Field Notes from My $6 Million Year

Email Marketing Field Notes

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!

Customers vote with their money - Richard Armstrong
Customers tell you the truth by what they BUY. I stole this slide from Richard Armstrong’s AWAI keynote

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!

David Deutsch Parris Lampropoulos Clayton Makepeace copywriting
Sitting on stage with direct response titans Clayton Makepeace, David Deutsch and Parris Lampropoulos at an AWAI event

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.

You can also get exclusive email training at Emails That Make Sales.

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Miracles, by Definition (Copywriting Tip #9)

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?

copywriting tip offers

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.

According to Gary Bencivenga, this is the 9-word secret so powerful that it has built more fortunes than any other principle in marketing: A gifted product is mightier than a gifted pen.

Have a productive day!

P.S. Any creative ideas about how to sell those bus trips??? 🙂

Check out all 13 Quick Copywriting Tips.

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The Disbelief-Based USP

suspension of disbelief usp chicago

Allow me to summarize the Belief-Based USP report, for which this report is the natural counterpart:

Your selling proposition will be most powerful when it 1) aligns with a deeply-held and strongly-felt belief your ideal client holds and 2) offers something that he wants to believe is possible, and believes he can attain – with the right assistance.

The same way that the USP isn’t about being primarily about being unique, a belief-based USP isn’t focused on being believable, although it needs to be credible. Rather, it’s focused on matching existing beliefs and attaching itself to them.

Example: Many people believe Wall Street insiders know secrets the average investor doesn’t. Companies that sell financial newsletters bank on that belief – literally.

“Doomsday Preppers” believe disaster is right around the corner, and they can’t trust the government, their neighbors, etc. But they do trust their preferred source of information. (This is a booming industry, in case you didn’t know.)

Steve Jobs believed alternative treatments were superior to traditional Western medicine for fighting pancreatic tumors.

We believe police officers are hate-filled racist bullies…or everyday heroes.

Belief is human nature. Your beliefs determine your actions, including your buying decisions and “brand loyalty.”

“If you are not reminding your prospective customers of the existent foundation of an accepted fact that supports your proposition, you are missing out on something important.” ~ Chip Kessler

The Flip Side of the Belief Coin

You USP has to both inflame the desire to believe AND the willingness to suspend disbelief as necessary.

Consider this. Whenever you step into a movie theater or turn on Netflix, you engage in a subtle volitional activity: you flick off the unbelief switch in your brain — or at least put it in standby mode. You know you’re watching a movie…you know parts of the plot are totally unrealistic…but for the sake of enjoying the story, you accept what you see as truth.

Sales, marketing and copywriting experts often repeat the idea that people make decisions emotionally, then justify their emotional choices with their rational minds. And that’s true.

Let’s take it one step further.

If your USP generates a strong enough desire, if it hits the right emotional sweet spot, your ideal customer will, of necessity, explain away any disbelief.

I’m told that a surprisingly high number of medical doctors purchase “male enhancement” pills. A good story about a scientific breakthrough or the discovery of ancient herbal formulas mixed with some testimonials overpower 6+ years of higher education.

“The strongest appeal you can make is emotionally. If you can get their emotions going, make them forget their logic, you’ve got them. AT MTV, WE DON’T SHOOT FOR THE 14-YEAR OLDS, WE OWN THEM.” ~ Bob Pittman, “MTV is Rock Around the Clock.” Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 3, 1982

Your USP has to strike at the emotional heart of the hearer/reader and create a vision in his mind. For a moment, he has to dissociate from the “real world” and see himself enjoying the benefits he’ll receive after buying from you.

Self-Sabotage

If you’ve ever tried to sell anything, especially belly-to-belly, you’ve seen it happen. Your prospect obviously sees the value in what you’re selling. It’s clearly the solution to his problem. But something is holding him back from saying “yes.”

So you explain your risk-free guarantee. He STILL can’t get past the obstacle.

What’s the problem?

People get in their own way. They often prevent themselves from doing what’s in their own best interests:

  • They don’t believe they can really accomplish the long-awaited goal. Maybe their peers, but not them
  • They become addicted to their identity as a non-attainer – they like being “starving artist,” failed inventor, or mediocre performer. People sabotage themselves ALL THE TIME. They want to succeed, but not more than they want to keep doing the same things that guarantee they won’t succeed
  • They’re scared of what it would mean to succeed (i.e. CHANGE)
  • They’re worried about what their spouse or their friends will think about them
  • The topic you’re talking about isn’t a priority for them, even though it should be
  • Etc…

How do you get people to suspend these limiting (dis)beliefs?

