The Pros & Cons of Choices in CTAs

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A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful experience of going to a small town ice cream shop – one of those corner dairies reminiscent of the 1950’s, a wholesome place where the entire family would go after the beach or at the end of a  hot summer’s day.

Instead of typical vanilla and chocolate soft serve flavors, this establishment had 200 varieties. The menu also offered 80 hard ice cream flavors plus a variety of sherbets and yogurts, cakes and pies. My head was spinning by time I settled on a small Expresso soft serve in a cup. (Yes, I could have also had it in several types of cones, dipped or not dipped, turned into a sundae or festooned as a banana split.)

This experience made me think about the guidelines for Calls To Action in direct response.

I have always liked providing several options on the premise that marketers should make it easy for the customer to do business: send back this coupon, order online, swing by our office, call this toll-free number. But after my ice cream quandary, I can certainly see the point of keeping it simple, especially if you’re trying to track response.

In an ideal situation where on an online form (more info, register for webinar, request a demo) integrates with a database for lead capture, the last thing you want to do is send your prospect down the primrose path. You want to funnel them, nurture them and keep an eye on them whether you do it manually or through marketing automation.

If speed is important, then offering a “Click Through” button is a smart way to go. Click to register, click to learn more, click to vote.

But not everything is black and white when it comes to triggering response because psychology and emotions come into play. Here are some effective variations:

* In an email from the CEO or Sales Director, it’s nice to say, “I’d welcome a chance to personally answer your questions/discuss this opportunity. Feel free to contact me directly at XYZ email address.” If providing an individual address is risky, set up an alias – but do monitor and respond. Benefits: person appears interested and accessible; prospect feels important; response mechanism cuts through red tape and encourages spontaneity.

* For phone room sales or telemarketing, I’ve seen success in consolidating response time, i.e. create a “window” for response to suggest urgency. “Call between 7 and 9 to receive this special subscription offer.” That also maximizes manpower and does not tie up phone lines.

* Mobile offers/text messaging can brilliantly play to timeliness and geography. “Come to the pub at the corner of Main and Maple for a free beer tonight between 9 and 11.” (You already know your prospect is in the vicinity.)

* When you want a more engaged response – say, someone who is willing to pursue subsequent action –offer dual options: the first one, in response to the immediate offer/question and then a second option to allow for follow-up. For example: “Yes. Please contact me with future promotions.” “Yes. I would be interested in participating in a market study.”

* Let your call-to-action work double-duty with a ‘get a gift, give a gift’ tactic, especially where a free offer is involved. Provide additional lines to refer a friend or simply, a link (to email or social channels) to easily share the deal.

Regardless of technique, there are several ‘musts’ that a direct response writer should follow:

1. Include an offer or strong incentive with an expiration date
2. Secure a clean, quality list or targeting source
3. Be clear and transparent – no ambiguity about pricing, terms, delivery, or availability
4. Use disclaimers to avoid future problems (“while supplies last;” “rain checks available”)
5. “Satisfaction guaranteed” or “extended warranty” are phrases that add value and comfort
6. Repeat powerful words in a PS or on the mechanism itself: new, free,  exclusive
7. Code your response mechanism for tracking (mouse type for print or custom URL for web)
8. Provide language to those who handle responses; script multiple scenarios
9. Capture valuable information but be honest: “your personal data will” or “will not be shared with third parties”
10. Test response mechanisms by varying language for features, benefits, pricing, and restrictions

That means, try a bunch of Very Berry flavors as well as plain vanilla.

Whatever Happened to the Inverted Pyramid?

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(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON LINKEDIN PULSE)

Anyone who has gone to J School or taken a journalism course is most likely acquainted with the concept of the Inverted Pyramid – a style of writing that places the most important information up top and less important information at the bottom. More bluntly said: Start with the relevant stuff, end with the fluff.

That’s the way to accommodate busy editors and short form readers.

However, with the advent of storytelling, particularly in advertising, there’s a whole lot of waiting going on. I understand the value of making an emotional connection and the terms of engagement … entice, hook, nurture, and then slam home the brand… but sometimes as a consumer, I don’t want to watch a melodrama only to discover it’s brought to me by a box of crackers.

Don’t get me wrong: I love TV ads that are sequential – where characters are interesting enough to foster a following. And I often like the softer side of sales which is more about the experience than the product or features.

But sometimes when I’m busy, cranky, or impatient, I just want “the facts, ma’am.” What it is; how much it costs; and where I can buy it. I don’t want to trip down memory lane or prance along the primrose path.

