Posts Tagged ‘headline writing’

Content Comix #7

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Content Comix #6

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Content Comix #5

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Content Comix #4

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

Don’t Eff-up Your Content Strategy: #4 Know Your Audience

Thursday, October 30th, 2014


You know that old chestnut about selling ice to Eskimos? Well, if you know they prefer cubes and all they have are blocks, you may get a sale.


It’s all about knowing your audience—both who they are as well as what are their needs and motivations.


Because you’re not selling to everyone. More specifically, you’re not telling everyone the same story.

Technology is a great example: When a company is going to spend millions—or tens of millions—on technology, there are going to be a few direct stakeholders and dozens of other influencers. And each one has a different agenda.


  • Users need to know how it’ll make their jobs easier
  • Managers (LOB) need to know how it solves a business problem
  • Senior managers or executives need to know that its cost will be amortized by efficiencies, or better, by revenues and profit
  • IT needs to know that it will seamlessly integrate with existing systems
  • Developers need to know that it’s stable and manageable
  • Procurement needs to know that it’s features and pricing are competitive

How’re you gonna solve all that with a single headline?

You’re not.

What you need to do is identify and segregate your target audience/s.


Who are your most influential customers? They aren’t always the decision maker or check writer. Sometimes they are behind the buying decision. Your primary audience are the ones who gather info and insist on purchase.


Sometimes the ones who surround a buying decision are as important as your primary audience because their opinion weighs heavily. They can be strong advocates. Secondary audiences can also include outside forces like senior executives, general and industry media, analysts, bloggers and the public.

These can be the kids who want Mom to buy Lucky Charms—Mom’s the buyer, but kids are the target. The non-shopping spouse who wants something. A department that needs new … whatever.

Or the CEO who really doesn’t understand technology but thinks those ads were really cool.


You have to learn about your audiences. You need to do research.

What is their relationship with your general business category, with you, your product or service, with the competition. You need to know.

You need to know what they think and feel. What they demand and tolerate. What they expect and how they’re willing to compromise.

If you’re selling food, you need to know how it’s purchased, prepared and eaten. If you’re selling toys, you need to know who wants them and who buys them. If you’re selling vast enterprise computer systems, you need to know as much detail as possible about their company, their current solutions, their needs and their demands.

Of course it’s different for a $1 impulse item or a multi-million dollar whatever.

But it’s all about the target. You have to know them.

An excellent example is the research Goodby, Silverstein & Partners did for the California Milk Advisory Board. They learned that buyers didn’t need to know about calcium or freshness or vitimin D. All they cared about was having some milk in the ‘fridge when they want it.

Get it: got milk?



Here’s a model I started using a very long time ago to help clients visualize the manifold nature of communications.

You can see how every purchase starts with need, migrates through awareness and understanding, then advocacy, acquiescence, then purchase.

Doesn’t matter whether you’re selling $1 gum or $5 million tiered storage. The only difference is the level or decision-making and the time it takes to make it.


Before you sell anything—before you communicate anything about your product or service—you need to know who you’re talking to, what their needs are. Then based on that, craft a content strategy that positions you relative to the needs or expectations of your audience.


#5: Know what you need to say.

The 10 Essential Building Blocks of Content Strategy

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014


We spent the last few months exploring how and why great creative works. How to break through the clutter. How to recognize—and avoid—clichés and chestnuts. How to speak meaningfully to your audience. How to get them to take action.


Now we’re going to explore how you get there.

And that’s through a single, clear message.


Strategy is a qualitative expression of quantitative understanding.

It starts by knowing who you are unilaterally and within your market, what you provide and why it’s unique, how it serves your customer and why they should care.

Then based on that, crafting a single, clear, unambiguous position.

Strategy is not a headline or copy. It’s not choosing illustration over photography, using Twitter over The Wall St. Journal or doing a video over a banner ad. And  it’s definitely not just restating marketing data.

Strategy informs the creative. It’s the substance behind the headline.


I’m not saying it’s easy. In fact, it can be really scary. But the benefits are manifold.


For years I worked on Oracle OpenWorld, a huge and influential technology trade show. And for years we went into it without strategy. That meant reinventing the wheel with each new wave of communications, with each new opportunity or challenge and every time we needed to course-correct. Different groups made different claims, all expressed differently.

