Predictions for 2021

Copywriter John Forde Looks Back Ten Years and then Predicts the Next Ten Years in Marketing

"Weather forecast for tonight: dark.
Continued dark overnight, with widely
scattered light by morning."
- George Carlin

It's a funny business, forecasting.

For instance, 10 years ago, you never could have guessed that we'd be where we are now.

Frankly, neither could I...

Ten Years After: What We Didn't Expect

If you remember, around this time a decade ago -- and after years of hearing that you either had to learn to write for the Internet or risk becoming a dinosaur dotcom stocks tanked.

Suddenly, we were left trying to figure out the marketing mix between snail mail and the Internet all over again.

Blogs barely existed. Same goes for email and video marketing, both just getting out of the gate for most marketers.

In Washington, the Clintons were boxing up their books and the Bushes were busy picking out the menu for their Inaugural dinner.

Across the rest of the country, the broad economy had hit a deep backslide, for the first time in nearly a decade.

What worked before, we were all thinking, might not work again. Or for a long time. But then, as now, few were certain.

As for me, I was still living in Manhattan.

Not yet married, working out of my West Village apartment, and still collecting the bulk of my copywriting royalties from print mailings.

Who could have known how much or how fast email marketing could have taken off?

Somewhere in the 10 years that followed -- even I can't remember exactly when -- the copy I was writing started making me more online than it did off.

Print mailings got less and less elaborate as they got more and more expensive. Online, we could test everything. And we did.

Perhaps I started writing differently, scaling back on copy sidebars and ramping up on search-friendly words.

"You've got to write shorter for the web," they told us, "because it's a younger, less patient audience."

Mostly though, that turned out to be all wrong.

Copy I cut to fit the "new" audience flopped. Copy I wrote and had posted online worked just as well or better than it had in print.

So well, in fact, that the information publishing company I worked with (and still work with, as my biggest client by far) tripled in size, from $100 million per year to well over $300 million.

Today, they still make millions in the mail. But the majority of sales are online. With copy that's really STILL not much different from the straight sales letters they've always relied on.

The Internet, it turned out, didn't die with the dotcom market bomb. It just took the next leap, from novelty to market staple.

Instead of obliterating the "old school," businesses comfortably absorbed online tools and integrated them into their already working business models.

For us and others who figured out how to use it, it turned out the best way to use it was to gather and market to new names... to involve and engage with our original customers cheaply... and to deliver info- products faster and more cheaply.

For me, it let me work even more long distance. My wife and I picked up and moved (for at least a big part of the year) to Paris.

We now have kids and send them to school, while she and I both work from home. She on design (her day job) and me on, of course, copywriting projects.

As I write to you now, I'm sitting in our living room, listening to MP3s of music I can work to while a digital fire crackles on our big flat-screen TV.

It really is a different world. So, how different can you expect it to get over the NEXT 10 years?

Likely, my powers of prognostication won't hold up any better for this second decade of the new century than they did for the first, but I'll give it a shot...

The Next Ten Years: What You Can Bank On

As we look on, what's ahead?

Maybe telepathic reply cards... holograph-driven headlines... and scent-crafted sales copy, retooled for use on smell-o-vision. But I doubt it.

You're sure to hear plenty forecasting the need for even shorter copy ("Soon we'll be inscribing headlines on jet-powered microdots, so you'll have to trim it to fit.") But that will probably be wrong too.

What is true is that the mediums will evolve, yet again. For instance, the marketers I worked alongside this year did make a huge, successful leap into video marketing.

But not like you'd expect.

For one, we've found so far that low production values -- at least in our info-publishing market -- out pull fancy fireworks.

Our best performing stuff is just text on screen, with a voice reading it aloud in the background. And otherwise, it's barely changed from the copy we used in the print or online sales letter versions.

Short? Not even close.

The most astounding successes in our area, of the last six months, have been videos that run for -- brace yourself -- as long as 45 minutes to an hour.

I'm not making that up.

And when we try to edit it them down, do they pull even better? Not at all. Response drops by 20% or more.

What's changed though is that no longer can copy afford to be sloppy, meandering, or boring. The best messages compel from opening bang to ending order button.

(Come to think of it, hasn't that always been the truth? Well-crafted creative works best. But as in novels and Hollywood, that just seems even more true now than ever.)

As the world moves ever faster, we do seem to get less patient with our time. We'll spend it liberally if we're interested, yes.

But we're getting ever more stingy with our full attention when it comes to messages that don't do the work to meet us at least halfway.

Again, that doesn't at all mean "short."

It just means we'll keep on digging deeper, working harder, and getting better educated to talk to markets that are already experts on passions we'll target.

