Which marketing book has sold over eight million copies (and you might have never read)?
Does a 100 year old book on advertising still apply today?
In this two-part series we delve into concepts that are not just relevant, but crucial in marketing. Find out the principles that have lasted almost a whole century and how they can be useful to you, today. And tomorrow too. Probably the next decade or two as well.
When we look for marketing advice, we're easily awed by big names.
The best sellers of the day seem to capture our attention, and in the process, we fail to implement age-old wisdom. Which approximately is what I was doing too, as I went back and forth between my home and my office.
Right next to the door, a book stared back at me every single day. A book that is reputed to have sold millions of copies—and was written almost a hundred years ago.
The name of the book? Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins.
Hopkins believed advertising existed only to sell something and should be measured and justified by the results it produced. And in being rather pugnacious with his ideal of measurement, he did something that not many had done before. Hopkins gave away all his secrets.
His advertising was working amazingly well, and instead of squirrelling away his ideas, he published them. The book, “Scientific Advertising” and later, “My life in advertising” are two books that are as relevant today, as they've ever been. “Scientific Advertising” isn't a voluminous book.
I have a physical copy with large print, and it takes up just a little over 100 pages. As you read it, you're likely to be reminded about how English was spoken a hundred years ago. If you sidestep the weird construction of the English from yesteryear, you'll find some gems.
Here are some of my favourite slices from those pages.
The topics sound obvious—and they are—but it's the obvious that we miss out on the most.
- Tell your full story
- Being specific
1. On Sampling:
“We do not advocate samples given out promiscuously. Samples distributed to homes, like waifs on the doorstep, probably never pay. Many of them never reach the housewife. When they do, there is no predilection for them. The product is cheapened. It is not introduced in a favourable way. Many advertisers do not understand this.”
Give samples to interested people only. Give them only to people who exhibit that interest by some effort. Give them only to people whom you have told your story. First create an atmosphere of respect, a desire, an expectation. When people are in that mood, your sample will usually confirm the qualities you claim.”
One of the biggest reasons why someone doesn't buy something from you, is because of a factor of risk
Let's say you go to the food store today, and you're in the mood for some fruit. You spot the watermelon and instantly you're not sure. And right there, standing next to the watermelon stand is someone who hands you a slice. You taste it, and it's delicious.
Seconds earlier, you weren't sure if the melon was any good. Yet there you are watermelon in your hand, headed towards the checkout. And it does occur to you that the sample you ate could be from any watermelon. There's no guarantee that yours will be just as yummy. Even so, the sample has changed your mind enough—almost like a Jedi mind trick.
Sampling takes different forms
Surely you remember sitting through what was one of the coolest inventions of the movies, namely the “trailers”. As a kid, I'd drag my father to the movies as early as possible, just so that I could see the trailers. And like many of us have already experienced, Amazon.com will let you read a fair bit of the book, or listen to audio, so you can gauge if you want to buy it.
If you look at the Psychotactics site, you'll notice screenshots from pages of books, and courses too. As a cartoonist, I'm fascinated with words as well as visuals. Which is why a book like The Brain Audit itself will have approximately 99 cartoons within the pages of the book. Clients don't know all of this merely by looking at the cover and sales page.
They need to look inside the book, read a bit and experience the feeling of going through a course. A sample, one they can click and zoom in, forms a significant reduction of risk. Without needing to buy anything or go through the rigmarole of asking for a refund (if they don't like the product), they can sample it.
Yet sampling doesn't stop at just “looking inside”
At Psychotactics, we tend to see entire courses as samples. Let's take on a big, chunky course like article writing. A client might be intimidated at the thought of having to spend three months with article writing. What if the instruction isn't to their liking? What if they end up spending all of that time and money and it comes to nought?
Once again, you can use smaller products to reduce the risk. A client might buy a product like “Outlining” which costs about $39. Having liked that product, she might try another product or two before joining a relatively smaller course—like headline writing.
