What Romance Novels Can Teach You About Copywriting

By Sonia Simone

The latest Copyblogger post! It’s been getting some very nice comments, which always makes me feel warm & fuzzy.


The Hidden Cost of Playing It Safe

By Sonia Simone

safety pup

A lot of us put significant energy into keeping it safe. We don’t want to do anything that wouldn’t be tasteful. We don’t want to do anything that would get on anyone’s nerves. And we truly, madly, deeply don’t want to make any mistakes. If we get a complaint or some crabby feedback, we scurry back and "fix" what we did so it won’t upset anyone.

We guard carefully against "losing" any readers or customers. (When we should be putting more energy into truly winning some.) We play by the rules. We take pains never to offend anyone, and we believe fervently that that keeps us safe.

We are dead wrong.

Boring is dangerous
The problem with boring is, you don’t see the damage it causes. It’s easy to miss the huge majority who yawn and click the Stumble button again. You never see the customers who don’t come back because they don’t ever think about you. You have no idea of the business you’re missing out on because your communication is just too nice and normal for anyone to remember or talk about.

It’s easy to tell yourself that the problem is the short attention spans that are rampant today, or the monumental failure of the public taste, or that there’s too much competition. Those may all be true, but that doesn’t get you any business. It’s painfully easy to blame your lack of success on what’s wrong with everyone else.

Being boring doesn’t keep you safe. Maybe it used to, for a little while, but it doesn’t any more. If you want to really terrify yourself, pick up a book called Funky Business. The authors are Swedish economics professors, and come across a tiny bit like Saturday Night Live characters ("Ja, we go to discos. Also we wear black.") but they’ve got a razor-sharp analysis of the new economic primordial soup we’re all swimming around in.

I try not to swear on the blog, so I can’t tell you the Funky Business take on what the 21st-century economy boils down to, but I can tell you: it’s not playing it safe.

Remember when you were in second grade and there was that fearless, fast kid who used to swoop in and steal your Snickers before you really understood what was happening? That kid is still around, and he’s launching a lean, aggressive, competitive little business that’s about to do it again.

Being an idiot is not the answer
Being a damned fool works for some people, but I’ll tell you, it’s got to be genuine. I doubt the damned fool strategy will work for you, for one reason: damned fools don’t read my blog. Despite my best efforts, I use too many big words and I keep picking weird pictures.

So most of you reading this are, well, smarter than the general population. Which can be something of a handicap, quite frankly. Let me guess, history majors, lit majors, maybe the occasional dual-major in Russian and math? (Tell us in the comments!) And, of course, the usual collection of self-taught misfits who write essays (which you might call blog posts) for fun on the influences of Proust in Ren & Stimpy. You’re a bunch of smartypants, which is why you come here for advice.

So if Jon Morrow was right in his terrific recent post, and valedictorians make lousy bloggers (and/or marketers), what are we supposed to do about that?

Here’s Jon’s answer, which I like a lot.

Unlike high school, being a blogosphere “clown” is less about acting stupid and more about telling the truth in an interesting way. Sometimes they’ll laugh, sometimes they’ll get mad, and sometimes they’ll be thinking about your post two weeks later. Regardless, as long as you’ve captured and maintained their attention, you’ve won.

Your to-do list

  • Know what you know, then hold your ground. Don’t water your stuff down because someone got pissy about it. If you’re pissing some people off, you’re on to something.
  • Keep looking for interesting angles. Look for striking metaphors, startling examples, powerful stories.
  • Come up with some rituals to celebrate failure. There is no way to succeed except through good old embarrassing, stinky failure. I’ve just discovered Molly Gordon, and she has a great technique in her eBook Principles of Authentic Promotion called the "Failure Bow." The eBook is free when you subscribe to her weekly e-newsletter (the opt-in form is on the right side of the page).
  • Do at least one thing you think is a little tacky, just because you secretly love it.
  • Consider writing a journal every day, especially some freewriting where you keep your pen (or keyboard) moving for 20 minutes without letting yourself stop. Let the words sit a week or two, then go back through your journals and look for stuff that freaks you out a little. There’s something there you should be mining.

Related reading

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Flickr Creative Commons image by exfordy

How to Build Stronger Customer Relationships

By Sonia Simone

For those who don’t read Copyblogger, I have another post there this week on using conversation to create more remarkable connections with customers. Come by and say hi!

