Last week, I did a Facebook Live video explaining that all stories are not created equal. We talked about a story-based email sequence/landing page combo I just wrote that, in the client’s words, “murdered” the long-standing control. “Murdered” meaning “more than doubled sales.”
Today I wanted to give you a little more insight into writing stories that sell. I’d like to illustrate with a fictional story that created a real-life story. Everything will come together at the end.
Once upon a time in a land called Zamunda, a handsome prince left home to avoid marrying a woman his parents picked for him. The prince wanted to find true love for himself.
Before the king and queen “rescued” their son in the faraway city, they checked into the royal suite at the Waldorf Astoria…
You may recognize this story as the plot of the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America. When she was a little girl, Coming to America was one of my wife’s favorite movies. And even though the Waldorf played a tiny role in the film, my wife dreamed of staying in a room at the storied hotel someday.
The dream came true this past weekend, after nearly 28 years of waiting.
She woke up on the 15th floor of the Waldorf Astoria Chicago on her birthday.
Where All Stories Should Begin
When you write emails with the ultimate goal of selling something (product, service or idea), it is critical that you begin with aspiration.
Getting a room at the Waldorf was one of my wife’s lifelong aspirations. The moment I learned about it, it became MY aspiration to make her dream come true.
Your reader aspires to:
earn more money without abandoning his family 20 hours a day
have gorgeous, healthy hair her friends secretly envy
retire comfortably and ON TIME
find true love without flying from Zamunda to some faraway land
get rid of back pain without surgery
Connect – and connect quickly – with your reader by telling stories that tap into their specific aspirations. Yes, problems work too; people aspire to live without their struggles.
Your stories introduce them to a world where their aspirations can be realized…make it seem eminently possible and even easy…with the help of your product or service of course.
Over the past 12 months, I’ve written copy that’s generated over $6 million in sales (that I know of) for my clients. The weapon of choice has been email marketing.
That number is not meant to impress you, but to reassure you that what I’m about to share with you has been proven to work in the real world
I’m not sharing what I’ve heard about, but what I’ve experienced firsthand.
This could probably be a book, but I’ll keep it brief for now and we can dive into some details in the Email Copywriting Corner Facebook group if you’re interested. (You’ll have to request access if you’re not already a member.)
Here are a few of the most important lessons I learned, relearned or doubled down on this year:
1) Don’t assume you know your audience
Ask questions, do surveys, but most importantly, pay attention to the actions they take when interacting with your content.
What kind of subject lines do they open?
Where do they click?
What length seems to work best?
What kind of offers do they respond to?
What totally bombs?
2) Test a lot of (wildly different) things
This ties to the previous idea. You can’t measure the relative effectiveness of one proposition against another unless they’re different enough to be unmistakable from each other. That’s especially true when you don’t have tens of thousands of people seeing and reacting to the message.
The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. You can still test a red button vs. a blue one, but that’s not where breakthroughs are going to happen.
One example from early this year was a ~300 word email pointing to a long sales page vs. a 1500 word email going to an order form. In this particular instance, the long email outperformed the short one by 5X. This one baffled the heck out of me!
On the other hand, some of the highest converting landing pages I’ve seen only have one sentence on them. Different ideas work on different offerings, even with the same audience. That’s why you have to keep testing!
3) Quality is better than quantity
Not every company agrees. Even some of the clients I’ve worked with don’t agree. You can treat list building as a pure “numbers game” and bring in the maximum number of people with vague or misleading squeeze pages and hope some of them will eventually become good customers or clients. I believe and have generally found that being “for” a specific audience, with specific promises and a distinct voice will bring in far smaller numbers of far superior readers/prospects.
4) The most important thing is the offer, or more specifically, your Audience-Offer Alignment
Strong copy can only do so much for you. Selling something people want is much more important — and easier than convince them to buy something that doesn’t obviously fit into their plans/priorities.
5) Your reader responds how you train him to respond — starting with how you acquired him
If you bring in subscribers with a fear-based offer or lead magnet, that sets the stage for what they’ll expect in the future. It may be difficult to pivot later. If you offer discounts at the end of every month, they won’t respond to offers early in the month. If you always extend your deadline, they won’t take them (or you) seriously.
