I recently read the 1923 book ‘Scientific Advertising’ by Claude C. Hopkins (the man/book who taught Ogilvy advertising), and was blown away by how relevant most of the key concepts and lessons still were in 2018.
While obviously, it’s not going to be groundbreaking for seasoned marketers, it can serve as an invaluable roadmap to keep you grounded in good marketing principles in a world of constant influxes of platforms, tactics & algorithm changes.
It also, amazingly, points out a lot of shortcomings that failing marketers still have in 2018, and the formula to getting back on the right track.
Below, I’ve included the 11 main lessons from the book.
Lessons that any marketer in 2018 should learn before spending a dime on advertising online, or off.
1. Test Everything
“Almost any questions can be answered, cheaply, quickly and finally, by a test campaign. And that’s the way to answer them — not by arguments around a table. Go to the court of last resort — the buyers of your product.”
This statement is just as true, if not truer, now in 2018 than it was back in 1923.
And it is definitely a lot quicker & easier to implement.
But still, people let their pride & taste dictate what the final result of an ad should be.
Rather than letting actual paying customers show you what the ideal ad looks like.
If there is just one point that Claude C. Hopkins wanted to get across to every reader of his book, it would be this:
If you take the approach of coming up with hypothesis and theories, and actually testing all of them and only continuing with what works, you end up with and almost scientific approach (hence the title of his book) which minimizes risk, and maximizes reward.
If you just advertise based on whims, impulses, and ideas, you can easily waste an entire budget, and years, with limited, if any, returns.
Not sure which headlines to use for your new ad?
**Test them all.**
Think a certain image will appeal better to women than the one in the general campaign?
Split test it.
Not sure how to price your SAAS?
Test the 3 different options you have in mind.
Not sure what value your social media efforts are bringing to your business? Test it.
(Either by offering tracked coupons or focusing on certain products not marketed in other channels and checking the demand, as well as staying on top of first click interactions from social, or completely stopping SM while changing nothing else & observing impact on bottom line, as some major companies are doing.)
Basically, test every aspect of your marketing, including products, campaigns, copy, images, etc.
(I tested 7 headlines, 3 introductions & 5 sets of creative for this very post, before I “officially” published it!)
2. Know Your Customer
“The advertising man studies the consumer. He tries to place himself in the position of the buyer. His success largely depends on doing that to the exclusion of everything else.”
In 3 lines, the man who according to David Ogilvy basically single-handedly founded modern advertising, solidifies once and for all the importance of knowing your consumer.
Knowing your consumer is so important that, if you don’t actually know your consumer, you can do everything else right, use the right creative, have a killer offer, smash the headline out of the park, but fail nonetheless.
On the flip-side, if you really know your consumers, you can even break the very laws of “Scientific Advertising” themselves, and still succeed because you will intuitively appeal to them effectively.
I once briefly worked as a Telemarketer, selling radon gas measurement kits over the phone.
If I had come in as a copywriter or marketing consultant, I would have likely focused on the danger of radon gas, and the convenience and value of our testing kit.
But actually manning the phones, my easiest and biggest sales came from landlords that were renting out apartments, and all I did was inform them of upcoming legislation that would make radon gas measurements mandatory in all rentals.
I also closed deals by simply looking up and passing on the results of radon gas tests in their local area.
Going on that, I could specifically target landlords with a marketing campaign and give them a great offer after telling them about the new law, or research and target the most at-risk areas with real research data, and likely succeed with lackluster headlines and copy, versus the uphill battle of trying to win on fear and convenience alone.
Knowing your customer is the first step towards a successful marketing campaign.
3. Start Small
The author of this book was also a huge proponent of always starting out with a test campaign, and confirming your ideas and the profitability of advertising on a local level, before going nation, or even worldwide.
Even in 2018 some startups are still not wise to this lesson.
Back in 2017, the juicing startup “Juicero” went under after wasting $120 million of cold hard venture cash simply because they hadn’t bothered to start out small, hone in on a profitable business model and stick with it.
