Custom editorial and social media strategist Louis Postel and direct response copywriter Jerry Danzig have an animated conversation about the value and history of custom publishing, design, and editorial.They discuss copy length, the quest for credibility, and why it makes sense to take extra good care of your very best customers.
For years working in the direct response advertising field, I would hear people say, “Why is this letter two pages or four pages or whatever? Why does it go on so long?” Because it works. I mean, people scan, but when they’re interested in something, they will read. So on the net today they say, “Chunk something, put it in chunks.”
So there are small pieces on the page; you don’t frighten people away. But your best prospects will click on those chunks and read and read, because they want to make an informed decision before they buy something. And that is as true today as it was 50 years ago. I think we were talking yesterday about David Ogilvy. Ogilvy was from his earliest days a great proponent of direct response and long copy, and in fact, he was the guy who wrote a famous ad for Rolls-Royce. I wonder if you remember this one from way back when; it had a very long headline. I think it had 16 or 17 words in the headline, which is unusual. And the headline read something like, “At 60 miles per hour, the loudest sound in a Rolls-Royce is the clock ticking”.
Oh yeah, right.
Jerry: It was a huge success for them. Obviously, not everybody goes and buys a Rolls-Royce every day of the week. You have to have some pretty good reasons (and a lot of cash!) And this was really a startling fact, and apparently it was true. But back in the 60s, you may also recall that Shell Oil was one of the earlier proponents — or practitioners — of custom content, with their Shell Answer Guide campaign, which I believe Ogilvy was instrumental in creating. How does one gas station, one chain of gas stations, differentiate itself from another? Well, they gave useful information. Here’s how to prepare your car for winter. Here’s how to keep the tires running the longest. Here’s how to get the best gas mileage. All that kind of good stuff. It was very cheap for them to make these little booklets, and you may remember these. These were small and yellow — they had a bright yellow Shell color — and we all know that yellow is the marketer’s favorite color! There was a whole series of these. And obviously it was cheaper to print these and give them away at the stations than to give dishes or bronze sculptures or whatever else somebody else might have been giving — or green stamps. It also positioned Shell as authorities on all matters automotive. You may recall as well that they had a campaign back then, they talked about a magic ingredient in their gas called Platformate. Does that ring a bell? Do you remember that?
Jerry: Well, it turns out that every gas had that same ingredient, but only Shell gave it that name, and I don’t know if they put a little more of it in their formula than others or not, but I do recall they had ads where their car would go an extra half a mile on the same tank of gas. I don’t know if trickery was involved or not. I don’t know if they had lighter-weight drivers in their cars or what! Anyway, they claimed that it was the magic ingredient Platformate at work. But again, all gas had that stuff. It’s just that Shell gave it a name and called it out! So anyway, these days another custom content sort of format which people are familiar with is the infomercial on TV. Those 30-minute-long commercials, disguised as programs. They’re just chock-full of information, with audiences in many cases and people calling in and lengthy demonstrations — and they’re very convincing. So again it seems like the wheel has turned again, and a lot of this stuff is back in vogue, especially in the day and age of the Internet, where there is a lot of misinformation as well. Here’s a chance to really lay out a truthful story. Hopefully with some customer testimonials and what all and to tell it and sell it, as you put it the other day. And we know from direct that the more you tell, the more you sell to your very best customers. I don’t know if these are the exact figures, but I used to hear that 25% of your customers give you 75% of your sales, or something like that.
Louis: Right, yeah, close, yeah.