Brian Kurtz wrote a great article exploring this point, with a Gary Bencivenga/Boardroom case study.
Clarity and consistency are necessary for building trust and setting appropriate expectations. Variety is critical for maintaining interest and curiosity.
6) People are getting smarter, so response is harder than ever to get
Many marketers are resorting to gimmicks to overcome our instant delete reflexes: bait and switch subject lines and body copy. Using “re:” and one-word subject lines to catch you off guard and get the click.
Those tactics do work — but they’re getting less effective every day because you can only fool someone so many times. Use such techniques sparingly. Rather, strive to be truly valuable, interesting and trustworthy to your readers.
In other words, don’t try to be slick. It’s a bad long-term plan — and it’s not great in the near-term, either.
7) Stories sell
You’ve heard it a thousand times, and it’s no less true now than it was the first time. Personal stories, historical anecdotes, even fun little facts get people reading, keep them interested and neutralize their resistance, at least temporarily.
I’ve seen the addition of a narrative element double clickthrough rates and triple conversion rates vs. straight product description or marketing talk.
8) Sequences, not single shots
Give yourself more shots by communicating in sequences rather than single blasts. And if you connect one email to the next, you can increase readership and compound the persuasive power of the campaign as a whole.
Just remember to test this. One of the most recent tests I did pitted a single email vs. two email, one-day offer — and the single email outpeformed by about 20%.
9) Urgency works like nothing else
Most people procrastinate as if their sanity depends on it. Deadlines move people to action. Open invitations are often ignored.
10) Customer Lifetime Value is the ultimate metric — not open rates or CTR
As Clayton Makepeace told me, if you’re making money on the front end, you’re doing it wrong!
This isn’t necessarily a set-in-cement rule. The point is to abstain from worrying so much about what it costs to acquire customers. Focus on getting as many of the right people on your files as possible. With the right back end, the cost per acquisition is a relatively small matter.
Many entrepreneurs and marketers are too focused on the front end costs. Clayton’s advice is an attempt to rearrange that thinking.
As I mentioned near the beginning, there’s a conversation about these ideas in the Email Copywriting Corner group. If you’re interested in digging in a little more or sharing your experiences, you can do that in the Facebook group or here in the comments.
I recently had the good fortune to appear on Jason Wellington Strachan’s new show, the Daily Profit Podcast.
Jason, also known as the Copywriting Prince, reached out to me to talk about “the Donnie Bryant Method” for creating/discovering big ideas for your copy projects. According to me (and pretty much any other big name copywriter you can think of), the Big Idea is the most important part of any marketing message.
For example, here’s what David Ogilvy has to say on the subject:
“You will never win fame and fortune unless you invent big ideas. It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.”
More than “power words,” magic persuasive templates or fancy graphics, your marketing needs to be built on the foundation of a compelling big idea.
and try to form unique connections that will hit home for a particular audience.
By my most recent calculations, I spend about 6 hours a day reading. (Most days, I spend about 2-3 hours writing.)
Books, competitive intelligence, product knowledge stuff, news, copywriting and marketing stuff, etc.
Why? Because I very rarely come up with good ideas – I find them.
Reading and researching is how I make sure my brain has the raw material to make those big idea connections. To quote Ogilvy again:
“Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science, and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process.”
Even though I’ve let the cat out of the proverbial bag regarding the podcast, I think there’s still some valuable content in there. Give it a listen (Episode 5 here). And while you’re at it, check out Jason’s other interviews. There are a lot of very great insights from some of the sharpest copywriters and marketers on the planet.
Quick Copywriting Tip #9: Better Products Make for Better Copy.
These days, when people ask for advice about how to “fix” their sales copy, the first question I usually ask is…
Does anyone actually want to buy this?
Sounds like a jerk question. Some people are offended when I ask it. I’m not trying to be a jerk. But this is THE question.
If people don’t already want the product or the result it produces, there isn’t much point in talking about the copy. There has to be at least a modicum of desire.
Example from my city (Bourbonnais, IL): How does a funeral home sell complimentary bus trips? What copy changes could make this appealing?
Last year, there was a client I really wanted to work with. At some point during our conversation, I told the president of the company “I can’t work miracles on demand. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ve got the wrong guy.”