What Do You Really Do?

By Sonia Simone

yoyogi-girls-3 by ehnmark

Ittybiz is one of my two or three favorite blogs, and one of the few I read religiously every day. She helps small businesses with their marketing, and she has an amazing ability to cut through people’s self delusion and help them figure out what they really do.

Naomi gave us five questions to answer–privately for ourselves, and publicly for our customers. So far I’ve resisted the "meme" phenomenon (IMO not the right word for it, but I can’t think of a better one, damn it), but I liked these questions a lot, and answering them did help me see some things more clearly.

If you have any kind of regular connection with customers–a blog, a Squidoo lens, a newsletter–you might consider answering these questions to get to the heart of what you do.

(If you blog these or put them on the Web in some way, let me know with a trackback or a comment and I’ll post a link so we can all swing by and get to know you better.)

What’s your game? What do you do?
I’m a shrink for businesses–both big businesses and small ones. I help them build better relationships with their customers by creating better communication.

Why do you do it? Do you love it, or do you just have one of those creepy knacks?
I love it and I have one of those creepy knacks. Somewhere along the line I got good at seeing through to what folks were really good at, and helping them put that into words.

Who are your customers? What kind of people would need or want what you offer?
Folks who hate marketing but don’t want their business to die.

What’s your marketing USP? Why should I buy from you instead of the other losers?
The kind of marketing I do doesn’t require you to choose between your soul and the success of your business. You can have both–in fact, that’s where you find the greatest successes. I can help you with that.

What’s next for you? What’s the big plan?
I’m putting together some products that will help people learn effective, ethical marketing for themselves. Straight info–no sleazy, unethical tricks and no feel-good fluff. My motivation for this has been my notable lack of success in working 48-hour days to keep up with all of the people I want to help.

Flickr Creative Commons image by ehnmark

50 Things Your Customers Wish You Knew

50 things your customers wish you knew

Some items on this list might seem cynical, but they’re not. The fact is, it doesn’t matter what kind of customers you have. I don’t care if your customers are kidney donors or Zen masters or million-dollar contributors to your nonprofit organization. Each one of us has some less-than-loveable characteristics that tend to come to the forefront when we’re in the role of customer.

If you knew, really knew, these 50 things about your customers, and acted accordingly, you’d gain their trust and even their love. After all, who doesn’t want to be loved despite all our flaws and embarrassing insecurities? The better you understand both the noble and not-so-noble secrets in your customers’ consciousness, the better you can serve them.

Here are 50 things your customers wish you knew: about them, about how they see you, and about your relationship.

