Keep it short and simple, focus on benefits, and repeat. Job done.

Marketing is a message in a bottle. Just keep sending the bottles.

Keep it short and simple, focus on benefits, and repeat. Job done. | marketing copywriting  | copywriter

Just last week, this flyer landed on my doormat. It’s simple but very effective. Why?

  • It makes easy look easy. You’d be surprised how many people do the opposite. If you’re telling people you’re making their lives easier, make sure you walk the talk.
  • It has a magic number. It wouldn’t work with two, or four, or six. Three, yes. Five, yes. For some reason (to get geeky for a moment, probably because they’re prime numbers, being divisible only by 1 and themselves) they work. And in this case, five is enough. Any more, and you’re making easy look difficult.
  • It tells a good story, which is what the best copywriting is all about. It solves a problem and seems to have no downside, which is always what people are looking for when they’re wondering why not to buy.

There is one area where it falls down, and it’s common to a lot of copy: it leads with features. The thing is, it starts well with an up-front benefit: why I can make your life easier. It grabs your attention. It certainly grabbed mine.

But it doesn’t follow though. And yet, the step required to change features into benefits is a simple one. All you have to do is flip around the order of the sentence, or add a few words, and you’re there.

So let’s work that feature/benefit magic trick:

  • Get it all in one place. Choose from over 250 daily essentials.
  • Order anytime, anywhere with milk&more mobile.
  • Shop when it suits you. Order up to 9pm the night before your next delivery.
  • Save time and hassle. Avoid those trips to the shops and beat the queues.

And what about Free delivery? I hear you ask. That’s a feature, isn’t it?

Yes it is.

The benefit is that you don’t need to struggle to reach a minimum amount, and can just fire off an order when you feel like it. But this feature has one trump card: the word free. That beats all other cards in your marketing deck.

So feature it is.

And did I sign up for milk&more? Well, no. But not because the flyer isn’t an effective piece of communication. It is: simple and direct, with a friendly tone and funky graphics.

But the milk&more marketing gurus can stop scratching their heads and wondering where they went wrong with me. Because it wasn’t anything they did or didn’t do. It was simply that somebody else got there first. In this case, Tesco, who’ve locked me in with their super-duper midweek delivery-saver programme. For now.

So should milk&more give up? Absolutely not. One day, I may be ready to buy what they’re selling, so they need to stay top of mind in the meantime.

Marketing is a message in a bottle, and timing is everything. So keep the bottles coming, and one day somebody will pick it up, read it and buy.

Zen and the art of marketing mastery

One book, five lessons learned and a goal finally reached

Zen and the art of marketing mastery | philosophy marketing ideas  | copywriterZen and the art of marketing mastery | philosophy marketing ideas  | copywriter

I’ve finally done it. It’s been on my list of things to do forever, and now I can tick it off. No, it’s not climbing Everest, or appearing on Britain’s Got Talent, or running a marathon.

It’s reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.

It’s 40 years since this quirky blend of mechanics and ideas first hit the headlines, and became the bible of the cool generation. Four decades and five million copies later it’s still going strong.

As I’ve been working my way slowly through it (it’s 400+ pages, and gets very heavy sometimes) I’ve realised some of the things that have have made it successful, and how they’re directly applicable to marketing. And I’ve also learned a few lessons about human nature, and why we do what we do.

