FeatherYou’ve probably heard of the butterfly effect also known as chaos theory? It posits that a small trigger can have a large impact, such as a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a tornado a few weeks later.

In behavioural science, there’s a theory known as nudge. Rather than forcing people to take the action you want them to take, it suggests that the best way to influence people is to nudge them in the direction you want them to go.

In an advertising book by Max Sutherland from, I think, the 1980s, he describes the secret of effective marketing as being like a feather on a seesaw. It’s another similar idea.

When a customer is weighing up a decision about what to buy, eventually, all the features balance out. Let’s say you’re choosing a new car. They both have wheels, seats and an engine. The thing that tips your decision one way or the other might be the shade of red of the paintwork, or the simpler user interface of the sat nav. It’s a little thing. The equivalent of a feather on a seesaw.

It’s the job of your marketer/copywriter to find the feather, and focus on that in your communications.

I was speaking at the Pro Copywriters’ conference recently. I was flattered that they marketed me as one of their headliners (you might have noticed if you follow @ProCopywriters on Twitter or saw some of my retweets before the event).

I met two other headliners in the bar afterwards. Ryan Wallman – the very funny @Dr_Draper on Twitter – and Creative Director @DougKessler. I told them about the feather effect, and we agreed it’s a great way to think about USPs.

I find it particularly useful when talking to clients who want me to mention everything there is to say about their brand, product or service. I tell them you don’t have to include everything. You only have to include the feather.

I’ve written before that the human brain has the ability to fill in the gaps (see Your mission should you choose to accept it, and Can you see the lion). it means you don’t have to tell prospective customers things they can safely assume from the image that accompanies the copy, or from their existing commonsense knowledge. In the car example, you don’t have to tell people that it has wheels, seats and an engine. You have to tell them what makes this particular car model different from any other, and why that is a benefit to them.

So, how do you find out what your feather might be?

rolls royce adYou might know about the famous 1958 ad by David Ogilvy. The headline read ‘At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock’. Allegedly, when he showed the ad to Mr Rolls (or maybe it was Mr Royce), the response was “We must do something about that clock.”

In order to write a headline like that, he spent three weeks reading about the car. He would have researched the car, the competition and the target customers. For example, he had to know that it’s a luxury car, and that one of the indicators of luxury is a quiet engine. Rather than saying ‘The engine is incredibly quiet’, Ogilvy (aka the grandfather of advertising) found a more creative way of saying it.

It was a feather that grabbed attention before he went into more detail.

As it happens, Ogilvy wasn’t the first to use that headline. Find out the whole story when you read my earlier article Feeling emotional (it also explains why the famous VW ‘lemon’ ad was so good, and includes an ad by BMW that doesn’t work so well).

The Ogilvy story shows that the secret to finding the feather is the research your copywriter does before they write a word. I learned this at an early age. You might have heard me tell the story about the writing competition I won as a teenager, thanks to a copy of National Geographic magazine given to me by my Mum’s friend (because Google didn’t exist back then)? The only reason I won was because the article inspired ideas about the environment and character names. This gave my story texture and detail that made it stand out from the rest.

OK, so all that is theory and history. But what does it mean to you today?

One of the things I do when talking to any new client is to go through a discovery process. It’s a simple 20-question document for them to fill in. They are standard marketing questions. Who are you? What do you sell? Who buys it? Who else might customers choose instead of you? Why should they choose you? (That’s the toughie. Only 1/100 can answer it effectively. Because that’s the feather.)

People tell me they find this a useful thought process to work through, and it differentiates me from other copywriters.

In 17 years of freelancing, I’ve only had two people refuse to fill it in. It was a good way of filtering out time-wasters as I couldn’t work with them anyway if they didn’t answer those questions at some point. If people prefer to use the questionnaire as an agenda for a phone/Skype call or meeting, that’s fine too.

The answers give me all the information I need to quote and do a good job. Although my quotes include up to two rounds of revisions, this amount of preparation also means the first draft is often the final draft.

Here’s what one client said last week, after seeing the first draft of their new web copy: “Just wanted to say I was really excited to read your copy – love it! What a difference. Thank you so much.” I was particularly pleased because I know they tried for ages to find a copywriter who could understand them and capture the right tone of voice.

By the way, December is already booked up, but I have some capacity in November. So, if you want any help with your copy, now’s a good time to ask (nudge, nudge, hint, hint).


Annabel · October 29, 2018 at 6:36 pm

You are so right.

Antoinette Dale Henderson · October 30, 2018 at 2:10 pm

Fantastic article, Jackie and thank you for the challenge to find the nudges and feather/s that influence people to say yes

Janice Gordon · October 30, 2018 at 9:30 pm

Interesting article Jackie, with lots of references and explanation of theories that you connect to current use.

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