7 Powerful Content Strategies Borrowed from Advertising Masters

The Copyblogger blog was founded on a simple but powerful idea — that our content (blogs, podcasts, video) can be strengthened by adapting techniques from the world of direct response copywriting.

Today, Sonia drills into some specific techniques and approaches that we can profitably swipe from our direct response brothers and sisters.

In this 24-minute episode, Sonia Simone talks about:

  • The crucial difference between subscribers and an audience
  • How to develop a “big idea” that tells the world who you are
  • The boring-sounding secret of the really great copywriters (this is especially powerful today)
  • The fascinating world of recommendation algorithms
  • Working toward business goals without sounding like an infomercial
  • 9 quick ideas to make your content more interesting

The Show Notes

7 Powerful Content Strategies Borrowed from Advertising Masters

Sonia Simone: This episode of Copyblogger FM is brought to you by Digital Commerce Summit. We’ll be telling you more about this amazing life event later in the show, but check out Rainmaker.FM/Summit for all the details. That’s Rainmaker.FM/Summit.

Hey there, it’s great to see you again. My name is Sonia Simone, and this is Copyblogger FM, a content marketing podcast. For those of you who don’t know me yet, I’m the chief content officer over at Rainmaker Digital, and I like to hang out with folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger blog.

This podcast is about content marketing best practices, tips, strategies, news, and the occasional rant. Today, I wanted to talk about one of the first themes, one of the original themes of Copyblogger, which was this intersection of copywriting, persuasive copywriting, and content. Back in the day, when Brian Clark the heretic first started talking about this combination, we didn’t call it content, necessarily. That’s why the name of the blog is Copyblogger.

We talked about blogging. We talked about social sharing sites, that kind of thing. Brian was a student of what’s called ‘direct response copywriting,’ and he perceived that you could make the whole blogging thing more effective if you took some lessons from some of the things that direct marketers have learned over the years in their quest to sell us stuff. So the great advertisers and especially the great direct mail, if you want to avoid the euphemism ‘junk mail’ — those folks really knew how to craft content to capture attention that persuaded us to take an action.

That intersection is really the foundation of Copyblogger, and it’s what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about seven practices that the traditional direct marketer copywriters knew about and practiced and made part of their daily routine that are going to help you out with your content, whether it’s your podcast, your blog, your video channel, what have you.

All right, let’s dive into it. We’re going to start with headlines. It was one of the first things that Brian wrote about consistently on Copyblogger. It’s always been a big hit for us, and that’s because if your content doesn’t have an excellent headline on it, then it’s not going to get the attention. It’s not going to get the interest. It’s not going to get the shares. And if we can’t capture that attention at the outset, then you know nothing else can happen. We cannot deliver the rest of the message.

The Crucial Difference between Subscribers and an Audience

I want you to keep in mind that just because you have subscribers, that doesn’t mean you have an attentive audience. You still need to earn that attention, day in and day out. And I think that really great headlines have the reputation of being a trick or shallow. And they’re not a trick, and it’s not shallow.

It’s really about creating of a beautiful, elegant, and relevant package for your thoughtful content. If you think about it as a beautiful gift wrapping that makes your content appealing and special, honor the work you put into your content by crafting your headline as carefully as you craft the content.

We do have a free ebook for you all about crafting headlines that will give you some more concrete tips on how to write headlines that are going to get the kind of results that you’re looking for. Like a lot of the direct response advice, it’s probably 90 percent craft and 10 percent art. So if you can pick up the craft, if you can pick up the techniques, you really will find that you’re able to get a lot better results.

It’s a Fine Line between ‘Smart’ and ‘Clever’

The second thing I want to talk about, and this is dangerous to talk about in the world of social media and blogs and podcasts, but consider working on maybe not being quite so clever, which is kind of a loaded statement. Most of us listening to this podcast — certainly me, certainly all of us at the Copyblogger team — are wordsmiths. And we believe in craft. We believe in wordsmithing. That’s all good, but I wanted, when you’re talking about your content, to be in the service of clarity, rather than cleverness.

