“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
So said Wilkins Micawber, in Charles Dickens’s novel, David Copperfield.
It’s a timeless piece of wisdom, and it applies to every single business on the planet right now.
If your expenditure exceeds your income you are heading for the rocks. Sure, you can get your bank or your investors to stump up more cash.
But eventually, they’re going to pull the plug and let you sink.
Can you switch round the equation?
You can cut costs, of course. But eventually that route becomes closed to you. Once you have achieved what our politicians love to call “efficiency savings” – a euphemism for firing people, though not politicians; or, weirdly, spending huge sums of money on IT – you have only one avenue left open to you.
You must sell more stuff.
A long, long time ago now, a budding advertising copywriter call John Kennedy defined advertising to Albert Lasker, the boss of Lord and Thomas, as “salesmanship in print”.
Despite his definition’s being over a century old (and carrying the faint whiff, to some ears, of outmoded sexism) it is still regularly quoted today, both by old hands like me and our digital native peers.
I find this somewhat odd.
You see, the new marketing paradigm is apparently all about helping people. Gaining their trust. Giving them free information – content – so that they will, at some point in the future, buy from us.
Introducing Full-Spectrum Marketing
And yes, Sunfish is regularly hired to create content for our clients, and we do it willingly and well. But they place our content into the middle of what I shall term, from today, Full-Spectrum Marketing.
In other words, they do everything. Provided it meets one criterion.
It must work, and demonstrably so.
What concerns me, and why I titled this piece as I did, is a reluctance to use or even discuss salesmanship as a marketing tool.
It is so outdated, that the guru’s guru, Seth Godin, has called it, “yelling at strangers”.
(Though it seems to have worked reasonably well so far if Procter & Gamble, Toyota and Walmart are any guide.)
Why startups fail
Following a hunch, I went to find out more about the reasons for corporate failures. Cbinsights generously offer a list of 20 most common reasons for crash ‘n’ burns, based on their analysis of 101 startups.
Leading the field with 42% was “no market need”. In second place with 29% was “ran out of cash”. Other reasons included “poor marketing”, “poor product” and “get outcompeted”.
Now, putting on your linguist’s hat for a moment, what is the underlying reason for all of those?
Yes. Lack of, or no, sales.
It’s kind of obvious, really. If you can’t sell enough stuff to cover your outgoings, result misery. If you can, result happiness.
You can talk about revenue, monetization, commissions and everything else, but in the end, if people ain’t buying, you ain’t surviving.
We ‘must’ do this – really?
Only this week I read a blog post from a content marketing expert suggesting that among the marketing resolutions we should all keep this year are to write a weekly blog post, spend 10 minutes a day on social media and spend 30 minutes a week on a group.
Nowhere in this list of do-or-die imperatives was there any mention of visiting customers, sending them product information, advertising, using direct mail or email promotions, attending trade fairs or exhibitions, public speaking or telephoning people you’d like to work for.
It’s not that the softer side of marketing isn’t valuable, of course it is. But to suggest that this is the way to business success is specious.
The picture becomes a little clearer when we look at how these activities are to be measured.
In just the same way as the PR industry used to focus on ‘advertising equivalent’ as a measure of its success (if you’re interested, this means that a column centimetre of editorial coverage is worth three times the advertising cost of the same space), so the “sales is over” brigade are punting a set of ‘metrics’ that carry all the flavour and apparent hard-edgedness of traditional business measures, but none of the content.
In place of return on investment, return on capital employed, profits or even sales, we get ‘reach’, ‘engagement’, ‘influence’ and ‘rapport’. (OK, I made the last one up.)
Every new marketing fad has its time at the table, but when hungry investors start asking for their return, perhaps, or another recession hits us, these measures will be seen as a busted flush.
I return to a point I’ve made before: you can’t pay followers or retweets into the bank.
And it’s a massive assumption that by heaping free content onto them they will a) trust you and b) buy from you.
Why this reluctance to say “I sell”?
I have always described myself as a salesman. My agency gets hired by companies that want to sell more stuff – which could be products, services or even ideas.
The route to the sale may be one hop or several, but the goal is always the same: people read our words then act differently. Often, but not exclusively, by exchanging money for stuff.
Whether we’re writing a customer letter, a blog post, an e-shot or a long-form landing page, the first question we always ask is the same:
What do you want the customer to do next? (And the closer the answer is to “place an order” the better we like it.)
So I’m left wondering where this reluctance to acknowledge that we’re selling comes from. Why is the approach to marketing that has built virtually every single one of the world’s successful businesses now seen as, “yelling at strangers”?
I’ve identified seven possible reasons (no doubt you can think of others):
Reason the first – linguistics – “I don’t know what it means”
Judging by the comments I get when I discuss selling with many businesses, they equate the term selling with “jamming my foot in the door and shouting about features”.
Yet these are the same people who walk into a shop and expect someone to help them.
