Author Archive

Marketing Classics: Four principles from the book that changed David Ogilvy’s life

January 26th, 2015 1 comment

Have you ever read an advertising or marketing book more than once? How about more than twice?

David Ogilvy once insisted about a book,

“Nobody should be allowed to have anything to do with advertising until he has read this book seven times. It changed the course of my life.”

What book was he referring to?

Marketer, meet Claude Hopkins, one of the original 1920s ad men who could masterfully blend both art and the rigor of science to marketing campaigns. He is known for many iconic ads of the past, including Pepsodent Toothpaste, which some credit with getting Americans in the habit of brushing their teeth.

Hopkins was studied and admired by both David Ogilvy (who most of us know) and Rosser Reeves (who many of us know as Don Draper).

Hopkins summarized his theory of advertising in a short, easy-to-digest, book called Scientific Advertising. This was Ogilvy’s go-to book. I remember the first time I read through it. What really struck me about it was its relevance to what we were discovering (or I guess is should say rediscovering) almost a century later here at

Now, I confess, I am only on my third round through this book, so I know I am not quite yet fit to work for Ogilvy, but I thought it would be fitting to share with you a few of Hopkins principles that seem relevant for us to remember nearly 100 years later.


PRINCIPLE #1: People are selfish

First, Hopkins warns the reader, “The people you address are selfish, as we all are They care nothing about you interests or profit. They seek service for themselves. Ignoring this fact is a common mistake and a costly mistake in advertising.”

Much of the advertising in Hopkins day had turned inward and focused primarily on what the business wanted the customer to do — mainly buy a product or service. They had forgotten that before you can move someone to action, you have to help them understand what is in it for them.

It’s humorous sometimes how we can fall into the same trap today as advertisers. You can see it in something as simple as our call-to-action copy. We use phrases like, “Buy now,” “Add to Cart,” “Register” or, even worse, “Submit.”

All these display the symptom that Hopkins was getting at — we are too focused on what we want from the customer, rather than what the customer wants from us.

We run simple A/B experiments (like this series) all the time in which changing emphasis from something like “Buy Product X” to “Get Product X” has a significant impact on customer response.

And it does not simply come down to using a word like “get.” It’s about the mindset behind the word “get.” As Hopkins pointed out, people are interested in what they “get,” not what the business “gets.”

This is as true today as it was then, and the most effective marketers today know how to empathize with the customer.


PRINCIPLE #2: Generalities are worthless

In the ’20s, Hopkin wrote, “Platitudes and generalities roll off the human understanding like water from a duck. They leave no impression whatever.”

If this was true in Hopkins day, how much more true is it today, when the average consumer is bombarded with hundreds of marketing messages a day?

 Hopkins continues, “To say, ‘Best in the world,’ ‘Lowest price in existence’, etc. are at best simply claiming the expected. But superlatives of that sort are usually damaging. The suggest looseness of expression, a tendency to exaggerate, a careless truth. They lead readers to discount all the statements that you make.”

If anything, consumers today are more jaded than they were in Hopkins’ day. The average postmodern consumer meets our campaigns with a disposition of disbelief. As Hopkins pointed out almost a century ago, and our experimentation confirms still today, our value claims must be stated with a degree of specificity to establish credibility.


PRINCIPLE #3: Advertising is salesmanship

In Scientific Advertising, Claude Hopkins was trying to close the gap between what advertising had become and what it should be. “Advertising is Salesmanship … the only purpose of advertising is to make sales … It is not for general effect … It is not to keep your name before the people … Treat it as a salesman. Force it to justify itself.”

In Hopkins day, advertising had forgotten its objective. It had become fluff that simply tried to bring some general sense of awareness, but it was not held to the same standard as the average salesman in his day.

To intensify his point, Hopkins pointed out that, “Some people spend $10 per word on an average advertisement. Therefore, every ad should be a super-salesman.”

Ten dollars per word? That’s nothing, Hopkins. Today, we spend over $100,000 per second of airtime during the Super Bowl. It is obvious the stakes are as high, if not higher, today when it comes to justifying our marketing. The question is, are we holding our advertising to the basic standard of producing results? Or as Hopkins might put it, are we still putting up with a lousy salesmanship?


PRINCIPLE #4: Advertising is a science

Finally, Hopkins states that “The time has come when advertising has in some hands reached the status of science … we learn the principles and prove them by repeated tests. This is done through keyed advertising, by traced returns, largely by the use of coupons.”

If only Hopkins could know that in just a few generations, the Internet would enable us to observe consumer response to marketing campaigns in real-time.

But still, he reminds us that, even in the past, advertising is not primarily speculation, but science.

It involves human decisions that can be tracked, observed and patterned. We may not have all the answers to why people say “yes,” but we do have the tools to discover the answers to these essential questions at the heart of all advertising.