Jerry: Your very best customers are the ones whom you need to cultivate and keep — and really spend time and make sure they fully appreciate your knowledge of the category and your ability to deliver as promised. And this is the kind of credibility that custom content gives you. Louis: Yeah. I mean, maybe one of the turnoffs you’ll have for custom content is I think it’s been pitched as a commodity where you’re going to get Google search engines to find you. It doesn’t really matter what you say, who says it. Just hire somebody in an English-speaking country — a low-wage English-speaking country preferably — who can whack out something he could write. You know you must have seen ads promising, “We’ll pay you five dollars an article”. Jerry: Well, yeah. As to the quality of the information, it’s also about knowing your audience, knowing the idioms that your audience speaks. Which some of these splendidly English-speaking people in other countries, you know they may not appreciate all the American idioms in the same way that I might not know the idioms in France or wherever. Louis: I think that it’s interesting that people say gee all this social media, nobody’s replying. There’s no answer. You know, it’s sort of like people talking to themselves, companies talking to — are we talking to ourselves, or are we saying real things to help people? Jerry:Well again, in direct we know it’s a fact — when we would get that objection about does somebody read all this copy, we know that your best prospect does read it, assuming that it’s interesting, it’s well written, it doesn’t repeat itself, and it’s to the point and on target. You know if it isn’t those things, then no, all bets are off. But if the copy is well written and it’s addressing the needs of the reader – yes, they will read every word, and whoever tells them the most or has the most credibility — and then if there’s a sale to be made — that person is best suited to follow through on that sale. Louis: Mm-hmm. So how does that work with the prevailing wisdom that people don’t read anymore? Jerry: I just don’t believe that. Again, look at all these people reading these little 140-word tweets or whatever. I can’t believe that all those text zombies that I see here in Midtown Manhattan walking at half-speed and almost walking into trucks, I can’t believe they’re all reading tweets! No, I’m sure they’re reading emails and websites and blogs and all kinds of stuff. Louis: Yeah, sure. You told me that you’ve been commenting on Amazon a lot. Jerry: Yes. I’m a top-thousand Amazon reviewer, and I’m also a reviewer for what’s called the Amazon Vine program, which is a thing where they actually send you products for free and you write about them. Those reviews at Amazon, that is actually like custom content generated by the customers. But those are incredibly valuable, those reviews to other customers. Some of these products, you look for something with as many reviews as possible, and yes there probably are a few that were written by the company itself or a rival trying to knock a product. But you really read the aggregate, and you know you will see a common thread. You know either this a good product and it holds up, or no this is junk and it busted in two weeks. So I find those reviews very valuable and, like yourself, I’m a gadget freak so I love writing about stuff. I can’t help it. Louis: No, it’s true. Don’t you notice when you’re looking at reviews, like if you’re about to buy something and you’re looking at reviews, I almost always skip the short ones because when they just say, “This is cool”… “Loved it”… whatever, it doesn’t mean much to me. Jerry: Exactly — you’ve got to read a bit to find out if they have the same concerns as you. Often if I can compare two products that I have enough experience with — another one that’s well known — that’s a useful thing because many times, I wonder if it’s as good as the one I had last year that broke in six months! Oh good — it’s better than that one, great. So as you say, yes, the context is very important. Louis: What are some of the things you’ve been commenting about? Jerry: Oh gee, just about everything. I mean I love gadgets, but I’ve also written about books, and I’ve spilled my guts about movies, and actually I do a lot of that on the Redbox site as well. Do you have a Redbox near you? Do you know what that is? Louis: No. Jerry: It’s a DVD rental service, and they’ve also now been cultivating their reviews. Their reviews are shorter, but hopefully there’s enough there with enough of a slant, so that somebody can read your review and know if you’re on their wavelength or not, whether they should listen to you. Again I find user reviews very useful, and as we’ve both seen, it often seems like the big critics, I don’t know, they all go to a screening together or something — and if nobody’s laughing in the room and it’s a comedy — they all give it a bad review; whereas perhaps it’s raining, and they’re all not having a good day. So it’s useful to read what real moviegoers feel. Louis: Yeah. Well, that’s a very interesting point about creating these marketing communications. Sometimes they seem more truthful than what you read in the newspaper. Jerry: Well let’s put it this way: we all know that in recent years, if there’s one