  1. I don’t need you to be perfect, but I do need to know I can rely on you.
  2. Telling me what you don’t know makes me trust you.
  3. It means a lot when you take the time to thank me for my business or a referral.
  4. You don’t need to do all that much to be a superhero. Just do exactly what you say you will do.
  5. A friendly voice on the other side of the phone means more than you can imagine.
  6. Your employees treat me about as well as you treat them.
  7. I don’t mind spending the money, as long as I feel I’m getting real value.
  8. My life is really stressful. If you can reduce that stress, you become immensely valuable to me.
  9. I want to tell you what would make this relationship better for me. Why don’t you ever ask me?
  10. I don’t understand a lot of the messages you send me. Can you make them clearer?
  11. My life is very complicated. If you make it easy for me to just buy a simple all-in-one package that I can use without learning anything, I’ll take it and be grateful. (I’ll even pay a premium for it.)
  12. I want to trust you, but it’s hard for me to trust anyone.
  13. Once you’ve won my trust and loyalty, the truth is you can screw up once in awhile and I will forgive you. If I don’t think you’re taking me for granted, that is.
  14. When I refer my friends and you give them exceptional service, that makes me look and feel smart. I love that.
  15. I spend an awful lot of time being scared to death.
  16. The wealthier I get, the more I like free stuff.
  17. A lot of the time, I secretly feel like a lost little kid. I don’t admit it, but I want to be taken care of.
  18. I’m lousy at admitting I was wrong, but I respect you when you do it.
  19. I like to get little goodies no one else is getting.
  20. I don’t understand how to use your Web site, but I can’t admit that because it would make me feel dumb.
  21. There’s no worse feeling than feeling like I was suckered into trusting you. If I’m screaming at you or one of your employees, that feeling is probably behind it somewhere.
  22. Our relationship isn’t equal and it never will be.
  23. I get crazy jealous if I think you love another customer more than you love me.
  24. I don’t have any interest in your excuses. In fact, I usually don’t notice them at all, and if I do, they annoy me.
  25. I find myself endlessly fascinating.
  26. I hate salespeople, but I really like to buy things.
  27. I only like to communicate over the phone/Web/mail and I hate when you try to make me communicate with you over the mail/phone/Web.
  28. I want to buy your product, but I need you to help me justify it to myself.
  29. There’s something in my life I’m afraid of losing. If you can make me feel like you’ve protected it for me, my gratitude will be intense and eternal.
  30. I’ll give you anything you ask if you can help me not feel silly.
  31. I want you to do the hard work for me. Even better if I can get all the credit.
  32. I’d rather do it the convoluted hard way than learn something new.
  33. I’d love to know something about your product that I could use to brag at a dinner party.
  34. I have the attention span of a goldfish. Go too long without contacting me and I’ll simply forget you exist.
  35. Money is no object when it comes to my obsessions.
  36. What you think you’re good at is not what you’re good at. Ask me, and I’ll tell you what you do better than anyone else.
  37. I like it when I feel like you’re talking just to me.
  38. It infuriates me when you answer the phone while I’m talking with you face-to-face.
  39. Embarrassment scares me more than death.
  40. I’m lazier than I would ever admit.
  41. I’m more selfish than I would ever admit.
  42. I’m more vain than I would ever admit.
  43. I’m more insecure than I would ever admit.
  44. Despite all that, I secretly think I’m a better person than most people. Help me believe that and we’ll be fast friends.
  45. I believe I deserve much more than I’m getting.
  46. I want to tell you everything you need to know in order to sell to me, but I’m lazy. Make it easy enough and I will. (Especially if you flatter me a little.)
  47. I don’t know what I want most of the time. You need to figure it out for me.
  48. I mostly daydream about making life better for myself, but I’ll take action to keep from losing what’s mine.
  49. I believe that most of what’s wrong in my life is someone else’s fault. Let me keep that cozy illusion and I’ll believe anything you say.
  50. It really is all about me.

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Flickr Creative Commons image by clairity

Oh, Grandma, What Big Lies You Tell

Keeping company with wolvesI recently heard a recording of a certain successful Internet marketer. The recording was made some years ago, before he got quite so successful. He was telling a seminar crowd how good he was at the "sincerity thing."

He didn’t quite come out and say he was faking his sweet, goofy, ordinary guy style. But let’s just say that the fast-talking guy running through his bag of techniques to sell ice to Eskimos didn’t exactly strike me as Andy Griffith.

Is it working for him?

It seems to be. The guy is doing extremely well even if you assume he’s inflating his income by 10 times (Which I do). People want his product, which is probably perfectly ok. The schtick is working.

Does that mean you should do the same? Study techniques on how to fool people? Learn to be a better trickster and go buy a $1,995 information product (with a follow-up continuity program, of course, so they can keep dinging you for a few hundred bucks a month) on how to create more effective sheep’s clothing?

I guess that’s up to you.

There’s a sucker born every minute
I notice that a lot of the internet marketing folks (many of whom seem comfortable with the title "guru") have started to quote P.T. Barnum as a business mentor. Googling around, I find that Barnum apparently did not actually ever say the quote he is best known for, "There’s a sucker born every minute." His business rival did, after Barnum out-faked the rival’s fake and drew throngs to pay tickets for a literally gigantic hoax.

Barnum made a tidy career out of tricking the gullible. If that’s the kind of game you enjoy, I’m not going to be able to talk you out of it. (Anyway, you probably quit reading this blog a long time ago because I’m such a goody-two-shoes.)

When Godin’s All Marketers Are Liars came out, a lot of literal-minded people took him at his word. We all kind of believe that title anyway, right? Godin told us it was ok–in fact, desirable–to sell a product by telling fabulous stories of, say, fossilized stone giants unearthed from ancient burial grounds. As long as people didn’t feel abused or angry when they found out it was just a story. (That was the part a lot of folks seem to have missed.)

