I'm sure you've heard of Gary Bencivenga.
Only a handful of copywriters in our generation have ever competed at anywhere near Gary's level over the long haul. And if our little fraternity held an election today, Gary Bencivenga would be unanimously elected King.
The following is Part 3 of my six-part interview with master copywriter, Gary Bencivenga.
Clayton: You had a fantastic article in one of the early issues of Bencivenga Bullets on, if I remember correctly, the two most important words in advertising. You said, it's not you, it's not free, it's yeah, sure.
Gary: I gave a seminar at Rodale once. I had the good fortune to never have lost a split run test at Rodale against some very tough competition selling books for the book division. I competed against Gene Schwartz and most of the top names out there, and I never lost.
So they called me in to ask, How are you doing this? Tell us the approach that you're following. So I ran through a whole list of headlines from their advertising, as well as many other examples from our daily lives. For example, what politicians promise every November I'm never going to raise your taxes and I'm going to give you universal health care ... I'm going to get rid of crime in our schools. And what does everybody say once that's out of their mouths? They say, Yeah, sure.
That's the biggest problem that most B-level copywriters face. They're always looking for ways to increase the strength of their headline, and the easiest way, apparently, is to increase the hype or ratchet up the promise. But usually that's going on in the wrong direction because you're sounding more like the politician who is promising an even more undeliverable promise.
You're usually much better with an under-promising headline. A great example that I learned in the days that I was working with Dan Rosenthal was for one of our clients who sold gold and silver coins and bullion. In this case it was an ad for silver. The headline was a famous headline that ran for many years, Why the price of silver may rise steeply. Thinking I was such a hot-shot copywriter, I said to Dan Rosenthal, who I believe was the author of that headline and the great, great ad that followed it, I said, Why are you saying, may rise'? You should test a headline that sounds a little stronger, a little bolder, such as Why the price of silver will rise steeply.' That way it sounds, Dan, like you believe what you're predicting.
So we tested my version and, of course, it bombed. Because of that disbelief factor. Most investors are savvy. So as soon as you promise something that really is unknowable such as will rise, they know that you can't predict the future. But when you build in a little bit of understatement, you suck them right in.
So I've learned to apply that principle in many, many headlines. One of my best headlines for Hume Publishing was Get Rich Slowly. I created an enemy out of all of the get rich quick investment courses and opportunities out there by saying, Look, if you're tired of all the hype, this is the course that you should be buying because if you got ,000 to ,000 to put aside each year, this is a course that could easily get you to the million mark. It's not going to happen in three, four or even five years, but if you want to retire with million and can only put ,000 aside in an IRA each year, this is how it's done.
That ad was virtually unbeatable for several years with a headline that the client didn't even want to test, Get Rich Slowly. They said, Gary, have you lost your mind? Who wants to get rich slowly? So I said, Look, people are so tired of get rich quick,' it's not believable anymore. Nobody buys without belief, so if you advertise something that can be believed, then most of the battle is already won.
Clayton: I think it kind of ties into that the Lies, Lies, Lies package you did for Mark Skousen's Forecasts & Strategies. It was really wonderful because there's not even a hint of a benefit in your main headline. It simply seized on a resident emotion the skepticism and frustration of investors who had heard it all, tried it all and were continually disappointed. And then in the deck copy, you came on with Why we investors are sick and tired of these things that are happening to us. And then the real payoff was, How getting richer is the best revenge. I'm doing that just from memory that's how powerful it was.
Gary: You remember it better than I do.
Clayton: Yeah, I still remember that headline. I can still visualize the package and the wonderful cartoons they used.
Gary: That was an example of humor actually working in copy. We took every target of anger that an investor can have lying politicians, with a cartoon of a classic looking politician, taking an oath to the flag, and if you look closely, his fingers are crossed. And he says, I promise never again to raise taxes.
Clayton: And the broker in a pinstriped suit behind a desk, smoking a cigar.
Gary: And the guy from the IRS was Darth Vader. The cartoons were just wonderful and that added a little bit of that entertainment factor you were talking about before but in an appropriate way. It was part and parcel of the sale.
Clayton: There were a couple of things that I loved about that. One was the little phrase, we investors in the deck copy. Because it immediately got Skousen on the side of the reader, it immediately made us friends.
Gary: That's a great technique to use. Instead of the usual I'm trying to sell you something, which sort of sets up immediately in the reader's mind a you-versus-me mentality, I found a way to shift gears by saying, it's you and me against these other guys. And if you can create an enemy in your copy, that's what happens. You set up a three-point discussion and you come around from your side of the desk to be on the reader's side of the desk and then it's you and the reader against the enemy that you're railing against.
It's a very effective psychological and copy technique to use because it takes the copywriter out of the role of trying to sell the prospect something and puts them both on the same side, as if the copywriter were a friend, consumer advisor, and helper.
Clayton: There's another thing about that headline that's very instructive, especially as I look back on it now. People often wonder why Rush Limbaugh, for example, is so successful. He has no real product to sell. He doesn't make your life better in any way. There are no benefits, really, for buying his books. But the service he provides for you is that he puts your thoughts and your feelings assuming you're in agreement with his politics into words. He gives you an outlet for the emotions that you're feeling about the things that are happening in the country. That emotional release is valuable to people, and as a result, 20 million people listen to him every week on the radio and buy his books and newsletters and so forth.
