“Shockingly expensive” — truth in marketing

“The Shockingly Expensive Meal Program Worth Every Penny”

That’s the headline of the ad that appeared in my Facebook feed yesterday. Well, actually it said “Worth Every Pe…” but we all know how it ends.

shockingly expensive food

This company knows who its target audience is—and it’s apparently not bargain-hunters.

The people who buy this stuff pride themselves on spending lots for meals. And—hey—if it’s “worth every pe…” I might not care if it’s “shockingly expensive.” But I will balk at $400 angora throws or $200 dog collars. (Sorry, Fenway.)

Everybody has a price range for everything. It just depends on what you value.

Shockingly expensive — and truthful

Still, you have to admire that marketer’s guts, right? “Shockingly expensive” are not words you see often in advertising.

In a world where you can buy an online course for $59, my writing programs may seem “shockingly expensive.” Even my self-directed course costs nearly $500. But, yes, I think it’s “worth every penny.” And more. Heck, it’s a year-long program. Where are you going to find that for $59?

Think a shorter course will be less expensive? Actually, my 10-week program requires an even bigger investment—in money and in time. I want to weed out the dilettantes, the people who have a passing thought that “Gee, it might be fun to write more.”

When people invest in working with me, I want them to be committed, to do the work, to interact with their fellow writers, and to experience real change together.

If that sounds like you—and if you’re ready for a “shockingly expensive” personal growth experience that’s “worth every penny”—check out my Writing Unbound program.

I can’t promise you a puppy on your lap as you savor your organic breakfast. But I can promise to get you thinking in new ways—and get you writing things that people actually want to read.

“Significant objects”: How to make the usual unusual

We were talking in class about metaphor—it’s one of the toughest concepts to grasp, apparently. Not what a metaphor is—all of my writers have been through high school English class—but what a metaphor does. So I was searching for marketing pieces that use story and metaphor when I came across the Significant Objects project.

All of the best marketing uses stories, as the Heath Brothers have documented. Take toothpaste, for instance. A pretty mundane product.

You could market it with facts—People who brush their teeth regularly are X% less likely to get gum disease.

Or you could market it with a story.

An indirect story—People who use this toothpaste are X% less likely to develop gum disease.

A direct story: Use this toothpaste and you’ll have a dazzling smile.

An indirect story: People who use this toothpaste are X% more likely to die with all their original teeth.

If you’re really good, you can get consumers to tell themselves the story:

Ooh, I want a dazzling smile so I can be more attractive and get a date.

Whatever story you use, it’s still just toothpaste.

But the Significant Objects product used story in a different way. Writer Rob Walker and brand analyst Joshua Green bought inexpensive items at thrift stores and found fiction writers—some well-known and some not—to write a story about them. Then they took these knick-knacks and auctioned them on eBay.

Did the stories enhance the value of the objects? Not objectively. But they did enhance the perceived value: the average mark-up for some objects rose as high as 2700%. Yes, you read that right: 27x the original price. Retailers strive for a sale price of 3x cost.

Services as significant objects

If story can enhance the value of a souvenir ashtray, what can it do for something of real value—like the products and services we provide?

So I gave my writers an assignment: Write about your own business as if it’s a “Significant Object.”

Look, it’s never easy to write about your own business. If it were, there’d be a whole lot more marketing communications writers whipping up lattes and frappucinos. So I’m always on the lookout for ways we can write about our businesses indirectly, or at least from different angles.

So, “Write about your business as a Significant Object,” I said. A daunting assignment, but one that could yield valuable results. So I volunteered to do the assignment too.

Here’s what I came up with:

A new perspective

I was antiquing—that’s what one does on a rainy day on Cape Cod. Driving down the first “highway” in the United States—it’s little more than a country lane, but here and there you’ll find an old shack or cottage with an “Antiques” sign planted in the front yard, a strange species of native tree.

The quaintest of the shops lack sufficient parking, but those are the ones with the best finds. So I parked down a side street about a quarter mile away and hiked back.