Instead of head-on argument, give them raw material to come to draw their own conclusion in your favor.

“Without a doubt, we are more committed to what we conclude than what we are told. If we come to believe something is false, virtually nothing will convince us it is true. If we come to believe something is true, virtually nothing will convince us it is false.” ~ Blair Warren

1) Be the kind of character people WANT to believe in and trust. This is rarely done by coming up with a catchy catchphrase. It takes demonstration, consistency and clarity of message.

Strong personalities take us on journeys and activate the imagination. Polarizing figures force us to make choices. Authoritative experts engender trust. Enthusiastic people are contagious. Don’t you feel like you know the characters and celebrities personally?

  • David Blane
  • Elon Musk
  • Stephen Curry (NBA’s 2015 MVP)
  • Warren Buffett
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Rick Grimes (from Walking Dead)

2) Stack the value – and don’t leave out the cost of inaction.

Let me use an example from my world. John Carlton touts himself as “the most ripped-off and respected copywriter on the planet.” And he probably is. You wouldn’t take that at face value, but after reading his stuff, listening to him and seeing how many other people esteem him, you’ll come to the conclusion that he’s legit.

If you’re looking for a copywriting mentor, he’s right at the top of the list. If you COULD hire him, the value is clear. If you’re thinking about hiring someone else, it is implied that such a decision will cost you unspeakable sums in lost profit.

Believe me, Carlton’s public persona is no accident.

Think about a simpler proposition: the George Foreman Grill. The value stack is making delicious food quickly and easily with less fat than other cooking methods. The cost of inaction? Rubbery burgers swimming in pools of liquid cow fat on your dinner table.

3) Exude confidence, both personally and in your messaging. Make big enough, bold enough promises to ignite desire. Draw a specific picture in the mind of your should-be customer, one he can see himself participating in.

4) Offer undeniable proof to alleviate fear and justify their desires with logically.

It should go without saying that a proposition MUST be believable if it’s going to work. Proof elements (testimonials, scientific or clinical evidence and demonstrations) help clear away doubt. People don’t buy when they don’t trust.

5) Make it easy to take the first step.

6) Dig in for the long haul. In many cases, the first exposure may not do the trick. The more a person is exposed to an idea, the more likely he is to believe it (look up the illusory truth effect and mere-exposure theory).

To Conclude

In a movie theater, people voluntarily hit the pause button on their disbelief and skepticism.

In business, that is not your customer’s job. It’s your job to make it desirable and easy to suspend their doubts.

Helping your should-be customers get out of their own way and believe your USP is a two-fold duty: inspire desire and earn trust.

Easy for me to say, right? Of course it is. But I also help my clients achieve this goal in their own marketing efforts.

“Belief is today’s most overlooked yet most powerful key to boosting… Harness it and you unleash the core atomic power for exploding response. Because the hunger for belief is so vast in every market, so deep-seated in human nature itself, you can tap into it again and again—infinitely—to make yourself and your clients rich.”     ~ Gary Bencivenga

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Are We Missing the Point (of Marketing)?

Missing the Point of Marketing

An incalculable number of forces conspire to prevent your should-be customers from buying from you.

The purpose of marketing is to neutralize all those obstacles preventing a potential customer from acting in his own best interest (that is, doing business with you).

But before it can do that, there has to be some compelling reason why anyone should buy from you. That is not a marketing function, per se. It’s a matter of creating an outstanding product or service.

“Advertising doesn’t create a product advantage. It can only convey it…No matter how skillful you are, you can’t invent a product advantage that doesn’t exist.” ~ Bill Bernbach

Compelling copy is extremely important. But most copywriters will admit…if they’re knowledgeable and honest… that presenting a great product to the right audience is MOST of the work.

– Great messaging for a worthless product won’t accomplish much in the long run.
– Strong marketing aimed at the wrong crowd will miss the mark.

On the other hand, if you offer a product that scratches a specific itch in that hard-to-reach spot on the back of a specific audience, any marketing message you create has inherent persuasive power. The Unique Selling Proposition itself grabs the attention and interest of the potential customer.

“This is EXACTLY what I need!” he might think to himself. That’s when he starts selling himself on the idea of buying from you.

