A Conversation with
Million-Dollar Copywriter
Kent Komae
Part Two


Welcome, Business-Builder!

Last week we spent some time with my good buddy, and copywriter extraordinaire – Kent Komae.

And without further fanfare, let’s go ahead and jump right in …

Clayton:

You’re talking about the “advertorial” approach: Bribing prospects to read your promotion – and it works great.

And it’s not just for information marketers. Throughout the years, great advertorials have been used to sell everything from lawn tillers to diet plans. Bringing value to someone’s life in your promotion by giving them information they can use is a great device, even if you’re selling a three-dimensional product.

I want to talk a little bit more about your preparation for a project. You talked about how you connect with your audience. How you find out what they’re thinking. And I think your approach in terms of using testimonials as a resource, as a way to get clues, is a great one. I never really thought about it that way. I've always done more mechanical things like checking data cards, and things like that.

You’ve also talked about the time that you spend in research and how you do extensive outlines of the package.

How do you select your main themes?

Kent:

That’s really a good question. Because that leads me to the next point in my outline. Picking the big theme, obviously is a million-dollar question.

What I typically do is go through my notes, and as I mentioned earlier – I write “big idea” or “main idea” or a “wow idea” in my notes.

Then, I go through my notes, trying to pick out some theme I think is going to carry the piece, or could be a foundation or framework for the whole piece.

This is probably the most challenging, toughest thing that I do as a writer. How do you come up with a new theme? Believe me, it’s not easy. You have to do a lot of sweating.

I might typically write six, or seven, or eight, or nine, ten big ideas. And try to whittle them down to one or two. This is even before I write a word of the actual copy. I’m still working on main themes and ideas, so this is part of my outline.

Often I’ll boil it down to three or four big ideas, send those to the client, and we will talk about those. But I try to write maybe a rough headline or a big idea, thought, and as you know, Clayton, this is one of the toughest things to do.

Clayton:

A lot of the other things that are involved in writing a package are fairly easy to do: Making sure that you have adequate credibility elements … making sure that you’re speaking to the prospect about things that he already believes or agrees with … having “readership sells” on the outside … dimensionalizing the offer, the premiums, and so forth.

All of those are almost mechanical. The one wild card in everything that we do is that major theme. Because there’s no way to know in advance how well any particular theme will resonate with the market.

Kent:

Let me give you a couple of examples if I may.

Going back to the piece I talked earlier about, CoEnzyme Q-10. The headline for that particular piece, which was a big, big, big super winner was “The surprising truth about CoEnzyme Q-10.” And
the “truth” was that most of the CoEnzyme Q-10 you take in capsule or dry form is useless or is a big waste, and you really need to know why and the new solution for that.

Another piece I’d like to talk briefly about is one that I wrote for Joint Advantage in early 2000 – one of the most mailed promotions in the history of the health supplement industry.

The subhead and headline were “Beyond glucosamine and chondroitin, the next breakthrough for joint discomfort.”

We found in the research that glucosamine – probably one of the best-known cutting edge joint nutrients – didn’t work for about 50% of the people who tried it. So we offered a solution for that problem for the reader.

“Beyond glucosamine and chondroitin …” really was a great theme because we were offering readers something better than the best natural joint remedy on the market: The next advancement … the new thing.

That message resonated extremely well with the audience – and if I may say, really launched the specialty supplement market.

Clayton:

I remember that piece. I liked it on a couple of levels. I liked the lead because you were going to a very mature market. This is another example of a package that would have probably bombed if you’d mailed it ten years earlier. But you timed the market just exactly right.

You were mailing into a mature, increasingly skeptical marketplace filled with people who had tried a lot of things that hadn’t worked over the years. I can see that kind of lead working for just about any supplement product that people hadn’t seen before. Like: “Beyond saw palmetto for prostate problems …”

I often talk about how both Carline Anglade-Cole and Arthur Johnson have harnessed the growing skepticism in the vitamin marketplace with their skeptical themes, headlines and leads. Carline’s “Why lutein and bilberry don’t work for eyesight. And Arthur Johnson, of course, has his classic lead for Dr. Douglas where he asks, “Have you had enough of eating food that you hate? And depriving yourself and still getting sick. And choking down fistfuls of vitamins and still getting sick.

