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Archive for March, 2013

Marketing lessons from dog biscuits

March 31st, 2013 by Bob Bly

When my kids were little, they would crack themselves up by
preparing strange concoctions in the kitchen, feeding them to
me, and watching me grimace.

My eyes were closed, so luckily, I never knew what I was about
to ingest.

One time, when it was dog biscuits, I was shocked at how
terrible they tasted, despite pictures and copy on the box that
made them look like a gourmet meal at a 5-star restaurant.

I pondered that dogs were willing to do a lot – come, sit,
fetch, roll over, play dead – for really small rewards.

And then it gradually dawned on me that people are the same way
– a fact you can use to good advantage in your marketing.

Example: back in the 80s, a friend of mine worked at a medical
ad agency.

The agency specialized in creating direct mail (DM) that invited
doctors to medical symposia. These seminars were supposed to
deliver content on the treatment of a specific disease, but the
bottom-line goal was to promote the sponsor’s drug.

My friend did an A/B split test with a DM invitation to a
symposium. The only difference between the test cells was that A
offered a free pocket diary as a bonus gift to doctors who
attended and B did not offer the premium.

When the agency mailed the test, mailing A offering the free
pocket diary generated 6 times more response than mailing B
without it. We were all amazed because it was a cheap little
pocket diary that cost the client about a dollar each, and the
audience was doctors earning six-figure incomes.

“Don’t be amazed,” the client told us. “When doctors at our
symposia ask our staff where the pay phone is, nine times out of
ten they also ask us if we have a quarter they can use to make a
call!” (Remember pay phones?)

In my first job out of college, I worked in the marketing
department for Westinghouse Defense, whose major client was the
U.S. military. We were tasked with maintaining a supply cabinet
full of promotional items for Westinghouse salespeople to give
to the high-ranking military personnel who were our prospects.

The most in-demand item was Westinghouse golf tees – plain white
tees imprinted with the famous “circle W” Westinghouse logo in
blue. The salespeople and their customers were so crazy for free
golf tees we could not keep them in stock.

People, even wealthy ones, are eager to get free stuff and
discounts. Recently a new bank opened in the upper-class town
next to ours. They did the usual free balloons and hot dogs for
the grand opening, and their parking lot was packed to
overflowing. I love hot dogs, but I’m not going to fight for a
parking space to get a free one.

Any free gift given with inquiry or order is called a “premium.”
A “freemium” is a free gift enclosed with the mailing; e.g.,
rosary beads or a crucifix enclosed with a Catholic charities
fundraising letter.

A “keeper” is a premium the consumer keeps even if he returns
the product for a refund; e.g. The Folio Society offers a free
2-volume book set The Greek Myths when you order the Shorter
Oxford English Dictionary for $19.95.

They ship the whole thing when you mail the return coupon from
their ad; no payment with order is required. If you wish, you
can just pack up and return the Dictionary when it arrives,
pulling out and keeping The Greek Myths as a totally free gift.

I know: I’ve done it. A consumer who orders just to get the
keeper premium and then returns the product is known as a
“premium bandit.” Some direct marketers identify premium bandits
with a code attached to the record in their database, and do not
fulfill the premium bandit’s requests for keeper premiums.

Premium bandits are not actually thieves because all we are
doing is taking advantage of an offer the marketer willingly

The marketer knows in advance that a small percentage of orders
will be from premium bandits, and this is part of their cost of
doing business. “No biggish,” as the kids say.

I can also tell you that on more than one occasion, I was
planning just on keeping the keeper premium, but when I saw the
product, I liked it so much that I changed my mind and paid the

The premiums that work best (a) have a high perceived value, (b)
are unique, and (c) are relevant to the product.

A great example is Gevalia Coffee giving away a beautiful
high-quality coffee maker (I know; we have two) when you signed
up for monthly shipments of gourmet flavored coffee. We ordered
to get the coffee maker, but the flavors were so good we kept
our subscription for a few months, which is what Gevalia was
banking on.

Action step: think about what items would make good premiums
complementing your offers. Source these items, incorporate them
into your offer copy, and measure the change in response rate
vs. the same offer with no premium.


Category: General | 80 Comments »

Success: what price will you pay?

March 22nd, 2013 by Bob Bly

The question that has always vexed me most is when a subscriber
writes and asks:

“Should I become a freelance copywriter?”

“Should I start an Internet marketing business?”

“Should I [fill in the blank here]?”

Now, if you ask me HOW to do these things, I can give you some
solid guidance.

But if someone asked me SHOULD they do this or that, I used to
throw up my hands and say – “How can I tell you that? It’s
entirely up to you!”

However, when I was reading the New York Review of Books
(3/7/13, p. 46) last week, I came across a quote in an article
by the late Isaiah Berlin that I think gives a useful answer to
the question of “Should I?”

Berlin wrote: “One chooses as one chooses because (1) one knows
what one wants, and (2) is ready to pay the price.” (I added the

As for the first reason, (1) choosing because “one knows what
one wants,” I would argue that you already know what you want or
you wouldn’t be asking me if you should do it.

