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Writing Sales Copy – Sidebar Madness

I didn’t create the first-ever magalog. That dubious honor – so far as I can tell – goes to Jim Rutz and Ed Elliott.

I’ve tried to forgive them. Really, I have.

Before they invented this dynamo of the direct response marketing world in the 80s, “long copy” meant a 16-page sales letter: One w-i-d-e column of text, set in a nice, fat, space-eating Courier type.

But Mr. Rutz and Mr. Elliott changed that forever. Their 24-page magalog — packed with dense, columnated 12-point type — doubled and in some cases tripled or even quadrupled the amount of copy the rest of us had to write just to keep up.

And even worse, it meant we had to begin thinking about more than just writing a coherent sales letter and letting the designer worry about making it look like the Rutz/Elliott grand slam. It meant we also had to create sidebars and stick them on every spread. Why? Because that’s what “Rutliott” did. And their “magalog” — as Gary Bencivenga later christened it – kicked the living daylights out of every other kind of direct mail package out there.

So essentially, the magalog made us work three times harder to produce three times more copy … and then made us work even harder by confusing the entire process of organizing our sales pieces – forcing us to decide what goes in the running copy and what belonged in our sidebars.

It was worth it.

This is where I find room to forgive and forget – and why I still count Jim and Ed as buddies – even heroes. Because even though their ingenious invention of the magalog made my work three or four times more difficult, it also drove response rates off the scale … sent the size of each mailing skyrocketing … and has made me a whole boatload of royalty money over the years.

Why did – and do – magalogs and tabloids (their bigger, fatter, happier offspring) work so much better than anything that came before?

Well for one thing, it’s because in the information publishing industry at least, copy sells; and longer copy generally sells better.

For another, it’s because magalogs appear to have more value than a sales letter. I remember doubling dates (the date at which half of the total revenues your promotion will eventually generate) jumping by a full week when we first started using magalogs. Because they looked like magazines – things that people are used to paying for, they found it nearly impossible to throw them away until they had read them.

Plus, magalogs were much more than just a change in format. They also demanded a change from product-centric sales copy to value- added copy. They turned our “sales letters” into advertorials – sales copy that bribed the prospect to read it by delivering value in the form of information the prospect could use.

For still another, magalogs got us out of the envelope. Because they’re self-mailers, they removed a barrier between the prospect and our sales message and gave us at least four times more room for copy and images designed to grab his attention and convert that attention to readership.

And for another – and to get back to the theme of this tome — it’s because well-conceived and well-crafted sidebars in these things boosted both readership and response.

Why sidebars are crucial

See, there are pretty much only two kinds of animals in the reading world: 1) Casual Scanners, and 2) Inveterate Readers.

Hand a magalog to a dozen people, and you’ll see what I mean. Some number of them – the Inveterate Readers — will meticulously read the headline, deck and each page of the running copy, perhaps pausing occasionally to read a sidebar here or there, until they have finished the entire piece.

The rest – the Scanners among us — will quickly flip through, reading only the heads and subheads and looking at the pictures, and only bothering with the fine print if something much larger catches their eye.

Another thing about scanners: They do not necessarily do their scanning from front to back. Hand a magalog to a dozen scanners, and at least half of them (more if they’re mostly right-handed) will scan the piece from back to front!

For most right-handed folks, it’s easiest to hold books, magazines, magalogs in the left hand and turn pages with the right hand. But magalogs are floppy – printed on light stock – so they kind of droop towards the floor when you try to hold them one-handed and look at the front cover. So it’s easiest to let them flop against your left arm – the arm that’s holding them. That leaves you looking at the back cover first – and as likely as not, doing your scanning bassackwards.

Anyway – back to the sidebar thing: Before the invention of magalogs and their sidebars, we rarely gave scanners much that would draw their eyes into our direct mail sales letters. The advent of the magalog with its sidebars turned a generation of scanners into readers. And because only readers respond, they dramatically increased our chances of making the sale.

My point – and I do have one — is …

Great sidebars turn scanners into readers –

AND responders.