They are mistaking the process of selling for the quality of its execution. The best salespeople have never shouted at their customers, about features or benefits. Mostly, they ask questions, listen attentively and then make helpful suggestions. Sure, they answer the customer’s questions too (or, if you prefer, “overcome their objections”,) but there’s a reason these questions are called “buying signals”.
Often, when we voice an objection, we are really signaling our readiness to buy, just so long as this anxiety or that can be allayed.
Reason the second – knowledge – “I don’t know how to sell”
Never have been taught, either on the job or in training courses, to sell, many people find the process so daunting that, rather than trying to learn, they reject it outright.
Yes, selling is difficult, but then, so is constructing Excel spreadsheets, interviewing job candidates and uploading game walkthrough videos to YouTube, but we still do it.
Reason the third – culture – “It’s old-fashioned, I want to do modern things”
Before the Internet, there was a very limited number of ways to communicate with customers. Most of them hadn’t changed since the Eighteenth Century.
You could call on them. Write to them. Meet them in a coffee house. Bump into them at a trade fair. Or call them on the telephone, which I know wasn’t around then, but you get my drift.
Now, though, there are limitless ways to “meet” customers (and I use those speech marks advisedly). They are all screen-based, and therefore fun, particularly if they involve creating rich media assets (RMA), like animations, slideshares or videos.
Reason the fourth – psychology – “I went to university, I am above such things”
Someone once said, “marketing is selling done by graduates”. Not true, but they had a point. Don’t get me wrong, I went to university as well. I did start my business career in sales, but wanted to move into marketing.
Examine your conscience and ask yourself if there isn’t just a tiny part of you that feels the same way – that selling is a few ticks down the social scale from marketing.
Reason the fifth – emotion – “I am afraid to sell”
“What if they say ‘no’?” is perhaps the commonest fear of the inexpert salesperson. The fear of rejection is a powerful disincentive to mastering selling.
Others, particularly self-employed professionals, worry that they are somehow putting themselves forward, which, of course, they are. But as I once said to a freelance copywriter, if you don’t blow your own trumpet nobody else is going to blow it for you.
Reason the sixth – aesthetics – “it’s distasteful”
For many people in the “creative” field, especially those in traditional advertising agencies, the very idea that they might be there to shift merchandise is an affront to their sense of taste.
The very word “creative” suggests kinship with Picasso, Jane Austen, Mozart and Barbara Hepworth, rather than Willy Loman.
In his otherwise excellent book, On Creativity, Sir John Hegarty makes a revealing comment: “Persuasion has a bad reputation because it’s associated with selling things to people, sometimes selling them things they don’t even want”.
This from a man who runs an advertising agency.
Reason the seventh – identity – “I don’t want to ‘be’ a salesperson”
Picture the scene. You are at a cocktail party. Your gorgeous interlocutor leans in, gazes deep into your eyes and asks, “So, what do you do?”.
And you answer, “I work in sales”.
Hmm. Or do you say, “I am an unemployed sewer cleaner and I sit around in parks all day drinking cheap hooch from a bottle hidden in a paper bag”.
Far-fetched? Maybe. A little. But it is another variant on the whole cultural/aesthetic/psychological objection to selling. Somehow it isn’t quite ‘nice’. Or certainly not in the UK, where I suspect its association with ‘trade’ makes it a distinctly non-U profession.
The consequences of avoiding selling
Whether or not you agree with me on the reasons for our overall suspicion of selling, I think you’ll find it harder to disagree with me on the results of avoiding it, demonising it or characterising it as outmoded.
It’s not that social media, content marketing and the rest don’t work. Everything ‘works’. Even a chocolate teapot works, briefly. But there are other things that work better.
After I finish this article my next job is to reply to an email from a would-be freelance copywriter who doesn’t want to sell herself in any way except through her writing.
What can I say to her? “Good luck with that,” springs to mind. As does, “well, that’s you and about a hundred thousand other sales-averse freelancers”.
If you can’t, won’t or don’t sell then eventually you will go out of business. Because selling means showing someone why exchanging their money for your goods will make them better off in some way.
HOW you sell is up to you, but please, let’s not kid ourselves that anyone, anywhere built a successful business by sitting on their rear-end waiting for customers to ‘discover’ them.
You may say, “what about natural search?” and I would reply, “what about when they click the link and arrive on your site? Then what?”
At its best, and most valuable, copywriting is selling.
The natural searcher arrives at your site and you sell like your life depends on it.
You present them with a powerful reason to buy. You allay their fears. You offer them social proof in the form of testimonials. And, critically, you ask for the order.
To paraphrase John Kennedy, this is salesmanship on screen.
The consequences of embracing it
What can we expect if we learn how to sell using the written word?
Only good things, I’m happy to report.
We can achieve our financial goals.
We can build our businesses.
We can provide for ourselves and our families.
We can give money to worthy causes.
We can help our customers to lead better lives – because our products will help them.
A modern approach to selling
Let’s end this discussion with a rededication to the oldest mercantile principle in the world.
We will deal with people. Literally.
We will find them as well as helping them find us.
We will make them offers.
They will make us counter-offers.
We will agree a price, shake hands and do the deal.
We will sell.