When I see a press release that starts with a quote, history or promotional statement, I cringe and crave the old Inverted Pyramid: who, what, where, when, why and how. When that is missing, I assume the author is either inexperienced or not aware that there are different writing styles for different purposes. Once I had a supervisor who thought it would be creative to begin our PR with a comment. I had to track down an editor to convince this person that, “No one reads those quotes. In fact, we assume they’re made up.”

Perhaps that’s harsh, but point is, in this age where “everyone’s a writer,” prioritizing information warrants discussion.

After talking with someone yesterday (talented in his own rights as a videographer), it dawned on me that many people are just not familiar with news-driven information organization. For those schooled in narrative thinking, it’s more logical to set the stage, play out the plot line, then slowly lead up to the clincher. Unfortunately, this isn’t always effective — particularly for direct response — where buying decisions can be impulsive and made in a split-second.

So are we clouding the urgency of our message by weaving it into a fable? Are we diminishing results by not being direct? Should we invert content more often in order to get to the point and ask for the order?

Apparently the Sphinx and I aren’t the only ones pondering this enigma. Here’s an intelligent article from the Poynter Institute that discusses Inverted Pyramids as used in print with a link to Jakob Nielsen who discusses their use on the web.

For me, “Once Upon A Time” can be nice, but there’s much to be said for not scrolling until the princess is kissed.

Text Stop — The Need to Write

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I’m not sure why this sign struck me as funny other than that it elevated texting to a basic need. Communication of course is essential to our well-being, but is not usually regarded with the same urgency as “rest stop.”

In thinking about this, though, maybe writing and communication are more necessary to human survival than might appear.

For people who write, words dance in our heads. Sometimes “they need to get out” – they need to be captured by pen or keystroke lest they vanish, lest we forget.

Once as a student, I woke from a compelling dream, and keeping pen and pad on my nightstand, forced myself to jot down notes before falling back to sleep. In the morning, I looked at my scribbles and saw they were gibberish. So much for the perfect plot line.

The need to write can be healthy in that it drives us to organize our thoughts, energizes us when we’re tired, pushes us to perfection, motivating us to add one more letter, one more line, paragraph, page — until it “feels right.”

Do you remember the movie Quills?  It was fairly disturbing, taking place in an insane asylum that housed the Marquis de Sade. While most of us associate him with other unsavory acts, this film focused on his obsession with writing as a protest against censorship and was a conveyance of mental imbalance. For him, writing was a compulsion, a therapy, a release. While I don’t recall too many details, I do remember leaving with the sense that writing was in fact, his “life blood.”

Sometimes the persona of “writer” makes us cranky as we watch others empowered with social media tools. OK, some are glib, informative and thought-provoking, but others are just plain self-serving, illiterate and nasty. To this end, we need to continually distinguish ourselves in skill, accuracy, and originality.

The ability to write serves different purposes. Sometimes we write because it’s necessary (“Jimmy, please write a thank you note to Grandma.”); sometimes we write to avoid face-to-face confrontation (“Susie, I’m sorry I stood you up the other night.”); writing gives us a voice (“Dear Sirs: The car you sold me is a lemon.”); writing conveys leadership. (“As my research findings show…”)

But what if writing is simply indulgent? I say, go for it! Sit on a bench in a meadow and pretend you’re in a Victorian Garden or on the high seas or in outer space. Writing helps us travel, imagine, age with wisdom or return to youth.

Yet writing isn’t all about emotion. This word-business can be lucrative, too. Sometimes aspiring writers forget that not everyone is an editor, English teacher, columnist or novelist. There are copywriters, speech writers, web writers, direct response writers, grant writers, medical writers, and technical writers to name a few. For any industry or profession, you will surely find writers who specialize in those topics and are gifted at generating vast volumes of content in a world that is hungry for it.

What about ghost writing? Could you do it? Not sure I could. I think I’d want to take credit for my work. (because — despite the gratification– it is work, especially when someone else is depending on it)

Sometimes the challenge of writing short is just as difficult as writing long. The 140 characters of a Tweet aren’t always enough to express a full thought, but then again, drafting a 400 page manuscript is not something most of us have time to do… so maybe how we write is a  matter of convenience, something we shape and format for the occasion.

I remember climbing into the cliff dwellings of Bandalier, an ancient Native American site in New Mexico, thinking that this need to write is wired into the human psyche.  There on the cave walls, ceilings, and rock sides are petroglyphs that tell the stories of long ago. There are tales of travel, symbols of strength, and a suggestion of seasons. Thanks to pictorial writing, history is alive here.  It envelops us, transports us, helps us understand– or in more modern terms, “it engages us.”  How ironic.  We act as if story telling were new.

Stringing the Line

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I’m not sure when I began using a clothesline – could have been in a moment of nostalgia or environmental concern – more likely motivated by not wanting to spend money on electricity or having brand new jeans shrink 3 sizes. I don’t use it for everything, but it’s great for shirts and pants that benefit from brisk breezes and sunlight.

