Electric Idea Circus

Proven advertising ideas to get more people to buy from you, visit you or know about you. Not to mention plenty of tips on creating successful copy, layout and images. All filtered through the thick haze of classic rock lore.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The key to getting creatively un-stuck

The next time you're stuck on a copywriting or design project, take a listen to almost any rocker's early recordings and you'll learn the key to getting creatively and stylistically un-stuck.

The key?

Simply imitate someone good. Not plagiarize, just imitate. It's what ignited many careers.

The examples are really endless.

Tommy Roe started out by sounding a lot like Buddy Holly. Donovan started out as a Dylan knock-off, singing protest songs with a harmonica around his neck. Joe Cocker began by sounding like Ray Charles (if Ray Charles was a hippie). And the New Riders of the Purple Sage soundled just like the Grateful Dead.

But after a while, these imitators eventually found their own voice. Donovan chucked the harmonica and protest songs and became a poster flower child. Joe Cocker started soundling less like a white Ray Charles and more like soft rock. And who knows what happened to Tommy Roe. But they all grew into their own style.

This little tactic of looking to the greats for inspiration works every time if you're stuck on a project or in the beginning stages of learning your craft.

So where can you go for inspiration? Here are just four tips:

  1. Develop a swipe file. Save the print ads, brochures and direct mail you like and admire.

  2. Visit the Communications Arts archives on line to see recent creative samples some of the top agencies are creating. http://www.commarts.com/CA/exhibit/archive.html

  3. Subscribe to Communications Arts quarterly journals and annual advertising, design and illustration books. http://www.commarts.com/

  4. Google "ad agencies" and look at their samples.

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Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Flintststones & knowing your target audience

This one has nothing to do with classic rock (except that it's from 1961) -- but it's just as shocking as the backwards masking in "Stairway to Heaven." In the commercial linked below, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble extol the virtues of smoking Winston cigarettes. Yes, "The Flintstones" originally ran in the evening during prime time, but children still made up its loyal audience. Didn't Winston and the network know this? Or did Winston exploit the first rule of marketing (know your audience) by strategically targeting children to build a new and growing market. Decide for yourself and click on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rX5CwF4OW8A.

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Is really great work created quickly or slowly?

Really great copy and design is often created very quickly, in a creative volcanic burst. You may think it's the opposite -- that great work needs time to develop and ferment. The truth is that the developing and fermenting happens subconsciously, before the creating. Then the writing and designing happens, or should happen, quickly. Passionately.

A great example of this is the Beach Boys classic, "G-d Only Knows." It broke the mold. It made Paul McCartney in 1966 call it the greatest love song ever made. It even inspired the Beatles' Revolver album (McCartney tried to compose his version of "G-d Only Knows" in "Here, There, Everywhere," falling far short of the originality and goose-bump causing beauty of Brian Wilson's "G-d Only Knows.")

The point? Brian Wilson wrote one of the top 5 greatest rock songs of all time in only 30 minutes.

The lesson is great copy and design can and should be created quickly in a flow of passion and conviction. Then it will be read with passion and conviction. What takes time is the revision. In other words, the original creation should happen quickly, but you should take your time with the revisions, perfecting your concept. After the 30 minutes it took for Brian Wilson to write "G-d Only Knows," you can be sure he spent countless hours in the studio turning it into the timeless masterpiece it became.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Donovan Rule of changing your audience's perception of you

Your target audience's perception of your product or service is often permanent. In fact, it's one of the hardest things in the universe to change.

Which is why it's crucial to make sure you get it strategically right in the first place.

Donovan is a good example of this.

In the mid-sixties, Donovan was Great Britain's answer to Dylan. Like Dylan, Donovan sang Woody Guthrie songs while playing guitar and harmonica at the same time. But while Dylan stayed on the A-list for over four decades (and even won a Grammy for his 2006 album), Donovan's career basically ended when the sixties ended.