There’s a place for fairy tales
Fairy tales are fine. Fairy tales are nice, actually. They bring a lot of pleasure and sometimes they tell a deeper truth. Fairy tales and stories are what make us human beings and not clever hairless monkeys.

Swindles suck. Cons suck. People who snicker at the stupidity of their customers suck. And in the new wired world, swindles and lies always get found out. When the crowd comes looking for you with the tar & feathers, I won’t stand in their way.

I will always encourage you to be storytellers and spinners of fabulous yarns. In the same breath, I strongly discourage you from emulating the crowd of big bad wolves wearing grandma’s cotton bonnet. If you keep company with wolves, you’ll get eaten up eventually, no matter how much money they might tell you they make.

Top-Secret Copywriting Trick

For those who don’t read Copyblogger, I have a post there today on a super top-secret, "if we told you we’d have to shoot you" copywriter’s trick. I hope you’ll go check it out!

How to Be a Copywriting Genius: The Brilliantly Sneaky Trick You Must Learn

What Is Marketing, Anyway?

In the marketplaceFlickr Creative Commons photo by babasteve

“Marketing” (particularly Internet marketing) seems to be the subject of about 90% of blogs. It’s the single most common topic for lenses on Squidoo. And it’s a generally accepted synonym for lies, half-truths and general bullshit. A lot of people hate marketing without knowing exactly what it is.

So what is marketing?

A lot of people think of marketing as another word for “selling stuff,” which is partly right. They’re connected, but they’re not the same. Selling is its own discipline. Fine marketers are often completely inept salespeople, and vice versa.

Along the same lines, a lot of people think marketing is advertising. Advertising is just one (sometimes very small and occasionally nonexistent) component of marketing.

Marketing is an organization’s relationship with its customers

That’s my definition, anyway, and it holds up pretty well for me.

Manufacturing is not marketing, but knowing what to make can be. Putting products together into interesting and easy-to-buy packages is part of marketing. Letting the product-making-people know what products turn customers on, and what kinds of new stuff customers want, is an important part of really good marketing.

It’s not exactly sales, but it is the way salespeople interact with customers, and the way that customers feel after they talk with salespeople.

It’s the way call centers answer the phone.

It’s not IT, but it is whether or not the Web site is easy to use, handles sensitive information responsibly, and does what it’s supposed to do.

It’s not PR, but it needs to be in alignment with PR so you don’t say one thing to the “public” and another thing to “your customers.” Ideally, the public will get around to being your customers one of these days, so it’s a good idea to get that communication in line.

It’s not HR, but pissed off, disempowered employees tend not to treat customers like honored guests and friends.

Sometimes marketing includes the larger political implications of the supply chain. If slave and child labor from repressive countries are involved in your production, you’ve got a marketing (customer relationship) problem in addition to your ethical (looking yourself in the mirror) one.

Marketing is everything you say to customers, whether you say it in words, images or actions.

Marketing is the way you listen to what they say in return.

That’s it, just those two. The next time you hear yourself saying, “I’m no good at marketing” or “I’m just not a marketer,” see if that definition helps you frame your marketing problems in a more helpful way.

Relationship Marketing or Social Media?

relationship marketing duels it out with social media

I met a woman recently who’s a relationship marketing expert. Her expertise lies with big, household name companies–she uses different tactics, but most of them are various flavors of "frequent flyer" programs that reward ongoing customer relationships.

She says that she gets the question all the time, "We only have budget for one thing this year–should we do relationship marketing or social media?"

She works with giant companies and I work with small organizations, but this question drives us equally nuts. So here’s the answer.

You do both.

Most forms of social media are great for attracting attention
A YouTube video, a Squidoo lens, a Facebook app, a Digg or Del.icio.us or Stumble strategy–all of these do one thing particularly well. They capture attention.

The proliferation of advertising messages is starting to approach something out of a Philip K. Dick novel. The thicker the stream of messages, the better we get at tuning them out. In marketing jargon, this is known as "clutter" and it’s a serious problem if you’re trying to get the word out about what you do.

Social media is particularly handy at "flipping the funnel" to cut through information clutter. It works by convincing people who like you (a lot) to tell their friends about you.

