Dr. Sears Reveals the Challenges of Writing for the Exercise Industry … And How to Overcome Them

Dr. Al Sears runs a successful medical practice, as well as a health and wellness business. Among his most successful programs is PACE, a patented exercise program. We asked him to share his experience with successfully promoting PACE through direct-response marketing.

CI: Why don’t you start by giving us a little background information on your PACE exercise program.

Dr. Sears: PACE has been around for about five years. We started promoting it with my own patients. We wrote a couple of free reports about it that we would give out. And we used those reports as premiums to market my newsletter and my e-letter service. Then the PACE book came out just last year.

PACE has become our number one selling product. We’ve never had another book or nutritional product that sold like PACE does. And it’s got legs. It is very sustainable. It continues to sell well. We’ve sold over a million dollars’ worth of these books.

It’s also led to several ancillary products. We’ve marketed a PACE DVD and two audio CDs. Then we had a similar idea about exercising above your current aerobic capacity. It’s kind of an outcropping of PACE, and it’s turned out to be our second-best-selling product. We are now doing a PACE video and working on the second edition of the PACE book and a few more audios. We’ve marketed several bundled packages that include PACE, and we now have Dr. Mercola and several other outside vendors selling PACE. PACE sales have grown on Amazon relatively organically, which we think is because of the basic idea of the book. It is selling more and more on Amazon with virtually no copy.

CI: What have been the most successful techniques for promoting and selling the PACE program?

Dr. Sears: To the exercise files that we’ve been able to sell it to, the rules are mostly the same: Good copy is good copy. The thing that was particularly successful with PACE was to make the idea appear very contrarian from the beginning. The approach is: “Everything you thought you knew about exercise turns out to be wrong.”

That has been the concept behind several of our promos. The most successful promo that we’ve had so far has the headline “Are Your Lungs Dying?” It carries through with the supposition that your lungs shrink with age. All the way through it is this contrarian focus – that what we have accepted as scientific knowledge of exercise was incomplete and mistaken in many important ways.

The contrarian nature of the idea seems to drive the promos. When we try a promo that’s based on the more typical benefit-driven approach, it does less well. Our next-best-selling headline, for instance, was “Throw Away Your Jogging Shoes.” The lead was focused on how everybody has been wrong about this important aspect of exercise. It used that surprising and contrarian you-thought-you-knew-but-I’m-here-to-tell-you-different kind of approach.

CI: What have been some of the unique challenges of writing a successful promo for the exercise industry?

Dr Sears: The first unique challenge is the obvious one – that nobody really wants to exercise. You’re trying to sell them something they don’t want to do, so you have to use what Michael Masterson the Principle of Transparency. You can’t focus on the fact that you’re selling them an exercise program. You have to see through that to the eventual benefit of the exercise program.

So you tell them what it’s going to do for them – not that they’re going to have to buy a book and actually read it and then actually work at the exercises. You tell them things like: it’s only 10 minutes a day, it’s easy, it’s fast, it’s fun, and you don’t have to do the grueling exercise.

The principle obstacle is the nature of what you’re selling. You’re selling exercise, and people would just as soon skip it. The way we got around that was to beat up on exercise. As a matter of fact, we never call our program exercise.

The term PACE, when I originally conceived it, was Progressively Accelerated Cardiopulmonary Exercise. But then I started thinking, “How many people are going to say ‘Hey, what I really need is a new exercise program’?” So we called it Exertion instead of Exercise. And when we write about it, we use the word exercise when we’re beating up on the other guy. When we say, “You know, you don’t really need an hour of exercise” or “Exercise is grueling” or “Exercise is a waste of your time” or “You don’t really need to go out and pound the pavement.” We associate exercise with all the negatives – with the injuries and the boredom and the basic feeling among most people that they’d really rather be doing something else.

CI: So taking the contrarian point of view was how you overcame that initial objection.

Dr. Sears: Yes. Part of the contrarian point of view is that you don’t really need long-duration exercise – that shorter exercise works better. That’s one of the reasons for the success of PACE. You’re selling an idea that they already want. They would like to believe that they can get the benefit of exercise without spending an hour a day in the gym. And, of course, it’s easier to sell something that people already want rather than to try to create that want.

CI: Let’s switch gears a bit and focus on the copywriter. As somebody who hires copywriters, what do you think is the most valuable trait a copywriter can have when writing for the exercise industry?

Dr. Sears: In general, flexibility, rather than experience, is surprisingly important. Many times, I work with a writer and they want to write what they want to write. I want them to write what I want them to write, and that often means they lose future work with me. I expect that I can tell them what I want them to say and that they’ll try to understand what I want and do it to the best of their ability. Not to say, “Well, he wanted this, but I really think it should be this,” and then do it their way. It’s partly a matter of ego, but when you’re writing for someone else, you have to force yourself away from what you want to write. What you want to write doesn’t matter. You have to fully accept the role of writing for someone else, and write what they want in the way they want it. Your job is to figure out what they want and provide it.

You would think that goes without saying, but it’s surprising how often that becomes a make or break issue with a writer. If they do it the way I want it, we are probably going to give them more work. If they don’t, if they resist, we’re probably going to find somebody else.

Keep in mind that our approach is very contrarian. We pick out the things about exercise that we know to be true but convention doesn’t … and we focus on that. So if a writer is bringing along the baggage of what they believe to be true, what they’ve written about before, or what they read about somewhere else, it’s almost always going to contradict what we want to say. It’s unlikely they’re going to know or believe our point of view. They have to be willing to shift into what our experience and our specialized knowledge has taught us that no one else knows. Often, they want to tone it down, and I think that’s a big mistake when you’re writing copy to sell something. What works best in our industry, in most cases, is a very focused, single point of view that is contrarian and considered by most to be extreme.

