In the 37-plus years since I created my first direct-response sales copy, I’ve written considerably more than a thousand direct-response ads, television spots, and mail pieces. And over the years, as I studied the results of those efforts, my approach to strategizing and creating sales promotions began to evolve.
Today, my work process is very different than it was in the early years. My first thought is no longer about product benefits or even the product’s USP (unique selling proposition). Nor do I begin each project by thinking about all the rational “reasons why” my prospect should buy.
Please don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’ve discarded any of these techniques. They still have prominent places in every promotion I create. But something else has risen to the top of my list – and that change has produced the closest thing to sales miracles I have ever witnessed.
What Could Possibly Be BETTER Than Leading With a Tangible Benefit?
Early in my copywriting career, I held down a part-time job in a printing plant. But this wasn’t just any printing plant. Its forte was printing and mailing appeal letters for a national fundraising organization. And since I worked alone on the night shift, I had plenty of time to read every one of those 8-page letters.
They amazed me. At the time, I had no way of knowing the letters were being written by Richard Viguerie, Steve Winchell, and Jerry Huntsinger – top copywriters in the direct-mail fundraising industry. But I did know that they worked. They convinced people to donate tens of millions of dollars each year.
Poring over those letters while my folding machine thunked away all night long was a real eye opener. Whether by instinct or trial and error, these geniuses had figured out that to get a donor to write a check for a good cause, they needed to go beyond the intellect – beyond rational, “reason-why” copy and beyond a snappy USP.
In short, they knew that they needed to stimulate powerful emotions – emotions that their prospects already had gurgling around inside them. And to do that, they had to begin at a different place: Not with the product, but with a clear understanding of the prospect’s state of mind and how he already felt about the subject at hand.
Armed with this understanding, Viguerie, Winchell, and Huntsinger began every appeal (”sales”) letter with a headline and opening that instantly activated their prospect’s emotions and made it impossible for him to look away: A shot to the gut… a kick to the groin or a right hook to the Adam’s apple. And once those copywriters had the prospect’s resident emotions working for them, all they had to do was keep those emotions on their side until the prospect had become as passionate about the cause as the writer was – and the check had been written and mailed.
As I studied their letters, I realized something else:Viguerie, Winchell, and Huntsinger could have chosen the “easy” way – to get rich by selling widgets that gave them dozens of tangible benefits to offer their prospects. But these geniuses had intentionally chosen to specialize in the fundraising field instead. Why?
Could it be that they believed starting with the prospect instead of the product – setting out to first identify and then activate the strongest emotions the prospect already has – might be a better way to go? And if so, I asked myself, “What if you could do both at the same time?”
Instead of beginning with the product and merely trusting the prospect to respond positively to its benefits… what if I began by thinking about the prospect and how he must feel about the subject at hand – and then carefully crafted every part of my sales message to get those resident emotions working for me?
What if I began by selecting themes that connected most powerfully with those emotions? What if I added a kind of “emotional overlay” to every headline, every opening, every credibility device, every product benefit, every offer, and every call to action?
Wouldn’t the response be substantially better?
The Outcome of a Struggle Between My Left Brain and My Right Brain Put Millions in My Pocket
A decade after I left that printing plant, the 30-something version of myself sat down at a typewriter in a musty basement bedroom in Minneapolis. My mission: to write a promotion that would sell rare Morgan silver dollars to subscribers of The Money Advocate investment newsletter.
The Money Advocate was published by a coin company; Security Coin & Bullion. And until I came along, they were doing just fine, using rational, left-brain, reason-why, benefit-oriented copy and a pretty good USP to sell about $360,000 worth of rare coins per month.
So there I sat, staring at a blank page, wondering how to begin.
My left brain, tuned into the classic advertising approach, wanted me to begin logically – by headlining and then focusing on the benefits of investing in rare coins. Meanwhile, Viguerie, Winchell, and Huntsinger were doing their dead-level best with my right brain to convince me to begin with the feelings my prospect most likely felt relative to my product: Lead with “emotion… Emotion… EMOTION!”
So I sat there, turning that old Morgan silver dollar over and over in my hand. “What is this, really?” I asked myself. “Where did it come from? Where has it been? What does it symbolize?”
Suddenly, I was reminded of the movie Somewhere in Time – in which Christopher Reeve was magically transported through time after seeing the date on a coin. I thought… “This isn’t a coin, it’s a TIME MACHINE!”