All three of you found ways to really break through that skepticism and reinvigorate a maturing market.

What else do you look for when selecting a main theme?

Kent:

Well, you want to have some controversy sometimes. I think that you want to have some conflict. Something that flies in the face of what people are reading or hearing.

One of the challenges these days is there’s so much more competition now than maybe there was some years ago. You have to set yourself apart with something that really gets people’s attention.

I’m thinking about a theme that I wrote on for a Sun Chlorella piece that was very, very successful. The headline was “Doctor’s Shock.”

In the lead, I talked about how this doctor was shocked to find out that he wasn’t getting all the nutrients he needed from vitamins, minerals, or herbs. That he was missing something critical.

Of course, the answer inside the piece was Sun Chlorella, which is beyond vitamins, minerals, and herbs – a whole food supplement that brings you a tremendous array of nutrients that you can’t get from just any vitamin, mineral, or herb, or anything synthetic.

“Doctor’s Shock” really got people’s attention. Here’s a doctor, authority, a guru, saying, “You know what? I’m missing something. I was missing something in my vitamin regime that I needed. I needed this.” That surprised people.

I think, headlines that start off with “The Case Against (fill in the blank)” can be very powerful and attention-getting.

If you take on something that people think is right or perfect or the best, and you knock it down a little bit and give them some surprising information, it can differentiate your product or service in a powerful way.

Clayton:

That’s great. I like that a lot. I think there are a lot of people that shy away from that because it is controversial. But that’s what it takes to get read today.

Kent:

Exactly.

Clayton:

What do you enjoy most about writing, Kent?

Kent:

Helping people. I’ve never told you this, but before I got into direct marketing of newsletters, books and supplements, I had ambitions to get into fund-raising copywriting.

I have written packages for fund-raising organizations – for humanitarian causes. It’s a great joy.

I try to do some of this now, even today. I just wrote a letter for an organization called Free Wheelchair Mission. They have designed a cheap wheelchair – it costs just $41 – and they deliver them to needy people with mobility problems. I just wrote a letter to help them raise some funds. If I can help people, or help organizations with my writing, that’s a great blessing to me.

Clayton:

That’s great. You know, it’s good to be reminded that there’s more than one kind of compensation in life. And to be able to use your writing for a good cause is fantastic. I’ve done the same kind of thing – mostly for political organizations I’m sympathetic with.

How did copywriting change your life, Kent? You left the agency for some reason.

Kent:

Copywriting has given me a fantastic career which I love, and I try to tell my own kids or young people, what you really want to find is something that you have a passion about. Then you don’t really feel like you're going to work.

It wasn’t like I hated teaching. But what I really enjoy now is coming down to my office, doing research, thinking about the challenge of trying to put together a promotion or a campaign to help the client to present the product in the best way.

And of course, direct marketing is – let’s put it this way: You can’t hide behind anything. It’s like being a professional athlete. Everybody can look in the paper and see your batting average, or your scoring average, and how many turnovers or assists you have.

You do a direct marketing project, 30 days later you get an e-mail with the initial responses. Can’t hide behind anything. And in one sense that’s good. Because you know exactly how the piece did.

Clayton:

As you’re writing, are there thoughts or mental images that you hold in your mind, as you’re actually doing the work?

In other words, one thing that I constantly kind of hold in my mind, and I didn't teach myself to do this, it just kind of happened naturally, but as I’m creating a package, I’m constantly thinking about how the client is going to react when he sees this incredible first-draft copy. Are there images like that that you hold in your mind?

Kent:

I’m not sure that there’s anything quite like that. I think the key here is thinking about the benefit of the product.

If you have a full understanding of the benefits of the product or service, it helps you connect with the reader.

At the same time, though, I try to avoid falling too much in love with the product I’m selling. I could get so excited about all the technical details of the product and how it’s so cool – that sometimes I can forget the end benefits to the reader.

I try to write benefits in two columns after I do all my research. I have a list of logistical benefits, and then I have a list of emotional benefits. Essentially, logic and emotion.

I have to confess that I’m very strong in writing the logistical benefits. This is something that I was trained to do in reason-why advertising.