Conversely, if you have spent years thinking about a thing and
have taken no forward action, you probably don’t want it that

It reminds me of a story about Mozart.

Supposedly a young man in his late teens or so approached Mozart
and said “Maestro! I want to write a symphony! Please, please
teach me how to write a symphony!”

Mozart looked him over and said “You’re too young to write a

“But Maestro Mozart, you wrote a symphony when you were twelve
years old,” the teen pointed out.

“Yes, but I didn’t have to ask how!” Mozart replied.

If you really want to do a thing, you will pursue it and do it.
If not, then not. You won’t have to ask me or anyone else
whether you should.

The second part of Berlin’s statement says that you will choose
something if you are (2) “ready to pay the price.”

This price may be:

** Long years of education, practice, or apprenticeship before
attaining your wish.

** Facing the possibility that, after all that time and effort
and investment, you may not succeed.

** Taking a financial gamble as you invest in your new venture
or dream – a gamble you could lose.

** Sacrificing time with family, leisure time, and other
activities in the relentless pursuit of your vision.

** Risking the disapproval of friends and family who do not
support you in your quest and say you are foolish to do it.

** Becoming so successful that you alienate those friends and
family members who are less successful and resent your

** Taking so long to reach your goal that by the time you
achieve it the other pleasures of life have passed you by and
now you are too old to enjoy your success anyway.

If after reading the above list with your eyes wide open, you
agree that these are prices you are willing to pay to achieve
your dreams — then I encourage you to go full steam ahead.

On the other hand, if you quiver with fear after reading this
list or want to put your head under the covers, you may not have
the constitution required for entrepreneurial or artistic
ventures or similar grand aims. And perhaps you are better off
staying where and as you are.

One other observation: a psychologist once told me people do not
take action until the pain of their current condition – whether
poverty, boredom, fear, or unhappiness — exceeds their fear of

I think his observation is right on the money.


Category: General | 63 Comments »

Is your music still inside you?

March 14th, 2013 by Bob Bly

A couple of weeks ago, in a quiet old cemetery next to a horse
farm, TS, my father-in-law, was buried.

I think TS felt unaccomplished in that he never achieved his
most fervent dream: having a play of his produced in New York.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: “Most people die with their
music still in them.”

But I give TS more credit than he gave himself.

TS took 2 years off from work to write his play, move from Maine
to New York City, and attempt to get it produced.

Yes, the play never ran, but it was not for lack of trying.

In this, TS was ahead of the curve: at least he sat down, wrote,
and completed his play.

I know many people who want to write a play or a novel, or
launch a business or create a product, and never get the thing
finished — or worse, even started.

That includes me.

I have always dreamed of being a published novelist, but have
never had a novel published.

That’s due in large part to my never having written a novel.

I made a few false starts, but never got past the first ten
pages on any of them.

My excuse I tell people is that I never had an idea for a story
I thought could sustain a novel-length work.

The other excuse is that I already write all the time, so had no
time for fiction.

I can’t give you a formula that guarantees you will be
successful as a playwright, novelist, inventor, entrepreneur, or
anything else.

But I can give you a formula that guarantees your failure: don’t
write the play or novel, or start the business, or build the

I am ashamed to say that this is the formula I followed in my
career as a novelist, with the results indicated above.

I close with this advice from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

“Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has
genius and power and magic in it.”

Do as I say. Not as I do.


Category: General | 157 Comments »

Say Thanks to a Teacher

March 6th, 2013 by Bob Bly

On May 13, 2013, the U.S. will celebrate National Thank-a-Teacher Day, a day on which you are supposed to thank a teacher who made a difference in your life:

 I urge you to participate in this goodwill gesture for 2 reasons:

 1—It will make you feel really good.

 2—It may mean more to your teacher than you could ever imagine.

 I also suggest you do it now. If you wait until May 13, the official date of National Thank-a-Teacher Day, you may forget.

 Years ago, I dedicated my book on time management, “101 Ways to Make Every Second Count” (Career Press) to EB, my 10th grade English teacher.

 Instead of mailing the book to her, I visited my old high school and waited outside her classroom door until the period was over to present it in person.

 I said, “Ms. B____, I don’t know if you remember me, but I was in your 10th grade English class many years ago. You taught me what good writing is. Well, I became a writer and have had dozens of books published. Here is my latest, and as you can see, it is dedicated to you. In fact, I have you to thank for my career.”

 I handed her the book open to the dedication which read: “To EB, who taught me how to write.”

 I could see she was visibly moved and she expressed her appreciation.

 I got the feeling that (a) teaching can often be a thankless job (she said words to that effect) and (b) having a student express appreciation for the teaching he received was an uncommon occurrence.

 I felt I had done a good thing by taking the time to thank her as I did, and to this day I am glad I did it. The occasion remains vivid in my memory.

 My advice to you is: think about a teacher or mentor who helped you and made a positive difference in your life, seek her out, tell her what her counsel or wisdom meant to you, and thank her for it. You will get a lasting “high” out of doing this.

P.S. I also posted an appreciation for one of my old college professors on the University of Rochester web site, though I don’t know if he has seen it:


Category: General | 70 Comments »