  1. Motivation is important.  If you want people to take action, you’ve got to give them a reason to do so. In my case, I persevered with Zen because I’m part of a book club that meets monthly over Sunday lunch and discusses a book we’ve all read. You don’t have to have read the book, but if you haven’t, you’re automatically on the sidelines of the discussion. So it’s peer pressure, plus a sense of involvement, plus a deadline – if I don’t finish it by this weekend, I’ve missed an opportunity.
  2. Headlines matter. Undoubtedly one of the reasons I’ve had this book on my reading list for so long is that it’s got a crazy, catchy, memorable title. Just the other day, I struggled to remember the name of a book I’d really enjoyed when I was chatting with a friend. Though the book was memorable, the title wasn’t. Zen, on the other hand, I hadn’t yet read, but had no difficulty recalling its title. It’s funky and playful, and trips off the tongue.
  3. Testimonials are worth their weight in gold. The first person who mentioned the book to me, years and years ago, was a biker friend who was doing a PhD in philosophy – no surprise he liked it, then. And since I liked him, I trusted his judgement. You’ve got to read it, he said over and over. Every time I saw him, he asked me whether I’d got round to it yet. And every time, I said no. Now, that’s about to change – and in no small part because of his recommendation. And several other recommendations I’ve had in the meantime.
  4. Telling a story is critical. There’s lots of heavy stuff in Zen. Not least Zen, but also Aristotle, Plato, Heidegger, Hume and a slew of other philosophers. At times, it gets quite deep, and you really have to slow down and concentrate – otherwise, you realise you’ve read several pages and taken in nothing. The process, appropriately enough, is Zen-like. But what makes it easier is that Pirsig alternates between the heavy philosophical musings and the road trip that the first-person narrator takes with his son Chris. That variation lightens the intellectual load, and provides a narrative that readers can latch onto.
  5. First impressions count. The edition I’m reading is a special 25th anniversary one that came out in 1999 (see above). It’s got a bright-blue cover with chunky Austin Powers-like lettering in red. It’s like the visual equivalent of an acid trip. It adds to the fun and funkiness of it all, and makes me want to be one of the cool people who’ve read the book and are in the know.

So what are you getting right on your marketing road trip?

  • Are you giving your readers a reason to read what you’ve written? To care about your content? To engage with you?
  • Are you grabbing them with a headline that keeps them reading?
  • Are you following up with satisfied clients to get testimonial quotes and asking them to recommend your products and services to friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances?
  • Is your copy tightly structured with a beginning, middle and end?  Do you tell a good story?
  • And when people land on your site or see your brochure for the first time, are they instantly captivated?

We may not all be interested in motorcycle maintenance (count me out) or philosophy (I think I’m getting hooked) but we can all learn something from Pirsig’s left-of-field take on life, that’s as applicable now as when it first appeared 40 years ago.

I certainly have. And now, I can finally tick Zen off my to-do list.

I’d better start training for that marathon.

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Marketing may be an art, but you can always apply a little science

Change one thing at a time. Monitor. Measure. Repeat.

Marketing may be  an art, but you can always apply a little science | marketing  | copywriter [Image courtesy of Pong at]

Just recently, I spoke to somebody who wanted to increase her conversion rate online. She was getting visitors, and they were buying. Just not as enthusiastically as she was hoping.

She’d just changed her pricing, which followed hot on the heels of a website redesign and restructure (with a knock-on effect on search-engine rankings).

Now, for good measure, she decided to change her copy as well. It was the sort of belt-and-braces approach she thought would create that quantum leap she was looking for.

She’s not a client. Or at least, not yet.

The copy isn’t perfect – no copy is – but it’s good enough for the moment, I told her. And if she changes that on top of the structure (more streamlined) and the pricing (lower) how will she know what to attribute success to, if and when it comes?

So she’s letting it all settle down while she tracks, analyses and draws conclusions.

Conversely, I’ve also recently spoken to somebody who’s been having great success with his site.

Why? He’s not sure.

The copy is something that was ‘thrown together’ when the site launched, and he’s always thought it could be better (see above). Once again, he’s not entirely certain how, but it’s one of those niggling little things that keep him awake at night.

Monitor, measure, tweak

Both of these examples demonstrate the infuriating un-pindownability of marketing. Is it an art? Or a science? Can you easily identify cause and effect? Can success (or failure) be attributed to a specific action or actions?

The whole discipline is shrouded in uncertainty, but three things are clear.

First, you can’t manage what you don’t measure, so you need to measure relentlessly. Hits, sales, calls, ad responses, conversions, effectiveness of calls to action, click-through rates. Not to mention price points and seasonal fluctuations. Headlines that work, and tweets that are retweeted. Keywords that set sales alight, and offers that hit the sweet spot.

The second thing that’s clear is that you shouldn’t change everything at once. Instead, you should tweak and measure. Tweak and measure. Perhaps tweak back in the other direction and measure.

