HeadOn to Successful Marketing

Back in the early ’90s, I landed my first job in marketing as a copywriter for a newsletter company. “Newsletter company” isn’t exactly the right term. It was (and still is) an incredibly successful direct mail company that sold business opportunities of the “You, yes you, can make $1 million in your sleep by becoming a chinchilla farmer” ilk through inserts stuffed in alongside newsletters nobody ever read. It had a great business formula that worked amazingly well, landing the owners (it was rumored) over $50 million a year.

I was fresh out of grad school and full of Big Ideas and High Ideals. I knew a more sophisticated approach was the right one, especially after reading some of the samples of successful inserts they provided me. “Who’d buy this?” I scoffed. “This is stupid. I’m a lot cleverer!”

To their eternal credit, my bosses (who had obviously already encountered many starry-eyed folks like me) let me try it my way first. “Sure,” they said with wry grins on their faces. “You go ahead and do your first assignment your way. We’ll see how it does.”

So I did. I made sophisticated arguments. I wrote flowery prose. I was clever and funny. I was even a bit artistic.

And I failed. Horribly.

My first insert sold next to nothing. Tail between my legs, I went back to my bosses. “Sean,” they told me, “we let you have your fun. Now try it our way.”

So I did. I developed a nutty personality as the author of my letters (think a combination of Matthew Lesko and Yosemite Sam). I built the perfect Chinese soda arguments. I wrote irritating, hype-filled prose I was too embarrassed to show my mom. I used every cheeseball direct marketing cliché in the book.

And it worked. Amazingly well. My new inserts sold stuff like crazy. I quickly became a rising star in the company.

It wasn’t long before I quit because I got sick of selling to people in trailer parks (something I realized after my personality began getting fan letters), but I learned a lot of valuable lessons. I learned personality and developing a real brand do sell. I learned being simple and direct and knowing your audience make sense. Most important, I learned there are basic marketing facts that work because no matter what happens, people and their motivations don’t change. Tell a compelling story, address your audience’s root desires, be clear about the benefits, build recall through repetition, don’t be afraid to differentiate yourself, and never forget you’re selling something.

I hadn’t thought about my days as a copywriting hack for a while until I ran across an “AdAge” story detailing the success of those irritating HeadOn ads. You know, the ones that tell you to “apply directly to forehead.” It turns out even though the spots have been lambasted as the most irritating ads ever made, they work. The manufacturer’s sales have grown over 250 percent, and HeadOn has rocketed into the top 10 of external analgesics in just two years. The ads may be irritating, but lots of us are buying the stuff. After my early copywriting experience, it doesn’t surprise me at all.

Why? It’s not rocket science. You remember the product and you know what it does. Period. There’s no art in HeadOn’s marketing. There’s no high-minded brand promise. It doesn’t want to change the world. It’s a stick. You apply it to your forehead, and the headache’s gone. Repeat a thousand times, and laugh all the way to the bank.

Contrast this with a recent JupiterResearch report that shows just 15 percent of viral marketing campaigns are passed on. Fifteen percent! That’s not 15 percent of people who saw them bought the product promoted in the campaign. That’s only 15 percent even bothered to virally share the spot with someone else. Worse, only 7 percent of adults forwarded a message and a mere 3 percent of that magic 18-24 demographic passed along the viral campaign to one of their peers. Viral marketing might still be hot in the ad biz, but it doesn’t seem like the rest of the world really thinks so.

What about social marketing? That’s where it’s at, right? It’s hard to move your mouse without coming across a reference to Facebook. Heck, Microsoft’s about to invest in 5 percent of the company, and it’s now valued at $10 billion.

But I found a post by Andrew Chen detailing the problems with monetizing social networking pretty instructive. While there might be a lot of traffic on sites like Facebook, CTRs (define) are pretty lousy, somewhere in the 0.04 percent range. Yet even with abysmal response rates like these, the ad industry is projected to spend nearly $1 billion on social network advertising this year.

I may be a data point of one, but looking back at my sophomore copywriting experience, I can’t help wondering if there’s a bit of an emperor’s new clothes problem going on here. Creative people want to be creative, but it’s time for a critical look at what we’re spending our (in most cases, our clients’) money on. Social networking, viral media, and virtual worlds might be cool, but there’s a lack of hard data saying they work. It’s not a popular thing to say, but it’s tough to argue with facts. Being fancy might appeal to our creative side, but if it isn’t selling, it isn’t worth it.

E-mail continues to garner the bulk of marketing dollars, according to a recent McKinsey survey. If you’re interested in creating sticky experiences, a look at the most recent list of the Net’s stickiest sites is pretty instructive. And if you’re really interested in knowing what people are into, check out Mahalo’s Internet Zeitgeist page.

What do these things have in common? They’re straight forward. They appeal to a broad range of people. They are easy to use and fulfill common desires. They’re simple. In short, they follow some of the most basic patterns that have worked since the dawn of marketing. And what works has nothing to do with fancy technology but with ease of use, content, and an appeal to basic human emotions. What’s always worked still works. Technology changes quickly, but people change slowly. Really slowly.

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