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Close that Sale - The Do's and Don'ts of Great Sales Writing

Press releases. Business Cards. Newsletters. Brochures. Websites. Promotional kits. Speeches. Video scripts. So many formats are crucial to the survival and growth of any business. All of them depend on the written word.

The robot has not yet been invented that can deliver these for you. Someone has to write them. And write them well.

In a recent meeting for my magazine, Rock Over America, a marketer told our editor-in-chief: "You've got to have promotional kits, and they've got to be good. Your staff will only have one chance to impress an investor. If they don't have good materials the first time, chances are they won't be able to get a second meeting with them."

Even if you only mow lawns and leave business cards in doorways to get new customers, you'll shoot yourself in the foot by using a card reading YOUR LAWN MOWD EVERY WEAK!

On the other hand, properly written and effective marketing, advertising, and sales materials not only can bring in millions of dollars, it can make you or your business a household name. But if you can't do it yourself, you'll spend a great deal of money hiring qualified people to do it for you, and their ideas may often clash with yours.

The good news is, you can write it yourself (and if you're a self-employed business owner, you may have no other option). This type of writing is not necessarily easy, but it is simple. Just remember two words: Write Persuasively.

Marketing is a fairly broad term that would have as many definitions as it has practitioners. Let's consider marketing to be everything your company does to build a relationship with a customer. When all is said and done, that relationship is your business.


Sales are normally considered the "end-all" of a business relationship, and are the lifeblood of any business. But the businesses that consider sales to be merely financial transactions are doomed to fail. Sales should not be wholly about the acquisition of money; they should be defined as the act of gaining a customer. As you will see, it is the customer who actually runs any business -- determining if it will succeed or fail. You can sell a million-dollar house and reap a huge commission, but if your customer isn't satisfied afterward, they won't be shy about telling everyone they know. And before you know it, there goes your business. Yet, a satisfied customer will be the best ally your business ever has. And while marketing, advertising, and sales may be considered separate entities, your writing can -- and should -- contain elements of all three.

Consider combining these three writing elements into a "pyramid": the broader concepts of Marketing are at the bottom. The narrower, more specific strategies and formats of Advertising are in the middle, getting more detailed and focused until you reach your Sales goal at the top. Consider yourself or your company at the "bottom" (although not in a negative sense), and your customer somewhere above you. You or your business must build that pyramid in order to reach them.

We've already established that the majority of a business's success relies on the written word. (It might be argued that a business succeeds by offering a necessary good or service, but that would fail to explain the staggering amount of unnecessary goods or services in existence -- everything from Pop Rocks to Pet Psychiatry.) All you'll ultimately need to do is to choose and relay the proper written words to your potential customers. Keeping the pyramid model in mind, let's begin building it. Place the larger Marketing bricks in place first, and then you can craft Advertising bricks over those, which will lead you to your Sales goals.

Marketing yourself, or your business, is as we've described: every thing you do to build a relationship with a customer. Take heart if you're an inventor who has no concept of marketing; you can develop marketing concepts merely by asking some critical questions:

Why did I (or we) create this product or service?

Who will benefit from it?

What does it do, and how well does it work?

Who or what is my (our) competition? What do they do that I (or we) don't?

Am I asking a fair price?

How and where can my potential customers get my product or service?

Answer these preliminary questions and you've effectively built the Marketing base of your pyramid.

Take a moment to walk around your own house or apartment. Look at the possessions you've accumulated, whether they be DVDs or dish soaps. Don't ask yourself why you bought it; the simple answer is, you either needed it or wanted it.

Ask yourself instead, what made you buy this particular item, rather than another?

(Take the items you bought because they were the lowest price out of the equation.)

Chances are, it was marketed to you -- and every other consumer -- in a variety of ways.

Your latest DVD probably has at least two glittering reviews from some hopefully qualified sources. A box of your child's favorite breakfast cereal informs you that it contains some essential vitamins and minerals, while it informs your child it has a "rich chocolate crispy crunch," plus a secret decoder ring inside. The probability is good that your shampoo of choice not only has a pleasant natural scent, but it relaxes, moisturizes, strengthens, or otherwise benefits your hair. Odds are that your laundry detergent probably has "New & Improved" or "25 percent more free" displayed on its packaging.

