think like your competition

How Would Your Competition Sell Against You?

How would you sell against yourselfI ask difficult questions when doing a brand discovery for my clients.

I force them to think about themselves in ways they probably never did before. And it never fails to capture their true essence.

One of my favorite questions to ask is, “If you worked for your competition, how would you sell against us?” Us, of course, is my client.

Try it out with one of your clients. Ask them to imagine what their competition might tell a prospect about them.

Say, “Think like someone who would like to see you fail. Ponder your shortcomings and your competitive disadvantages. Stab yourself in the back.”

 

The hard part

Business owners love and hate the question.

They like the “exercise” of thinking differently about themselves.

The process … that’s another story. Like being the first person on the dance floor, nobody in the room wants to break the silence. They look at one another, cautiously, as if to say, “You wanna say something nasty about our company?”

Eventually, either someone pipes up, or you have to get out on the dance floor yourself. Give them some general starter ideas, but avoid putting words in their mouths.

Someone will say, “We don’t build everything in-house,” and they quickly add, “but that’s actually an advantage, because –”

Stop them before they can spin the problem. Reassure them it’s okay to leave the bad stuff out there; you’ll go over the “here’s how you would respond” after you’re done tearing the company a new one.

 

The transformation

In no time, clients dish out all the dirt they can think of. They’re back to liking the process, gleefully giving their company a black eye.

“We are small.”

“We are the middle man.”

“They have better control over their costs.”

Then, you turn things around: “Why are these things actually your advantages?”

One by one, go over each weakness. The reasons why they are actually strengths will give you powerful differentiators you can use to craft their brand story.

“We don’t build everything in-house,” they’ll say, “but that enables us to source components from the best suppliers and sell a better overall product than our fully integrated peers.”

“We’re small, but that makes us nimble, faster and easier to work with.”

Sometimes, one or two of their negatives can’t be flipped into a positive. That’s equally valuable, as the company feels reinvigorated to make changes for the better. At the very least, you can write around those things to focus on the good.

 

Bonus:

Put your own business through this exercise. It’s not just fun, it’s eye opening.

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A Year of Shameful Subject Lines

Shameful Subject LinesLike most inboxes, mine receives a heaping helping of spam throughout the year.

Some of my personal favorites are the offers for male potency pharmaceuticals. I appreciate the discretion some of these trustworthy wholesalers use in their subject lines. That way, my wife and kids will be none the wiser. Some real examples:

  • Fw: Fw: Love Store
  • I’ll still love you, come to me, I’m in a hotel!
  • Never pay a monthly phone bill again

It seems the flim-flammers have improved their spelling, at least. I’m seeing fewer creative typos for commonly flagged words, like VI*AGR4.

For some reason, I get a lot of offers for replica watches (Best Seller Watches : Rolex Gold = 119$ , Rolex Sport = 119$!!), penny stocks (PBGC is the King’s Special Alert- Find Out Why Inside…), and online poker (Exclusive gaming with HUGE!!! payouts!).

Do people really follow those links? I want to believe that the human race is smarter than that. And yet, someone has invested the time to produce this stuff, so logically there exists a complementary group just as dimwitted but too lazy to act as the purveyor.

I wonder where these spammers get their mailing lists. Maybe they received an email with a compelling subject line, like: Max BEST Mailing Lists will make you M1LL*IONS overnight!!!

They’ve obviously mistaken me for a watch junkie who’s looking to make a fast buck and pleasure my partner despite my dysfunctional, er, equipment.

If they had quality mailing lists, I’d be getting skillfully penned emails with subject lines like:

  • Piping hot, golden french fries – printable coupon!
  • These Multi-Billion Dollar Corporations Need Copywriters … NOW
  • Grow Your Own Gourmet Coffee for Pennies – in Your Kitchen

You know, with tempting offers like those, I’d allow a typo or two.

It’s Only News If It’s New To Your Reader

How fresh are your posts?

With the proliferation of information available to us on our computers, smart phones, and traditional media sources, one item remains in my Top 3 all-time must-follow rules of audience engagement: News must be new.

In a recent Press Association article, Google’s own  Maile Ohye says that unique content will spur the search engine to drive more unique visitors to your site.