It was maddening, time-consuming and unproductive.

So we started developing a creative/content strategy months before the event—based on exactly the format we’ll explore here—and slowly worked it through the system. It took patience, resilience, tenacity, flexibility and a good bit of humor.

But finally it was approved. Actually signed off by all the major players.

The strategy was: Position Oracle OpenWorld as the place where you learn to get greater business value out of your IT.

And sure enough, the whole communications cycle went more smoothly. It made a huge difference, starting in creative development. During our first major creative review—the first time the design director saw creative—he commented that the work was “more firmly grounded and yet more aspirational” than anything he’d seen at that stage.


Every blog post, banner, ad, poster, email, site sign, conference guide—all of it—was based on a single strategic position. When we had to re-evaluate certain threads, add new channels and include unexpected audiences or programs (which always happens) the work was faster, easier and more consistent. Better still, early registration was up, incentive-based registrations were down and the final number of total attendees exceeded goal.


Building block #1: Know yourself.

Richard’s 10 Rules for Totally Great Copy: #10

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

#10: Great copy can break the rules.

Of course, what I mean is that if your work works … then who cares how you did it.

You do have to observe cultural norms and manners—that’s part of communicating effectively. I could do the coolest ad in some arcane code or Martian glyphs, but who’d get it?

Juvenile, sexual, shocking, disgusting and offensive ideas certainly break through, but do they support a value proposition? History proves not.

That’s the art and craft of what we do. Content needs to break through. And the best way is to leverage or play with cultural norms. Tweak our understanding of what’s what. Make us think a little differently.

Rather than pontificating about it all, here are examples that I’ve collected:

This one just surfaced yesterday [08/05/14]. Not so much about breaking rules, but about breaking the wall between advertising and spectacle. Watch here. For TNT by Duval Guillaume, Netherlands.


No headline necessary, it’s the best possible demonstration of their product. Nobody busted the glass and apparently 3M got lots of press. I couldn’t find the agency, so if you know, please leave a comment.


I think this pretty much captures the imagination of the AXE customer. By Lowe Mena, Dubai, UAE.


They don’t have to say “don’t drink and drive.” You think it yourself. For the Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA) by Publicis Johannesburg.


Normally I find sex-first ads sort of unimaginative in a lowest-common-denominator kind of way. But this ad shocked the living daylights out of the 90’s. It was called vulgar (that’s up to you) and child pornography (the model was not a child). But it did its job, got Calvin Klein a lot of attention and apparently sold a lot of underwear. By Calvin Klein in-house.


Any questions about the product? By Leo Burnett Belgium


So much more is implied than explained. We fill in the blanks. By local heroes Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners.


I’m guessing this is exactly what the Wonderbra customer expects. By Publicis Conseil, France


I don’t like ads that use violent or hateful imagery, even if their message is noble. The World Wildlife Fund often uses shocking or revolting imagery. But in this case they make their point using subtlety and even sad humor. I couldn’t find the agency that did these. If you know, please leave a comment.


And of course there, this gem for Reebok which was actually banned in the U.S. Watch it here. By Goldberg Moser O’Neill.

And setting the bar impossibly high …

I’ve showcased some of these ads before, but they’re the ones I like creatively and were successful:

This program violated every rule of polite recruiting: overt poaching, acknowledging that Cisco was popular and hot, inviting people to solicit jobs from friends. It was the first program of it’s kind of drive traffic to a web page. And it was fabulously successful. People in companies throughout the country had the full-page print ad [We know where your friends are!] pinned to their cubes, because it was true. Their friends were all flocking to Cisco. It scared the heck out of recruiters from Cupertino to RTP. For TMP Worldwide, art directed and designed by Russell Miyaki, shot by David Papas.

This is from a series of ads for O’Connor Recovery Center. Of course, the rule of such institutional—and delicate—advertising is don’t point out the problem, just the solution. That’s why there’s so much depressing “light at the end of the tunnel” stuff. But we felt this was more honest. It was super-cheap to produce and helped book their alcohol, cocaine and prescription recovery programs for months.

I’ve shown this one before. Rather than the usual threats or scare tactics, we just remind women that they need a breast exam, so why not get one free. We thought a little charm would be much more convincing than some awful statistics or whatever.