Inside, in the only corner of the shop not covered in dust, I saw a woman sitting on a decidedly not-antique desk chair, reading a book. At first I thought she was the shop’s proprietor, but then I saw a small sticker affixed to her sweater, near her right collarbone: “$129.95.”

“Excuse me?” I hated to interrupt her reading, but I had to know what the joke was. She looked up. “You seem to have picked up a price tag by mistake.” I laughed. She didn’t.

“No mistake. One-twenty-nine-ninety-five. You’re not buying me—that’s been illegal in the U.S. for quite a while. But half an hour of my time, to talk.”

“What would we talk about?”

“Mostly people like to talk to me about writing,” she replied. “I’ve won awards for it. In fact, I teach it. But I like to come here on rainy Saturdays because you never know who you’ll run into. Would you care to buy a chat?”

“Actually, I was looking for a bargain I could resell at a profit. A hidden treasure,” I said. “Have you noticed anything like that in this shop?”

“Treasure? I assure you, young woman, that I am worth my weight in gold.”

I sized her up—yep at that rate, $129.95 would be a real bargain. So what could I do? I bought a full hour.

And we talked about things I’d never thought about before. And the things I had thought about before—well, she showed me different perspectives on them. The ideas seemed to glow, hanging between us like a crystal chandelier as we turned them this way and that.

When I left the shop, the rain had disappeared. The skies were bluer than I’d ever seen them, the air felt crisper. And so did my mind.

I turned around and bought another half-hour. For you.

What’s it worth?


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How to build a fan base? Think like your audience

Last weekend, Major League Baseball rolled out a new feature: Players Weekend. The players wore different uniforms, with the most hideous socks imaginable, and instead of having their last names on the backs of the jerseys, they each had nicknames.

The ostensible purpose of this exercise was to attract more young fans to the game. As a side effect, it also gave the teams a fresh batch of merchandise to sell. Okay, they’re auctioning off the game-used jerseys for charity, but MLB will happily sell you a replica for anywhere from $30 to $200.

I’m not the only person baffled by this promotion. If you’re a fan of the last Mets pitching star still in the rotation, Jacob deGrom, will you really be more likely to beg your parents to buy his jersey when it has his nickname on it rather than “deGrom”? That nickname, by the way—prepare yourself—it’s Jake.

The Spanish-speaking players seemed to go for more interesting monikers. Infielder José Reyes went with “La Melaza,” which apparently means “sweetness.” One of our relief pitchers, who has a Puerto Rican grandparent, was “Quarterrican.” I’m amused by the wordplay, but would a kid care?

And the night games still started at 7pm—or even 8:00—and still dragged on for more than three hours, on average. You want to attract the next generation of fans? How about playing games while they’re still awake?

No, the nickname promotion seemed to focus more on increasing MLB’s profits rather than increasing its fan base.

What could they have done differently?

To build a fan base, start with empathy

People want to feel special. Actually, more than that, they want to feel like you think they’re special.

I suppose kids named Jake might feel special to know they share a nickname with a major league pitcher. But that’s a pretty limited universe. (And a pretty unsurprising nickname.)

What if instead of offering to sell young fans something, baseball actually gave them something instead?

build a fan base with empathy

I haven’t been a “young fan” since well before the current crop of players was born, but I felt pretty darn special yesterday when the Cincinnati Reds gave me a certificate to commemorate my first Reds game.

There I was in my Mets jersey and “2015 National League Champions” cap and they still gave this to me.

Now, imagine you’re actually a young baseball fan. Does this certificate go up on your bedroom wall? I think it does. And I can’t see when it comes down. Wouldn’t you always want to remember your very first major league game?

And once you’re a member of the club—I don’t mean the ball club, I mean the club of people who go to baseball games. In this case, people who go to Reds games. Once you’re a member of that club, don’t you want to stay in it?

Now it’s true, if you’re focused on the bottom line, there’s nothing in this for the Reds. They’re not making a buck on this transaction. In fact, they’re losing money—paying an employee (today it was sweet-as-pie Rita), to sit at the computer, offer her congratulations, personalize the certificates, and print them out for the fans.

But what return is the team getting on that investment?