Notice I said “great sidebars” do that. Unfortunately, a lot of the sidebars I see in magalogs and tabloids today are not great. They look like what they are: Afterthoughts – or worse, “left-overs” from an earlier draft of the running copy dropped into a box to fill space.

There’s a better way: Instead of sleepwalking through your sidebars, try writing your running text first. Then read each paragraph, thinking, “What kind of sidebar could I use to drive this point home in the most powerful manner possible?”

Do that, and suddenly, every sidebar becomes more focused … and therefore, focuses your entire sales message.

Then, do this: After you’ve written each sidebar, ask yourself, “How can I make sure it’s not a dead end? What can I do to help this sidebar drive the reader back into the running text, or even better yet, to my response device?

Most of the magalogs and tabloids I see today (including those written by yours truly) would probably pull 10% to 30% better if the writer had followed this advice.

21 Kinds of Sidebars

And How to Use Each One

Let’s take a think about the kinds of sidebars that give you the best chances of turning scanners into readers, and how they can help you get bigger winners, more often …

– Readership Sidebars are designed to sell the prospect on reading your text, and generally fall into one of three categories …

1. Tables of Contents: Listings of the valuable information that is revealed inside the promotion piece enlist the prospect’s self-interest. These can be full-pagers (usually on page 2 of a magalog or tabloid) or they can be a smaller box on the front cover, or consume the entire back cover. The items listed in these tables of contents are generally written as fascinations.

2. Pull-quotes: These boxes are typically about one-quarter page in length and put an intriguing proposition … a compelling benefit … or an emotional touchstone with the reader up in lights. I often include a photo of the ersatz author speaking to the reader for added attention-getting power and impact.

3. Teasers and Page-turners: Inserted at the bottom of a right-hand page, these little gems “sell” the reader on turning the page by hinting at the valuable information contained on the next spread. They can be a simple statement or a mini table of contents.

– Biography Sidebars are really a kind of “credibility device” used to eliminate any doubt that the titular author of your sales copy knows what he’s talking about. They attempt to lift your expert – and therefore your sales message – head and shoulders above the competition, and often take the form of a …

4. Curriculum Vitae: A true biography of the expert – his education, accomplishments, awards, books he’s authored, major publications who turn to him for insights and advice, industry groups that beg him for pearls of wisdom at their conventions, and so on.

5. Case History: A narrative of an experience the expert has had that demonstrates his wisdom, experience, commitment to his readers and/or his prestige in his industry.

– Proof Element Sidebars are used to present facts, figures, charts, tables and other evidence that prove the absolute truth of surprising statements in your text. These proof elements can relate to your premise, your premium or your product. I tend to use them in three ways …

6. To document the enormity of the problem: In a health package where I’m trying to evoke concern over heart disease for example, I might include a sidebar to present a chart showing how many Americans will suffer a heart attack this year – and credit the American Heart Association for the data.

In a financial package, I might use this kind of sidebar to document a claim in the running copy that 80% of all mutual funds don’t keep up with the S&P 500 – and credit The Wall Street Journal. Or I might use a table listing the advisor’s most profitable trades. Or, maybe a line chart showing soaring global demand for oil and plummeting supplies – again, crediting an authoritative source.

7. To document the enormity of the opportunity: In promotions for the financial markets, for example, “opportunity” sidebars might show how similar stocks have soared in the past, suggesting that the expert’s idea to purchase a particular type of stock is likely to produce the same result in the future.

8. Demonstrate the wisdom of the client’s approach: This kind of sidebar might be a chart or graph comparing the profits the expert has earned to another indicator – the S&P 500, for example. Or, it might compare the blood pressure of people who take a particular supplement with those who don’t.

NOTE: In each of these examples and in many others in this article, citing an outside source that is respected by your reader helps make these kinds of sidebars work twice as hard for you.

– Benefit Sidebars are really just like ads within my ad. Each of these draws out one of the most compelling benefits that the product or premium offers.

More importantly, each is presented in a way that connects with the prospect’s dominant resident emotions about:

9. Avoiding or resolving a problem: With this approach, I’d typically put my prospect’s feelings about the subject at hand into words … validate how he feels … empathize with him … and then show him how my premium or product will resolve those dominant resident emotions.

