Famous First Words

Three, two, one. That's how much time you have to make a good first impression in advertising--so choose your words wisely.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the October 1998 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Imagine this: You're crossing a busy street in midtown , and by some divine coincidence, you find yourself in the position to heroically shove the CEO of a national TV network out of the path of an oncoming car. In deep gratitude, and after learning you're an entrepreneur, the famous exec rewards you with three seconds of prime broadcast air time to sell your product or service. You think you've hit the jackpot. But what could you possibly say in those few precious seconds of entrepreneurial nirvana that could move a national TV audience to want your product?


It's not an easy assignment. But that's the mind-set you need to get into to create an enticing hook in any medium. Because the truth is, the average passerby gives you just three seconds--maximum--to compel him or her to pay attention to you. Therefore, you want to develop the pithiest distillation of your sales proposition possible. You need a small handful of words that, as they say, resonate with the audience.

This is my message to Jon Black, owner of NorthStar Direct Inc. in Vernon, , who wrote recently. Black's company makes a product called The Organizer that fits inside your checkbook and helps you manage your finances and erase debt. It's an innovative little item that Black and his wife, Shellie, developed to get through a major financial crunch several years ago. After they got through it successfully, they thought, "Hey, if it worked for us, it'll work for others." The Money Organizer has garnered a thumbs-up mention in a book on financial planning, as well as an appearance on CNNfn. So the product has legs and is ready to run--all it needs is some strong promotion behind it. The Blacks have taken a first stab at an ad, and now they're ready to build on it.

Jerry Fisher is an advertising copywriter, consultant and author of Creating Successful Small Advertising ($39.95), available by calling (800) 247-6553. If you'd like Jerry to consider your materials for a makeover in this column, send them to "Ad Workshop," Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614, or e-mail him at Jerry228@aol.com

It's The Simplicity Silly!

I know that the Blacks struggled mightily to figure out how to show their product in advertisements. After all, a smolderingly sexy shot of a checkbook insert isn't easy to pull off; nor is it easy to "glam" up the whole financial planning system the Blacks espouse. Their solution was to design a classy box that houses a one-year supply of the inserts along with a "Debt Elimination Roadmap" to help users establish and reach their financial goals.

With the addition of a set of thick books in the picture, which the reader may mistake as being part of the debt elimination system, the product's simplicity doesn't come through. In fact, the whole visual setup could leave the opposite impression than was intended: that this is a massive undertaking and that the system is very difficult to implement.

The Blacks ran the ad in a trade publication for professional organizers using a headline that doesn't focus very well on how the product will benefit the user. My suggested change would be to show just a corner of one of the inserts as a "teaser" and then, in a small photo, include the handsome box as part of the sign-off to the ad. Next to the insert would be the headline: "Slip this into your checkbook and watch your debts disappear!"

This headline gives greater dimension to the product and the ad in two ways: It offers a seemingly uncomplicated solution to one of the most difficult of all family problems, and it establishes portability and implies ease of use. The rest of the copy is drawn from NorthStar's own literature on the product, which is nicely developed. The Blacks might also consider including a "button" on the ad that reads, "As seen on CNNfn"--which will likely come off as an implied seal of approval. Finally, there needs to be an offer of something extra to induce immediate response. I recommend the Blacks reposition their "Debt Elimination Roadmap" as a special bonus included at no extra charge just for trying the product. Throwing in a 100 percent -back guarantee is also a good idea, if the Blacks are sure they'll be able to honor it.

In the future, I would recommend that the Blacks test the use of what I call a story-testimonial ad, that is, an ad whose sole purpose is to tell a compelling first-person account of how The Money Organizer pulled an individual from the edge of financial ruin. You often see such story-testimonials in print ads and infomercials, and they can be very convincing.

The Blacks are passionate about their product, and that's the first requirement for entrepreneurial success. Now they have the opportunity to focus their efforts in a manner that will help them go the rest of the way.


This ad needs a clearer statement of the goal. We don't want to organize our finances; we want to reduce our debt.

1. This headline is vague. What's it really trying to say?

2. Showing the product next to a set of thick books makes it look like a lot of work.


This ad highlights the financial and emotional benefits of using the product.

1. This lead-in "eyebrow" and headline capsulize the two key advantages of using The Money Organizer.

2. The boxed testimonial from an expert provides front-and-center credibility.

Q: I tried to write a sales letter about my product, an automatic gas shut-off valve that activates during earthquakes, but the result wasn't very good. Can you offer some pointers to get me started on the right track?

A: Pretend you're sitting across the table from a prospect having a heart-to-heart talk with him or her. No pretensions, no bombast, no formality--just a sincere presentation of your most compelling sales message.

It helps to start by addressing what you think the prospect's state of mind is on the subject--in this case, his or her fears about earthquakes and gas leaks. You might begin with something like this: "I probably don't need to remind you just how dangerous a broken gas pipe can be in the aftermath of an earthquake . . ." Then go into what the specific dangers are. After that, maybe you'd say "But there's no longer a reason to worry when you have a Quake-Off device, a simple emergency gas shut-off valve that automatically protects you from dangerous gas leaks."

The three key words to remember are "keep it conversational." One way to make sure you adhere to this rule is to first dictate the message into a tape recorder, and then transcribe it into a first draft. This allows you to write about your product the way you would talk about it. Another way to use a tape recorder to help is to sit down with a friend or relative and have him or her ask you leading questions about the product so you can respond in a conversational tone. Then, once you have a lot of questions and answers on tape, transcribe them and piece together a sales letter using that content. You can even structure the letter to follow a question-and-answer format.

Finally, put the finished sales letter away, out of sight, for 48 hours, and then look at it again with fresh eyes. Anything that's wrong with it will pop out at you immediately, and you can smooth it over. If you don't take this step and choose instead to publish your first draft of the letter, you'll miss a chance to improve the letter by at least 30 percent.

Contact Source

NorthStar Direct Inc., (800) 450-4580, http://www.moneyorganizer.com


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