Young fans who feel special will grow into older fans who feel special. Catch a fan young and you’ve likely got a lifelong fan. That’s a lot of chili dogs and beer (and Graeber’s ice cream—a revelation) and merch to sell.

Somebody in the MLB marketing department ought to visit a Reds game one of these days. If it’s their first time, the folks at Fan Accommodations will be happy to give them a commemorative certificate. For free. Rita would be far too polite to say it outright, but the baseball execs might get the message: building a fan base means building a community. It’s not about getting people to buy merch, it’s about them to buy into the experience.


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Dorie Clark: How Writing a Book Can Score You a Job

Dorie Clark
Photo by Thitiwat Nookae

I’m thrilled to introduce you to today’s guest expert, Dorie Clark, a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of business best-sellers Reinventing You and Stand Out, and she offers readers a free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook. Take her up on the offer (after you read this post). — Elaine

How Writing a Book Can Score You a Job

by Dorie Clark

What’s the best way to land your dream job? It certainly isn’t sending in a resume and waiting to hear back. Instead, Miranda Aisling Hynes – whom I profile in my new book Stand Out – used “inbound marketing” to ensure her future employer was dying to talk to her.

She dreamed of a career in arts management. But it’s a crowded and competitive field. For her master’s thesis in community art, instead of writing an ivory tower treatise, she self-published a manifesto on creativity, Don’t Make Art, Just Make Something (published under her middle name, Miranda Aisling). She wanted it to inspire regular people, not just practicing artists or those inside academia. The term “art” is loaded, she’d come to believe; it signified something rarefied that most people couldn’t imagine aspiring to. “But everyone is creative,” she says. “Whether they use that creativity is a different issue, but it’s an innate human skill like curiosity, and your creativity can manifest itself in any number of ways . . . Most people do want to be creative; they just had it squashed out of them at some point.”

She gave a copy of her book to a friend who worked at a local arts center; he passed along the copy to his boss after he’d finished reading it. When Hynes later applied for a job at the organization, the director was extremely enthusiastic, praising it during her interview and again in front of the entire staff when she went in for the second round. “The book definitely opened the door,” she says. She got the job.

She recognizes that self-publishing probably won’t make her rich or famous. “I think you have to have realistic expectations about what you’re going to get out of it,” she says. “It’s an entrance [for other people] to my ideas. I haven’t really made a profit; I’ve pretty much broken even.” But the book landed her the job, and is bringing her closer to her long-term vision of opening a “community art hotel” that connects visitors with local artists. “The more stuff you create—a blog, websites, books—the more articulate you become about your passion and purpose,” she says. “And the more articulate you become, the more people flock to your message.”

It’s about creating a variety of touch points that can draw people in and keep them engaged. Someone discovering her website might order a copy of her book, sign up for her e-newsletter, and perhaps start attending the regular art and music gatherings she hosts. “Instead of building the arts center and hoping the community will come,” she says, “I’m building the community first and hoping they’ll help me make the arts center.”

Writing your own book might seem like an enormous challenge. But you don’t have to dive into your masterpiece right away. Start by listening and learning about the major issues in your field, as you begin to formulate your own point of view. Then, begin to share your thoughts via blogging and social media. Finally, as you’ve built up a following that’s interested in your perspective—and asking for more—you can expand those concepts into a book that encapsulates your philosophy and how you see the world. That will be your calling card to attract like-minded people to you and your ideas, and to help ensure that they spread.

If someone hasn’t worked with you before, hiring you can feel like a significant risk. If it doesn’t work out, they may have wasted months and tens of thousands of dollars. But when someone reads your book – or even just hears about it and recognizes the thought and expertise that went into creating it – it gives them a far deeper understanding of who you are and how you think. That provides an extra level of reassurance that makes it easier for them to say yes to you.

So ask yourself, if a book could serve as a calling card for you, what message would you want it to convey? What does the world need to hear? Set aside an hour on your calendar sometime this week to brainstorm – maybe during a walk over lunch, or as you relax in the evening. As Hynes’ story shows, self-publishing a book may seem an unlikely route to winning your dream job – but because it helps you stand out from the competition, it’s a powerful one.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me (Elaine!) for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

“If only I had the money” — stupid communications decisions

Of all the stupid communications decisions I’ve heard people make, probably the stupidest is

“I’d do it [that ‘communications’ thing] if I had the money.”