That’s why it’s so critical for entrepreneurs, salespeople and marketers to discover their own USP and articulate it with clarity.

The point of marketing is not simply to sell whatever you’ve got. Marketing starts with making sure you’re selling something people want and need. Then you find ways to help your target audience experience the advantages of buying your product or service.

As you think about your own USP, you may be interested in reading “Juxta-Positioning: Outmaneuvering Your Competitors Brilliantly” Sometimes thinking about your product in relation to everything else out there can clarify what’s special about you.

Donnie

P.S. “A gifted product is mightier than a gifted pen.” ~ Gary Bencivenga

As people become increasingly savvy when it comes to weeding out ads, we have to get increasingly adept at communicating valuable messages about things that matter to people. That starts with having a gifted product, not being a wordsmith who uses flowery words to describe his crap.

 

 

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Strategic Truth-Telling

The world is full of phonies, deceivers and cheats. In the arenas of advertisers and salespeople, this seems to be especially true.

Empty promises, bogus guarantees and plain ol’ swindles pervade the marketplace. Most people automatically tune out a large percentage of overt advertisements. No one trusts salespeople; they are often dismissed before they even speak. (Believe me, I’ve been there.) We all know it’s true. That’s just how things are.

In spite of that fact, a profound longing exists inside of each of us: a longing to believe. Gary Bencivenga, one of the few living legends of copywriting, teaches that “Almost everyone in the world… is desperately searching for someone to believe in. Be that person, and you can write your own ticket.” The dishonest climate of the day makes the search for that kind of person difficult. Those found to be trustworthy stand to benefit immensely.

Telling the truth can be used as a powerful business and marketing strategy.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating a Machiavellian view of dealing with truth. 100% honesty is the only way to business. Customers and prospects deeply desire to believe, but they have been forced into skepticism. Only one arrow can pierce the armor of doubt: TRUTH.

How Can Truth-Telling Be Used As a Marketing Strategy?

When we think of establishing our credibility and building trust, we usually picture a long-term process. And it is. Allowing events to progress naturally, it can take months or years to get where you want to be.You should never tell lies or deceive. Customers need to know you’re not going to mislead them or take advantage of them. Don’t settle for marketing that is simply credible. Actually be the company that your customers can trust.

Let’s consider another perspective. Most of my readers market their products and services using direct response methods. What is one defining characteristic of direct response marketers? We do not wait for “events to progress naturally.” We don’t wait for prospects to eventually stumble across our offers and maybe buy something. We take action to cause individuals in our target audience to respond in a particular way.

Strategic truth-telling relies on the same principle.

Rather than relying on chance and (passively) watching trust grow over time, it is possible to inject “moments of truth” into otherwise normal interactions. Build your believability factor actively, purposefully. The “que sera, sera” approach is not a viable strategy.

Let me state emphatically that integrity is not a strategy. It is a way of life.

Now for the good stuff. Let’s discuss 4 specific truth-telling techniques. You will no longer have to hope that you are gaining your audience’s trust. Take action! Implement these steps and gain control of building your believability.

1. The Preemptive Strike

Have you heard the famous story about Claude Hopkins and Schlitz Beer? How one advertising campaign that took Schlitz from 5th place to being in a dead heat with the number one brand in a few months?

Hopkins tells the tale in his book, My Life in Advertising. I won’t repeat it here, but do yourself a favor and look it up. There’s a great lesson to be taken from the narrative. The major take-away from that campaign: be the first company to “tell the facts,” and you gain supremacy in the minds of your customers and prospects.

Instead of just talking about how totally rad your product is, tell the story of why it’s so great. What do you do that makes what you do so impressive?

Is there a way you can use this concept in your own marketing? Think of some aspect of your process, one ingredient you use, or anything that you can tell your audience about that they don’t know. You don’t have to be the only company doing it. You don’t have to be the first company to do it. You just have to be the first to say it. Once you’ve said it, you own it. Anyone else to make similar claims will be seen as a copy cat.

There are so many voices screaming for the attention of the masses. And as much as businesses may think they’re being unique, nearly all advertising sounds the same on the surface. You can stand out by coming at the issue from a different angle. Give meaning to the claims you make about your product, service or brand by using this classic technique of preemption.

2. Full Disclosure

Voluntary vulnerability is startlingly effective at creating credibility. I think there are 3 reasons for that.