When I say ‘clever,’ I’m not saying ‘smart.’ They’re two different things. Cleverness tends to imply being a bit showoff-y. And it’s a fine line, because I don’t want you to have something generic, something without personality. But the puns, the in jokes, the kind of showoff-y, ‘look how cute and smart I am’ doesn’t do as well as the more thoughtful, intelligent, insightful but very, very clear content.

Just something to keep in mind. Sometimes we’re much too clever for our own good. I am as guilty or more so of this than anybody on the planet. But you always want to be on the lookout for it, because cleverness tends to be the enemy of clarity. And clarity is so important.

How to Develop a ‘Big Idea’ that Tells the World Who You Are

The third point I want to talk about today is developing your big idea. And this is a good ad campaign that would go nowhere until they had really pinned down an interesting, compelling big idea. The big idea is essentially — it’s an instant communication of a desirable benefit that’s compressed into a memorable statement. One of the ones that gets mentioned a lot, I’ve certainly mentioned it on the blog, is ‘a thousand songs in your pocket,’ which is of course more like 10,000 these days. But that was an early big idea statement that Apple used to market the iPod.

It goes beyond a sound bite. Big ideas should be able to be expressed in sound bites, but not all sound bites are big ideas. It’s really about conveying something that matters a lot to your audience in a very memorable and very pithy way. There are wonderful examples all over advertising.

One of my favorites came from a book by Mary Wells Lawrence. She was one of the original ‘Mad Men.’ She was one of the few women working at a high level in that field, in advertising in the ’60s, and she has a great book. It’s called A Big Life in Advertising, and she tells a great story about a campaign she did for Braniff Airlines. Her agency convinced Braniff to paint their airplanes these really saturated bright, fun colors — bright red, bright orange, bright yellow, these tropical hot colors — which was totally not done. At the time, airlines and airplanes were gray and subdued and stately.

The big idea was that Braniff was an advertising that was hip, that was young, that was fresh, that was modern. Keep in mind, this would have been in the early to mid-’60s, so that was a very resonant big idea at the time. But the thing about the big idea is, not only did Mary Wells Lawrence have to convince Braniff Airlines to paint the planes. She had to convince Braniff Airlines to live that promise, to live that big idea.

They actually had to — of course, they carried the colors through in things like the flight attendant uniforms, but they also had to carry it through in the attitudes that the flight attendants had and the attitudes that their advertising had. You saw an echo of this later with Virgin Airlines, kind of cheeky, very fresh, very modern. This is a big idea, and this is an example of a big idea that goes way beyond a tagline and really is just to permeate the whole business.

That’s the kind of thing that you’re looking for when you’re crafting these. We’re going to take a very short break and then after the break, we’ll be back with Copyblogger FM and I will let you know one of the best places to find those big ideas.

Jerod Morris: Hey, Jerod Morris here. If you know anything about Rainmaker Digital and Copyblogger, you may know that we produce incredible live events. Well, some would say that we produce incredible live events as an excuse to throw great parties, but that’s another story. We’ve got another one coming up this October in Denver. It’s called Digital Commerce Summit, and it is entirely focused on giving you the smartest ways to create and sell digital products and services. To get all the details and the very best deal on tickets, head over to Rainmaker.FM/Summit. That’s Rainmaker.FM/Summit.

The Boring-Sounding Secret of the Really Great Copywriters (This Is Especially Powerful Today)

Sonia Simone: Super, welcome back. It’s good to see you again. All right, I promised you that we would talk about where to find those big ideas that we’re looking for in our copy, in our content, and in our businesses. And the somewhat unsexy word that’s the answer to this question is research.

Gary Bencivenga is one of my favorite direct response copy teachers and masters of the craft. He once said that the best copywriters are the most tenacious researchers.

It’s about digging and then digging some more. It’s about continuing to be on the lookout for interesting little snippets or facts, compelling little scraps of dialog or phrasing from your audience and from your customers that you could use. You’re keeping an eye out for interesting stories, for case studies. You’re keeping an eye out for your customer problems, and of course your customer solutions.

The direct response copywriting folks always knew how important that was to research and research and research some more until you knew that target market better than they knew themselves. And now, 21st century fast-forward, we are competing with an incredibly high volume of content that is thin and weak and lacking in precisely this element of deep, solid research. It really is a way that you could stand out, that you can stand above the crowd, and that you can get your content to rise among this clutter and noise of the junky shallow stuff.