The idea is, advertising messages are basically wallpaper, especially for the "most desirable" demographics (young people & rich people). Traditional advertising is invisible to the people it most wants to convince. But recommendations from friends are inherently relevant and interesting. So when you convince your customers to talk about you, you can capture the attention of potential new customers in a very quick and very vivid way.

There’s one downside: capturing attention for attention’s sake gets annoying in a hurry. Once you have someone’s attention, you need to build on that and start creating a relationship.

Some forms of social media are great for building relationships
Blogs and customer forums will help your company create a relationship with the people you attract. Rather than bungee-ing in and out based on price or where you’re ranking on Google today, your customers get to hang out and form tribes based on what you have to offer.

These tribal relationships can create a powerful bond, but they’re also demanding. As the "social object" at the center of that particular tribe, you need to participate in that messy, complicated conversation in order to keep your own credibility.

Forums and interactive spaces give customers a handy platform to talk you up. Of course, you may have figured out the scary part already–the same platform is just as handy to knock you down.

But if you’re good (and you have to be good to survive any more, there are too many businesses and services and products and organizations that are scary good), your fans are going to douse any flames started by your detractors. An army of rabid fans is the best crisis plan there is. When you can convince someone who isn’t you to defend you from the slings & arrows, you’ve officially moved your game to a whole new level.

There are plenty of relationship tactics that don’t involve social media (you can find some of those described in my relationship marketing series). There are hundreds of ways to create better connection with your customers, and lots of them fit into a more traditional marketing & communication framework.

So there’s your answer. If your culture can adapt to it (you’re highly flexible, comfortable with radical transparency, and willing to be insanely responsive), social media can be extremely effective. But don’t bother "doing social media" unless you have some solid ideas about how to build on the relationships you start.

You can have the cleverest YouTube video ever shot, but if you have no way to create a relationship based on the attraction you create, that cleverness will evaporate when the next motorcycle-riding monkey comes along.

Five Good Eggs

Good People Day 2008

Blogger Gary Vaynerchuk has dubbed April 3 as good people day around the blogosphere, so I thought I’d point you to five very good eggs whose blogs are characterized by generosity of spirit and great advice. Some of them are very successful and some less well-known, but I think you will get a lot out of reading any or all of these folks.

These are in no particular order other than boy-girl-boy-girl. For every good egg I mentioned here, of course there are a dozen more, but it just so happens that the cool istock photo I found had five!

  1. Naomi Dunford at Ittybiz . Naomi & I have been pals ever since she wandered over here, said hi to Seth in the comments (he said hi back), sent a donation to Smiletrain, and then toddled off to start a blog that trounced the pants off mine. Ittybiz is snarky and funny and honest and has a ton of great advice. Ittybiz is Naomi, in other words.
  2. Chris Brogan at chrisbrogan.com. Chris is the guy to read if you want to understand how community and the online world come together, what that means, what it can look like, and why we should care. He’s been so consistently friendly, open, and generous with his time, in addition to putting out a ton of great content and holding down a significant day job, that he makes me feel like a gigantic slacker.
  3. Colleen Wainright, aka the communicatrix. Colleen is very funny and very smart and writes a damned good newsletter. Plus she is both sharp and kind, which is my favorite combination. She writes about marketing and writing and acting and not being a jerk and other good stuff. You would like her.
  4. Maki (what’s Maki’s last name, anyway?) over at DoshDosh thinks about everything too much. Then he writes it all up in intelligent, thoughtful posts and we get to benefit from it. The guy works insanely hard and seems to be motivated by a desire to help everyone in the universe get stuff the way he does. He’s often the first to Sphinn or Digg a post, and he’s a great example of the good you can do when you put others first.
  5. Caroline Middlebrook at caroline-middlebrook.com is probably the most honest make-money-online blogger in the history of the Internet. She’ll tell you all about the stuff she’s tried that failed miserably. She’ll tell you about her relationship that fell apart. If there’s a link on her site that makes money, she makes a point of letting you know how that works. Her blog is a little like that Penn & Teller magic trick where they cut Teller in half, but they use a clear acrylic box–you get to see exactly what makes it all work. And there’s no way I could make a "good egg" post without mentioning Caro. I don’t really know her, but I admire her a lot and am always glad to see what she’s doing.

Those are my nominations of the day for five good eggs! Who are your favorite good eggs around the Web? Let us know in the comments.