CI: What do you like copywriters to understand about your audience?

Dr. Sears: Our audience can be broken into two broad groups. One group is those who are familiar with us. That would include the people who subscribe to my newsletter, get my e-zine, get my e-letters, and/or have read my books. The other group is those who don’t know about me yet – and we have to talk to them differently.

It’s a matter of preaching to the choir. When someone has already bought even one of my books, they usually become a convert. That means we can be more direct in approaching them with a new product, either an information product or a nutritional product. It’s important to tell them that this is my recommendation – and you only need to tell them a little bit of the why.

But when we’re going to an outside file and they don’t know me, we can’t just say, “Dr. Sears thinks you should do this.” Instead, we have to use a more indirect approach. You have to hook them and captivate them before you even let them know in the copy that there’s a product available.

I suppose that’s true for other industries as well, but I know it’s true for the healthcare industry. When the promo is going to people who know me, you can just start right away with the benefits of the offer. You can go with problem/solution, which is the basic structure for most direct-marketing sales in healthcare.

But when it’s going to people who don’t know me, the direct method doesn’t work at all. You need to do something like start with a story – maybe a testimonial from a patient. Or you can make a prediction – another indirect technique, where you don’t mention the offer until after you’ve got them interested.

CI: It’s important for our readers to understand the difference between writing to the front-end and to the back-end.

Dr. Sears: It’s like night and day. We’ll have a promotion that does $25,000 to our house file, and when we send it to an outside file it will do less than $1,000. We’ve been analyzing why certain promotions that were such big hits to our file failed so miserably to an outside file. We looked for common patterns – and what we found was that the promos that failed with an outside list used a direct sales approach. One of those promos started something like this: “I went to the rain forest and I found a product that I brought back for you that I want to tell you about.” When you put that to a file that’s not familiar with you, they know right away that you’re selling something. It’s too direct, and they are offended … because you haven’t yet hooked them.

So we converted that to “American doctor treks to the Amazon and finds medicine’s Holy Grail.” And then we told the story of being there in the jungle, the jungle noises. And how my friend from the University of Peru pointed at something and said, “There it is, see that bush,” and I put the nuts in my hand. The reader didn’t yet know that there was something for sale, but we got them interested. And then, when we got to the offer, it was the same as it was in the first version of the promo. We didn’t change that part. The price and everything else was the same.

We’ve had that same experience with several of our information and supplement products. And we’ve had the same thing with PACE. We can sell PACE – the PACE book – to our file by saying, “I’ve got a great program for you and I want you to try it out” very early on in the lead. But that doesn’t work to an outside file. We have to hook them first. So we do that by saying, “Do you like going to the gym for an hour? Do you like all that sweating? What if you found out that none of it is necessary?”

Then we say that we did a study on twins, and found that the twin who did six minutes of exercise a day lost more fat and built more muscle that the twin who did 45 minutes of exercise a day. And then we talk about the physiological reactions that occur with exercise, about how you store energy. You get them enthralled and interested in that before you let them know that there’s a book available.

Like you say, there’s a big difference between a back-end proposition and prospecting to a front-end file.

CI: Are there changes or trends affecting your industry that copywriters should be aware of?

Dr. Sears: The trend is that it’s getting harder to give headlines impact by pumping up the claim. I mean, how much more can we get from what is now ubiquitous out there. You know, “Cure cancer with delicious juice” or “Beat heart disease for less than a penny a day.” Headlines have become so dramatic and so exaggerated that you can’t trump them. You can’t say it more powerfully or louder and make it work anymore. Ten years ago, you could. It’s different now.

You have to have not a louder or more sensational claim, but a more unique one. We’ve know for some time that uniqueness sells in headlines. It’s one of the four U’s. My concept of uniqueness has evolved now to be even more specifically unique to me and my knowledge and my contact with my customers. You’ve got to think of a way of connecting with them that only you can do. Whatever your product is, whatever your expertise is, you’ve got to get that through as something that’s ultra-specific to you. You’re the only person who could tell them this. You are the only person who could say that. You are the only source that they can use for this particular information.

Then you don’t need all that hyperbole.

CI: So the unique selling proposition is growing in importance?

Dr. Sears: Yes. And it’s changed from being just unique, because too many people out there are already doing that. Now you have to take it a step beyond making the benefits of your product seem unique. You have to make it unique to you, connect it to something that only you can provide.

Unique has a new connotation. In the age of Internet marketing, you’ve got to think of how you can differentiate your unique claim from everyone else’s attempts to make their claims unique. In our case, it’s “Dr. Sears’ [product name]” or “Dr. Sears discovers …” It’s something that’s unique to your story, your travels, your experience, your knowledge that has to be brought forward immediately in the headline and in the lead.

CI: What other tips do you have for our readers today?

Dr. Sears: There’s no substitute for knowing your product. The best copywriting ideas seem to come out of a complete and thorough understanding of what you are trying to sell. There’s no substitute for doing the work and researching the product.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »

Click to Rate:
Average: 4.3
Published: November 28, 2007

Guest, Add a Comment
Please Note: Your comments will be seen by all visitors.

You are commenting as a guest. If you’re an AWAI Member, Login to myAWAI for easier commenting, email alerts, and more!

(If you don’t yet have an AWAI Member account, you can create one for free.)

This name will appear next to your comment.

Your email is required but will not be displayed.

Text only. Your comment may be trimmed if it exceeds 500 characters.

Type the Shadowed Word
Too hard to read? See a new image | Listen to the letters

Hint: The letters above appear as shadows and spell a real word. If you have trouble reading it, you can use the links to view a new image or listen to the letters being spoken.

(*all fields required)