Just so I don’t miss the main idea here, when we talk about research, we’re talking about researching your topic as it pertains to your audience. So their view of your topic, their problems with it. What works for them, what doesn’t work for them. Where they get frustrated, all those good things. Research, combined with some time to really mull over and process what you find, and also combined with creative best practices — and these are things like taking lots of walks, looking outside your topic for fresh ideas, giving yourself plenty of time, doing lots of writing, free writing.

This combination — research plus time plus nurturing your own creativity — is the best place to get big ideas. The big ideas will hatch if you give it the right environment. And that is the right environment: immersion in your topic, taking care of your creative self, and giving yourself time for the idea to step forward out of the fog.

Stephen King calls this the ‘boys in the basement.’ I really think he has actually a terrific book on writing. I think it’s called something amazingly innovative, like On Writing, and he talks about the boys in the basement. In other words, the part of your brain that’s not necessarily front and center but works on things, chews on things in the background.

The Secret to Success? It Takes a ‘Starving Crowd’

All right, more big ideas from the direct response copywriting crew. This one comes from Gary Halbert, and Gary Halbert was a very, very capable direct response copywriter, actually quite a great direct response copywriter. A little bit notorious. He did go to jail, so he’s a figure of some legend. But Gary Halbert would like to tell a story about: What does it take for a restaurant to be successful? And he would speak about copywriting, and people would say, “It takes great location,” or “It takes the best food,” or “It takes impeccable service.”

His answer was no — it takes a starving crowd. If there’s a bunch of people who really need lunch or dinner, and they’re just starving, your restaurant’s going to do well.

Your job as a content marketer is to pull your starving crowd to you, to pull the audience to you that is hungry for something in your topic. Then, of course — and obviously you can see this ties closely with the point about research — it’s your job to figure out what they’re starving for. What are their questions? What are their problems? What are their frustrations? But you always want to keep that eye out. What is the audience hungry for? What is it that’s lacking in their experience today that you might be able to help them out with or fulfill?

On some level, that sounds like an obvious point, except I can’t tell you how many businesses, and especially digital businesses — I think because digital businesses are so simple to create. You fire up a website, you throw out a payment process, or you do a couple of things. You don’t have to sign a year lease and do all these things that brick-and-mortar businesses do.

A surprising number of digital businesses launch and put some investment into it, and they have no idea what the starving crowd is. They don’t know what the crowd is hungry for. They know what they want to sell. They don’t know what the audience wants to buy. Really, it’s a critical point, and it’s surprisingly easy to overlook when you’re excited about a new project.

The next point is just to really understand your goals, to understand where you’re going. A direct response copywriter would work with a very, very specific set of measurable goals — inquiries or sales, or there would be some call to action. And you would measure how well you did based on: Did the action happen or not? It was very binary. Direct response tends to be very binary: yes or no.

We do have a content marketing strategy ebook that will help you to understand some of the goals of content marketing, how they fit together, and will help you map out your own strategy for how you’re going to get where you want to go.

This podcast is based on a post I wrote called 7 Things the Great Copywriters Wish You Knew. And it was so interesting, but there was an advertiser or a marketer who was reading the post, and she got really upset that I pointed people to the content marketing strategy ebook, because she felt like it was supposed to be content and then that was like advertising. Somehow, I was muddying the well.

This is the point that I would argue the point on: Content marketing has to have a goal. And if you’re creating content marketing just to make the audience feel good, it’s really great to make the audience feel good, and it’s really great to educate the audience. It’s really great to create a warm environment in which you can do business with less friction.

Those are all valid points of content marketing, but at some point, you also have to make some of the traditional calls to action. You have to persuade. People have to go from feeling warm and fuzzy to actually doing the thing you need them to do as your customer.

Working toward Business Goals without Sounding Like an Infomercial

She and I agreed to disagree on that one, but the thing that made her uncomfortable was something called the ‘call to action.’ So I want to talk for a minute about calls to action, because this is a very important part of traditional direct response copy of traditional advertising, and it is interestingly the thing that will make you feel like your content might sound like an infomercial.