thing and one thing alone that I can agree with Sarah Palin on — it is that the mainstream media definitely in many cases have become the lame stream media. Also, I don’t want to get too political, but during a certain aggressive invasion of another country performed by our country not too long ago — where were the media looking out for our best interests? They were nowhere. So yeah, I think the media in recent years have lost a lot of credibility. And so we, the common man, must be called upon to restore that credibility. And so I think advertisers would do well to use custom content that is full of good information, well researched, well written, in-depth stuff to really restore this credibility. Louis: That’s interesting. You mentioned the war, I was mentioning the untold millions of pages printed about the real estate market, about investments, and there was only one person — was she at Fortune magazine? — who got whiff of the meltdown. Jerry: Yeah. That’s a very good example. Louis: I get a magazine from Costco, and I don’t throw it away because I like Costco. I have no reason to believe they wouldn’t be pretty straightforward. Jerry: You also made me think of an electronics catalog — I’m not sure if they have brick-and-mortar or if they ever did — but you probably heard of the Crutchfield catalog? Louis: Yeah. Jerry: One of the ways that they distinguished themselves for many years, and I think continue to do so — and their prices were not the best in the market — but they gave you tons of information, I think in just about every category of products. They would give a guide about what to look for, how to buy, and what are the features you want, which are the important ones. Almost like Consumer Reports. I think it enabled them to charge a bit of a higher price and still keep their customers, by giving them that extra hand-holding and the best information. And positioning themselves as being very credible. As I recall, they also had very good customer service and return policies and that kind of good stuff. Louis: Right, yeah. Any site that has unedited negative reviews going onto it, it’s got credibility right away. Jerry: Yes, and whenever you hear a whiff of sites that are editing stuff or removing negative reviews, that’s really bad news, as you know. Louis: Yeah. It sort of changes the paradigm totally. Jerry: What always amazes me is those pharmaceutical ads on TV that, I don’t know, give you a couple of quick benefits and then there’s 30 seconds of all the negative side effects and stuff. I’m just astonished that that doesn’t get people screaming, running away from their product. But somehow I guess people just tune all that stuff out, or “My doctor will explain this to me,” or something. So I don’t know what to make of that. Louis: Well yeah, but you know you don’t, I guess the idea is you want to sell, but you want to make sure that when they buy it they hold onto it. Jerry: Well as I think of it, maybe that does give credibility, because there’s so much negative stuff they tell you. It’s like, “Well gee, I guess they’re telling me the truth, because there seems to be 30 seconds of the negative stuff versus 15 seconds of the positive images.” Louis: You know, Jerry, I always said that was just legal so they don’t get sued. Jerry: Oh absolutely, sure it is all legal, yeah. Or maybe it’s due to the FDA or whatever, I don’t know. Louis: Right. But what was that old saying people had about advertising, “Treat people like mushrooms: feed them shit and keep them in the dark”? I heard that so many times! That only lasts for… well you know I think one of the big questions you brought up is does advertising work at all? And it makes me think of the automotive industry in the States in the 80s and 90s trying to sell bad cars. Jerry: Oh brother. Louis: And they spent billions, and it didn’t do them any good. No one wanted a car. Jerry: Yes, well as you know, it’s the same thing as the movies. Everybody knows that word-of-mouth is the best selling tool. You can open big on the first day and maybe suck people in with a flashy campaign, but as soon as that first audience comes out and says, “This movie sucks!” it’s going to fall off after that weekend. And as you were talking that mushroom thing, I do recall that David Ogilvy, who was a gentleman and a scholar, he used to say, “Don’t talk down to the consumer. She’s your wife. Treat her with respect.” And that’s the very best part of advertising, which I think is where custom content is coming from. Treat the consumer with respect and tell them the truth — and tell them nothing but the truth and in great detail. Louis: I appreciate that. Because certainly, well I don’t want to circle around to what was untrue, but I know that in the last presidential campaign, there were a lot of concerns about some real untruths and also enormous sums of money broadcasting these untruths. And I remember getting emails all the time about this one raised this much money… we’ve got to match it, we’ve got to beat it. Jerry: Oh every day of the week, yeah. Louis: Right? But didn’t you feel like, wait a minute — If you’re not telling the truth, you could spend all the money you want and it’s going to look a little off. People won’t know why it’s not the truth, but somewhere they’ll feel