Interesting topics alone fail to capture interest. Compelling news alone fails to compel your readers to return. So your goal must always be to act as a true news source.

How to make your job easier

Start with Google. If you’ve chosen a subject, search Google for the latest coverage. Notice the dates of the pages Google returns. For example, as of this writing, a search of the term “triglycerides” returns pages dated June 19, 2009; March 22, 2011; June 11, 2008; and December 11, 2001 among others.

On the left sidebar of the search results page, Google gives you additional tools. You may have to expand the Search Tools link to see these options. When I click on “Latest,” I get at least three pages dated April 23, 2011 — today’s date as of this writing. You must actually read the articles to know if they contain quality information, and check the source as well. I am always disappointed when bloggers link to articles provided by dubious sources. If the list of recent articles provides nothing but garbage, click the next search tool option, “Past 24 hours.”

Check Social Media. Sites like Twitter will always provide a mixed bag, but be diligent in your research and you’ll definitely find valid resources. Searching Twitter for the term “triglycerides,” I just found seven posts that were tweeted in the last hour. One is from a doctor. Again, read the articles before you link to them.

BONUS TIP: Include an Expert. Always try to add an expert opinion. I tend to go right to the industry leaders. For our triglycerides example, I’d search sites like WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, etc. Quoting authorities gives your article additional credibility that wins over your readers.

So keep the “new” in your news. It takes a little more effort, but your reward will be quality followers who care about your content, are more likely to come back to you and link back to your pages.

Keep Your Reader Engaged

Professional salespeople have a clever rule while engaged with a prospect.

Every so often, they ask questions like:

  • “Are you with me so far?”
  • “Does this sound good to you?”
  • “Am I on the right track?”

Pure genius! If the prospect says yes, the salesperson scores a win, he has permission to continue. And more importantly, he knows he’s moving in the right direction. If he hears a “no,” he wins again – because he doesn’t waste his or his prospect’s time, and he can hang a left or bank to the right.

Are you with me so far?

In writing articles, blogs and similar fare, we typically avoid stopping to ask if we’re on the right track. That would be weird.

What’s the solution?

First, stand in the readers’ shoes. Read your post as though it’s brand new to you. It takes a little bending of the mind, but you can do it.

Next, lean on your colleagues and friends. Send your draft to one or two of them and ask if it makes sense to them. More importantly, ask if they felt compelled to click your target button or link. Promise them some reward, like a mention in the article itself.

And finally, walk away. Take a few hours to work on something else; if you have the time, abandon the project for a day or two. Your brain gets a chance to reset itself, and you will almost always find a word or 20 to replace with something more powerful. The goal is to guide the visitor to a link, a button, a form, etc.

Remember, your client (and that might be you) wants sales. When the medium is written, do all you can to keep your prospect “with you” all the way to the “click.”

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Looking for Madison Avenue marketing impact on a Shady Lane budget? Me too. But until one of us finds it, Kendall Avenue will have to do. That’s where the writers of Bold Copy throw darts at pictures of $2-a-day content providers while patiently awaiting the opportunity to serve you.

It Is What It Is

Paper is paper. Pen is pen. Have you learned anything new so far?

Clearly, I am bothered by the phrase: It is what it is.

If I tell you, “Time is time,” have you come away more informed? Richer for the experience? What if I say, “Time is money”? Ah-ha, now we’re getting somewhere.

Sure, it’s just an expression, right? Yep, and I avoid expressions (like the plague). Expressions have less impact in writing because the brain is accustomed to the order of the words. Mix your words and synapses fire, the brain pays attention. Bury your communication in clichés and your audience loses the desire to focus.

Some might argue that those five short words do mean something. I’d agree. They mean, “What can you do about it?” And actually, I like that phrase a lot more. It invites a solution. Saying “It is what it is” really means, “There’s nothing I can do,” or worse, “There’s nothing I’m willing to do about it.”

Those of you lucky enough to have read Ayn Rand’s infamous Atlas Shrugged will remember the novel’s catch phrase: Who is John Galt? It defined despair, helplessness. It certainly bothered the story’s heroine, Dagny Taggart. She, a woman of drive and purpose, had no use for phrases that suggested that one give up.