Where I have to work harder on is the emotional benefits: Define how each benefit makes the prospect feel.

I wrote a project, a successful launch, for a probiotic supplement. Some logistical, logical benefits would be that it protects your GI tract and bowels from harmful and unhealthy bacteria. It coats your intestinal wall with good bacteria. Et cetera, et cetera. I’m good at writing all those.

Now what are the emotional benefits? Here we go: No more embarrassment or inconvenience of gas, constipation, unpredictable bathroom stops. No more cramping, bloating, or indigestion. Indulge without paying the price. Eat all the foods you love. Maintain freedom and independence. Feel more energetic, alive. Live without worry or embarrassment. Travel, dance, cook, enjoy life without worry.

This has forced me, in a very good way, to try to get both sides of the coin. And what I’m finding now, Clayton, in writing successful pieces, is I need to have a good balance of these things to draw people in.

I’m not just hitting the logical benefits, but I’m hitting the emotional benefits as well. I think that’s very important. Here’s why: People buy based on emotions. People justify their buying with logic.

Clayton:

On the emotional side, too, it’s a challenge because there are several layers to it.

Let’s take arthritis for example …

First, there are all kinds of emotions wrapped up in fear of developing the disease.

If you have it, there are emotions wrapped up in your experience with arthritis. You have frustrations that you’re not able to do the things you want to do. You have guilt that you’re not able to do the things for other people or with other people that you care about. And of course, there are many other emotions you can identify that are wrapped up in actually having the disease.

And there are also emotions tied to the prospect of relief: How it would feel to suddenly be freed from this pain and stiffness and all the negative emotions I have about having arthritis.

And when you begin thinking about that, a product that has eight or ten major logical benefits could spin off forty or fifty emotional benefits.

Kent:

I think that’s a very good point. I do struggle when trying to use anger in my copy – whether it’s anger at the big government or, if it’s a health package, anger at big drug companies. To bring that into the piece is a challenge.

And you’re right. Not only do I have to try to get into the shoes of the prospect as a writer. I have to also get into the shoes and the voice of the piece, too.

See, we are ghostwriters for the publisher, or the doctor, or the – whoever we’re the voice of. And I think to be able to feel that emotion that that person feels is so critical, and this is really the craft of writing. Being able to almost be there when you see the scene.

Before I wrote the letter I mentioned earlier for the Free Wheelchair Mission, I heard the story of when they showed up in a shantytown in Peru with 100 free wheelchairs. 6,000 people had dragged themselves through the dirt in the hope of getting one of the 100 wheelchairs the mission had brought.

What’s it like to be that euphoric because you're going to help 100 people – but have to turn away 5,900? What does that do to your heart? How do you infuse that into your copy as to say we need your help?

Clayton:

So true. I told a writer the other day, because we were writing something on COX-2 inhibitors, and I said what you have to do is just sit in a darkened room and slip into character. You have to imagine that your sweet, sainted mother has just had a fatal heart attack taking a drug that the company knew caused heart attacks. But they sold it anyway, just to make a fast buck.

Now go into a room, and put yourself into that position. See yourself getting the phone call. See yourself rushing to the hospital late at night only to get the bad news. See yourself consoling your children. See yourself going to the funeral. See yourself consoling your father. See yourself dealing with the grief yourself.

And all the time realizing that the men who marketed that drug, and urged doctors to prescribe it, were hiding the fact that they had a study proving that the thing quadrupled your mother’s risk of a heart attack. While you grieve, they’re laughing all the way to the bank.

And once you’re fully in touch with those emotions and you feel like you've personally experienced this, then go to your computer and sit down and just let it flow.

Kent:

That’s very good. I think I’d like to use this definition by Larry Johnson who’s a fund-raising consultant. And here’s what he says. A good direct mail writer needs the sensitivities of a poet, and the instincts of an assassin.

I love that. Because that gets back to my love for writing and words. You have to understand how to put words together in a way that the copy just flows. You get them on that slippery slope, where they just keep reading one nugget after another. They’re just on the big slide going down. They can’t stop reading.