it. Did you get that impression? Jerry: Yeah. Louis: I felt that about Romney. I thought, you can spend all the money you want on this guy. Jerry: And remember he was torpedoed by that video that guy took of him. Louis: Right. Jerry: Talking about the 47%. I mean that just spoke such volumes of truth. It was kind of a peek behind the scenes, and there was just nothing you could say against that. He was caught in the act. Louis: Right. And that little video got millions of views. I mean, you couldn’t pay for something like that. Jerry: Right. It was all over YouTube. Louis: And all over the networks, right, over and over again. Jerry: That is the true viral marketing, I guess. Louis: Anyway, then we just keep getting hoodwinked again. So can you tell me some of the things that you’ve been doing for clients who are going back to custom content, that is emerging as such a powerful way to connect? Jerry: I do a lot of publishing work, selling subscriptions to publications, and things go away and they come back again, you know seven-year cycles or whatever it is, and one of the formats that we’ve used successfully over the years has been something called the magalog. It also could be a sample issue, kind of a mini issue of a magazine with perhaps even a wrapper on the outside, and it has a subscription offer and a bit of sale copy. But one of the best tools always is a free sample of something. Either the product is going to speak for itself or it’s not, and obviously you need a strong product. If you don’t’ have a strong product, this is not going to work.Magalogs have been very useful and also in catalogs — I’m thinking of the Crutchfield model now — a lot of the space in their catalog was devoted and probably still is to this informative stuff, a box or a panel explaining how to choose, how to buy, what you should look for, what denotes a quality product, that sort of thing. Louis: Just let me interrupt you for one second, because let’s say you’re selling Esquire magazine, and you put on the outside of the envelope, “An exposé of the banking system” or something, but I’m not interested in that. I want to see pictures of pretty actresses, say. How do you decide what you put on the envelope? Jerry: Well in direct response, we never know – until we test. In fact, even focus groups or mall intercepts, these various research formats, they have major flaws. I mean people in a room, especially if there is one loud character or whatever, that loud character can really drive the discussion and literally drive opinions in that room and give a very false reading of what people think of a product or service. Whereas in direct mail or direct response or online, in any of these situations where somebody is alone in a room, whether it’s reading a catalog or interacting with the Internet, using the laptop in front of them or on their smart phone or whatever it might be, it is the moment of truth. Are they actually putting their credit card down and buying something or not? Are they responding or not? And that is the real moment of truth, so sometimes traditional advertising research can be very misleading. And sometimes often the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater for no good reason. So in direct what you do is test and test again. You can have a supposition, but you really could be surprised. I was telling you about that format that surprised me for a literary magazine. Here’s a literary magazine that’s doing very well with a little mail format that is a minimal read. It actually gives you paragraphs from the magazine. So it’s almost like giving you little mini chunks or a free sample, but with minimal sales copy. And yet it sort of defies the normal thinking that these are literary readers. They usually like to read a lot of copy. And yet this format was very successful, and personally I think that maybe this little bite-size format was opening a new audience, bringing in people who were not traditional literary fiction readers. They were getting sucked in by this appealing format and the little bitty samples they were seeing, which were very carefully chosen, I might add. Really, oh my God there was one about a guy whose dog had died. And I can tell you — anybody who’s ever had a friendship with a dog could not read that paragraph without bursting into tears. It was just amazing. Louis: But Jerry, what’s the difference between bite-size and chunks? The chunks you were critical of. Jerry: Yeah, back to that again. I’m working on a website with another guy, and he was interested when I was telling him just how important it was. Actually this gets tricky in the web now because of all these different formats. And I had asked the web designer what is our line character count on this? How wide can we go, because I want to keep the paragraphs short — about three or four lines max — for eye appeal, which is so important. And the guy said, well the best count I can give you would be for traditional desktop or laptop, which is probably the largest screen people will be reading on. But when it goes to a tablet or a smart phone, it automatically gets reformatted to fit that screen; hence the paragraphs get narrower and much longer. So the best I can do really is fit the copy to the big screen of the laptop and desktop