Dan S. Kennedy on Dog Whistle Marketing
Topics Covered in This Article
This article on Dog Whistle Marketing was written by Dan S Kennedy as an endorsement of Seth Czerepak’s signature sales and marketing system, “The VQ Success Selling System.”
The Dog Whistle You Don’t Hear
Let me start by saying that Seth Czerepak has accomplished a Herculean purpose with The VQ Success Selling System. He has taken some of the most sophisticated aspects of writing to influence, motivate, persuade and sell and made them accessible and pragmatically useful, nearly to the point of fill-in-the-blank systemization.
It is relatively easy to systemize the making of a sub sandwich in 1,000 Subway® shops or the installation of a car muffler in 1,000 Midas Muffler® shops. It is far, far, far from easy to systemize the crafting of persuasive copy. I know. I have been a professional direct-response copywriter for 40+ years, and raised myself to top income in the field, routinely commanding upwards from $100,000.00 per project, earning a 7-figure annual income from fees and royalties, with over 85% of all clients repeating with me.
Further, I have taught copywriting to writers, direct marketers, and business owners via seminars and workshops, home study and online courses, and one-to-one coaching. There are easier things to teach. Seth has covered essential bases and delved into advanced and groundbreaking territory as well.
With his invitation to add something to the work, and carefully reviewing everything he has assembled, my first impulse was to offer only endorsement and leave his masterpiece well enough alone.
But on reflection, I thought there might be a few points I could make, as reinforcement, and as an additional stimulus, drawn from my experience and from my observation of the failings of most copywriters.
The Least Understand Truth in Copywriting
I think the single most important, least understood, and least acted on truth about copywriting is that:
“Different words that mean the same thing mean different things to different people.”
If that seems like a contradictory statement, you don’t know words or people.
Most copywriters have a thesaurus or two or three handy, maybe one on their computer. A lot of copywriters have the “Words That Sell” thesaurus compiled by Richard Bayan. My shelf also includes Roget’s Descriptive Word Finder, and Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary, and, of course, a basic Webster’s Dictionary.
Most writers use these reference tools to find a better or different word or to craft a less clichéd passage. I don’t like this word – what might I substitute? This is no more thoughtful than not liking the yellow sweater you pulled from the drawer when you inspect yourself in it, in the mirror, and grabbing the blue one instead.
Few writers use resources like these, plus research information, plus brains to find just the right word precisely suited to their intended reader. It is here that you can gain a powerful, persuasive advantage.
Seth provides one approach to this, in the “Presence Techniques” section of his Copywriting Templates with sets of words for visual, auditory, tactile or olefactory-oriented text.
The richest page of copy describing a place, event, or thing might well use words from all five kinds of words. One of the great experts on creative thinking, Mike Vance, who worked personally with Walt Disney, teaches “5-Sensing” for everything including physical environments.
But there’s also reason to think about how different people take in and respond to persuasive content. In many cases, the list they came from reveals how they bought.
A list of TV infomercial buyers, for example, responded to a visual presentation with sound. Ideally, we would mail them a DVD, get them to request a DVD, or push them to a webinar where we would deliver a presentation in a TV format.
But failing that, if putting the printed matter in front of them, it would be a good idea to make it visually interesting and graphic, and to use visual language. “See with your own eyes”, for example, is a phrase in sync with how they made the purchase that put them on the mailing list you are now using.
“Look at these amazing facts” is better suited to them than is “Listen carefully to the amazing facts I’m about to present”, and “Read these amazing facts carefully” is the least appropriate.
On the other hand, if the prospects are on a list of New York Times subscribers and originally responded to an ad in the weekend New York Times Book Review, the last of the three above phrases might be best.
Dog Whistle Language in Marketing
Way back in the run-up to President Obama’s first presidential election, in her stump speech, Sarah Palin used the term “real Americans.” She used it as shorthand for heartland states’ salt of the earth, hard workin’, family folks.
They heard it, they took its meaning; it was a dog whistle calling them to her. But it was also a suggestion that the President was not a real American, in a different sense.
Those who believed that heard that, and it resonated with them. A great many people might hear those words in a paragraph in her 45-minute speech and take no notice of them.
When I speak, which I’ve done over 2,000 times for money, often selling things from the stage, I may use the same basic, proven presentation again and again, but when possible I exchange and imbed dog whistle language chosen to resonate with people within that audience I want to attract.
Below, a block of copy from a much larger piece, that I wrote for a top financial advisor client, that is working magnificently.
In 2013, I replaced virtually all her advertising and marketing copy, and I’m pleased to report double-digit percentage and significant dollar ROI improvements.
Her ideal clients are 62 to 75, long-married (usually only one marriage) adult kids raised, have amassed assets in the half-million to few-million range through hard work in the same job or small business over many years combined with living conservatively and diligently saving.
This is the kind of prospect profile you must have and have an understanding of before writing. The copy is fairly overt. It describes a situation these prospects have likely experienced and it gently discredits an emotional response to other advisors they may have (that should not dictate who they trust with their money).
But also, imbedded, are dog whistle words, which I’ve bold-faced here for you (they would not be bold-faced in the advertising material). Take a look, then I’ll make a few points:
There are a lot of nice, young men and women, conservatively dressed, fingernails manicured, fresh to the financial services industry, eager to move your money about, armed with standardized computer programs that print out colorful charts and diagrams. They may remind you of your sons and daughters. But, do they have the perspective that can only come from years of experience on this earth? How can they possibly, really understand you? Investing isn’t just about numbers and products and portfolio allocation by the numbers. It’s deeply personal. And to navigate the complexities of modern investing with customized, personalized strategies developed for you and only you requires real experience in this field – doing well through previous recessions and booms, not falling for fads and “bubbles”.
