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.

  3. Subscribe to Communications Arts quarterly journals and annual advertising, design and illustration books.

  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

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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

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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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Thursday, January 18, 2007

How to get the right feedback from those you show your work to

Show someone your work and you're liable to get an "I like it" or "I don't like it." And nothing else. This response is appropriate if you're asking for an opinion on tobacco-flavored ice cream or the smell of your new hair gel. But it's a weak response if you're trying to find out if your piece really works (especially if you're too close to it to know if it really works).

So what should you do when you're trying to get some helpful, strategic feedback and instead you get only an "I like/don't like it" response? Simply dig deeper by asking these questions:

1. Did it grab your attention?
2. Was this persuasive to you?
3. Was the key selling message clear at a glance?
4. Was it easy (and even fun) to read?
5. Was it dynamic? Relevant? Tasteful? Human?

These are just a few suggestions. The point here is that sometimes you may need to ask more strategic questions from those you show your work to ... so you can get more strategic feedback and so your piece can be more effective.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Bob Dylan Rule of Branding

Here's a quick but important lesson Bob Dylan can teach you about branding (and no, it's not his lyric: "When you ain't got nothin'/You got nothin' to lose).

It's around December 1962. Bob Dylan already had one folk album out on Columbia Records and began recording his second one. On this second album, he recorded a couple of rock songs with a band accompanying his guitar and harmonica (one song was an original and the other was an Elvis cover). His manager said no way. You already started defining yourself as a folk singer with your audience, not a rocker. And we have to continue building your folk brand, not alienate an audience that's just starting to know you. So Dylan went on to achieve the pinnacle of his branding by being synonymous with folk and protest songs.

And more than two years later, Dylan was able to reinvent his brand and switch over to rock. He was already a household name, and switching to a new brand would not ruin him (though changing an audience's perception of a brand is always extremely challenging, which will be discussed later). This is an important lesson if you're thinking of re-branding your company, products or services. If you're not brand new but for some reason you want to say you're doing something new and different, it's best to first make sure your target audience really knows who you are. What you are. What you stand for.

Because if you try to redefine yourself before you solidify your brand, your audience will never really know who you are. And that could be the ruin of any branding campaign.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Lennon & McCartney rule of creating great advertising

Here's a question I've wasted way too much time thinking about: What the heck happened to the songwriting skills of John Lennon and Paul McCartney after the Beatles broke up?

How could the same guys who wrote "Strawberry Fields" and "Hey Jude" also write such embarrassments as "Meat City" and "Let 'Em In"? Did they forget their craft? Was it drugs? The influence of non-songwriters Yoko and Linda?

It's none of the above. I strongly believe their songwriting skills as individuals devolved because they created their post-Beatle songs in a kind of vacuum. After they wrote their post-Beatle songs, those around them said it was great, and they ran to the studio to record "Instant Karma" and "Helen Wheels." But as Beatles, they had each other to bounce off their ideas. They challenged each other. Even their competitiveness inspired them to innovate and experiment. All that ended when the Beatles ended.

So what does this have to do with creating great advertising? Everything. Because creating great advertising works the same way; it requires having someone else with a talent for recognizing good work to bounce your ideas off of (it could be a co-worker, copywriter, creative director or art director to name a few). Sometimes you're too close to your ideas and concepts to see it strategically. You need another set of trusted eyes.

In other words, the Lennon & McCartney rule of creating great advertising is not to create in a vacuum.

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Words that should be blacklisted - part two

The bureaucratic favorite, “and/or” should be avoided like infectious waste.

Its use is almost forgivable in legal contracts for people who crave meandering, passive sentences with plenty of prepositional phrases -– but inexcusable in marketing materials. Why? Because it disrupts the flow of your sentence and makes the reader slow down. Anything that slows the reader and opens an escape hatch from your main message (not to mention your call to action), is bad.

So what should you use instead of “and/or?” Either “and” or “or.” But not both. Using both adds nothing, and makes your sentence look more like a legal document than a persuasive tool.

Your job as a marketer is to use crisp sentences that clearly communicates your selling message.

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Monday, January 8, 2007

Assume your prospect doesn't have a dual personality

Many direct mail letters seem to be written to Bill Bixby as the Hulk -- people who have two personalities. Here's why.

