I’ve always struggled between doing what’s “tried and true” versus the “new and improved.”
Despite the popularity of blogging and social media, direct marketers will tell you mail order still works. Cold calling still works. They are time-tested and true, whereas blogging and social media may be all the rage right now… But they are unproven, and in fact, do not work.
Does “long form” still work?
“It’s dead,” the new guys say. People, especially online, are busy, easily distracted, and won’t take the time to read anything longer than a tweet. What matters now is making everything, short, concise, and beautiful. Nobody wants to buy from a used car salesman.
“Human nature doesn’t change,” the old guys say. The cardinal rule has always been to never bore people. As long as what you write is interesting, stokes their passion, and keeps them engaged, people will read. In fact, it is relevant today more than ever. People feel so disconnected, we yearn for somebody to understand and connect with us.
Why I lean towards old school
I’ve always been somewhat of a rebel (I refuse to follow rules that don’t make sense). But in business, I lean towards old-school, tried and true, stuff, because:
- Most new books are crap; old books that are still relevant have stood the test of time and are therefore more likely to be worth my time.
- I differentiate from other young people by seeking old-school wisdom: While everybody else is practicing Copy Hackers, I’m rocking Gary Halbert and David Ogilvy.
- I’ve tested selling a SaaS app to 20–30 year old customers, using a 100-page sales page. It worked, is still working, and I kind of just generalized from that.
Of course, there’s value in new things: creating a website, learning to code, connecting with influencer through Twitter. I do do both.
But it’s a struggle. The direct marketing gurus of the 1920’s through the 60’s such as Claude Hopkins, Gary Halbert, and even John Carlton, heavily influenced how I write. Use of persuasion formulas like AIDA, making big, audacious promises, aggressive language…
My writing is consistently criticized as too hypey and salesy.
From most people, I don’t mind. Most people are not even familiar with the term “direct marketing.”
But when the criticism comes from mentors, people who know what they’re talking about – When they argue that if I’m making high dollar sales, to people aware of typical persuasion tactics… When I ask them to not only spend money on me, but to trust me… That if these are my goals, then maybe I should lower the hype — When that person critiques my writing, I listen.
Still, it’s a struggle. In influence and persuasion, the fact that you know how something works doesn’t keep it from working. After all, when I watched Inside Out, the fact that I noticed scenes Pixar engineered to make me cry didn’t keep the tears from falling.
Everything “clicked” when I read Paul Graham’s essay, How to Be an Expert in a Changing World.
I don’t like it when people say “the world keeps changing, fast” or that “what we’re doing is so new…” For me, most things are not new. Maybe you’re trying to create a new hybrid of a restaurant. Or you’re trying to build a different kind of organization. But you are just building a restaurant or an organization. Doing these are hard, for sure, but for the most part, there are best practices for that. Don’t insist on reinventing the wheel.
But in 1998, I created my first email account, firstname.lastname@example.org. I was the first among my friends (I was in first grade) and proceeded to find email penpals.
In 2010, my mom received an iPad for Christmas. I brought it to class. Everybody oooh’d and ahhh’d over it and smudged the screen playing Fruit Ninja.
Today, only five years later, everybody owns an iPhone and an iPad, and buys one every (or other) generation. And of course, everybody hates email now too.
Obviously, things do change.
So back to Paul Graham, he wrote:
Beyond the moderately useful generalization that human nature doesn’t change much, the unfortunate fact is that change is hard to predict.
Of course! It makes so much sense now.
The moderately useful generalization that human nature doesn’t change much…
To evangelize the best practices of their time, the gurus’s main argument was that human nature does not change.
That statement was so profound to me. In fact, it let me to assume: If something as important as human nature doesn’t change, then it follows that a lot of things (even though I can’t name them) don’t change too.
I know believe this is a false assumption.
With the exception of human nature, everything changes.
- Cold calling may still work, but why do it, when warming a contact over Twitter, email, or LinkedIn is so much easier, and more effective?
- Hypey, high-pressure, buy now salesletters may work, but why do it at the expense of building trust? The door to door salesman either closes the sale today or risk never seeing the prospect again… But I (with the help of the technology) can get an email address, and educate and nurture – while increasing lifetime value – the prospect until he’s ready to purchase.
With that said, the question remains… How do you balance the new and improved with the tested and true?
When should you read books that have stood the test of time versus blog posts on topics that move too fast to be put into a book? When should you “go for the close” versus delay it?
Well, like for most issues, it depends.
The answer is context.
Context dictates whether doing what’s tried and true versus the new and improved will lead to success.
The answer is not as futile and useless as it sounds.
It may depend, but there are a few questions I use as a guideline:
- What is the standard practice in your market? Usually, customer gloss over overdone tactics.
Maybe 20 years ago, long salespages with yellow highlights and red underlines were overused. But today, especially in tech, everybody uses short and beautiful salespages that do not communicate why customers should care about the product.
Standing out and refusing to be put in a bucket with everyone else are almost always useful. (With the caveat that your point of differentiation matters to your customer.)
- How much do you already know?
When I’m new to a field, I don’t even know what I don’t know. I’m not in a position to judge what’s legit and what’s not.
For example, when learning business, I very quickly learned to identify people who teach business but have no experience making money aside from teaching other people how to make money.
When you’re new, it’s good practice to learn the fundamentals first anyway.
- Why do you lean towards one method over another?
If the reason is either because you’re used to doing stuff that’s worked or because you’re too cool and creative to learn the fundamentals… Then chances are, you need to start learning from the other side.
There’s value in both the old and the new. Our job is to decide when the time-tested versus the innovative is appropriate.
Ray Dalio, author of Principles, founder of Bridgewater, and 69th richest person in the world (as of October 2014), wrote something that has always stuck with me:
Understand that the ability to deal with not knowing is far more powerful than knowing. That is because there’s way more that we don’t know than what we could possibly ever know.
The ability to think through the context – of what you need to do, and how best to do it – is one tool you can use to deal with what you don’t know.