Finally, for Cambridge Technology Partners, rather than pleading with people to check out jobs, we challenged them. Maybe you’re not good enough to work here, we implied, but why not find out. It peeled candidates out of their corner offices and plum technology positions to apply for jobs. For TMP Worldwide, art-directed and designed by Russell MiyakiScott Kim created all the puzzles.

So the point of all this, of this whole 10 rules thing is that marketing communications—advertising, blogging, posting, tweeting, pinning and every other new channel that arises—is about people.

It’s not about copy points or client strategy. It’s about getting through meaningfully.

My 10 rules are not rules at all. They’re reminders about communicating. Keeping things fresh and alive and focused.

And anyone, including myself, who tells you there are rules to follow or a way to do things is full of it. Ignore them. Ignore convention. Ignore the style guide.

Nobody cares what you have to say. Yet you as the communicator need them to hear you. You must remind them of an itch and tell them how to scratch it.

Messages that say “Do this” or “Do that” or “We have this or that” or “Compare our this to their that” is not advertising at all. It’s just posting information in a commercial setting.

Great copy does much more than that. It tells something important to someone. It makes them want to know more or take action. Sometimes without even asking.

An invitation is much more compelling than a command. It makes you want to take action.

And that, I believe, is what great copy should do.

Richard’s 10 Rules for Totally Great Copy: #9

Saturday, July 5th, 2014

#9: Great copy leaves the reader understanding

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Of course the reader should understand.” My challenge is this: understand what? Because they should understand more than your tactical message. Buy this. Do that. Not good enough.

They should understand you—and why doing business with you is better.

Buyers purchase cachet not just product. They buy a brand.

Why buy an iPhone when Samsung is so similar? Because it’s cool! When I buy that iPhone I’m buying a little piece of the Apple legacy, of Steve Jobs. Damn … I want all that and I’m willing to pay a premium.

In my last post, I moaned about losing a bunch of ad samples.

Well I found a couple that make this point perfectly.

The first is by Oceanworks, a Berkeley mechanic. It was a small-space ad that ran more than 20 years ago in the East Bay Express. I’ve been inspired by it ever since.

It doesn’t say anything about rates or factory authorization. No coupons or specials. Just a sweet, simple message that conveys an idea bigger than the words.

I talked to these guys after I first saw the ad. And while the shop got booked for weeks in advance, I heard how everyone started telling them car stories. How their car speaks to them, too. And how they felt like these guys must be trustworthy based on a car’s gentle review.

Right? People took it seriously. I’m sure not literally. But what they came to understand is that this is a mechanic who cares, and that their car will notice the difference.

The next is from a campaign by Chiat/Day San Francisco for UC Berkely, by art director Mike Moser and copywriter Brian O’Neill (who went on to create Goldberg Moser O’Neill). It’s one of a series they did for alumni magazines and related media.

This may be a perfect ad. The headline is arresting, but honest, not hyperbole. We learn the science building at Cal is full of scientists who are mad at the conditions they work in. Call to action: contribute now and stop the madness.

Ad poetry.

Better still, it’s not just a whiny, institutional call for donations. It’s cheeky and wry. Helps the reader understand there are people who need my support, not just a stalwart school that wants my money.

Here are a couple of my own campaigns.

I discovered that sushi lovers all have their favorites, so this campaign focuses on that sublime pleasure. The reader understands that it’s more than just sushi—it’s the peak experience of enjoying what they love.

 The wonderful illustrations were done by Steve Lang, before he became an award-winning fine artist.


This campaign for St. James Hospital and Health Centers in Chicago was meant to remind women to get a breast exam and to remind their partners to remind them about it.

Sorry in advance for the crappy scans that follow.

This was for women’s magazines throughout Chicagoland.

This was for men’s magazines.

We could have just said, “Make your free appointment today.”

Instead, readers understand there’s more at stake than a long afternoon in the clinic. It was a bold departure because it didn’t pose a threat, but rather presented an opportunity.

It’s worth mentioning that these were presented to  a panel of nuns.


Lastly, a campaign for Oracle recruiting. I’m a little mixed about this one. After seven years working there, it’s a little hard to look at these without being cynical.

