Story Behind a Successful Copy Challenge

Last week I got great news. Copy I collaborated on a couple of months ago was very successful.

Although it was very successful, the copy didn’t earn me one cent. But that’s just fine by me. You see, it has the potential for earning my town’s library and the recreation district up to $32,000 a year.

Small peanuts when compared to the budgets of larger cities. And certainly minuscule when compared to what major publishing companies like Agora, Inc., hope to earn.

But this money keeps our library and swimming pool open. And, in my rural, very poor community, where 90% of the children and youth qualify for free lunch, this money is huge.

Sweetening a possibly bitter pill …

You might be thinking I’m talking about a grant I helped write. I wish. A grant would have been easy in comparison.

Let me explain.

The challenge was to write election materials urging the passage of a half-cent sales tax increase to keep our library and swimming pool open.

Many people think California is “ultra-liberal.” So, passing a tax increase to keep the library open and our kids swimming should be a slam-dunk.

This is miles distant from reality. Rural California is anything but liberal. Tax increases don’t pass easily. A similar measure to raise taxes for the library failed a couple of years ago.

So, fellow writer Tim H. and I had to approach this challenge carefully.

Tim is a member of our town’s Friends of the Library. He’s the managing editor of a literary magazine in town and contributes articles to regional magazines and newspapers. He’s an excellent writer, but a bit formal.

Our challenge …

Tim’s job was to gather specifics about the tax, the legal ramifications, and what we could and could not say. A lot of information.

And, nobody wants to read long, extended essays about why a tax should be increased. In fact, few people want to even read about taxes, let alone raising them. So, my job was to hone those specifics into bite-sized chunks.

Where did I start?

Exactly where you would start writing any direct-marketing copy … with getting to know your “prospect” … in this case, the voter. One of the most effective strategies for getting to know your prospect is talking to him or her personally.

In my situation, I had a distinct advantage over a copywriter writing similar copy in a large city. I know my neighbors personally. These are people I talk to every day.

So, before I wrote anything, I needed to find out how my neighbors – my prospects – felt about this issue.

Researching, not politicking …

When I talk to fellow copywriters about talking to prospects, I advise not to launch into questions about the product. For example, if I were going to write about a joint product called Flex-So-Good, I wouldn’t mention the name … or even hint at a product. I’d ask how joint problems affect their lives.

And, I’d listen more than talk.

Same with our tax measure. I listened to what my neighbors had to say … neighbors who weren’t excited about raising the sales tax.

What did I learn?

When many of them heard “sales tax,” what they really heard was “tax.” And, in this area, that’s a three-letter dirty word.

Why don’t they like taxes?

“I already pay enough taxes …”

“Why do they want to raise ‘em more?”

“I’m tired of paying for other people …

“I won’t get anything from this …”

I could have guessed these responses. They’re what people all over the U.S. say about taxes. But, it was important for me to hear it personally. To see their faces. To hear where their voices raised when they spoke.

The two big road blocks …

I took two essential ideas away from chatting with my neighbors.

The first was that few people felt they would benefit from the tax increase. Most of the voters don’t use the pool. Kids do. And, few of them use our library. They buy their books. Or, they don’t read.

The second big idea I learned is that the people I spoke with were tired of paying for other people. They felt almost as if they were the only ones who paid taxes. “I pay more than my fair share …”

We approached the first perception by accentuating the library is a resource that goes far beyond lending books. It’s a community meeting place. People use the computers there for online education. Many people borrow DVDs and videos from the library for free.

The unstated but clear message was this: Even if the voter didn’t use the library personally, he or she knew someone who did. The library was improving the town.

The pool? The message I wanted the voters to get was this: The pool is a safe place for children to hang out during the summer. Under good supervision. And, the kids aren’t hanging out by the fountain on main street.

What about the idea, “I pay more than my fair share”?

In every piece of copy, I pushed the idea that this tax is paid by everybody: home owners, renters, residents … and visitors (AKA tourists).

The idea that tourists could help keep the library and pool open must have been a sweet one, because …

 … the proposition passed with over 62% “yes” votes.