Miracles, by definition, cannot be produced on demand. There are a few copywriters who come close.
Good products — products targeted at specific needs — need fewer miracles. They make copy better almost by default.
If your product doesn’t meet the market where it’s at...if no one signs up for the complimentary funeral parlor bus trip… don’t automatically blame the copy.
Find out what people want and make that. Give your copywriter something to work with.
Quick Copywriting Tip #8: Sequences Beat Single Shots.
In the climax of the old movie Over the Top, Lincoln Hawk (a role for which Sylvester Stallone was nominated Worst Actor in 1988) faces off with Bull Hurley in the championship round of an arm wrestling tournament.
Hawk is the underdog, both in the competition and in life. He needs to the prize money and he desperately wants to prove he’s not a loser to his son’s grandfather.
And he does win in the end…and all is right with the world. Suddenly, his family life is happy and his trucking business is on the fast track.
Here’s the thing. There’s only one reason Hawk even had a shot to become the champ: it was a double elimination tournament. “Lose twice and you’re out,” as the announcer said repeatedly.
After losing to John Grizzly in an earlier round, Hawk kept going and going, all the way to ultimate victory.
Two tips for today:
1) Avoid watching Over the Top at all costs. I’ve spoiled the ending for you anyway!
2) You have the ability to set up the rules of your marketing “tournament.” One-and-done messages are totally unnecessary.
Design sequences to take multiple attempts at winning him over.
Each message can build on the previous one, making your case more compelling each time…painting a clearer picture of the reality, severity and immediacy of the problem you solve…and stacking benefit on benefit to make the choice obvious.
To a surprising degree, you get to make the rules. Set yourself up to win.
Don’t settle for single elimination.
Have a productive day!
P.S. I’m kidding about how terrible Over the Top is. But I’m not kidding about Stallone’s nomination for Worst Actor.
Entrepreneurs often spend their energy building a “better mousetrap” and promoting it as such.
The most effective persuasion, though, starts by building bigger mice (to borrow a line from Breakthrough Advertising).
Your reader may already see the symptoms, but it’s up to you to make sure he knows what those symptoms mean.
It is important to understand the details about your product/service/solution. It’s usually more important for him to have clear understanding of the reality, severity and immediacy of the problem he’s facing — and a clear picture of what’s at stake if he ignores you or procrastinates too long.
Beneath the headline of the Jim Rutz’s “Read This or Die” promotion, you learn that “Today you have a 95 percent chance of eventually dying for which there is already a known cure somewhere on the planet.” If that statistic is anywhere near accurate, don’t you almost HAVE to read more?
There is no question what’s at stake. If you don’t heed the warning, you know exactly what’s going to happen. No alternative interpretations are possible.
Rutz then takes 52 pages to prove his point, build trust and offer a no-brainer solution.
Is your marketing message THIS clear? Do you address the problems your potential client is facing THIS plainly? Are you willing to be bold enough to tell the whole truth?
Naturally, most businesses don’t deal with life-and-death situations. But every business does solve a problem or relieve some kind of pain. You can still spell out reality, severity and immediacy of the issue, as well as the consequences of inaction in vivid detail.
We’re not in the business of scaring people. But it’s our responsibility to warn people about difficulties we can help them avoid.
I got a bunch of hate mail a few weeks ago. Actually, the Vice President of one of my clients got hate mail…because of something I wrote.
Here’s one of the notes:
“I DON’T KNOW WHO YOU THINK YOU ARE BUT YOU SENDING ME INSULTING EMAILS IS UNPROFESSIONAL AND I’M GLAD I DIDN’T GET INVOLVED WITH [ client name withheld] AND THANKS TO YOU NEVER WILL.” (Emphasis mine)
The sales reps were upset that they had to deal with a barrage of emails like these.
The VP, whose name was on the offending message, had mixed feelings. Sales were through the roof (relative to the norm)…on a product that’s somewhat difficult to sell. But “potential buyers” were upset with him.
As I said to the Mr. Vice President, “The people who complain are probably never going to become paying customers anyway. This kind of reaction is how you know you’re doing it right!“
Let’s focus for a moment on the angry, all caps email I shared above.
The final line brings a crucial issue to light: you need to get good at gaining people’s TRUST.
