Lessons from a Direct-Marketing Legend, Part II

How do you become a marketing genius — someone who effortlessly comes up with innovative approaches to sell just about anything? Well, you can’t. Some things — and genius is one of them — have to be inborn. But you can develop certain techniques that will make it possible for you to consistently come up with fresh, creative ideas. And when you’re a direct-mail copywriter, that will ensure the success of every package you write. How do you learn these techniques?

By studying the secrets of master copywriters like the legendary Gene Schwartz. Because the headline is perhaps the most important part of any direct-mail package — the “hook” that grabs your prospect and pulls him into your sales pitch — let’s take a look, today, at Gene’s advice on how to write a great one. He saw the process of writing headlines as tapping into three levels of creativity.

Level I: Word Substitution Though widely used (and even touted by one of the world’s best-known copywriting teachers — whose name will go unmentioned), Schwartz considered this the “shallowest” technique for writing headlines. “Here, the copywriter consults a list of proven and successful headlines. He then pulls out the original product name and substitutes his own, or his own product’s performance, etc. He usually comes up with something like this: “I’d Walk a Mile for a Cup of —– Coffee!” “Why Haven’t —– Owners Been Told These Facts?” “Floats Ugly —- Right Out of Your —–”

The problem with these ads, Schwartz says, is that “they pay no attention to the unique product-market-timing relationship that exists at the moment. Therefore, they lose all the strengths that are wrapped up in that relationship.” I agree. I’ve never known a knock-off headline to lead to breakthrough advertising. You can get decent-to-solid returns by using this technique — and you’ll certainly save a lot of brainstorming time by doing it this way — but if you want a headline that really blows people away, you’ll need to employ one of two more difficult and subtle techniques.

Level II: Formulas Working at this level, the copywriter depends on a set of formulas he has developed that are based on observations he’s made about how successful headlines work. One such formula, which Schwartz calls “verbalization,” is the process of combining what you want to say in its simplest form with other images and ideas that reinforce it. “You can use this technique to strengthen the claim by enlarging upon it, measuring it, or making it more vivid.

You can make the claim new and fresh again by twisting it, changing it, presenting it from a different angle, turning it into a variation, challenging the reader with an example, etc. Or you can help the claim pull the prospect into the body of the ad by promising him information about it, by questioning him, by partially revealing mechanism, etc. “All of these goals are accomplished by adding variations, enlargements, or embellishments to the main headline claim of the ad. These additional images are bound into the main claim by the sentence structure of the headline. They alter the main claim to make it more effective.”

A few examples of Level II formulas:

1. Measure the size of the claim: “20,000 Filter Traps in a Viceroy!” “I Am 61 Pounds Lighter . . .”

2. Measure the speed of the claim: “Feel Better Fast!” “In Two Seconds, Bayer Aspirin Begins to Dissolve in Your Glass!”

3. Compare the claim: “Six Times Whiter Washes!” “Costs Up to $300 Less Than Many Models of the Low-Priced Three!”

4. “Metaphorize” the claim: “Banishes Corns!” “Melts Away Ugly Fat!” 5. Sensitize the claim by making the prospect feel, smell, touch, see, or hear it: “Tastes Like You Just Picked It!” “The Skin You Love to Touch!” Such formulas do help. And most good copywriters carry around several in their heads. (Schwartz lists 38.) But they won’t give you the great headline. They will simply take a good headline and make it better.

Level III: Deep Analysis To write great headlines, you need to do something more than play word games or deploy formulas. You need to figure out not only the essential nature of the product or service you are selling but also its potential. And not just its general potential but its potential at a specific time and place in the hearts and minds of a certain target audience. Schwartz’s solution — which he discusses in detail in his book “Breakthrough Advertising” — is a method of understanding the product/prospect relationship and identifying one tipping-point idea that will blaze into prominence at that particular moment in time. Students of the AWAI copywriting course use a similar approach to create headlines and leads.

Both methods demand: a thorough understanding of the prospect — what he thinks, believes, and feels in relationship to the product at the present time a deep knowledge of the product, so you can imagine its potential — what it can represent in the prospect’s imagination These deep, analytical Level III methods are time-consuming and exacting. Unlike using word substitutions and formulas to create a headline, it can take hours — even days — to come up with one that is perfect.

Plus, after you’ve done all that hard work, you have a headline that is so specifically tailored to one situation that you can use it only once. The marketplace is always changing, and what works so well now may not work as well six months from now . . . and may not work at all in a year. When it comes to writing Level III headlines, Schwartz says “there are no creative shortcuts.” The same vigorous effort must be duplicated with each individual ad. “But fortunately, the techniques of probing can be learned and perfected; intuition can be sharpened; a sensitivity can be developed for picking out the vital fact from the maze of information.”

And, of course, abandoning this effort leads to a reality that is even harsher. Many copywriters grow old, or tired, or afraid. They stop searching for the unique solution in every problem. From this moment on, they begin to copy instead of create. And most pathetic of all, may begin to copy themselves. The more successful the copywriter, the greater the temptation to find his new headline in his old files. “But it won’t work. Copying can be done by any cub. All this process does is bring talent down to the level of file-cabinet mediocrity. The true copywriter must argue with success — he must push on past it every time he faces a new product.”