10. Easing a fear: These kinds of sidebars tend to appear around the middle of my sales message – after I’ve done everything I can to bring every personal fear, concern or frustration he has about the subject at hand bubbling to the surface. Once I’ve done that, I use these “fear relief” sidebars to show him how my premium or product will free him from those negative emotions and leave him feeling confident, positive, excited.

11. Fulfilling a strong, long-held personal desire: If my main up-front theme is a positive one – focused on one or more benefits that will bring tremendous value to my prospect’s life, I use these “fulfillment” sidebars to prove that my premium or product will, indeed deliver the promised benefit.

NOTE: In these types of sidebars, adding a testimonial or even a whole passel of them can help remove all doubt that you’re going to deliver the goods. So can a reference to your iron-clad guarantee.

– Credibility Sidebars are invaluable tools for convincing your prospect that your expert’s view (no matter how radical) is valued by other experts and that your premium and/or product will produce the promised benefit.

12. Customer testimonials: These can take the form of straight testimonials, or narrative testimonials, and can appear singly to add impact to each spread or be clumped together in big sidebars. I like to do both.

13. Expert testimonials: Praise from peers and other experts whose names are known — or whose titles are impressive and/or connect them with respected institutions – establish the authority and credibility of your expert and hence, everything he’s saying in your copy.

14. Media mentions and appearances: These demonstrate that your client is important enough to have been noticed, quoted, or invited to appear on major media outlets. At best, they’ll say something about your client that reads like an endorsement, but the simple fact that your client regularly appears on CNBC or Nightline or is quoted in The Wall Street Journal makes him someone worth listening to.

– Sales-Closing Sidebars generally appear in the final third of the sales message, and are designed to remove the final roadblocks between the prospect and your response device. I use seven of these kinds of sidebars in just about every promotion I write …

15. Pull-Quotes: To allow the author to look the prospect in the eye and deliver a compelling benefit or horrifying alternative and ask for the sale.

16. Premium Ads: To ramp up the perceived value of the free gifts the prospect will receive. Usually, these ads are a series of bulleted fascinations – a “string of pearls” dimensionalizing the most valuable information each premium will give him – and more importantly, the value that information will bring to his life … and how he will feel about all of the above.

17. Product Ads: To fully dimensionalize the value the product will bring to the prospect’s life. These are typically written in much the same way as my premium ads.

18. Value Sidebars: To demonstrate how mind-blowingly cheap the product is relative to other things the prospect buys – designed to make not ordering feel like the dumbest thing he could possibly do.

19. Risk Relief Sidebars: “Risk relief” is just a fancy-schmancy way of saying “your guarantee.” But I make my guarantees go beyond simply saying, “If you hate it, I’ll refund your money.” I use my guarantees to reiterate the benefits I’m promising … to have my expert sign a contract with the prospect, promising that he’ll deliver them … and to demonstrate the author’s “money-where-his-mouth-is,” unwavering confidence that the product will perform as advertised.

20. Contact Devices: Actually, these should appear in the header or footer on every spread and contain a toll-free number the prospect can call to order. I also like to break them out in sidebars to drive my prospect to my response device page or to his telephone.

21. Action Devices: Often imbedded in other sidebars, sometimes stand-alones, they urge the prospect to order now – either by calling a Toll-Free number or turning to the order form page.

Lots to think about!

Now, it’s time to turn my failure to provide visual examples in this article into a good thing. Instead of me telling you which kind of sidebar in your steal files is which, let’s make a game of it.

Here’s your assignment: Grab a pile of magalogs and tabloids and plop down on the sofa. Look at each sidebar and ask yourself, “Why did the writer include this? What kind of sidebar is it? What does it accomplish? Does it focus his main theme or serve to diffuse it?”

And more importantly, read the running copy and ask yourself, “what other kinds of proof element, credibility and other sidebars could have done a better job of making the sale?”

By the time you’re done, you’ll be twice the writer you are now. Come to think of it, I’m going to do it myself!

Hope this helps…

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