So I wrote…
“If these coins could talk, what wonderful stories would they tell?
“They would speak of a time gone by. Of the hardy prospectors who mined their silver. Of smoky saloons, honky-tonk pianos, raucous poker games, and painted ladies.
“They would speak of freedom. Independence. Honor. The code of the West.
“The Morgan silver dollar was there with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday at the gunfight in the O.K. Corral. And it was on the poker table when Wild Bill Hickock drew his “dead man’s hand” and succumbed to an assassin’s bullet.
“They only look like beautiful and potentially profitable ‘rare coin’ investments. And while they are, they are also more: Each is a touchstone with our colorful, uniquely all-American history that you can hold in the palm of your hand.”
Then, just to appease my left brain (and to give my prospects’ spouses a plausible reason why their significant others had succumbed), I included plenty of “reasons why” buying those coins was the smartest thing they could do. After all – they were great investments!
That copy, a two-page flyer, mailed on January 1. Thirty days later, it had brought in $3.6 million in sales – 10 TIMES MORE than my client’s purely rational, logic-based, greed-driven approach had ever generated in a single month.
And that was just the beginning. Within one year, my new approach had my client selling $16 million worth of rare coins each month, making him the single largest rare coin dealer in America – by far.
Flash-forward 10 more years…
I had just completed my second promotion for Health & Healing. The first had done gangbusters, generating eight times the response of any health package Phillips publishing had ever mailed. Now, it was time to write my headline (yes, I do it backward) – a way to “grab prospects by the eyeballs” and compel them to open and read my sales copy.
Just to humor my left brain, I tapped out the word “CURES.” After all – that was what my copy was packed with and promised more of.
But what kind of cures were these? Which strong emotion do these kinds of drug-free, surgery-free remedies trigger in my prospects?
“Well,” I thought, “the medical industry doesn’t want us to know about these alternatives, and even tries to silence people who recommend them. So they’re… let’s see… ‘prohibited’? No… ‘banned’? No… ‘censored’? Not quite… ‘forbidden’? No… wait a minute…
“YES! That’s it! That’s my headline! FORBIDDEN CURES!”
I loved the word “forbidden.” It felt like a mischievous child trying something naughty for the first time. It also made me feel resentment toward the self-appointed, supposedly superior, paternalistic establishment that believes it’s a better judge of what’s right for me than I do. It made me feel bound and determined to not just break but shatter their stupid prohibitions!
And, of course, my right brain loved it, too.
When it mailed, the package beat my control so handily that Phillips’s mail quantities reached six million pieces in each 60-day mail cycle. The royalties were so good, I took the rest of the year off and played on the beach.
Adding the right-brain/emotionally driven copy techniques practiced by the great fundraising copywriters to the left-brain benefit/reason-why/USP approach espoused by the world’s greatest classic advertising copywriters… was, quite simply, the single greatest breakthrough of my career.
Maybe I would have caught on sooner if, early on, someone had shaken me by the shoulders, slapped me a couple of times, and said…
- People act on their emotions far more often than they do on their intellect alone.
- People buy for emotional reasons far more often than for merely rational ones.
“If you want people to act on your copy and buy your product, first determine how your prospect is likely feeling right now. Then, use your benefits as bridges to activate the emotions that will compel him to buy!”
Put Dominant Emotion Marketing to Work for You NOW!
My work process changed forever.
Instead of beginning like I once had (and as many copywriters still do) – by identifying product benefits – wouldn’t it make sense for you to put the prospect and his most compelling emotions FIRST? Wouldn’t it be better, for example, to…
1. Begin by figuring out what the prospect’s resident emotions are regarding the things the product addresses…
2. Figure out which of those resident emotions are the strongest, most compelling, most “dominant” in his or her life…
3. Identify the benefits your product offers that will most effectively enhance his strongest positive emotions and/or resolve his negative ones…
4. Address those benefits in ways that keep the prospect’s most dominant emotions working with you – and never against you…
5. And, as you review and edit your sales copy, wouldn’t it make sense to keep making this kind of emotional connection at every opportunity?
[Ed. Note: Master copywriter Clayton Makepeace publishes the highly acclaimed e-zine The Total Package to help business owners and copywriters accelerate their sales and profits. Claim your 4 free money-making e-books - bursting with tips, tricks, and tactics that'll skyrocket your response - at MakepeaceTotalPackage.com.]