I felt that the Lies, Lies, Lies package did something very similar and it did it beautifully. It was one of the first-rate resident emotion packages that simply went to a group of people who had strong feelings about the subject at hand and spoke to those feelings, and by doing so, validated them. But they were actionable feelings and you were able to come back with a solution, a way to assuage that frustration in those people. I felt that was so much more powerful than simply going back to them as one more direct mail package promising huge profits.
Gary: That's a very astute analysis, Clayton. I think what helped me to create that package and this is something I do before I start any assignment was to ask, What are we really selling? And you try to come up with different answers to that question. If it's a newsletter, everybody had always answered, We're selling investment tips. But since there was so much competition from other copywriters and other publishers selling the same kind of investment tips, I reasoned if we change the answer to the question what are we really selling? we can open a whole new way to talk to our market.
So what are we really selling when we sell a newsletter from an investment advisor who wants to advise you on the most important financial decisions of your life? Well you're really selling a set of values, a partnership with somebody that you have to trust. The best way to come to trust somebody is to see that they do share your same values.
I call this the Credo Technique of Copywriting. The first issue of Bencivenga Bullets is about this technique. In fact, in that bullet I say what I believe about advertising. I believe advertising is designed to sell and not to win awards and applause. I believe you can always sell with integrity. I give the other beliefs, very strongly held beliefs that I have about advertising and that accomplishes a couple of things.
Number one, it tells what I'm about and if you have the same values, then we're a match. So I sell you on me before I try to sell anything else. If you sell not only the end product that the advisor or the person behind the product of service is offering whether it's the chiropractor who's selling his services or attorney or whoever it is but also mention the person's values that you also feel very strongly about, you sort of bond with them in a way that's much more powerful than any list of how-tos or other types of bullets purely based on information. You're bonding with them on a level of trust, which makes you different from every other person out there who is just trying to sell something because they want to sell it.
Clayton: Gary, studying every one of your packages has been just eye opening for me and one of the things that struck me was that you consistently made a friend before you asked for the sale.
Gary: I think you have to do that because people don't buy from other people unless they believe them and unless they trust them. If you don't sell yourself first, you're trying to short circuit the process by just rushing to the close of the sale too early.
Salesmanship has changed over the years. It used to be, in the days of Elmer Wheeler and Sell the Sizzle and Not the Steak, the life insurance agent or the real estate broker would try to corner you and answer every objection you could raise and just out of exhaustion, the hapless prospect would buy the policy or agree to do whatever the salesman wants.
But you know something? You don't see door-to-door salesmen much anymore. I haven't seen one in years. Why is that? It's because salesmanship has changed. We've all been marketed to so much, we won't stand for being manipulated that way anymore. We've evolved from a nation of much more easily-manipulated prospects to tough customers.
So if you just try to come onto people with the same old forms of salesmanship that used to work 10 to 20 years ago, they just don't work anymore because a) you don't have my trust; b) you don't have my values; and c) you're not my friend and I'm not going to buy from you unless I first have those feelings.
There's a great movie about this called Boiler Room, where they show how these people who used to do telephone marketing from the boiler room would have scripts with the snappiest comebacks to anything that the person might say about why they may not buy. They would try to embarrass people into making an investment over the phone. That way of selling, in most cases, is dying.
This is especially true in our field, where we try to sell to 1,000 or a million people at once. They could blow us off without us even knowing about it just by tossing our mail or clicking delete. Given that, I think that the best way to be selling anybody in the marketplace now is to win a friend first and the best way to do that is through an e-zine.
More and more, ice cold direct mail packages sent to ice cold prospects are going to fare poorly compared to promotions sent by people who have an e-zine relationship with somebody. And by that I mean an e-zine that really gives very high value as opposed to selling so much. I counsel people in all markets of goods and services to really develop a relationship with their prospects through a very valuable e-zine. Hold back on the selling. Establish a relationship of giving very valuable helpful information first and then introduce the sales later.
Even with e-zines, I get so many of them now, and I don't even open them much anymore. I send most of them to an email address I have at a place called Spam Arrest. And I'll just go down and check them all to be deleted. And then I'll uncheck maybe three that I'll want to read. The others get automatically deleted when I hit the return key. I delete them just based on the subject lines. And we all do this.
I only open those e-zines where there's going to be honest to goodness nuggets of information, not just another sales pitch. So most of the people out there, even with e-zine marketing, they've gotten the technology right but they don't have the psychology right.
Win a friend first and then try to sell later. It's so much easier to sell something to somebody who you have a relationship with. So the first sale that you have to make is that relationship, not the product.
Clayton: And that's what I feel that you've done in so many of your direct mail packages. In the Skousen package, the line We investors are fed up was that way because friendship is quite often based on commonality. Instead of the vaunted expert touting his past successes, you just climb in the boat with the prospect.
Gary: And I feel that's so much easier to do once you've established an e-zine relationship with your prospects. You can capture names very easily with an e-zine if you give good information and use that as a basis for growing your own list.
It's much easier to sell something to somebody who's satisfied with the relationship with you and with your past performance. And that's one of the most important principles of marketing and yet so many people just ignore it.
So many people in the internet marketing world just want to find that one hot product to sell, make a fortune, then find another hot product to sell in a totally different market. But business just doesn't work that way. You need to find a product or service from which you can get lots of repeat business because that's the most profitable and easiest business when people are coming back to you again and again.
To be continued in Part 4