They ended up with an overpriced shiny machine that was the result of a long and costly R&D and manufacturing process, but all it really did was squeeze juice out of a bag. (Even the juice part of the product was not very appealing to existing juicers, considering they juice because they want it FRESH, instead of buying pre-squeezed juice at the super market.)
On the other hand, you have Daily Harvest, a smoothie startup that is continually growing.
It was bootstrapped and confirmed as profitable by a mother who was 8-months pregnant at the time, and definitely had no $120 million in investments.
What’s the difference? They started small, had sales before they even started the company, and were directly selling and delivering their product to their customers in the beginning.
Because of that, they were quickly able to focus in only on what consumers actually cared about: convenience, price & instagrammability.
Now the smoothie startup does nation-wide delivery, is growing steadily, partnering with famous chefs, things are looking really good.
A prime example of how starting small is often the best way to end up, and stay big in the long run.
4. Spend More Time On Your Headlines Than Your Ad/Content
“The writer of this chapter spends far more time on headlines than on writing. He often spends hours on a single headline. Often scores of headlines are discarded before the right one is selected. For the entire return from an ad depends on attracting the right sort of readers.”
Talk to any modern marketing “expert”, whether they are involved in print, email or search ads, and they will go on and on about the importance of headlines.
But no one explains the reason WHY they are important as clearly and vividly as the originator of modern marketing himself:
“The difference between advertising and personal salesmanship lies largely in personal contact. The salesman is there to demand attention. He cannot be ignored. **The advertisement can be ignored.** But the salesman wastes much of his time on prospects whom he can never hope to interest. He cannot pick them out. The advertisement is read only by interested people who, by their own volition, study what we have to say.”
Advertising can and will be ignored by prospects, regardless of platform, if it does not grab their attention.
Likewise, even if you are able to peak someone’s interest, it doesn’t matter if there is a 0% chance that they will ever become a paying customer, or even an active member of your community.
On clever (clickbait) headlines, he has this to say:
“Perhaps a blind headline or some clever conceit will attract many times as many. But they may consist of mostly impossible subjects for what you have to offer. And the people you are after may never realize that the ad refers to something they may want.”
Sure, a clever headline, or one that takes advantage of the “closed loop” might get more clicks, but you will likely get less relevant attention.
The result will be fewer interested buyers to your website/offer for your dollar than if you wrote a good, relevant headline that appeals to your target consumer.
Spend time on writing a good headline, and of course test your ideas, but make sure that you don’t base your decisions purely off of vanity metrics like CTR/overall clicks.
(If you have the extra money to spend, you could also start getting into testing headlines.)
5. To Be A Good Marketer You Must Understand Human Psychology
“The competent advertising man must understand psychology. The more he knows about it the better. He must learn that certain effects lead to certain reactions, and use that knowledge to increase results and avoid mistakes. Human nature is perpetual. In most respects it is the same today as in the time of Caesar. So the principles of psychology are fixed and enduring. You will never need to unlearn what you learn about them.”
Claude was a huge proponent of actually getting to understand your prospects in as deep of a level as humanly possible. Not only would he go out and interview people himself, or try to sell products door to door when he took on new clients, he would study human psychology in his “free time” as well.
A strong understanding of human psychology is the basis of every strong marketer, as you need to pull on uniquely human forces, whims, fears and desires to try to nudge them in the direction that you want.
While psychology was still in a very early stage 100 years ago, Claude had some very early insights.
He recognized the effect of social proof in marketing & business.
That people have a tendency to outsource their decision making to the great masses. “If 40% of Americans use this product, it MUST be good!”
He also touched on the importance of familiarity & proximity in sales & marketing, as well as
6. Curiosity May Have Killed The Cat, But It Has Never Killed A Marketing Campaign
“Curiosity is one of the strongest human incentives. We employ it whenever we can. Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice were made successful largely through curiosity. “Grains puffed to 8 times the normal size.” “Foods shot from guns.” “125 million steam explosions caused in every kernel.” These foods were failures before that factor was discovered.”
