How One Big Idea Trumps Lots of Small Ones

“What’s good writing? A single strong message, clearly expressed.” – Michael Masterson

It happens every year.

Michael Masterson, Bill Bonner, and I meet in a French country chateau. We drink wine. And we stay up late, playing guitars. During the day, we run an intensive, four-day, bootcamp for a small number of copywriters – some with years of experience, others with just months.

We rehash lots of fundamentals. We even come up with a few new breakthrough discoveries. But over and over, in the classic writing samples we look at and in the new copy our workshops produce, one thing is always abundantly clear: The tighter and more isolated the core idea, the more powerful the result. Without exception.

Think about it.

When you have a great conversation… read a great book… or see a great documentary… what grabs you? Is it the litany of small details? Or the “golden thread” that unites them? More often, for most of us, it’s the latter. And the more you “get” the core idea behind a story, a speech, a revelation… the more memorable that one core message becomes.

This is just as true in sales copy. One message, well developed, just has more impact than ads – short or long – that are overloaded with competing ideas.

Don’t believe me?

100 Headlines That Prove The Point

For this article, I decided to go looking for strong ads that featured single secrets, single solutions, and single ideas… to see if that list was as long as or longer than one showing a much wider reaching, more thinly spread approach.

First I looked in a digital “swipe” file I have on my desktop – over 200 snapshots of winning direct-mail and print ads. Some old, some new. Overwhelmingly, the theory proved true.

But I had picked up a lot of these sample ads randomly. Would the theory hold up if I went to a more recognized resource?

Maybe you’ve heard of Victor Schwab. Advertising Age calls Schwab the “greatest mail-order copywriter of all time” and a pioneer in advertising research. Nobody, arguably, has been a more devoted tester of headlines, layouts, offers, and copy appeals than Schwab. He was also one of the first copywriters to lay down a persuasion “formula” for sales copy, in 1941. And his classic book How to Write a Good Advertisement, is a must-read staple on the bookshelves of ardent marketers everywhere.

One of the things you can find in Schwab’s book is a list of what he called the “top 100 headlines.”

It made no sense for me to scan Schwab’s list for single-idea-driven examples. They were the majority, by far. Instead, I looked for headlines that looked more like the multiple-idea type. And get this – out of his list of 100 headlines, only 10 were NOT clearly single-idea based.

Something else: Even those 10 multiple-idea ads still clearly had an implied “golden thread” that bound the whole thing together.

Take a look. And remember, this is the list of headlines that DON’T appear at first to fit the single-idea theme we’re talking about…

  • “Do You Make These Mistakes In English?”
  • “Five Familiar Skin Troubles – Which Do You Want to Overcome?”
  • “Have You These Symptoms of Nerve Exhaustion?”
  • “161 New Ways to a Man’s Heart – in This Fascinating Book for Cooks”
  • “Do You Do Any of These 10 Embarrassing Things?”
  • “Six Types of Investors – Which Group Are You In?”
  • “The Crimes We Commit Against Our Stomachs”
  • “Little Leaks That Keep Men Poor”
  • “67 Reasons Why It Would Have Paid You to Answer Our Ad a Few Months Ago”
  • “Free Book – Tells You 12 Secrets of Better Lawn Care”

Would they have worked even better if each focused on only one thing – rather than a list of things – right there in the headline? Maybe. But notice that even though they don’t, each clearly points toward a single, overarching theme. Meanwhile, out of the 90 single-idea headlines, just take a look at how instantly clear and engaging these examples are…

  • “The Secret of Making People Like You”
  • “Is the Life of a Child Worth $1 to You?”
  • “To Men Who Want to Quit Work Someday”
  • “Are You Ever Tongue-Tied at a Party?”
  • “How a New Discovery Made a Plain Girl Beautiful”
  • “Who Else Wants a Screen Star Figure?”
  • “You Can Laugh at Money Worries – If You Follow This Simple Plan”
  • “When Doctors Feel Rotten, This Is What They Do”
  • “How I Improved My Memory in One Evening”
  • “Discover the Fortune That Lies Hidden in Your Salary”
  • “How I Made a Fortune With a ‘Fool Idea'”
  • “Have You a ‘Worry’ Stock?”

Here’s an added benefit: Starting off in the headline with just one, simple idea makes writing the rest of the sales letter easier.

How so?

Finding the core idea, of course, is the hard part. It has to be precise, not scattershot. You have to know your audience and know them well. Or you risk missing your target completely. But home in on the right promise, the right hook, the right singular theme at the start… and writing the sales copy that supports it suddenly gets easier.

You know where you’re headed. You know which tangents to look out for. And you know, too, when you’re ready to wrap up your pitch… because you’ll know when you’ve said all you need to say.

I think back to my own promos and it’s true. Those that worked best were the most focused on one message. Those that flopped were those that wandered. I’ll bet the same is true for you.

[Ed. John Forde, a published writer and a direct-mail copywriter since 1992, is the editor of the free weekly e-zine, The Copywriter’s Roundtable. He is on the Board of Experts of our new Internet business-building program, which gives you an all-inclusive, A-to-Z blueprint for starting your own powerhouse Internet business – from learning how to pick a product and set up a website to discovering copywriting secrets from the masters, techniques to help you create an e-mail list, the best ways to market your product, and more. Our hotlist has first access to the 250 spots we’ve opened up for this breakthrough program, but keep reading ETR to take immediate action when and if we have any spots left.]
  • Joe Trevison

    Can anyone find the advertisement for “How I Made A Fortune With a ‘fool’ idea” I like to have a copy of the whole advertisement. It can be found not the original. I don’t even know who wrote the original. Everyone talks about the provactive headline but never is their a copy of the advertisment. Help me find it. Thanks