As if every time you open your mouth—or one of your staffers sends an email to a client—or you release a newsletter or put up a  job posting—you aren’t already “communicating”?

Seriously, even if no one ever hears your actual voice, even if you hire an ASL interpreter for your board meetings or galas—I’ve got news for you:

You’re communicating.

So let’s revise that sentence, shall we? Because what you’re really saying when you say “I’d do it if I had the money” is:

“I’d do it well if I had the money.”

You’re okay with doing something poorly? Wow. Does your boss know that?

Or maybe what you’re really saying when you say “I’d do it if I had the money” is:

“I’d do it to make an impact if I had the money.”

So you’re okay putting out communications that no one reads or remembers? Again, does your boss know that?

Yes, communications costs money. It also brings in money—whether in the form of clients or, if you’re a nonprofit, donations. Communications can also save you money—wouldn’t you rather communicate clearly and retain your employees than replace them?

Stupid communications decisions make me mad

Sorry if that sounded like a bit of a rant. But stupid communications decisions really fry me. You can tell that because I call them “stupid”—and that’s not a word I use lightly.

Joan Garry does not make stupid communications decisionsNonprofit guru Joan Garry knows exactly what I’m talking about. Because she devotes at least some of her podcast this week to talking about the stupid communications organizations in her field (nonprofits) have made. Her guest, communications consultant Sarah Durham, notes that instead of thinking of communications as a frill, nonprofits should think of it as a utility.

A utility? You mean like electricity? She means exactly like electricity. If you wouldn’t set up shop without a way to power your computer and internet, you shouldn’t try to run your organization without a communications expert. (And if you would set up shop without electricity, well, it doesn’t matter because you’re probably not reading this.)

Durham says it’s not just a matter of money and other resources being in scarce supply. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what communications does and can do for an organization. And, of course, it’s hard to communicate—even if you do have an expert dedicated to the task—if your organization hasn’t developed a strong strategic vision.

For strategic vision, see Joan Garry. She’s one of the best. But if you want help to communicate—well, I bet Sarah Durham can help you there. And so can I.

Do-It-Yourself Communications

You think you can’t afford to have a communications expert on staff. I hope by now you’ve figured out you really can’t afford not to.

But what if you could turn one of your staffers into a crack communications person? What if you invested a little in yourself to learn how to shape your thoughts? To focus on what’s important to your audience?

I’ve got a suite of live, interactive webinars geared specifically to professionals who need to communicate as well as they do whatever they actually got hired to do. The next round of writing classes kicks off in the fall. But if you want to start right away, I’ve got a class in revising coming up in July. And a free webinar this week to get you started thinking about this essential skill.

See you there.

“People like us” — Seth Godin & baseball

Seth Godin was with me at the Mets game on Monday night. Not in person—in my head. When the beer vendor made his first appearance, Seth leaned over and whispered, “People like us do things like this.”

people like us drink cold beers on hot days at the ballparkNow, I don’t drink beer—or any alcohol, really—but this beer vendor caught my attention. Every other beer vendor I’ve encountered, in ballparks across this great land shouts, “Beer!” Or if they’re waxing poetic,

“Beer here!”

It’s a great phrase. The long E vowel sounds cut across the chatter of thousands of people. When the beer guy cometh, he doesn’t take you by surprise.

Monday was hot and sticky in the city. After weeks of early spring-like weather, summer came crashing down on us with two days of 90-plus temperatures. By game time, we were probably down to the high-80s. It was hot.

So the beer guy comes strolling down the stairs, shouting,

“Who needs a cold beer, besides me?”

Yes, that’s many more syllables than “Beer here!” but worth the investment of time and voice. In those few words he exhibited empathy for our plight—told us that he’s in the same position. He reminded us of the perfect solution to our shared problem. And that he, in fact, can provide it by selling us a cold beer.