It made the Banned Phrase of the Week on one blog: http://bit.ly/en6wbu

Can we just let it go? After all, if I offer no suggestion, I’d be guilty of saying “It Is What It Is” is what it is.

The solution is to say what you really mean. If you splatter red wine on your white dress shirt and the stain becomes set, say, “Well, I guess this one’s going in the DONATION pile.”

If traffic is moving at a crawl and you’re going to be late, say, “We need to require an advanced class for drivers every five years,” or, “I’d rather be driving my helicopter.”

If the members of your volunteer group never get things done, say, “I wonder how much they would get done if we threatened to publicly distribute a list containing their names and the things they refuse to do.”

A little can-do attitude is just what we need to kick useless expressions to the curb – I mean, out of our communication.

Do Not Write Not

Huh? Do NOT write not?

Either it’s one of those existentialistic word traps (I eat, therefore I burp) or else this author is pulling off one of those contradictory grammar lessons (never say never).

Lucky for you, it’s the latter. Lucky because the lesson is far more valuable. Though I am simultaneously pondering the wild ride we could go on if taking the other direction. Maybe some other time.

The question of the day: How often do you use the word “not” — or forms thereof?

“Don’t forget to come.”

“You can’t have the blue one.”

“It’s not brain surgery.”

“Do not touch this.”

In his book, Remember the Ice, author Bob Nicoll reveals what I consider to be one of the greatest rules in all of the communication arts: tell a person what TO do. Whenever you tell a person what NOT to do, you accomplish two things. First, you get the person to think mostly about the thing they are to avoid. And second, you create another kind of chaos, that is, the concept of doing nothing.

Think about it. I say to you, “Don’t think of the color blue.” Two problems emerge. First, you think of the color blue. Second, your mind grapples with how to act upon the concept of not acting. In fact, there’s a third problem. What would you have me do instead? Don’t walk … does that mean stand still? Run? Knit a sweater?

Tell people what you want them to do and they are more likely to do just that. Here’s a fun exercise … let’s reconstruct those samples above:

“Remember to come.”

“You can have the red one.”

“It’s actually quite easy.”

“Keep your hands at your sides,” or, “You may touch anything but this.”

Wow … wow.

So, fellow communicator. Want more bang out of your writing? Every time you write the word not (or its n’t forms), reword the sentence to say what you really mean. You’d be surprised what it can do to your conversion rate.

Another Robot Trying To Steal Our Jobs?

R2CopywriterAre you old enough to remember when intelligent graphic software first entered the mainstream? I am. I recall something as (now) mundane as typesetting — seeing the type in its font, as it would be spaced, ONSCREEN! Does anyone even use the term WYSIWYG anymore?

Some of the old-school designers balked at design software. How could a machine replace hand-rendered layout skills? But it did. Of course, the creative mind was safe. Machines could spit out what you told them to expectorate, but the human was irreplaceable. Until now.

In the spirit of the Terminator film saga, where machines think and even rationalize like humans, one large ad agency has developed software that, get this, creates entire ads. You simply tell it your objectives and your computer chooses an image, generates copy, and does the layout. In seconds.

I’m betting this is much ado about nothing. In a mundane world filled with mostly mediocre advertising that typically misses the mark, we seek out and celebrate creativity. Look no further than the Superbowl as a much anticipated, world-class showcase of the best (and not-so-best) in creative pitch making. Could algorithms and databases generate the next great Bud commercial? Sure … just as 1,000 monkeys strapped in front of computers could generate a first-rate novel.

My hope is that this software was generated as a sophomoric challenge. I envision two ad execs sitting at a bar, taking jabs at their thin-skinned creative team, when one says to the other, “Imagine how they’d react if we replaced them all with computers!” And the other says, “Hey, why not?” And months later, what started as a joke has burned up thousands of hours and created one mediocre toy/creative director.

If it were to create its own trade ad, this would likely be the copy: If you’re going to waste your client’s money anyway, don’t waste your time coming up with crap the old fashioned way.

Read about the abomination here: http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/27/dont-tell-the-creative-department-but-software-can-produce-ads-too/