Once upon a time, there was a man who lived on a ranch in California. Businesses paid him tens of thousands of dollars to write sales letters, and he had a waiting list measured in months.
When I say they paid tens of thousands of dollars for sales letters, I mean they paid those sorts of amounts for ONE LETTER.
He died in 2001. But his story is quite amazing – and much of the work he did continues to inspire marketers today.
Why am I telling you this? I think it could be useful for you.
This particular writer's name was Bill Jayme (pronounced “Jamie”). There are people who consider him to be the greatest copywriter ever. I'd agree there probably hasn't been a better one.
Bill Jayme operated within a very specific niche. He wrote direct mail letters – which he, in his straight-talking style, preferred to call ‘junk mail'. Most of them were designed to pull in subscriptions for magazines in the United States.
He helped launch no end of new publications, and also wrote for established titles such as Businessweek, Harper's and Esquire.
When people went to Bill Jayme for a letter, they got the envelope as well. His mailing packages were designed by his business partner, the Finnish-born Heikki Rata-lahti, whose visual design skills worked brilliantly in tandem with Jayme's copywriting.
Bill Jayme reached a position where he was so sought-after, if you wanted to meet him, you had to go to him. Executives from the East Coast willingly got on planes to California in order to do so, because they knew a Jayme-Ratalahti package could make the difference between a new magazine title succeeding or failing.
So it was when the New York Times interviewed him in 1990. When he showed the journalist who'd flown over to meet him his five-acre property and swimming pool, he said, “Everything you see was paid for by Dear Reader”.
Most of Jayme's letters begin with “Dear Reader”
Why? Because they were written in the days before computer databases made personalised letters possible. But it didn't matter, because what he wrote was always incredibly engaging to its target audience.
When he was asked what it was that made his work so successful, he replied, “I have an unusual gift for empathy”.
Getting into your reader's shoes. Knowing how they think. How they feel. What they really want.
There's really no substitute for that. You can be the best writer in the world – or you can have studied marketing and be able to talk all sorts of impressive jargon about it. But unless you can really connect with people, then your chances of getting them to buy anything are pretty low to say the least.
Which is why, as a business owner, I don't think you should worry quite so much about your own writing skills or your perceived level of marketing knowledge. What you need to know and understand most is your customers.
That all sounds very obvious. It is. But it's amazing how often people ignore the obvious. I still see lots of websites, read lots of brochures and get many emails sent to me, all of which make no attempt to build any rapport with me or make me feel that someone – someone who understands me – is communicating with me. They just come from businesses who are very wrapped up in themselves.
When Bill Jayme wrote the letter that launched Psychology Today magazine, the envelope had a ‘teaser' question on the outside. It asked:
That question was designed to appeal precisely to anyone who had an interest in human psychology – and to make others realise they were more interested in it than perhaps they had previously thought.
Another one asked,
“How much should you tip the waitress, when you're planning to steal the ashtray?”.
Yes, he had one of those minds that was just able to come up with these ideas that were very off-the-wall and creative, but at the same time remain very relevant. He didn't do ‘creative' for the sake of it – he only ever did it to get people hooked in.
Jayme's letters were something special, because they were genuinely witty and engaging, without trying too hard – and they never lost sight of the ultimate goal: getting people to part with their money.
He was very unorthodox. He broke a lot of the rules. He also refused to look at readership profiles, or the results of surveys or other research commissioned by the magazine publishers. His reasoning: “That information just tells us who they are or what they have – not what they want or who they want to be”.
So it wasn't that he didn't do his research. He just did it in a different way: he spent time really thinking about who he was writing to, and what would get them interested based on those two vital things: what they want, and who they want to be.
Do you know what your customers want, or who they want to be?
Does your current marketing really show empathy with them, or is it a bit wrapped up in itself?
It's worth thinking about, because as Bill Jayme's career proved, the results of showing genuine empathy can be very advantageous indeed.
“Junk mail's top dogs” (New York Times, 1990)
“Bill Jayme remembered for true creative work” (Direct Marketing News)
Thank you for your article Phil. Awesome as usual and I always learn something new.
For the listeners of the audio version of this blog, I usually mention a tool of the day. Today's tool is Grazebox – We send grazeboxes to people that have answered quizzes online, or uploaded a picture of the Green Umbrella car (GUS), to the Green Umbrella Facebook Page. We like grazebox as you can add a little personal message, and the nibblebox always goes down well with clients.