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?

Find out more: 

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes

Saying what you mean, loosening up and getting the little things right

Hey you! started the email, which is always a good way to get attention. Nothing like a little directness. Whatever happened to Copycam? Or have you stopped snapping?

And you know what? He was onto something, my direct emailing friend. I haven’t stopped snapping – or sniping come to that. Every so often, I’ve been taking photos of copy that could have been more elegant, or clearer, or even omitted. Unintended meaning, misplaced punctuation and clunky prose.

It’s just that I haven’t been posting it. So hold onto your hats, and let’s get started.

Funny you should mention that

I’m a big advocate of humour in small doses, when it comes to writing in general and copywriting in particular. There’s rarely a faster way to connect with people and show them there’s a beating heart behind the business.

You don’t want to lay it on with a trowel (it fasts becomes tedious) or make it dodgy (it soon offends), but a little dash of wit here and there never hurts.

And it if has a topical hook, so much the better. About this time last year, when Margaret Thatcher died, the laundry up the road from Copy Towers was quick off the mark:

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes | marketing ideas copycam  | copywriter

It’s clever without being corny. It refers to a controversial figure without being openly partisan. And the speed with which it appeared was remarkable. As was the speed with which it disappeared, to be replaced by another laundry-related pun.

Staying with the theme of ladies, I spotted this one day when I was in town:

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes | marketing ideas copycam  | copywriter

One for the gentlemen, I thought. Who could resist at that price?

And yet I can’t really throw the first stone. We’ve all been there – you, me, and everybody who’s ever picked up a pen or hunted and pecked on a keyboard.

Afterwards, you look back in horror and wonder did I really write that? You did. And so did I. But what we didn’t do was review it after leaving it to one side for a while.

My rule is simple: write once, edit many times. Read even more times.

If in doubt…look it up

Let’s stay with with fashion, but move departments. H&M decided to avoid humour and simply tell it like it is:

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes | marketing ideas copycam  | copywriter

Unfortunately, they forgot the all-important apostrophe. Yes, yes, I know it’s just a small thing, but all the small things add up to a lot of big things. Lack of attention to punctuation could just lead to more serious lapses. Or is that just the word geek coming out in me?

Perhaps you’re right, so let’s move on. But before we do, I should tell you that I found the missing apostrophe a few streets away in a pub window:

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes | marketing ideas copycam  | copywriter

Small but perfectly formed. And speaking of misplaced punctuation, here’s another example:

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes | marketing ideas copycam  | copywriter

Which makes you wonder just how good those crêpes really are. And whether they shouldn’t simply have stuck with pancakes, which is mercifully accent-free.

Say what you mean

More serious than a misplaced accent or apostrophe is a tone that jars. And yet it’s one that we find time and again in business copy – and anything that has to sound ‘official’. The giveaway is a construction that’s unnecessarily complicated and roundabout. Much like this sign I saw in Cambridge Central Library:

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes | marketing ideas copycam  | copywriter

What’s wrong with it? Well it’s inconvenient for people who want to use the machine, so there’s no may about it. And any isn’t really necessary. Take it out and what changes? Nothing.

Lastly, we are sounds more distant and formal than we’re.

Put it all together, and what do you get as an alternative version?

We’re sorry for the inconvenience

See the difference? It’s more honest, it’s shorter, and it doesn’t mince its words. And it’s friendlier, so people are more likely to be forgiving.

Crème de la crème

But let’s finish as we started, with a dash of humour. It doesn’t take much, so use it sparingly. As this cosmetics shop did to entice people in:

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes | marketing ideas copycam  | copywriter

How does it work? Where does the old hand cream go? Is it helping the Third World or Children in Need? What hand creams qualify for the amnesty? Is it free or free*? Are there strings attached?

Who knows. And in a way, who cares. None of those practical questions matter – all that matters is that it hooks your interest, makes you smile, and gets you to go into the shop.

I almost did. But then I looked at the state of my hands and moved quickly on.

Great service, little white lies and free coffees

Customer loyalty: sweet success or a bitter taste?

