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Interview with Joe Sugarman: How To Become A Master Influencer

Joe Sugarman and Steve Sipress

Steve Sipress:  I’ve lived in Chicago for the past 12 years, and you’re originally from here.  I consider you the greatest marketer ever to come out of Chicago, and it’s an absolute honor to be interviewing you for my magazine.

Joe Sugarman:  Thanks, Steve.  It’s a pleasure to do this interview for you and your readers.

Steve:  I’ve worked with thousands of business owners over the past 30+ years, and even though they recognize the importance of excellent copywriting, they often tell me they just want to be able to wave a magic want and hire someone else to do all the copywriting for their business.  What would your advice to them be?

Joe:  I can talk about my own experience.  The business owner is the person who is really responsible.  That person has to develop a concept that can sell.  So, how do you do that?  First of all, you have to be an expert in that particular product or service.  Then you really have to write a lot, because the more you write, the better you get.  The third thing is, you want to experience life, all kinds of challenges.  The more you do, the more your brain is programmed to come up with really great ideas.

Steve:  Sounds like you’re pretty insistent that business owners shouldn’t outsource their copywriting.

Joe:  I think it’s a mistake to outsource copywriting.  Let’s put it this way:  If you have never written copy before and you need it written, I guess you can go to somebody who has had a lot of experience and a pretty good track record.  But chances are you’re going to have to pay them dearly.  Very often, these people ask for a percentage of the sales or a percentage of the profit.

But when you write that copy yourself, that’s a power that you cannot delegate.  That’s because you are an expert in that product and you have a passion for it.  It’s difficult to get somebody to write like they know your business like you do.  You’re better off writing it yourself, and maybe it’s not perfect, but at least you get better every time you do it.

Steve:  We were both at en event in New York last year where Ariana Huffington spoke, and she said that all of her best ideas came when she was taking a walk or taking a shower or whatever.  Is that similar to how you come up with your ideas when you write advertising or marketing copy?

Joe:  Yes, I remember when Ariana said that.  That’s what I call the incubation process.  She didn’t have a name for it; she just talked about the fact that that’s when she had her best ideas.  What that really means to me is this:  you try to solve a problem and you come up with an answer, or you don’t come up with an answer but you are trying hard to solve this particular problem.

And what you need to do is forget about it.  Walk away.  Do something pleasurable.  And while you’re doing that, believe it or not, your brain is working 24/7 to come up with a solution for that problem that you have, that you have given your brain the task of solving.  And then all of a sudden, that idea will just come to you.  And that is what I call the incubation process.

Your brain is an incredible tool, and the better you program it, by the way I mention, you become an expert.  You learn by writing and testing.  I look at my first ads and I am embarrassed because they were so trite and so – I don’t know – so simplistic.  But the more I wrote, the better my ads got.

Steve:  I study a lot of copywriters and read a lot of salesletters and ads.  I always enjoy reading your ads, and I’m amazed how you can get me to enjoy them even though I have no interest in the particular product or service you’re writing about.  What’s your secret for writing such compelling copy?

Joe:  The way I look at it, the most important part of an ad is the first sentence.  The purpose of a headline is to get someone to read the sub-headline.  The purpose of the sub-headline is to get them to read the name of the company or the price point or something.  But all of it is designed to get them to read that first sentence.

That first sentence has got to be short, brief and build curiosity enough so that they will want to read the second sentence.   The second sentence has to be strong enough so they read the third, the fourth and the fifth.  And pretty soon, they’re sucked in and they’re reading that entire ad.  So that’s the purpose of the first sentence.  The purpose of all those other elements is to get them to read that first sentence.

And they say that once you get someone to read the first two or three paragraphs, they’re going to read the whole ad.

I had a funny example of that:  A woman once called me and said, “Look, I just want you to know that I read your thermostat ad in its entirety.   And I just want you to know that I had no interest in buying a thermostat.  I just want to let you know that you’ve wasted a good 10 minutes of my time reading this ad that I had no interest in.”  And then she hung up.

Steve:  Over 100 years ago, the great John E. Kennedy coined the phrase that advertising is “salesmanship in print.”  Since you are one of the modern masters of advertising, what is the very best piece of advice you could give to any businessperson?

Joe:  Here’s one little piece of advice:  Keep it simple.  I was approached by the Swiss Army watch people.  They wanted me to sell nine new watches that they had just come out with.  One was a watch for men, another was a watch for women, the third was a watch for children, and there was a red model, black model and a khaki model – nine watches total.

So I looked at all the watches and I said, “Well, I would like to sell the black one.”  And they said that if I offered all nine, my ad would be appealing to a very broad market.  I told them that I might be appealing to a broad market, but I wouldn’t be able to sell them.

They didn’t get it, so I explained that you never want to offer too much at once.  You want to make it a very simple offer.  So I said we will run the same ad for all nine watches and for just the men’s black watch and let’s see what happens.

Sure enough, the single men’s black watch sold 30 percent more than the whole nine watches that we offered in the comparison ad.  By the way, we ran these in an A/B split, so half the people getting it saw the watch ad that the company wanted, and half saw the watch ad that I wanted.  And I proved that simplicity is so important.  What you do is sell the one single men’s watch, which we did, and then you come out in your catalog with all the different models.  But you don’t do that until you sell that first watch and make it very, very simple.  You want to make it so simple that people can say yes or no, and not much more.

Steve:  You’re one of the most successful and most influential copywriters of all time.  My favorite book of yours is “Triggers:  30 Sales Tools You Can Use to Control the Mind of Your Prospect to Motivate, Influence and Persuade.”  Can you talk a little bit about what a trigger is and why it’s important to every business owner, entrepreneur, business executive and sales professional?

Joe:  A trigger is an underlying psychological reason that someone makes a buying decision.  It’s what motivates them to take action.  I uncovered the 30 triggers in my book as a result of my ability to sell products and services through my words.

It’s estimated that 95 percent of the reasons prospects buy involve a subconscious decision.  By understanding and effectively using these triggers online, offline and in face-to-face sales, you have the ability to double responses and take your sales beyond anything you’ve experienced.

Steve:  Okay, so there’s no doubt how powerful triggers can be when selling or persuading others.  Here’s my final question for you, Joe:  Is there a trigger that businesspeople can use on themselves to become more successful?

Joe:  It’s interesting that you ask that, Steve.  My cousin, who is a psychiatrist, was hired by the San Diego Chargers football team to find out what it took to be a superstar.  In other words, they commissioned him to investigate the league as well as the team and come up with some conclusions.  And what he came up with was the fact that there were two types of football players who were superstars.  One was a deeply religious person, like Tim Tebow for example.  The second was somebody with a huge ego.

And when you think about it, both of these individuals had a very strong belief system.  One was a belief in a higher power, and the other was a belief in himself.  If you believe that you are going to be a success, there’s nothing that’s going to stop you.  You will be a success.  But if you don’t believe that you’re going to be a success, I can guarantee you that you won’t.

Throughout my whole life, I felt that I was going to be a huge success, but things would get in the way of my success.  However, I had this thing programmed in my mind that I was going to be very, very successful.  And eventually, that came true.  But believe me, I had a lot of failure in the interim.

Regardless of what you’re selling, it’s amazing what belief will do.  But you must genuinely believe it, and you’ve got to genuinely follow it.


This article came from the June 2013 edition of Money-Making Monthly, published by Steve Sipress. For more information on the magazine or to get your free issue mailed to your door, click here.

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