And yet, you have to weave in the power of words. And the beauty of the language. Yet you have to be an assassin. You have to know your goal, your objectives, and really make that sale. And get them to not only say yes, but answer the question, why now? And get them to buy right now.

Clayton: That’s great. It’s just a challenge all the way around isn’t it?
Kent: Yeah. (Laughing) It’s also a challenge to try to beat your own control packages. You know about that.
Clayton: Yep. (Laughing)
Kent: Oh, wait a second. I thought I gave you my best ideas. No, you need some more. Okay, let me see what I can do.
Clayton: (Laughing)
Kent:

I think another thing that really helped me – especially when I went to the Bencivenga seminar – is how critical it is to have those proof elements.

I love the example he gave of the founder of the Franklin Mint who went looking not for great products, but for great proof elements. And I think that this has helped me because it’s helped me push my clients to say you’ve got to give me the proof I need to make the claims we need to make to make this a winner.

More and more, advertising is going to be successful if it’s going to be based on proof elements. And this is so critical. Especially in writing nutritional sales copy. It can’t just be a doctor saying it. Give me the proof. Give me the background. Scientific reports. Clinical studies. Double-blind, placebo controlled clinical studies. Tell me what the proof shows. It really helps shape and make the sale.

Clayton: Absolutely. And the more specific the better.
Kent:

Right. That’s so true.

Clayton:

Especially in the health market when you’re presenting proof, you have a three-layer thing going on.

The first one is, there was a double-blind placebo controlled study on this. The second layer is the credibility of the institution that conducted the study. Was it Harvard University? And the third layer is, where were the study results published? Was it in JAMA or the New England Journal of Medicine?

When you can tell somebody that a double-blind placebo controlled study conducted at Harvard and reported in the New England Journal of Medicine said that the substance in your product cut risk of heart attacks by 50%, you’ve done a lot more than simply create credibility. You’ve just created a tacit endorsement of your company and your product by Harvard and the New England Journal of Medicine!

And I also like to show photographs of the actual publications. Because it takes it out of the realm of just black ink on white paper, and just somehow makes it more real when I can see the actual journal in which the report was published. Or show a picture of the National Institute of Health or Harvard University, or some other prestigious university or medical center.

Kent:

I've done that. I've shown some magazine covers where there’s great quotes about the product or the generic product as necessary, if you don’t have it specific. But that’s also a good credibility-builder.

Clayton:

I think the use of credibility devices is one of the most often ignored components of direct mail packages and Internet promotions I see now.

In skeptical, mature markets like these, going the extra mile like you do, and drilling down to the real credibility elements is absolutely essential.

Let me ask you, Kent, what could your clients do to help you produce better copy faster?

Kent:

It’s interesting you ask that. I've worked for some of the biggest companies in America, direct marketers, and sometimes they send me a whole notebook of great background information. But others hardly send anything at all.

I think the key is providing me with quality information and research, where I’m not going to sit there and have to dig through and find it. I don’t mind going through it, but it takes a lot of time just for me to do what I do.

I even have some of my clients doing their own clinical studies to try to show that their products are so much better. It’s not cheap or easy to do, but it produces proof elements that make the copy sing!

I think that providing me with some testing opportunities is important, too. I appreciate clients who are open to testing.

And another area, that I think is very underutilized, has to do with offers. I think that if clients are open to my suggestions in offers, and if we think outside the box, we can create some really big winners.

But sometimes I hear things like, “The offer’s already set.” Or, “This is how we’ve always done it, and this is all our budget allows us to do.” The best kind of clients are open-minded and want to test.

Clayton, one of the things that I like to think about is what I call the four greats. When I decide to take on a new client, I try to think about if these four things match up, because there’s a good chance we’re going to get a winner.

First of all, the client has to be great. I think it’s very important that I work with people who I can trust. Who I can believe their word. Who are good people. Who have a solid company.

Beyond that, the clients I want have great products. It’s very hard to sell generic stuff that you can buy at any corner store. Third, you need great copy — which is what I bring to the table.

And fourth, I want clients who are willing to “incentivize” me with a great compensation package. They have to be willing to compensate me as a salesman in print or on the Internet. If I’m going to bring them an extra million dollars in sales, they can’t be afraid to pay me a small percentage of that.