All of those booklets, books, mini-courses, webinars are like a dinner sequence and helps her gauge her appetite for the Article Writing Course. To jump in with both feet to a big, expensive and three-month-long course is not the type of action we're prone to take. Instead, we snip off tiny bites at a time.
Hopkins talks about sampling, and while his level of sampling was mostly restricted to physical products that you'd buy in a store, sampling works for digital products, for courses as well as consulting.
A webinar series—that's a sample for consulting or training. Equally so, it can help a client reduce their risk and end up buying an entire online product course. However, in this mêlée of giving away samples, it's easy to miss out on a critical point, namely opt-in.
Even a hundred years ago, Hopkins talked about samples as being “homeless waifs”.
And this brings us to a tantalising point—namely, opt-in. There are samples that you, me, any one of us can access. Yet, there also need to be samples that are fiercely shielded behind an opt-in system. In the days of Hopkins, it meant racing to the drawer for a set of scissors, cutting a coupon, finding an envelope, licking a stamp and mailing it in for the offer.
As you can tell, all of the opting-in meant the person had a high level of interest. Today, because of the Internet, we think it's okay to make things easier for the client. Yes, and no. Some things should be more accessible, some not so.
Here's an example or two (online and offline)
Online: Recently, we made some big changes to the membership site at 5000bc. The entire forum is brand new and a treat to work with. However, there are well over 350,000 posts (yes, it's a busy place). This meant it could take a few days to port over all the information and to make sure it all worked well.
As a result, we announced three back to back webinars—with no opt-in. Normally 50-100 clients show up for a webinar. How many turned up this time? Without opt-in, it was just a total of five. Five on Monday, five on Tuesday and ditto on Wednesday.
What about offline?
The early meetups were often a massive waste of time for us. We'd announce we were in a city, and clients would promise to show up, only to back away at the last minute.
With the meetups, we didn't just put in an opt-in form but also started to charge $50. As a result, we have no more dismal turnouts. Barring the odd person who doesn't turn up, we have almost perfect attendance.
It might occur to you that meetups and webinars may be an excellent example of opt-in, but how are they connected with samples? Good question, and here's what we've found out.
When clients meet with us either through the virtual space of webinars, or meetups, the trust factor goes up. It's a tiny event, yet clients get to know us better and as a result, show up at more paid events like workshops, courses and buy more products and training.
At first, a meetup or webinar may not seem to have as much power, but they're samples. They just happen to be a little higher up the chain.
When you look at samples, it's tricky to know which is a sample and which is the final product
A one day workshop may well be a sample of a three-day event. A free webinar becomes the sample for a series of paid webinars. It's not like you have step by step progress, either. A booklet might lead to a course and a podcast to a consulting program. Which is to say that all samples needn't be free, or even easy to access.
Think about that for a while.
Could you run with a series of samples this year that leads to other purchases? If that's what you plan to do, you're going to be busy and are likely to need a sales page. At which point, the second of Hopkins' principles come into play: tell your full story.
Let's find out a bit more about it, shall we?
2) Tell your full story
Which YouTube video gets watched more? The 4-minute video or the 14- minute one?
It was a trick question, you know because length doesn't matter. What mattered back in 1920, and what matters today, is “how you keep the person's interest”. Which is precisely the point that Hopkins makes in his chapter, “tell the full story”.
Four lines in “Scientific Advertising” sum up the importance of getting the idea across.
Hopkins writes: “You are like a salesman in a busy man's office. He (the salesman) may have tried again to get entry. He may never be admitted again. This is his one chance to get action, and he must employ it to the full.” It's a lesson that even YouTube had to learn because, at one point, you couldn't upload YouTube videos if they extended past 14 minutes.
Today, according to Wired magazine, makeup tutorials are rarely less than 12 minutes. The “storytime” category is well into a chunky 45 minutes, or more. Even popular video creators like Jenna Marbles, who started out posting videos of two and a half minutes, has now moved to well over sixteen and a half minutes. And yes, ten million people will watch.
