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Lessons in Successful Advertising

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Years ago, a real estate broker hired me to help him sell more houses. We met for about 10 hours, reading over the real estate section of the paper and discussing his ads. I then told him I was ready.

“Sir!” he said in startled disbelief. “Do you mean to tell me we can meet for 10 hours and you can tell me how to sell more houses? I’ve been selling houses for 40 years. I’ve forgotten more about selling houses than you will ever learn in your life.”

It was true. My client had forgotten quite a lot about selling houses. The structure of his entire advertising campaign was wrong. Is yours?

What my client was trying to do was sell a house in an ad. You do not sell a house in a four-line listing. No one sees the listing and sends a down payment. The correct objective of the ad was not to sell a house but to generate a phone call. If the ad worked as planned, his phone would ring. It was then up to him to sell the house.

So we changed all the listings. “Call now!” the new ad copy said. “Call to see this beautiful four bedroom…” “For additional information by mail, call…” “For a free brochure with pictures of this house call us at…” If you read all of the listings, you saw that phone number dozens of times. My client’s phone calls tripled, starting in week number one. The first week!

Lesson 1: Write a clear objective for your ad before drafting any ad copy. Ask yourself, If this ad works perfectly, what is the action the reader will take? Then draft your ad to fulfill its specific objective. If you ask me–and you did, sort of–the objective should be to get the reader to call you.

Lesson 2: Offer something for FREE to make people pick up the phone. How can you generate the most response from a small ad for a book? Let’s see, would “Buy my new book” get readers’ attention? No, not really. Unless you’re Stephen King, people seeing your ad aren’t going to rush into a bookstore–or dive into their pockets and send you a check. So, this headline won’t work.

Let’s go to the other extreme: Would “Get FREE MONEY!” get people excited? Yes, that’s it. Now you have everyone’s attention.

But wait. Money isn’t a good giveaway. Everybody wants it, so the offer doesn’t restrict calls to your prospects (unless, of course, you are writing a book about giving away free money, in which case…we should talk).

The responses you want are from the most likely immediate purchasers, which is my definition of a target market. So let’s still give something away, but first let’s make sure our FREE gift is exceptionally valuable but only to the target market of people who are actively considering buying a book such as yours.

I think the best way to attract potential customers is to give away free information. It’s valuable to the respondents, they can’t get it anywhere else, and it’s cheap to produce. Nice combo.

The information you produce should be in booklet form. In fact, “Call now for a FREE BOOKLET” is my favorite advertising headline–for two reasons. It not only promises prospects something for free; it gives people a reason to call. The free booklet overcomes the law of reader inertia–it makes a body at rest (on the couch) get up, walk over, and pick up the phone. Additionally, the people who get flustered when they have to call somewhere new won’t have to figure out what to say when you answer the phone; they can just ask for their free booklet. You may not think this is important, but it’s a big factor with lots of folks.

Don’t have a booklet? How about dressing up your new brochure as a helpful, educational, and information-rich resource guide? Just a few pieces of paper can become a powerful sales tool.

Face it: a sheet of paper folded in thirds is a brochure. And you can get brochures anywhere: new car showroom, bank, post office; there’s just no value in an advertising brochure. But that same piece of paper folded in half…well, that becomes a valuable informational booklet. Would you rather receive a company’s advertising brochure, or a free informational booklet? Yeah, me too.

Lesson 3: Qualify the prospect. Here’s a big bonus for you: when people call to ask for something free, they are generally in a pleasant and giving mood. You can take this opportunity to poke around for the information you need from them in your own marketing. That’s the time to qualify each caller as a serious prospect, a literature collector, or someone with a phone and nothing better to do.

When someone responds to an ad by calling and asking me to send information, my next words rarely–if ever–are “OK, what’s your address?” Instead, I ask probing questions designed to figure out how likely they are to buy, and when.

Actually, the qualification process starts well before you speak with a prospect. You qualify response initially by deciding where to run your ad. Looking for camera buffs? Camera magazines. Airplane aficionados? Modern Flyer magazine. Looking for beautiful women under 35 who drive nice cars and fly first class to wonderful destinations around the world? Me too. But that’s beside the point.

Lesson 4: Show the title of your booklet in the headline of your ad. The best way to generate a highly qualified response is to give your free booklet a title that expresses a direct benefit for the people who are your targeted customers. Use this formula for your headline: “Free booklet offers [useful information].” For example: “FREE booklet shows you how to keep valuables safe when moving!” The subhead would continue: “Call now to get your FREE Guide to Packing Valuables!” This would produce a ton of the highest-quality leads for a moving company . You could also offer a handbook for people planning to move.

When prospects call to say they’d like to get the free guide, the best response is, “I’d be happy to send it right out. How soon are you moving?” Instant qualification in under three seconds. If it’s soon, the next question is a natural: “Have you hired a moving company yet?” or better yet, “Do you have an easy way to be sure your move is as smooth and as inexpensive as possible?”

Lesson 5: Consider intentionally limiting your response. If your literature and postage are expensive, try this: Increase the value of each reply by asking for a response by mail that includes a stamped, self-addressed envelope. This will wash out pretty nearly all of the “I saw your toll-free number on this here sheet of paper and decided to call while waiting for my bus” prospects.

If you offer consumers a hefty catalog or something else of value, you can separate the literature-seekers from the serious inquirers by requiring a dollar or two for postage and handling. Voilà! More limited response, and only from better prospects. Plus, it’s always nice to get some income up front. I know a person who offered a stereo speaker parts catalog and charged $4 for it. His revenue from selling catalogs turned out to be higher than his revenue from selling speaker parts.

It’s your choice: more respondents who may be less qualified, or fewer respondents who are better qualified and more likely to buy. Do you go with the bigger numbers or the better percentages? This depends on your product, dollar amount of sale, lifetime value of a customer (LTV), your offer, and your mailing package. For more information on this, send me a self-addressed envelope and $2. (See how this works! If I had said, “Just leave me an e-mail and I’ll send it to you,” I’d be inundated with requests. Ugh. This way, I just get the serious folks who’ll invest two bucks in this information–and also took the time to find an envelope and stamp.)

Lesson 6: When the phone rings, close the sale. If someone sees your ad and calls your number, it’s up to you to sell your product to that potential customer. You see, when the phone rings, your ad worked. Not only that, it worked perfectly. It fulfilled its objective–it got someone to call you.

Now it’s your turn: close the sale. It’s much easier closing a sale on the phone than trying to get someone to buy something from a sheet of paper. You can ask probing questions, see if they’re really interested, and find out if they’re ready to purchase. I close about 80 percent of the people who call me up and ask me about my books. All with a money-back guarantee. And yes, we get returns; we’ve gotten three books back since 1996.

©2004 Jeffrey Dobkin

Jeffrey Dobkin, author of How to Market a Product for Under $500 ($29.95) and Uncommon Marketing Techniques ($17.95), is also a speaker, a direct mail copywriter, and a marketing consultant. Both his books are available via 800-234-IDEA. For more information, or to arrange to speak with Jeffrey Dobkin, call 610/642-1000; fax 610/642-6832 or visit www.dobkin.com.

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