And that leads to the last thing: sometimes, you may never reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Every little doesn’t help

Consider Tesco, once the UK’s favourite supermarket chain. They were growing like topsy, with stores popping up right across the country. They had better prices, better service and better coverage (there are four big stores in Cambridge alone, plus a slew of little ones) than the other chains. Everything was going their way.

And then suddenly it wasn’t.

Earlier this month, Tesco revealed its worst results in decades. It’s the latest in a series of lacklustre figures, and the decline seems unstoppable.

Partly, it’s down to positioning. They’re taking a hammering from cut-price rivals (Lidl and Aldi) at the lower end, and are not perceived to be as upmarket as Sainsbury’s and the reassuringly expensive Waitrose at the top of the food chain. They’re stuck in the middle, and are as squeezed as we’re being constantly told that middle is.

And yet they’ve made a big effort to win – or win back – customers.

In times of crisis, changing one thing at a time is not always the best approach, so you throw everything you’ve got at the problem. As a Tesco customer, I can see that they’re pulling out all the stops: lower minimum purchase for online groceries, cheaper delivery slots, endless promotions, £5 off vouchers.

Tesco is love-bombing the market. In fact, it’s been doing so since its poor performance over the Christmas period. But the results just aren’t there. I’m feeling all loved up, but there’s a limit to what I can do – or anybody else for that matter. People are voting with their feet, and Tesco is having a hard time seeing why.

But don’t feel too sorry for them. They have bags of money, decades of experience and some of the best marketing brains in the business. They’ll figure it out sooner or later.

In the meantime, we should all just make a note to self: change one thing at a time, monitor and measure, and tweak. Get all the little things right, but avoid the trap of perfectionism. Control what you can, and don’t worry about what you can’t. Stuff happens, and what matters is how you react.

Accept that marketing is an art, but remember that a little dash of science never goes amiss. And last but not least, tell a good story, which is an art in itself. Or if you can’t, get somebody in who can.

You get my drift.

Does your copy have these two key ingredients?

Why people and stories will always make a winning recipe

Does your copy have these two key ingredients? | writing marketing copywriting  | copywriter [Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at]

Eey. Hüü’pü’k. Hitta*l. Püüxi.

OK, here’s a challenge for you: can you name this language? (And no, it’s not Klingon.) In case you’re thinking of cutting and pasting the words into Google Translate, let me save you the bother. You won’t find them there or virtually anywhere else.


Well, they’re part of a disappearing language in Mexico called Ayapaneco. Until recently, it had only two speakers, both in their 70s. And although that could in theory provide at least a glimmer of hope of reviving the language, there was one insurmountable problem.

Manuel and Isidro hadn’t spoken to each other for years – ironically, because of a a bitter argument over Ayapaneco. So they waged a silent war that promised to hasten the end of this fascinating tongue (just look at all those umlauts, not to mention the asterisk).

Hooked yet? Of course you are. So was I, and so was everybody who heard the story.

Beginning, middle, end (& sale)

Stories are the lifeblood of marketing, and of all copy everywhere. And not just any stories, but stories about people. The words reach out form the page and pull us in, involving us in the lives of others.

And if those lives, and that story, are used by a canny marketing department, they can keep their brand in front of us much longer than any sales pitch could. Not to mention the positive vibes they receive as they bask in the warm glow of doing something good.

And what was that good?

Saving the language, of course. Getting Manuel and Isidro to talk to each other after all these years. Setting up an Ayapaneco school, so that kids could learn and use the language. And putting an Ayapaneco language site online where you can hear the two septuagenarians speaking words and phrases for you to imitate, learn and remember.

And not just that. You can ‘adopt’ a word, record yourself saying it, and post the video online.

It’s the ultimate feel-good marketing campaign that flies below the radar. And the company? Vodafone, who bring people together and get them talking (benefit) with its mobile phone network (feature).