People like us (hot, sticky people) do things like this (drink ice-cold beers).

I thought about getting out of my seat and talking to the vendor, asking if his spiel increased his sales. But the game was just too good. We beat the Cubs 6-1, with Jacob deGrom pitching a complete game. It’s been a while since people like him did things like that.

I’m heading back to the park this weekend. Hope I see some more great baseball, and more great marketing too.


Writing is just the first part of the process. Revising—that’s the secret sauce that gives your writing zing. Join my free webinar on revising.

FAWTSY — maybe acronyms aren’t all bad

One of the first things I noticed on stepping into Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, wasn’t the very impressive ballpark. It was a button on the ticket-taker’s shirt.

FAWTSY — funny word, great concept

An acronym. I hate acronyms—usually. I hate them because they’re confusing. Because they break the flow of your writing, as readers search for their secret agent decoder rings to translate your alphabet soup into usable English. I had to see the button a few times before I could read the translation—the button I saw on Sunday was a newer design, with smaller explanatory type.

So, yes, if I came across it while reading, “FAWTSY” would confuse me. Or at the very least make me stop thinking about the ideas the writer intended to present. But that brief cognitive interruption is exactly what makes this acronym a valuable marketing tool.

FAWTSY — Find a Way to Say Yes.

“Find a Way to Say Yes” is a great commitment to have your public-facing employees make. And a fantastic promise to your customers. If United Airlines employees had been held to the FAWTSY standard, the company would have avoided several recent public relations disasters. Not to mention a meltdown in their market capitalization.

FAWTSY, coined by the club’s former SVP of Communications and curgent CEO, Derrick Hall, has alowed the Diamondbacks to put their commitment to customers and other stakeholders front and center. But would it work in a speech?

I think you’d need the right audience—and the right speaker. Someone who could commit to the joke of making a nonsense word the centerpiece of their speech. And someone equally committed to the business message behind the “nonsense word.”

And it couldn’t be a one-off. You’d need to commit to this word for at least several months, rolling it out several times in speeches to diverse groups of stakeholders. You’d need some collateral, too—buttons, tennis balls, posters—whatever made sense for the company and the message.

If the message is important enough, and the company committed enough to it, then I would FAWTSY to a request to write a speech centered on an acronym. Now I wish someone would ask me: It sounds like fun.

Match audience and expectations: a Sunday song

How well does your content match audience and expectations?

I don’t know the specifics of your answer (my crystal ball is in the shop), but even if you’ve never thought about the concept, I’m guessing you do a better job than the folks who made this video.

Let’s listen in on the pitch meeting:

Director: So we’ve got Debbie Reynolds, see, and we put her in sparkles and high heels on a glitzy set. She’ll look like the Queen of Hollywood.
Producer: I like it, I like it!
Director: And we’ll get a bunch of backup dancers—real lookers—in suits and cocktail dresses. The kind with skirts that twirl so you can see some leg.
Producer: Now you’re talking!
Director: But we’ll need a full orchestra. Can you put that in the budget?
Producer: For Debbie, Queen of Hollywood—anything you want. But what’s she singing?

And that, my friends, is where they lose me.

What possible intersection could there be between fans of perky, wholesome Debbie Reynolds and fans of a Civil Rights era protest song whose co-match audience and materialwriter, Pete Seeger, premiered it at a Communist Party fund-raiser?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I grew up on those folks songs. And I’ve loved the late Debbie Reynolds since I saw Singin’ in the Rain at an art house when I was 16. So I love both elements of this production—but for the love of God, not together!

Enjoy this little bit of surrealism to start your 2017. I have a feeling there’ll be more to come.

Great advice for sellers or speakers

Great advice is universal. Whether you’re selling a product or an idea

I recently wrote about Amazon.com’s CEO Jeff Bezos and the empty chair he arranges at meetings, to symbolize the customer. While researching that post, I came across a broader story about customer-centric philosophies. While these may seem to be focused on sales, they apply equally well to communications.