Advertisements on buildings, billboards, TV, Google and even social media have become so familiar that most of it just gets ignored.
The first task of any ad, is to grab the attention of a potential customer, but if it stops there, it has failed it’s second task, to pique the interest of the viewer in the product.
That’s where curiosity comes in.
It’s what drives millions of “tech geeks” to buy practically useless gadgets whenever they are released.
If curiosity didn’t work, established food brands would never roll out limited time special flavors, and yet almost every established brand out there does so with regularity.
But he also warns about using curiosity in a way that has nothing to do with selling your product, i.e. a vague clickbait headline, which we have already covered in the part on headlines.
7. Good Marketing Is About Salesmanship, Not Penmanship
“To properly understand advertising or to learn even its rudiments one must start with the right conception. Advertising is salesmanship. Its principles are the principles of salesmanship.”
Marketing is not like English class.
The one who uses the rarest vocabulary and most difficult grammar doesn’t get praised, instead they get penalized by the masses in their audience who don’t relate to their appeal!
“Successful salesmen are rarely good speech makers. They have few oratorical graces. They are plain and sincere men who know their customers and know their lines.
So it is in ad writing. Many of the ablest men in advertising are graduate salesmen. The best we know have been house-to-house canvassers. They may know little of grammar, nothing of rhetoric, but they know how to use words that convince.”
An ad is not an article, a sales page is not an essay, a case study is not an academic research study.
The main purpose of your advertisements should be to get sales, not to get followers on Instagram, likes on your Facebook posts or other vanity metrics.
But that doesn’t mean that you need to be “salesy” to sell effectively.
If you know your consumer, and follow the next lesson, you can “sell without selling”.
8. People Are Selfish; So Give, Don’t Ask
“Remember the people you address are selfish, as we all are. They care nothing about your interests or profit. They seek service for themselves. Ignoring this fact is a common mistake and a costly mistake in advertising. Ads say in effect, “Buy my brand. Give me the trade you give to others. Let me have the money.”
That is not a popular appeal.
The best ads ask no one to buy.
That is useless.
Often they do not quote a price.
They do not say that dealers handle the product.
The ads are based entirely on service.
They offer wanted information.
They site advantages to users.
Perhaps they offer a sample, or to buy the first package, or to send something on approval, so the customer may prove the claims without any cost or risks. Some of these ads seem altruistic.”
People are selfish.
They don’t care about you or your business unless they are your personal friend, and they’re not going to buy your product unless they feel that they are going to benefit in some way.
If it’s a chocolate, unless they believe that it is the most delicious purchase for the price, good luck convincing them to buy.
Don’t waste your time reminding your potential customers that you have competition by claiming that your brand is somehow the right choice, give customers the information that will help them to understand how yours would be the right choice.
Making sure that you have a good offer, better than any of your direct competitors, will make marketing successfully a much easier job; all you need to do is get the truth across.
If you have a worse offer than your competitors, you have to either hope that your potential customers don’t go to the effort of researching, or get creative about how to appeal the unique strengths of your product.
9. Creative is about Performance, Not Taste or Looks
A lot has changed in the last 100 years of advertising, but our creative needs to earn it’s spot in your ad.
Especially in print, where you actually pay for the physical space your ad occupies. But even in Facebook and display ads where your ads live or die on the creative, they need to SELL, they need to bring in the right attention.
“Use pictures only to attract those who may profit you. Use them only when they form a better selling argument than the same amount of space set in type.”
This should also be considered in video ads.
Test different versions of your video (both long and short segments) and see if there are any changes in performance based on length and which segments were included.
Don’t just let a senior creative director make decisions based on taste, and taste alone.
Test the creative in the wild, and stick with the one that is the best received among the greatest audience.