This year, my line was frazzled. For some reason, the cotton fiber disintegrated around the core. When used, it would disperse a cloud of dust that made me cough. With fall upon us, I decided this was a good time to string up a new line, and so doing, I realized it was a lot like writing.

First, I unraveled the twine, careful to keep it taut and anchored at both ends. Then I tied it and wound it multiple times around each hook. I punctuated it with  new clothespins, interspersed with the old, testing it out later in the day to make sure it held strong. I now step back and admire it, suspended bright and clean among the trees. The purpose remains somewhere between functional and aesthetic.

You may not want a clothesline in the front yard, but there’s something rural … homey… down to earth about it.  A lot like employing a style of writing that is gritty and unpretentious.

Clotheslines reveal a changing color palette:  blues, grays, browns, and burgundy in the cooler seasons; pink, aqua, celadon, salmon and white in summer. The line reflects the setting.

Occasionally the line supports memories –  a wizard’s hat and cape from a long-ago Halloween,  beach towels and handmade coverlets, an all-black array of tee shirts emblazoned with the names and images of rock bands.

A sturdy clothesline bridges time. Remember the teachings of the clothesline when writing:

1. Replace worn cliches with something crisp.
2. Anchor solidly in the context of the story or message.
3. Space word choice so you don’t repeat too often.
4. Punctuate as needed.
5. Mix daring information with comfortable reference.
6. Don’t weigh it down with verbosity.
7. Change up the palette – make it colorful at times.
8. Step back, review, and don’t be afraid to cut it.
9. Reposition phrasing for balance, continuity.
10. Take elements apart and reconfigure until they look right.
11. Don’t let anyone tell you how to string your line, but observe how others do it. (OK, maybe a good editor)
12. Use your line to let characters air out emotions and anger.
13. Admire your line but remember it may not last forever.
14. Invite someone to try it and see how it works.
15. Don’t shoo away birds that sit on your line; they will add interest.
16. Make sure your line will weather all seasons.
17. If your line gets tangled, unwind it and make it linear again.
18. When your line sways in the wind, enjoy it as open to interpretation.
19. Consider a second line for support.
20. And don’t forget your by-line.

Hoist the Baggywrinkle, Boys

There’s nothing quite like a trip to an historic location for an infusion of long-forgotten words. So was my experience on a recent visit to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.

The day was glorious with bright blue skies and just a hint of breeze.  Arriving early, the grounds were quiet and the water was still. We approached a mooring and learned that the Emma Berry was a smack.   I didn’t know the term, but apparently that’s a kind of sloop, in this case, a Noank Smack made in 1886, and it’s one of the oldest preserved commercial fishing vessels.

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As we looked around, there were tall ships in the distance and dories at the dock.

Soon we found ourselves visiting the Rope Walk — an impossibly long assembly line where rope was made. After that, we had more appreciation for the craft as we strolled into a shop where rope was sold.  The proprietor (looking much the part), explained that hawser was a thick rope used for anchoring or towing. He talked about the difference between manila and true hemp. We saw a canister of oakum and learned that this kind of rope was mixed with tar and used for caulking.

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When I expressed an interest in words, the merchant shared his favorite word, pointing to what seemed to be frayed rope strung across the front of some wheels. He said it was called “Baggywrinkle” and was used to cushion against friction, just as one might use Bubble Wrap® today.

We strolled the paths, visiting the cooperage, bank, printing office and inn.
A parlor garden at the Buckingham Hall House caught my eye, all quaint and reminiscent of another time, a “riot of color,” as they say, with nasturtiums overflowing a picket fence. Here’s a more expansive gallery.

We boarded the Charles Morgan, the last remaining whaling ship, now under restoration. Descending  narrow stairs and ducking through low doorways, we tried to imagine married life in the Captain’s quarters, but any idea of romance and adventure vanished at the thought of whale blubber rendering on deck.

Perhaps the most vivid image was conjured up by a woman dressed in period garb (bustle, parasol, and a small hand bag suspended at the wrist). She appeared randomly in the crowds. She nodded demurely and made her way to the docks. Occasionally she’d pause at a store window or slip around a corner to a side street. I wondered for a moment if she were real or perhaps a ghost that had arrived to check on her ships.

Emerging from the glory days of seafaring, the walk to the parking lot was uninspired. I glanced behind me, hoping to see the vintage woman gathering her skirts and quickening her pace in order to catch up.  No matter. She was where she belonged. I knew at twilight she’d be pacing a widow’s walk , praying for a mainsail on the horizon.

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Other colorful nautical terms can be found here.