Very rarely will you see a product that is utterly generic, in a plain package with only its name and its manufacturer on it. The overwhelming majority of everything you buy will have some form of persuasive writing on it, which influences -- or perhaps confirms --your buying decision.

It is exactly this type of writing you will use to market, advertise, and sell your product. Moreover, this writing may be your opportunity to improve your community or your world in some sense. The words NOT TESTED ON ANIMALS are not only an effective marketing tool, they demonstrate that you and your company are reaching for a higher ethical standard, and they'll make consumers think. Once a child asks their parent, "Daddy, what does 'not tested on animals' mean?" An important conversation begins.
Trademarks and Copyrights
Infringement in these two areas can be ruinous, but fortunately it's easily avoided. Your own writing is copyrighted automatically as soon as you bring it into being. Registration is optional, and costs a fee payable to the Library of Congress. What you must avoid at all costs is using someone else's copyrighted material in your marketing writing without their permission. Copyright protects the creative expression of an idea, not the idea itself; that calls for a patent. Also, note that titles cannot be copyrighted.
Since you'll be creating your own material, there is little chance you will deliberately engage in Trademark infringement unless you somehow use another company or product's brand name in your marketing materials. (Believe it or not, aspirin, kerosene, and linoleum were all once trademarks; but once they became "household names" instead of one brand of a product, they ceased to be trademarks.) The proper use of a trademark is as an adjective -- the symbol modifies the name of the product -- and therefore should be accompanied by a noun. Therefore, instead of using Fender Stratocasters™, the proper usage is Fender Stratocaster ™ Guitars. If you are ever unsure whether some other work is trademarked or copyrighted -- or if you're considering registering your own product as a trademark -- contact the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, or a trademark service in your area.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has broad authority to proceed against unfair, deceptive acts or practices, so your writing must avoid them. Duplicitous advertising continues, of course, because the FTC can't possibly investigate and punish every false advertisement in existence. Some advertisers therefore take egregious risks with their ads. You probably can't afford to play this game: The FTC has ruled that an advertiser and/or manufacturer can be sued for $10,000 every time a misleading ad is run.

First of all, American law has always recognized the difference between factual advertising claims and "puffing." The FTC states: "There is a category in advertising themes, in the nature of puffing or other hyperbole, which does not amount to the type of affirmative product claims for which either the Commission of the consumer would expect documentation." (One example being Coca-Cola as "The Real Thing.") Television networks, and the advertising industry have agreed with the courts to develop three criteria that distinguish puffery from actual claims:

General Versus Specific Claims
A new shaving system's "major technological breakthrough" was ruled to be "puffing," because it was indeed new, even if it was not necessarily true.

Claims Impossible to Measure
Capital Cities/ABC stated that, "Objective claims are measurable and verifiable.... These claims must be supported by adequate substantiation."

Factual Versus Subjective Claims
When you express an opinion, you'd best back it up. Claims that a shampoo left someone's hair "silky smooth" have been defined as puffery.

The FTC issues industry-specific Advertising Guides, both to advertisers and the public, to enhance cooperation and avoid legal proceedings. There are "Red Flag words" which, when used carelessly, can make an entire marketing statement or advertisement wrong, and/or legally actionable. You can use these words -- indeed, advertisers have used and abused them for decades -- but when you do, you ought to consult an FTC Advertising Guide first to ensure you're using them safely.

The FTC requires that all offers of "free" merchandise or services be made with special care to avoid any possibility that consumers will be misled or deceived. This includes offers where "free" cannot be used, as in the "2-for-1 sale" or "Buy One, Get One Free." Any conditions that are used in conjunction with "free" merchandise must be stated clearly and conspicuously. The much-maligned use of an asterisk that leads to a fine-print footnote is not considered adequate disclosure by the FTC. Fortunately, at this point in history, most consumers understand that they won't receive something for nothing, and are waiting for the other shoe to drop whenever they read or hear the word "free."
Writers have gotten into legal difficulty by writing claims such as "End Snoring Once And For All," "Stop Belching Forever," and others that use the terms banish or rid. Your product or service may well alleviate a problem, but your use of the words stop, end, banish, or rid implies permanence. You may have to convince the FTC, as well as consumers, that your product stops or ends a problem once and for all.

