two years ago. It’s also one of the most valuable interviews… if you can “get” the lesson.

Trouble is, a lot of people just can’t wrap their minds around this kind of teaching. They scowl, shake their heads, and are sometimes energized enough to email me to complain.

They want “actionable” advice. Stuff like “… Step 12: Now lick the stamp and place it in the upper right corner of the envelope. Be careful not to put it on the back, because the postal people have to see it!…”

Anything other than that just goes over their head.

Listen: It’s important, when you come across stuff that looks like rambling from an expert, to stop and try to see if you’re not missing something. It’s true that you need lots of concrete advice to get really good in marketing, because the details are what gets your site posted, your ad mailed, and your orders filled.

But not everything is going to be cut and dried. When I was coming up through the ranks, I worked with a lot of amazingly talented veterans. And while I took copious notes about the tricks they used, I also paid close attention to the nonspecifics — how they dealt with clients, how they treated information, even the warm-up routines they went through before working. I couldn’t use everything I observed, because it often didn’t fit my style.

But often, by listening carefully to what seemed like tangents or rambling, I would come across details that changed my life.

This is why I tell so many stories in the Rant. I’m not trying to be colorful, or even interesting. I’m just relating the entire experience to you. Because a cold-blooded listing of the concrete lessons would miss some of the profound underlying genius.

Anyway… I just went through a brief email exchange with someone from Europe who complained that I wasted too much time being “entertaining”, and not enough time conveying true advice. The guy is not a meathead — I just liked the sound of that in the headline here.

But he very much DOES miss this lesson of “seeing the lesson within the telling” of the story. I guess it’s a little Zen thing. But you don’t have to be a Zen master to “get” it.

Not at all. All you have to do is empty your mind of contradictory and skeptical thoughts… and allow the story to come to you.

That said… here’s a few tidbits from my “Salesmanship 101” file that don’t require any mystical or intuitive understanding:

1. The whole concept of “reason why” copywriting can be summed up thusly: Give your prospect a reason to buy.

The trick here is… it often doesn’t even need to be a good reason. I’ve found that having a good reason for being in front of him with an offer works to a higher degree. As in: “I’m writing to you today because of a special opportunity that just came up. It’s a way for you to save 50% over what everyone else is paying for a very popular item… but you must contact me today. There are only a few of these items available at this price, and when they’re gone, that’s it.”

Most rookies will just say “buy this — it’s available.” Moving up a notch, they will include either the urgency factor of limited supply, OR the story of why this opportunity came up, but seldom both.

The pro’s pack their pitches with this stuff. It’s urgent, and here’s the reason. It’s in short supply, and here’s the reason. It’s the biggest bargain of your life, and here’s the reason.

Imagine your prospect standing in the virtual aisle of your virtual store, holding your product. He’s checking the price, looking around to see what similar items go for, frowning as he tries to remember what the price was last week, wondering what he’d say to his mate if he came home with it and she yelled at him for wasting money.

If you answer all those meandering objections, he feels confident. And, he’s armed with information he can use to make his case. “Yeah, I just got this for half-off. There were only 12 at this price, and they went like hotcakes, because it’s something all the players have…”

2. Long ago, someone tested having just one offer, versus having multiple “layers” of offers on the order form. They discovered that, sometimes, having just one offer worked better when you added a special bonus for ordering faster. This make it a multiple offer, with a choice. (Though it was a “set up” choice, since the free bonus was always something the prospect had to have.)

However, it was also discovered that reversing the order of multiple options increased sales of the higher priced option.

The “intuitive” way of listing products is to have the lowest priced version first, followed by the next highest-priced one, and then the next, and so on. You’d think, since the copy explaining each offer was so close to the next one, that the reader could do his comparing easily and come to a rational decsion.

Not so. Listing the lowest price first resulted in most purchases being the lowest offer. Reversing the order resulted in most purchases being the highest priced offer.

Lesson: Even in the seconds it takes to read an order form, there are subtle psychological earthquakes going on in the prospect’s mind. If he’s read through your pitch and gotten to the order form, he wants what you’re offering. But he’s still struggling with paying for it.

Letting him see the lowest price first gives him an “out” — his mind, which is forever making snap-impulsive decisions, can just say “Yeah, let’s get that.” And he may skip the copy for the more expensive option, out of fear of having to change his mind.

