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Conventional Wisdom? Discuss

by Jill Pollack

What happens when you dare to not follow Conventional Wisdom? What does conventional wisdom even mean, and who gets to decide what is wise and what is folly?

In 1958 John Kenneth Galbraith was trying to persuade the people of the U.S. that our economic model was promoting income disparity. (Yes, we knew this was a problem way back then.) Making his case in the book, The Affluent Society, he used the phrase, “the conventional wisdom” over and over again.

Conventional wisdom, for Galbraith’s argument, meant common knowledge, approaches that reasonable people agree are correct and common. But, and this is a big but … Galbraith’s point was that just because “the conventional wisdom” may be agreed upon, it isn’t necessarily right. Amen!

Why, then, in this age of innovation, is the internet littered with so many marketing writers who simply follow “the conventional wisdom”—writing on and on and on—without stopping to ask: Is this the right approach? Is quantity more valuable than quality? Is there a better way to engage a reader in order to make a sale?

I learned several years ago that my penchant for zigging when the world was zagging wasn’t isolated to my firm stance against green smoothies (okay, I tried them but hated the kale getting stuck in my teeth). I also railed against the Conventional Wisdom (CW) for how to write sales copy for an online audience.

So why I am I ranting about CW now?

Beth Nyland, and I are re-building our Story Mode online school for storytellers using material from our live workshops and the online classes we’ve been leading for years. Our approach revolves around high-energy, interactive experiences, and we work hard to make our personalities and anti-conventional ideas pop.

So, I’ve been paying attention to how folks are marketing their online courses. What I’ve seen so far makes me want to sit in a dark room. You just can’t un-see some of those crazy, long, boastful, hyperbolic, mind-numbing pages that have no end.

Did you know there are thousands of classes to tell you how to create online classes? The come-ons are all the same: “I make $10 million an hour with classes that I really just threw together one afternoon. And you can too. For only $97/month I’ll share my secrets with you …”

If you’re making so much money, why the heck are you wasting time hawking this class to me? Shouldn’t you be on a beach or mountaintop somewhere?

I digress. It’s the hyperbole that makes me roll my eyes. Hyperbole can be fun (OMG, I saw, like, a gazillion of those scooters on the street.) But in sales, if you’re not trying to be funny, hyperbole is just an affront to my intelligence.

Why does the sales copy for online courses remind me of the Ronco Pocket Fisherman?

If any of the claims on those pages are remotely true, then god bless them. What bugs me is the marketing approach so common in these pitches: long long looooooong emails filled with short declarative sentences that repeat and speak to the reader as if it is 11pm and operators are standing by. 

I find the repetitive copy patronizing and boring. The page seems to think I’m an idiot and if it just keeps repeating the same lines over and over again—set off in bold and italic—that I will have no choice but to click Sign Me Up at the bottom. (I was going to find some examples but I know you’ve encountered them.)

Conversations, Not Conventions

It was 2012, and along with the brilliant web designers and SEO experts Tim Frick and Andy Crestodina, I co-founded a content marketing conference called Content Jam. (The conference has grown exponentially and is now run by Orbit Media.)

When we first launched Content Jam, SEO was just climbing to its throne. Tim and Andy wanted to teach folks about the technicalities of building websites and the analytics of internet marketing.

I was always the lone voice standing in the back of the crowd screaming, yes, but what about the copy? What about the story?

Most of the workshops we offered centered around numbers and user experience: What color should that call to action button be? How will you choose the keywords to attract search engines? What words do you have to use over and over again before Google will give you the time of day?

Among all our workshops, only one focused on the copy itself. It was, ahem, mine. Everything else was about convincing Google to raise your ranking.

I learned quickly that people really care about the numbers. Analytics detailing how many people viewed your page, or clicked through an e-newsletter, or actually converted and gave you their email address … these are important ways to measure the effectiveness of your marketing.

Still, I held my ground, reminding everyone that without a good story, all the SEO in the world won’t build your audience. We can’t just focus on analytics, because SEO is not the only thing that matters. Eyeballs do not an audience make. A good story about something that matters to your audience is what moves people to purchase a product.

A good marketer wants to build a relationship with a potential customer, even if the relationship only lasts a minute or two. Why? Because it doesn’t matter how many times I use Google’s keyword in a paragraph; if I’m not telling a story that means something to my audience, then I am wasting everyone’s time.

The marketing god Seth Godin knew this more than a decade ago when his famous quote made the rounds:

“Marketing is no longer about the stuff you make, but about the stories you tell.”

Conventional Wisdom Adapted

Even Godin has an incredibly long page to market his online marketing class. But he also bucks a bit of the CW. He has actual sentences that flow into one another. He uses the language of adults. He doesn’t speak to me like I am a QVC addict.