If you're wondering if all of this “full story” bit only appeals to video, it doesn't
Newspapers like the Guardian, have an extremely popular category called “Long reads”. So does the BBC, as does GQ Magazine, The Independent, The Economist and Wired Magazine. And it's not like anything has changed. Back in 1920, people read a lot of stuff, and they also had their version of Twitter.
However, the crux of what Hopkins is talking about, isn't necessarily editorial content
Instead, he's talking about a sales page, which is what most, if not all, of us, need when selling products and services. It's dead easy for us to believe that no one reads any more. People read what interests them, and they will read it in great detail. If anything, leaving out parts of the “full story” is somewhat like landing at an airport and finding one of your bags missing.
When a client reads your sales page, they're dealing solely with risk. They don't know if you're solving their problem, or if you have the right solution. They need to qualify themselves as the right audience; to find out if you've considered their objections.
You would also need to give them social proof, in the form of testimonials or case studies; have a risk reversal. And yes, your uniqueness—what is it that makes your product or service their first and only choice?
Take for instance when I first started in marketing and consulted with a sofa store
What do you need to know about sofas? Most people enter a store, look at the same as the sofa, ask questions about the dimensions and then sit on one. A sequence like that doesn't ensure the sale of a $4000 sofa set. We had to tell the “full story”, which precisely is where we took Hopkins' message to heart.
I asked the owner to tell me about every part of the sofa. He started with the foam and went into enormous detail about the frame. Is it sturdy enough? Will it last after five years or will it warp? Is it made of softwood or hard? Does the frame contain particle board, plastic or metal?
When a client walked into the room, they weren't expecting the “full story”
Instead, the full story is what they experienced. We'd have little leaflets going into almost excessive detail about the frame, the construction of the legs, the upholstery and most importantly, the foam. Somehow the foam seemed to hold the imagination of the customer.
They'd hang around for quite a while, raise their eyebrows at the considerably higher prices and then walk out to check out some more sofas at the competitor's store. A few days later, they'd be back.
“The salesman at the other store knew nothing about their sofas”, they'd say to us
They didn't know about the composition of the frame, could tell us much about the legs or the springs. They were confused when we mentioned “eight-way hand-tied springs,” and weren't able to explain whether they were webbing or mesh.
And the foam was a complete mystery when we started peppering them with questions. Then they'd smile and ask when they could expect delivery of their chosen sofa.
It was clear that the clients weren't getting the full story at the other stores.
When you don't tell the full story, all you're doing is increasing the level of risk. Which isn't to say that the full story needs to be boring. In an article, you can have case studies or sofa stories that keep the client's attention.
On a sales page, you can have videos, appropriate animation. On the Psychotactics sales pages, we even put in cartoons to sell serious products like books on planning and pricing. Telling the full story still very much calls on you to tell an interesting story.
“A sentence or two will never do”, says Hopkins
Brief advertising is never traced; he goes on to say. Every traced ad will tell a complete story. Never be guided in any way by ads that are untraced. Apply your own advertising common sense. Take the opinion of nobody, the verdict of nobody, who knows nothing about his returns.
There are situations where the full story may temporarily, be suspended
In the last 20 years, we've had two products launched with little or no story at all. The first one was the series called “Blackbelt presentations”. The second was more recent and covered how to start up a business. Both products didn't have sales pages, to begin with.
All we did was send out a short e-mail asking clients to trust us and based on that trust to go ahead and buy the product. We added the sales page a bit later, which told the full story. However, such a product may only get traction in sales if the clients trust you—and even then you're likely to see a drop in sales.
After all, if you're listening to someone drool over the foam and eight-way hand-tied springs, you'll also find that it's hard to resist a sales page that goes a lot into detail.
A picture may tell a thousand words, but it's the full story that makes the sale.
Which takes us to the third part: being specific. Isn't telling the full story, detailed enough? Let's find out the difference in the next episode.