Need Marketing Ideas? Write the promo first

I once asked the editor of a trendy women’s magazine how she came up with compelling ideas for articles month after month.

Her answer surprised me.  “Basically, we try to dream up  provocative and irresistible teasers for the cover of the magazine. Something like, ‘Six ways to tell what people really think about you.’  Or, ‘How much your boss earns.’  We then send writers out to write stories to fit the teasers.”

At first, it seemed liked a bass-ackwards way of doing things.  But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.  She was paid to sell magazines.  And that’s what she focused on:  teasers that would sell magazines.  What could be simpler?

The idea of a $650 car begat the assembly line.  Not vice versa

The idea of a $650 car begat the assembly line. Not vice versa

A CEO of a biomedical company here in New Jersey explained how he made critical decisions.  “When I need to decide between two different courses of action, I picture myself explaining each decision to our board of directors. Invariably, one explanation will sound smarter than the other.  And that’s the one I go with.”

My point?

Write the ad first

If you’re casting about for new promotional ideas, or new concepts for a loyalty program, forget the demographics and the spreadsheets for now.  Start with the ads.

Instead of PowerPoint slides listing Desired Outcomes and Potential Drivers and Evaluation Metrics, write some headlines.  Write headlines that would make somebody stand up and show your ad to the guy in the next cubicle.

“At Last, a way to __________.  “Without ________”


“Turn in your old _____, and we’ll send you_______.  Free.”

Don’t worry about realities and logistics yet.  You’re looking motive power.  Promotional velocity.  Write more headlines.

“To any ________ who has ever ______.   A Guaranteed ______.”

Never mind if you can deliver it or not.  What would be absolutely irresistible to your market?  What would set the trade press agog?  What would get people talking about this over lunch?

You’re looking for something that works in the marketplace, the ultimate proving ground.  After all, what really counts is how enticing the idea is to your customers.  Instead of analyzing data, write some ads.  See how it sounds when you try to sell it.

If the ad or concept is compelling and irresistible, get to work on figuring out how to do it.

New product ideas

Remember Henry Ford and the assembly line?  The official story says that by developing the assembly line, Henry could sell Model T Fords for about $650, which was way cheaper than most autos available at the time.  And that’s why he was successful.

I bet it was the other way around. Henry Ford guessed that if he could somehow put a car in the showroom for $650, he could sell millions of them, to anyone and everyone.  He started with the ad:  “Your Own Model T, for just $650.” Then he figured out how to make the car. His famed assembly line was a just a means to an end.

As you’ll see, focusing on the ads — on how you sell your idea, how you communicate it — practically forces you to think in terms of your customers and what would excite them.

Which is precisely where all good business ideas start.