What happened?

With such albums as Sunshine Superman, Mellow Yellow and A Gift From A Flower To A Garden, Donovan became the poster-flower child of the sixties. He cemented that perception by dressing like a flower child and joining the Beatles in India to study with the Maharishi. And when the sixties ended and his audience embraced either the harder or more progressive sounds of the seventies, they left him behind. It was time to move on.

What Donovan really sold was his name. It was his brand. And it would always be too closely associated with Flower Power and the Summer of Love -- just like Cream and Jefferson Airplane. Only he didn't have the luxury of Eric Clapton who could leave the brand-name Cream behind -- or of Jefferson Airplane who could change its name to Jefferson Starship. The Donovan brand was the sixties. And this meant he would always be a nostalgia act. It was too late to re-invent himself.

The obvious lesson? We all need to be conscious of our audience's perception of us -- and avoid branding ourselves with a trend or fad. All trends and fads end, and we don't want our products or services ending with them.

Again, changing someone's perception is one of the hardest things for a marketer to do.

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The word-length guide to website writing

Like all persuasive writing, web copy must quickly get to the point and use the fewest words possible. In other words, you must make your copy easy to scan -- because that's what readers do. They scan first.

So no matter how long your website is, here's a quick guide to keep your headlines, sentences and paragraphs short and scan-able:
  • Headlines and subheads: Should be 8 words or less

  • Sentences: 15-20 words

  • Paragraphs: 40-70 words

  • Pages: 300-500 words per page

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Ladies & Gentlemen: How to introduce a speaker like a pro

You’ve been asked to introduce a speaker or entertainer at a seminar, convention, trade show or fundraising dinner. And yes, it would be fun to talk about when you first met the speaker or entertainer – or to show off your eloquence as you mention the main attraction's successes. But the audience is there to hear the speaker, not a speech about the speaker (I’ve even heard introductions that were almost as long as the actual speech).

So just how short should your introduction be?

As a rule of thumb, about 5 to 15 words long – which usually takes no more than 5 seconds.

This is how the pros have always done it. Here are just three examples:

“Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.”
- The standard network radio introduction since the 1930s (nine words, two-and-a-half seconds)

"And now, Mr. Tambourine Man with The Byrds"
- Ed Sullivan, 1965 (eight words, four seconds)

“Could you welcome please one of the great, great, great sounds. The Beach Boys.”
- Bill Graham, 1971, The Fillmore East (14 words, four seconds)
The pros make the assumption that the audience already knows who the speaker is. So there’s no need to inconvenience the audience for more than a few seconds.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Moby Grape Rule of Avoiding Over-Hype (A Word of Warning to Barak Obama)

On today's front page of the Chicago Tribune is a large photo of Barak Obama in front of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois where Abraham Lincoln once served in the state legislature. Obama is smiling and waving in a kind of high-angle shot Leni Reifenstahl used in Triumph of the Will. The headline over it screams in large type, "Obama: 'Destiny calling.'" He just entered the race for president.

When what seems to be the next greatest thing comes along, it's hard to resist over-hype. But resist it we must. Especially early on in the game. A great tragic example of over-hype is Moby Grape. Of all the sixties bands to emerge from San Francisco, Moby Grape had the most promise. Their record company, Columbia Records, saw this and, in a misguided marketing stunt, simultaneously released an unprecedented five singles from their first LP. The result of this over-hype? Moby Grape's credibility was damaged. Instead of seeing the band as America's answer to the Rolling Stones, the record-buying public saw them as another prefabricated Monkees.