The Oracle workplace has always had a bad reputation. Oracle eats its young. Only the strong survive. Getting noticed equals getting fired. Etc. We turned those things into a positive and helped Oracle far exceed their university and professional hiring goals, even in the midst of an employment boom.

Because we helped readers understand there’s a method to the madness. That there’s something to do that’s so important, so vital that it’s worth the grind.

Semi-truth well told, I guess. These were done for TMP Worldwide, art directed by Gary Buck.

In all these cases, the net take of the ads is greater than the concept or the words on the page. They communicate implicitly that there’s something bigger, more important, more urgent than a product or offer.

Which is exactly what I think great copy should do.

Richard’s 10 Rules for Totally Great Copy: #8

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

#8: Great copy transports the reader.

An ad that can transport you is very special thing. It requires creating hope and imagination that your life could be different—better—because you use a certain product or service.

You have to be picked up where you are now. Acknowledged that you don’t live a fantasy, don’t care about the advertiser and their effing ad or whatever it is they’re selling, and you don’t want to go anywhere with them. And in spite of that, still be transported.

You can’t trick someone into it.

You have to seduce them. Take them by surprise. Sneak into their awareness then set your hook.

The classic, if ham fisted, example is “Calgon, take me away!” Of course, it’s very literal and promises more than the ad itself actually delivers.

But that said, I’m guessing you knew just the campaign I was referring to. And judging by all the memes based on a 40-plus-year-old ad campaign, being taken away is a powerful desire.


You got Calgon cats


Calgon scribbles


Calgon fashion ;^)


And Calgon Commanders-in-Chief


And then there was Paco.

This campaign for Paco Rabanne men’s fragrance came out in the mid-80s. It seems so tame compared to what we see today. But at the time, it caused quite a controversy. Better still, it transported the reader.

He gets a call from his eager and satisfied lover who says she stole his cologne and plans to rub it on herself tonight when she’s alone. Yow.


He gets a call from his eager and satisfied lover who says her mother would never approve of what he and his cologne did to her. Woof!

No headline. No product description. Just the smoldering afterglow of a passionate evening.


I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to have that conversation. I bought the fragrance.

BTW, I can’t find who actually created those ads. If you know, please comment.

The shimmering icon of transporting your audience is from Mad Men. It’s Don Draper’s amazing  “Carousel” presentation to Kodak.

Back to reality

Here’s a campaign we did for Hill & Co., a San Francisco real estate broker who sold the highest-value residential properties in the City. Their clients were the wealthiest. Their inventory the most prestigious. Many of their agents were the scions of wealthy SF families.

Research revealed that elite buyers want their own bit of the City. And, of course, to be recognized for their power and influence and treated accordingly.

So the sell wasn’t about the nuts and bolts of real estate transactions or saving a few bucks. It was about knowing every inch of San Francisco. About helping you get your multi-million-dollar slice of SF with a glass of champagne on signing.


Contrary to popular opinion, there is only one hill in San Francisco.

Geography. That’s not what we’re talking about. Not a map of the City. It’s the map of your heart. The one that shows the way home, wherever that may be. There are lots of neighborhoods. Lots of houses. Lots of places to live. But when it comes down to it, to any San Franciscan, there is only one hill. A private hill. Your hill. And we’re here to help you find it.


Lots of houses speak for themselves. None sell themselves.

Ever hear that a home just spoke to someone? Ever had one speak to you? Did it say, “Haven’t you (ungh) outgrown it here …” or “C’mon … you can afford me …” We’re not here to confirm or deny the phenomenon. Just to comment that all the compelling chatter happens in a place distinctly different from the one where pricing, open houses and contract negotiations occur. That’s a place where only a highly qualified real estate agent can help you. So the next time you strike up a conversation with some residential property, remember, you don’t need a therapist. You need us.


Your house may be a lot of things. A realtor isn’t one of them.

As everyone who has sold or bought a house can attest, the house itself is what makes the sale. (Is it the closets? The kitchen?) But there are a few things even the best house can’t do. Like price itself. Or market itself. Or negotiate a contract. Or share perspective earned over 40 years of working with San Francisco’s most prestigious residential properties. Which is fine, because that’s what we do. Call us, and we’ll do it for you.