The tools and our ability to listen and observe to the customer will only increase as technology does. Marketer, we have no excuse today for not turning to craft of marketing and advertising into, as Hopkins says, a science.


Was Ogilvy right about Hopkins?

Perhaps reading Hopkins seven times is a bit extreme, but I would agree with Ogilvy — anyone who is trying to market an offer to a consumer would benefit from reading Hopkins.

Times may have changed. The mediums have definitely changed. However,  what makes us tick fundamentally as humans is the same 100 years ago and will be the same 100 years from now.

Hopkins wasn’t the first to leverage advertising as a scientific window into the psychology of the human decision process. He wasn’t the last to transcend intuition with science when crafting advertising campaigns.

However, for a guy who probably never conceived of the tools marketers and advertisers would have at their fingertips today, he did hit the nail on the head when it came to his approach to advertising and the principles he discovered in his day.

So, if you are looking for a good marketing or advertising book to start off the year with, let me join Ogilvy and encourage you to pick up a copy (or download a now publicly-owned electronic version) of Hopkin’s classic, Scientific Advertising.


You might also like

Display Advertising: 3 basic questions every marketer should ask themselves about banner ads [More from the blogs]

Value Proposition: Which of your value claims is most appealing to new customers? [More from the blogs]

Email Segmentation: Targeted program reduces advertising costs 73%, leads to 3,000% ROI [MarketingSherpa case study]

Creating Customer-centric Messaging for Optimal Lead Generation [MarketingSherpa webinar archive]

Hidden Friction: The 7 Silent Killers of Conversion

August 15th, 2011 25 comments

Friction is one of the greatest obstacles to your conversion process, and though most marketers currently have some idea of what Friction is, many are only seeing half the picture.

When asking marketers to identify the Friction associated with a conversion process, the response is often very confident. Usually, the number of form fields on a page will be pointed out first, the number of steps in a process next, and occasionally a third comment might focus on the length of the individual pages themselves. The overall consensus from marketers is that if you can eliminate these simple elements, then you can eliminate Friction.

However, our research suggests that most of the Friction in a conversion process goes undetected. Further, this “hidden” Friction often is the most lethal to conversion. So, in this post I wanted to lay out 7 of the most undetected ways that Friction might be threatening your conversion rates. I have dubbed these The 7 Silent Killers of Conversion.

Read more…

Live Experiment (Part 2): Real testing is messy

June 10th, 2011 3 comments

As discussed in my last blog post, we reviewed how the marketing force of 200 marketers at Optimization Summit was utilized to design the following test:


Control (click to zoom)                              Treatment (click to zoom)

You can read the experiment details, how we got 200 marketers to agree, and few insightful reader comments in Wednesday’s post. In this second post now, as promised, we will look at the results and what insights might be gained from them. Read more…

Live Experiment (Part 1): How many marketers does it take to optimize a webpage?

June 8th, 2011 9 comments

Last week I had the privilege of being in the world’s tallest hotel in the Western Hemisphere, joined by over 200 other “nerdy” marketers, for what was the first-ever conference hosted by MECLABS on the topic of optimization and testing. Overall, it was a value-packed week.

But what I found most uniquely valuable about the Optimization Summit was a surprise live experiment in which the audience was asked to optimize and test a marketing campaign during the course of the conference. I had a backstage pass to what would become a thriller of an experiment, with many ups and downs, bends and turns. The only thing I could compare it to while in Atlanta was trying to hold two suitcases while free-standing on MARTA (which I successfully did by the way).

All in all, I learned a lot about testing in the process, and in the next two blog posts, I’d like to break out some of the key insights I walked away with. Read more…

This Just Tested: Stock images or real people?

April 8th, 2011 25 comments

In our most recent Web clinic on optimizing leads, we quickly reviewed a recent case study in which two banner images were tested – a generic stock image vs. an image of a real person. This experiment led to more insights than we had time to cover last week; so, I thought I’d give it a little more room to breathe here on the blog.

CONTROL: Who doesn’t love a generic smiling lady?

If you haven’t yet watched the Web clinic replay, the company (blurred intentionally) we were working with in this experiment was a consumer credit counseling service offering free debt consultation. Their homepage had been the focus of many previous radical redesign tests, but for the scope of this research project, we were focusing on one particular issue: The main banner image. Read more…

Marketing Intuition (Contest): Which email is more engaging?

February 9th, 2011 29 comments

If you have hung around this blog long enough, you know that we like to occasionally test and reward our audience’s
intuition. We do this by asking you to predict the outcome of a recent experiment from our labs. We might say we do it for the sake of science, but personally, I think we just enjoy stirring the pot. We have yet to reveal an experiment that the majority of our audience guessed correctly, yet some followers of this blog seem to have just a little more marketing genius than others.

So here we are again with a new experiment and a new opportunity for you to finally be recognized as the brilliant marketer that you are…. or weren’t last time. Read more…