The lesson we should all learn -- whether we're selling healthcare services, sinks, rock bands or presidential candidates -- is to build momentum with a tight strategy that doesn't stuff your enthusiasm and hopefulness down your audience's throats with sudden force. Go cautiously from strength to strength. In a very smart move, the Beatles refused to tour America until they had a #1 hit here. If they had toured here as unknowns with a lot of hype, who knows? They could have been reduced to a historical footnote -- and Leslie Gore and Connie Francis could have kept their careers.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Nothing new under the sun - Part II

Too many ads today don't have headlines because too many creative directors, copywriters and designers today feel that headlines are "old school." And when you evoke David Ogilvy's name and say every ad must have a headline, you get laughed at for being anachronistic.

Two facts. One, ads without headlines are nothing new (such as this Kellogg's ad from 1908). And two, headlines are a crucial part of a proven formula of grabbing your target audience's attention. Right now, it may not be so cool to create ads with headlines. But it is always cool to create ads with headlines that increase response rates.

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Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Why you can't proofread your own stuff

One simple reason. You're too close to it.

Let's say you created a piece and made some typos -- for example, some words have missing letters or there's no comma when there should be one. When you read it over, you're likely to miss the typos because your mind's eye still sees the missing letters and the AWOL comma. You know they should be there.

What you need is a fresh pair of eyes.

You need a proofreader.

The best person to proof your stuff is a professional proofreader. She's trained to catch the smallest mistakes. And the good ones will amaze you by catching things you didn't even know were there (though you were the one who created the piece in the first place). If hiring a professional proofreader isn't in the budget, ask a colleague or an administrative assistant to proof your piece. If you're as fortunate as I've been, you'll find some are just as good as the professional readers.

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Shun the exclamation point in your headlines

"Vanishing...Statehood Quarters 41 Coin Set!"

"Keep Your Phone Number ... Lower Your Phone Bill!"

These are two real headlines I just saw in two real ads in a real magazine. And they're real good examples of why you should avoid the exclamation point in your headlines. Here's why:
  1. The exclamation point should be the headline itself -- which should be your key selling message targeted to the right audience. In other words, an exclamation point is superfluous. It adds nothing. The two headlines above could work just as well -- if not better -- without it.
  2. Rely in the strength of your selling message. Have confidence in it. Sometimes copywriters add exclamation points because they don't think the message itself is strong enough. If you've done your homework correctly, your key selling message itself should be powerful to your target audience without any ending punctuation.
  3. Some experts argue not to end a headline with any kind of punctuation at all -- not even a with a period (let alone an exclamation point). That's because the idea is to grab your readers' attention and guide them smoothly to the copy -- and the period says "stop."
  4. The exclamation point is the written equivalent of yelling. Why would you want to yell at those you're trying to persuade to buy from you?

The headline's power belongs to its selling message, not to its punctuation. Strong punctuation can't make up for a weak headline. I'm not saying the two headlines above are weak (they could be getting high response rates); I'm saying that too often too many succumb to the temptation of throwing an exclamation point at the end of a headline to give it the illusion of passion.

And after saying all this, there are exceptions to this rule (not including your client or boss insisting on using an exclamation point).

One exception is using an exclamation point in a quote or testimonial headline. In the same magazine the two headlines above were in, there was an ad for Oreck vacuums. It showed a picture of David Oreck standing next to a vacuum cleaner under this headline: "My Hypo-Allergenic Oreck XL Ultra. It filters the air as you vacuum your floors!" This use of the exclamation point works because it's in a quote. David Oreck has a right to be excited about the benefits of his vacuum cleaners.

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Thursday, February 1, 2007

Shun the asterisk

When communicating to your target audience, you want to get your message across clearly and quickly. The asterisk will stop you from achieving this. That's because the asterisk interrupts your readers from your message, makes them go to the bottom of the page to read something that's probably not a direct benefit to them anyway and then go back up to continue where they left off. This doesn't make for a quick and clear read. In fact, it often opens a door that says: "Run and don't look back."

So instead of using asterisks as footnotes, say what you need to say right in the body of the copy. It can be a parenthetical. And if it's not a benefit to your audience, try to turn it into one.

In other words, there's never a need to use asterisks in your sell or branding copy unless your legal department tells you to.