(Or, better yet, utilize segmentation, and use each set of creative when targeting the group with which it mot resonates.)
10. Specificity Beats Exaggeration, Informing Beats Bragging
“Platitudes and generalities roll off the human understanding like water from a duck. They leave no impression whatever. To say, “Best in the world,” “Lowest price in existence,” etc. are at best simply claiming the expected. But superlatives of that sort are usually damaging. They suggest looseness of expression, a tendency to exaggerate, a careless truth. They lead readers to discount all the statements that you make.”
Some people in marketing seems to think that the road to impressing someone lies in superlatives.
Most consumers are much more concerned with facts than with what mumbo jumbo words you can stick in front of your product name.
More so now than ever, but even 100 YEARS AGO, this was true.
“A mail order advertiser sold women’s clothing to people of the poorer classes. For years he used the slogan, “Lowest prices in America.” His rivals all copied that. Then he guaranteed to undersell any other dealer. His rivals did likewise. Soon those claims became common to every advertiser in his line, and they became commonplace. Then under able advice, he changed his statement to “Our net profit is 3 percent.” That was a definite statement and it proved very impressive. With their volume of business it was evident that their prices must be minimum. No one could be expected to do business on less than 3 percent. The next year their business made a sensational increase.”
If you have specific selling points that your competition, use them to your full advantage.
Don’t just hint at them.
If you’re selling a protein powder in bulk, don’t just say “More Protein for your Money”, get specific. “On Average 18g More Protein Per Dollar Spent”.
Instead of just writing “Chefs Choose Us” or “Chefs’ Choice”, you can get specific based on your consumers location, and instead write: “Gordon Ramsay & 374 Other New York Chefs Use Our Product To Create Meals In Their Restaurants.”
Tell the goddamn truth, and tell it well.
11. Business Success Doesn’t Mean Your Marketing is Effective
If you don’t have sophisticated tracking in place, including special offers, landing pages and coupons for different channels, there is no way of knowing if your marketing is effective.
*Even if you are seeing business success.*
Mr. Hopkins believed that in writing and publishing this book, advertising based on guesswork would soon be over & done with, but unfortunately he was wrong.
How many small business owners spend hours on Instagram & Facebook every week “for their business”, mostly because other people say that they must do it?
How many B2B businesses still run “industry magazine” ads without really knowing what they get in return?
How many nation-wide branding campaigns are launched without doing long term local tests to see if the brand-lift actually improves revenue? (Versus the growth it is seeing in other areas from other factors.)
Even if your business increases year over year, it doesn’t mean your marketing is paying for itself.
You could have evangelists working double time for you, or gotten PR coverage by accident (like a big streamer or Youtuber featuring your biz/product without a placement deal).
Or you could just have come out with the right offer, at the right time.
Succeeding in spite of poor marketing is possible, and it leaves a lot of room for growth on the table.
How do you find out if you are succeeding in spite of your marketing efforts?
Simple, run a test.
Select a region where you will cease your marketing activities for a prolonged period of time, and see how the lack of marketing affects overall sales in that region.
If those results show success regardless, you have a good case to test other means of marketing for your business.
Calls To Action For The Brave Souls Who Made It
Congratulations on making it through this 3000 word behemoth of a post.
I hope you got something from this piece, that borrowed (stole) heavily from the marketing wisdom of the father of modern marketing.
First of all, read the book yourself.
If you Google “Scientific Advertising”, there’s a free pdf copy & a free audiobook version that show up, and you could also get a modern rewrite on amazon if you struggle reading books in old English or on a computer (although that won’t be free.)
This post took me more than 10 hours to research, write, rewrite, edit, clean up and post. (Not to mention the first time reading the book, so if it gave you any insights, or you enjoyed it, feel free to leave a comment.
If you are interested in working with someone who uses a 2018-proof scientific approach to marketing and doesn’t charge like it’s the roaring 50s, reach out.
And for god’s sake, test your sh*t guys, it’s 2018.