Great service, little white lies and free coffees | marketing customer service  | copywriter

Image courtesy of Stoonn at

I’ve been reflecting recently on three service experiences, and how they’ve affected my perception of the brands.

The first, unfortunately, involves an embarrassing admission on my part. Having vaunted the benefits of mindfulness and being in the present moment, I have to put my hand up and admit my mind went AWOL.

Yes, we have no bananas

A couple of weekends ago, I was doing my weekly supermarket shop online, and I ordered the usual pack of eight bananas. Or at least I thought I did. It was only a few days later, when the order arrived that I realised I’d absent-mindedly put ‘8’ in the quantity box before clicking add.

So that’s 8 x 8, a sum total of 64 bananas.

Now I’m as fond of bananas as the next person, but there is a limit. The delivery man looked on with a bemused smile as I lifted bag after bag of bananas out of the crate. Just as well I’d discovered the power of mindful breathing, as it was the only thing at that moment between me and a sense of panic.

Only just, though.

But you know what? It was fine. The supermarket not only takes back substitutions that you don’t like. They also take back things you’ve ordered in error, or quantities you’ve got wrong.

“Don’t worry,” said the chirpy delivery chap. “Mistakes happen. I’ll just scan them back in, and we’ll refund you.”

Two days later, the refund still hadn’t come in, so I phoned the helpline.

“No problem,” said the oh-so-accommodating call-centre woman. “We’ll refund you.”

And so she did. In vain did I tell her that the delivery guy had scanned the excess bananas, and that it was just possible that he hadn’t yet done a data upload from his handheld device.

“That’s all done,” she said brightly. “Anything else I can help you with?”

There wasn’t, so I thanked her and hung up. The next day I checked my account online. And there was not just one, but two refunds, for the same amount. There had been a delay in the data upload.

I’ve thought many times about changing supermarkets, but it’s little don’t worry moments like this that keep me loyal. Well, that and the double refunds. I considered calling them up and explaining that I’d got more than my just deserts (yes, pun intended) but I just know what the response will be. Don’t worry.

So I won’t.

Who you gonna call?

If you’ve followed this blog along the highways and byways over the years, you’ll know that when it comes being seduced by operators, I’m a serial offender. I’ve changed partners five times in eight years.

The most recent change was a few weeks ago, when I discovered that my personalised voice-mail message had disappeared for the third time in 18 months. Instead, it reverted to the default message, which features a blokey Geordie who says things like ‘Nice one!’ when you press a button to make a choice.

Now I have nothing against Geordies, but the blokey thing did grate. But it wasn’t just that. It was also the fact that I finally saw how I’d been manipulated by the marketing people – and for the marketer, that’s reason enough to up sticks and go.

It’s a pay-as-you-go operator who played a very clever slowly-slowly-catchey-monkey game. First, free unlimited internet. Then, limited internet. And finally, a price hike in calls. Which made their rolling 30-day contracts seem more and more attractive.

Bait and switch, I hear you say? My thoughts exactly.

The final straw came when they were undercut by one of their rivals – by a good 70% on the call-per-minute rate – and simply dropped them from their price-comparison table.

So I felt manipulated and deceived. It was time to get a PAC code.

You want coffee with that?

My last service experience mirrors my first one. It’s my favourite cafe, where the coffee is piping hot and the welcome is always warm. Recently, the tills have been randomly printing out ‘Free drink’ on the top of the receipts, inviting you to fill in a customer-service survey online and claim your prize.

So I did, and got a free coffee on my next visit. The receipt after that also offered me a free drink if I completed the survey. So I did, again. And the pattern has been repeating itself for three months. I’ve been paying for only one coffee in two.

Now the service is great and the coffee tastes good – especially when it’s free. But I’m sure they can’t want to hear my admittedly valuable opinion quite so much. When I mentioned the surveys to one of the staff, I was told that you could only complete one a month from the same IP address.

But that’s not true, as my weekly feedback shows. I didn’t have the heart to tell her. And here’s the thing: I’ve actually stopped doing the surveys now, as I feel so positive about them I actually want to pay for my coffee. It doesn’t feel right not to.