For instance, when Groupon ousted its founder and CEO, Andrew Mason, he offered this advice in his final email:

“Have the courage to start with the customer….My biggest regrets are the moments that I let a lack of data override my intuition on what’s best for our customers.”

The folks who produced this analysis of Mason’s ouster found that statement “muddy” and “ambiguous.” But to me it’s crystal clear—and great advice: The customer must be central to every business decision you make. And to every communication you write.

Data may look all clean and scientific, but there’s always a bias somewhere. In fact, this article identifies seven common biases in data analysis, including (I’m paraphrasing) the surprise of finding exactly what you set out to look for: “How in the world did that happen?”

Let’s apply that to communications: Data may tell you what your audience wants to hear. Note that I wrote “may”—you have to weigh the data against the inherent biases in collecting and analyzing it. But with or without biases, the story your audience wants to hear may not be the story you’re comfortable telling. If you can’t tell that story authentically, then either send someone else to tell it, or find a different story.

What does the customer want?

The old adage says “the customer is always right”—but is that true? Customers may think they come to Amazon to buy things. But that’s not how Bezos sees it:

“We don’t make money when we sell things. We make money when we help customers make purchase decisions.”

What can speakers learn from Bezos?

Do you look at your speeches as opportunities to talk about your company or push your ideas into people’s brains? Stop that!

Speeches are not infomercials. And of course you’ll talk about your company or your ideas, or both—but weave those things into the larger story you’re telling.

Key words there: “larger story.” Find a theme that’s bigger and more profound than you or your organization. And then use that theme to convey information to your audience. You want them to think about what you’ve said, to integrate it into their own worldview.

Give up on the idea of selling something and your audience will buy into your vision.


Join me for a free webinar and discover how to write a great elevator pitch—the most important short speech you’ll ever give. “Stuck in the Elevator?: Create a Pitch You Love to Share”—details here.

Genius and Broadcast TV

I rarely watch TV these days, but when I do one of my guiltiest of guilty pleasures is the CBS procedural Scorpion. It’s like the love child of NCIS and The Big Bang Theory, both of which I enjoy—less guiltily. Hey, what can I say? I’m a sucker for connection and in all of these shows the characters connect with each other in a wackily familial way that appeals to something deep within me.

Scorpion, as the Season 1 voiceover reminded us with every episode, is based on the life of a “real genius,” Walter O’Brien, who allegedly had the second-highest IQ ever recorded, or some such thing. (Hence the title of this post.)

What I didn’t know until I heard Walter O’Brien interviewed on the invaluable Tim Ferriss podcast is that O’Brien and his confederates at the real-life Scorpion consulting firm conceived of the show as a marketing tool. He figures once the show airs for a decade (it’s going into Season 3 in the fall), his company will be permanently embedded in its prospects’ minds. Try that, Ernst & Young. We’ll call this Option A, and it’s surely the first time anyone has attempted to use a fictional entertainment to market his company and recruit potential employees. Oh wait—unless you count The Apprentice.

Or perhaps (Option B) O’Brien’s bio is a load of, as they say in his native Ireland, malarkey—fluffed and air-brushed to make it look like something exceptional. In that case, the TV show burnishes an imaginary legend. (The comparisons to Donald Trump just keep coming.) It’s based on a lie. But isn’t all fiction?

Option A—O’Brien and company think out of the LinkedIn box to attract the highly specialized kinds of employees they will need as the company grows.  It’s brilliant marketing.

Option B—O’Brien has been dining out on some really good stories (apparently he actually has done high-level hacking work for legitimate clients) and he decides to cash them in for the biggest payday possible. It’s certainly not the path of least resistance, and there’s no guarantee any TV show will become a hit; even great ones fail to find an audience (I’m lookin’ at you, The Comeback). But if the show does catch on, O’Brien collects his executive producer fee, rakes in the bucks from international licensing (two seasons in and it’s already airing in 13 countries besides the U.S.), and establishes name recognition forever.

Also brilliant marketing? Maybe. But I’ve seen too many people get caught inflating their credentials. The climb toward the top may be fun, but the fall is never worth it. Perhaps there will be a Trump comparison to be made here too. Stay tuned.