hippy.pngI'm constantly amazed by the folks in direct mail who send out these long letters asking me to sign up for one more credit card—I know they work, but it's not my style (and it doesn't work well on the Web). I am often reminded of a story from my youth—the 1960s—when a long-haired hippy was struggling to get a ride to his destination. The hitchhiker kept sticking out his thumb, but no one stopped. Finally, he scrawled on a piece of cardboard, "Going to the Barber" and he was picked up within minutes. Now, that's copywriting.

You see, copy doesn't need to be long to be effective. In fact, on the Web, the shorter copy often tests better because people scan more than they read. What is important is that you understand your target market, what they care about, and what will persuade them.

So, our hitchhiker realized that the people who owned cars in the 1960s were unlikely to be fellow hippies. And his appearance was turning off the few who might be willing to give him a ride. The idea that he was ready to change his appearance was enough to get someone to decide to stop. The key was for the hitchhiker to stop thinking about what he wanted (a ride) long enough to come up with a motivator for his audience.

Often, we marketers are guilty of the same blindness. In our quest for a sale (what we want), we often fail to understand what our audience wants. And we blather on and on in verbose fashion about all the little features of our offering, and how wonderful our employees are, and how committed we are to customer satisfaction and blah, blah, blah...

But do our customers care? Often, they don't. Now, you're unlikely to be as persuausive as our hitchhiker with one sentence of copy. Both customers and search engines tend to like more than that, just so they know what you are talking about. But do talk about what the customer is interested in.

Customers usually have a problem that needs to be solved. It could be a practical left-brain problem (my gutters are leaking) or a hard-to-articulate right brain problem (I feel too unattractive to date)—it doesn't matter. Either way, you need to frame your sales pitch in the parlance of the customer rather than in your own industry-speak. I might not know what a "leader" is or when the last time my gutter was cleaned. I might not know whether I want a matchmaking service or a makeover. (Or a haircut, you hitchhikers.)

But that is what the marketer needs to find out. That's what you need to write about. And when you get it right, you can persuade your audience in relatively few words. Mark Twain famously said, "If I had more time, I could have made it shorter." Remember that the right words carefully chosen do the trick and that we pile on more and more because we don't actually know what people are looking for, not because more is better.

And I better end here before this post itself starts to run on too long...

September 16, 2008

Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.

Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.

Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.


"Finally, he scrawled on a piece of cardboard, "Going to the Barber" and he was picked up within minutes."

Mike, that literally made me laugh out loud. That's a great story. I've never heard it before.

I think your 'shorter is better' comment is good advice, and especially applaud the Mark Twain quote, but I'd be interested in some further thoughts from you regarding, 'to thine own self be true.'

I think there's a fine line to walk between being saleable and being genuine. Should the hippie have to get a crew cut in order to do business with people? Will he end up a happy hippie?

I would suggest that the best, long-term plan for success is to find the genuine attributes of yourself or your business that are shared by enough other people to make business viable.

In other words, if the hippie had been willing to accept a ride on the handlebars of a fellow granola-eater's bike, he might have made an honest and valuable connection with someone he could really 'live with' long-term.

Which is the better path toward long-term happiness? Certain riches at the price of letting go of one's true ideals, or a decent living won by clever sleuthing out of the niche market which genuinely represents your shared commonalities?

I'd like to know what you think.

Miriam Ellis,

At the risk of having my friend Mike tell me that I am "off base" I am going to attempt to answer for Mike.

Sometimes an audience can be found in a "Niche Market" and if there are few entrepreneurs in that Niche Market you can not only prosper but you can end up being the person who gets referrals from the businesses who do not specialize in that Niche but who would otherwise be your competitors.

(I once had a barber tell me that he did not have much experience cutting my kind of hair, but that's a story for another day.)

However, in general, entrepreneurialism is not "personal."

If I stop at a Gas Station on a very long road trip, my choice to buy from that Gas Station was not personal. Furthermore, the Gas Station owner does not care whether I am a democrat or a republican. He does not care what my religion, if I have one, is. And what model of car I am driving is rarely of much significance either.

Now an avocation is different. My Father-in-law collects and sells Model Tractors. He enjoys being a member of a Model Tractor club. He likes to go to Model tractor meetings. He sometimes brings home a little more money from a Model Tractor show than he takes in. For him, Model Tractors are a lifestyle and clubs and events are personal.

He also owns rental properties. When it comes to rental properties, he is concerned about maintaining the condition of his assets, avoiding conflicts with the law and making enough money to make it all worthwhile. Whether he likes his tenants or not as friends is not as important in his rental business as it is in his Model Tractor hobby. Because rentals are just business.

The story goes that a Politician was asked about his position on fencing in the grazing lands in an area where the Sheep owners wanted fences and the Cattle Owners wanted open grazing. Now as far as the Politician was concerned he really did not care who voted for him as long as he got elected. So he replied Some of my friends are in favor of fencing and some of my friends are opposed to fencing and as for me, I support my friends.

Its nothing personal, its just business.

By the way, I have turned down many projects because they went against my convictions concerning right and wrong.

Hi James,
What a thoughtful and good response! I really appreciate the time you took to write that, and do agree, most people draw the line between business and personal matters. Your examples are very good ones.

This is what I would say. A life where business and personal are separate can be lucrative and satisfying...but a life where business and personal are melded into one can truly set the world on fire for any person lucky enough to have found the way to be making money from a job they'd be thrilled to do even if no one paid them. That was really my thought behind my comment, and I enjoyed reading yours. Thanks!

Miriam and James, this a great discussion.

I think that you both have good points to make, because, in truth it is situational. To belabor that example, a hitchhiker is not typically looking to make a long-term connection, so it's not terribly important that he be very disclosing about himself. If the transaction is appealing, make it.

On the other hand, not all marketing is transactional, and even transactional marketing might be enhanced by becoming more relational. So, it's usually better to have more of a connection to your customer than an appealing transaction, because you need to reignite that appeal for each transaction going forward, which is a lot more work than loyal customers built on relationships.

My tendency would be to look to add more relationship to customer transactions whenever it is possible (and remains genuine). I think that is good advice for any business, even if they think their appeal is strictly transactional.

Reading Mike's article brought to mind a short film I saw on You Tube sometime ago. It supports what Mike is talking about.

It also contains another message that all of us should appreciate if you are like me and get overwhelmed with all the bad news we here these days. Well worth the view.



What a great video, Mark! Thanks for sharing it.

I don't think I've enjoyed reading reader responses so much in years. Good points, all. After reading Mike's article another Mark Twain quote came to mind, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

Thanks, Mike. I have to admit that these are some of my favorite comments, too. That's why it is so much fun to write for SEG.

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