Thursday, July 22, 2010

Writing Better Ads

There are plenty of bad ads out there. I see them, hear them, and try and ignore them. I've even written a few over the years.

Cumulus Radio sends out a newsletter that I get in my email with some advice on your advertising:

How Not To Be A Bore

by Bill Hansen

Don’t worry, this is not a recommendation to wear a lampshade at your next social event. This post is about effective advertising. But since the social metaphor is on the table, let’s follow it for a minute to illustrate how you can save a lot in wasted marketing dollars and, instead, turn those dollars into a powerful investment.

Have you ever gone to a party or networking event and found yourself locked in a one-way conversation with someone that spent 20-30 minutes going on and on about themselves? It’s a pretty miserable experience, particularly if politeness, politics, or family relation prevented you from bolting. It certainly didn’t leave you wanting to learn more about or interact more with that person. We’ll use this as our definition of ‘boring.’

Now, if you hold your marketing up to the same standard, would this fit our definition of boring? It’s a fair question because 70-80% of the advertising you notice on local TV, print, online, or radio (and ALL that you don’t notice) fit this description. These ads are boring because they focus mainly on the advertiser, and not the end-user. Just more blah, blah, blah about things consumers don’t care about. No one except the lonely people watching informercials want to hear about what a business is selling. For the most part, these boring messages are a waste of marketing dollars. If you want to communicate with a consumer, make your communication about that consumer. Her problem. Her felt need.

No One Cares About You

At least when it comes to commercial messaging. Your message is an intrusion on their media consumption. This doesn’t mean it can’t be effective, it just means that you need to know your place and message accordingly.

Let’s go back to the party for a minute. What would happen if your conversation partner was asking questions about how you felt, what you’d experienced, or what you were interested in? Even if that person had a strong point of view, by focusing the conversation on you he completely changes the dynamic. It’s Dale Carnegie 101 – when you want to get someone’s attention, or you want to make a friend, you find a way to show an interest in them, demonstrate that they’re important to you.

The way to do this with an advertisement is to make the main subject of the ad – the idea that sets the tone, grabs attention, demonstrates, or informs – the consumer herself.

How To Make Your Ad About The Consumer

If the topic of your ad is the consumer, then your ad’s headline better make that clear. And don’t let the term “headline” fool you – every ad has a headline, whether it’s print, video, graphic, or audio. The headline is what’s said first.

If the first thing on the screen, the copy, or the audio is your name, you’ve missed the mark. As soon as the consumer sees or hears the name of a business, it’s like giving her permission to tune out. It’s not about her, it’s about some business that she doesn’t care about.

How do you create a headline about someone that you’ve never met? It’s pretty easy. Just focus on the problem that you solve. Why do people buy your product/service, need it, or want it? Every effective ad should directly or indirectly be about a problem that the product/service solves.

Try starting the message with a question – a question directed at the consumer that pertains to the problem you solve (“When was the last time your lawn mower started on the first pull? Remember how satisfying that felt?”) Or start with statement that assumes the problem (You might actually enjoy mowing your yard if the darned machine would start like it was supposed to”). Note that both of these approaches are about the same consumer’s problem, but couched in different emotional terms.

Contrast this with a typical (and boring) approach: “Hi, this is Jim Hendricks, President of Hendrick’s Mower and Small Motor Repair, I’m here to tell you that we serve all of your small engine and yard equipment needs…” (yes, this is real copy, I just changed the names to protect the guilty).

Can Humor Save A Boring Ad?

If the ad is boring because it’s about a company and not the consumer, humor probably can’t help. There are exceptions, of course, but for every one that comes to mind there are literally thousands of failed attempts that don’t come to mind because you ignored them! The truth is, so many ads use humor ineffectively that humor itself has become cliche – and a signal to the consumer that the ad can be ignored. When humor does work, it’s almost always because it’s truly different and executed by real pros who know their stuff – and even these creative pros strike out more often than not. For every Budweiser “Real Men Of Genius” or Geico “Cave Man” there are a thousand painful examples of poorly executed advertising humor.

Same thing for obnoxious ads – a stratagem that many automotive retailers use to “grab attention.” Sure they grab attention, just like the drunk at the party who trips over his own feet and breaks the coffee table does. Yes, we noticed… The same things hold true for great photography, whiz-bang studio production, and flashy graphics. Some of these things may get attention once, but once the purpose of the technique becomes clear, the consumer catches on and tunes out to subsequent exposures. Since you generally don’t win a new customer with a single ad exposure (it usually takes dozens), technically-proficient ads about the wrong topic are no different than technically-deficient ads. They don’t work.

The Bottom Line:

Boring ads waste marketing budgets. Stick with a couple of simple fundamentals and you’ll turn potential advertising waste into a powerful growth investment. You might not win a creative award, but your ad will sell and that’s all that matters:

  1. Make the ad’s headline about your target consumer.
  2. The main idea of the ad should be solving a problem pertaining to need or desire.
  3. Frame this idea around emotions that are relevant to why people need or want your product.
  4. Give your consumer one iron-clad reason why you’re the best business to solve this problem for them. Just one, and make it persuasive and clear. That’s what they’ll remember.

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