Many direct mail letters seem to be written to Bill Bixby as the Hulk -- people who have two personalities. These letters begin with something like: "Dear Marketing Professionals" or "Dear Gaming Enthusiasts." And too many fund raising letters begin with: "Dear Friends." The problem here is these letters are addressing their audience in plural, when in fact their reader is only one person. Yes, there may be 10,000 people on the mailing list. But when your letter arrives in your prospects' mail box, only one person reads it -- unless your reader has a split personality or if someone else has the unlikely habit of reading over his or her shoulder.

Remember, you're always writing to one person ("Dear Marketing Professional," "Dear Gaming Enthusiast," "Dear Friend") . Reading is a very personal activity, and your sales or fund raising letter must take advantage of that.

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For all your fill in the blank needs

At all costs, avoid using a headline or subhead that says: "For all your ______ needs." It's a phrase we've almost come to expect from mom-and-pop shops: For all your hardware needs; for all your leather needs; for all your lactate-free food needs. But in the world of strategic advertising, it's a phrase that's offensive because it's lazy; it reaches for the nearest phrase from the trite shelf. No pro worth his or her salt would write it. It doesn't meet the challenge of communicating the product's key selling message in just a few words.

So I was surprised when my wife showed me a two-page spread in today's Sunday paper for a major brand-name skincare product line. The headline said: "Always healthy. Always beautiful." But the subhead said: "For all your skincare and beauty needs."

What a waste of premium real estate.

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Sunday, January 7, 2007

Nothing new under the sun

This 1957 ad could have been produced today (with digital imagery replacing the illustration). There's no headline to speak of and no copy -- just a catchy tagline. This kind of treatment could work to arouse awareness for a household name candy. But not for the many services and products today that are selling themselves short by sacrificing just a few lines of persuasive copy for award-winning creative.

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4 easy tips for money-making direct mail copy

How can you make your direct mail package so irresistible that it beats your competition every time? It starts with the writing. Crisp, attention-getting copy can persuade even your most skeptical reader to buy from you. So here are four quick tips to help your direct mail package (whether it’s a sales letter, brochure, flyer, newsletter or whatever) outsmart your competition and make you money in the mail.

1. Cut to the chase. Start your lead sentence with the greatest benefit you offer your prospects. Tell them exactly what they want to hear right from the beginning.

2. Write to your readers as you would a friend, with warmth and personality. Don’t be afraid to use the word “you.” It works magic in direct mail.

3. Don’t sell yourself short. Write longer copy. Under the right circumstances, not only will your readers read a four page-letter or a eight-page brochure, but they’ll even respond much better to it than they would a one-page piece . . . as long as you’ve grabbed their interest.

4. Put your thesaurus away, that is if you’re looking to impress your readers with fancy 25-cent words. If you really want to impress them so they reach for their check books, write clear and readable copy stressing how you can benefit them. Simple language sells.

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Words that should be blacklisted - part one

There are some words you should never use in your ads, websites, brochures and other collateral. The word that tops my blacklist is the word "unique." Originally, it meant being without a like or equal. Now it means nothing, or less than nothing, because it's so overused. If everything's unique (unique school, unique design, unique hairstyle) then nothing's unique. So instead of using a word that no longer has any real meaning to your target audience, just describe what makes you special and how you differentiate from your competition.

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Saturday, January 6, 2007

Illustration Agreement Rule

The image or illustration in your ad must agree with the headline next to it, right?

Not really.

Let me explain.

Let's say you're creating a magazine ad for a financial services company, and the headline is "Time to Swim with the Sharks." It might seem logical to choose a photo of a shark swimming in the ocean. The problem, then, is that potential prospects reading the magazine will flip right past the ad because they're not interested in sharks; they're interested in the services you sell.

So really, the illustration should agree with the products or services you’re selling, not with the headline copy. Going back to our example, the photo of your financial services ad should show your biggest selling message (perhaps the happy results of using your services), not a shark. What about the headline, "Time to Swim with Sharks" then? It should be dumped. It doesn't work. The headline, like the image, should broadcast your key selling message and not scary sea animals (unless that's what you're selling).

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Welcome to Electric Idea Circus, the site where you'll find valuable marketing-communications ideas you may not have thought of.

Whether you want to persuade people to buy from you, visit you, know about you or donate to you -- this is where you'll get ideas to increase your effectiveness and efficiency. Plus, there'll be plenty of tips on creating successful copy, layout and images for both print and the Internet.

Again, welcome.

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