“Thaw with her gentle persuasion is more powerful than Thor with his hammer. The one melts, the other breaks into pieces.” – Henry David Thoreau
The ABCs of Inventing a Blockbuster Big Idea Campaign
I’ve heard gurus call all sorts of sales letters “Big Idea” packages simply because they became controls or broke a sales record of some kind. These included leads that touted:
* 10,000% returns on gold stocks
* 5 words you can say to your banker to make $200
* What never to eat on an airplane
* 13 Ways to Bring in More Customers This Year
* The trading strategy that works 94.6% of the time
* An ancient Indian cure for cancer
These are not Big Idea leads. They are based, as you can see, on promises or solutions. Promises and solutions are not ideas. They may sometimes contain ideas, small ideas, which help rationalize the selling proposition. But the sale is made by the promises and the solutions, not by the ideas. The marketer or copywriter that doesn’t understand this will never be able to harness the power of the Big Idea.
As I explained in my last essay, the Big Idea was originally used by David Ogilvy to describe what he was doing back in the 1950s – magazine ads that depended heavily on images to promote brand recognition. They worked by making subtle promises for psychological benefits that the prospect would enjoy by using the product. Two decades later, Bill Bonner reinvented the term for the direct response industry. Instead of the blatant leads that were popular at the time, Bill wrote very long indirect leads about something that initially did not seem to have anything to do with the product.
When you’re writing in an indirect way, having an idea matters. But not just any idea. For the Big Idea package to work, the idea has feel big in terms of its intrinsic importance and its consequences. It has to be an idea that matters to the prospect. It must be an idea that threatens (or promises) to change the world that he lives in. It has to be exciting and amazing. Most importantly, it has to feel true.
Big Idea packages often make promises. But the stated promises are secondary to the deeper promises, which are never stated but implied. In that sense, the promise of the Big Idea package is similar to the promise of Ogilvy’s Big Idea ads. (If your lead says that the economy is going to collapse next week and “here’s how you can get rich when it does,” you have missed the point.)
What matters most is that the Big Idea must be intellectually intriguing and emotionally compelling. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be correct or intellectually sound. It can be dead wrong or illogical in some way. But if it grips the prospect’s imagination and conquers her heart, the response will be huge.
So how do you do that? And how can you know if your Big Idea can do the job?
First, you must realize that the effect of a Big Idea does not reside in its essential brilliance but in its particular expression.
During the last 25 years, for example, I’ve personally reviewed at least 100 financial newsletter promotions that were based on the same idea – that runaway debt was going to crash the stock market and decimate the economy. Half of those packages went nowhere. About four dozen did okay. And two did phenomenally well.
What was the difference between those two and the rest?
It wasn’t the core insight, since they were all the same. It wasn’t the strength of the logical argument or amount of proof offered. There were many that were stronger than the two in these regards. It wasn’t the promises made about how the prospect might benefit from the financial crises that were predicted. In general, the packages that made softer promises performed better overall.
The difference between the best and the rest was simply the way the copywriters framed and articulated the idea in the headline and lead.
There are many ways to introduce the Big Idea in a promotion. You can begin with a story or a secret or a prediction or a surprising fact. Each of these is an archetypal approach to beginning a sales pitch. (John Forde and I wrote a good book about this called Great Leads)
Within each of these archetypes there are countless possible articulations. You can, for example, conjure up all sorts of story leads. But most of them won’t work for a Big Lead packagebecause, for one reason or another, they will not have the power to move the prospect from where he is – intellectually and emotionally – when he reads the headline to where you need him to be at the end of the lead.
Getting back to our example of a financial newsletter promotion based on the prediction of an economic crisis, here’s how you do it…
When you sit down to write your promotion, you know who your prospect is. He believes that debt is bad and he is confused as to why the stock market is at an all-time high. That’s “where he is” intellectually. And “where he is” emotionally is feeling that the world is scary.
You write a headline that does its job and grabs your prospect’s attention. Now what? Now you have to move him from there to thinking that he wants and needs the product you are selling (a newsletter subscription).
To move him emotionally, you have to offer him not the materialistic promise of getting rich when the economy implodes but the promise of being a person of vision and conviction. (That is the deeper benefit that a good prospect for such a package would want.) And to move him intellectually, you have to say something that will feel big and new to him.
The two packages that did so well accomplished these requirements in spades. The first was titled “The Plague of the Black Debt.” The second, “The End of America.”
Notice that neither of these headlines sounds like something you would find in an economic treatise. Nor would you find them in an article in The Wall Street Journal. They both feel much bigger and more important than that.
Notice, too, that neither of them even mentions the promise of benefit. And they certainly don’t mention the potential for financial gain.
What they do promise is some interesting information – an explanation of how the insanely accelerating debt that the prospect is worried about will finally wreak havoc on the government and big financial institutions that have been meddling with the free market. The prospect gets an immediate payoff in the first 500 to 600 words of the lead, and is compelled to keep on reading.
The copywriters that wrote these packages understood something fundamental about Big Idea packages that most just do not get: that none of us really cares about getting rich. What we care about are the emotional and intellectual benefits that we imagine wealth will bring us.
Big Idea packages work precisely because they promise deep psychological benefits – benefits that cut through the artifice of profits and even wealth and take the prospect indirectly to a world where he has what he really wants.
And that’s why, when Big Idea packages work, they work like exploding stars.