Firstly, no one does it. Everyone is too scared to take the risk. Plus, they’ve spent so much time trying to appear to be perfect. They can’t afford to let that illusion disappear. By being one of the rare few that will be open and honest, you position yourself as one of the rare few companies or individuals worth listening to.

Secondly, you show that you care more about the truth than about your image. Your image is how you want to appear. But reality is what really matters.

Thirdly, an emotional element comes into play. Putting yourself or your company in a position of openness is not logical (or at least it doesn’t appear to be so). The result is that the listener is almost forced to react emotionally, not just intellectually.

Everyone loves the inside scoop. Confessions are always a hot ticket. When people feel like you’ve told them something “intimate” you become more of a person than a salesperson. More of a friend. Trust flows easily in that environment.

Show that you have nothing to hide. Prove that you care more about the customer experience than about your image.

This should be an aggressive technique. Remember, we’re thinking of injecting truth deliberately for the purpose of building trust. Maybe it’s as simple as endearing yourself to your email list by telling an embarrassing personal story. You didn’t have to let anyone know about the time you were tricked into climbing into a high school locker, only to find yourself locked in and abandoned (yes, that happened to me).

Make the information interesting, but also find a way to make it relevant.

Also, admit when you’re wrong, when you don’t know the answer, or when you can’t help someone. It always pays off in the long run.

3. Flattery Will Get You Nowhere – Unless It’s Genuine

No one likes a “yes man” or a butt-kisser.

If you want to be believed, have the guts to challenge conventional wisdom or popular opinions. Speak your mind. Be confident and speak authoritatively. You do not have to agree with anyone all the time, even if they’re paying you. In fact, that’ll do more harm than good for all parties involved.

That doesn’t mean be arrogant, or purposely combative. But don’t fall for the line of thinking that says “the more I tell this client how much of a genius he is, the more business I’ll get.” Think more in terms of “the truth will make you free.”

Is it just me, or do people who always have flattering words on their lips seem to be up to no good? Either they don’t have minds of their own, or they’re sycophants. It’s hard to respect either. Don’t be that person or business.

This is less a technique to be used than it is a position to be adhered to. We’re talking about strategy. You want to set yourself up as the person who will tell the truth no matter what it costs. That’s who people will trust. People will believe in you, and that’s how you get to write your own ticket, as Bencivenga says.

I’ve had a client ask tell me that I didn’t have to agree with everything he said. His ideas were great; I wasn’t trying to be obsequious. The point is that my posture was weakened slightly by the appearance that I was just going along with whatever he said. That’s not the place you want to be in.

4. Be A Giver

You should always seek to give more than you take. Provide more value than you charge for.

You should be educating your customers, not just selling to them. Education is one of the most compelling selling tools in existence. But you should give valuable content and actionable information to your audience at least as often as you ask them to buy something from you.

Being a giver is one of the surest ways to become a trusted person or organization. Of course you need to generate revenue. Your customers understand that. But if the only time they hear from you is when you have a sales pitch, you become a nuisance. They feel as if you look at them like dollar signs instead of human beings.

If you want to build credibility, to be the person or company that others believe in, help them get what they want out of life. When you look out for the needs and desires of other people, you begin to operate on a higher level.

Blogs, newsletters and content-rich emails are popular for a reason. We live in the information age. Perhaps telling the truth has never been such an important element of business success.

Be strategic in your execution. Blogs should be focused. Create content so that visitors know what to expect and how to get what they need. Self-promotion is not an effective way to gain trust. Providing info that improves people’s lives is a great way to become a trusted expert.

You can either promote yourself, or do high-quality work that does the promoting for you. Which do you think works better?

Final Thoughts

Most business people you know let their businesses “drift downstream” and hope for the best. My hope is that you are not one of those individuals. There are some things that you can’t control (the weather, for example), but there are nearly always ways to move forward with purpose and vision. Strategic truth-telling is another way to take more control over your life and business.

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Wasting Money on Short Copy

“The truth is, the unmotivated 95% won’t read short copy or long! So if you shorten your copy in a misguided attempt to get a higher readership among the unmotivated 95%, you’ll lose that unmotivated 95% anyway. But you will also deprive the motivated 5% of the longer sales copy they need to make a favorable decision. You will waste 100% of your money if you downsize your message to accommodate the unmotivated 95%.

“Write instead only to the motivated 5% and upsize your message to include everything your most motivated, eager-to-buy prospects want to know!”

– Gary Bencivenga, from his 29th Marketing Bullet

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