Obviously, you've gotten the message that tomorrow will be more mobile. That's only going to mean more breakthroughs in format and offer testing, too.

Magazines will figure out the subscription model. They'll have to. But more tablet computers beyond the iPad and an even bigger smartphone explosion, along with more integrated Internet and television, will all open other doors too.

Most will try to figure out "who" is on the other end of those mediums. And that will matter, especially when it means cracking open all those unexplored niche markets.

But maybe more important will be figuring out "where" those new customers are and "what" they'll want to look at.

A lot of the talk of the last 10 years was about how different our customers would be. However, all the big breakthroughs I can list were either in formats or how we compiled new customers lists.

(That's the only reason, by the way, that I think those who are looking into social marketing might yet be on to something... even though I suspect they don't know what, any better than the rest of us.)

The dialogue itself, either what we said or the how we said it, didn't change much at all.

That said, it did change a little. And will probably continue in that same direction.

Specifically, the more inundated our target customers are, the better we'll have to get at writing much LESS direct sales copy.

You might think that sounds backward.

After all, in a crowded market, don't you have to get to the point -- particularly the benefits -- faster? Certainly, you can't afford to waste a prospect's time. But with everyone shouting about how everything makes you slimmer, faster, smarter, richer, and cooler than the nerds on your neighbor's Facebook page, you'll have to look LESS like you're out to sell something.

That might just mean finding an even sharper emotional hook for your every sales pitch. It might mean learning to sell even better with stories.

What it will add up to is figuring out how to do more of what the fast-media, always-on information age does surprisingly poorly... which is add depth and not just breadth to personal connections.

I suspect, for no reason I can exactly put my finger on, we'll make more sales promises about not just improving a prospect's life, but improving the world's perception of the prospect too.

I don't just mean the standard appeals to vanity, but something bigger. The wider the physical gaps and more superficial the digital connections, the more we seem to crave "impact" and "influence" in the crowds around us.

People, of course, have always wanted to make a ripple. But these days it seems like an even more widely shared yardstick of success. Silent victories just won't do. Bragging rights, even those not exercised, seem to matter even more than they have in the past.

What will sell?

It depends on where the economy goes next. We've seen luxury "stuff" fall out of fashion, these past couple years. I don't expect it to come roaring back.

At least not anytime soon.

That said, even though I work in a sector where gloom- and-doom is a marketing staple (the financial info biz), you can't help but notice a recent uptick in expectations.

The market, say a lot of experts, is coming back. Housing, construction, energy demand. They're all seeing a surge. Even jobs might inch upward.

Some say that's because that's what always happens, going back over the last 100 years, in the third year of the U.S. presidential cycle.

Others might say it's because we've had a change of the guard or because of tax cuts or stimulus or whatever. Maybe it's just pent up cash and optimism.

It doesn't matter much why... maybe it's just nature saying we're overdue... but something this way comes.

The good news is that spending might be back. If only in a small way. The mixed news is that it might come with rising prices, i.e. what you and I know as inflation.

Oil prices, for instance, are surging. So are food prices and more. If stocks and housing go back up, that's just inflation of another kind.

As a marketer, that matters to you in more than one way. At the bottom line, it might mean you'll get a chance to raise your prices.

But it could also mean, and this is especially true if jobs don't come surging back fast enough, your prices could rise TOO fast. And that can come back to bite you, too.

Over the couple years ahead, maybe that translates into more deadline offers... "Act now or pay double when we hike prices at midnight, March 15"... or maybe just price testing, with an eye on competitors.

I'm just guessing on all of this, of course. And like I said, I could be as stunned as you are at how off these expectations might be.

What we'll be selling and how we'll sell it will almost absolutely change radically from what we're doing now.

Blogs, HTML emails, Facebook, even iPads and Android, and the iPhone... I don't expect any of it to be much more than a memory compared to what we're looking at now.

One thing I'm sure of, for 2021 and beyond, is that you can bank on the one thing that doesn't change: good copy will still target the same core emotions and still promise to serve the same core needs and solve the same core problems -- health, respect, wealth, and the rest.

You get that already, I'm sure. It will be trying not to forget it over these next 10 years that you'll find challenging.

BY THE WAY, if you ever want to reproduce one of these CR articles in a blog, in an email, in a book, on a milk carton... or on one of those banners they hang on the back of airplanes at the beach... GO AHEAD!

You've got my blessing.

Just promise you'll make sure you'll include a link back to my website and encourage your readers to sign up for $78 worth of free gifts.

Published originally in John's wonderful newsletter, Copywriters Roundtable. Subscribe and get your goodies at the above link.

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