That phrase comes up all the time: It sounds like an infomercial. And the reason for this is that infomercials are extremely expensive to produce. They’re extremely expensive to buy the airtime, and so if they don’t use an effective call to action, they’re leaving a lot of dollars on the table.

A call to action is simply a very direct statement of what you want the person to do next. You just come out and tell them, “Here’s what to do next.” In old infomercials, it was ‘Call this number 1-800,’ and then they would read the number 10 times so it would stick in your head. Operators are standing by. Call now and you get a free bonus. Those are all calls to action. They’re specific, clear statements of what the person should do next.

In web copy, sometimes it is the words ‘click here.’ So interestingly, if you tell somebody to click here, you will get more clicks, and if you don’t tell them to click here and you just put a button — very strange, but sometimes marketing and advertising is kind of strange. You just go with what works.

Now, don’t do that all over the place. First of all, it’s not wonderful from a usability standpoint. If you want somebody to click on a link and it’s really important — it’s the one time in 20 when it matters more — then I’ll use ‘click here’ to learn more about the program, or something like that.

I use it sparingly. If you use it for every link, it’s not going to work. People are going to get blind to it, and it’s going to be very clunky and annoying. Calls to action are very cool, very effective. They can always use tightening. And in my opinion, every piece of content should have some kind of a call to action. It could be to read another piece of content. It could be to subscribe to your podcast channel or your YouTube channel. It could be to get started on an email list or pick up some kind of supplemental material.

But content should have calls to action. You should be moving people from one step to the next. That’s what content marketing is for. Otherwise, it’s just your hobby, and hobby writing is a wonderful and beautiful thing. It’s just, art is great — but art and content marketing are not exactly the same thing.

My final point, again that was made in that original post — you can always get additional links and resources and materials if you check out the show’s show notes. You can always find them on Copyblogger FM, as well as the complete archive for the show. I will leave that original post for you and if you’re interested, you can read through it and see how it compares. The points are all the same. Some of my examples are different.

Avoiding the ‘Worst Sin of Business’

The seventh point that I’ll leave you with is: Just don’t be boring. Dan Kennedy calls this the worst sin of business, I think. David Ogilvy has a great quote, “You can’t bore people into buying your product. You can only interest them in buying it.”

Boring content never worked particularly well. It really doesn’t work now, because there’s so much content on the web that people can always find something interesting to compete with your content. Make your content interesting. Make it exciting or compelling to read, and there are a lot of different ways you can do that.

One of the simplest ways you can do that is just to put more of your personality into your writing. Write with a point of view of voice, an interesting writing voice. But also you can use things like imagery and good design, and you can format your content so that is easy to read or easy to consume.

Your big idea is another thing that’s going to work against being boring. Big ideas are interesting by their nature. Storytelling is a great one. Stories are such good hooks, so when you find stories, become a collector of stories. And when you find them, use them. They really, really work with content, and they really help us to make that human-to-human connection.

Humor can work if you’re funny, and I will tell you the secret about why so many marketing teachers or even writing teachers will say, “Well, humor is very subjective.” I’ll tell you why so many marketing teachers will say, “Well, humor is very subjective.” When you hear somebody saying that, in my opinion, they’re telling you not everybody is funny.

Only use humor if you’re actually pretty sure you’re funny. It is true that different people find different things funny, so you have to make sure if you’re going to use humor that your audience is appreciative of the kind of humor that you’re using.

Another one that’s a maybe — it’s not boring, and it can be used well or it can be used badly — is controversy. You can use controversy to take a stand for what you believe in. That’s really effective. It really works, it’s very strong, or you can use controversy by picking a fight with everybody in your topic and just being an irascible bad-natured pest. That doesn’t tend to win you any business. It’s just hard for people to like you and trust you if you’re constantly getting into fights. Controversy is one. It can work, but it has to be used thoughtfully. And don’t overuse it.

That’s it for this week, that intersection of copywriting, direct response copywriting, and content marketing that we all love so much. This is Sonia Simone with Copyblogger FM. Thanks so much, and I’ll see you next week.