Once humans make a decision, it’s very hard to get them to change it. This is how MLM works — no matter how insane the facts of the deal are, MLM pushers (and they are pushers) know that all they have to do is get the mark to decide to go for it. After that, they may as well be in a cult.

3. Finally… to bump the results on your higher-priced options, be sure to use the “dump/gem” take-away tactic. Some car dealers use this by first showing a stripped down model, and making a show of the price — which is always the maximum they would ever charge for a car.

Then, they immediately show the premium version, as tricked out as a car can get. The premium price suddenly doesn’t look so bad. Outside the dealership, you may never consider paying $60,000 for a car. Out of the question. But inside, when you discover that ugly, common vehicles are being touted for $45,000… well, suddenly that luxury model seems like a bargain.

This seems to contradict the “list the highest priced version first”, but it doesn’t. In your sales pitch — before the order form is reached — you will generally “build” your offer, even starting with the lowest priced option.

But you’re not “building” in the order form — you’re asking for a decision, an action. It’s the moment of truth.

Subtle difference.

When you’re selling product through mulitple offers, make sure to have the lowest priced offer as expensive as you can possibly go and still make the sale.

Then — and here’s the trick — make sure your highest-price option has a jaw-dropping amount of added-on value. Stuff the prospect would drool over, and desperately wants… but can only get in the premium option.

And list that option first. If there are any snap decisions to be made, let the first candidate be your best deal.

John Carlton

P.S. I will be posting again after the Super Bowl. An embarrassing number of people watch this meaningless game, and of course the commercials are positioned to be the best Madison Ave has to offer.

Not a great track record. But always buzz. I’m betting there’s going to be something to be outraged about, no matter how PC they try to make the halftime show. They need it.

Pats by 20.

There’s A Lesson Here Somewhere…

I hate technology.

I mean, I use it, I rely on it, I earn my living with it… but I still hate it. Too much control over how things turn out. And you can’t hurt a machine when it screws up, because it has no feelings.

Wait, that’s wrong. Machines do have one emotion: Glee at completely mucking up your life. It’s easy to imagine the toaster giggling as it burns your toast. Or the computer as it fries your data.

I just did an hour-and-a-half recorded interview with another writer. This was a very important call, something I intended to have transcribed, put on CD, flagged in my marketing, the works. And we nailed the subject, too — the talk was going just great… until, around 45 minutes into it, I realized the cassette tape I was using had snarled up in the recorder.

At least twenty minutes of our chat now sounded like Godzilla snorting in his sleep.

This was not just a disaster… it was embarrassing. Because the other writer had laughed at me for being such a caveman in the first place. No one uses cassette recorders anymore, he said.

And he had Fed Exed me a fancy digital recording device. Wanted to drag me, kicking and screaming, into the twenty-first century.

Well, I didn’t have time to learn how to use the digital thingie before the call, so I relied on my trusty Panasonic VSC recorder. It had worked perfectly for a couple of years, faithfully recording calls with no problem at all.

Until today.

Fortunately, the other writer had recorded the call, too. On his sleek digital unit. So we were saved. I admitted, right there on the call, that he was right — I had been punished for relying on caveman technology. And he had rescued everything by being more modern.

Wait, this gets good. We finish the call, and I’m rolling up my sleeves in preparation of ripping the Panasonic apart before tossing it in the dumpster… and the other writer calls back.

Guess what? His fancy ass digital recorder had only recorded his part of the conversation. He sounded like an insane man responding to voices in his head for 90 minutes.

So old-school technology failed us, and cutting-edge technology failed us.

You know what didn’t fail us? Pencil and paper. I jotted down lots of notes during the call. If we can’t still rescue this recording — and it’s looking grim — we can do it again. From my notes.

It still sucks. Reminds of a guy they found a couple of years ago up in the Sierras. His car had slid off the road, and though he wasn’t mortally hurt, he died anyway. Stuck in the wreck. Had a cell phone that couldn’t get a signal, a $40,000 car that wouldn’t move or let him go, a wallet full of credit cards and cash, a nice suit, designer glasses and one last gourmet meal in his gut.

And he died anyway. Starved to death, just as easily and rudely as his caveman ancestors sometimes had. At the mercy of nature.

Sometimes, when the TV, the cell phone, the radios and iPods and DVD players and amps and microwaves and heaters and computers are all turned off… and there’s not even a hum of electricity anywhere to distract me… I wonder what the hell we’ve gotten ourselves into here.