Now, I don’t expect you’ll be writing copy to raise taxes anytime soon. But the core lesson here is to go beyond easy research when you want to get to know your prospect.

Talk to her or him personally. Listen carefully. Watch. Dig for deeper meaning beneath the words.

And, say thank you. Because when you do this, your prospect has done a huge amount of work for you.

I’d love to hear your ideas about talking to your prospect personally … or about anything I covered today.

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Published: November 16, 2015

17 Responses to “Story Behind a Successful Copy Challenge”

  1. Congratulations, Will.... on two levels.

    First, using your writing skills to benefit the community in many ways.

    Second, for sharing the 'method' to accomplish this difficult task.

    ~joseph lacey

    Joseph Lacey

  2. As a former librarian, I appreciate your efforts, Will!
    As beginning copywriter, I appreciate your sharing your method with us! I'm going to keep it in mind the next this Wednesday, when I go to meet prospective clients at a coffee gathering to find out what's bugging them, what works for them and what I can do to help!
    In fact, I may write a cheat sheet and keep it with me.
    Thank you again!
    Erika Zeitz


  3. Congratulations Will! What a wonderful way to use those copywriting skills! Seeing happy kids and an open library seem like a nice paycheck to me. I have alway found that you get more information than just answers from folks when you chat. And thanks for a nice reminder of that!

    Guest (Jane Armstrong )

  4. This was a marvelous article and a great example of understanding human psychology without being judgmental, but instead using the knowledge for a greater good. Thanks for sharing!

    Guest (Kristine Morris)

  5. Invoking quantum mechanics can actually help in the kind of pitch discussed here today. When pitching uncertainty's bent on anything indiscernibly determining BOTH location AND momentum, more people want to jump on dynamism's bandwagon than standing still.

    Take, for example, pitching justice duly processed over quick fixes. When advising that hate in but a moment askew risks being too hasty, everyone wants to suddenly align instead with the ages, whence our better angels are truly defined.

    Guest (Chris Morris)

  6. Hello Will, We have been talking about persuasion lately. It appears that this crowd was going to be a hard sell regardless of how well you convinced them that you understood them. This was a combination of knowing your audience, listening, convincing them that you understand them, and persuasion.

    Nora King

  7. It is so true that we learn by listening and non-verbal communication. So we listen intently. Thanks Mr. Newman

    Guest (Almarine)

  8. Like so many of your articles, another great one filled with useful tips that I'll be printing and saving for future reference. Thank you for sharing...and for your ongoing generosity with the copywriting community.

    Teri Weber - Enchanted Copy

  9. The Benefit of social and community Engagement is Mutual Growth. The Penalty of the opposite--Hermit-age….

    Thank you Mr. Newman

    NB: Is the word Image below coincidence or Irony?

    Guest (enmarc AWAI Member-pseudonym)

  10. This is more than a post. It is an excellent case study.
    Presenting this message required three things:
    1. Mining for the core problem to the taxpayer
    2. Presenting the root benefits that can resolve this problem.
    3. Defining the solution that resonated to him in a way that broke down communication biases.


  11. Hi Will. Great article. And congrats on a succeesful outcome.

    You talked about getting to know our prospect by talking to members of the prospect group personally. But you said that in doing so, we should not mention the product (e.g., Flex-So-Good) or any product. How do you broach the subject then? What questions do you ask?

    For example, if the topic is joint problems, they're gonna want to know why you want to know how joint problems affect their lives. What do you say? Thanks Will.

    Jeff Soufal

  12. Sorry to be a wet blanket, but I disagree with getting the money through taxes, which force people to pay.

    How much better if your persuasion had been directed toward something more ethical, raising the money through a voluntary fund.

    Guest (J A Coffeen)

  13. Thanks for your work on this project and for recording the experience for us. I am SO encouraged to see how you use these skills for the public good. I hope we can see more stories like this balance our personal-income-goal-stories with public service (given the great needs in every community and all over the world).
    Happy Thanksgiving!

    Anita in CA

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