The word MATURITY or MATURE resonates with this age group. They feel that people in their twenties, thirties, even forties are markedly less mature than they were at that age, and seem terribly immature now.
The trend of adult children staying or returning home to live with their parents, often with a girlfriend or boyfriend or wife or husband and/or child in tow, and no gainful employment is viewed with deep criticism and resentment by accomplished couples age 60+ who have always worked, taken whatever starting job they could, and philosophically believe in self-reliance.
But this is also a thesaurus word, a synonym only to this age group for (a) reliability, (b) responsible thought and behavior, (c) trustworthiness, and (d) diligence.
Most of these prospective clients have been and are savers, not knowledgeable investors, and they are not at all confident about managing money beyond plunking it in the bank or a mutual fund. A worry my client the financial advisor wants to stimulate is the loss of their money placed in the hands of somebody capable of being fooled.
I have also underlined some words here for you (they would not be underlined in the advertising itself). These are meant as alert dog whistles. As “uh-oh’s”, calling into question all advisors but for my client who, incidentally, is presented as married for 30 years to her first husband, a WW II veteran; as having many years of experience in her work; as having lived in the area her clients live in for many years, etc. The underlined negatives of other advisors pursuing the same prospects she is:
The Value of Dog Whistle Language
The broader the audience, the less influence, and impact.
Writing and copywriting are either handicapped or assisted by the opportunity to focus. On TV, to the broadest mass audience, GEICO, Progressive, and Allstate battle it out selling insurance with lizard comedians, a waitress-like character called Flo, and a character called Mayhem, with precious little said about insurance or comparative benefits, and heavy reliance on a claim of the cheapest price.
This is the lowest common denominator selling, with no opportunity to really connect with a particular kind of prospect.
If, however, we are mailing a sales letter to mid to upper-income parents of a child just reaching driver’s license age, we can work hard, as I did in the above example, to craft visual images with visual copy, to use precisely chosen words and phrases that resonate specifically with the 38 to 50-year-old parent.
I tell copywriters: put yourself in situations where you have the highest probability of success and avoid situations with a high risk of failure.
I tell both copywriters and marketers: create a situation where the question is not “will we win or lose?”, but “Gee, how much will we win?” The ingredients are: the target audience and depth of understanding of that audience – and the narrower the better, the craftsmanship of appropriate copy for that audience, and the choices of media for delivering the copy.
It’s usually easy to beat a big, broad direct-mail ‘control’ or online video ‘control’ by segmenting the list into six to sixty sub-segments and tweaking the letter or video into six or sixty matched versions.
But also, you can step in where a one-message-fits-all attempt has failed and succeed with a message-audience precision-match approach.
It is foolish arrogance to create a one-message-fits-all.
The Ethics of Dog Whistle Language
Dog Whistle Language is how you show this respect to your audience. People who fail at copywriting in total, or with some project(s) or campaign(s), do so because they lack respect. They are punished for it.
Successful copywriters first and foremost respect language, vocabulary, visual imagery, emotional ideas, and tactile sensations. You can’t go through this work of Seth’s and not get the sense that he is deeply fascinated by and respectful of language. Of words. Of words that sell. If this is not a fascination of yours and you cannot or do not make it a fascination of yours, I’m afraid you’ll never excel at selling with words.
Successful copywriters respect their audiences. They learn about them, not as a collection of demographics and statistics and survey or poll results, but as people, as emotive humans, and as individuals. People do not respond well to uncaring words.
Successful copywriters respect the craft of selling. It’s always shocking to me to hear someone voice a desire to be a copywriter but also voice a distaste for selling. It is not coincidental that many of the all-time greatest copywriters and advertising men and women were first door-to-door or at least nose-to-nose salespeople, and came away with profound respect for it. They have a positive attitude about selling.
Successful copywriters respect integrity and authenticity. The great copywriters and great campaigns are not about “putting one over on” a group of prospects. Money can be made that way, but equity can’t be created, and jail cells may await. Those of us who do this with great success respect honest passion. We look for reasons to be genuinely enthused about the product or proposition we write about, including the appropriateness of the audience chosen for it.
Now that you’ve got a taste of this little-known marketing secret, I invite you to let Seth take you the rest of the way towards bigger, more predictable profits, and towards a higher quality clientele.
About Dan S. Kennedy
DAN S. KENNEDY is a sought-after strategic advisor to entrepreneurs and direct marketers, one of the highest-paid freelance copywriters in the world, and his own best client as he is a serial entrepreneur with diverse business interests – at various times including publishing companies, technology companies, health care, and service businesses. His clients range from small, million to several million dollars a year growth companies to direct marketing giants like Guthy-Renker (best-known for Proactiv®). He is also the author of 18 business books currently in print including The Ultimate Sales Letter (4th Ed./20th Anniversary Edition), No B.S. Price Strategy, No B.S. Guide to Marketing to the Affluent, No B.S. Guide to Marketing to Boomers and Seniors, and No B.S. Trust-Based Marketing, all available at amazon.com, BN.com, Barnes & Noble stores, and other booksellers – or information about them is accessible at www.NoBSBooks.com. Other information is at www.DanKennedy.com. Direct communication by fax, to 602-269-3113. (Do NOT e-mail the information sites; Mr. Kennedy does not receive or respond to e-mail.)-Best