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3 Lessons Modern Marketers Can Learn From History's Greatest Advertisers

Matt Shealy
Matt Shealy

Modern marketers rely heavily on martech and analytics to drive results, while in the past advertisers used things like broad demographics data and creative copy to move the needle.

The scions of advertising's golden age would've had a field day with the tools and technologies modern marketers take for granted.

Imagine being expected to produce advertising results without being able to embed pixels in corresponding ads in order to measure conversions. Imagine mailing out direct response letters or placing print ads without the ability to segment recipients according to their job titles, income levels, or digital engagement patterns.

That said, that marketers now have access to these and other functions that have made campaigns more measurable doesn't mean they can't benefit from the wisdom of those who came before them. History's greatest advertisers sold millions of dollars in goods and services, often on the strength of their words and imagery alone. Here are three lessons you can take away from their strategies.

1. Be deliberate.

Robert Collier, best known for his 1926 book The Secret of the Ages, may have lived from 1885 to 1950, but a piece of copywriting wisdom he shared in The Robert Collier Letter Book holds just as true for marketers today as it did at the turn of the 20th century:

"Before you put pen to paper, before you ring for your stenographer, decide in your own mind what effect you want to produce on your reader – what feeling you must arouse in him."

Chances are you aren't going to be ringing a stenographer anytime soon – and the "reader" you're reaching won't be a direct mail recipient, but a prospect or customer engaging you on one of the many online or offline channels you manage. But the kernel of truth in Collier's advice is simple: Don't sell for the sake of selling. Don't market just to market. Every promotional activity you undertake as a brand should be carried out in service of the larger goal of provoking an emotional response within your prospect.

Take blogging, for example. According to a report by HubSpot, "55% of marketers say blog content creation is their top inbound marketing priority." Yet, a quick look around the web makes it clear that many of these marketers are producing web content because they think they're supposed to, not necessarily because they have something worthwhile to say.

Producing blog content – or engaging in any other digital marketing activity – out of a sense of obligation puts the company's needs ahead of the desired impact on prospects and customers. Don't let Collier down in this way. Get clear on the effect you want to produce, and then be deliberate about crafting and implementing a marketing strategy that's likely to succeed at it.

Who is your prospect? What's important to them? What's your value proposition to them? Most importantly, what do they get out of that content? Always view the message from the target customer's point of view. Think of how they will recieve it and what emotions they will have while consuming it. You may want to elicit a core emotion from them, like sadness or happiness. The message may be aimed at getting them to think about a specific subject that can lead them to your product or solution. Whatever the strategy, you need to create it from their perspective. 

2. Get personal.

You may not recognize the name of Fairfax M. Cone, who lived from 1903 to 1977. But if you're a reader of a certain age – or one with a keen interest in advertising history – you've likely seen his work in his famous Lucky Strike cigarette ads.

Cone's success as a copywriter came down to his simple philosophy:

"Good advertising is written from one person to another. When it is aimed at millions, it rarely moves anyone."

Interestingly enough, recent research on the impact of personalization in marketing bears this out. Studies have found, for example, that "91% of consumers are more likely to shop with brands who provide relevant offers and recommendations" and that "80% of customers are more likely to purchase a product or service from a brand who provides personalized experiences."

Trying to reach everyone makes you less likely to connect with anyone. Today's consumers crave personalization – and thanks to modern marketing tools, it's easier than ever to deliver this experience.

These are just a few of the opportunities to introduce personalization into your marketing messages:

  • Use replacement fields in your marketing emails. (Just be sure to do more than swap out the [first name] field for the recipient's name.)
  • Segment your email nurture campaigns according to behavioral triggers so that recipients receive targeted messages at the most opportune times.
  • Use dynamic content on everything from your landing pages and forms to your individual blog posts so that visitors see messaging and CTAs that are closely tailored to their needs.

You may need to add to your martech stack to pull off these and other personalization strategies. But as long as you're willing to invest the budget and time to set them up correctly, the benefits of customizing content are likely to produce a positive ROI. 

A great example of this is to integrate your CRM and e-commerce platforms with your marketing automation solution to share information you already know about a customer between the systems. Your CRM may have geographic information about customers, while your e-commerce platform will have purchasing information that can be used to create a personalized experience.

For example, let's say you're an online retailer of designer shoes and you want to spoil your VIP customers. You could create an email campaign that segments all customers who have spent more than $1,000 with your business in the last six days, sending them a 10% discount for being a loyal customer. This type of personalized communictation creates strong relationship with customers. [Don't use email marketing tools yet? Consider our picks for the best email marketing services.]

3. Be direct.

David Ogilvy was called "the most sought-after wizard in today's advertising industry" by Time magazine in 1962. One particular piece of his wisdom emphasizes the importance of reaching people where they are:

"I don't know the rules of grammar. If you're trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language."

Fancy words and clever copy are meaningless if they don't reach people on their level. True connection comes from an understanding of how your prospects think, speak and relate to the world around them.

The signs of lackluster understanding are easy to spot. If you aren't using your audience's language, you'll likely see low engagement rates on marketing communications, low click-through rates on ads, and a low number of marketing-qualified leads (MQLs) in your sales funnel.

Developing a clearer view of your prospects' preferred communication style takes some effort. Fortunately, there are plenty of exercises – from a SWOT analysis to buyer persona development – that'll give you greater insight into who exactly your target customers are. Use these and other tools to refine your communications, but continue to test your results. If you aren't seeing improvement in the metrics described above, you haven't yet hit on a truly accurate understanding.

True marketing success is about more than deploying the latest tech or newest tools. It's about understanding what makes people tick (and eventually buy). Combining the wisdom of history's advertising greats with the resources available today is the ultimate recipe for results.

Image Credit: Wavebreakmedia / Getty Images
Matt Shealy
Matt Shealy Member
Matt Shealy is the President of Chamber specializes in helping small businesses grow their business on the web while facilitating the connectivity between local businesses and more than 7,000 Chambers of Commerce worldwide.