This guy suspected that he couldn’t trust my client – and the marketing message that pushed him over the edge proved (in his mind) his suspicion was correct.
We all face this obstacle. But we don’t always use trust as an opportunity.
In the copy I wrote, my client came across more as a salesperson (which he is) than an expert or leader (which is is). And it’s hard to trust salespeople.
Everything in the message was true. Honesty isn’t enough to make people trust you. It’s just the beginning!
Earning the kind of trust that makes it easy (or at least easier) for prospects to become clients takes work.
Pillars of Proof
At a conference in Denver earlier this month, Patrick Bove, Senior Copywriter at Stansberry Research described 5 Pillars of Proof you should be using to defeat skepticism and win trust from your should-be clients. Here’s a very quick overview from a mind-blowing session:
Proof of Character
Who are you? Why should I believe you?
What’s your track record? What achievements can verify your expertise?
Proof of Story
How do I know you’re not making this stuff up?
Are there 3rd party sources that verify the point you’re making?
Proof of Catalyst
Why is your story important to me NOW
Proof of Product
Demonstration: Don’t just tell me about your product. Show me it works.
Who does it work for and when? Who is it not right for?
Testimonials, case studies, etc.
Notice how testimonials are great, but they’re just not enough to convince people anymore. If you want to make trust your supreme marketing advantage, you’ll have to go much further.
The good news is, your competitors aren’t doing any of this. Once you start implementing these ideas, you’ll probably be light-years ahead.
Quick Copywriting Tip #5: In most cases, you can get away with infuriating 95% of your list/audience in an effort to win over the 5% who are your best buyers and referrers.
Donald Trump is 24 karat gold.
For comedians, journalists, content creators and lovers of funny memes, anyway. Maybe not so much for the American people, or citizens of the world at large.
Marketers and entrepreneurs can learn quite a bit from him, too. Far more than we have time to discuss here.
As the subject line states, I’ve avoided writing about The Donald, but for this Quick Copywriting Tip, I can’t think of a better illustration.
As of 1 hour ago, 60.4% of Americans dislike/despise Trump, according to data aggregated from 171 polls. Just 2 weeks ago, his unfavorable rating was as high as 67.8%.
These are historically BAD numbers for presidential nominees. (Hillary Clinton’s numbers are not much better.)
And yet, he’s amassed the most primary votes of any Republican ever. Voters are taking action. And it’s not because Trump’s trying to appeal to the masses.
Everyone has an opinion about him. According to the polls I mentioned, only 2.6% of people are undecided about him.
Amazingly 3.1% of people are undecided about President Obama because they “haven’t heard enough” to rate him. After over 7 years in office — and a bazillion news stories about him.
What does all this mean for you?
Your customers aren’t looking for people who can “kinda-maybe” solve their problems. They don’t want their lives to be 2% better. They want total transformation – or as close to it as they can get.
They want to start winning. Or win more “yuge” victories.
“… there is one thing you can count on: your family, friends, customers, clients and even everyone you have yet to meet will have these needs met by someone. The only question is, will it be by you?” ~ Blair Warren (accents mine)
You can’t control who is in the market for what you sell and who isn’t. It’s your job to be the clear-cut choice for a specific someone. That may mean offending someone else in the process.
That’s cool. Those people are not your ideal customers. There’s a good chance they’d never give you any money anyway.
Watering yourself and your message down to avoid ruffling their feathers means…well, it means that you’re watered down. And that will have an adverse effect on those people who love who you are and what you stand for.
Attract people or repel them. Just don’t be boring! You can’t bore people into buying.
So stand boldly for something — and don’t be scared to be (appropriately) loud about it.
Whether you’re a copywriter an entrepreneur who wants to connect better with your customers (and sell more stuff, without being pushy, greasy or sleazy), you’re not going to want to miss this.
Hope to see you tonight!
**Update** If you know you should be sending more emails to your list, but you have trouble finding ideas to write about, Emails That Make Sales may be just what you’re looking for. You’ll get enough ideas to write an email every day of the month (if you’d like), along with multiple ways to approach each idea. You’ll also receive exclusive training to write better emails faster.
**Update #2 [5/10/17]** We’ve just made the recording of most of this masterclass available to the public. Enjoy!