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Go to http://www.aish.com/iran/.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

All Things Must Pass: The antidote to "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"

Nothing makes a good marketing pro cringe more than the phrase : "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

This favorite phrase of too many managers and business owners praises complacency, and complacency is a strategic no-no in a marketplace that's constantly changing. It puts an unnecessary ceiling to a company's growth and competitive edge. This phrase is also the twin sister to "We've always done it this way." Meaning, we're fine the way we are. We don't have to change. We're doing well.

But there are countless stories of successful companies that went under because they stayed the course while the marketplace, the customers and the times have changed. So your company's marketing plan frequently has to be reviewed and revised. New ideas and new ways of communicating to your target audience must always be embraced. That's why we always have to test new ideas, new creative and new strategies with the currently successful ones. Because what's successful today may not be successful two days from now.

So the next time your client or boss says, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," think of George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass." Why? Because no organization is immune to what could be a fatal challenge. Even the greatest and most influential organzations can pass. And perhaps history's greatest example of this is Montgomery Wards.

One of the oldest retail institutions in the U.S., Montgomery Wards began in 1872. It changed the way America sold things. It created the catalog, direct mail and even Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. It had hundreds of stores in 31 states. It was a household name. And in December 2000, Montgomery Wards went bankrupt after 128 years.

If Montgomery Wards could go from being the poster child of the Industrial Revolution and Big Business to the poster child of "All Things Must Pass," then how can we be so complacent to say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." For us to stay vibrant and viable, we must be committed to always review, react and, if necessary, revise our marketing plans.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

The opposite of concise is "utilize"

Every word must be concise. This is why the word "utilize" must be avoided, even reviled. Why? Because the verb "use" gets the message across much faster and clearer than the three-syllable "utilize" -- which makes "utilize" cumbersome and unnecessary. Compare these two sentences:

Utilize our website today.

Use our website today.

The second sentence is stronger, crisper and more precise. In other words, clear writing isn't about showing off vocabulary or using 25 cent words; it's about using concise language to communicate clearly.

But don't take my word for it. Here's what Professor William Strunk, Jr. of Cornell University wrote in 1918 about gunking up sentences with unnecessary words and expressions:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Many expressions in common use violate this principle:

the question as to whether -- whether (the question whether)
there is no doubt but that -- no doubt (doubtless)
used for fuel purposes -- used for fuel
he is a man who -- he
in a hasty manner -- hastily
this is a subject which -- this subject
His story is a strange one -- His story is strange.

In especial the expression the fact that should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.

owing to the fact that -- since (because)
in spite of the fact that -- though (although)
call your attention to the fact that -- remind you (notify you)
the fact that he had not succeeded -- his failure

And in our pursuit of concise writing, we should all add the unnecessary "utilize" to our list of words that should be revised out of every sentence.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

How to prove you're not an English-mangling monster to those who think copywriting is something lawyers do

What our third grade teachers taught us about writing isn't necessarily true today. Especially in copywriting and other types of persuasive writing. Which is why it's often perfectly acceptable to write in fragments. It's also okay, if not preferable, to end sentences with prepositions. Or to start sentences with "and" or "or." And, of course, contractions are our friends.

I know you know all this. But there will be times when you need to show your crisp copywriting to your boss or client (either external or internal), and you may get the usual resistance: "You can't start a sentence with 'and.' And you can't end a sentence with a preposition. And don't use contractions; it doesn't sound professional."

So how do you prove they're wrong and you're not some English-mangling monster? Just use this simple tactic that has worked for me every time: come armed with reprints of ads or brochures from the company's competitors that are chock full of fragments, contractions and sentences that end with prepositions and start with "and."

You may also want to remind your boss or client that truly persuasive writing must be personal. It must sound like how friends talk to each other in the living room or at a restaurant -- concisely, passionately and with little regard for many of the grammatical rules we learned in third grade.

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