Brave new world, indeed.

John Carlton

This Is Not Okay

The University of Connecticut has just published a study of high school students and their attitudes about the freedom of the press.

And, apparently, our school system is busy turning out a fresh crop of fascists. One third said the press in this country needed to be restricted in what they can say. Thirty-six percent said that the government should approve all news stories before they’re allowed to run.

This isn’t cute. Most folks here have never actually read the Constitution, and that’s fine, I suppose. This creates embarrassing moments, however. Back during the sixties, smart-ass protesters used to hand innocent civilians two pieces of paper (pretending to be part of a study), and asked if the person agreed or disagreed with what was written on each sheet.

It was fairly frightening to watch. One sheet listed the Bill of Rights (without identifying it as such)… and average “man in the street” types often found that document offensive. Too many risky rights, too many uncontrolled freedoms. Made people nervous.

The other sheet was a list of talking points from an Adolf Hitler speech in the thirties (his name did not appear on the paper)… and a lot of folks agreed with what that nutcase had to say about reigning in bad elements and setting up restrictive rules. Just what this country needed — a little hard-nosed authority.

Of course, fights often broke out when the smug students pointed out that you’d just trashed the foundation of our democracy, and gave a thumbs up to totalitarianism. The sixties were like that, you know. Lots of fighting. Lots of ideological trickery.

Now, it’s easy to see why a writer would want to enshrine the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”). I wanna write what I wanna write, and who the hell are you to tell me I can’t write about “that”. And — as infuriating as the press can be — it’s the ink-stained wretch who mans the front line of liberty here. Not the politician. Not the entertainer. Not the latest incarnation of Elmer Gantry.

It’s the journalist.

However, it’s not quite so easy to see the connection of all this to business. But it’s there — and it’s critical. The U.S. is the leader in entrepreneurial projects… and it’s because of the First Amendment. Us upstarts can go against entrenched corporations for a piece of the pie because we are able to lay out our offers, in front of God and everybody. Without unfair restrictions.

And let the best marketer get the sale.

Other countries are only now starting to catch on. Every marketing seminar I go to now has an astonishing high number of people from Asia, Europe, Australia, even South America. They’re getting the hang of hard-ball direct marketing… but ten years ago, it was almost unheard of outside of the U.S.

We’re spoiled. We’re not just comfortable with the right to say what we please, without fear… we take it for granted. The rest of the world is still acting like a kid who just said a dirty word at the dinner table… and they’re waiting to see what the reaction of authority will be.

So far, so good. I know a 21-year-old kid in Japan who is using what he’s learned from me and others to make a killing over there. That market has never seen this kind of advertising message before. And they’re eating it up. Next stop: China.

Meanwhile… America seems to be sliding backwards. Two kids out of every five think the government should approve stories before they get published? Are you friggin’ kidding me?

Yeah, yeah, I know there are restrictions on what we can say. Can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, can’t promise a pill will make you lose weight while you sleep, can’t slander someone. But most of these restrictions involve some type of damaging larceny or lying.

As of today, however, you still can’t get thrown in the hoosegow for telling the truth. The burden of proving what you say may be on your shoulders at times, but we still have the power of the First Amendment behind us.

And it truly is one powerful mutha. You want that amendment on your side. You want it watching your back, even if you don’t regularly write incendiary stuff. Cuz the road to fascism starts with allowing someone else to start censoring what you think and say.

So do yourself a favor. Google the Bill of Rights, and download it. (The copy I just printed from usinfo.state.gov is all of one and a half pages long.) The Constitution laid out the workings of the government… and these amendments were added to ensure that individuals were still, without question, top dog in the country. Regardless of your status.

This was radical stuff two centuries ago, and it’s still causing a fuss.

And even good people don’t quite understand what that fuss is all about. Your neighbors, often, are quite willing to trash the Bill of Rights, because they don’t see how it affects them personally.

Don’t be like them. It won’t kill you to read up on the foundation of the society that has created such a wonderful business climate for you. You know I’m not a sappy guy… but people died for this. People died so you have the right to use balls-to-the-wall copy to sell your widgets online.

That is not a small thing.

And never forget that there are people out there who despise these freedoms. They aren’t all foreigners, either. Some of them are growing up next door.

John Carlton

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” (www.slate.com) 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 www.doubletongued.org 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