and keep those as short as possible, knowing that yes they will get longer on the other formats, but at least in one format they will look very appealing to the eye, and hopefully the text readers make allowances — or their nose is so close to their little screen that it’s not a problem. I’m not entirely sure, but once again we’re saying the right thing at the right time to the right people. Those people will read. Louis: Right. Yeah I kind of – Jerry: Plus on the web now you’ve got video and audio making a remarkable interactive format. Louis: Right, right. And you know there are ways to read a lot on an iPhone. Jerry: I wanted to mention some historic examples of custom content. Actually Travel and Leisure magazine started as custom content. I think that was one of the most prominent and successful examples. I think it was Ogilvy & Mather that cooked that up for just one advertiser — it might have been American Express. What they were really doing was selling travel, which obviously causes people to charge a lot of stuff on their American Express card or buy American Express travelers checks, all that good stuff. And so they cooked up this whole magazine and all these wonderful destinations and ways to travel and the whole nine yards. That’s where Travel and Leisure came from. I think John Deere was one of the early practitioners of custom content as well. They had a magazine that started in the early 20th century called Furrow, I believe it was, which was basically selling John Deere tractors and all the accessories to farmers and showing the modern ways of farming. I’m not even sure what they charged for the magazine, but apparently it did very well, and they sold a lot of John Deere tractors! Louis: Right — and it established them as not just guys who are putting nuts and bolts together. Jerry: But someone who knows the whole farmer’s experience and what they need, yeah. Louis: Right, right. And of course you know if you walk into a shoe store, that’s the salesman you want to find, the one who is a runner and has tried 40 different shoes himself and is an authority. It’s invaluable. I’ve come across clients who say direct mail is out. It’s too expensive. Magazines, any print is just… we want to go digital. We want to just pay by the click. How do you respond to them? Jerry: Well once again there are times that print is still reaching people in places where digital has not reached yet. Even in the same way that, believe it or not, there are still a lot of people who have VHS tape recorders. As lovely as they are, DVDs have not entirely overtaken the video market yet, although they will someday, I’m sure. And even streaming hasn’t knocked out DVDs yet. So it seems as if there is a certain overlap that you can depend on. Actually, as I think of it, how about all these kids who are back into buying vinyl records again? I can’t explain that for a minute! Louis: Yeah. Well but I can explain, for me, for my gut, if someone’s printed something, the fact that it’s printed, it has more immediate credibility with me. Jerry: And some people still say they find print easier to read. They find it easier to navigate. Within print you can really see the context of the entire piece and get a feel. I mean I must admit I love e-books in terms of not cluttering up my house with books, and yet they’re not easy to navigate; they’re still not. So I don’t know. I personally see print and digital coexisting probably for some time. Louis: I hear you. It’s just I know that the beauty of digital is it’s fast and cheap in many ways. Jerry: That’s so cool if you can incorporate some video or audio if appropriate to whatever you’re talking about. Louis: Yes, absolutely. That is, as you say, layering. Jerry: For example, I was looking at some websites, working on a project for a guy who coaches executives and helps them with their communication skills. And one of his rivals had something that I thought was really genius, where he had a top 10 best speakers of the year and top 10 worst speakers, which obviously would also make a wonderful press release. And when you went on that guy’s website, he gave click-through examples that took you to YouTube showing the very best speaking style at work or showing somebody who was not good. And boy was that effective, and I was asking my client is there any way you could do something like that? Louis: Yeah, I mean there, you can’t do that in print. Jerry: Right, unless you incorporated a disk bound into a magazine or something. But as you said, in digital somebody can click on that immediately and see that in seconds. Louis: Right. You know everyone learns in a different way, and I sort of learn by reading. On the other hand, I wanted to detail my car and I looked up Meguiar’s products and they explain, you know there’s 12, you know there’s so many steps you got to take. Wipe this and squeeze ib that. But when I really understood it is when I clicked on the video on YouTube. Then I got how you’re supposed to do it, and I didn’t think I ever would if I just read it. You know rub on a little piece first. Jerry: Right, you could actually see the guy doing it. You can see the motion of it, how much stuff he puts on, the whole thing. Louis: Yeah, yeah, and so I sort of got it…Thanks to some very custom content.