Michael Masterson Talks to Arthur Johnson About Writing for the Alternative Health Market
MM: During the early years, when you were transitioning from doing brochures to promotional copywriting – were there any surprises when you tried to write your first sales letter?
AJ: I think the hardest thing I ran into was actually getting inside the head of my audience. I still find that to be the key to writing any kind of promotional stuff. In the case of the Franklin Mint, their typical buyer/collector was in his 60s, and I was in my 20s. I wasn’t used to trying to think like other people, so that job was great training because it taught me to get in touch with an audience that was totally foreign to me.
MM: How do you do that when you write copy for the health market today?
AJ: Well, there are a couple of ways of doing it. One way is to take a look at what they read. I try to find books and magazines that address that same audience. I don’t necessarily look for material that I can put into my promotion. Instead, I look for evidence of their attitude.
What do they worry about when they go to bed at night?
What do they hope for when they wake up in the morning?
If I can reach out to them in a compassionate and understanding way – in a way that makes them feel that I know what they’re worried about, that I know what’s hurting them, that I understand this and we’re going to make it better – I find that if I can do that and incorporate the facts of the product, I’ve pretty much got it written.
MM: Is it fair to say that, in your view, the buyer of the alternative health products that you write about is interested not only in getting cured, but also in having a sympathetic ear?
AJ: Yes, I think so. Nobody wants to hear about your aches and pains, so a health problem is often a very private experience. And the older you get, the more private it gets, because all your friends have aches and pains, and yours are the last thing they want to hear about. Also, I think that people who come to alternative medicine tend to have problems that traditional medicine has not found an answer for.
Still, I’ve found that a lot of the people I’ve talked to who are some of the biggest believers in alternative medicine have very firm ties to their traditional doctors. They think, “My doctor is great for this, but he doesn’t understand that.” So one of the things I try to do when I’m addressing an alternative audience is pitch a big tent. While I understand how traditional medicine doesn’t have the answer for them, I don’t want to say bad things about their doctors because they may still like their doctors.
MM: What are the primary beliefs, feelings, or desires that you run into in the alternative health field?
AJ: One that I think isn’t greatly appreciated is that people are just trying to make sense of it all. It’s not enough to present them with a solution in terms of testimonials, promises, and scientific proof. It really helps to tell them exactly why a product works. So you make the light bulb turn on in their heads and make it seem like it’s actually their idea: “Oh, now I understand. Well, sure, then this thing would work.”
MM: So maybe when, as you say, you “make the light bulb turn on,” and they feel like they finally understand it, you give them a deeper feeling of security about the solution that you’re offering than they would have if it were simply backed up by science.
AJ: Yes, I think so. And I also think, especially today, that there’s a little transaction that goes on in direct-mail copy. That if somebody is going to devote a half-hour to an hour (or however long it takes) to reading a promotion, you have to give him something in return beyond the sales message. You have to deliver some information – and you also have to entertain him. Obviously, the trick is to deliver that information in a way that sells the product.
MM: I’m a big advocate, and I’m sure you are too, of showing, not telling. The reason I think it’s so much better to show information is because of that intellectual process you were talking about. If you show the evidence, let the reader kind of walk his way through it, and give him a chance to have the light bulb go on in his head, he feels as if he owns the decision. He arrived at it, more or less, on his own. It’s not so much manipulation, it’s giving the prospect buyer a chance to experience what you already experienced when you did your research and came to the conclusion that you came to.
AJ: Yes. And I like that approach a lot because it respects the intelligence of the reader – which I think is especially necessary if you’re selling a publishing product. It also enables you to spin out your story in a more relaxed way, because you’re actually spinning it out in the same way as when you came to your own conclusion. When you’re writing your promotion, you try to piece together the process that led you to the conclusion that this is a good product and that this is a good recommendation – and to spin it out in the most easy-to-understand and persuasive way possible.
MM: Some of the health promotions I see I would characterize as scary, and some I would characterize as reassuring. Do you have any thoughts as to which of these is the better route?
AJ: Well, I always prefer being reassuring rather than scary. I think that in the area of health, people are generally pretty scared to begin with. And, yeah, there are some instances when you might find a need to scare people. But I think if you actually tap into your readers’ own emotional databanks, all you have to do is address their fears in a very gentle way, and they’ll be plenty receptive.
MM: The reason I ask that question is because I was once involved in a promotion that was more on the scary side. It was the first health promotion I had done in a while (for a publishing kind of product), and I wasn’t really sure about it. We let it out, and it didn’t do very well. Then, when I picked up the package – and, of course, after the results come in, it’s much easier to see things that are obvious that were not so obvious before – I looked at it and it struck me as being very negative. I was glancing at some of your packages, and when I saw how affirming (I don’t want to say “positive”) they are, I thought that might be a secret.
AJ: Yes, I think that is a secret. But on the flip side, I think it’s okay to talk about their pain – if you can talk about it in a sympathetic way.
MM: Right. But you don’t want a lead that says, “If you think you’re in trouble now, wait till …”
AJ: No, no, I wouldn’t say that. I just want to cozy up to them like the old country doctor and say, “Everything’s going to be fine.”
MM: Of course, there are exceptions to rules. I’m remembering one successful headline that mailed for some women’s health newsletter. Though I think the copy was, in fact, reassuring, the headline said, “Read this or die.”
AJ: There are many exceptions out there – and that one is a great one, because it worked so well.
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