It’s a very clever move on their part:

  • It chimes perfectly with Vodafone’s marketing. Just remember their catchline a few years back: It’s good to talk. And it’s even better to talk if it’s saving a language.
  • It’s got just the right amount of what TV programme makers call jeopardy - the chance that everything could go pear-shaped and the project could fail.
  • It’s got legs, so people will continue to be interested in the fate of the language over the coming months and years.
  • It involves people: the adopt-a-word idea is a master-stroke, as it means that you too can get that warm, fuzzy feeling of doing some good in big bad world.

As humans, we can’t fail to be moved by stories. And all marketers tell stories, all day every day. So next time you sit down to write some copy or run a campaign, think not just of the stories, but the people behind them. And remember that sometimes, a light touch is all that’s needed.

As you’ll see from the Vodafone video, it doesn’t take much to draw us in (if you’re reading in email, click here):

And what about those words I opened with? Well they’re Ayapaneco for hello, corn plant, grass and man.

See? You’re halfway to saving the language already. Now doesn’t that feel good?

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Great copy starts with good writing

Back to basics: the grammar every writer really should know

Great copy starts with good writing | writing punctuation grammar  | copywriter [Image courtesy of stockimages at]

When you write for a living, you can’t help but notice all the little mistakes out there. Each one is like an itch that you’ve got to scratch. And sometimes, it seems as if I spend my life scratching.

You may not think these little things matter, but they do when it comes to corporate communication. Sloppiness or lack of attention to detail in writing can be symptomatic of bigger problems. And even if they’re not, they send out a negative message to people who pick up on these things.

And though those people are few and far between, all it takes is one tweet or post, and the word is out. Your company can’t spell, can’t write a decent email, can’t even be bothered to get a slogan right.

So here, in the first of an occasional series, I’m going going back to basics: scratching a couple of those itches that keep me awake at night.

Me or I?

When you’ve had a chance to review the PowerPoint presentation, please let John and I know what you think.

Does that look right to you? I’m thinking specifically of John and I. Would it sound better if you said John and me?

Many of us nowadays would hesitate. For some reason, John and I sounds more ‘correct’.

The reason is simple. Think back to when you were a kid. You said something like:

Me and John went to the swimming pool on Saturday.

And your teacher/parent said ‘Not me and John – it’s John and I.’ And so it is, in this particular instance, because you and John are the subject of the sentence: in other words, you’re the people who are carrying out the action.

The trouble is, this correct version has sneaked its way into other areas, where you and John are no longer the subject of the sentence, but the object.

The PowerPoint sentence above is a perfect example. The person you’re writing to is the subject, and you’re telling them to let you and John know. So you and John are the object of the sentence.

In that case, you have to say John and me. There’s a simple test to see whether it’s me or I: just omit the first person (John), and what do you get?

Please let I know what you think.

Which is clearly wrong.

So the rule is: if in doubt, take the other person out. If I sounds wrong, it’s wrong in all instances, not just when it’s on its own. Add one person or a dozen, it’s still me that you need.

This phenomenon is what linguists call hypercorrection: correcting something that sounds wrong, but which is actually right. Another very common example of this is between you and I.

It’s or Its?

Does this sentence contain a mistake?

Each department should review its budget and see if
if there’s further room for savings.

Yes it does. But it’s not the its.

Instead, it’s the repetition of if (at the end of the first line, and the start of the second one – a sneaky trick, I grant you, but one that shows how essential proofreading is).

Its and it’s cause endless difficulties, but there’s a very good reason for it. You see, we’re used to the idea that when a thing belongs to somebody or something, we put an apostrophe before the s.

So it’s the department’s budget or the manager’s PA or the campaign’s ROI.

So when we see it, and want to make it possessive, we add an apostrophe and an s.

Which is completely logical. Unfortunately, it’s also completely wrong. It is one of those words that defy logic: the possessive is its. It looks wrong, but it’s actually right.

Adding an apostrophe is yet another example of hypercorrection.

And what about it’s? Well that’s simply a contraction of it is.


Neither of these errors is serious in itself. It’s really what they say about the bigger picture that matters, especially in a corporate context.

If it’s a personal tweet, email, or IM, who really cares? But if you’re tweeting from a corporate account, you’re making a bad impression in 140 characters. Repeatedly.

Which is an itch that you really need to scratch. And right now.