Yes, it’s a marketing tactic, but unlike my mobile experience, it doesn’t leave me feeling manipulated.

It’s not Starbucks, by the way. They’re off my Christmas card list after they downgraded my rewards card at the beginning of the year. But that’s another story, which I’ll tell you another day.

Over a coffee, perhaps.

Five ideas to kick-start 2014

More business, less hassle, quick wins and easy options

Five ideas to kick start 2014 | marketing ideas  | copywriter

Image courtesy of pakorn at

So how was it for you? Did you get that iPad Air you wanted, or was it a stripy pullover again? Or socks?

Never mind. There’s always next year, when tablets will be faster, cheaper and sexier. In the meantime, grab another mince pie and let’s look at five ways to ease yourself into the brave new world of 2014.

1. Work your network

Cross-selling to existing clients is always easier than finding new ones. Why? Well, you already know a lot about them. And they already trust you.

So go for it, but don’t make your pitch obvious and opportunistic; instead, make them feel as if they’re getting something special because they’re valued clients (they are, aren’t they?).

So give them something that’s really special – something that new clients don’t get. There’s nothing worse than thinking you’re getting a special offer and then discovering (a) it’s not special or (b) new clients are actually getting a better deal. That’s what happened at my gym – now my ex-gym.

2. Keep it simple

Do you really need such a complex pricing structure? Do your terms and conditions need to sound so legalistic? (Yes, I know they are legal, but you can still soften them up a little. If you don’t, you risk putting people off before they’ve even dealt with you.)

Could you simplify your sales pitch? Can that PowerPoint presentation be shortened? (I can tell you the answer to that without even seeing it: yes.) Can you have fewer bullet points on each slide? (Ditto.)

Simplifying your life and your clients’ lives goes hand in hand. Simple beats complex. Short beats long. Conversational beats formal.

3. Stay in touch

People deal with people they like. And know. And who turn up often. Think back to Christmas (if you can, through the fog of holiday over-indulgence). Who are the people who always send cards, and include a handwritten paragraph or two? The ones that remember your birthday and other important dates?

Special friends are like special businesses: they’re the ones you feel most positive about. And a big part of that is simply staying in touch. So send that email, make that call, build that community. If you don’t, somebody else will.

4. Take another look

If, like me, you’re a bit of a Twitter sceptic, maybe this should be the year you question your preconceptions.

I recently spoke to somebody who gets all of their new business through their Twitter network. And another client who’s really making Facebook work for their company (yes, I’m an FB sceptic too).

So what else could work? Text-message marketing? Crowd-sourced product lines? Black Friday deals? Harlem Shake? (OK, maybe that’s a shimmy too far.) But you see where I’m coming from here.

There are lots of things we ‘know’ until we realise we don’t. Stuff we’re convinced doesn’t work – until it does. Language that we think is inappropriately uncorporate, and then it wins the client. Ideas we think are just too wacky, but then deliver the goods.

So how about dropping your guard, turning off your critical radar and going for it? If you do, I will too. (See you on Twitter.)

5. Just do it

Yes, the days are short, the holidays are (almost) over, the blood-alcohol level is dangerously high, the presents are already on eBay, and the credit card statements are looming. It’s not really the time to launch a marketing campaign, is it? Or an email blast? To start a blog or newsletter, or crank up that special?

Won’t it wait? Can’t it?

Yes, it can, but there’s no time like the present. One of the best tips I learned in 2013 was in Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

And here it is: don’t wait until inspiration strikes, or until you’re in the mood. Instead, just go ahead and make a start. You’ll soon be in the mood, and inspiration is a lot more likely to strike when you’re in position at your desk. Going through the motions almost always flips over into the real thing, so stick with it.

(Yes, you’re right – it’s the old fake it till you make it idea.)

And if you need an extra reason, here’s one: if everybody else is suffering from January blues and procrastinating, what better time to get in and get noticed? Less competition means a higher hit rate.

So write it, design it, send it, follow up on it, launch it. Just do it.

And have a great 2014.