The campaign was designed so beautifully by Candice Kollar and shot by Thea Schrack. It was meant to be a bit poetic and flatter the reader.

What it did was cause a major eruption in the local real estate ad market. Everyone noticed. Everyone called Hill & Co. All of a sudden, every brokerage had to have a dreamy ad. We were interviewed by the local media and won several awards. The campaign bumped Hill & Co.’s lower-cost homes and rental business even more than the prestige business.

Why? Because the ads were knowledgeable and honest. We met the reader where they were then took them where they wanted to go. The ads transported readers to a place a bit more special than usual, but accessible enough to relate.

Which is what I think great copy should do.

Richard’s 10 Rules for Totally Great Copy: #7

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

#7: Great Copy Flatters the Reader

All advertising should say what it wants from me—or has for me—and how that’s going to help. But great advertising should elevate me. Involve and fascinate me. Flatter me.

 We once did an event for Cisco and the invitation did exactly that. We told the CTOs of top telcos they are the “Modern Masters of Technology.”

 The copy reads:

Their medium was paint.
Their palette was color.
They were the Modern Masters.
They saw what everyone else saw … in a whole new way.
Your medium is the network.
Your palette is information.
You are among the Modern Masters of Technology.
Come see internetworking technology in a whole new way.

Flattery will get you everywhere. It was spectacularly successful—100 percent participation—and won a bunch of design awards. It didn’t hurt that each invitation was hand-delivered and that we gave away Paul Klee artwork. Every hotel room had a modern art goodie-bag including a Picasso tile puzzle. I love that puzzle.

Hypocrisy 101

In general I do not like ads that tell me who I am or what I think. “You’re the kind of guy who …” or “You must be thinking …” Ugh. Just tell me what you have to say. So I guess it’s OK to speak to me collectively as long as it’s with the best and brightest ;^)

Involvement Is Flattering

Here are the top 10 of what some consider the most influential taglines of the last 70 years. The first six are focused on the customer or their experience. Only the last four are about the product. And I could argue “We try harder” really reads “We try harder to serve you.” And “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands” is about your experience.

  1. Got milk? (1993)—California Milk Processor Board
  2. Don’t leave home without it. (1975)—American Express
  3. Just do it. (1988)—Nike
  4. Where’s the beef? (1984)—Wendy’s
  5. You’re in good hands with Allstate. (1956)—Allstate Insurance
  6. Think different. (1998)—Apple Computer
  7. We try harder. (1962)—Avis
  8. Tastes great, less filling. (1974)—Miller Lite
  9. Melts in your mouth, not in your hands. (1954)—M&M Candies
  10. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking. (1956)—Timex

None of these say, “hey, you’re the smartest guy in the room …” or “damn, you’re blowing it …” or even “we’re #1.” In one way or another, they all say, “your life can improve.”

That’s pretty flattering.

Here are a few of my own examples …


Cambridge Technology Partners needed uniquely skilled, extremely high-level engineers and analysts. Research revealed their best prospects responded to games and puzzles. So we based the whole campaign on brain teasers. The tone both challenged and flattered the prospect. This was a multiple-award-winning campaign that generated excellent response plus international media attention. And yeah, we did this long before Google. For TMP Worldwide, art-directed and designed by Russell Miyaki. Scott Kim created all the puzzles.



TiVo asked us to raise awareness of the service while promoting their online magazine. Rather than dwelling on the technology or magazine content, we focused on the #1 reason anyone would ever use TiVo: To see what they want on TV. It instantly lifts both message and reader above commerce and into understanding customers’ needs and wants. This was art directed and designed by Russell Miyaki.



Failure Analysis (now Exponent) is a company that specializes in forensic disaster research. It’s a company run and staffed by Ph.D.-level engineers and physicists. What do say to someone like that? You can’t tell them how smart they are … you have to be that smart or a little smarter. This series of ads—which were extremely cheap to produce—generated tremendous response. For TMP Worldwide.

In each case, the prospect is elevated, as if they’re among a very special group of people who get it. And each time, they’re rewarded with a fun, twisted little bit of logic. In just a few words, these ads create a relationship that’s based on admiration and respect.

And that’s something I think great copy should do.