If those four great things line up, chances are good – chances are great. We can have a winner.

Clayton:

I think that’s fantastic advice. What are the things that a client does that really get in the way of producing a great copy for them?

Kent:

Wow. That’s a very good question. I’ll give you a specific example, which is a challenge right now. And that is I do a lot of supplement marketing, nutritional marketing, as you know. Between ten years ago and now, there’s much more legal scrutiny in this area. And this is why obviously some writers don’t want to write for these promotions.

I have to write a piece and depending on where the client’s at, I may have to adjust, tone down, a piece, depending on the legal risk or where the client is on the legal scale. This is challenging because different clients are on different levels, and let’s face it – it does factor into how aggressive you can be in the copy.

I always tell my clients, I don’t want to do anything that gets them in trouble, and I think this is why they hire me. Where I tell them I want to write a piece where they can sleep well at night and not worry about being in trouble.

I've had lots of battles with lawyers – not necessarily directly, but through the clients – where I've got to tone down the copy, and it’s frustrating at times. Because a lot of great ideas end up on the cutting room floor.

Obviously, if I’m writing a promotion for a book or a newsletter, or some other product that’s not a nutrient, I have more freedom. And I don’t have to worry about that.

Clayton:

All right. Well, we need to wrap up here. Is there anything else you’d like to cover before we close?

Kent:

No, I think that’s it. I just want to say that this is a fantastic field, and business, and market, and I love it. And it’s just something that’s a joy and a challenge and great.

Clayton:

Thank you very much, Kent. Take care, buddy.

Kent:

You’re welcome, Clayton. Bye.

See you next time!

Yours for Bigger Winners, More Often,
Clayton Makepeace Signature
Clayton Makepeace
Publisher & Editor
THE TOTAL PACKAGE

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4 Responses to A Conversation with
Million-Dollar Copywriter
Kent Komae
Part Two

  1. Marcelino Latorre says:

    Wow this was nice..

    Growing up around family members that were visually impaired made helping others second nature.

    The best thing about copy-writing to me is that we actually get paid for it!

    Marcelino Latorre

  2. John says:

    Thanks Kent,

    Recently, I was jerked out of my zombie trance while watching an old episode of Seinfeld. An ad popped on the screen for the supplement Airborne.
    That ad got my attention because, as a marketer, I am fascinated by this product. It has massive success yet fails on many marketing levels. The profit margins, for example, are too low. The name is vague. I remember when I first saw Airborne, I said to myself… what the f**k is that?
    Would anyone who writes for The Total Package please write on the success of this supplement and supplement marketing and copywriting in a future issue?
    Many of us want to know more. . .
    With dietary supplements, think about the force of good marketing and copy applied to your own supplement. It’s quite easy these days to put out your own supplement with a private label and your own blend of ingredients. Many marketers don’t know this.
    2009-another year to improve our skills!

    I wonder what Clayton is dreaming up for us this year!
    John

  3. Julius James says:

    Coming from a science background, I love the fact that both Mr. Makepeace and Mr. Komae opt to use the top journal articles, top studies and top institutions as proof.

    Fantastic!

    You know a lot of people say that you don’t need to have been an A English student to be a good copywriter. I noticed however, that both copywriters mentioned above write the same way my English teachers in high school use to tell me to write.

    Provide a proponderance of proof, be clear, be concise, make your piece flow.

    These guys would have definitely gotten an A on their papers at my high school writing this way.

    I suppose one difference between copywriting and academic writing is that you can use cliches and you can have more fun. Another is that we focus on the way the reader thinks and we anticipate how they will react to our words, whereas in academic writing this is not so critical.

    But even the element of persuasion is the same in both styles of writing.

  4. Raymond Merz says:

    Julius,

    I hope this helps you (and anyone else trying to transition from academia to sales writing) :

    In academic writing, you are trying to prove something, often just to prove it.

    In sales writing, you are trying to coax an action. To do so, you sometimes need to prove things. So point at the academics, then move on.

    When writing to make a sale, never try to prove your prospect wrong and prove yourself right. Instead, meld what you need them to believe into what they already think.

    Academics sometimes forget you cannot strong-arm someone into *believing* you.

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