As above, be certain your product actually will cure the disease or problem it claims to; otherwise write that it relieves specific symptoms. This goes not only for drugs, but for cosmetics and foods

Your product may be "harmless" or "safe" to 99 percent of the population at large, but if only one consumer proves allergic to it, Game Over.

These claims are normally made in relation to skin care. People with inherently bad complexions have been quite vindictive when led to believe something will help them, and it doesn't. When making such claims, you must state that the skin was rough or blemished from external factors and not from a systemic condition; and indicate that your product can only be effective if used against those external factors.

Research/Evidence/Test/Proof/Doctor/Clinically Proven
Since each of these terms boast of credibility, they've been endlessly used and abused by advertisers. If you can truly lay claim to any of these terms, by all means, use them -- but with some humility. One successful laboratory test does not equate to "overwhelming scientific evidence." A doctor of philosophy remains a doctor, but not a physician licensed to practice medicine. "Research" is often broadly used, but scientists routinely contest each other's research. The FTC tends to scrutinize advertisements using any of these terms. (Just think, before the FTC got involved, doctors used to endorse cigarettes in advertisements!)

Environmentally Safe/Friendly/Recycled/Biodegradable
The Green Report II: Recommendations for Responsible Environmental Marketing was created by the Attorneys General of 11 states in 1991, and the FTC issued Environmental Marketing Guidelines in 1992. Since "green" marketing is quickly becoming a huge bandwagon, you should receive, and thoroughly review, these guidelines before stamping environmental terms all over your products.

Fat Free
This also includes lean, low, light, good source of, and other claims related to food products. Food marketing is strictly regulated by the federal Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, and a thorough review of the act is in order before you market a food product. Likewise, extreme care should be taken before making any claim that a food product improves a health condition.

Simply changing one's packaging is nothing "new" to advertisers, but the claim of "new" should only be used if a product truly is new, or has been substantially changed or improved. Also, the claim of "new" should be removed from packaging after six months. Tangentially, when you claim your product makes something "just like new," the FTC considers "new" as fresh (as in freshly purchased).

There are many more "Red Flag" words, but these tend to be the most abused and legally troublesome. These words can continue to be used, but with truth and caution.

There are two other areas of marketing where you must be legally vigilant:

Endorsements, Testimonials, and Public Opinion Polls
These are undoubtedly powerful marketing tools, but they are legally the same as advertisements. Even if they're someone's mere opinion, they still must be true (public opinion polls are considered testimonials on a mass scale). It is improper to use an endorsement without the endorser's permission, or to take an endorser's words out of context. Endorsers must be qualified to make certain testimonials: Any pop singer can say she likes a certain beverage, but she can't necessarily say that same beverage reduces blood pressure. Advertisers can pay for a testimonial, but that fact must be disclosed. Finally, if the endorser stops using a product in favor of another, the testimonial should be discontinued.
Sweepstakes, Contests, and Lotteries
Each of these are lawful advertising methods, as long as they comply with any and all state-imposed regulations of the states they're offered in; this is why you will see contests "not valid in CA, NY" or elsewhere. Any and all regulations must be described in detail, and in many cases the contest must be registered.

Contests are considered games of skill; sweepstakes are considered games of chance. What constitutes a lottery is that a payment, or some other form of consideration, must be given in order to win a prize. While there must be a prize in each case, a lottery must also contain the elements of chance (meaning the participant has no way of controlling the result) and consideration. When a lottery fails to meet all three criteria, it is considered an illegal lottery, not only violating the Federal Trade Commission Act as unfair competition, but it is also a criminal offense in every state, and conceivably prosecutable by the U.S. Postal Service and the Federal Communications Commission.

It should be noted that the FTC has authority to investigate false claims; however, if your industry has any competition whatsoever, your competitor may take legal action against you if you claim your product or service is "The Best Anywhere."

All of these regulations sprang into existence because some marketer was either greedy (if not actually criminally-minded), lazy, rushed, or creatively bankrupt. However, while misleading or unethical marketing text might lead to some fast sales, it ultimately backfires on the marketer as cheated customers spread the word about the product, and the company crumbles well before any federal agency or competitor takes legal action.

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