I believe in respecting the reader. Yes, I want to make them do their work (as an old writing teacher used to say), to participate in the conversation I’m creating. But I don’t want to insult their intelligence. 

Think Small

In the 1950s, the CW in advertising was that if you are buying a full-page print ad, you should use all the space you’ve paid for. Advertisers loaded their pages with sketched pictures and photos and paragraphs of text. They filled every column inch. 

Then everything changed when, in 1959, the first Volkswagen (VW) “Think Small” ad for the Beetle, or Bug as it is affectionately known, appeared in American newspapers.

When VW wanted to break into the American market, they had a lot to struggle against. The Bug had been developed because Hitler wanted an affordable car for the German masses. (I learned about this from a great podcast that I highly recommend: Household Name.)

With the war still too much on people’s minds, and U.S. consumers none-too-welcoming of German companies, no American advertiser wanted to touch it. 

But DDB took it on. Against conventional wisdom. 

And they did something really crazy: they bought full-page newspaper ads and used only a smidgen of that space. Their “Think Small” campaign for the Beetle featured a teeny picture of the car, sitting in a sea of white space, with a block of small text copy below.

It rocked the advertising world and set off Beetle Fever. 

CW is like any other rule: If it doesn’t make sense to you, why follow it?

Attention Online Marketing Conventional Wisdom: I Challenge Thee

Here’s an Eventbrite page we recently used to promote a Story Mode workshop. It’s short and to the point, yet thoroughly describes what will happen in class, how you’ll feel as a participant, and most importantly, what you’ll learn. Oh, by the way, the class sold out.

Why can’t you wear white before Memorial Day? Must I tell a joke at the beginning of my speech? 

I buck against a lot of internet CW. And I’m in good company, as advertising and marketing history proves.

I’m not talking about tossing out “old wives tales” like putting a pad of butter on a burn; I’m talking about the rules we think we need to follow to be successful in business.

I started challenging this thinking several years ago when Google began using its powers to control who and what came up in a search. If you weren’t talking about Search Engine Optimization, then you were standing alone at the dance.

The conventional wisdom? Listicles, man, that’s how you get the eyeballs.

Choose your keywords based on AdWords, then write your copy not so it’s a good read, but so Google will allow it appear in a search.

Are “eyeballs” really the right measure of our writing and marketing? I want to take a different approach. SEO be damned.

Classic marketing says to appeal to your prospective customer … not the whole freakin’ internet.

My added twist to this bit of CW is the need to create conversation. Here’s the wisdom I choose to apply:

Take the time to really think about the individual person you want to engage in conversation, the person who will truly benefit from what you have to offer.

Marketing that yells at us doesn’t connect with our brains and hormones in a way that feels good. 

But when I am involved in a conversation, when the copy is speaking directly to me and my needs and interests, then I feel valued and interested and my brain can’t help but participate. Once you establish this kind of relationship with your sales prospect, then you can convert them to a paying customer.

And that leads me to social media. If our message is trending, then we think we have done our jobs. But a trending topic is fleeting. It may get “eyeballs,” but does it get responses? True interest from people you actually want to reach?

What do you want?

There may be some people scanning this article, shaking their heads and saying, she totally doesn’t get it. I want to build my company into a unicorn, and you don’t get that without many, many eyeballs. Plus, CW is obviously working for a gazillion other entrepreneurs.

Sure, maybe it’s working for some companies and some products. 

But it’s not useful for what I sell or what I’m interested in buying.

Here’s the great thing about writing and marketing and owning a business: you get to choose what story you want to tell and how you want to get it in front of people. What I’m saying is: Choose wisely, not conventionally.

(If you got this far, you’ve realized that this article is longer than the typical blog post. I’m working on writing longer essay posts to have more time to delve into a topic. What do you think? Too long? Want more? Let me know in the comments. Thanks!)

Jill Pollack is Chief Story Wrangler of StoryStudio Chicago, where she founded a creative writing school and the Words for Work business writing training. She now co-leads the Story Mode program with Beth Nyland, working with company teams and business people who are really artists in their hearts to become great storytellers, presenters, and creatives. She was a co-founder of the content marketing conference, Content Jam in Chicago, IL, and is a frequent podcast guest and speaker on the power of stories in our personal and professional lives. Jill is Board President of the Stories Matter Foundation.

Jill Pollack
About Jill Pollack
 Jill Pollack is Chief Story Wrangler of StoryStudio Chicago, where she founded a creative writing school and the Words for Work business writing training. She now co-leads the Story Mode program with Beth Nyland, working with company teams and business people who are really artists in their hearts to become great storytellers, presenters, and creatives. She was a co-founder of the content marketing conference, Content Jam in Chicago, IL, and is a frequent podcast guest and speaker on the power of stories in our personal and professional lives.
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